Saturday, May 27, 2006

(madison) in which irritation turns into self-indulgent nostalgic reverie

Although still under the weather, I was having an absolutely wonderful day here in Madison. Then I return to the place where I'm staying and, rather than read either of the dissertations or either of the articles for review in my bag, I decided to tackle this strange problem with one of my Stata programs (-asprvalue-, for fans of discrete choice models with alternative-specific data). The problem took me over an hour to figure out, and it turned out to be the result of a brand-new bug introduced in some recent update of Stata, rather than anything wrong with my own program. If my irritation was converted into energy and emitted from your monitor right now, you and everything at least thirty feet behind you would be in flames. Nothing personal.

Maintaining these programs sometimes feels like it takes way too much time. I am not a programmer! (I do really enjoy programming, the creative parts of it and sometimes even the detective work of debugging, but figuring out that an error you presumed was your own was really Stata's is extremely frustrating.)

Sometimes people ask how I learned how to program Stata. The story: In fourth grade, I didn't have an Atari like the cool kids, and decided that what I really wanted was a Commodore VIC-20 anyway. My parents did not have much money, but father got caught up in this moment of grandeur when I entered the Frontier Days Spelling Bee in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and told me that if I won, he would buy me a VIC-20. Even in my deepest and most tortured moments of intellectual self-doubt, I know this: I can spell. So I won and got my VIC-20* from K-Mart and this led later to them getting me a used Commodore 64 and by the time I was in eighth grade I was really good for someone who was entirely self-taught from looking at code and articles in Commodore magazines. But then, around this time the Commodores went south and PCs because more expensive and I discovered girls or Vonnegut or something, I don't know, but the upshot is that I didn't really do much more programming until I decided a few years into graduate school that, despite various declarations to the contrary, I wanted to do quantitative social research after all.

At first I worked with SPSS, which I found bewildering because it seemed designed to encourage users to do things in cumbersome and self-defeating way. Then, one bright day, I discovered Stata 5, and after like a forty-some-hour manuals-and-keyboarding-binge, all was bliss.

* The Commodore VIC-20 had 3581 available bytes of memory. If I added another paragraph to this post, I'd be over the limit.

7 comments:

A+ said...

The difference between you and me: I also had a VIC-20 (and then a Commodore 64!), and all I did with it was play this game where a clown on a unicycle stacked balloons on his head.

Anonymous said...

Now THAT! was an interesting story, JF.

dorotha said...

anyway, we had an atari computer (not the game system, thought it could also take those clunky game cartridges). i was pretty good at programming when i was in 5th grade. i remember programming the keyboard into a musical keyboard. also, everytime you hit a different key, the screen would turn a different color. i was also in the advanced computer programming class in high school. maybe that is what i should have gone into. i remember that it was fun. now i am stupid about computers. i might as well be playing ang's clown game.

carly said...

I had a Commodore 64. I played "Summer Olympics" on it constantly. I was always Albania because I liked the national anthem. And my favorite game was hacky-sack, cause you know, hacky-sack is an olympic game.

Tonya said...

Really great story.

Rhymes With Scrabble said...

I used to copy those BASIC programs that they printed in the back of 3-2-1 Contact magazine. I even wrote a few of my own. Dad tried to get me to learn object-oriented programming, but it seemed hard and I never really tried it. I also quit being a computer science major in college after a semester. I like computers, but apparently I just don't go the distance with them.

jeremy said...

I don't remember any clown with a unicycle game. I was insanely good at Gorf for the C-64, especially when factoring in my generally poor hand-eye coordination.