Archive for July, 2009

CompuServe Memories

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

On June 30th, America Online finally shut down the original CompuServe Information Service, which they had purchased in 1997.  While I haven’t really used the service for several years, this is still bittersweet news to me due to strong personal connections.  CompuServe was my first exposure to the concept of online computing back in the 1980s and my first professional job in the early 1990s.

My first computer experience was with a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III that my father purchased in 1980 (when I was 10 years old).  Around that same time, Radio Shack made a deal with CompuServe to package and promote their service.  Under branding that Radio Shack called “Videotex”, they packaged CompuServe either with a dumb terminal or with terminal software sold for the TRS-80s.  My father bought a 300-baud modem and the Videotex package for the Model III, giving us our first look at connected computing.

My exposure to the features of CompuServe during this time was really just a taste as the service came with a pretty high hourly fee for use.  I mainly recall spending a little time watching over my father’s shoulder as he used it to access various news, weather, and information like that, although I recall that he generally preferred a competing service called The Source, which CompuServe eventually bought out and absorbed.  I also recall having a couple rare opportunities to spend an hour playing some of CompuServe’s primitive early online games.

Due to the hourly fees, I never spent any time in discussion boards or chat, instead getting early exposure to these via privately-run Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) and, a few years later, with General Electric’s GEnie service, which was one of the first to offer discussion boards and a few other services at a fixed monthly fee instead of charging by the hour.  CompuServe was actually one of the last services to drop the hourly charges, which probably played a big role in their eventual decline.

After I graduated from college in 1991 with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, CompuServe was one of the many technology companies to which I applied.  I ended up accepting a job with them as a junior engineer in their Entertainment Technology group, which focused on game products and the CB Simulator, which was their name for online chat.  I worked there for around 4 1/2 years, before I decided to move to California to pursue other opportunities in mid-1996.

The CompuServe headquarters was a campus in an industrial park located in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Upper Arlington.  It consisted of two major buildings, the larger one (where I worked) housing the corporate business offices and the operations managing the consumer service.  The other building mainly housed their very lucrative network services division.  There was a nice employee cafeteria (The Oak Room), which was run by Marriot and an employee fitness center.
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The Oak Room had pretty decent food and I generally ate there a couple times a week.  They had a selection of standard grill items (burgers, chicken strips, etc.) that were available every day as well as a featured entree.  They would occasionally do prepared to order stir-fry or pasta that were immensely popular and would result in long lines during lunch hour.  I’d typically eat there on days that the entree sounded particularly good or when my schedule made it tough to leave the office for lunch.  When I did leave, there was a Wendy’s, a Pizza Hut, and a sandwich place across the street as well as numerous other restaurants that were a fairly easy drive.  The Oak Room also served as a location for larger meetings and employee gatherings.  I even remember just about everyone in the building gathering in there to watch the OJ Simpson verdict on a big-screen TV.

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Fourth of July Memories

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

I’ve always really liked the 4th of July, a holiday that has always seemed particularly celebratory while still being generally more casual and lower pressure than most.  I’ve always had a bit of a patriotic streak and enjoy the day of paying tribute to the United States.  I also have a definite fondness for the marches and other patriotic tunes that dominate the holiday.

For the past several years, my family has been going to Disneyland on the 4th of July to see their special fireworks show.  We have learned how best to manage the crowds on that very busy day, making it a pretty easy experience.  We also get a hotel room close-by in order to avoid having to deal with the night-time traffic.

When I was growing up, more often than not we spent 4th of July at home instead of trying to go out to see a professional fireworks show or some other public event.  Generally, we were pretty satisfied simply enjoying the day at home as a family.  This would usually include watching the Boston Pops’ 4th of July concert on TV or other similar patriotic shows.  We would often have a BBQ dinner at home.  There were a few years that we did go out to municipal fireworks displays, though, so I did at least have that experience a few times as a kid. 

The most memorable trip out to see a 4th of July fireworks show was in 1977.  That summer, my father had just taken a new job that required our family to move from Florida to Flint, Michigan.  For the first couple months, we had to find an alternative place to live while we were waiting for the house my family had purchased to be vacant and ready for us.  We had a Starcraft pop-up style camper that we used on vacations, so we spent that time staying at the Holly Hills Campground (based on an online search, I think it is a KOA now) in nearby Holly, which was just a short distance outside of Flint.

On that 4th, we decided to drive into Flint for their big municipal fireworks show downtown, but it ended up being Mother Nature that put on the more memorable performance that night.  There was a huge rainstorm and I honestly can’t remember for certain whether or not the fireworks display actually took place, although I think it did.  The most memorable part was returning that evening to learn that a tornado had touched down in the campground while we were gone!  We were lucky that the actual touchdown (and most of the damage) was on the opposite end from where our campsite was located, which meant that our camper was ok.  It was definitely a bit of a fright and still is the closest call with a tornado that I ever experienced.

I don’t remember completely for certain, but I don’t think we ever went out to public events on the 4th of July in any of the other years that we lived in Flint, instead opting for celebration at home.  In the late 70s and early 80s, Michigan had pretty loose restrictions on the sale of fireworks for home use, which meant that every supermarket had big display tables with a big selection of firecrackers, sparklers, roman candles, bottle rockets, and other similar items.  My parents were appropriately nervous about these types of things, though, and would only allow us to get some sparklers, which we would only use with close supervision.

Many of the neighbors did buy and use the other kinds of home fireworks, which meant that there was always a sort of second-hand display that we were able to watch a bit on the evening of the 4th.  On the 5th, the neighborhood streets would be very littered with the spent casings from many of the fireworks and firecrackers that had been set off the night before. 

My best friend and I had a tradition, which we obviously never told our parents about (this post may end up as a confession…), walking through the neighborhood on the 5th examining the litter from the night before searching for accidentally discarded fireworks and firecrackers that had not yet been fired.  Each year, we found and gathered up quite a bit of stuff that was still live.  I remember one year we even found an unexploded cherry bomb, which was a particularly exciting find for a couple pre-teen boys.  I don’t remember exactly what we did, but I remember that it was never much of a problem finding a spot outside of eye and earshot of parents in order to light off everything we found.

Regardless of whether I just stayed at home with family or went out to do something special for the holiday, my memories of the 4th of July are pretty much all positive.  Here’s hoping for another great 4th of July holiday tomorrow.  Happy Birthday, USA!