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How I got here in the end: part two

(Previously: Part One)

I taught myself to type on a manual portable typewriter, aged 12. By age 16, the typewriter died — the keys began snapping from metal fatigue. (I am not making this up.) After much whining and kvetching, my parents bought me ... a new manual typewriter. This was in 1980. Home computers were showing up in shop windows and magazine adverts, but at home we had a black and white TV and a record player.

This is the story of how I missed the first wave of the home computing revolution but caught the second, and where it took me.

I was, I think, liable to go a bit computer-mad from the moment I first saw a Commodore PET in a shop window in 1977. I wasn't the only one in my generation; it was a bit like being airminded, half a century earlier. And I did, in fact, glom onto computers early — but was handicapped by the lack of resources at my school. (A school which was ahead of the curve by English educational standards; a lab containing three Apple IIs and a System-525 S-100 bus machine running CCP/M (but hobbled by only having a single terminal, plus a DECWriter) turned up in 1980. Yes, that's four computers for a school with over 1000 pupils. It was a lot, in those days.) I took optional courses in BASIC and PASCAL programming, I read PCW, I ploughed through GEB ... and in mid-1981, I used a large chunk of my savings to buy a Sinclair ZX-81.

The ZX-81 sucked. It fell, not to put too fine a point on it, a little bit short of what I knew I wanted. Programming it in BASIC was not only tedious -- it lacked any obvious way of loading and saving data on tape (other than as DATA statements inline in your code). I wasn't quite up to grappling, unasisted, with the book on assembly language programming that I'd bought; so after four months I gave up, sold it, and used the proceeds to buy a Casio FX-702P (which I still have, although I haven't put batteries in it and powered it up for a decade). As a programmable calculator, it helped get me through those all-important "A" levels and into university. And it was the last computer I bought until ...

Autumn 1985, as I began my third year of a pharmacy degree, which was when Amstrad launched the PCW 8256 word processor.

Now, this wasn't to say that I'd been ignoring the whole home computing revolution. On the contrary — I'd been drooling after one continously. But I was an impecunious student, and I was smart enough to know that in addition to a computer I'd need a TV or monitor, and a printer, and other odds and ends like software. The sums didn't add up. Back in 1985, an original Macintosh 128K would have cost roughly my entire year's student grant (a subsistence allowance subsequently replaced by student loans; at that time, it was comparable to long-term unemployment benefits — which might have been livable if I hadn't been studying in London); ditto an IBM PC without a hard disk.

My interest in computing was on hold because I was studying a tough course and didn't have the money or time to pursue other diversions. Accounts on the university mainframe were just about available if you knew who to ask — but it's probably a good thing that I didn't; in that final year of my first degree I had a 40 hour a week lecture/tutorial/laboratory workload plus assignments and reading.

But the PCW fitted a need. It was sold as a dedicated word processor, but Amstrad had shipped a copy of CP/M 3.0 on the flipside of the boot disk. A bunch of older CP/M applications magically acquired an afterlife on 3" floppy (yes, the PCW used three-inch floppy disks, unique except for Amstrad's other computers and the Tatung Einstein; these are not the 3.5" floppies you're probably thinking of). I'm left-handed and am rather bad at drawing; DR GRAPH saved my ass on some of those lab write-ups, and I wrote up my dissertation in Locoscript.

I also carried on writing fiction. I was doing this in the background, the whole time: it might help to know that I was averaging 1-2 novels a year, for very approximate values of "novel". (They weren't publishable. I was writing my million words of crap. You don't want to read them, honest.) The PCW allowed a step change in my writing around this time; it made it easy to edit. And with editing, my output improved in quality, if not in quantity. A month after I bought the PCW, I wrote the story that became my first commercially published piece. I sold it to Interzone later that year; it was the first of several. I was overjoyed! Word processing, it seems, is what it took to allow me to tune my drivel for readability. Probably because I'm too lazy to edit the traditional way, using white-out and scissors and much copy-typing ...

But I digress: this piece isn't about the writing, it's about the other stuff.

Having acquired a word processor, and been satisfied, I might have stopped right there, if not for a subtle oversight on the part of a programmer at a now-defunct software house. However, Locoscript, the word processor that shipped with the PCW, in that bundled version, lacked a single feature that drove me right up the wall: there was no word count function.

