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The Thaddeus Gazette



I was a coder before it was cool. Or me, either.

Back in the glittering jewel of my senseless youth, I was an overfed understimulated honors student (yeah, I know — entitled much?) in a cheap suburban high school in a cheap suburb, grinding away at a devalued straight A average and sweating every final exam like it was the Battle of the Bulge. Too much of a weirdo to be invited to join the Misfits Club, let alone the Future Fallout Of America, I contented myself (if that's the word) with a few equally peculiar friends and a vivid if somewhat detached interior life as a misunderstood genius.

One of the ways I acted out my fantasy of waysmart was to be driven out to a local aircraft company, a remnant of the regional military industry that sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain around the big naval base during WW II and never quite withered away, there to attend classes on the peculiar subject of computer programming, where nerds even as myself were received into the mysteries of FORTRAN and IBM mainframes. I don't recall learning much more than GOTO 55, but one or two of the basic concepts must have stuck, because after I graduated and got accepted to Reed College (they needed the money) and got the heck outta San Diego, I gravitated like a moth to a blowtorch to the computer room in the basement of Old Main.

Thanks to a grant from the NSA, circa 1970 Reed was blessed with the Nixon era equivalent of an extremely basic personal computer, an IBM System 1130. For a mere schmere hundred grand they acquired a setup that a Commodore 64 would blow out of the ether 15 years later: 32 k (yes, kilobytes) of RAM! A 5.5 microsecond CPU! (what's that, about 2 Mhz?). An actual line printer! (as big as a washing machine). But wait! There's more! Punch card data entry! A gen-yew-wine IBM Selectric as an input/output device! A hella big air conditioner to keep it all from melting down into a puddle of obsolete components!

It's numbers like these that really put the "spec" in perspective on what 50 years of explosive technological progress can do. (Politics, OTOH? Not so much). Still, while it definitely resembles something dug out of the local chalk beds now, back then this contraption was big stinky cheese, and I wasted no time sinking my undeveloped hacker fangs right into it. I quickly developed a raving coding jones, 18 hour days spent neglecting my classes, perseverating over linear-B level hardware and software reference manuals and hammering away at the punch card writer, waiting my turn to run my deck of jokers and go back to debug, repunch and run again.

Now, ordinarily this is the first verse of a very popular song whose final chorus is "AND NOW HE'S A WEAAAAALLLLLTHHHHHY MAN..." How nice. In my case, simply being in on the ground floor of a tech trend that was about to go spectacularly critical wasn't enough to draw me down the sucking drain of success. Right place, right time, wrong guy. I had entered Reed as a clueless psychology major on the advice of a clueless high school counselor, having no concept of what adulthood even meant, let alone a career. When they asked my professional goals, I always wrote "wandering minstral." And programming, it may be noted, is such an abstract process anyway that it encourages the obsessive and distracted young geek to float flower-like on its frothy, infinitely symbolic surface and never get their face wet. My long burnt coffee-scented forays into the air-conditioned outback were spent on building ever goofier and more intricate poetry writing programs and drawing scale-iterated stick figures on the plotter.

Eventually I figured out, right along about the time I ran screaming from higher education as well, that the mental state I found myself in during a computing binge wasn't how I wanted to spend my time walking around in a skin and bones Clever Human Being Disguise. While I might never have achieved liftoff in my fabulous professional career, I did find a veritable esthetic to live by, and it wasn't being dryhumped by binary logic and office politics 20 hours a day and blacking out in exhaustion the other 4 (or as an esteemed companion who actually did become a minion of the industry put it in his email signature, " CODECODECODECODECODEEATCODECODECODECODESLEEPCODECODECODECODE").

And besides, I had what I thought was a fairly sensible analysis of the future prospects of info design: in ten years the machines would be creating their own inscrutable cyphers and all the hoomans would be out on the street with cups of pencils. Good call (especially the pencils). And then I went and became a musician because there's a bar on every corner and a band in every bar. Don't I ever get tired of being right? Lucky thing I never went into prognostication.

But like a reformed addict occasionally falling off the wagon, over the years I've had occasion to take the odd temporary swan dive into the dangerous seas of ones and naughts, generally the shallows of trainer-wheel Pascal or scriptkiddie Javascript or PHP, projects narrowly conceived and scratched together without regard to security or best practices or even efficiency, and each one accompanied by the unholy brain-congealing joys of code binging, generally followed by a monumental post-project hangover. As successfully reformed addicts have discovered, the high just isn't worth the crash. Even my contemporary part-time dalliance with iOS electronic music hasn't been able to lure me into the fetid embrace of app development. Not quite.

And Younger, More (theoretically) Sensible Me may yet have the last laugh: current scuttlebutt on LLP AI's is that in considerably less than ten years they really will be writing their own code, and a lotta junior associates will be flipping plant-based burgers and downscaling their lifestyles. So there's that. Hey, beats selling pencils.

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