More Reasons To Feel Old

I have just started reading Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick TetzeIi. This early section made me feel very old. Clearly, the authors deemed it necessary to explain in very simple terms what mainframes and punched cards are.

After settling on the problem you wanted the machine to solve, you would painstakingly write down, in a programming language like COBOL or Fortran, a series of line-by-line, step-by-step instructions, for the exact, logical process of the calculation or the analytical chore. Then, at a noisy mechanical console, you would type each individual line of the handwritten program onto to its own rectangular “punch card”, which was perforated in such a way that the computer could “read” it. After meticulously making sure the typed cards were in the right order—simple programs might require a few dozen cards that could be held by a rubber band, while elaborate programs could require reams that would have to be stacked carefully in a cardboard box. You would then hand the bundle to a computer “operator”, who would put your deck in the queue behind dozens of others to be fed into mainframe. Eventually, the machine would spit out your results on broad sheets of green-and-white striped accordion-folded paper. More often than not, you would have to tweak your program three, four, or even dozens of time to get the results you were looking for.

Clearly, the authors expected that most of the readers would have no clue about this era of computer use. I’m not sure, though, why they deemed it necessary to put so many “words” in quotation marks. And the authors either never used punched cards themselves, or they have forgotten that a successful run by no means meant you got “the results you were looking for”.

There’s been a certain amount of broohaha about the new book with some complaining of hagiography, but people close to Steve Jobs, like Tim Cook and Jony Ive, claim it gives a more balanced and realistic view of the man they knew than the [official biography][4] by Walter Isaacson. Here’s John Gruber’s take on the issues with the Isaacson book and his response to negative criticism of Becoming Steve Jobs.

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