Welcome to the Wilcox Family weB LOG, your source for the latest Wilcox news, anecdotes, and rants; and, as Jack Benny quipped on his first radio show (March 29, 1932), “There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?’””
For the moment, there is far less chaos than a lifetime of apocalyptic and postapocalyptic fiction have led me to expect. This is a good thing. Sort of. I am disappointed that another trope has been shattered. No cities were surrounded by the military, sterilized with nuclear weapons, or set on fire.
It’s not all good, of course. There has been the inevitable dismissal of all we are doing to slow the spread of COVID-19, keep our health care systems from being overwhelmed, and save the lives of our seniors as nothing more than overreaction or a media frenzy. There was new terminology to learn, like presumptivepositive, which refers to a test sample that has tested positive by a state health service lab, but not yet been confirmed by the CDC itself. There was also the overlooked state of testing, which led to a false sense of security: Almost no one was being tested, even if they had been exposed to COVID-19 and exhibited every symptom perfectly, the lack of available test kits meant many such people were rejected from testing, and continue to be rejected even now. (I know it’s shocking and unprecedented, but President Trump is lyingto you.)
On Thursday evening we got ready to hunker down. Market basket, at the nearly-empty time Naomi and I normally go—Thursday evening at 8:00 pm—was Saturday-morning crowded. Toilet paper and bananas had disappeared. But the staffing had been ramped up, and people were amused and polite, as is typical for our neck of the woods. When I got home I ordered some devices to be used instead of toilet paper.
Friday was a prearranged work-from-home day, while Veracode tested an “all-employees-working-from-home” scenario. There were few problems. On Sunday night, we received notice that mandatory working from home would be in effect for the next two weeks.
Humor is a typical fallback. I’ve remarked several times to David, whose severe anxiety keeps him inside at home almost all the time, “Look! We’re all David, now.” My kids have repeatedly quoted, “Oh, so now you’re interested in what introverts do for fun.”
Tonight we’re trying a long-distance game of Pandemic.
This was a relatively early draft and analysis of a literacy narrative, originally written for UMass Lowell (online) College Writing I, Sec. 031, Professor Richard Keating, September 30, 2018. The more concise version will be published separately. (Note to plagiarists: This has been submitted to the TurnItIn database, <sarcasm>so, by all means, copy away</sarcasm>.)
I loved writing this essay, but desperately needed to cut it down to a much smaller size and intense focus. (That was the hardest part of the work.) Still, this history of my first exposure to computers is something I wanted to publish. The final version of this essay is here: Romancing the Code: The Literacy Narrative I Did Write.
Computers in Digital Literacy: Problem-Solvers versus
Phase 1: Literacy Narrative
When I was nine years old, the world of science fiction changed
with the release of Star Wars. The
film is, of course, merely space opera, and more fitting of the term science fantasy than science fiction, but it was remarkable
for its technical presentation and fully realized worldbuilding, rather than
for its originality or brilliance of story. (See Campbell, 2008.)
In much of twentieth century science fiction, computers are
autonomous problem-solvers. They are almost never programmed by humans. A query
is made, and the computer—via punched paper, data cards, audible output, or
screen display—provides the answer to an enormously complex problem. The idea
of a computer as a tool is reduced to its metanarrative: The computer is
godlike—omniscient and often omnipresent—and not necessarily benign. Star Wars avoided this trope, turning
sentient, autonomous computers into a digital underclass—droids—while
presenting computers with which “humans” would directly interact in a way that
was more akin to our current state of the art. The Star Wars world includes custom-purposed computer appliances, such
as a “navicomputer” (Wookiepedia), as well as networked data storage and
retrieval devices that would not be out of place in our own world. Although we
use computers to solve a vast number of problems in everyday life, even
commonly as our own navicomputer devices, it is the act of programming itself
which provides me the greatest problem-solving experience.
