Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Geezer Alert! (Memories on a Tuesday afternoon)

DEC PDP-8 computer next to Blutarsky from Animal House, with pencils up his nose

I don't remember my first experience of programming computers. Close to the beginning, though, for sure, was a course I took in my junior year of high school (c. 1976), where we learned how to write BASIC programs that ran on a DEC PDP-8, I think it was. There was one terminal, which displayed both what you were typing and your program's output on yellow paper, a giant roll of which lived in a cardboard box, below the terminal.

I do vividly remember the first time I made money programming. It was right around that time, probably a school break six months later, when I was asked by my friend's father to put together something that would display bar charts and stuff like that. In this case, I was using his Apple computer (model number long since vanished from memory), which hooked into the TV and used a cassette tape recorder to store programs. He paid me $10 for four hours' work, which was a considerable bump from what I had ever made before that; e.g., about a $1/hr for a paper route, babysitting, and lawn-mowing, maybe $1.50/hr for caddying.

The money was nice, but it wasn't the most important thing. Computers were just ... pretty cool, and the thought that it was not inconceivable that I could someday get paid for playing with them? Well, as I said, still a vivid memory.

Fast forward to the time that they became magical.

After having been excused from further attendance after my sophomore year in college ("Mr. Blutarsky: 0.0"), I still hung around with my erstwhile classmates over the next few years. Mostly in bars, admittedly. But for some reason, one night, I went with one of them to a class, which was an introduction to Lotus 1-2-3. Looking at the Wikipedia article, I now realize that this must have been very near the initial release, well before it became the proverbial killer app. Anyway ...


To be able to put a number in one cell, and then a formula in another cell that referred to the contents of the first cell, and displayed the result in place, and then instantaneously updated when you changed the first cell? That was when I got hooked.

I said magical, but it was something else, too. It felt like I was privy to a sorcerer's secrets. I could make something happen that looked magical, but it was, behind the curtain, absolutely, 100%, purely logical.

What brought about these memories?

A fascinating article by Amy Peniston, posted just a week ago, in which she describes her observation of ...

... a radical shift in data analysis methodologies. Excel-based models, which had seemed top-of-the-line suddenly were too slow and too rigid; Integration with 3rd party data sources, which was once a luxury, became the norm; And analysts began to utilize scripts to accomplish many labor-intensive tasks typically performed by hand or in spreadsheets.

Enabling this change is a suite of accessible Python-powered tools.

I apologize if that punchline didn't knock you off your couch, or home barstool, or ergonomically correct desk chair, or what have you. So let me tell you that there's more! She observed these changes while working in ... wait for it ... the reinsurance industry.

Wait, what? Still not sold?

Ah, well. Such is the lot of the nerd. But thanks for reading all the way through.

(h/t: PyCoder's Weekly)

1 comment:

bjkeefe said...

Note to future self: In case you're wondering what "home barstool, or ergonomically correct desk chair" was all about, this was posted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which, among other things, was characterized by cocktails over Zoom and email newsletters that were absolutely littered with links to articles on optimizing one's home office.