Joho the Blog[2b2k] Back when not every question had an answer - Joho the Blog

[2b2k] Back when not every question had an answer

Let me remind you young whippersnappers what looking for knowledge was like before the Internet (or “hiphop” as I believe you call it).

Cast your mind back to 1982, when your Mommy and Daddy weren’t even gleams in each other’s eyes. I had just bought my first computer, a KayPro II.

I began using WordStar and ran into an issue pretty quickly. For my academic writing, I needed to create end notes. Since the numbering of those notes would change as I took advantage of WordStar’s ability to let me move blocks of text around (^KB and ^KK, I believe, marked the block), I’d have to go back and re-do the numbering both in the text and in the end notes section. What a bother!

I wanted to learn how to program anyway, so I sat down with the included S-Basic manual. S-Basic shared syntax with BASIC, but it assumed you’d write functions, not just lines of code to be executed in numbered order. This made it tougher to learn, but that’s not what stopped me at first. The real problem I had was figuring out how to open a file so that I could read it. (My program was going to look for anything between a “[[” and a “]]”,, which would designate an in-place end note.)The manual assumed I knew more than I did, what with its file handlers and strange parameters for what type of file I was reading and what types of blocks of data I wanted to read.

I spent hours and hours and hours, mainly trying random permutations. I was so lacking the fundamental concepts that I couldn’t even figure out what to play with. I was well and truly stuck.

“Simple!” you say. “Just go on the Internet…and…oh.” So, it’s 1982 and you have a programming question. Where do you go? The public library? It was awfully short on programming manuals at that time, and S-Basic was an oddball language. To your local bookstore? Nope, no one was publishing about S-Basic. Then, how about to…or…well…no…then?…nope, not for another 30 years.

I was so desperate that I actually called the Boston University switchboard, and got connected to a helpful receptionist in the computer science division (or whatever it was called back then), who suggested a professor who might be able to help me. I left a message along the lines of “I’m a random stranger with a basic question about a programming language you probably never heard of, so would you mind calling me back? kthxbye.” Can you guess who never called me back?

Eventually I did figure it out, if by “figuring out” you mean “guessed.” And by odd coincidence, as I contemplate moving to doing virtually all my writing in a text editor, I’m going to be re-writing that little endnoter pretty soon now.

But that’s not my point. My point is that YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW LUCKY YOU ARE, YOU LITTLE BASTARDS.


For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to get a programming question answered in 2013, here are some pretty much random examples:

54 Responses to “[2b2k] Back when not every question had an answer”

  1. I grew up and got into technology right inbetween both eras, so I know what you’re talking about. My first computer ran MSDOS and had 5 1/4 floppy disks that had all the programs and games on it. My first printer was a dot matrix that made a ton of noise and jammed regularly from the edges of the paper tearing off and getting stuck. I’m truly greatful for the internet, and glad that we have the resources to get answers more quickly and be more productive. Even so, sometimes it’s hard to find an answer online, so it’s sometimes better to just “figure it out” even now.

    Thanks for your post.

  2. Fortunately for me, QBasic has a great “online” help system built in to the application.

  3. I remember that old dinosaur! It was almost a laptop, since you could snap the keyboard tray on the front of the box to protect the “monitor” and lug it around with you. Portable computing for the 80s.

    I waited until I had access to a TRS-80 to start learning BASIC.

  4. Lucky enough to have had programming in ’77 during PhD, but was in just the same place as you in early 80s when we started getting personal machines and no-one knew what was what. Remember how wonderful it was when you could get answers from Usenet news groups?

  5. I do remember, Candy! Unfortunately, I didn’t start using the Internet until 1986. I believe my first usenet question had to do with trying to find a particular set of car tire rims. Failed. I had much better luck later on trying to get answers to questions about Myst.

  6. I liked your story but you never lived until you patched a 5081 object program punch holes with those little metal tabs :-) That is why some people still call a fix a patch.

    I also remember selecting WordPerfect over WordStar because WordPerfect supported two footers and WordStar only supported one.