Most of the time, most folks don't need to know how many words they've typed. But if you're writing up essays to length, you can use a word counter. And if you occasionally write short stories and mail them to magazines, the editors like to know how long they are.

Within 48 hours of getting my PCW out of its box and fitting the plug, I'd flipped the boot disk over and was poring over the Mallard BASIC manual, trying to get my head around how to read a file. Within 4 weeks I'd figured out that BASIC wasn't a terribly useful programming language. (As it happens, you can do what I wanted to do in BASIC; but I couldn't see how back then. Not enough theory.) So I got my hands on a C compiler and stared at the manual and (abbreviated) language guide in incomprehension. "What's a pointer?" And then a PASCAL compiler, and then a library of public domain software, and then, and then ...

By the time I sold the PCW and upgraded to my first real PC (18 months later, on the back of the income from my first post-graduate, post-registration job as a pharmacist) it had twice as much RAM as I'd started with, an extra floppy disk, and a whopping great 10Mb hard drive from which it booted CP/M. I'd written my own word counter, and a bunch of other stuff. And I was half way through a part-time night school "A" level in computer science, and finding it boring and slow-paced.

By 1988 the PC habit had bitten me hard. I was terminally bored (and stressed) by the job; I'd acquired a portable computer (a Victor Vicki — luggable version of the Sirius 9000 MS-DOS family, which were not IBM-compatible) and was using it in quite patches during the day at work. I knew I wanted to quit pharmacy, and an escape route was in sight. The British government woke up some time in 1987 and panicked when they noticed that the British computer industry was basically turning into an offshore annexe of silicon valley, and that there weren't enough CS graduates coming off the production line to meet demand for skills. To deal with the sucking skills gap, they provided funding for a bunch of conversion course postgraduate degrees.

The idea was that if you already had a decent science degree, you could go back to university on a stipend, and the staff of the local computer science department would drop the equivalent of an undergraduate CS degree on your head in 12 months. This was harsh — very harsh. If you passed, they handed you a master's certificate: it was a taught master's degree, rather than a research one, but you'd probably have earned it because rather than being spoon-fed, they were about to shove a funnel into your throat and start pouring buckets down it. The UK is oriented around the three year degree course (these days there are more four year degrees) so there's less time for spoon-feeding and hand-holding to start with. The MSc conversion degrees left the spoon-feeding out entirely — no second chances, no exam resits — and was pretty wasteful: the year I did it, about 35-40% of the class failed. (And these folks had previously made it through a regular science degree.)

By 1989 I was desperate to get out of pharmacy — in the end, I quit one summer locum job three weeks early, due to being physically unable to contemplate going in to work. (In ten weeks of that job I'd been driving roughly 150 miles a day and working nine hours on my feet; I lost 15 kilos and was on the edge of a nervous breakdown when I quit.) But I'd been accepted for the MSc conversion course at Bradford Uni. I sold my flat (back then, a single young professional could get a mortgage on a one bedroom apartment for sum equal to about two year's wages), moved into a shared house in Bradford, used a chunk of the proceeds from the house to buy the most kick-ass computer I could find, and ...

... I went blind in one eye.

Oh yes. Sometimes life kicks you in the pants, hard: in my case, I sprang a detached retina about four weeks before I was due to embark on a career-changing gamble. Worse: the detachment was held in place by a ridge of scar tissue — it wasn't visible to an opthalmoscope inspection. The upshot is that I ended up being rushed into hospital for eye surgery (it was way beyond laser treatment by this time) two weeks before starting the degree. And I turned up to register for the course wearing a bandage on one side of my head, and walking into things because I only have half my visual field working in the other eye.

I swear, I didn't have time to read any fiction for six months after I started that course.

