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My Life With Computers

I still remember the day I was first bitten by the computer "bug". I was living in the beachside community in San Diego called Ocean Beach. The year was 1979. In OB (as we called it) there was a small stereo repair store on Voltaire Street. Originally, it was called the "Mad Man's Workshop" though the owner decided to change it to "Audio Repair Shop" in hopes of attracting customers who did not want to entrust their systems to a "mad man". I enjoyed doing business with the "mad man". He was always friendly and dedicated to providing good service. One day, I was in his shop and saw him working with something that looked nothing like stereo equipment. It was a TV screen and a typewriter style keyboard. He told me that with this device he could write onto the screen the way a typewriter writes on paper. But even better than a typewriter, he could move what he had typed around the screen without having to retype it. At first, I was not impressed, but as I thought of it more, I realized that this was exactly the kind of device I needed. As a writer who hates to type, it would be ideal to be able to edit my writing and correct my mistakes before printing them out on paper.


In 1980, I moved to the Bay Area and heard about the Silicon Valley. That is when I discovered the device I had seen at the Mad Man's Workshop was really a computer. It became my goal to own one. My first opportunity to buy a computer came in 1986. The company I was working for had recently given its employees about $700 each in bonuses. I was making contact lenses in Point Richmond and was not earning very much. Everything I made was helping to pay for the house we bought in 1981. I knew that if I didn't use the money to buy a computer, it would be spent on something else and my dream of becoming a serious writer would never be realized. The problem was that $700 wasn't much to spend on a complete computer system. Even a foreign made IBM clone cost several thousand.


At the time, we had a housemate who bought a Commodore 64. He took me to a Commodore show in San Francisco where we saw the new Amiga. Since it was being sold as a game machine, I was not very impressed. It was also rather expensive. I was more impressed by the C-128, the upgraded C-64. It was equipped to run the CP/M operating system, which I foolishly considered as an argument in favor of the purchase. I could get WordStar for CP/M, I thought, and would not have to worry about losing my files when upgrading to a new system. Against all better advice, I opted for the C-128.

Having an expert Commodore user in the house helped sway me to the machine. I found that I could purchase the computer and 5-1/4" disk drive for about $500 at Toys-R-Us. My first monitor was a Black & White TV, which limited my view to 40 columns of text. Mike, the C-64 owner provided me with my first word processing program, a public domain program I typed from a book. It was written in machine language, which meant I was typing in rows of 3-digit numbers. At the end of each line an error checker informed me if I had typed the line correctly or not. If I was wrong, I had to search the line for the number I typed wrong. After pages of number typing, I was ready to buy a printer. Venturing into a computer swap meet, I made my next mistake. I bought a box of computer paper and an Epson printer. I thought I could just plug the printer directly into the computer, but I discovered I needed a special interface. I found one at a store in town, but more problems arose. The printer and interface didn't like my word processing program. Then I really needed Mike's help. He typed up a number of codes that instructed the C-128 to send my letters to the printer.


Now I was in business. At work, I proudly announced that I had bought a computer. All my co-workers responded with the same question—"Why?" While writing was my primary interest, I was also was intent on using it to manage money. I had been placed in charge of keeping the house finances. The household member who was previously in charge had moved out. I quickly discovered he had done a terrible job, and I started to sort out the mess. I had Mike construct a special program for me to deal with bills and deposits for our eclectic, communal household. Being a Trekkie, Mike had the program open with the Star Trek theme and stars twinkling on the screen. I used it to figure each person's share of the utility bills, long distance calls (which were always the biggest headache), and rent deposits. He designed the program to do exactly what I told him I wanted it to do, which was my next mistake. The program was quite complex and unwieldy. I would find myself unable to correct mistakes easily or get out of something without a lot of difficulty. Many times, I would just shut it down and start over again. If I made the same mistake again, I would get even more frustrated. To make matters worse, Mike moved out as a result of friction that developed between him and the rest of the house. I was on my own. I mentioned my dilemma to a more knowledgeable person who simply answered, "Why don't you just get a spreadsheet?" I had heard of spreadsheets, but never knew what they really were. I was surprised to discover that they were designed to handle problems exactly like my house financial tasks.