The same year Star Wars was released, I met my first real computer: a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8 (Fig. 1) at my town’s high school. Each terminal connected to this computer was a repurposed teletype machine (Fig. 2). There was no screen display, only a nearly-endlessly spooling roll of paper. Each keystroke from the operator or each character output from the PDP was accompanied by a wonderfully complex sound of motors and servos moving the print element and its carriage across the platen, and hammering the right letter onto the paper (262LongRunner). This sound was so iconic that we continue to associate it with the background noises of the era’s television newsrooms.
At age nine, with no previous experience with computers, I was incapable of using them for anything beyond running simple math programs written by high school students. It is difficult to appreciate now, but in a world where pocket calculators were relatively rare, having a computer prompt for two numbers and then displaying their product or dividend was a marvel.
Beyond such number-crunching, computers immediately proved
to be greatly entertaining. I ran student-written programs such as “Guess,” in
which the user would enter a number between 1 and 100, and the computer would
respond with, “Too high,” or “Too low.” I printed text-based art, my favorite
being a cartoon of Snoopy, shaking his fist and saying, “Curse you, Red Baron!”
(Fig. 3). One could print banners of words where each letter in the banner’s
text was composed of many smaller letters. I printed calendars for the current
year, my birth year, and the unbelievably far-off year 2000.
I was in love.
This elementary-school experience did nothing to assuage my longing to use computers. Through another school program I got to play on a PDP-40 at a nearby enterprise, a massive device that would have made the PDP-8 weep with inferiority, had it been sentient. There I discovered the text adventure “Dungeon” (later and more commonly known as Zork) (Anderson, Kidder). I was enthralled with text adventures. I was determined to program my own.
In my junior high years, we had access to Apple II computers repackaged by Bell & Howell to be nearly indestructible. We also secured access to the PDP-8 at the high school. By this time the teletype machines were gone, replaced mostly by dot-matrix printers from DEC, and supplemented by three glorious CRT terminals, VT05s (Fig. 4). DEC had donated these CRTs to my junior high school’s HAL (High Ability Learner) program, but I was the first to negotiate access to them. I stayed after school until 5:00 every day I could, just to get time on these. I began to learn BASIC, back in the ancient times when it still required line numbers.
Not having a computer of my own presented a problem that
might seem odd today. I had to work offline—truly offline—without even a search
engine, and then try to code what I had done in the time I could get access to
the computer. So, I worked in notebooks, keeping the program flow in my head,
and writing the code in longhand that I would hope to later enter and perfect.
I tried my hand at a number of different programs, but creating
my own text adventure game became my obsession. My first attempt at a text
adventure was quite limited. It offered nothing more than multiple-choice prompts
to make action choices, a far cry from the verb-object command-parsing that
Zork could do. My program was shameful, borrowing scenes and catch phrases from
Tom Baker’s incarnation of Dr. Who, and not much more complex than a
choose-your-own-adventure book. One-quarter of the way through, I ran the
program, and the computer spit out an inexplicable error. It was not the usual
problem of a missing parenthesis or a syntax error, but something I could not
“Doc” (Donald Harrison), the high school’s computer science
teacher, helped me out. Although my program was tiny, it was too big for the
execution space on the PDP-8. He taught me how to link multiple programs so I
could jump to one from another, and I was able to complete my first adventure.
It did teach me the basics of programming, even though what I wrote was not
much more than a pile of print and goto statements, hooked together with the
occasional numeric input. Even so, knowledge of programming meant
I had grander visions. My next adventure was more original.
I spent hours creating maps, this time avoiding established fandom, and more
time figuring out subroutines that would be able to interpret input, track
inventory, handle world descriptions and actions, and even inject some humor
while tracking hunger and thirst—“You would kill for a baloney-and-cheese
sandwich.” There was no way for me to do a program this large on the DEC, but the
Apple IIs that the junior high had would be perfect (Fig. 5). They even had
floppy drives, so I could store my creations on my own 5¼” diskette.
