I recently finished reading Outliers and posted a short comment about my opinion on Gladwell’s conclusions to my facebook profile.
[I] just finished reading ‘Outliers: the story of success’ but have to say I don’t wholly agree with Gladwell. The long and the short of it is that his conclusions are subjective.
He identifies what I have no doubt are real patterns of success. He also identifies a number of powerful contributors to success. In the process he acknowledges innate ability but only passively and rather dismissively. Yet he speaks very very little as to the aspect of ‘ability’ that comprises ambition. (about the only aspect he acknowledges is environmental influences such as cultural traditions and support from families and what he dubs multiple times ‘lucky’ or ‘gift’ like opportunities)
There is no doubt that anyone seeking success should try to emulate the factors he points out that influenced the successes of the examples he raises in the book. But Gladwell’s conclusions seem to very strongly suggest (including his only real example of an exceptionally able ‘failure’ on the part of Chris Langon, a man with a genius IQ that never became a ‘Bill Gates’) that the combinations of factors in one’s environment and background are necessarily the only factors that will play a role in your success or failure.
While they can be huge contributors to success, to look upon them as absolutes is playing tokenism. To suggest such is to assume that anyone presented with the same opportunities that is ‘good enough’ in regards to ability would achieve the same levels of ‘success’ and that is just not the case. If that were the case, everyone that lived near Bill Gates in Washington born in or around 1955 with even a semi-supportive ‘community’ would have been sneaking out of their houses at 3 am to cram into those same time-share computer labs and now be running multi-billion dollar tech corporations. But they aren’t and they didn’t. Gates did!
To only look at those opportunities available to them says nothing about the fact that Gates sought those out specifically, exploited them to their maximum potential and excelled.
Some of the followup comments inspired me to speak a bit on my personal experiences with computers and how I managed to become so proficient on them. A couple of the examples covered in Gladwell’s treatise refer to computer pioneers such as Bill Gates and the opportunities their circumstances made available to them. So I thought it might be of interest to speak of some of the opportunities, fortunate or otherwise, that were available and ultimately exploited by me and how.
I saw my first personal computer in the sixth grade. The school had managed to procure a couple of single-piece Commodore Business Machines (CBM) PET computers with the old green-on-black cathode ray tube displays. It was as foreign a device to most of the teachers as it was to us students.
A couple of the systems they had were put in the school library to be made available for students to use on a sign-up basis. About all they could make it do of any use or interest to us was run a couple of simple programs with things like math and spelling quizzes and a couple of simple games. We were all allowed to try it out briefly class by class, but I wasn’t satisfied with a brief chance to use it and would find any opportunity I could to go to the library.
Over the course of that school year, me and one of my friends spent a lot of time playing a simple game called Weather War (aka OURANOS) on it that had two houses drawn in ascii characters on either side of the of the bottom of the screen and it would allow each player to claim one of the houses then randomly place a ‘cloud’ somewhere near the top of the screen. It would also include some basic ‘weather’ parameters, also random. Based on the weather conditions, it was then up to the player to choose from various weather ‘effects’: rain, snow, hail, lightening, etc. The goal? Hit your opponents little barn with weather until one or the other was destroyed.
Each was effected by the weather conditions to some extent or not at all (for example, lightening was not effected by wind at all so it was only useful when the cloud was over your opponents house). Each effect also had a certain level of damage it did. Lightening did the worst damage, followed by hail doing slightly less and which was the least effected by wind (after lightening) and so on.
That game was about all me and my friend could figure out (and were interested) in doing on that old PET but we still logged more hours than any other students in my elementary school.
I ended up getting a lucky break when my brother (who was better at saving his money than me) saw something in the back of a Popular Science magazine. Mainly, one of the first mass produced yet somewhat affordable home computers offered by a British company dubbed the Sinclair ZX81. (this was later co-branded by the Timex watch company as the Timex-Sinclair 1000 and the price was slashed to about 1/6th of what my brother paid a few months earlier)
It came with a simple version of Sinclair BASIC programming language as it’s operating system and would connect to a television as a display but could only display graphics in black-and-white (even on a color TV) and the graphics where very crude and fixed. It came with a membrane keyboard, a whole whopping 8k of memory and was very restrictive as to what you could do with it as a result. But since the OS was a programming language, you could learn to write programs.
