Monday, May 26, 2014

Gateway Drugs

In the summer of 1993 I taught my first graduate course at Rensselaer in Hartford. It was the math course required for all incoming mechanical engineers in pursuit of a Masters degree. I had gotten my Ph.D. a year earlier. I thought this would be a good way to find out if I could teach. I was a placeholder for a friend who taught the course on a regular basis. He didn't want to teach summer school; he didn't want to give up the spot. He asked me if I'd be his proxy, knowing that I'd willingly give it up when the fall rolled around.

The course went well. It was hard work. I created all my own notes from scratch. Sometimes they worked out. Other nights I'd go home wondering what I was thinking. The homework was a good guide: if their responses went off the trail, it meant that I'd led them there.

At the end of the course I got a nice check as adjunct faculty. The money was burning a hole in my pocket. I had another objective besides exploring my suitability for tenured professor-ship: I wanted to buy my first personal computer. I'd spent my career working with and programming computers for engineering analysis. These were usually Unix workstations from Sun Microsystems - powerful machines for the time, probably less than the iPhones of today. What would I do with a personal computer running Windows 3.1?

I excitedly called Gateway 2000 to place my order. I don't remember the specs anymore. I know it had a 3.5" floppy drive. I believe it had a CD ROM drive. The processor might have been the Intel Pentium. I'm fuzzy on the hard drive and RAM: 100MB and 2MB, respectively? In any case, it wasn't much. It has Microsoft Word running on it. I wanted to program, but I didn't know Basic. I got ahold of a Pascal compiler, which was the closest thing to FORTRAN I could find. I found it frustrating to try and do any serious calculations on it. As a result, it sat idle most of the time.

I finally hit upon a use that would force me to sit down to use the machine daily: I started keeping an electronic journal on this day 20 years ago. I wrote most days for many years: a lot at first, less as time went on. I've had a few stretches where the thread was broken and I didn't write for months at a time. But I've never let it die off entirely.

It's interesting to go back and read it now. Some of the entries are detailed and wonderful. Happy times either aren't documented because I'm in the midst of them and can't be bothered writing, or preserved after the fact. I used it as therapy when things were troubling me. Those can be difficult.

My equipment has improved a great deal over time. It's possible to do incredible things nowadays. We're awash in computing power, software, and data. It's fun to reflect on how far we've come in a very short time.

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