Posts Tagged ‘“College of Marin”’

Dan Joaquin, My First Software Mentor

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Dan Joaquin is an excellent teacher. He was my first real mentor in the field of software, introducing me to the wonders of digital computers and inspiring me to master them.

In the early 1970s, at the College of Marin, Dan was a standout on the faculty. He was competent and caring, knowledgeable in both complex computer systems and in how to excite the imagination of those lucky enough to study with him.

In addition to Dan’s regular duties as a full-time instructor, he was also responsible as an IT professional. In practice, he was the brain-trust of the small school’s very modern data processing installation. On the strength of Dan’s expertise, COM owned one of the most advanced mainframes of its day, running beta-level operating system software. Dan would analyze and debug IBM’s code in the hours between classes when he taught students how to use it.

More than any other mentor I’ve known, Dan taught me professional rigor. In my brief years at COM, I was one of a cadre of four bright students employed part-time there as computer operators. Primarily, we ran student jobs on the college’s IBM 370/135 mainframe; its main responsibility being the college’s various business applications, including registration, grading, and finance.

One of Dan’s responsibilities was to bring us to a level of competency at our operating jobs before we could manage to crash the big machine. This he did with an energy and enthusiasm that was eye-opening to the four of us.

He pushed us harder than any other teacher we’d experienced. He demanded more work, more attention, and more rigor than we imagined ourselves capable of. And we dug deep and gave it to him, largely because of his clarity, but also because he worked even harder than we did.

He fielded every one of our queries good-naturedly, but with a bulldog’s tenacity, regardless of how trivial or obscure. Anything he didn’t know, he would track down and answer the next day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dan was teaching us all to be professionals. He set the mark high, demonstrated that it was achievable, and then gave us each a hand up.

Dan’s influence remains strong with me today. Thirty-five years into a successful career in the software world I find myself echoing Dan-isms when I speak to my employees or address audiences of software engineers.

For example, Dan Joaquin is a virtuoso at the chalkboard. Unlike every other teacher I’ve known, Dan Joaquin refused to rush when he was at the board. He would patiently write out longhand the point of each lesson, and his diagrams were abundant and clear. To this day, every time I step to the white board, I know I am channeling a little bit of Dan Joaquin as I write my own points out longhand, supported by the same boxes and arrows Dan used so effectively.

Without a doubt, the most daunting class facing the four of us was Assembler Programming. On the very first day, Dan stood before us holding up a small paper card. He declared that the entire contents of the semester were all on this little card. Then, with a grin, he let the card unfold, falling open to reveal eight pages of tightly packed op codes. We studied those reference cards until we knew them by heart. But this corny gesture was far more effective than Dan could have guessed.

Twenty years later, as a pioneer in the new field of GUI programming on Microsoft Windows, I found myself wishing there was a quick reference card for the 597 Windows system calls. That vision of Dan unfolding the little reference card was the obvious and irresistible solution, and I finally created a version for Windows 3.0. I called it the QRC, for Quick Reference Card, and it ended up having twice as many pages as Dan’s original. I had it professionally printed, folded, and shrink-wrapped, then sold it at local computer stores and through the mail. I barely made back my investment, but money wasn’t the point. Somehow, Dan had gotten that card into my head, and the only way I could get it out was by creating my own.

Shortly after I left College of Marin, Dan left also, joining IBM as an operating systems expert. He has had a full career in the IT business, running large shops and managing hundreds of engineers. Today, he wants to go back to his first love of teaching, and he asked me to write a letter of commendation. It’s been my pleasure to do so, and I hope that you will consider him for any demanding teaching post you might have.

The “Powers of Ten” Cheerleaders

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

The United States of America has been nominally metric since 1866, but for all practical purposes we are not and probably never will be metric. Too bad. In 1975 Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act mandating complete conversion within a decade. Of course it was a spectacular failure.

However, geek enthusiasm for metrication was high in the mid-seventies, when I was a student, and one of my favorite visual artifacts comes from those heady days. A cartoonist and artist named Chas had a day job doing graphic arts for the College of Marin, my alma mater. He produced a fabulous image of metrical cheerleaders for some long forgotten seminar that quickly passed into history.

Today, the USA is only one of three countries in the world that are not metric. We are joined in our base-twelve ignominy only by Myanmar and Liberia. Personally, I have invested much time and money in my workshop where almost every tool, and all of the big power tools, are Imperial measure. Yet I would be just as pleased to go metric today as I was in 1975.

But Moore’s Law is bringing us more zeros on both sides of the radix than we ever thought possible. We have surpassed megabytes with gigabytes, and microseconds are hella slow compared to nanoseconds. So what was a legal curiosity in the seventies is a practical reality in the teens, and I am proud to display once again The Powers of Ten Cheerleaders, by Chas.

The Powers of Ten Cheerleaders, by Chas

The Powers of Ten Cheerleaders, by Chas

All of this power of ten stuff was brought to my mind the other night when a friend began talking to me about something called “femtocells“, extremely small, local cellular telephone cells. Since Chas’ illustration, I’d never encountered the prefix “femto” until now, and it reminded me of those great cheerleaders.

It is telling that while “femto” is still uncommon and “atto” waits in the wings, “tera” is an everyday reality. I’ve got a terabyte of disk space sitting on my desk in a box no bigger than a paperback book. What comes after tera?

In the seventies, the Cheerleaders were rah-rah-ing about going metric, but today they can be just as effective shouting out for the ever bigger capacities and ever smaller latencies in our digital wonderland.

UPDATE 4 May 10:

It wasn’t hyperbole to think we were running out of big numbers. An article in the London Observer about zettabytes sent me to Wikipedia where I found we’re up to yottabytes (peta and exa come between tera and zetta).