Innovation was exhilarating.
There were no obvious patterns to follow, and the BASIC language itself was somewhat limited. There were no premade frameworks. I had books, which were very limited, and often inapplicable to a particular system just when I needed to learn something advanced. (The deeper one went, the less universal computer languages with the same name became—radically different from today’s write-once-deploy-everywhere languages like Java.) I had the inspiration and functional model from other, better-written software, and a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I just did not know how.
In a text adventure, one of the most important things is providing a description of each location or room, and anything that might be movable in that room. In that context, the program needs to track the player’s location, and allow the player to move in a specific direction, such as “move north.” My solution may have been clever, if contraindicated by speed or memory limitations at the time. I used an array (something like a deck of cards) of alphanumeric variables as a container, storing the location description for each “room” by element number in the array. So, if the player moved to “location 104,” the description could be displayed by accessing a function that would return the description in “card” 104.That system was great for things which stayed in place, but what about portable items? For that I had to push further, and I invented a design which was not dissimilar to what is now called a bitmap. Each portable item would have an item number, but the data for that item would be stored in a predetermined part of a text variable that contained, among other things, the item’s description. In a simple example, the first three characters of the text variable might contain the location number, which could even be a number showing it to be in the player’s own inventory. The description of the item would then be the fourth character in the text to the end of it. Now we use object-oriented languages to create models of such things, in a way that often mimics the real world. A car is often used to illustrate this. A car is a generalized object, and has properties such as color, model, size, number of passengers, make, year of manufacture, or VIN.
Player movement could be controlled by setting the player’s
location to a particular number, and the same location number could be used to
get the description of the location and then display any portable items that
were there. Switching the location was just a matter of coding which direction’s
movement would take one to which location number.
When I finally got enough of the modules coded and debugged,
I ran it. It worked! There was one last problem: speed. Between entering a
command and waiting for the program to do something was a pause of 5 or 10
seconds. But it worked.
More than a decade later, I encountered the published source
code of Zork (and even got it to run in a Windows FORTRAN environment). I was
blown away by the simplicity of Zork’s code. The huge, complicated processing
modules I had created were not used. Zork had a simple data structure, with a
number of pointers, in some ways similar to my array-storage design, but
infinitely more elegant.
Now I work full time as a programmer, as I have for more
than 15 years, and every part of my workday involves applying digital literacy
directly to solving programming problems, ensuring our software is secure, and giving
our customers new or better experiences. I use a dizzying array of software
tools to accomplish this. The problems I solve are far more complicated, but
they apply all the digital skills and literacy that began when I was smitten by
the PDP-8, in all its teletype-driven glory.
Someday, we may indeed interact with our computers like much
of our science fiction predicted. When that day arrives, however, it will
surely include its own tangle of media literacy problems to be solved.
Phase 2: Analysis
The rapid development of digital technologies in the digital era presents individuals in the emerging information society with situations that require them to employ a growing assortment of cognitive skills in order to perform and solve problems in digital environments. These skills are often referred to as “digital literacy” (Gilster, 1997; Inoue et al., 1997; Lanham, 1995; Pool, 1997), which is presented as a special kind of mindset that enables users to perform intuitively in digital environments, and to easily and effectively access the wide range of knowledge embedded in these environments (Gilster, 1997; Tapscott, 1998; EshetAlkalai, 2004; 2005). (Aviram and EshetAlkalai, 2006, emphasis mine)
My experience, described in this narrative, tends to present
two foci: “a
growing assortment of cognitive skills” and “to perform and solve problems.”
Although the two are intrinsically linked, problem-solving is the one that is
most unique to my own narrative., and the one that is most important in my life
So, I worked in notebooks, keeping the program flow in my head, and writing the code in longhand that I would hope to later enter and perfect.
