Memories of Family

Tonight we watched clips from What’s My Line on YouTube. It was extremely entertaining and kept the evening light and upbeat. It started out when Pam found a short film encouraging people to get out and vote. It was hosted by Bob Hope and must have been from sometime in the late forties or fifties.

It had just started when UPS delivered the new console table that Pam ordered. Some assembly was required and as it was a little bit heavy and bulky, I was elected to do the deed. When I got it together it was absolutely beautiful.

By then, the video had changed to a series of clips of What’s My Line. It was funny and great to see so many celebrities from my childhood. I remember watching What’s My Line with my grandmother. We also watched Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres, Dobbie Gillis, and My Favorite Martian just to name a few.

I was a big fan of romantic comedies. We watched a lot of movies too. My dad was a big movie fan. He had been a theatrical projectionist in the army. He got to watch all the latest movies, several times a day for however long the ran at the post.

When I was in high school I got several of my friends together and we petitioned the school to offer a class in film making. The only person qualified to teach it was my dad. He spent the whole summer preparing for the class.

On the first day of class I was worried that I was going to run in to the same kind of accusations of nepotism that I had experienced when I took his drama class the year before. On the first day of class he came in and said, “You all have an A. Now, let’s learn how to make films together.”

That was the best thing he could have done for me at the time. By making the class about learning and not about grades, he allowed me to be as good at it as I could without risking the persecution of my peers.

That was part of what it was like to be the son of a Speech and English teacher in the midwest in the late 60s and early 70s.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Memories of a Time Before

The life we lead today is like science fiction when compared to how we lived when I was a boy. We had TV but we only got three of four channels. Some of them were intermittent at best. All television was broadcast over the air so you had to have an antenna to receive stations that were any distance away. Most televisions were black and white. There was a time when color televisions were becoming the norm.

All phones were connected into the phone system using wires. There were no cell phones. There were pay phones all over the place. Phone calls cost a quarter for three minutes. It was a luxury if you had more than one phone in the house. We would often be told to get off the phone because someone was expecting an important phone call.

Computers were large affairs that only the government, universities, and large businesses could afford. At their smallest, they were the size of a refrigerator and at their largest they could occupy an entire floor of a moderate sized building. Programmers worked with pencil and paper. They were often referred to as System’s Analysts. There weren’t many colleges with degrees in Computer Science. Most programmers had degrees in Electrical Engineering or Mathematics. IBM discovered that English and Music major were particularly good at writing complex programs and started hiring them as programmers as well.

The transistor was the newest innovation. Every kid wanted their own transistor radio. We listened to rock and roll music on AM radio stations. We formed garage bands and learned to play the songs that we heard on the radio and dreamed of signing a recording contract and becoming stars.

When your friends moved away, you wrote them letters and mailed them with an envelope and a stamp. You wrote the letters with pen or pencil on paper. There was no such thing as email or text messaging. Even when your friend moved across town you might still write letters to keep in touch.

When you took a picture, you had to either develop it yourself which required a dark room, lots of smelly chemicals, and a good bit of skill, or you would send your exposed film to a laboratory to be processed and it would be a couple of days before you got your pictures back. And there was no way to know if they were going to turn out any good until after they had been processed.

Tape recorders were relatively expensive. There were cassette tape recorders that you could record music off the radio on and then there were reel to reel tape recorders that were more expensive and were high enough quality to record demo tapes of music. I never owned a reel to reel tape recorder but my friend’s father did. We used it to record the music we composed for our garage band. I wish I  had a copy of those tapes now.

What do you remember about the time before we woke up in this science fiction story?

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Memories of the Early Days of Microcomputers

When I first became interested in computers I was in high school. Most computers were expensive. Digital Equipment Corporation had just started supplying college laboratories with digital logic that was affordable for building dedicated digital lab equipment. My uncle Kell worked in such a lab building hardware to support experiments. I remember browsing through the DEC catalogs and handbooks when I would visit him.

Then, soon after I graduated from high school, Popular Electronics published a two part article on how to build a microcomputer called the Altair 8800. A small company in Arizona was selling a kit of parts along with a printed circuit board and a cabinet. The Altair had toggle switches for entering ones and zeros and lamps for displaying binary values. I had no idea of how to program but I wanted one.

