Software: Introduction

I started computer programming on punched tape and IBM 80-column punched cards, using Fortran, back in 1974.

Punched tape
Punched card

One of my first teachers was a young woman who could read the program directly off the punched tape, and debug it using a hole punch and some sticky dots. I fixated on her utterly, like a baby duckling.

Later, I moved on to Teletype terminals, on which I programmed primitive astronomy calculations. Then my very own computer (who saw that coming?) the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, plugged into the television, on which I built a primitive model of the solar system using early editions of Peter Duffett-Smith’s fine astronomy programming books.Peter Duffett-Smith books

Apple IIs and PCs after that, mainly working in various dialects of Basic, and then making the switch to event-driven Visual Basic when it came along in the early 90s.

I produced and published various utility programs for the medical specialty I worked in, and even sold a couple of units of a reference-manager program I wrote as an add-on for the early scientific word processor, ChiWriter. But it was all essentially recreational until I made the mistake of writing a rostering program for the department I worked for in 1997 (out of frustration with the very poor quality of commercial rostering software at that time). That put me on a maintenance treadmill for the next fourteen years.

So I rather lost interest in developing any more complete software packages at that point! My other programming activity therefore became confined to writing little routines to get some particular piece of data-handling or calculation done, as part of some other project. I did a lot of that when I was a developer on the open-source 3D planetarium software, Celestia, and also when accessing NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data to research mountains for Ginge Fullen’s Africa’s Highest Challenge, in which he climbed the highest point of every country in Africa.

SRTM data for Bikku Bitti
Extracted SRTM data, checking the position of the highest point in Libya, Bikku Bitti


Bikku Bitti photo
“Ground truth” photo of Bikku Bitti, sent to me by Ginge Fullen after he completed Africa’s Highest Challenge

I have a number of little software projects in mind for the future, some of which I may share here. But I think initially this category of blog post will be devoted to a couple of reports on software I find useful and/or fun, and want to recommend.

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