I bugged my brother to let me use it and would more often than not use it without his permission when he wasn’t home. Ultimately using it, and getting far better at using it, than he.
(I should also probably add that around but slightly before that time, we were also given an Atari 2600 for Christmas and in years prior had always been more than willing to accompany dad to the arcades at the mall to play the various [very primative] computer games that were starting to become popular – eghad I’d hate to think how many quarters I’d gone through by the time I graduated high school!)
I was actually somewhat disappointed upon getting to Sashabaw Junior High as they didn’t really have a lot of computers. But we were required to take a ‘study hall’ and I didn’t want to. (I think it was a way the school saved on resources by warehousing all 7th graders at least one class period in the cafeteria) By the end of the first semester I so dislike study hall that I intentionally did not schedule for it. This created a problem when they eventually discovered it but it turned out in my favor as I had already been schedule for ‘real’ classes during all the periods of study hall that still had room for more students (as per the fire marshall rules for the cafeteria’s capacity) and no alternative combinations of class switches could be done to get me into a study hall.
I was given some alternatives to pursue such as seeing if any teachers needed a student assistant, a privilege usually reserved for the 8th and 9th graders. Most of the teachers had those slots filled up also. Ultimately the counselor himself offered what amounted to ‘babysitting’ me by slotting me as his assistant.
There were actually two counselors and they already had one assistant and it was more than they really needed. As a result, there wasn’t a lot of work for us to do with two of us doing it. By that point in time, a couple of the teachers had managed to convince the school to budget for and purchase a whole lab of Pet CBM computers. They didn’t get them in time to do an actual class but would instead arrange for students to be pulled out of their 9th grade science classes to spend a couple of weeks in the computer lab learning some very simple programming skills. (skills I was already somewhat familiar with after obsessively learning on my brothers ZX81)
The teacher that took the most responsibility for implementing the lab also offered to bring in his own Commodore 64 which he kept up behind the teacher’s desk. No one but the teacher was allowed to do anything with it that first year, but wow was it cool to look at with it’s actual color RGB monitor display and floppy disk drive.
Since I wasn’t needed very often in the counseling department when it wasn’t time for scheduling classes, I would generally make sure the counselor did not need me then go straight to the computer lab. At first, as a seventh grader, I wasn’t even allowed to touch one. I would just sit in the back and listen and watch. But it didn’t take me long to show enough proficiency with BASIC (even though I was still picking up the Commodore variant of it) by way of helping the 9th graders struggling with their assignments, that the teachers doing the 2 week ‘labs’ would allow me to either work with people helping them on their projects or take over an empty computer if one was available. In the latter case, I wasn’t required to do the assignments so, as long as I wasn’t disruptive to the class, I could spend the time doing my own ‘learning’, generally doing things that even the teacher was perplexed as to what it all entailed.
9th grade computing, 8th grade students!
At that time, many students had either Atari 400 or 800 computers at home or a Commodore 64 similar to the one the teacher owned. (all I had to work with at home was my brother’s ZX81 that he was getting less willing to let me use due to my doing so without permission way too many times already) Those that owned them already, it was announced, would be given special privilege to get into a one semester programming class a grade early (8th grade, it was a class intended for 9th graders due to some of the math skills required) so long as we took a typing class first.
I took the typing while I was still trying to get special permission to attend the class based strictly on my proficiency. I still didn’t have my own home computer, everyone else that signed on did. I ended up being the only exception to that rule among the 8th graders allowed to enroll a year early. In that most of the other students were Atari 800 owners, some of them required some adjustment to working on the PET version of BASIC so when the class began, my ‘camping out’ the prior year gave me a leg up. There was only one other student (a 9th grader) that owned a C64 in my period. Very early on in that semester, we both ended up being the only students to get ‘special’ permission from the teacher to use his own color computer behind his desk.
My first computer
I was hooked and ended up saving my allowance, doing odd jobs for neighbors, family and friends and ended up buying my own Commodore 64 before that semester was complete. It turned out that the following year they wanted to do some additional computer classes with those 8th graders that attended the first class a year early so it was just the small group of us working for a small portion of the following year doing some additional things.
