Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 96 / MAY 1988 / PAGE 94


  In Which Our Resident Free-Form Columnist Reports on the Funny, the Odd, and the Outrageous

  Levitations Will Uncover Proof That the Strange Lines on the Plains of Peru Are the Work of Alien Software

Welcome to "Levitations"! Although I'm new to the back of the bus, those who have been regular readers of COMPUTE! may have stumbled over my musings before (see Hitchhikers Guide to COMPUTE! "Telecomputing Today," 1984-1988). There are a lot of advantages to being on the back page. It's a lot easier to remove without damaging the rest of the magazine, which makes it a snap to use my stuff for wrapping fish or blotting up messy kitchen spills.
    Since this is the first "Levitations," my editor suggested that I take a little time introducing myself. Since he signs the checks, I've decided to go along with the request, although I'll try to make him regret it.
    I'm a mild-mannered senior systems engineer for a major metropolitan mainframe manufacturer, dedicated to fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the right to giggle hysterically at ourselves. In the early 1980's, I was crazy enough to buy a 48K Atari 800 with disk drive for a little over two thousand bucks, and I helped start up the MACE Atari user group, which at last report is still alive and well. Anyone who has edited a user group newsletter inevitably ends up writing a lot of material to fill the empty spaces. I suppose I got fairly good at it, since people I had never met from strange and exotic places such as Peterboro, New Hampshire, and Greensboro, North Carolina started actually paying me money to do it.
    My wife, Gretchen, is a MacManiac and works on microcomputer-based, speaker-independent voice-recognition systems for a public utility. My four-year-old daughter, Mira, likes to play with the Atari 800 she inherited from me but still prefers the tactile feedback of a genuine crayola on paper to a light pen on screen. Tobias, our one-and-ahalf-year-old, hasn't professed any preferences for a specific computer. He seems equally adept at drooling into the keyboard of any of our five machines and seems intent on figuring out how to get my CDROM player to load and read Lego blocks.
    Although our environs are relatively sedate, they're far from quiet. We live just north of the Detroit Zoo. Late nights are occasionally punctuated with lion roars, elephant blasts, and raucous bands of roving penguins, which serve to remind the neighborhood that, after all, it is a jungle out there.
    I'm essentially binary in my mode of dress. Unlike other computer columnists, I don't wear white linen suits or paramilitary garb to business or social functions. My formal uniform consists of a number of nearly identical dark pinstripe suits and the morning excitement consists of deciding whether the white shirt I'll wear will have a regular or button-down collar.
    When less formal corporate functions require "business casual" (sport shirt from an acceptable golf or country club, and slacks), I'm a dead man. My definition of casual is T-shirt and jeans, with an occasional flannel or Hawaiian shirt thrown in for special occasions. I'm still trying to live down the 1972 wedding of a friend at which I ushered in a black tuxedo with tails tastefully accented by a pair of red, white, and blue platform tennies with lightning bolts on the sides.
    At the over-the-hill-age of 38, I've been mucking about with computers for about 22 years. It all started innocently enough in high school. After a few minor explosions that destroyed a couple hundred dollars worth of lab equipment in chemistry, some counselor decided that the school would be a heck of a lot safer if I were placed in an experimental program. While the chemistry department had definite opinions on what they would like the experiment to be, it instead turned out to be the first computer class offered in a high school in Michigan.
    The instructor selected for Computer Programming 101 was Kate Pankin, a chain-smoking mathematics teacher who the Marines had used for breaking in drill instructors on Parris Island.
    There was no middle ground when it came to Ms. Pankin. You might hate or fear her, but you had to respect her intensity. In the world according to Pankin, books were sacrosanct, and were not to be defiled by pen or pencil. If Kate Pankin caught you underlining or doodling in the margins of a book during class, the offending writing implement was whisked out of your hand, snapped in two in front of the class, followed by a stream of erudite vitriol that laid the decline of Western civilization directly at your feet. I'm not sure where Ms. Pankin is now, although there were rumors floating around at my 20-year high school reunion that she had suffered a debilitating stroke when the invention of high-lighter magic markers was announced.
