Thursday, August 21, 2014

What did I learn outside school?

Last week I asked what did I learn in school, with an emphasis on how much I had forgotten of what I supposedly learned.  What I really learned in school was to learn.  I had teachers who excited me about a subject, and I had subjects that excited me even if the teacher didn’t.

I also had many other people outside school who enticed me to learn, something too many kids don’t have.  The high point of this seems to me to have been when we lived with my mother’s aunt and uncle, especially between the ages of 9 and 14.  My environment was rich with printed publications.

They subscribed to the morning Cleveland Plain Dealer and the afternoon Cleveland Press.  They subscribed to Saturday Evening Post or one or two of  its competitors.  They may have even subscribed to National Geographic.  I loved comic books and subscribed to Walt Disney Comics and bought Looney Tunes from time to time.  But we also had books.  I remember having a set of “East Wind Stories”, a set of stories about fictional animals.  I borrowed books from the school library and the downtown public library.

We also listened to the radio.  I remember that Aunt Gertrude had to have the station changed five minutes before Walter Winchell came on: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press.”  We also had 78 rpm records and listened sometimes to the station that played some classical music.  Was that WDOK?  I remember preferring piano music to violin music because the pitch was often lower.  And of course, lots of pop music.

We had no TV then.  I remember a when TV cameraman came to the sledding hill I often went to. He filmed me going down the hill with hands and feet in the air.  To see the newscast, we stood outside a TV store.  We also went to the TV studio where they graciously showed it to us.

I had many more outside school learning experiences before I graduated from high school, but in interest of space, I’ll skip forward to the summer before my senior year of college.  I wanted to learn about computers and found a summer job at Ohio Oil Company (Marathon).  Because I was put in a clerical job rather than a computer job, I borrowed Elliott Organick’s “Programming the IBM 650” from the company library.  With that knowledge, I wrote a program to calculate the square root of any number.  I gave it to my supervisor who passed it on to others. Within days I was transferred to a group more closely involved in computers.  Eventually I was given the task of writing a program to process quotas for gas stations and others.  I had lots of help from others on details of how the IBM 650 worked.  On my last day, I handed in the manual for how to use the program.  I think it was used by Ohio Oil for a year or two.

When I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, Case took me back for a masters program in mathematics. Not only that, but I was given a graduate assistantship in the Computer Center that covered tuition and paid $75 a week too!

One of the jobs of Computer Center assistants was to provide help to sophomores who were taking the mandatory numerical analysis course.  We started in July, were given the ALGOL manual for Burroughs 220 and let loose.  In the fall, we were answering all kinds of questions for the undergraduates.

We also learned the assembler called SAVE written by a PhD candidate.  As a project for the only computer class I took, I wrote a simpler assembler called HELP, of which SAVE was the answer. Darned if there wasn’t somebody using HELP long after I left Case.

Case had ordered a Univac 1107 and I learned its assembler and instruction set from a manual. When I completed my master’s work I applied for work with Univac and was hired.  I was first set to some mathematical project that I had no idea of how to proceed.  Luckily for me that group was dissolved and I was moved into the FORTRAN compiler support group.  My boss never learned to write FORTRAN but he was a crackerjack at solving problems with the compiler.  I wound up solving problems with the FORTRAN library, pieces of code called on by users that did things not part of FORTRAN itself, like mathematical functions.  I never took a class in the compiler or the assembler it was written in.  We just jumped in and started solving problems.

Because I did have experience (or was it interest) in ALGOL, I was given the responsibility for fixing problems in the compiler, written by somebody else.  A Norwegian customer wrote an extension for simulation, called, surprise, SIMULA.  Without any training except the manual and trial and error, I fixed problems in SIMULA and its library.

I spent nearly twenty years at UNIVAC and kept learning things on the fly and even giving classes in what I learned!  I’ve lost track of the software I learned.

Then I went off on my own and learned more and more computers and software.  Even now with thirty years experience with the Macintosh, I learn something new with every release.  I’ve lost track of the number of software programs I’ve learned.

With these I’ve learned three things: software can be easy, software can be obtuse, and we ain’t seen nothing yet!

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-08-14 at