By that point in time, I was obsessively using my own C64, had spent some time at a neighbor’s using his Atari 400, and even played a bit on another friend’s Coleco game system on which he’d gotten a ‘keyboard’ accessory that came with a cartridge with BASIC programming. Already having gotten bored with BASIC programming myself, I had gotten a couple of books for my C64 including one that came with an assembler program teaching me 6510 assembly language (and machine code).
By that point in time I had already written hundreds of simple programs including a few games (in BASIC) that I would play with regularity. My favorite that I recall was one where I used the ‘pi’ symbol to represent horses and random seeds as well as some weighting based on a given horse’s previous races to select a winner, the “horses” would then animate across the screen from left to right, some out pacing others at random until eventually the ‘winners’ for first, second and third (win, place and show) were across the finish line. (I even went so far as to learn how horse racing bets were not only paid out but calculated based on past performance for more realistic accuracy)
I also learned how to use sprites, hotspots, do graphics first in monochrome, then in RGB (red green blue) color layers. I bought the reference manual that included a full appendix of all the internal C64 ‘built-in’ machine code and lots of information about C64 internals. I figured out how to create your own ‘character sets’ – basically changing the on screen alphabets to use custom ‘fonts’. I would sit in my science classes taking notes, drawing little 8×8 grids to design my characters or 32×32 grids to design my sprites. Next to the grids I would do the math in my head to convert each of the 8 lines of 8 ‘bits’ to both binary and hexidecimal notation so I could quickly insert the ‘numbers’ into computer memory when I got home to try out my new font. I designed an entire cursive – upper and lower case – character set in my 9th grade science class. (I still have some of those notes with the grids on them by the way)
By that point in time there were more students in the school with C64s and we would often congregate in the school library after lunch to compare notes. (it was in those post-lunch library times that I gained the nickname treii28 by the way) We also learned from the counselors of a huge terminal in the back of the library that was connected with a mainframe somewhere in Lansing for the purpose of doing career searches. I would often find excuses to do searches on it even though it’s functionality was very limited as far as anything you could ‘learn’ from it.
Of course, my knew found proficiency was not exempt of it’s own share of mischief. On some days in class, we had another one of the teachers, a woman with a limited understanding of the whole thing, and I used to have a lot of fun using ‘peek’ and ‘poke’ statements. I would scribble out a very simple machine code routine on paper that would read one of the systems random number generators, put the number into one spot in computer memory, read another number, put it in the next spot of computer memory then jump back to the beginning to do repeat the process.
The two spots specifically were the spots that controlled the corresponding colors to screen and the screen border. The program could change those colors so fast that the scan beam on the computer monitor would only pass across the screen about 1 1/3rd time before the next number (and thus the next color) was put in place. The result would appear as though the computer was ‘freaking out’! The non-knowledgeable female teacher didn’t find it very funny when she I called her attention to tell her I thought I broke her co-workers personal computer.
The last program I was working on was pretty much the last game I ever tried to build. By then I had already played extensively in basic and with full screen graphics that I felt comfortable in trying to write a fully graphic game strictly in machine code using my assembler. Seeing the games that were available with race cars and other such things, I decided an unrepresented subject was winter sports. At the time I had (by no choice) stopped programming it, I had a small ‘sprite’ based snowmobile that would appear at the bottom of the screen, move left and right as you moved the joystick, shoot another sprite ‘missile’ ahead of it that would ‘shrink’ as it got further away and had a moving ‘perspective’ based obstacle trees that would come at you faster or slower as you moved the joystick forward or back. I was ‘forced’ to stop when I accidentally took the book, with my assembler, through the new ‘book scanners’ installed in the library during one of our lunch congregations and ‘erased’ the program. (I was going to chase down another copy but ended up not doing so by high school when I gained access to even newer, better technologies – see below)
High School Computing
By the time high school came around, I already had a reputation of being the resident C=64 expert. I knew it inside and out, and about the only thing I couldn’t do was anything related to the floppy drive, mainly because I didn’t have one. (I was still using a cassette drive and never really had need for any more after a friend referred me to a program listing in Compute magazine that made the cassette programs load as fast as a floppy anyway)
The high school didn’t have much new in the way of actual computer classes, but they did have a lab full of C64s which I would occasionally play in. Instead, most of the old ‘gang’ of my fellow computer ‘geeks’ were quickly made aware of Mr. Ashmore who was working on developing a new computer lab at the other Junior High which was walking distance from the high school. Besides giving us access to computers and 1/2 credit, it was also considered by the high school to be a legitimate elective to get out of a similar requirement for a ‘studyhall’.