My first skills were not very impressive, and are now
accessible by toddlers in today’s world of icons and GUIs: reading a directory,
loading a program, running that program, and then interacting with its prompts
and output. Tracing computer literacy from childhood through the early days of
my computer career, it is clear that my very meanest skills were a foundation
of understanding that lasted for decades. (RUNH
was the command used to launch a program, and I only recently learned that that
it was used to launch a FORTRAN module on the PDP.)
I spent hours creating maps, this time avoiding established fandom, and more time figuring out subroutines that would be able to interpret input, track inventory, handle world descriptions and actions, and even inject some humor while tracking hunger and thirst….
It was somewhat surprising to explore this time period, and
to renew my awareness of just how exhilarating computer tasks were. Computers
were often about games. I was able to continually improve programming concepts
and problem-solving by my somewhat weak attempts to replicate things I had
seen. Writing my own text adventure was a motivating force for improving my
programming and the problem-solving that went along with it.
There were no obvious patterns to follow, and the BASIC language itself was somewhat limited. There were no premade frameworks. I had books, which were very limited, and often inapplicable to a particular system just when I needed to learn something advanced.
Although the problems I solve are now more complex, the
instant availability of explanations, sample code, and often complete example
projects can make the level of problem solving significantly different.
Although it is true that I knew far less, I was also working with a programming
language that was more limited in its abilities, and accomplishing what I
wanted often required a finer grained ingenuity.
Took Sarah ‘s father out planetgazing (finally) to the exotic location of his driveway.
Fabulous viewing of Jupiter and Saturn tonight with his NexStar 130 SLT and the lenses our dear friends gave us (one advantage of driving to Indiana, I could bring more stuff).
I have finally, definitely, seen the Great Spot! In our view Jupiter was inverted as in the image just above, but the 2 major cloud bands and the Great Spot were clearly visible! (As were all 4 Galilean moons.)
Still more time saved by not showering or bathing.
Who needs to put on clean clothes every day?
Wait, what is that? …
Day 2, Continued.
Holy, freaking crap! There is nothing left of the Pop Tarts but wrappers. Do you children have no discipline at all?!
(The boogers mumble something about apples and trees.)
We’re ruined! Doomed. Do you hear me!? We’re going to starve, or worse, have to eat something I cook! Do you remember fiasco of the pancakes? Ashish remembers the pancakes? (“You cooked steak? I thought you were going to make pancakes.”)
Someone in this house smells. It seems to be worse around the children. And the kitchen.
Maybe the philosophy of, “Why clean? It’ll just get dirty again,” needs some reevaluation.
At least Juno is happy, although this morning she walked over to me, looked me right in the face, sniffed once, and ran away.
And. We’re hungry. The children are sticking firmly to their commitment to starve before they eat anything I might cook.
What we thought was thunder turned out to be the combined output of stomachs rumbling.
How much longer?
It’s midnight now. The house is dark. I am not sure how this will turn out. The kids are all desperately sick, throwing up. I can hear my son and daughter retching in separate bathrooms. I went in to check on them a few minutes ago, to see what was coming up.
I think I’m okay, at least for the moment. But of course the odds aren’t good: most of the people involved in this business are already dead. And there are so many things I can’t know for sure.
I have a ringing in my ears, which is a bad sign. And I feel a vibrating in my chest and abdomen. The baby is spitting up, not really vomiting. I am feeling dizzy. I hope I don’t lose consciousness. The kids need me, especially the little one. They’re frightened. I don’t blame them.
This is the summary of my mother’s life that I presented at her funeral.
(Okay, 1,027 words …)
I want to tell you a little bit about our mother.
Our mom, Rachel Adeline Sampson Wilcox Fortini (not her real name, which was Rachel Adeline Wilcox pretty much forever) was born a long time ago. She saw more than a few things in her life: The Great Hurricane of 1938, World War II, the invention and use of the atom bomb, jet travel, the Civil Rights movement, the moon landings (indeed, the entire space program), and the Internet. It won’t be easy to summarize her life in a few words, but there are some themes that stand out.