    Although most of the miscreants in CP101 had been tossed out of every French, Spanish, and German class in school, we took to learning FORTRAN like politicians to primaries and pioneered the early frontiers of "nerdness." Programming became akin to mathematical break dancing, and as far as we were concerned, an elegant piece of code was as much a thing of beauty as any of the iambic pentameter that was being dished out in English Lit.
    Although we never quite moved into the two-pocket shirt with dual plastic pocket-protector mode, most students, including our old buddies, began to avoid us. The briefcase, cheerleader, and bookworm cliques kept their distance from us in the school cafeteria, preferring instead to sit at tables whose occupants concentrated on dipping the ends of straws into gravy and then shooting the wrappers up to stick on the ceiling. The few who were curious about the strange hieroglyphic flowcharts we scribed into our table's surface were recruited into our ranks.
    The hook was set at the end of the semester by a visit to Wayne State University's computer center where we came face-to teletype with the beast that had occupied most of our free time for some five months. It was an IBM 1400 series with an astounding 64K of memory, and watching it actually read punched cards and spew out our printouts made as deep an impression on us as a pilgrimage to Mecca.
    After that, it was on to Michigan State University, which had just purchased a multimillion dollar mainframe with a whopping 512K of memory. Since the Engineering department owned the computer, anyone who wanted to take computer courses was an Engineering Sciences major. Computer Science, as a distinct discipline, did not exist. Electronic calculators that did simple arithmetic cost hundreds of dollars.
    The electrical and structural engineers wore massive Keufel & Esser slide rules on their belts. The real heavies looked like gun slingers from "Gunsmoke," their weapons housed in polished leather holsters worn low on their hips, secured by a leather thong tied just above the knee to allow unencumbered quick draws in case they were confronted by hostile algorithms when rounding blind corners.
    Politics led me to stray from the engineering fold. It was the late Sixties, and the unfolding of "flower power" and its attendant political consciousness ran headlong into the apolitical stance of most of my Engineering school associates. I eventually found refuge in Philosophy, where I could gain computer access in the department's advanced logic courses, and where mixing ethics with your work was expected rather than discouraged.
    I spent 15 years after school paying my data processing dues. I've looked at computers through the eyes of a user, operator, programmer, and systems analyst. I've worked for large corporations, small businesses, public utilities, and the government. I've watched my buddies boot up their IMSAIs, KIMs, and SOLs as well as PCs, STs, Macs, and Amigas. Through it all, the one thing that has helped make the most sense out of this crazy business is a sense of humor.
    "Levitations" is about people. There's nothing inherently wonderful about computers themselves. The folks who have created them and work with them are far more interesting than any electronic component or program. The designers, executives, PR flacks, and media folks whose collective actions comprise what we glibly call the "computer industry" are the grist for this column's mill.
    "Levitations" doesn't have a fixed format. Sometimes it will report and inform. Other times it will attempt to educate or editorialize. We'll uncover the darkest mysteries of computing: Did you know that disk sleeves have the ability to teleport across space and time? How else can one explain the fact there are always either too few or too many of them lying around computer desks? We'll find proof positive that strange patterns on the plains of Peru were created by extraterrestrial draw programs, and that most of today's computer salespersons are the demon spawn of ancient alien programmers and used chariot dealers.
    We're all Bozos on this data bus, folks, yours truly included. Take off your digital wingtips, lean back, and enjoy the ride. In the months to come, we'll be stopping at various computer trade shows across the country for late-breaking faux pas and in-depth analysis of press conference cuisine. We'll attend Microsoft's upcoming CD ROM conference, including a live report on how far you can frisbee a CD ROM from the top of the Seattle Space Needle. The Computer Dealers Exposition and Consumer Electronics Shows will take us to the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Wacker in Chicago and the neon wasteland of Las Vegas, punctuated with live satellite reports from the trenches of computer-war battle zones. As my editor has long suspected, I usually don't know what a column will be about until the day after deadline. If there are any stops you would like added to our tour itinerary, feel free to contact me via U.S. Snail, care of COMPUTE!, or via electronic mail on one of these services:

CompuServe: 70675,463
Delphi: ARLANL
GEnie: XMG15546