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A writer’s personal trek through the computer age

By John Toth The Bulletin

There was a time when we didn’t carry little pocket cellphone computers around with us. You old-timers remember those days. Some of you reading the paper version of this newspaper probably long for those days. But you must admit it - life has been a lot better with these inventions for the last three-plus decades.

A few days ago, I found an article on my Facebook page about the Internet marking 30 years of existence. The Bulletin didn’t print its first issue until a few months later, and we had no idea what the Internet was.

I remember running a column right after we started the paper with the headline, paraphrased: “What is this Internet thing, anyway?” Maybe those were the exact words. I can’t find an original copy anymore. We didn’t have a digital version.

We soon found out what it was. It changed the whole world. It made it a lot better and a lot worse. For us, it was the first one. We were able to accomplish more with less, and it helped to make the longevity of The Bulletin possible, along with ad sales and content.

I saw a photo recently of an old IBM computer being programmed by punch cards. The machine took up half the room, and the printer filled the other half. It took days to run the program cards through, and if there was a mistake, the cards would have to be manually inspected. The computer had a 20,000-byte memory.

It was one of the top-tier machines with memory. The lesser models just ran the punch cards and spit out a printout.

That was another problem. I had the misfortune of taking a college course on Basic or Fortran programming. I say misfortune because the line to run the punch cards was usually a mile long. There were only two of these massive beasts on campus.

I made friends with my professor and found out where the other computer was located. It was on the other side of the campus and was reserved for select projects, not for students.

I harassed him nicely until he gave me access, and I was able to run my homework programs without waiting in line. I kept this a secret for the remainder of the semester.

This came too late for dozens of students standing behind me, waiting to run their own assigned programs at the previous location. I was careless one time and put an endless loop in the program, which made the computer spit out 250 pages of useless garble. It took a while.

Remember the old saying, garbage in and garbage out? Today’s computers recognize the garbage and give you a warning in most cases. In my college days, we didn’t have that luxury.

The computer could not save us from ourselves. We got out what we put in, and in this case, it was 250 pages of garbage. I’d bet that I was not the only rookie punch-card programmer who made this mistake. But that didn’t make things any easier, as the students behind me started grumbling. It was a mess. I took my 250 pages and quickly left.

When I used the other computer, I made sure that the punch cards were correctly programmed. I didn’t want to lose the privilege I worked so hard to get.

After graduating and starting to work as a reporter at the Bay City Tribune in 1979, I thought it was going to be easy going. No more typewriters, like in college. We stuck a 7-inch floppy disk into the desktop word processor and typed away.

When I needed to rewrite a part of the story, I just deleted it and tried again – unless there was no story because it disappeared off the screen and I didn’t save it yet to the floppy. This was a common rookie mistake, as we immersed ourselves into the story and forgot to follow technical protocols.

Instead of a bunch of students screaming behind me, now I had the paste up people and press guys screaming as I rewrote the story – very fast.

I only made this mistake once.

I like looking at old computer photos and reading the accompanying articles or text. They remind me of how hard some things used to be that now just take a few clicks on our phone.

That little but powerful computer some people throw against the wall when their favorite team loses a close game, is an incredible machine.

Those of us who remember the way it used to be are probably better equipped to appreciate it than those who grew up with cell phones, video games and other gadgets with computer chips.

Do I like everything about the computer age? Not really. I like a lot of things the way they used to be, like writing checks. I still do some of that.

Now, you must excuse me. I must fill out my grocery list on my phone and send it into the store. I have already selected a delivery time. Technology rocks.

Don’t hate me. I still go shopping. I just didn’t feel like it this time.


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