The compulsive tinkerer

When I am asked why I became a scientist, I have sometimes answered that a blank whiteboard seems to call my name.  There you are, marker in hand, and you can go any direction with your drawings that you can imagine!  I love creating something new, and technology development is an obvious niche for me.  This desire to imagine and then create has also driven my interest in computers.  Of course I like creating new algorithms (especially publishable ones), but building the computer itself is a special joy for me.

My first memory of poking around inside a computer came before we had a computer designed for that purpose.  I was a nearly compulsive programmer on the Commodore VIC-20 my family purchased in 1981.  My parents informed my brother and me that they wouldn’t buy us video games until we could write them ourselves.  They gave my brother the user’s guide on that first night, but I swiped it from him in no time at all.  At first, my code did not stray far from PRINT, FOR, and GOTO, but eventually I found my way to more complex logic.  Because the computer had only 3583 bytes (no, not kilobytes or megabytes) available for programs, I learned to be efficient by necessity!  I spent a large fraction of my free time perched in front of that computer, and after a few years, the keyboard had worn out.  Along the way, we had found another VIC-20 at a garage sale.  I swapped the working keyboard from one unit to the other.  It only required unplugging and reattaching a ribbon cable, but I was hooked!  We bought a memory expansion for the VIC-20, en route to a Commodore Plus/4 (found at a liquidation store in 1986) and then a Commodore 64.

When I was a senior in high school (1992), I shifted to my first Intel PC, a 486DX-50.  Even before I had begun using it, I installed my first upgrade, a Sound Blaster Pro!  I did not intend to listen to bleeps and blurps when real music was possible, and I had gotten spoiled on a Commodore 64 in the meanwhile.  I still have the sound samples my friend Brad and I made while messing around with audio recording software.  Soon I had ventured into video cards and other add-ons.  The fun we had with bitmap editing and video capture would lead in all sorts of directions.

By the time I was a graduate student (1996), I had begun building my own computer systems from parts.  I try to pass that skill along to trainees in my laboratory, and they all seem to take to it quite easily.  We have so many options, these days!  From tiny ITX systems up to server chassis, we can create a system to meet almost any requirement.  I find it hard to imagine creating code for the 1 MHz MOS 6502 that powered my VIC-20, now that I’m accustomed to processors that cycle more than 1000 times as quickly.  I know, though, that those early days set me on a career path that has paralleled the emergence of new technologies.  Would I have thought of bitmaps as a way to handle complex Venn diagram relationships in my Contrast software if I hadn’t spent as much time with graph paper and powers of two while in junior high school?  I don’t think so.

Did my parents know how far my childhood hobby would take me?  I think that they guessed as much.  I can hardly imagine how I would have responded if a language like Scratch had been available back then!  I certainly hope that the kids of today will have the opportunity to play in as rich a technological sandbox.


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