You go to university. You register. You get your username and password on the UNIX servers, go through basic orientation, collect your grant cheque, and then on day three the teaching begins. Your syllabus is: you will learn one of PASCAL or COBOL, with an optional introduction to C, and if you're taking PASCAL you'll be doing funky stuff with data structures such as linked lists and trees and record structures before it's over. (If you can't conceptualize pointers, you are in for a world of hurt.) You will learn about general theory and structure of operating systems including concurrency, scheduling, kernel functions and structures, filesystems ... oh, and there'll be an introduction to UNIX. At the same time you're doing this you will be learning Z-80 assembly language and programming a single board teaching system using a hex keypad. You will also be brushing up on binary, octal, and hecadecimal arithmetic, boolean algebra, basics of symbolic logic, and some of the other hum-drum theory you'll need. And then there's the hardware side: transistors; logic gates: learning to build things like half-adders and flip-flops: and then learning some of the basics of logic circuit design (culminating in something like building a traffic light controller for a multi-way junction). All in the first six weeks.

I said I didn't have time to read any fiction for six months; I'm not sure I had time to sleep. I worked 70-80 hours a week for nearly 50 weeks. Buying that kick-ass PC was a life-saver; my digs were a half-hour walk from the comp. sci. department, where there were cheap plastic bucket seats in front of VT52 terminals hanging off a shared Sun-4 running SunOS. In contrast, I had a reclining office chair in front of a giant 13" colour VGA monitor, hooking into my very own 20MHz 386 with its own 40Mb hard disk and a huge 2Mb of RAM! (Which I later upgraded to 4Mb.) I had an IDE and Turbo Pascal running under DesqView/386. And more to the point, I was finally studying something I was interested in. Luxury!

But all good times come to an end. And in the summer of 1990 — right in the middle of the biggest recession since 1980 — I emerged blinking into the sunlight, clutching a slightly moist piece of parchment saying I was the proud owner of a cargo cult computer science degree, and began looking for work.

And that's when my employment history turned really strange ...




Technical quibble: unless you were writing a million words per year between twelve and sixteen, that was probably work hardening (and subsequent brittle failure) rather than metal fatigue. As a general rule, fatigue doesn't kick in as a cause of failure until several million load cycles on the member (which, in this case, means pressing the same key several million times).

But other than that, thanks for the history....


Chris, I was writing upwards of a thousand words a day, every day, during that period. (At peak output I could hit 5000 words/day consistently for a week, or 12,000 words in a day followed by spending the next day flat on my back.)

And the typewriter was (a) a lightweight reporters' model, and (b) very third-hand (at least) by the time I got my mitts on it. (Manual typewriters will go on forever. This one was a 1930s model that I think was probably made in the early 1950s; I just hammered it into a not-too-early grave.)


Great read, charlie. I hope part III will follow, about how you finally ended up in the field of PAID word wizards...


I used a manual typewriter for writing field notes in Eritrea in 2000. What people forget is that they are hellishly noisy beasts. . .


Marius K: no, that's somewhere around part 5 or part 6!


Summer of 1990 . . . I too wandered out into the world with a bit of paper. But in my case, I wandered in the other direction, from Modern History to the closest to programming I've ever yet got - writing large and horrible Supercalc macros on a PS/2. This was my first brush with computers since, soon after getting CS O Level in 1983, I discovered girls and vodka.


I did the same course at Bradford a few years later. I never managed to achieve escape velocity though, and am still here wrangling Solaris and oracle boxen.
They had moved as far as 68000 assembly and Sparc stations by my time, although we still had to do the traffic light controller.


SPARCStations? Luxury! When I was a lad, all we 'ad was diskless Sun 3/60s booting across t'congested 10mbps departmental ethernet backbone ...

An' we 'ad to lick t'road clean on us way 'ome each night.


Retinal detachment? You have my sympathy. Mine occured O.S. when I was 12. I got hit in the eye with a corncob. I was on my cousin's farm and we were up in the hayloft having a corncob fight.

When the doctor finally, um, saw me (sorry) it was a few months later. I was a military brat, and it took a while to get an appointment.

I had an 80% detachment, although they didn't tell me that at the time. This was 2 September 1968, the first day of 8th grade for me. My eye appointment was in the afternoon, and I got admitted for surgery right then and there, for the next day.

Operation the next morning, and I was sick, sick, sick from the anesthesia. My retina detached again two days later; surgery for it occured the next day. It detached again three weeks later. I was *still* in hospital, this being the bad old days of detachment therapy. I was in a ward at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with a bunch of guys back from Vietnam. One of them told me about this guy Doc Smith and the "Lensmen" novels....