As a result, we each volunteered for a different class period and would walk over to help with building, maintaining and tutoring in the Clarkston Junior High lab.
With all of our collective brain power working throughout the day each on a different period, the computer lab was set up and working even better than our former SJH lab in no time flat. This led to the teachers and administrators at CJH getting designs on tapping our collective knowledge. They approached us all with a project. In that I was the only one proficiently familiar with the Commodore systems they had purchased, I ended up getting chosen to do it. My first computer contract! (well, I wasn’t paid, but it was still cool)
The CJH counselors had an idea that they could use the computer to help simplify the process of having the students register for classes. I sat down with them and got a feel for what they needed and literally had a rather complex program done and written in just over a week. Since I didn’t know the process of accessing the floppy disk, another student familiar with the concept changed literally two lines in my program by adding a “, 8” to the end of the two lines I had written to correspondingly load and save from my ‘cassette’. Somehow, as a result, he ended up getting most of the credit for my program. My first time getting SCREWED working in computers. *sigh*
From what I understand, they actually used that program for a couple of years to make student registrations easier. (the registration process began at the end of when that semester and wasn’t directly tied to the lab computers) But by then I had begun to hear whispers of new computers coming to Clarkston Senior High.
One of the whispers that was brought to my attention was of the intention of the drafting department to purchase 3 of the new lauded Apple Macintosh computers for the more advanced drafting students to use. I immediately signed up for drafting classes upon hearing this news. This was a huge deal for those of us interested in computers because not only was it the first home computer to use an entirely ‘graphical’ interface (no more command line interface running a basic operating system) but it was also the first personal computer to make use of a mouse and pointer as part of that interface. It was all in black and white which was a small step backwards from the color C64 and Atari 800, but it was still way cool!
I was disappointed to learn that the beginning drafting class was taught by one of the sports coaches and didn’t have any of the Macs in it. I had to wait for the next semester and Mechanical Drawing II to even see one of them! The teacher for MD I was a flake, a younger guy – I’m assuming considered attractive – who seemed to enjoy letting the girls that took the class to be ‘near’ him, to flirt with him. But I endured and eventually ended up in Mr. Thibault’s MD II class.
The Mac’s were stored in the back room and only the Voc Ed drafting students were allowed to use them. But Mr. T sensed my anxious interest and I would race through the assignments (accurately and thoroughly mind you, I aced that class) so I could use the remainder of the class to do little more than sit behind the seniors and watch. That’s all I did was sit quietly and watch.
Eventually one of them finished their project and needed to do some work onsight at the Vocational Education center which was across town. I eyed Mr. T the entire class upon seeing the back room empty. When I brought my assignment to the front, he knew what I was thinking before I even said anything. His response was simply “go ahead!” I think even he was amazed when he would occasionally peek around the corner and see the various things I was doing in such a short period of time in MacPaint and MacDraw after doing nothing more than sitting quietly and watching.
He ended up giving me a lot more time on the computers after that and I became quite efficient in just about every program on it. He also gave me a reference as well as referring me ‘to’ a job walking distance from the school in downtown Clarkston working for an environmental engineering firm that was looking for student help – and that was looking for students with MacPaint, MacWrite and MacDraw skills. Woot!!! I didn’t have to flip burgers anymore! My first job ‘in’ computers!!!!
What little work I had done in the proper computer labs was in an offshoot of a creative writing class where were ended up working on 286 computers running Word Perfect. I didn’t get highly efficient on it – I didn’t like Microsoft DOS based machines. Besides being a cludgy, ugly operating system it was antiquated in my mind in a world that could exist without a necessary ‘need’ for a command line interface.
Despite that lack of interest in IBM PC compatibles, I was still able to do more in the way of on-screen formatting of text than the other students after having dinkered around with the more graphical “MacWrite” on the computers in Thibault’s back room.
Producing for Clarkston Cable Television
Late in Junior High I had gotten more into singing. I joined a show choir taught by a wonder teacher at SJH, and she did well enough to even take us to a competition (as guest performers) for primarily high school groups. She also brought a local group called the Academy Singers (a group made of of students from multiple area schools under the direction of an accomplished composer and clinician, Gene Grier and his wife Audrey Grier) to come perform for the entire school (but mostly for the benefit of her choir students). They did summer workshops, and I managed to talk m parents into letting me attend, love it, tried out for the group that following fall and was accepted as what was at that time, the youngest student to ever pass the audition.