 

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It was at another computer swap meet that I made a great decision. I found three application programs made by Activision, a company known more for computer games than serious applications. For $70 I had a new word processor that worked with my printer (though not without some problems), a database, and the spreadsheet which answered my accounting needs. Another wise decision was to invest in a color monitor allowing me to view a full 80 columns on my screen.

 

I could go on at length about my other frustrations and unrealized dreams with the C-128. I sold the Epson printer, thinking that buying a Commodore printer would solve problems that persisted with software incompatibility. It didn't. I wanted go get into telecommunications, but the first modem I bought wouldn’t work for me at all and the company was of no help. I gave up on it. A second modem worked much better, though I was still not completely satisfied. I was able to establish an account on the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) and contacted some other bulletin board systems.


My other housemates started using the Commodore, too. Soon I had to fight for time on my own machine. I knew it was time for a new computer, but once again I had little to spend. After reading about handheld organizers called palmtops, I bought a Psion Series 3. The Psion included a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and a calendar program. It was a major advance in my ability to organize my life. I held more computing power in my hand than I had on my desktop C-128.


When I bought my first Psion I was working as a receptionist in a homeless service agency called Jobs Consortium. I kept a database of referral agencies' phone numbers that I could use to make referrals. I used my desktop work computer to backup my Psion data. Eventually, I started taking staff meeting notes with the Psion. After transferring the file to the desktop, I was able to edit and print the notes.
I went through several Psion models until the company stopped making them. One drawback with the Psion was the small keyboard. I developed the ability to type with my thumbs years before the invention of the Blackberry. I actually enjoyed writing with it. I originally created this document on my first Psion.


A few months after the palmtop, a Macintosh Color Classic came into our household. More Macs have been purchased through the years, as well as modems. Before the World Wide Web, I communicated online with the Well, PeaceNet, Quantum Link on the Commodore, and America On Line on the Mac. Being able to word process my class assignments on the Commodore helped me return to college to get my B.A. I am sure that if I had a computer when I was in junior college three decades ago, I would not have dropped out then.

My two daughters both have diagnosed learning disabilities, and though I have never been tested, I believe that I am learning disabled, too. For me, the computer is a tool that allows me to overcome my disability. Like a wheelchair that helps the paraplegic to get to work, computers help me to learn and to organize information so that I can find it easily.

 

I eventually became a computer teacher. It has been fun sharing what I have learned with others. While at Jobs Consortium, the Internet became a revolutionary tool in job search. I have helped countless people sign up for Hotmail and Yahoo e-mail accounts to send their resumes by e-mail.
I also learned how to maintain the agency's web site that was first developed by a Vista Volunteer. After the volunteer left, the site had no one to keep it current. Many links had gone bad. The most valuable page was a list of job search web sites. I found that other sites were linking to our page because it was so useful. I expanded and organized the list into various categories. One day, I got an e-mail from someone who discovered a link that had changed on our page devoted to literacy resources. Suddenly, the link opened up a pornographic web site. As soon as I received the message, I fixed the offending link. If I had not taken the initiative to learn how to use Microsoft FrontPage, it would have been a real embarrassment for the agency.


Unfortunately, that web site no longer exists, though it can be found using the Internet Time Machine. The agency went out of business in 2004. We were actually in the process of designing a new site and had a couple of volunteer designers who worked with Dreamweaver. I bought Dreamweaver for my Mac PowerBook so that I could update the new pages. The agency lost its funding before the new site could go up.


Even with Dreamweaver, I am not that great with web page design. I found the program as not as easy to learn as a word processing program like WordPerfect or MS Word. It is still a lot easier than HTML coding with a text editor. I finally broke down and took a class at Berkeley Adult.


In the class, I created this site on Tripod. I figured that would be a good place to tell my adoption story. From now on, when people ask me how I got a Japanese last name, I can direct them to my page.