Sunday, May 11, 2014

What “old school” means to me

I have always considered myself to be of a unique generation that got to experience life on both sides of the internet revolution.

Allow me to share a few examples:

When I was in the fifth grade and had to write book reports, I used a typewriter.


Yes, a typewriter. The kind that you had to feed a ribbon1 and hit “return” and THEN do a carriage return. 2 Cut-and-paste literally meant using scissors, glue, and a copy machine.

Windows in the 90s

When I was a freshman in high school, my family got our first real computer: A 486 DX, 33 megahertz. Windows 3.0. 640×480 resolution monitor with 16 colors. Less than 30 MB of hard drive space. That’s when we started using Microsoft Word to type out school papers. As in: “Holy cow! You mean I can change the word “there” to “they’re” WITHOUT having to toss the paper out and start all over?!”

At the time, I had no idea what the "ceramic guide" was good for... but it sounded cool.
At the time, I had no idea what the “ceramic guide” was good for… but it sounded cool.

Back then, if you liked a song that you heard on the radio, you would keep a blank cassette in the stereo and frantically reach for the “RECORD” button as soon as that song came on again. Thus the first 5 seconds of any of your favorite songs was the stuff of unicorns.

After my sophomore year in high school, my family left cozy sunny Southern California to move to Texas. If you think that moving halfway across the country might be tough for a teenager just before starting the 11th grade, let me give you some additional context:

This was before internet.

That’s right. This was WAYYYYY before Facebook and Twitter, AOL instant messenger, and about a million other things that I would’ve given a leg and half-an-arm for back in 1993.

Back then, the only way for a teenager in Texas to keep in touch with old friends in California was:

  1. Land-line phone calls.3 If you were smart enough to wait until after 7pm to make a phone call, it only cost 15 cents a minute.4 If you were dumb enough to call out-of-state during the daytime,5 it would set you back 24 cents a minute. 6
  2. Write a letter. On paper. Fold it up, put in an envelope, and stick a 29 cent postage stamp on it. By the way, that’s 29 cents if the letter is no more than 1 ounce. If you sent a letter that contained pictures (or had more than 4 sheets of paper), it would cost another 23 cents for each additional ounce.7 Oh, and then wait anywhere from two days to a week for delivery.
  3. Fly back to California. Thankfully, we had airplanes back then. Seeing as how we didn’t have Carl’s Jr. and In-N-Out in Texas until just recently, this was my favorite option (of course, for other reasons as well, aside from just the food).
I actually remember using these Elvis stamps...
I actually remember using these Elvis stamps…

Towards the end of my senior year of high school, my friends started hearing of this really interesting thing that allowed people to use their computers to communicate with their friends and family. It was called e-mail.

Then when I got to college, the internet pretty much boomed into existence, and the rest was history.8 If you ever wonder why stuff like Facebook is so fascinating to older folks, it’s because stuff like Facebook is actually amazing to them.

FYI: I have never used a slide-rule. I think I’ve seen one, though. Also: I did not use an abacus to do math in elementary school, although I recall my dad once trying to show me how to do multiplication on it (don’t even ask, I don’t remember how).


Of course, I thought of all this while trying to figure out if I had enough TI-84 graphing calculators for my students taking the AP Statistics exam on Friday. Which leads me to one last touch down memory lane. I’m just gonna let xkcd #768 do the talking:

Actually, I remember the first TI graphing calcs becoming available in 1992, when I was taking Algebra II as a sophomore.  $130 at the time, if I recall correctly.  Oh wait, they STILL cost $130...?
Actually, I remember the first TI graphing calcs becoming available in 1992, when I was taking Algebra II as a sophomore. $130 at the time, if I recall correctly. Oh wait, they STILL cost $130…?
  1. there was also a “white-out” ribbon on the snazzier models, which could be used to “delete” a typo []
  2. It befuddles me that in some programming contexts, we still have a distinction between “line breaks” and “carriage returns”, as few people nowadays actually know the difference. []
  3. cell phones existed, but were not ubiquitous among non-business users until around 5 years later []
  4. Yes. Please, do the math. One of the things I knew cold as a teenager in the 90’s was that a one-hour phone call would cost my parents $9, and that a 3 hour phone call would earn me a stern discussion at the dinner table. []
  5. which includes weekdays during Summer vacay! []
  6. But you wanna know something totally wacky? It actually cost more to call somebody 40 miles away in the same state, than it did to call 1400 miles away, out of state. For instance, a phone call from Orange County, CA to Los Angeles might cost 30 or 40 cents a minute. I bet the phone companies are ticked that cell phones were ever invented… oh wait, they’re still ripping us off… []
  7. As a math teacher, I’m sure I could make a piecewise function problem out of that… []
  8. The internet actually allowed me to learn basic Japanese so that I could play Final Fantasy 5, which at the time was only released in Japan… that’s a whole other story. []