First one was free, little boy...

This was in Dayton, Ohio. Dr. Hummel, at WPAFB, gave up over my third detachment and sent me to a Dr. Havener at Ohio State University, 60 miles away. At the time Havener was the world's acknowledged retinal detachment surgeon (or so I was told at the time). He did one operation in the morning and one in the afternoon, five days a week, and saw folks in between. November, 1968, he operated.

My final detachment was in January 1969. These were all subsequent tears, mind, from the original massive detachment. Havener operated again, and from that point on, no retinal problems.

I was sicker than a dog each time from the anestheia (sp, sorry). I feared the post-op sickness more than anything else. The very thought still makes me shudder.

The treatment styles were different for each doctor too. Hummel had been trained earlier, so he had me bandged up, both eyes, for a frakin' MONTH solid, with daily bandange changes. And he kept me in the hospital, too; I was in that ward for a month. Havener, in contrast, operated, and three days later you went home, unbandaged (but not allowed to read for three weeks, which was TORTURE. NOR were you allowed to watch TV. They didn't want the two eyes flickering from side to side; might screw with the retina's flaky attachment.)

They left a sclaral silicon buckler in, deliberatly, to help keep the retina attached. That got infected in August 1988, which required surgery to remove, ot I'd have otherwise lost the eye. I got a cataract O.S. in 1991 from all the accumulated trauma. And in 1994, my right eye, to keep up with the jones', got a cataract. Both removed; vision now better in each eye; and I'm now bionic (heh).

I got a detached *vitreous* in my right eye in 1996. I didn't even think or know it *could* detach..!!!

Floaters? Still? You damn betcha. And phosphenes all along the edge of what peripheral vision I have O.S.

Jim Frankel has also had detached retinas (both eyes in his case). FWIW. So he's another one of the club.

Hoping your eyes are better still...


Tim: I don't have a horror story like that. However, I did have about a 60-70% detachment when it finally got diagnosed. (Optician: "nope, nothing wrong -- you must be imagining it." GP: "I can't see anything. But I'm not an expert. Go see the hospital opthalmologist ASAP." Hospital opthalmologist: "hmm. Have you eaten anything today?")

Then it took all of a week for the NHS folks to get me admitted to hospital for the operation -- because the district specialist surgeon was off work with a slipped disk, and they had to shove me up a level to the regional specialist. At which point, he turned out to be the national expert on "difficult" detachments, and it took a single four-hour op to fix it for good (or at least for 20 years and counting).

On the other hand, I have some really funky phosphene firework displays. And I can freak people out by showing them my surgical scar (all I have to do is roll my left eye to the right) ...

(I know about Jim; we've shared war stories.)

proud owner of a cargo cult computer science degree
Hah! Good name for it.

Yeah, there were a lot of those being given out in the '90s, in the US as well as the UK. One of my pet peeves with the computer industry is that it started to demand more CS graduates from the schools, and insisted that their education be "relevant", not "theoretical", which meant firehose exposure to praxis in the form of coding in the application programming language du jour, and soda straw exposure to academic subjects like computer architecture, programming language theory, theory of recursion, etc. For some people this is OK, they can absorb the practical and abstract it well enough that when they do get exposed to the theoretical concepts they weren't taught they can tie them together. Others, the majority IMnsHO, are stuck at the level they've been taught. And they are often taught to denigrate the theoretical aspects, because they "don't really apply to writing code". Unfortunately, writing code is not the only part of the job that's involved in the success of a software project or the development of a computer system.

And from your description, the syllabus of your degree program was much better than what came later. I can't count how many times I've had to deal with code written by people who got their degrees in the 90's and early '00s which clearly showed they had no idea what "concurrency" was, or how to write thread-safe code.


Been there, done that on the retinal issues. In my case, significant detachment (don't know the %) and three tears... from hitting myself in the face with a golf ball at a driving range. Yes, I'm that talented. As with Tim, I still have my scleral band ten years on, and "only" lost 10-ish degrees of peripheral on my left and ~40% increase in already serious prescription correction.

