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Ralsina.Me — Roberto Alsina's website

The day we saw the dinosaur (an Ada Lovelace Day story)

To­day, March 24th is Ada Lovelace day, a day of blog­ging to cel­e­brate the achieve­ments of wom­en in tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence.. I am tak­ing the lib­er­ty to tag this as python so it ap­pears in the right plan­et­s, but that's just to pro­mote Ada Lovelace day. Sor­ry 'bout that.

I will write about the on­ly per­son who ev­er taught me pro­gram­ming, Clau­di­a. I was young, so the earth was still luke­war­m, the day we saw the di­nosaur.

I was just a green sopho­more in the School of Chem­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing where, para­dox­i­cal­ly I would nev­er take a chem­istry class, be­ing an ap­plied math stu­dent and all that, and at the time "per­son­al com­put­er­s" were a nov­el­ty, a toy of the up­per mid­dle class.

We had spent the first two months of the se­mes­ter learn­ing how to pro­gram the ob­vi­ous way: writ­ing as­sem­bler for a fic­tion­al ma­chine on pa­per by hand, when Clau­dia broke the news, we were go­ing to see a re­al com­put­er.

No, not a PC, not even an XT, but a re­al com­put­er, the one re­al com­put­er in all the uni­ver­si­ty, and you could hear the type switch­ing to bold as she spoke about it. Sad­ly it was not as re­al as the one at the re­search fa­cil­i­ty (A Mini­VAX!) but it was a re­al enough PDP.

We would not be al­lowed to ac­tu­al­ly use it un­til the fol­low­ing year, but ... well, it was still some­thing spe­cial.

I had been programming for years, even for a year before I saw my first (seriosuly not real) computer, I had followed BASIC programs in my head for days, imagining the space invaders float on the screen of my mind, and stepped into writing machine code inside REM statements in my Timex Sinclair 1000 onto the luxury of a C64, but never noone had taught me anything.

Our small class (maybe 10 stu­dents) spent end­less hours do­ing things like tra­verse a ma­trix, first by rows, thn by column­s, then in a spi­ral from the top-left, writ­ing pro­grams that fol­lowed our end­less source of al­go­rithm­s, the nu­mer­i­cal so­lu­tions guide.

First as­sem­bler, then For­tran, we learned.

She was my Mr. Miyag­i, I was a het­ero­sex­u­al Ralph Mac­chio, and I fig­ured out the most im­por­tant thing about pro­gram­ming: I was aw­ful at it.

Over the next 20 years that sit­u­a­tion has been slow­ly im­prov­ing, but I nev­er again had some­one teach me pro­gram­ming. Clau­dia had al­ready taught me ev­ery­thing I need­ed to know, that code can al­ways im­prove, that there's more than one way to skin a cat.

That the di­nosaur was re­al and that some day soon my com­put­er would be faster and nicer than the di­nosaur was then, and that pro­gram­ming was cool, and that if I could find a way to draw a poly­no­mi­al graph hor­i­zon­tal­ly on a print­er with­out ev­er hav­ing the whole graph in mem­o­ry (it did­n't fit), those fu­ture com­put­ers would do awe­some things, and that I was one of the many who would help bring that to re­al­i­ty.

That talk­ing about code was fun in it­self, that you could make a mod­est liv­ing and be hap­py about it, that you could in any case make jig­saw puz­zles in your spare time and keep on teach­ing or what­ev­er.

And lat­er the di­nosaur's bones were scav­enged in­to a line of racks hold­ing router­s, and its glass ter­mi­nals are de­stroyed, and the gold in its teeth was stolen and the rare bus ca­bles sol­d, and its cir­cuits scrapped, but I saw the di­nosaur alive, and Clau­dia taught me how to make it jump, and for that, I will al­ways be grate­ful.

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