Sunday, July 6, 2014

Me and Technology

I think that I know just slightly more about computers and technology than my cat. When did I get so far behind?

I thought I was getting a good head start on my future in this technologically-obsessed culture. I took computer science in high school. Our school was well funded, and we had some of the latest technological equipment. We had a main frame computer, and our typing classrooms were equipped with electric typewriters. (The other high school in town was still using manual typewriters.)

In my grade eleven computer science class, we were taught to write programs in Fortran, which back then was on the cutting edge of computer languages. We wrote our little programs one line at a time on paper cards with bubbles that we filled in with soft pencils, and then fed the stack of cards into the mainframe. We had user cards which, as I recall, allowed us eight seconds of computer time. (This put a limit on our favourite infantile trick: run a program with an endless loop of “skip a page”, which would result in the computer spewing out blank sheets of paper until our time ran out.)

Then in grade twelve, we advanced to a computer language called Cobalt, which as I recall, contained more words than Fortran. Twelfth graders were allowed to use the keypunch machine, which was just a keyboard which punched holes in the paper cards, so we didn't have to use a pencil to mark the bubbles. Now we were really moving up the ladder of technological prowess! I somehow managed one day to get the machine to spew out reams of unpunched cards. I had to unplug the machine to end the projectile vomiting of paper cards.

I found this tutorial video on YouTube. Four minutes and fourteen seconds of deadly dull footage, but it brought back fond memories for me. It starts with plugging in the machine and locating the 'on' button. Good to know!

One day, our teacher brought in something called a “personal computer” or just PC, as a show and tell object. We had never seen anything like it. He had written a fun program in which we entered data for a motorcycle stunt: the angle of the ramp, speed of the motorcycle, objects to try to jump over; and the computer would calculate whether or not your stuntman survived, and if he did, what bodily injury he suffered. No graphics. Cutting edge technology!

While in university taking my bachelor of education, I got a job in the library. We had an astonishingly new program for signing out books. We just waved a magic wand over something called a barcode, and about one scan out of three  it actually worked! (The other two times, we had to manually enter all of the numbers on the barcode – I think there must have been about 16 digits.) I was really advanced now! Except when it came to logging in or out of the system. I usually had to get help to get all of those steps in order.
In my second year of  teaching, my principal put a computer in each classroom! My class got one with a pink monitor! I used programs that captivated the students and motivated them to learn. There was one for spelling practice: I had to enter a list of words, then the student would see one word at a time, copy it three times, and then it would vanish and the student had to type it from memory. If it was correct, a yellow smiley face would show up. If not, they had to start over. They loved it! :)

For my own use, I had access to a word processing program called “Q”. Basically, I used the computer as a glorified typewriter. Sometimes I got so frustrated with not being able to get the printout to match what the screen showed, so I would go back to my typewriter. At least then I could control where the words would end up on the page. I had no idea how to use the features of the program. Cutting and pasting? Not so high tech - I used scissors and a glue stick.

I took a five-year maternity leave, and when I came back, everyone else was using computers with something called Microsoft Word. I was overwhelmed with all of the little pictures, and couldn't figure out what this attachment called a “mouse” was for. My first attempts to use it were hilarious!

Somehow, in those five years I had been at home watching cartoons and reading “The Cat in the Hat” so often I had it committed to memory, the whole technological world passed me by.

By the time my kids were teenagers, they were helping me to use the computer. The role reversal just felt wrong. They got frustrated with my inability to remember what they showed me to do countless times already. I only got to use the computer when they were at school or asleep.

I am slowly adapting to life in this age of information overload. My kids are thriving in it.They are on the cutting edge of technology, which I have learned is a very expensive edge to stay on. All of these gadgets and gizmos they so desperately need are practically obsolete by the time they get the packages open. 

Video Attribution: YouTube "Punching Data on Cards" by UQ Centenary
Photos by author. 
Pink computer courtesy of