Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The World Behind The Glass

This blog is about anything that strikes my fancy. Up until recently, I was a research scientist at Adobe and these first entries are some of the text I posted there when a member of my team, Gavin McKenzie, set up the first customer facing blog. Here is the entry essay I posted that set the stage for The World Behind the Glass.

For my first entry on this public facing blog, I wanted to re-publish a short essay I wrote a while back on how I, and I believe many others, view computing and computers. This essay is the inspiration for the name of my blog as well:

The World Behind The GlassI wrote my first program (in Fortran) in 1964 at the age of 9. My brother-in-law took me to St Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas where his aerial mapping firm bought time on an IBM 1141. He showed me how to write a simple program and I wrote up something that would print the Fibonacci sequence (I had never heard of it before but it was simple to come up with and it made a LOT of cool numbers come out of the computer and was fun to watch).

At that time, I didn't think too much about what was happening in the computer. I really didn't have much of a cognitive model even though I had read the usual books about switches and relays and transistors and ferrite core memories...later, I even tried to build a memory device when I was 11.

Fast forward to 1969 and I'm 14. I am a freshman in High school and hanging with some cool Juniors and a Senior who could drive us out to Jesuit High school in North Dallas. There the Math Teacher, named Brother Orlando, let us use the Jesuit teletype hookup to a GE 255 computer. The next year MY high school would get one, but we had early access! There was something different. No cards, a paper tape could save and restore your program, and there was the teletype to print results.

And it had a window over the typeball mechanism

Something clicked. I began to sense that, behind this window, somewhere in the bowels of a machine I couldn't even see, there was a world hiding.
And by writing programs I could explore it, control it, and even create with it. I could create a virutal world within the world behind the glass. My first virtual world was, like many in 1970, Conway's Game of Life...watching those critters evolve in generation after generation printed on greenbar paper was an incredible experience.

Later, in college and in my first job in this industry in 1975 as an assistant operator, we were still using typing style interfaces (a Control Data daisy wheel terminal connected to a CDC Cyber 72 and an IBM 360 Console based on the Selectric typewriter of the day) And there again was that sense, particularly as I got my hands on an IBM 360 and started to learn systems programming, that there was a world behind the window.

We graduated to VM/370 and 3270 video terminals in 1977 and I realized it was a world behind the glass. Now watching Life evolve was a satelite movie not a series of aerial photos. Nearly lost my job when my program brought the CICS order entry system to its knees...I swear I ran it in a low prioirty partition!

That sense remains. Now, as I sit at this laptop 30,000 feet above the planet, I still have a sense that there is a mirror world, a hidden world, behind the glass of my display. My writing, my programming, my browsing, my googling are all exploratory probes into this alien and still mostly undiscover'd country.

But I also realize that the world behind the glass is being reflected in the real world as well. so sometimes I wonder...is the world behind the glass staring back and wondering about this side. As we add more and more knowledge and sense of the real world to our machines and devices, do they begin to gain a sense of the undiscover'd country that is what we call the real world?

Ain't it cool?


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