After Hours

Blame it on the word processor

Nostalgia is often considered simply a failing of the old, but it’s really a personal rough draft of history, often by the people who actually lived through it, and is important to anyone who wants to see where they are going since their feet are often simply following the path they are already on.

You should always turn your back on the past but only so you don’t trip going forward. Looking back once in a while can help keep you on course – even a boat leaves a noticeable wake.

At times I’ve described myself as the oldest living still active geek and have yet to be challenged by anyone who can document that they personally have been around longer and are still working in the technology field every day.

But, like the 100 year olds who attribute their long life to many weird things, lasting a long time in any profession is often simply a matter of keeping going because you can’t imagine doing anything else.

I’ve been fascinated by computers since grade school, relay-based tic-tac-toe machines to start with, and had the good fortune to be encouraged by an uncle at RCA who was a big help over one memorable summer.

When I got to college there wasn’t even a real programming course open to math/physics majors, let alone a computer science MAJOR but things were free and easy – few enough students found their way into the right basement so the acolytes who served the school’s mainframe didn’t care if you had authorization to use computer time, they just picked up the punch cards and later returned the card deck and printout which was how I learned FORTRAN.

But I want to skip right along to an illustration of how personal computers impacted professions other than accounting which was the first major business function taken over by PCs.

By another of those strange coincidences of life, I was running a sports car garage about three blocks from what later became Lotus HQ. But this was pre-PC so Lotus didn’t exist yet. I liked fast cars and saw that the simplest way to get to play with them was to own a garage. Why work 40 hours in an office or lab earning money to buy one or two when I could spend those same 40 hours playing and still earn money?

But what brought me to PCs were yachts – I also serviced boat engines. My neighbor (on another boat) became editor of Cruising World in Newport and asked me to write some emergency engine repair articles for fellow boaters who might become stranded at sea.

Knowing that writers seldom got published or paid, I was reluctant, especially with the example of two unpublished authors right in the same marina who were always getting rejection slips and returned manuscripts.

But I typed an article anyway and learned that writing was easy and lucrative, except for that awful rewriting part. I did a few more of the series but hated revising and dropped it.

Some years later along came the Tandy Color Computer which offered both a new writing market (c/o Lonnie Faulk’s “Rainbow” in Louisville) and a way to painlessly edit copy without retyping entire pages on an IBM Selectric (people used to use electric typewriters with actual ink and metal type.) Back then it was a rare entry in Writer’s Digest where a publisher stated that they would accept electronic submission.

I never looked back – PCs and especially word processors opened a career I could enjoy and were responsible for my ability to write not just a few articles in a week, but often a dozen or more.

Some writers had great difficulty making the transition – an acquaintance through Mensa, Isaac Asimov, wrote hundreds of books but never could get the hang of using a computer. If he had, I bet he could have doubled his output.

I couldn’t have become either a journalist or writer without computers – I simply never had the patience to rewrite anything.

I never ask Isaac because it was a sore subject with him but instead of just learning on his own in the approved geek manner by poking around with the stuff, I suspect Isaac tried to learn word processing from a book, personal tutor, or, worse yet, the computer manual and got bogged down in the thousands of tiny and mostly useless/meaningless details of the new technology instead of simply learning about a dozen simple commands to make his life easier and more productive.

Of course the good doctor was never really comfortable with technology in general despite being a famous science and Sci-Fi writer. For example, not trusting airplanes, he refused to fly.

Nostalgia or history, another time perhaps I’ll look at the birth of CDs; an international wire service devoted to high-tech; and the building of Computer Shopper (which, strangely enough, I also became involved with due to a passion for messing around with cars and in boats.)

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