I still orient myself sideways at my cubicle so people can't sneak up on me, although they never mean to...


Bruce: yup, I agree completely. I didn't mention the second term, did I? Let's just say the syallabus included relational algebra, first order predicate calculus, and Bayes theorem, and that I didn't take the hardcore math modules (I didn't have the background for them, basically). What I got was the skeleton plus outline of a CS degree -- it was up to the student to carry on adding bits over time, but if you were interested in the subject it gave you the framework to hang stuff on.

I feel like a fraud adding the initials MSc to my name, though, even though I'm entitled to 'em.

A couple of years after I did the course the wheels came off, very badly indeed. A friend of mine was one of only three people (out of about eighty) to graduate in that particular year. Judging from his reports, they tried to turn it into an automatic mill for producing CS grads, cutting resources and increasing throughput -- and it didn't work out. (My friend survived because he was (a) at least as highly motivated as me, and (b) he came from a post-doc research background in computational molecular biology, so he already knew a chunk of the stuff he needed.)



I had a friend who was in the computer science department of Bradford during the time that you were there. Did you ever come across a guy who at that time was in his late 20's, had a background in astronomy and also named David ?


David: I'm not sure. (It was nearly 20 years ago!)



Well, I visited him at the university for the better part of a week so quite possibly I might have walked past you in the corridors, my possible brush with with future greatness.



I wasn't just your employment that was strange
soon after that you met me (and Joy!)


Jonny @7: sounds like my year, actually. When were you there?

Charlie @13: do you mean me? I'm fairly sure there were more than 3 of us at the graduation that year, but I may be counting folk who went for the diploma.

(The class size was just slightly too large to have a reasonable chance of knowing everyone: if I knew more than 6-10 folk to talk to then, I'd have been surprised)


SPARCstations SPARCstations
SPARCstations were still a dream when I went to work

I wasn't even t'allowed t'access Oxfurd's 'ax cluster! I 'adto use JCL on t' ICL 2988, it were down more than up.


You guys had it easy. The first computer I used at college, in 1964, was an IBM 1620. It had a 20k memory (10 bits each, not bytes), a typewriter for input and printing, and paper tape for storage (at 10 characters per second).

My fondest program (which I wrote in assembler) computed pi to a thousand decimal places. A single division of one 1,000 digit number into another 1,000 digit number took 5 minutes! The whole thing took 24 hours to run. I later optimized the program to use variable-length numbers and got it to run in 6 hours.

I was a chemistry major in those days, although I later became a computer programmer. We students had to teach ourselves to program the 1620, as there were not any computer classes. Those were the days...


Alan@20: The 1620 had 20,000 decimal digits of memory, actually (each represented as 4 bits plus "check-bit" (parity) plus field-mark, if I'm remembering right). Ours had the card reader/punch rather than paper tape. You *could* put a lineprinter on them, but we didn't have one either.

That was more memory than anything I used for some time afterwards, too. 4k and 8k word (12-bit word) for example were common.

(I used the 1620 from 1968 until I guess around 1973, though I had access to one longer; but the PDP-8/I running TSS-8 and the PDP-11/20 running RSTS were more interesting.)


I did one of those cargo cult conversion degrees as well; mine was at Bristol Poly (as was; they changed their moniker to the University of WOE shortly after I left, which I find mildly amusing).

I'm still in the IT industry, so it seems to have done a reasonable job of geeking up this anthropology graduate. Fortunately for me I went to UCL for my first degree where they categorise anthro as a BSc subject, so I was able to squeak the 'science degree' prereq for the conversion scheme. If I'd managed to blarney my way into Cambridge for my undergraduate years then I'd have been stuffed, 'cuz they classify anth/arch as a BA tripos.

My conversion course doesn't sound like it was quite as hardcore as Charlie's. They split our intake into a software stream and a hardware stream, so other than writing some control programs for a LED strip in the Assembler class I didn't do much mucking around with circuit boards and wires. The rest of it sounds pretty similar though, apart from not getting a choice about programming language; it was straight COBOL-and-none-of-your-cheek-young-man, although there were electives later in the course where we could get a taste of wierd stuff like Prolog or Smalltalk. Also we did a work placement during the summer and then used it as fodder for a mini-dissertation and viva during our final term, so there was a nod towards postgraduate-type study, but it was by no means a proper research masters. At the time I didn't really think it was that stretching, but looking back we did cover a fair amount of ground; it didn't feel like work though, so I guess it was a good fit (for me at least; we had some washouts and a few more who dropped down from MSc to diploma).

