Philip Newton (pne) wrote,
Philip Newton

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Reminiscence: Berkeley and MIT

I just started reading Steven Levy's Hackers which I got from my Secret Santa.

It starts off at MIT with the TMRC which I had read about in the Jargon File already, and it made me think back to my visit to America with my sister in 1993.

One of the parts I consider myself fortunate for was when we visited friends of my mother's in California for a week or so. They lived in the central valley, in Fresno, I think.

One day, they took us to the Bay Area. That was a fairly long drive, but certainly worth it. We saw San Francisco, ate lunch in Chinatown, took a cable car, and drove down the most crooked street in America, Lombard Street.

But one part that was even better, at least for me, was visiting Berkeley. The father of the family we were staying with had arranged a meeting with one of the professors at UCB, and we spent an hour or so visiting him and talking about university, computers, and stuff.

Berkeley was a household name for me at that time, mostly from the Jargon File, I'd say; along with MIT and Stanford, these seemed to be universities with great prominence in the field of computer science back then. So it was great being able to talk to him. He also gave me the name of an MIT professor I could look up if I got there.

I did manage to get to MIT a couple of weeks later, when we were staying with a family in University Park, Maryland (I remember they said that one could tell how far away they were from the centre of Washington, DC, because they lived on Van Buren St: three syllables beginning with V—apparently, the streets were lettered something like A–Z, then two-syllable words with A–Z, then three-syllable words with A–Z).

I took a day trip to Boston by plane (which cost me nothing, thanks to our 30-day standby ticket) and took public transport out to MIT. I tried to get hold of the professor I had been told about but couldn't manage to set up an appointment with him; he suggested I take a tour if I was interested in the university.

So I had a look around to see when tours leave and took part in one. I remember at the end, we were all sitting in a big auditorium and had someone talk to us about MIT, and how they look for people who have 1600 scores on their SAT and have discovered a cure for cancer, "but because we realise that not all people can achieve this, we sometimes also let in slightly less successful students" (or something like that). A way to say that they don't take every Tom, Dick, and Harry, I suppose.

I missed the chance to visit TMRC, even though I could have looked up the building number before leaving. I think that might have been interesting as well.

But I did pay a visit to the MIT Bookstore, where I picked up a hard-copy of the Hacker's Dictionary, the dead-tree version of the Jargon File. I also got a T-shirt to go along with it, and even saved money because they had a package deal for those who bought the book and the T-shirt.

Those were the days. I often wish I had been able to take part in the early days of computers; when I read about them in books such as the Jargon File or the books my Secret Santa gave me, they take on an air of legend, when Things Happened and bold people did exciting things. Somehow, computers seem a little more mundane now that they're so commonplace, but I've still grown up in a time kids these days don't know, I think, when it was special to have an email address and there was no widespread WWW access.

Those were also the days where I learned netiquette, which "seems to be sadly lacking", or so some of the old-timers lament. (Things such as no top-posting and trimming your quotes when replying to Usenet posts or email, for example.) So in a way, I do consider myself fortunate and, yes, a little bit elite.

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