Confessions of a Computer Junkie

Donal Buchanan

© 2015 by Donal Buchanan

 

Photo of a computer mouse chained up.

I’d been wanting a computer for over thirty years. It wasn’t something I talked about or was consciously aware of, but the desire was there. I remember, back in the 1940s, seeing those ads in Astounding Science Fiction (long before it became Analog): “Own your own computer! Only $19.95!” (or something along that line). I drooled, but I never bit. I figured that all I’d get for that price was some kind of mechanical hand-calculator when I wanted UNIVAC ! Like many another poor soul, I subdued my dream and decided to live in the real world.

Another memory climbs out of the dust. Sometime in the mid- to-late 70s, my son Martin, the Great Programmer, decided to build a home computer. He gave up after awhile—not, I think because he was more experienced with software than with hardware, which was true, but because he knew that home computers would shortly be coming on the market better than he could hope to build. While he did work on it I followed his progress eagerly, even helping him a bit— not with the hard stuff, of course. He had purchased an ancient terminal with a loose board. I knew just how to hit the dumb thing (that’s the kind it was) to make it work. Not scientific, I grant you, but it makes one feel like an engineer!

One day he needed a part and we piled into the car and took off for one of the few computer stores in the area (we lived in Fairfax County, Virginia at that time). It was a little hole in the wall on the second floor of a distant shopping mall. There I was introduced to Star Trek, computer style. It didn’t matter that I could only nail a Klingon with help and usually got myself lost in intergalactic space. I was absolutely hooked. My old dream came back, full force.


One of the things I found out when I retired in 1976 was that half pay is nowhere near as good as full play. So I began to pick up jobs here and there. Since I had spent 25 years “looking for the bad guys,” I felt comfortable doing genealogy (I’d already gotten my own family back to two generations before Adam). If you needed a menu, I’d construct it for you. For a while I worked as a librarian in a girls school (filling in for someone on a brief furlough). When I got my computer I would even help you with your computer (this was the blind leading the blind—I just made sure my customer was blinder than me).

I didn’t get a chance to do anything about my own computer hopes until 1978, two years after retiring from Government Service. I bought a Commodore Pet 2001—not noticing the fact that it used a form of ASCII other than the one used by most of the computers in the rest of the world. I was all alone in my effort, both my sons having departed on life programs of their own.

Fortunately another equally good programmer chose to rent a room from us. His name was Jim and he owned an OSI computer he’d put together himself. He was dissatisfied with his OSI because there was so little software or hardware available. I soon found the same problem with my Pet. Those were the days when Commodore was just barely supporting what was really a pretty good product.

Jim was a godsend. The kind of programs I wanted, nobody was writing. Cryptography programs, for instance. Oh, there were simple substitution programs available—but no programs that really helped you break a cipher. He wrote a dandy, following my want-list to the letter. It did all the donkey work in breaking a simple substitution message and left the brain work to you. Eventually, with Jim’s help, I wrote a program that would encipher using Playfair and another that used a fours-square or two-square checkerboard. What a great feeling it is to write lines of Basic and find out that they really WORK!

I got a job at the computer store that sold me my Commodore Pet and held it for a couple of years. I wasn’t much of a salesman, but could convey my enthusiasm for the product. I became good friends with the manager and we turned out a program which helped with a local game and put about $500 in my pocket (and his). We eventually both quit because we didn’t like the way the owners were stressing selling the big machines when we could see that the small personal computers were what the folks really wanted. Before I quit, however, the company got in an Apple II. I took one look and bought it. My fate was sealed. I’ve been an Apple man ever since. I purchased every magazine that came out that had the word computer in it. I was a sucker for anything new that came out—hardware, software, if it was for Apple, chances are I had it or wanted it (I still have stuff lying around the house that I don’t even remember).

My first use for my Apple involved a lot of game playing. Adventure games became a specialty and Scott Adams my hero. He probably won’t remember it, but I shook his hand and spoke to him for awhile during a show at the DC Armory—a thrill at least equal to when I got to meet Steve Wozniak when he visited our Computer club meeting in a local Vienna, Virginia, Computerland . Eventually a buddy of mine and I spent ours playing Civilization, a wonderful program that’s still around.

Serious uses for my computers quickly developed: Word processing: I finished a novel which then lay fallow until I finally got it published in early 2015. Finances (not only my own, but also those of the Epigraphic Society.)  That non-profit organization’s Secretary/Treasurer, and Editor since 1994. For a while I kept track of our church’s finances using Visicalc. While I still mailed my bills in by US Post Office, my regular mail became mostly of the E- variety.

After I retired, I became deeply involved in the decipherment of ancient Iberic inscriptions, as well as a deep study of Iberic Celtic, Ogham, and ancient Scandinavian inscriptions. My computer has been a wonderful help in carrying out those studies. If you are interested in my epigraphic work, please go to my page on www.academia.edu (a non-profit organization). They’ll ask you to join. No problem—I got in by saying I was an Independent Researcher and didn’t lie about my academic record (a simple BA in History).

 My system has grown with time. As I write these words I’m staring at a 27” monitor that also houses 2 terabytes and a Mac using OS 10 Yosemite. I also run PC programs using Parallels Desktop. I am still working on Epigraphic material and am also trying to finish some of the unfinished work I’ve started over the years including some of my father’s unfinished diaries. I had two mysteries published by Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (I’m pretty sure the their appearance had nothing to do with the disappearance of that magazine 2 months after they appeared). I’ve published two books. One is a Western: The Naming of Joshua Bean (available from Amazon.com) and the other a 12 page E-bppl for kids, Pippinodda, The Duck Who Didn’t Like to Get His Feathers Wet (see Amazon to download it—look-out, it’s expensive: 99 cents).

Once a Computer Junkie, always a Computer junkie!


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