I started my course a few months after Charlie emerged from his and I remember feeling rather smug as I went in, 'cuz surely I was nicely timing the recession and would emerge ready to ride the upturn.... Well I managed to complete the course, but I'd utterly underestimated Nigel Lawson's ability to stuff up the economy, so the recession was still going strong when I finished. I ended up mooching around in Bristol for about half a year - applying for anything I could see that was vaguely IT congruent before I managed to land a 100-1 shot and get a job a few miles up the road in Cheltenham (not with the secret squirrels though - I'm allowed to tell you who I worked for). I only stayed at that first place for a couple of years and they still exist a decade and half later, so I don't appear to have Charlie's impressive talent for wrecking employers.

My placement during the course had been with the Bristol office of the TGWU and I'd done some volunteer legwork during the election whilst I was unemployed, so I had the opportunity of getting a research gig for one of the 1992 intake of MPs - if that longshot in Cheltenham hadn't come in, then it's possible that I'd be some kind of NuLab apparatchnik by now... Oh, for the road not taken, eh?



Bradford in 1989? Hmm, wasn't that where the UNaXcess BBS lived (on JANET at 0000121100 IIRC), run by Andrew Miller ("Bobo")? I seem to remember that.

And, I think it was 1989 was when we had the first (maybe only) UA party; a group of regulars all headed into Bradford and drank lots of beers, stumbled around a computer lab (and got kicked out by the security guard) and eventually found those of us still awake stumbling into a MacDonalds for breakfast.

Heh, and the guy who drove a few of us up from London ("edi - The Edible Doormouse") made his own swords, so while we were waiting for the rest of people to arrive we had a short sword fight on a green near the student union :-)

Or so my memory of 20 years ago tells me!


Charlie @ 13
I've always thought that education was a framework that you could hang your own stuff on over the years.

Having read lots of your writing and heard you speak, I enjoy what you have done with yours.


Charlie: whence the reticence about using the MSc title - do you feel the course wasn't researchy enough?

All being well, in a couple of months I shall have an MSc (!) in Research Methods in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. This course is designed to turn (mostly) non-historians into specialist historians, so it's got lots of theory to absorb in a fairly short period, although it doesn't sound anywhere near as hardcore as the Bradford course. I will feel a bit strange about using the MSc title, which seems to have been a result of turf battles in the past leading to my department being part of the faculty of life sciences...


I sent off for a Timex Sinclair 1000+16K Rom Pack ,thought it was a neat toy. But even with the Radio Shack tape recorder from my CoCo I couldn't save&load but the smallest of my programing efforts.I also missed the total lack of sound more than I thought I would! Yep,sold mine too.


I meant 16K Ram Pack.(Darn brain cells!)


Sigh. We aren't going to get any aircraft photos, are we?
Seriously, thanks for the background. Referencing a discussion elsewhere, I was the only boy in my 3rd form typing class in 1982, my Chartered-Accountant-who-wrote-a-programming-language-in-his-spare-time father having worked out that it would be a damn sight more useful than tech drawing.
Also seriously, a blogroll link to pub-and-plane photos would be cool.


Finding a PET instead of punching cards by hand for an IBM 7094 was a big improvement for me.


That was an really great read, in the late eighties, i used to inspect jets with pitot
tubes before launch, talk about stress.


A pedant writes: I'm pretty sure that ZX81 BASIC didn't have the DATA statement, and that there's a passage in the manual explaining that READ, DATA and RESTORE aren't really necessary for Real Programmers. But my copy of the manual (which is very well-written, I recall) is in storage at the moment, so I can't check.


Forest: IIRC it was the ZX80 that didn't have DATA -- the ZX81 added the DATA statement. But it wasn't until the Speccy that Sinclair added the ability to actually read and write separate data files to tape. Until that point, the only way to work with the ZX81 was effectively to write self-modifying code or go direct to assembler, which was beyond my untutored 17-year-old abilities.


