OM214 - Ada Lovelace

This week, Ken and John talk about:

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John having renamed his Amazon Echo from Alexa to Computer (OM214)

When Ken said the word ”Computer” during the recording it alerted John’s Amazon Echo. He had renamed it to respond to ”Computer” instead of ”Alexa” because a little boy from across the street would come over to play with John’s daughter and would torment them by playing terrible pop music on the Echo and asking Alexa to do things. All of a sudden the whole house would erupt in some chorus of some modern pop song. Eventually they changed the name of the device. John suspects he has ordered certain products and sent them to the house because they keep getting really weird mail from Amazon with things they didn’t order.

Ken being a computer programmer (OM214)

Ken was a computer programmer. He liked the puzzle-solving aspect of it, the idea that you could trick a computer into doing a thing by thinking about a task in a smart and elegant way. Ken was an English major in college who was suddenly graduating and engaged and had no way to pay the rent. It was 1999 and his friend had an Internet startup, but Ken was a grown-up who needed a grown-up job. He was a child of the early 1980s where everybody had either a TRS-80 or an Apple II at home. Ken’s family had an Apple II with a cassette tape and they were hobbyists about it and really loved it.

John’s first computer (OM214)

John’s first computer was an IBM PC with 64K of RAM and two disc drives. It was the Big Mama at the time and it was IBM's response to the Apple IIe. John’s mom was a computer programmer and worked on Mainframe computers and thought they needed one of these at home, but she had zero interest in it because the computer she had at work was connected to a Wide Area Network and could do all these amazing things, while this IBM PC just seemed like a toy.

John was not especially interested in it until they got WordStar, an early word processor that he would use as a typewriter to write stories. He couldn’t have been less interested in sitting with his friends and working out some programs in BASIC.

Typing program code from computer magazines (OM214)

At the time computer magazines would come with the full text of computer programs. BYTE Magazine would have the code for a little billiards game or to calculate pi or a mortgage calculator, and you would literally type it in. Ken's dad would do this. He had books to learn BASIC and he knew about PEEK and POKE and those odd things and Ken would help him by dictating the program code from the magazine. Ken wasn’t really thinking much about it, he was just a reverse stenographer, but he was seeing the structure of it and his dad would explain what the different subroutines would do.

John has only ever written two programs: One of them was a random line segment generator that would draw a snake that moved around the screen in a chain of line segments. He wrote an addenda to it that was a random tone generator and this little line would go beep beep boop boop all around the screen. John was very impressed with himself, but how many times can you run that before you get tired of it? He wasn’t prepared to go the next step and make the sound generator do anything.

A lot of these computers didn’t really do anything. There were better games in every Arcade, the graphics packages were lousy, the sound was lousy and the narrative games like Zork or Oregon Trail were dumb and easy to defeat. Ken was playing those for weeks and didn’t have the answers because back then you couldn’t just search the Internet like you can today. You had to call somebody’s landline and Ken’s friend called him one time and was excited that he got the Babelfish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which they had been trying to get for weeks.

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