Somewhere between fifteen and twenty years ago, I sat at a table in the Crown Room at the Las Vegas Hilton accompanied by my good friend Gordon, a very peculiar journalist whose name escapes me and Charles Petzhold, the author of the best books about Windows programming back in the early days of the environment. Hewlett-Packard hosted the gathering and Gordon, the journalist, Petzhold and I sat together to avoid the complete sleaziness of the marketing folks around us. We certainly enjoyed the view and aroma of the occasional booth babe but, as nerds, we knew they avoided looking in our direction as our mere presence distracted from the generally good looking crowd of advertising, sales and other bullshit artists.
Our conversation started with whining about the “good old days” of COMDEX, when nerds ruled the scene in Vegas and even the marketing types looked and dressed like a bunch of geeks. We laughed about the day Bill Gates received a new t-shirt from someone and, electing to wear it immediately, pulled it over his head without removing his sport coat. It just doesn’t get much geekier than that.
In the old days, we could tell the difference between the people from the business and the Vegas types. We looked like geeks, they looked like freaks. When we saw a geek with an attractive woman, we knew, without question, that she came from an escort agency. Back in the day, Las Vegas News Channel 8, their version of a 24 hour local news channel, would actually do updates on how the escort businesses performed during the convention. You would actually hear a madam interviewed on the news say things like, “It looks like a typical COMDEX, the Asian business men all want tall girls with big ones, gay Europeans want tall black men, the rich guys all want blondes and the fetishists and nerds want something exotic…”
By the time the four of us sat together at the party thrown by HP that night in a long ago November, COMDEX and the industry had passed us by. No longer did the geeks rule. No longer did companies (Toshiba in one case and I cannot remember the other) throw parties so wild that the local boys in blue would show up and shut them down for “violating the moral standards of Las Vegas.” I only got to attend two of these but I have heard of others. No longer did you find people like Gates, Philippe Kahn and George Tate making loud and obnoxious announcements in the middle of parties. COMDEX had deteriorated to a point where the sex, drugs, booze and all night parties disappeared as everyone wanted to rush to their rooms to make sure they got a good night of sleep so they would look good in the booth the following day. In the times about which we reminisced, no one ever looked too good so the party didn’t need to end.
We also bitched about how anyone could stand talking endlessly about laser printers. They’re really not that interesting we thought and, as one of us got up to go to the bar for another round, someone plopped their butt down in the vacant chair and started professing why the HP standard beat Postscript. When our beers got back to us, we politely got up and retired to the casino downstairs.
I don’t think I have talked to Petzhold since that night but, yesterday, my friend and frequent BC commenter, Will Pearson posted an email to the blind programming mailing list with a link to an article Petzhold did last November, almost two decades after we nerded out in the LV Hilton. The article, “Does Visual Studio Rot the Mind?” is one of the best “”kids these days” rants I’ve read by an old timer in years. I did one in these pages on June 1 about progress the PPO team made on its development but Petzhold really slams it home with excellent examples. He concludes by describing a nice little command line program he wrote recently in straight “C,” using Notepad as his editor and gcc to compile it on the command line.
Petzhold sure brought back memories. I started thinking about the days when I could program for days on end without consulting a single reference book. When we cared about memory, efficiency and how “tightly” or “cleanly” our hacks looked. Now, a kid learning to program with Visual Studio .Net 2005 not only has no idea what the processor sees but hardly needs to know what the compiler sees. Petzhold points out that the code generated by the Windows Forms Designer gets hidden by the environment as the compiler expects it to come in a particular format and, when you go in and inspect the code (something I did on my own and not mentioned in the article) it actually contains comments that says “don’t touch this code as it may make your program behave badly.”
For a couple of days, I fought with VS 2005 .Net Standard Edition. First, it couldn’t find its local help files, then, when I tried to add a form to my application, it couldn’t find the appropriate templates and told me to go to Control Panel, click on Administrative Tools and, at that point, I gave up and ran the “Repair” which, during its reboots caused my screen reader to crash twice so I got to start the process three times last night.
Sure, DOS tools would crash from time to time. Of course, DOS compilers and assemblers had their share of bugs, I remember going nuts trying to find why a program I wrote and compiled using MSC 4.0 back in 1988 didn’t work and found the culprit was a compiler optimization gone awry. I remember Borland shipping its Turbo Assembler 1.0 which included a command line switch to emulate MASM bugs as some of we real old time hackers would sometimes use those bugs in creative ways to make our programs work better.
This weekend, while struggling with having no help files and a corrupted installation of VS .Net, the blind programming list members took to the topic of program comments. As a joke, I wrote, “Comments, we don’t need no stinkin’ comments! Hell, we don’t need no stinkin’ symbols either.” I then said that any “real programmer” can just use SoftIce and someone else’s binary to make something work nicely. One response seemed angry and said that “just because we all can’t read machine code doesn’t mean we’re not good programmers,” to which I replied that I had been kidding; obviously the reader hadn’t seen “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” Another reply that made my heart sink a bit, however, came from someone new to programming who asked, “What is SoftIce?”
I guess I must learn to accept that a generation of programmers is learning to write programs without really understanding what the computer does or how it works. Maybe this is all part of a conspiracy between Intel and Microsoft, one which forces us to buy faster computers with more memory so we can run bloated, robotically generated software that looks and feels great but, somehow, lacks a human touch.
In addition to the audio programs I write as part of my research into human understanding of multi-dimensional semantic information through non-visual stimuli, I work on programs for PPO (link above) and some other ideas we have for the GatorTech Smart House at the RERC at U. Florida. I find that I get frustrated with making forms in VS as the interface design intends to make things easy for sighties. Thus, I’ve added to my list of projects, the attempt to mingle my research with my hacking and come up with a three dimensional sound scheme as a plug-in to VS .Net that might make blind hackers more productive. If it sucks, remember, I haven’t completed my research yet and, other than Will Pearson and a few audio game hackers, no one has really explored 3D audio for user interface purposes. If it doesn’t suck, you can send me a thank you note and some money if you enjoy using it. Either way, I’ll release it with source included for you to play with, add to and improve. It will carry the GPL.