Computer class

Years ago when my son was in middle school he enrolled in his first computer class. I was excited and proud and couldn’t wait to share in his experiences. After his first week of school I asked him how his computer class was going.  He said it was fine, but really easy.  I asked him, “So do you need any help with Binary?  Or are they going strait into Hex?”  I got a blank stare.  “Are you going to start with machine code, Basic or jump to C++, maybe fool around with HTML?”  I ask, as my fears are slowly being brought to the surface.  Eyes rolling, my son says, “Dad, we are learning to make power point presentations”.  I was crestfallen. 

Power point? 

Microsloth Power point? 

WTF? 

Power point is the bane of the business world; it is what managers, who have way too much time on their hands, use to make meetings even more tedious.

It was then that I realized how much school has changed in only thirty years… When I was in high school, the electric typewriter was too expensive and fragile to be used to teach typing. I learned to touch type on an Underwood typewriter.  It was a real boat anchor of a machine with clockwork gears, a little bell and probably 30 pounds of iron plating.  Carriage return and the shift key were appropriately named. 

Underwood

These machines were archaic even by 1970s standards; they were used in school because they were so tough that even high school kids couldn’t break them. By the sounds made in the class, apparently you could literally pound on the keys and not hurt the mighty Underwood.  Computers and business machines were thought of distinctly different appliances, and were even separate among the high school clicks.  Girls learned to type letters in hopes of getting a job as a secretary.  Boys (Geeks) went to computer class to become scientists, or computer nerds.  I was such a geek that I took both classes.  I was the only one in my computer science class that could touch type a teletype machine. 

Computer science class in my high school actually taught computer science.  There were math prerequisites, and you had to learn to understand and convert between base 2, 8, 10, and 16 before doing any actual computer work.  We didn’t even touch a computer for the first semester. When we were finally able to fondle the impressive digital behemoth we were restricted to a row of switches on the front of the machine. 

PDP

The machine was a Digital PDP 8/I and it was so stupid that we had to learn to program it before it knew enough to read the tape reader.  This entailed setting switches just so, then pressing a deposit key to put the number in the accumulator.  Then reset the switches and repeat.  Over and over again until the machine was programed to know how to read a tape of a program that would teach it assembly language.  And so on and so on.  Then if you were lucky, and didn’t hit any wrong keys you could turn on the Teletypewriter.  This machine was like an industrial steam powered Underwood typewriter.  It would occasionally become possessed and type all by its self, this was known as output.  It actually hummed when it operated and the lights dimmed when it was turned on.  As it typed is also spit out a 1″ wide yellow tape with little holes across its width, eight to be exact.  These holes were literally bits of information; or rather the little bin beneath the tape dispenser would fill up with bits.  When we learned about computers we learned every stinking minute detail about how the things work.  I guess that is why today I have a profound respect for computers in general. I complain like everyone else about unstable operating systems and how all computers seem to be in the process of self destructing.  That said, I am amazed they can run long enough to do anything at all.  We learned things like how program, in machine code, a way to find all the prime numbers.  Or calculate Pi.  These programs took hours to write, debug, compile and execute and they used up about 300 bytes of information.  Memory was defined by Kilo-bytes and we thought that was a lot.  Now it takes Mega-bytes for small programs, and Giga-bytes of storage to be even slightly useful.  My son is in High School and allegedly learning about computers.  He has been playing on them since he was born.  He was using them with out a thought of what makes them work.

What my son was learning was computer applications, not programming.  The term computer class referred to any class where you learned to operate a personal computer.  The class on touch typing has been replaced with Word.  Programming has been replaced with web development.  Finally now as a Junior in High school (The same grade I took computer programming) he is learning C++.  I find it interesting that children learn applications that I didn’t even dream at his age, and then, when they have mastered operating computers, they have the opportunity to learn how they work. This is exactly backwards to the way I learned about computers.  Of course this is the way that everyone learns now that computers are a house hold appliance. 

           

My first son had access to one computer or another all his life.  I am gratified that he is showing interest on how they work.  Too many people are wrapped up in using them as tools with out respecting the science and the math behind how they work.  But that is the nature of our society.  Most people do not understand how the every day objects work to make their lives easier.  And the more technology enhances our lives the more this will be true. 

Oh, please, any teachers that may be reading this… take Power Point off the curriculum. 

2 thoughts on “Computer class

  1. I’m young enough (born 1980) to have always had a computer in my home. But my Dad was very sneaky with me in a way I very much appreciate. When I first wanted a computer game my Dad said that he would only get me one if I made one for myself first. So I wrote tic, tack, toe.

    It wasn’t very complicated two player version, but it was something I’d done myself.

    After seeing it my Dad then asked me if I wanted to go to the store. But I didn’t want to go, I wanted to make a computer opponent. I was hooked and I never looked back.

    It was one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt. It’s better to know how something works under the bonnet. And the best way to learn is to build one yourself.

  2. Alex, you are right I have never built a computer. Your dad was a wise man to make you program before buying a game. I respect that kind of education.
    I have, however, built some really cool and useless peripherals. While in England I built an interface for my Commodore 64 to run two drill motors, drive motors for a tri-cycle like robot. It would drive all around my living room in response to a joy stick. Then I would press a key and the program would copy the steps that I made with the joystick exactly. Totally cool, but totally useless. It had to have a cable running to the computer. If everything was run on batteries it would have been too heavy to move. I thought it was pretty cool. I built that when you were three. Oh, and I used a flash trebuchet simulator and solid works to build my trebuchet.

    -Pf

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