Roads Not Taken – essay

As a joke, I used to take snapshots of bedraggled storefronts emblazoned with the first names of my friends, and send them off as pasted together greeting cards bearing the scrawled inscription “Road Not Taken.” So my attorney friend Mike would get a card with a photo of Mike’s Pipe Fittings, schoolteacher Sharon would get one with Sharon’s Curls & Perms, professor Al, Al’s Subs & Pizza.

A joke, yes, but in these early AARP eligible years, the twists and turns of what can seem like fate leave me wondering how easily all our lives might have gone very differently, with just a tweak here, a nod there. For instance, as a freshman at Harvard in 1974, I learned about this new technology, a desktop computer. A redneck from rural Virginia, I’d never seen any kind of computer at all, though I’d read about punch card machines and seen movies with refrigerator-sized boxes spewing ticker tape. At school I learned that if you wanted to do any real calculations, there was an old cottage on a side street that housed one of the state-of-the-art Fortran punch card machines, but you had to have special permission to use it as an undergraduate, and aiming for a coveted slot on the History & Literature track, that could not have interested me less. I visited once on a tour with my physics for poets class and found it like a set for an old black and white sci fi movie, all whirring sounds, flashing lights, a little tray for punch cards, and the rank locker room smell of geeks with little interest in hygiene.  I wrote it into a script for a Dr. Strangelove sequel I was scribbling, but never imagined going there to solve a mathematical equation.

It’s hard at this late date to express how weirdly new desktop computing seemed at the time. In a back room of the sparkling new Science Center with its tall glass atrium sat ten of these machines on a row of tables. We were told they were the brain child of a Harvard-MIT consortium and that they could make computing accessible even for knuckleheaded freshman. Using a typewriter keyboard, you typed commands onto a blippy green tv screen. Conditionals such as if this, then that, etc. made the punch card world of computing easier to comprehend and act on, though our teachers made clear to us that much was lost in translating the beautiful logic of Fortran and Cobol to coded English. Everybody wanted to play with these gizmos, and lo and behold, the administration made this possible. You could sign up for a course in introductory computing and try your hand at getting the machines to simulate thought. Because everybody wanted to join in the fun, they ran a lottery. To my surprise, I won and found myself signing up for an hour each day in the computer room, typing statements like IF A=0 THEN GO TO 20; LOOP: B_? that caused the machine to carry out certain assembly line functions.  For my semester project, I decided to see if I could get the thing to write poetry.

Looking back all these years later, I realize that this was a difficult problem that has still not been satisfactorily solved. My primitive method was to type in a memory bank of cheesy words categorized by noun, verb, etc. and get the computer to select from the lists at random to build poetic lines. This hooked me more than I’d thought it would. Before long I was sub-categorizing my lists so the program would pull from rhyming words to end lines, building in a randomized choice of rhyme schemes and meters, and dog-earing my thesaurus to generate three separate word libraries for the type of poem you wanted: love, nature, or (just becoming an avid Poe fan) gloom.

Surprisingly, the program sort of worked. About every third or fourth block of words the computer generated made sense, in an autistic sort of way. I thought not that different from some of the word salad lyrics in David Bowie songs of the era. Here’s one of the better examples:

WITH AFFRIGHT YOUR SIGHT LIGHTS HIS LUST

OF A DEMON AND THE BLACK SKY

WITHIN THE UNCLEAN FRIGHT MISTRUSTS

BECAUSE OF A DEMON A NIGHT SIGHS

Fun, cute, what a neat toy, this computer thing. I wondered if you could make it play checkers. As the fall semester wore on and Boston’s weather surprised me in its relentless icy march, I trudged through slush in my Converse Chucks to the Science Center for my allotted hour at one of the computer terminals each day and found that other students had taken my little musings a step further. The windowless room grew funky, smelling more and more like that Fortran fortress down the street. I noticed sleeping bags rolled up in the corner. One morning, I walked in and found classmates sleeping under the tables, waiting for whatever little program they’d created to finish its calculations. We’d been warned not to do that, but these rebels had discovered a teenaged obsession that made more sense than the rest of the college experience so screw the rules.

We all benefited in the next decade from that obsession. One of those geeks under the table was Bill Gates. He dropped out of college shortly thereafter, so he could spend all day in front of the green screen with no fear of being bumped off by a no vision can’t see the forest for the trees dumb ass and his poetry program (and so he could bathe when he felt like it). In California, the two Steve’s, Jobs and Wozniak, played the same game. And then there were the rest of us, who took the class, got our inflated A’s (hard to get less than a B at an Ivy League school), and shrugged.

Could I have been a Bill Gates? If I’d offered the smelly guy under the table a candy bar from my stash, maybe dared to strike up a conversation, asked for a second eye to think about my rhyme schemes, might I have camped onto the runaway train percolating behind his rheumy eyes? Instead of steering clear, equating him with the homeless guys roaming the city streets outside, thinking weirdo, get a life loser, dude who’d never get a date smelling like that?

There were endless other opportunities to catch that train down through the past half century, of course. Eventually, I tagged onto the caboose, learning how to use smartphones and smart home devices as assistive technologies for people with cognitive-behavioral challenges and trying my hand at computer game development, prototyping a life skills program for kids with disabilities. And no, I don’t imagine my own Road Not Taken card reading “Microsoft”.

That’s the equation I could never compute. The one that goes something like: brilliance + vision + opportunity + grueling labor + dumb luck = genius. All of us lined up at those ten terminals in NS 110 in the fall of 1974 had the opportunity. The rest of the equation, not so much. We went on to other opportunities, other visions, tilted with whatever intelligence and fortitude we could muster at other windmills. Some of us got lucky. The other day, I stopped and took a picture with my iPhone of a roadside mall storefront: Tony’s Computer Repair. And another at the edge of the mall, Bill’s Barber Shop. Then drove on thinking about contingencies, paths diverging in a yellow wood, there but for the grace….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s