Soon, there were many single board microcomputers, many fully assembled. There was the Kim I and the COSMAC Elf. These computers sported calculator style keypads and seven segment numeric displays. They also had interface chips that allowed them to be hooked up to teletypes or the new terminals that were initially called glass teletypes. And I wanted one of each.

Then there was a period characterized by computers with built in keyboards that produced video signals that could be fed to a regular television using an adapter that converted the video signal into a TV signal. The Apple II and the Ohio Scientific C1P were examples of these. I owned a C1P for a short while.

A little bit later, Commodore came out with the Commodore Pet computer that had a built in display and a built in cassette tape recorder to store programs on. I worked on a Pet writing Computer Assisted Instruction while I was in the Army.

Another computer or this era was the Radio Shack TRS-80. I wrote a program for my father on one that he borrowed from the school where he taught. The program computed a salary schedule based on a matrix that ran years of experience along the X axis and level of education along the Y axis. There were three of these matrices, one contained the number of individuals in each category, one contained the salary for each category, and the third contained the amount that each category would cost. I then summed all the cells of the last matrix to compute how much that salary schedule would cost. He was able to successfully negotiate a substantial raise for the teachers in his district using the program. This was before VisiCalc was invented.

I’ll write more about the evolution of small computers in a future post.

Salute to One of My Heroes

It’s a bittersweet pleasure, sitting here listening to Garrison Keillor broadcast his last episode as host of A Prairie Home Companion. It has been a constant favorite of mine through the years. He has captured the best of small town middle America. He may tell stories of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota but there is a touch of Lake Wobegon in all the small American towns I have ever lived in.

He has a sense of humor comparable  to Mark Twain and a singing voice that blends well with the musical guests that he has hosted year in and year out for forty two years. I didn’t discover him until he had been on the air for almost a decade but I’ve been a fan ever since then.

I was worried that we were going to lose the show all together but last year Garrison started grooming Chris Thile to take over for him. It will be a different show but I am confident in this bright young star’s ability to keep the show’s standards high. He is one of my favorite musicians and he has revealed a sparkling sense of humor in the shows that he has guest hosted this last year.

So farewell Garrison. We’ll miss the weekly dose of the news from Lake Wobegon. I’m sure there are things you want to do and places that you want to see. Good luck and God’s speed. And as you always say, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

A Ramble on Photography Then and Now

My father was an avid amateur photographer. He owned a 35mm camera for as long as I can remember. He preferred taking slides and had box after box of them in his office. After he died, they inadvertently got disposed of before I had a chance to salvage them. I mourn the loss of that record of my childhood.

Being a photographer back then required a lot more effort than it does today. There were Polaroids and Kodak Instamatic cameras that made it easier to take pictures but even so, you had to wait for the shot to be developed to see if you got the picture you wanted. In the case of the Polaroid, the feedback was fairly fast, but with more conventional cameras it usually took days or weeks to get your prints back to see what you got.

In the case of the 35mm camera, my dad’s camera of choice, you had to decide what film stock you were going to use; color or black and white; what sensitivity to light (expressed in ISO number); what color balance. You had to measure the light illuminating your subject using a light meter. You had to balance the factors of exposure time (shutter speed), aperture size (f-stop), and the focal length of the lens. An amateur photographer had to be fairly well versed in the mechanics and chemistry of photography in order to be able to hope to capture his vision in a photograph.

Then there was the artistic side of things. Once you knew the details of how to take a picture, you had to learn how to compose a photograph. My college photography professor advised taking a lot of pictures. He said that you had to pay attention to what you did and the results that you got from doing it. This turned out to be hard to do,  given the lag between taking the pictures and getting them developed. It was also fairly expensive even when you bulk loaded your own film cartridges and developed your own film. Then there was the print stock that you printed your pictures on and the enlarger you had to learn to manipulate. That goes a long way toward explaining my dad’s preference for slides. There, the film that came out of the camera was the final product. No printing involved. Of course that meant that what you shot was what you got.