  7. Around the same time, I attempted to print from BASIC. Wasted an entire day before giving up. Much later I found out you simply had to write to I/O handle #4. Wasn’t that obvious.

  8. who’s the lucky one? you got to work through a problem on your own and come up with an innovative solution. Yes, it took you longer, no doubt, but you also used your fucking brain. Today sucks cause there is no need for our individual brains because we just have to plug into our terminals within the collective. Soon ocular implants from the Hive mind will allow us to stay connected at all times and I am Locutus of borg.

  9. w3schools is in no way affiliated with the W3C.

  10. Thanks, Corey. Old fart brain fart. I’ve fixed it. (I replaced the erroneous anchor text that said “W3C” with the accurate “W3Schools.”)

  11. Max, I know you’re trolling, but I had to laugh when you said I came up with an “innovative solution.” Failing to get a response from a CS professor is not a solution, and figuring out the right syntax for opening a file is the opposite of innovative.

    One of the things I like so much about Stackoverflow is how much I learn by watching the respondents converse and iterate. You can learn more about the actual practice of software development from watching those conversations than from reading any programming manual.

  12. I attended college from 1978-1982 and majored in Mathematics. During my senior year, I needed to take classes that would allow me to find practical employment since I didn’t want to teach Math. That meant a handful of Pascal and Assembly classes. My first job in 1982 was at a major aeronautical defense contractor where I learned Fortran V on DEC, VAX, and IBM mainframes. I did all my code editing on a line printer and submitted punched cards when I thought my code was solid. Back then, you really had to think about what you were doing. You really couldn’t burn your employer’s resources frivolously by changing a variable and seeing what happened.

    I think there was real value in being a pioneer in your own local world. You learned how the hell things worked. I’m grateful I learned that way because I remember it all as if it was yesterday. I treasure my experience because it was gained the hard way.

    Great article. I really enjoyed it.

  13. I read Usenet posts with a 30 year time delay (you can too; click my name for the link), and along with things like Regan being president and people caring about the Space Shuttle program, this is one of the weirdest things about it.

    On the one hand, anyone lucky enough to be on Usenet in 1983 had a great way to ask questions, much better than phoning a random prof. On the other hand, threads still fill with speculation about things we’d just google or look up on wikipedia today. There was even a `net.trivia` group predicated on the assumption that it was hard to look up such things. Would never fly today.

  14. Thank you for the reminder. Now that you mention it, I remember trying to figure out how difficult pre-internet was. Trying to learn how to program and so forth. Even when internet access was available later on, there just wasn’t as much available. Of course I never got on Usenet or IRC so I probably missed out on a lot there.

    So in short. Here here!

  15. I spent countless hours trading off duties with my sister, either typing hex codes into the VIC-20, or reading them out of the magazines of the day. Nine times out of ten, when we’d finished, the program wouldn’t run due to some small typo. Half the time it would turn out that we’d flipped to the wrong page, and were inputting codes for some entirely different computer.

    On the off chance we actually got the program to run, we’d try to save our work to the VIC-20 cassette tape drive. Actually, it was some 3rd party tape drive, and was essentially a data randomizer. I don’t recall a single program working a second time.

    When I wanted to actually learn something about programming, I went to the Commodore manuals that came with the computer! The OS booted into BASIC, and it was simply expected that the user would want to write programs. Amazing times, really. Can you imagine if the average user had to type in code out of a magazine in order to connect to Facebook and check up on their friends?

  16. is an interesting take on W3Schools, and why you shouldn’t rely on their information.

  17. Yep. Been through this. My high school had an old Digital (maybe a pdp10? hard to remember, now), –I think they called it a mini-mainframe, but I may be getting eras confused– that was donated to us by University of Oregon … anyway, I learned how to program on that beast. All anyone in my school knew how to do was turn it on, and I had a little set of mimeographed notes on how to write a BASIC program. It was so cool … This was in SW Oregon in 1977. It ran 3 CRT’s and a dot-matrix terminal. Programmed Lunar Lander, Tic-TacToe, etc. I thought I was hot!!!

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Web Joho only

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