Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Computer science at 14

(This is a long post, but it's a pretty good one.)

In 1996, when I was 14, I took a summer session of Computer Science 230, Computer Organization at UNL. Unless you count being bussed back and forth between my elementary school and Lincoln East High School to take a programming class from one Tim Janssen there, it was my first real computer science course. 230 is a sophomore-level course that serves as a computer science student's first real introduction to hardware, processors, memory, assembly language, and all of the other little nitty-gritty internals of the computer.

Each weekday, my mom drove me to campus, and then she would run off to do errands, come back a couple hours later, and sit outside of the classroom reading fiction until class was up. She looked young enough and I looked old enough that it didn't really look like she was my mom. The two sophomore guys I sat with in the back corner (I almost always sit in whichever back corner is closest to the door) didn't even realize that I was really young until they asked me about other summer classes I was taking and I told them that I hadn't even started high school. It's hard to describe my appearance, but I had long hair and big, thick glasses, so I probably just looked like your "typical" supernerdy freshman. Despite the five-year gap in our ages, we seemed to get along pretty well.

Anyway, the class kinda sucked. At that time, this class about processors and circuit design and assembly programming didn't involve computers in any way; it was pure lecture. Tests involved assembly programs that we would write and debug and correct on paper, with little outlines of boxes to represent registers. I liked the circuit design, having been introduced to logic diagrams and NAND gates when I was about seven or eight thanks to the game Robot Odyssey. I liked the assembly programming. I really hated a lot of the computer internals stuff, though. I also had my first real experience of just giving up on learning something that I didn't care about (virtual memory)... I guess college will do that to you. Later on, once I started my degree, 230 included a lab portion, so I had to take the lab by itself, and do the circuits and assembly stuff again, except this time on computers.

The professor just sucked. We couldn't understand him, and it was usually just an incompetent review of what was in the book. Those two guys and I would constantly ask each other what he was saying for the first week or two, until we gave up on listening to him and just copied down what he wrote in tiny letters on the chalkboard. I think they gave up entirely on taking notes after a couple more weeks. He was my first introduction to the "incomprehensible foreign computer science professor who never showers" stereotype. The fact that he wore the same white shirt and chalk-soaked black jeans each and every day was just icing on the cake.

In the end, I got a B+ in the class. I think that I was pretty upset when I found out that I didn't get an A, so my dad went in with me to the professor's office hours, where he showed me my final, and I saw that I totally failed about two out of the seven sections of the test, which were on... virtual memory.

So, that's what happened for half of that summer. It was the summer before high school, so I guess at that time I was hanging out with my friends Günter and Jim, who I very rarely ever saw again after starting high school, though my very anti-Christian friend Günter called me a few years later to tell me that he had become a Christian and was starting a band. He invited me to his first concert, which I absolutely couldn't go to for some reason I can't remember, and we never spoke again.

Windows 95 was pretty big back then. Our computer at home was a 486DX-50 at the time, and wasn't really good enough to run Windows 95, but I remember seeing screenshots of it in magazines and really wishing I had a taskbar in Windows 3.1, so I actually made my own using the Windows APIs, Start button and everything. Besides my Poor Man's Taskbar, one of the early programs I wrote under the name Green Eclipse (which I coined on May 10, 1994), I also must have been working on an iteration of my game Stocks & Shares and my Windows help file editor.

Several months later, I remember seeing an episode of the show Computer Chronicles in which someone from Blizzard was showing Diablo, a demo for which had recently been released. I remember that I insisted that my dad take me to his lab so that we could install it on the computers there. We started it downloading, and then I think we went to Dairy Queen while it finished. When we got back, I started playing, and he started taking care of his bugs. When he came over to see it, he was just blown away, and we installed it on the other computer in the lab, too. When I first heard "Mmmmm, fresh meat!" upon meeting the Butcher on level 2, I think I was about as scared as I had ever been while playing a game. We played it for several hours over the network, and my dad was so impressed that he decided to get a new computer so that he could play it at home, which was an even more insanely impulsive decision when you take into account the fact that my family was not well off at all, and we couldn't afford the thing. But, a few days later, we had brought home a new Pentium-120 with Windows 95 and a copy of Diablo. In the epilogue of this touching story, other people in my dad's office stumbled across the Diablo shortcut, and it spread like wildfire; a couple weekends later, I was playing a co-op game with my dad's boss and two of his coworkers over the campus network.


Anonymous said...

While entertaining, this post makes me feel very very old. My version of this touching story would involve BASIC code on a 386 and the excitement of waiting 5 hours to download a demo of Wolfenstein from Flightline BBS. :(

Travis said...

I never really did much with BBSes, because my parents wouldn't spring for another phone line, and didn't want it tied up for more than a couple minutes at a time. I got most of my demos from PC Gamer, or my uncle in Colorado, who would periodically send us a box of floppy disks.

Travis said...

Oh yeah, and my apologies who got something lower than a B+ in 230. :)