On the very binary date of 11-11-11, my alma mater, the computer science (DV, for datavetenskap) education at Uppsala University celebrated its thirty years’ anniversary. It was a great classic student party in the evening with a nice mix of old alumni and fresh-faced students. Lots of singing and some nice skits on stage. Great fun, and my voice has still not recovered. It also got me thinking about it is that we really do as computer scientists.
As David Alan Grier would have said, this kind of event tends to serve to build the professional identity of a group of people. Computer science is not a profession per se, but it is clear that the Uppsala computer science students (almost 2000 has started since 1981) has a particular culture that comes back to us very easily when amongst our peers. I think it is based in the art and practice of programming.
The talks and discussions during the dinner often went back to the defining experiences of our student days, and these experiences were mostly about night hacks and classic labs. A speaker told us about how in 1983 they tried to program a simple computer built by the department itself, and how it turned out that 3 out 4 machines were broken. There idea that they expected the program to just work the first time it loaded made me look up my favorite debugging quote. Somebody reminded me (19 years after the deed) about the time I made a Prolog program exhaust all memory on a Sun server, by performing an exhaustive search for a problem with no solution).
I remembered how some students I taught (while still an undergraduate myself, a common practice at DV) spent 24 hours a day for almost a week in a lab room trying to get their operating systems to boot on some MIPS-based lab machines. In particular, the group that was gripped by ambition and tried to turn on the MMU. Each time they reset the machine and tried to boot their OS, they would see a serial terminal spewing out diagnostics text and then stopping cold… as they failed again to make it work (they passed the course anyway).
This all indicates the fundamental importance of programming to computer science students. That is also what we believed was our core mission when I was a student – to go out into the world and create great software. Many still do, even if quite a few of us have left day-to-day coding to become project leaders and outright managers. Can’t say I program all that much myself, apart from some demos and virtual machine scripts, but I still find the topic incredibly interesting and important.
The event also touched on institutional memory and the longevity of data. The very ambitious anniversary committee had produced a brand new version of the classic “Manualen”, a song book first produced in 1995. In it, I found a text I wrote in 1995 about what a computer scientist actually does (a bit pompous, as can be expected from a proud student) as well as a photo of myself from a 1996 cover of the DV student magazine “Blurgel”. However, in both cases, these had been reproduced from paper copies. There was no digital memory in place of these 15-year-old pieces of data.
I actually still have both paper copies in good shape and the data – on a multisession CD-R created in 1999 on a Mac. My current computers all being Windows-based cannot extract the data. I know a Mac can still read them, but it is not clear that the data can be used today. It is likely in some old version of Aldus PageMaker and with no file extensions to guide you as to what each file is. The images are greyscale or black-and-white high-resolution TIFF files I believe (from the era before PNG), once again with no file extensions to hint at what is what. It underscores the importance of actual running programs and systems as a way to access our digital past. The data might all be there and readable, but with no software to interpret it, what can you do? I actually noted the same four years ago for the somewhat late 25 years anniversary.
Overall, a very memorable evening, and kudos to the organizers for putting it all together.