Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How the OFA Began, Part 2

I’m looking this moment at a pair of nicely bound light beige books called 1991 International Oracle User Week Proceedings, Volumes 1 and 2. Toon Koppelaars just mentioned to me a couple of days ago that his international speaking debut was at the same event, and sure enough, there’s his paper #808, right in Volume 2 with mine: “User Experiences with Oracle Server for OS/2.”

It’s fun remembering the Good Old Days before laptop PCs. But I’ll tell you what, it was a lot harder work back then trying to communicate. When I thumb to my paper #513 (29+1), the format reminds me that I used to use typesetting software called TeX (pronounced “tech,” with no x sound). TeX was written by Donald Knuth, who took a 15-year hiatus from his “proper” research in computer science to develop—at long last—a decent phototypesetter for people like me to use.

TeX was a superb and wonderful thing, and it still is. It has fallen aside in some environments including, unfortunately, my own, in favor of the so-called WYSIWYG editors, like Microsoft Word. I still can’t figure out how an application that makes you type Ctrl-Fn-Alt-; to get an em-dash gets to be called “WYSIWYG,” but, well, I guess they expect that if you know and care what an em-dash is, then you’re probably going to be able to figure out how to type one. Learning TeX taught me a lot about typesetting, which to this day I regard as a Very Good Thing. I took a look at some of my old TeX source just a few days ago, and it still looks good to me. (Em dashes in TeX get entered as ‘---’ or ‘\emdash’, by the way.)

I made a lot of course material with TeX in the old days, too. I had different templates for making pages with bigger fonts that were suitable for printing on transparencies which could then be displayed on those old overhead projectors. I remember carrying those heavy things around on airplanes. The boxes of plastic foils, not the projectors.

But a slide show that I would present at IOUW, that’s another matter. That’s no place for black and white transparencies. For IOUW, I obtained permission from my boss at the time, Robert W. Rudzki, to produce 35mm slides in actual color. I owe a lot to Bob (or “Bwob,” as we who love him called him, because he seemed to enjoy letting us mock his Pittsburgh accent). I don’t know how many strings he had to pull to get Oracle to approve of this kid in his group to create color 35mm slides, but I presume it was a pretty big deal.

I remember the slides costing something like $400 to prepare. (See the Big Deal?) I think there were around 35 slides in total. I remember who prepared them, too: a couple named Guy and Karen Lucien. I don’t think I ever met Guy or Karen, but they did a very nice job on my slides. I remember telephone conversations with them over faxes (back when faxes were black and white), saying stuff like, ”I expected the disk on the right to be red.” Or, “There needs to be an arrow going from here to there.”

Anyway, I remember doing all the hard work to put together the material, make all these slides, and deal with the nervousness of having what I had hoped would be a 500-person audience see what I had to say. I forget when my talk was scheduled, but I had my flight booked, and I was all ready to go.

Then, about two weeks before the event, I got my summons in the mail. I was supposed to report to the Dallas County Court House for Jury Duty on exactly the morning I was supposed to present in Miami. At least the time was off by an hour. No, wait, no, if you allow for the one-hour time zone difference, I was to report exactly when I was supposed to begin my presentation in Miami. All the detailed information on the summons about being NOT EXCUSED FOR BUSINESS REASONS, ...that really helped me to work up my confidence.

I wish I still had a copy of the letter I wrote to the Judge. I would have written it in TeX. Whatever I said, it worked. I got a return letter in the mail, just in time, saying that my date was postponed, so it was a couple of weeks later that I got to go fulfill my civic duty. I sat for a couple of hours before being dismissed without even so much as a role in a voir dire. By that time, I had seen my 500 people in Miami.

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