Wednesday, May 02, 2007

When I was 12 years old I spent two weeks of my summer vacation at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley learning how to program a computer using the BASIC language. It was, undoubtedly, the most important two weeks of my life.

By the end of the next summer, I had taken their Advanced BASIC course and I was the proud owner of an Apple II+ computer (thankyouverymuch gift checks from my Bar Mitzvah). I distinctly remember bragging to my friends.

"You guys! I can program this computer to do anything! What do you want? I can do ANYTHING!"

This was, however, the early 1980s, and most 13 year-olds had no idea what a computer could reasonably do, so they just stared at me blankly, unaware that one day computers would serve up pornographic debauchery beyond their wildest dreams. In the pre-Internet age, computing wasn't terribly exciting, and my Apple II+ with its 16Kb of memory wasn't powerful at all. I followed up with some examples.

"Guys, I'm serious! I can make this computer show some cool patterns, OR EVEN print your name over and over again! AS MANY TIMES AS YOU WANT!"

Johnny and Akshai, my best friends, were understandably unimpressed. I was undeterred. I happily spent many of my free hours over the next several years devising and writing computer programs to amuse and impress myself. A short list of my favorites would include:

Laser War: A low-resolution shoot 'em up game on the Apple II+. It was unplayable by current standards.

CTRL-C Gotcha: On the Apple II+ the CTRL-C key sequence was a lot like today's CTRL-ALT-DEL. I wrote a program that overwrote what the computer did when you pressed CTRL-C. What was cool about this program was that it modified itself each time you ran it. I had never heard of self-modifying code, so I invented it myself.

Match Maker: In high school I wrote a program to try and match couples up. I passed questionnaires around to everyone I could find, asking for their personal statistics and preferences, and then I entered their data into my program to try and find romantic matches. It never found a good match. The best it did was to pair Doug Plazak and Gayle Stansfield. I know! Ridiculous!

The Mr. Martinez Game: My high school Spanish teacher was a remarkable human being. Not only did he teach he me to score more highly on the Spanish Literature AP test than the English Literature AP test, but he foiled every single practical joke that we tried to play on him. In his honor, my friend Don and I wrote a text adventure game (like those old Choose Your Own Adventure Books) about a student trying to flee from the implacable Mr. Martinez. We sold copies to most of our classmates for the price of the floppy disk it was stored on.

Blackjack Strategy Analyzer: I learned a new computer language (Smalltalk) that I loved very much right around the same time that I learned how to count cards in Blackjack. Since I wasn't smart enough to figure out with statistics whether or not I could make money counting cards, I decided to write a computer program to figure it out with brute force. I programmed the computer to play blackjack just as I would (with a reasonable error rate) and I let it run for about a million hands. It told me to keep my day job.

Then I didn't write any software for myself for a very long time. I wrote the Blackjack program in the early 1990s and that was it for many years. It wasn't until last year that I finally conceived of my baseball gambling program, The Baseball Predictinator 2000, and was motivated enough to write it.

I had forgotten what a joy it is to write a computer program for myself. When you spend your working hours programming corporate minutiae, year after year, you forget that you ever had the feeling of "I can make this computer do ANYTHING!" Even though now I know that there are entire genres of computing that I suck at (graphics, user interfaces, anything on the Web), I love that I can still summon up that powerful feeling of software mastery.

The Baseball Predictinator 2000 has brought me great joy over the last nine months. I love that I can still conceive of a program, type for a while, and then watch it spin and whir. It brings me great joy to think of a problem and then solve it with a series of computer commands. It remains to be seen whether it can make me rich, but I'd bet money that it can make money. Why shouldn't it? I can make my computer do anything.

11 comments:

tinyhands said...

You need to take a business-oriented statistics class and ask the professor whether or not you should play the lotto.

Mike said...

Obviously I'm not going to play the lotto. That's for chumps. I mean, you'd need a computer, tuned to the delicate variables that affect the choice of lotto numbers to really be effective.

Ok, I'm on it.

Sue said...

Oh Mike,

You are so right about Señor Martinez. He was one of two teachers in highschool for whom I had respect. He was my hero - I never, ever cut Spanish class if he was there. I always, always cut Spanish class if he wasn't there.

I wish I had known about the practical jokes you tried - I'd love to hear more about that.

When I learned that he was not allowed to come to our spanish club graduating party because he was gay, I was so mad! That was lame. He was so classy, driving by in his Mercedes to say hi. I kept trying to talk him into coming inside, only to learn later that he was not welcome at that house. Do you remember that?

I loved him. I went to his funeral. Mr. Friss, Chris Bowhay, Tina Cassano and Seth....can't remember his last name were all there.

Do you remember the songs he used to play in class? "Besame....besame mucho..." and "Yo soy un hombre sincero, de donde crece la palma..." nice.....

Sue

Larry said...

Baseball Predictinator 2000? How about a computer program to name other computer programs, since you clearly need help in that department.

I handed you "The Predictist", but I guess that's just too 2005 for you. Okay, here are some other freebies:
* El Predictador
* statwank
* NIMO (Numbers In, Money Out)
* La Predictadora
* Ace of Base(ball)
* Jerome Bettish
* Scrape N' Sniff (smells like team fielding percentage)
* I Am Prepared to Lose Money at Any Time
* statistclish
* Skanky Beeyetch
* BetBuster 1.0
* The Denominator
* Mike Jr.

Larry

Mike said...

Hey Sue,

Yeah, his Spanish classes were the best classes in that school.

I never joined the Spanish Club, so I was unaware that he had been banned from a party. How did that happen? Someone told their parents that he was gay and their parents forbade him from coming to their house? Crazy.

The practical jokes were mostly attempted at the annual Spanish Retreat. Don D. and I would try various things, most of which I do not remember well. :(

And, yes, I still think of Spanish class every time I hear Besame Mucho. I can't recall the name of the singer that he loved so much. Miguel Somebody...

Larry, okokok, most, if not all, of your names are better than The Baseball Predictinator 2000. And frankly, I only picked that one because Baseball Predictatron was already taken. I may steal one from your list.

Sue said...

Miguel Bosé - he was still a big hit when I went to Spain in college.

BTW - did you talk w/ Tina Cassano at the reunion? She is soooo Spanish now - her mannerisms and such.

I feel pretty sad sometimes that I only use my spanish to speak with house cleaners, gardeners and mexican restaurants. I hope that changes for me. I may go to Mexico next year...

Kat said...

You could have scooped e-harmony and match.com and let the opportunity pass...Ah Mike....

Mike said...

Sue,

Miguel Bosé! That was it. Thank you.

I did speak with Tina, but only briefly.

Kat, I know! I was decades ahead of my time.

Tasty said...

This entry was a major success, not only as a good story, but also because I felt the excitement of something I would never dream of doing. Ev.er.

Mike said...

Thanks, Tasty! Let me know if you want to take up programming. I'll recommend some books. :)

Meg S. said...

Wow, here I was looking for Gayle's email address and I found your blog! Who knew you were into the early matchmaking game. Did you ever tell Gayle about the plan? I'm sorry to say, she's off the market and very happily married -- living in WC.

:)
Meg