Personal History

Pre-History–Before the moon landing

I was born in Montana and lived there until age twelve, when my family moved to the northern California Coast.  While in high school,  I joined a local Sea Explorers group which was led by the first professor of Oceanography at Humboldt State University.  His descriptions of his work inspired me to study oceanography.  After high school, I attended UC Davis, where I graduated with a BSc. in chemistry.   I started graduate studies in Chemical Oceanography at Oregon State University in 1968.  In December of that year,  I received a draft notice.  Then things got interesting!

The SECGRU Years

Rather than spend two years in the Army or Marines (with a probable tour in Vietnam), I enlisted in the Navy for four years.  After boot camp, I went to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey to learn French.  (I watched the moon landing in the barracks day room there.)  I spent the next four and a half years doing signal intelligence work in the Naval Security Group.  Those years are documented in my memoir “The SECGRU Years:  Five Years in the Naval Security Group”, which is available on Amazon.

Back to OSU

I returned to my graduate studies a more mature and financially secure student.  Thanks to the GI Bill,  a research assistantship with a stipend and tuition waiver, and a girlfriend who shared the rent, I actually saved money while completing my MSc. degree.  While working on that degree, I built my first home computer and started working on microcomputer-based instrumentation.   I worked as an oceanographic research assistant for about a year after completing my degree,  then moved on to the next stage in my technological life.

The Computer Store

In 1978,  I became an operating partner in a retail computer store selling Apple computer products.  In addition to retail sales we did some consulting work–which I found much more interesting than sales.  I left the retail operation to my operating partner–who  grew the business to a chain of about 6 stores over the next twenty years.  I kept my stock and received some very welcome cash distributions over the next decades.

The First Book

In the early 1980s,  I was a self-employed consultant and worked on projects from scientific instruments to medical billing software. (The latter is one thing I will never do again!).  A computer science professor at OSU that I had met at the Computer Store was approached about doing a book on computer languages, but didn’t have the time to work on the project.  He recommended me to the publisher and I started on “The BASIC Programmer’s Guide to Pascal”  It was published by John Wiley & Sons in 1982.  It eventually sold about 11,000 copies–for which I received about $1.00 per copy.  The return on time invested in the writing and revisions was somewhere near the minimum wage at the time–but the book provided a great resume’ addition when I was looking for technical writing work.

The VIDEX Years

In the early 1980’s I did several consulting projects for Videx Inc.  which was a major producer of peripheral enhancement products for the Apple II computer.  One of the project was a conversion of the very popular VisicCalc spreadsheet program to use the Video 80-column display card. The project involved the disassembly of the VisiCalc software,  patching the code to use an 80-column displays,  and insertion of copy protection code that required the user to have a copy of VisiCalc.  (The latter to avoid software piracy issues with the VisiCorp.)  This was my first large programming project as part of a team—of two not us in this case.  We later modified Apple II word processors and other spreadsheets to use the Videx display cards.  

In about 1981 I became a full-time employee at Videx.  I continued to work on some Apple II software projects, but spent most of my time writing user’s manuals for the Video Apple II enhancement cards.  The owner of Videx,  Paul Davis,  had worked at Hewlett Packard as an engineer and his standards for the user’s manuals were set during his time at HP.   The Videx standard for the manual’s technical writing,  illustrations, and formatting were very high.  Writing to those standards was hard work,  but great training.

In  1983,  Apple was working in secret on the Macintosh computer.  As  employees of a major Apple II hardware supporter,  I and one of my colleagues were invited to a pre-release training session on programming techniques for the Macintosh and Lisa computers.  After a week, of commuting to classes in Cupertino,  I lost any interest I might have had in getting a job at Apple.  After the class,  I spent several months writing one of the few third-party applications for the Lisa computer:  Lisa Calendar.  The software and the Lisa computer never had great sales and were soon discontinued.  However, the practice Videx gained with the Macintosh GUI system allowed us to release the first entertainment package for the Macintosh  1984.   The software was  “MacVegas”,  a collection of casino games (Slots, Roulette, BlackJack, etc.).  We unveiled the software at the National Computer Conference in Las Vegas in July of 1984.  I got to wear a suit and appear in a local TV interview.

Later in the summer of 1984,  Videx was coping with sharp drop in Apple II sales, and changed its hardware focus to bar code readers and electronic locks.  Five or six engineers and programmers, myself included, were laid off on fairly short notice.  A couple of them immediately got jobs at Microsoft,  worked there for several high-growth years, got their options vested and became Microsoft Millionaires.  A few years later, divorces turned them into Microsoft Half-Millionaires.

Back to School

In the late summer of 1984, I was doing some consulting work–but barely keeping ahead of the bills. I ran into the OSU CS professor who had helped me get my book deal, and he suggested that I apply for an Instructor job in CS at OSU.   I applied, was accepted, and started working as a half-time instructor in introductory computer science teaching two sections of Pascal Programming.

In the fall of 1985, I left the introductory course behind and started teaching an upper-division course in computer architecture.  The CS department had a computer lab with lots of Macintosh computers,  so I wrote an assembly-language emulator  (the Assemulator) program that allowed the students to write and step through M68000 assembly language code.  This was helpful in teaching subjects such as memory addressing modes, looping and testing instructions, and the handling of hardware interrupts.  I actually talked the CS department into reducing  my teaching load to one course and crediting me with time worked on the Assemulator so that I would stay above the 0.50FTE threshold for full benefits.

My father passed away in 1984  and my mother in the spring of 1986.  Each of these occurrences required a short leave of absence from OSU.  In the spring of 1987 I married my wife, Lisa.  Since she had a full-time position as a fisheries biologist for the State of Oregon we got full benefits through  her job.  At the end of the spring term of 1987,  I left my position at OSU and went back to consulting work.

I learned a lot during time as an instructor.  One of the things I learned was that I was not nearly as good a teacher as my father—who had spent more than twenty years teaching physical sciences at Humboldt State University.  My biggest problem was that I underestimated the difficulty that students would have learning in one term some concepts that I had learned on my own over several years.