Mom grew up on a small farm in Freetown, Massachusetts, purchased by her father after a whaling voyage out of New Bedford on the bark Sunbeam. She moved to a tiny house on the same property after she got married, a house that would rapidly become far too small.
There are those who merely repeat the errors of their parents. Mom was the opposite. She had a strict policy of laissez faire for her adult children. If we wanted advice, almost always, we would need to ask for it. Cutting the umbilical was never a problem. In fact, my parents moved to Florida the same week I left for college, and they never gave me their new address. (I’m sure it was accidental.)
Mom seemed eternally young. She survived two husbands: My father, Paul Wilcox, and George Fortini, whom Mom married when she merely 80 years old. (This never fails to evoke a huge smile when I tell people.) My children, until a few weeks ago when it stopped being funny, insisted that Grandma would outlive us all. And, she will, having preceded us to Eternal Life.
I often think of Mom’s incredible practicality. In a time when women didn’t have bank accounts, it was my mother who always managed our finances, because she was a trained bookkeeper, and Dad wasn’t very good at it. She shoveled snow, painted the house, fixed things.
She was willing to defy social conventions in other ways: I am, like Paul John and Aaron, an adoptee. I never remember learning I was adopted; I do remember discussing it with Mom when I was young, but clearly learned about my own adoption at a very young age. She even made it clear that she would support me or help me in any way, if I wanted to contact my biological parents.
In the early days of the Cold War, my sisters remember Mom’s reaction to heading down into the basement in Easton, Massachusetts, evaluating it as a fallout shelter. Mom declared, “This isn’t going to protect us at all.” Scary, perhaps, but correct.
More importantly, we never learned prejudice in any form. Even in New England, this was unusual.
Although Fran often gets the credit, Cindy claims to be the one to first encounter saving faith in Jesus Christ—but, it seems she was merely the first to be vocal about it. Joyce remembers trusting Christ, albeit without much publication, even earlier than Cindy did. Fran followed soon after Cindy, but it was probably Cindy who was first actively praying for her family. (Cindy suggests that following Christ was an act of rebellion.)
Mom embraced Christ fully. Cindy remembers an immediate reduction in worry and even a slight reduction in the fanaticism of cleaning. (Mom used to lock the girls outside so she could clean.) That faith was evident her entire life. I got chewed out only a few weeks ago for taking too long to return one evening, because she wanted someone to pray with her, although she did nearly all the praying.
Indeed, she was, “a light of Christian faith, shining in a dark world.”
But our mother was, most of all, a Mom. All caps. One hundred percent. She elevated what is a noble duty and profession to a veritable ministry.
Mom had more than few children. Four inferior biological ones, all girls. Fran, Cindy, Joyce, Martha. (Or, as Mom spoke, Mah-thuh.) When those started to become less fun and move away, she began the 15-year process of adopting three boys. Myself, Paul John, the brother I prayed for for years, and finally, Aaron.
Mom was an excellent parent. Strict but never, ever unfair. (Except when I, at a young age, called her a liar because she, for the first time ever, accused me of something I hadn’t done.) My perspective may be a little skewed, because, as my sisters point out, I had older parents, who had been well broken in by the time I came around. Judging from some stories I’ve heard this week, this is almost certainly an accurate interpretation.
When, at 2 or 3, I needed to be instructed in the art of, “Don’t get too close to the street,” Mom painted a line on a rock at the edge of the driveway, and said, “Don’t go past that line.” When I broke a treasured piggy bank at age 4, she explained that she would fix it this time, but if I left it on the edge of the bed again, and it broke, it would be destined for the rubbish bin. I did, and it did. I was sad, but she was true to her word, and eminently just.
She would often explain how things worked. I remember seeing the Apollo 15 or 16 launch on TV, and having her explain that the Saturn V was bringing people to the moon.
