A bit of nostalgia

And now for a bit of nostalgia, as well as an opportunity to see if I’ve got WordPress access properly set up on my new tablet (if so, I’m hoping it will facilitate increased weblogging).

A couple of weeks old now, but I appreciated this recognition of the 40th birthday of X Window System. My first programming job, a summer internship type position 32 years ago, had me learning UNIX by crash course, and most particularly figuring out how to write X Window configuration scripts. As the article notes, X Window offered the potential for customized and consistent windowing environments across different hardware systems. My task was figuring out how to actually achieve identical windowing environments across a lab full of VMS, VAX, and SUN machines so that visiting biologists could follow simple visual guides and have everything work the same no matter which type of box they sat in front of. In theory, this was entirely achievable and in practice it was about 95% achievable, at least with the nascent skills I had at the time. Many, many days were lost to figuring out how to configure every possible menu to the same options, in the same order. I’d have welcomed Lupton’s guide for astrophysicists – I was spending my days with massive binders with large X’s across the front and delving into man pages.

It’s only thinking about it now that I realize there was some interesting user interface decision making in that project – a topic I’ve learned much more about as a faculty member than I ever did as a student. Given the default menus that each of these three boxes wanted to default to, which one should we use? Or should it be a mix of the three? The reality is, given a short summer to solve this problem, I ended up picking the choices that were easiest to code without a lot of thought about usability. I did insist on spending a day figuring out how to get all three of them to have the same option to reverse the mouse buttons between right-handed and left-handed ordering through a handy drop-down menu option. In retrospect, there were probably better ways for me to solve many of these problems, but it was an invaluable learning experience to be allowed to muddle through and figure out the best solution I could come up with. I don’t miss using X Window. 32-year-ago me would be surprised I could look back fondly on my time fighting with it at all.

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