Sunday, 28 August 2016

Friday, 12 August 2016

Visit to the Laurentians

I had a chance to head up north today. Stop #1 was Camp Kinkora, where my awesome niece Alex is participating in Visions camp for the week. Stop #2 was supper with my dad's cousin John and his wife Gail, who have a home in Sainte-Agathe. His daughter Katie (my second cousin) was about to head back to her home in Toronto, so I had the chance to join a small group for her goodbye supper. Turns out she is quite the artist, feel free to check out her website:

The Swedish connection

By the time I got to college and university, the Commodore line of computers was hitting its limits. A new form of computing was emerging, using something called a GUI (Graphic User Interface). For Commodore machines, it was called GEOS. It was so different from the simple text based interfaces I knew, it was slooooowwwww, and I had no clue how to program in that environment. I felt like a fish out of water.

When I got to university I discovered a brand of computer -- the Apple Macintosh SE. It had a similar sort of GUI, and was great for writing papers and doing graphic design. Programming, however, was completely out of the just wasn't designed for that. My parents eventually bought a 286 PC clone, but the only programming options were GW-BASIC (yech) and MS-DOS batch files (double-yech). Compilers could be had, but for a price, and I was faced with a steep learning curve. My studies and extra-curricular activities in college and university didn't really allow for me to start all over again from scratch, so programming took a back seat for several years.

I graduated from Concordia University in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in commerce (major: international business), and got a job at a company I had never heard of: Ericsson Research Canada, a local branch of what I would learn was a huge Swedish multinational. There was an awful recession happening at that time, so I took the first job I could to pay the rent. It was a very low-paying administrative job, but it turned out to be a time of providence in my life. In all honesty, I owe Ericsson a lot for who I am today, and I'm proud to say I'm still connected with friends I made way back when.

Now as it happened, the local branch of Ericsson I was working for was developing software for help run the cellular phone networks that were just starting to be constructed. At that time they were hiring engineers hand over fist, but not business types -- despite a degree in commerce, I was just a clerk. Still, this was one sector of the economy that was actually doing well, offering some job security, and Ericsson was big into training their people, offering some opportunity. I took one computer-based training course after another in my off-hours, learning about the principles behind cellular technology. As it turned out, cell phones were just fancy radios, and all that time I had spent with my dad learning about amateur radio made the learning curve that much easier. That's how providence works sometimes: I was a programming geek with a degree in international business and a background in radio, working for a global company writing software to run cellphone networks. It was perfect.

I can't say that everyone noticed this synchronicity at first, not even me. The real breakthrough came when I discovered something new, at least for me: the UNIX operating system. We were shifting to the use of SPARC workstations, and so the company sent me on a brief training course to become familiar with Unix. I wanted to learn more, so I downloaded an early version of a Unix "clone" called Linux and installed it on a computer at home (one of the first Slackware distributions). No one could imagine at the time that Linux would change the world, including mine.

At the time our branch of the company was preparing for our first ISO 9000 certification audit. By now I was working as a technical writer in one of our departments, and I was given the task of getting all the documentation for our department ready for the audit. Document control was a big part of the ISO 9000 standard, but we didn't have any reliable way to track our documents, their revisions, and whether or not they had been approved. To solve the problem, I wrote a database program called "TROLL" (from "document conTROL tool"). It was basically just a giant shell script that could be run from the command line of a Unix workstation, but the darned thing worked and got the job done. Everyone was surprised -- no one had thought that the administrative clerk / technical writer was also secretly a programmer. The software engineers were actually quite delighted, and my "geek cred" rose.

When the certification auditors eventually came around, our department (which was *way* behind just six months before) passed with flying colours. The effect on my career was dramatic: I became the Quality Coordinator for the department, and eventually I was promoted to manager of a unit called the Global Integration and Verification Organization. Our goal was to coordinate the process of software testing between several units throughout the world. I knew about software, I knew our processes, and I had training in cross-cultural management. At 24, it was a dream opportunity.

I did not remain in that job, of course. To many people's surprise (including my own in some ways) I handed in my resignation in June 1995 in order to enter the seminary and start my studies to become a priest. Being manager of the GIVO did allow me to leave with one other technological legacy, however. The task of coordinating between the business units involved in the GIVO required me to learn about something called the "Internet" (you may have heard of it), and particularly a new technology called the "World Wide Web" (you may have heard of that, too). Our web browser was called Mosaic, and there were very few web pages out there. Still, a whole new field was emerging. I learned how to code web pages in HTML, and in the few months prior to leaving Ericsson I actually became the first webmaster for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which itself became the first episcopal conference in the world to have a presence on the web. The CCCB gave me an ongoing contract, so I was able to buy a decent computer for use during my studies -- and of course, to keep learning to program. Only now, my focus was the World Wide Web.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Homily: The meaning of faith

Homily from August 7, 2016.

Homily: Persevering in faith

Homily from August 14, 2016. A continuation of the one preached on August 7. Warning: while there is a lot of teaching here, it makes this a long one!

Friday, 5 August 2016

My emergence as a computer geek

My father's interest in amateur radio opened me up to a fascination with electronics, as well as to the marvel of using that technology to be able to communicate with the wider world over great distances. My father also was the instigator of my interest in computers.