Wandering into the world with bits of paper!

I was effectively forced out of my first Physics degree, because my mother took 366 days to die of cancer back in the 60's, and the Uni DIDN'T tell me to go away, and come back next year, and stop the clock.
So, I took a job in industrial research, and worked up the system a little way, and took a part-time degree, until the management decided they didn't want the proles getting uppity, and sacked me (this in a 100% science-based company) ....
So I tried teaching, but the UK's education system was starting its terminal decline (The one thing you CAN'T do is selct on academic ability -eeek!), and the second Thatcher/Major slump was around - took an electonics qualification - and still no job - did a one-year taught M.Sc. in Engineering, but with a 10,000-word dissertation.
And have NEVER used any of my qualifications in earnes, except my Physics part-time one, whilst teaching.
I've also been a transport planner, and occasionally do "extra" film-work.
But what a collection of education, unused.
You all have my sympathies - been there, done that, seen the film, read the book, got the T-shirt .....


Errol@28 and others looking for photos of aircraft. Go to
http://www.airforcemuseum.co.nz/ which is the webpage of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. Well worth a visit if you are ever in Christchurch.


Charlie, so far your story looks like it was not that tough at all. My cohort graduated in 1975, while Britain was still in teh throes of a the 1974 recession. Almost no one I knew who had graduated with me in Biology was able to get a job in their field. Most of us couldn't get a job full stop. As for computers, what computers? I had one course unit being taught Fortran 77 with a useless text book and punching cards for a batch read on the university's ICL 1902E. Even teleprinter time was pathetic - 15mins wait at night for a few millisecs of job processing time. The teaching was so bad I swore off computers for over five years. I didn't get basic programming until I owned a programmable calculator. [My first computer was a ZX80, my second an Apple IIe].

By the time you were worrying about your life in the early 1980's, most of my friends had abandoned any hope of doing science and migrated to industry. I well recall the early 1980's recession when we were being advised to drop our degrees off the resume and pretend we only had A-levels so as to not look too educated (and hence potentially flighty) to prospective employers.

When I came to California, I had to start over again, get retrained as a code monkey and build up my expertise. UK degrees - mostly useless in the US as they don't have GPA scores attached and no-one understands the honours system or which universities are good and which just jokes.

Having said that, I am really happy I didn't try writing as a career. I've always been impressed by people who can keep writing quality material, day in, day out. That takes real talent. I'm glad you did because your SF writing is a real stand out in the genre.


Well, it's nice to know that Charlie has at least looked at my blog, whether or not he actually reads it :)

On-topic: I got into the IT business the traditional way, by doing a postgraduate degree in physics ...


Brett@36 Very interesting blog you have.


I got into the IT business the traditional way, by doing a postgraduate degree in International Relations...


I'm feeling severely under-qualified for my job now - I have an AA in engineering and most of a BSCS, and I do GIS stuff, mostly quality control, at a fairly large utility company. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I'd heard about engineering technology when I was picking a major the second time around.


Wow. My college career path went English->Electrical Engineering->Physics->CompSci->Math. The English started in 1981, but we had that Thatcher clone, Ronald Reagan, and I had 'good aptitude' for a practical subject. And since we were told that what the country needed was engineers . . . twenty-odd years and an abortive career in CompSci later (dotcom bubble), I'm very happy getting a PhD in something so 'impractical' as math.


Luke @22:

In re Cambridge offering BA in Arch/Anth. I'm pretty sure that at Cambridge you get a BA even if you study physics or some other hard science. Certainly my Maths/CompSci course gave me a BA.


My mother has a BSc in French and German; she went to Salford University in the WHITE HEAT OF TECHNOLOGY! and they considered all their subjects to be scientific.


>>I'm pretty sure that at Cambridge you get a BA even if you study physics or some other hard science.

Hmph. That's the sort of thing I would expect of Oxford, but there you go.

Of course if I *had* made into Cambridge then I could have dodged the whole 'year in Bristol' thing and just coughed up a tenner for an MA...