Among other things, Gene Grier would solicit the new community access television stations to film our winter and spring concerts for the benefit of the members and to get us better exposure in the community. As part of his first effort to do this with the Clarkston Tribune-United Cable station (a lot of the students were from Clarkston at the time) the head of the local office, Joel Burnell offered to the Academy members an offer to attend a local access ‘television producer’ class. Being a technophile I jumped at the opportunity and was producing programs with friends all through high school.
Commodore Amiga and CHS Media
Another whisper soon came down the pipe that Mr. Genshaw, who ran a similar class in conjunction with Jole over at Clarkston Cable for students at CHS, was going to purchase an Amiga system and Jole himself planned on getting a matching system that could be used at the station. By that point in time, I was already familiar with CHS media programs (they did both class group projects that would be shown on the local access channel at the end of the semester as well as doing a weekly ‘news’ program for students that would both be shown on cable TV and made available upon request if any student desired and could furnish a blank VHS tape). I was also aware that a friend of my brother’s, Chad Portugal, was in Genshaw’s class during my junior year.
Being proficient with Atari 800’s, Chad had made most of the graphics for the media class on his own Atari 800. I had heard rumors Mr. Genshaw had one, but since I had already done some toying on the Atari and didn’t find it significantly superior to my own C=64, I hadn’t really gone out of my way yet to join the Media class. But I signed up when I heard of the new coming Amiga systems.
As it turned out, my high school allotted ‘extra’ slots based on the class schedule to accommodate for study halls, travel time to Voc Ed classes (which took up 3 periods for 2 credits due to the travel time involved) or various ‘tutor’ oriented 1/2 credit assistant positions such as we had at the junior high computer lab. In that I evaded the no-credit study hall requirement, I ended up with sufficient credits by my senior year that I could take only 5 of 7 periods and still have an extra credit above the requirement to graduate. I scheduled an aid position immediately after media class with Mr. Genshaw, as an aid for Mr. Genshaw. After that class, I scheduled nothing at all. (Seniors could opt out of one period a day if they had transportation – I didn’t but fudged it as though I did)
The result was that I could spend time not only in class working at least occasionally on the Media projects, I could use time when Mr. Genshaw didn’t have papers to grade or other tasks continuing media projects and then do nothing but ‘play’ for my last period in the editing/computer lab. I ended up getting tasked with converting all of Chad’s animations from the Atari into the higher resolution Amiga versions. I also did some dynamic animations in the same software for the local ‘Channel 1’ that was used for years to precede local origination programming on their local-origination channel.
Mr. Genshaw too loved toys and liked to buy new stuff for his new Amiga system. One such toy was something called ‘Digiview‘. He too wanted to play with it, but not unlike my father when he brought home a new VCR that he didn’t want to blink **12:00** forever, Mr. Genshaw immediately handed it to me to figure out. He dragged an old black-and-white camera out of the the class storage room (that used to double as a photographic dark room before the public access program showed up) and I got to work. (play!!!!)
Digiview included a software program and a small dongle that included a BNC connector that could be connected to a video camera. We had color cameras but the software recommended using a black and white since it could only scan in greyscale tones. However, it also included a disc with three colored (red, green and blue) filters that could be used for fudging a color scan – you basically had to do three consecutive scans taking about 15 seconds to 2 minutes per, each using a different color ‘filter’ on the rotatable disc.
Besides scanning various things around the room, we quickly progressed to scanning each other. Having already gained proficiency in Deluxe Paint, so it wasn’t long before I was taking my friend’s “scanned” image and changing his features with dark skin and mohawk for a Mr. T look or making him completely bald. My first ‘pre-photoshop experience!’ woo hoo!
(ugh, it’s getting late – if anyone actually read down this far, check back tomorrow and I’ll add the remainder of the experiences senior year when I bought my next computer, an Atari 512ST and my second job on computers actually doing desk top publishing on color macs, followed by a quick summary of what happened when I finally got to college – learned photoshop, illustrator, finally broke down and learned to use microsoft PCs, got into unix based systems on the internet and ultimately got into programming and development for the world wide web)
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