My dad started working for the Department of the environment of the federal government in 1965, doing computer programming. You read that right, 1965. Computers in those days were BIG. The idea of a "portable computer" was ludicrous, and something with far less computing power than a typical calculator today would fill up a large room. I know, because when I would visit my dad at the office I'd see them for myself. It was all so...esoteric. The computer rooms were temperature controlled, filled with spinning tape drives and computer cabinets with flashing lights, and hum and whoosh of spinning fans...a kid could even (playfully) try and hide in there. I had the feeling I was entering into a different world, one that I knew not a lot of people ever saw. It was my entering the wardrobe moment.

Programming computers in those days was a bit of a pain. Programmers would have to load their programs using punched cards. During one of my visits (I must have been less than 10 years old) I distinctly remember having a chance to sit at the machine that produced those cards. It was a bit like a manual typewriter, except that instead of feeding in a sheet of paper a punch card was used. The keys would click and you could hear the hole being punched in the card. Of course, what was written on the card made no sense to me, and it was explained that this was a special language that the computer could read to make it run. From my point of view it was like magic, only intead of saying "Abracadabra" you'd say it in assembly language.

To my wonder, I discovered that it was also possible to have a computer at home, or at least to have access to one. The computers would sometimes have to be monitored throughout the night, and one evening my father brought home a strange-looking suitcase. Upon opening it, we saw a keyboard similar to those on the card-punching machines, as well as a couple of rubber cups into which he could fit our telephone headset. (I don't remember what model it was, but it looked almost identitical to this old beauty, a TI Silent 700 terminal.) He explained that this terminal would let him "talk" to the (huge) machines back in his office using the computer language -- over the telephone! Good grief, that meant computers could even use the phone to talk to each other! Would wonders never cease...

A few years later, another visit to the office introduced me to new ways to interact with the computer. Assembly language was out, and dad was now programming in Fortran (as he explained, just like people had different languages different computers might use different languages). As well, no more punched cards -- terminals with green monochrome monitors were the latest thing. In the old days he would have sat me in front of a card-punch machine to keep me entertained, but now he had something even better: my very first experience with a computer game. After a bit of research I now know that the game in question was called Colossal Cave Adventure. It didn't have any of the bells and whistles of today's games (it was purely text based, with no graphics at all) but nonetheless it was quite extraordinary. Colossal Cave Adventure allowed a player to enter commands using regular (albeit simplified) English, i.e. the user didn't also have to be a programmer. Prior to discovering that game, I saw computers as giant calculators: you entered the data, and got a result. Suddenly, it was all about interaction, and even with the machine itself.

We eventually got a video game console called the Atari 2600. The games were generally fun, but you were limited to just plugging in cartridges someone else had made -- there was no possibility for creative input by the user. Then, in my first weeks of high school, I attended a book fair in the school library where I discovered a book for programming computer games. Let me be clear, this book did not teach programming: it gave actual listings of computer program code that a user could enter manually to then run the game. (This would be completely unthinkable today, but back there there were whole magazines like Compute! that would publish monthly program listings.) Even though I didn't own a computer myself I bought the book immediately and tried to figure out how this particular computer language (called BASIC) worked. Eventually I decided to try and write a program of my own, and the result was a simple text-based golf game. Without a computer to actually test it on, though, I did the next best thing to check if it would actually work: I showed it to my dad. I remember how surprised he was when he started reviewing the code, and how delighted he was when he was able to tell me that he couldn't find a single programming error.

I don't know if that simple program is what prompted it or not, but shortly after that we got the computer that would prove to be the instrument of my full immersion into geekdom: the Commodore 64. Yes, you could play games, but you could also program in BASIC (the language I had learned for my golf game). I hacked the heck out of that thing. I entered code, I wrote my own programs, and while I couldn't make that thing dance I could literally make it sing (or at least make pretty sounds -- it had a really good sound chip). It didn't have a lot of resources (only 64K of memory, of which only about 38K was really accessible), but thanks to all kinds of code optimization tricks people were able to make it do amazing things. For myself, when I found that the BASIC language interpreter was too slow for some applications I learned hexadecimal and started to code in machine language (the C-64 Programmers Reference Guide was my geek bible). Honestly, it was a major creative outlet for me, and years later, when I saw the slogan "Code is Art" written on a T-shirt, I felt a moment not just of agreement but of recognition.

Those old Commodore programs live on thanks to C-64 emulation software that can be downloaded for free, and my old Commodore 64 is still sitting in my parent's basement. Just the sight of it still brings up fond memories, like a painter looking at one of his old palettes that just felt right in his hand.

POSTSCRIPT: A traffic camera caught a picture of a snowy owl in flight, and the image went viral in January 2016. While I think snowy owls are lovely birds, I have to say that the photo made me smile for a different reason. If you look at the picture, you'll see a building in the top middle with satellite dishes on the roof. That was my dad's old office!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

RIP Uncle Bruce

I got word that my uncle Bruce Turner has died (b. 1927, d. August 1, 2016). Prayers for his wife, 2 sons, and grandchildren + great-grandchildren, please.