Flashback, there - after doing my first-ever programming on a Hewlett-Packard HP-58? calculator borrowed over the Christmas holidays from an American friend of the family (he was an artilleryman, and was trying to use it rather than looking up the printed firing tables of the time), my parents got me a Casio FX-701P - the slightly weaker sibling of Charlie's calculator.

Like him, I've still got it - it did me through school and university, and only got superseded when I needed a calculator that could do hexadecimal and associated arithmetic... I remember the envy when the FX-802P came out, and _it could do letters_.

I was impressed by the battery life - that first pair of cells survived four or five years of use. I even have the docking station that allowed you to store and retrieve programs from a cassette recorder (and the DIN plug to convert from its 2.5mm jack plugs); and the book of programs that came with it...

My career was rather more boring. After being unable to decide between CS and EE, I applied to do a joint course that covered both, thinking that I would choose one or the other once I had some experience; then discovered that I liked embedded software, and did both until graduation.

Fortunately, the Scottish education system doesn't force quite as much specialisation as the English A-level system - so Edinburgh University required me to get good grades in Highers for both Maths _and_ English.


My mistake - that should read "I still have an FX-501P" and "I really envied the FX-602P"...


Steve @18. 93-94 if memory serves correctly. It was I remember a large year group.

Stephen @23 That would have been about the time of Unaxcess, when I was a UG engineer at Bradford. I vaguely remember the party :)


Locoscript! Word counts! I remember it all. My own little crap software company, Ansible Information, had a word counter for Locoscript, written by my own fair hand in Turbo Pascal 3.0 for CP/M. But I was never any good at high-pressure salesmanship....

For Charlie only: remind me of your snailmail address and I will suffuse you with nostalgia -- probably in a bad way -- by sending my recently published book of collected Langford columns for the Amstrad PCW magazine 8000 Plus (later PCW Plus).


Parenthetically, to Brett:

I'm fascinated by your blogging of the "scareship" stories and plan to go through them in more detail. I'd read about this phase of weird sightings somewhere previously, I don't recall where, but had no longer been able to find any kind of citation for them. I recall there were several waves of similar sightings in the U.S. Midwest around that time, even farther from any plausibility of actual airships. (And I see you mentioned those and the dates on one of your pages.)

I assume you've noticed the similarities of these stories to the wave of UFO sightings in the 1950s and early '60s, starting in the US and spreading worldwide? Many sightings of strange flying ships with lights, occasional reports of having met and talked to the aeronauts, or even of being assaulted by them... and in each era they are explained (and explain themselves) in a way befitting the zeitgeist, either as airship travelers from an advanced foreign country or as aliens from another planet.

Something hellaciously strange was going on there, but I have no clue what it says, other than "Here's material enough for 100 science fiction novels!"


Reading all this I'm getting flashbacks about going to college during the (late '90s) tech boom-and one particular economics professor who all but insisted the bubble would never burst. (Wonder what he's up to now.)

Incidentally, I remember using a manual typewriter; actually wrote my first manuscript on an electric one, too (and those were pretty noisy too).


Clifton @48, a visitor to a local amusement park got a videophone picture of -gasp- a ring in the sky! The amusement park said not to worry, it was a smoke ring from their volcano ride.


"ZX81 BASIC lacks READ, DATA & RESTORE (but see exercise 3 of chapter 22 concerning this)" -- http://www.worldofspectrum.org/ZX81BasicProgramming/appxc.html


Casio FX-702P (which I still have...

Yay! Still got mine; still works.


@1: Work hardening! I didn't even realize such a thing existed, but here's a wikipedia entry on it and everything.

Charlie: I'm visiting because I recently picked up a copy of Saturn's Children (SB, CA, Barnes and Noble) and so have discovered you. I love your blog entries! Your FAQ needs a bit of updating. (it mentions 2001 as 'recent')

I love your writing, very vingean, the world needs more in your style... having a good time with the future, but also asking some interesting and pertinent questions that need to be answered.

Don't believe too much in the Singularity; It's not a religion, or otherwise any article of faith. It's just an interesting model that may lead to some exciting events and changes soon if it's even partially true.

Let's hope, of course. But it's just a fun idea, not the second coming.