And, Mom loved babies. She did foster care for, we think, 57 of them. She retired from foster care, later in her life, at least four times. My friend Tim called them “trade-ins.” One time, while returning a trade-in back to Boston, she was in tears. A young Paul John patted her on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you another one.”
Mom was very humble about this, indeed about everything. “I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying to do some big thing … I didn’t want the Lord to think that I was bragging.” Even days before her death, she was fretful that she hadn’t done a good enough job. I suppose all mothers suffer this unending guilt, and she had so many children who called her Mother.
It is the 5th of July. Despite only a 3-hour flight, I’ve devoted most of the day to travel. Finally, after almost 12 hours of driving/waiting/flying/waiting/driving, I make it to Hospice House. Surprisingly, this is my first time visiting a hospice location. Although hospice was very helpful with my father’s last weeks, that situation was very different.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4, ESV)
The lobby is beautiful. With fireplaces and chairs, it reminds me more of a relaxed hotel than a hospital setting. There is a tiny chapel off to one side, and a beautiful stone list of donors, decorated splendidly with a carving of a great blue heron in flight. But, I barely notice it.
I make my way, of course, to the wrong end of the hall. It is relatively late, although not at all dark, yet, and very quiet. When I get to the other end, I quietly inquire for my mother’s room number, describing the various ways she might be named. Addie Wilcox? Rachel Wilcox? Wilcox-Fortini? Mom’s legal name is Rachel Adeline Wilcox, but she never liked her first name, so she was Addie to nearly everyone.
Room 12. Give us a few minutes, we’re getting her cleaned up. So, I wait a few minutes for the nurses to finish. Finally, I get to see Mom.
“Oh!” she greets strongly, “My ugly son!”
“Ugly?” I exclaim in disbelief, “Compared to Paul or Aaron? I don’t think so!”
I last saw Mom in October, when Sarah and I had a long-weekend visit because, as Sarah insisted, “Your mother is not going to be alive forever. We should see her while she is well.”
Now, not much later, Mom is markedly older. She looks tired. She is painfully thin, massing definitely under 45 kg. Her speech is slow, but clear. I also discover she can’t hear me unless I speak very loudly. She’s good at covering this, but her responses to questions she pretends to hear are often non sequiturs. (Later in my stay I will tackle this problem and diagnose a bad hearing aid, and come up with a good-enough-for-this-lifetime solution.) However, she is “all there.” Her mind and memory are, for the most part, intact. This is something of a disappointment to me, as I was hoping to be able to re-frame a few minor incidents from my childhood. This won’t be the case.
I know, given the hour, that Mom will be tired, soon, so this visit will be short. There is one complaint Mom mentions at least once a day, and today is no exception: “I don’t know why the Lord still has me here, but He must have some purpose. I just wish I knew what it was.”
I understand her impatience to meet the Savior. She knows the time is soon. She is nearly 91. In less than a year, she has gone from driving interstate, living alone in her own home, and being in near perfect health, to having trouble walking, needing in-home care, and frequently visiting the hospital. The past two months have been particularly difficult.
My children often claim that Grandma will outlive them. This joke, which we have enjoyed for years, doesn’t seem as funny this week. I can’t keep a few lines from a song in The Muppets Take Manhattan, out of my head: “Saying goodbye, why is it sad? / Makes us remember the good times we’ve had.” The brain does strange things at times, as I will discover tomorrow.
I don’t know, of course, if this will be my last visit with this woman of many children: Four biological, three adopted, 87 (we think) fostered. I wonder if, sometime between my leaving this night and returning in the morning, my mother will go from seeing the object of her faith “in a mirror, dimly,” to “face to face.”
All too soon, Mom slips into a quiet sleep, and I drive the rest of the way to her house, navigating through tears, to where my sister Cindy is “holding down the fort,” as Mom would say.
Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8, ESV)