Contrast this with the state of photography today. We have at this point exceeded the quality of 35mm film with the current line of SLR cameras. We can immediately look at the shot to see if we got what we wanted. And with the cost and size of memory cards, we can take thousands of shots without having to worry about changing media. We can even take HD video with many current SLRs.

I wonder how this affects our attitude toward photography? There are still plenty of artists that express themselves through photography. This is evident even after just a few minutes browsing or flickr. The mental processes are still as hard to develop though. Even with all the automation available in the current cameras you still have to be able to see what you are looking at and select the image that you want to capture.

Of course now, with Photoshop and Gimp and the other photo manipulation tools available to us, what you shoot is not necessarily what you get. You have an even greater latitude for creative expression than the darkroom ever provided. Will this raise the standard of excellence for photography in the future? I hope so. And I hope to have more time to make pictures in that future.

Facebook May Be Good For Something After All

I have to say, I’m ecstatic. I re-established contact with one of my cousins last night. I have talked to him on several occasions since we have been grown but I hadn’t heard from him in quite a while. I recently added my brother, Truett as a friend on Facebook and last night, I noticed that he had added several new friends. As it turns out, many of them were our cousins and their offspring. I went through friend chains finding and friending many of them. I didn’t friend those who hadn’t met me at least once as I didn’t want to be some creepy old man that they never heard of asking to be their friend. I have had two very brief (a la instant message) interactions with my cousin Randy (or is it Randall now). I was always Joe Kellie to them and now I have dropped the Joe to be called Kellie by friends, family and colleagues alike. I will probably ask what he prefers. Times change but, hopefully, people are still essentially who they always were.

I don’t particularly like Facebook but I am so glad that it helped me re-establish these ties to my past. I was just starting to miss them a lot. I guess I’ll put up with the things I don’t like about Facebook (too many to enumerate here and besides, this blog is to praise Facebook, not find fault with it). So much for my pseudo-monthly blog post. Stay tuned… you never know when I might post again.

Fall Reminds Me of Germany

Thirty years ago I was in Germany. It is hard to believe that it was that long ago. I was stationed in Neu Ulm, Bavaria, Germany. At that time Germany was divided. The cold war was still in full swing. In fact, my job was repairing the computers and guidance components of the Pershing missile. The Pershing was somewhat of an oxymoron, which is to say they called it a “tactical” nuclear missile. The strategy of the firing batteries (Pershing was deployed to the field artillery, go figure), was often dubbed “shoot and scoot”. About half way through my enlistment it finally dawned on me that after all the missiles were shot, I became plain old infantry. It was a somewhat sobering thought.

Anyway, I remember the fall of 1977 very well. It was my first fall in Germany and I was learning all about October Fest and German beer (the best beer in the world as far as I can tell). I learned that there were lots of great German bands, everything from rock to folk to oom pah to classical. I learned that the German people were generally very friendly, especially when you tried to learn and speak their language. Most of them had 6+ years of English in school and if you made the effort to try to speak Deutsch they were quick to answer in English and help you with your Deutsch.

I had a friend named Marty that went through Pershing school with me. We were both stationed in Neu Ulm but he was in a different unit. We both loved immersing ourselves in German culture. Marty learned to speak German much more fluently than I did. He dated German girls and was one of the few single friends that I had that rented an apartment off post. We hung out in a little bar in Ulm called the Munchner Kindle. That was where I learned to love Witzen beer and Asbach Uralt, a wonderful German brandy. We would drink and eat pom frites and do card tricks for the local girls.

After I was there about six months I could afford (barely) to send for my wife and 18 month old daughter. We moved to an apartment in Leibi. After a couple of months of riding the bus to and from work, I finally managed to buy an old volkswagen. It was so nice to be able to go to the PX for groceries and not have to carry them home on the bus. Our apartment became a popular place for parties. All my friends that lived in the barracks would come over on Friday night and sometimes stay until Monday morning.

I’ll write more about these times in another blog post soon. I’m just getting started here. It was a wild ride. But we survived and it changed us all forever. I guess that is true of any experience but there is something different about being half way around the world in a different culture where the predominant language is something other than English. In short, this was when the apron strings were truely and irrevocably cut.