Beginning of the Road

by Dane Sorensen

October 1995


I canít imagine a day going by without using a computer.  I canít imagine not being able to write this column without one.  Even as much as we pride ourselves living up in the wilderness, with bears and wolves about us, most folks do use computers.  All our children are using computers.  I can remember a time when computers were only for large corporations and government.

When you turned on a computer back in the dark ages you were not greeted with a smiling screen or a flurry of color graphics.  The first computers I used had only a noisy teletype machine attached to it.  There were no hard drives or floppy disks.  No color or black and white monitors.  There were still vacuum tubes and transitors.  Boy, do I feel old.

My kidlets donít understand that back in the stone age (1966), there were no computer games or programs that you could buy for personal use.  If you had access to a computer you had to write your own program.  That meant applying mathematics and a strange language called BASIC.  Many of you may have had to learn a computer language in high school math class.  GOSUB400 would mean something to you, but not to most kids today.  We feared computers would take over the world.  Well, they have, although we are still nominally in control.

With the arrival of PCs (no, not the politically correct, but Personal Computers) it did not take long for people to be using them every day.  Except, the typical user today does not write computer programs.  It is enough just to use a program. 

Modern programming languages make BASIC look pretty lame.  Only geeks and nerds get into programming.  The word processor I use today probably has over a million lines of instruction, imagine a million lines?  Most people donít even write letters anymore.  I canít imagine writing a million line program.

In the early 80s the last great programmable computer came on the market.  That was the famous Commodore 64.  The manual even taught you BASIC.  That was the first computer I bought.  Itís gone now.  I sold it with my print shops.  I had written a 2000 line program for pricing our printing, bindery, and UPS prices.  It took me weeks and weeks to write.  It was a challenge.  Snow White, who was busy nursing babies, did not appreciate it.  She did not understand that I was pushing the boundaries of knowledge and science for our print shops.  And besides, it had a color monitor with sound!  We used that program over ten years.

Like my father telling me about walking six miles to school in snow, I have told the kidlets how we programmed computers in the past to create our own games.  Exciting games like ďGuess what number Iím thinking ofĒ or math games where if you answered wrong, it typed out ďERRORĒ.  Surprisingly, my two oldest thought it was cool that it was possible to write your own programs.

I promised them that I would teach them programming someday.  I didnít know how I would or if I could.  Most programming programs you can get for Apple or IBM use those new binary hex languages.  Not thank you.  I thought about trying to buy an old Commodore 64, but my CD-Rom came to my rescue.  I had bought a cheap CD-Rom from the Arizona Mac Users Club, with a million freeware programs.  In it I found a Commodore Simulator.  It was like a real Commodore 64, right down to the dark blue screen.  So class began.  Both kidlets caught on quickly.  They wrote math programs and even a Forest Gump game.  In the Gump game you have to guess Forrestís IQ.  When you are right the computer prints ďStupid is as stupid does.Ē

Ah, but the kidlets are not the only ones who are programming.  Not that I am going to write a program that will be the next virtual reality fantasy.  No, I am writing a program about ethics.  Yes, next to subjects like the BWCAW, morality is a hot potato.  My morality program is not a computerized Dear Abby.  Iím not going to tell the world what is moral.  In fact, the program canít tell you what is right or wrong.  It is based on the actions of many interactions.  It is a population program that measures trust and betrayal.  Both evil and good can be rewarded.  The program is like viewing the world at 5,000 feet.  All of a sudden, life looks very statistical and someone random.  A bank robber driving away from the bank looks like any other car.  I can create a population up to 100 folks and determine how trusting the good people are and how deceitful the low down evil varmints are.  Then I can run the program for hundreds of generations.  I can see what happens to a society where trust levels are low.  I can follow the ebb and flow of evil and good.  If I find a moral epiphany the Echo will be the first to publish it.

Snow White is not amused by all this.  Iíve been hogging the computer.  I have been ignoring chores.  I didnít even write a column for three weeks.  No one ever warned us in the 60ís computers were habit forming.  Well, I guess stupid is as stupid does.

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