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|January 21, 1998||
The ancient art of computing
Every time I talk about computing, I feel ancient.
The first computer I ever used was a IBM 1140 (I'm not too sure the number's right: see what I mean about feeling old?) at ye olde alma mater. I never actually got to run a programme on it, because it was controlled by a group of grizzled aristocrats who took your programme and told you how many days afterwards you could come for the outputs.
The programme itself was in the shape of punched cards, which you had to prepare on card-punchers: one card for each line of your programme. Your data, if you had any files involved, went into another bunch of cards.
The procedure, which will sound familiar to all other oldies, was as follows: you first went to the computer centre to book time on a card-punch machine (they were all hogged by the fellows majoring in computer science). After you were through with your work on the card-punch, which involved much hunt-and-peck typing, you went, hat in hand, to the aristocrats who controlled the computer section, with your pack of cards hopefully free of major errors -- to ask them to run it.
They lived in air-conditioned luxury -- considering that the institute is in Rajasthan, that's luxury indeed -- deep in the bowels of one of the institute's buildings and, in their lair, they ruthlessly enforced silence. Offenders were given short shrift. The hush in the computer room had a totalitarian quality you found nowhere else, not even in the library, though in the background you could hear a line printer going at 600 lines per minute like some far-off machine-gun.
To make things worse, they didn't allow footwear in the place. You had to take off your slippers or shoes before you entered. The act of removing your footwear only focused attention on the state of your slippers, which were often held together with safety pins or worse. By the time you were in the presence of the aristocrats, your self-esteem was already mixed up with your knees.
For people like me, who just had to clear the mandatory course in computing fundamentals before getting back to the friendlier world of books, it was doubly important to be polite to the aristocrats: the nightmare was having to go through the damn course all over again. We behaved ourselves out of cowardice parading as common sense.
They looked at your stacks of cards and grunted noncommittally. You found yourself touching your forelock before asking, very tentatively, "When do you think ?" Mostly, you ran out of nerve long before you ran out of question.
Their reply was delivered without even a look at you, "Come back Friday night." Or whatever. The computer centre was open until 11 pm and, if you were in the habit of going to bed early, you were heading for trouble if you rubbed the aristocrats the wrong way.
When you went back Friday night, your output would be ready. Each programme, written in Fortran -- a language that I personally have been glad to forget -- would have to be run two or three times to get bugs sorted out, so you had to go through this several times for each programme. If you made the mistake of asking one of them where they thought mistake was, you knew from the cold stare you got in response that you had committed an unforgivable blunder.
There was a caste system in the computer room. At the bottom of the pile were the lowly creatures dropping in for a semester's introductory course. They (meaning us, for I was a member of this caste) were like mayflies -- short-lived, numerous and extremely irritating. Others who came back for a slightly more advance elective were a step or two higher up.
Further up were the fellows who were doing degrees in computer science: they treated the aristocrats with a familiarity we lowly beings could only envy. They walked casually and busily around, unlike us mortals who shuffled and crept and looked nervously around like mice around a sleeping cat. If ever you made the mistake of asking one of these godly beings to explain the error in your computer programme, he'd look at it contemptuously and rattle off an answer that was so full of technicalities that you wouldn't understand it anyway.
At the end of the semester's course, I went home and waited tensely for the grade card that arrived 10 days later. I grabbed my copy -- the Institute used to mail a copy to parents to make sure they knew what their children were up to -- and read it with a thudding heart, looking for the dreaded letters NC (for not cleared, every student's nightmare). The tension was unnecessary, for I had just made it.
In later years, I drifted into software development and developed a liking for computers. By 1986, I was a computer professional. By then, of course, card-punchers were history, though the rat-a-tat of line printers was still the background music in most data-processing outfits.
The 2-80-based CP/M computers on which I first used a word-processor were gone and the IBM PC had arrived. People who used IBMs and their clones were beginning to talk under their breath of 'parameter passing' and 'strongly-typed languages' while Apple Macintosh users, always more sophisticated, were having fun with their friendly but expensive machines. The computer was here to stay.
I use one now for my writing, a desktop machine -- one that's already obsolescent -- that plays music, shows movies, besides running the various encyclopaedias and search engines and word-processors I use in the course of my work. It can do a great deal more work of different kinds than that old 1140 in its air-conditioned home, and do it much faster.
And there are these kids who know everything about these PCs and other modern machines. They're comfortable with the new multimedia and Java and the Net, but speak to them of card-punchers and they blink. Then they look at you disbelievingly. You mean you used to put data on cards? Cardboard cards? When you say yes, we used to, they blink again. You must be kidding, gramps, their eyebrows seem to say. And, as their eyes turn away, you know you've just been classed with the dinosaurs.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier
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