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Sputnik Revisited, and Other Tales

May 3, 2015

It’s hard to remember now, more than fifty years later, what a shock Sputnik was. The Soviet Union is no more, and our technological and economic triumphs since then make the space race seem quaint today. But in the mid-50s, the fact that Russia put a satellite in orbit before we could was a humiliating and frightening setback. It felt as though we were always one step behind them, and that our hold on our way of life was increasingly fragile.

Several readers wrote about their memories of that era.

Rita:

I remember being worried that The Russians were watching me via Sputnik.

Alan commented on the artwork:

Very nice color renditions of fire and explosions. A new technique for you? Well done.

No, not really a new technique; I just pushed the tools a little farther than usual to create a more painterly and less cartooney look.

Donald had the most in-depth (and intense) response. I took the liberty of editing it a bit. I hope he doesn’t mind:

I can look back 30-35 years at US commie-phobia post-WWII and the sanitized idealized film and TV of the ’50s and marvel at US reflexive reactive non-sensical non-thinking actions. If not for the war, how and when would we have come out of the Great Depression? We went from isolationist Anglophilia (politically) to boldly straddling the globe, and pissed off many a country and many a people along the way with the creation of the Ugly American.

I remember hunkering under our desks in mock atomic attacks. Were we that dumb? I think so, and still. The last two nights, I watched two shows on the end, for us, in Vietnam, and it got me thinking, again, about Granada, Nicaragua, Panama, Gulf 1, Gulf 2, Afghanistan, Iraq. We humans do not learn.

Cheers to you, Ed, keep it rockin’ and rollin’.

Walter:

Good Ed; really good; I remember it well. Your editorials give me great memories. You are doing all of us from our generation and your children’s a tremendous historical view and service.

Thanks, Walter. I hope they read it and get a sense for what the world was like when we were young, and appreciate how much has changed.

Charles wrote about the previous story, about my learning to draw instead of how to write in cursive.

I’ve been following “Sleeper Ave.” for a while. I enjoy it and frequently recommend it to friends. The latest story, on cursive and early drawings, took me back to when I was a child in the 1990s (I’m 25, for reference). I don’t know how it is now, but we were still taught cursive when I was a kid, and even today I still don’t know why we were being taught about it, since I prefer print lettering as well. And, of course, I drew a lot. Lots of things. Drew during classes when I should have taken note, something I never grew out of, even in college. I’m finally getting paid to draw cartoons, so it paid off, ultimately. Keep at it!

Charles, it’s good to know that the tradition of cartooning is still being carried on, and that there are still no shortcuts to hundreds of hours spent exploring with pencil on paper.

Finally, Mason tells the story (edited for length) of finding his career:

Growing up, we always had computers in our house. The Commodore 64, State of the Art in 1984, was old by the time I was old enough to figure out how to play games on it at the age of 7 in 1994, but I didn’t know or care. My dad, a programmer and systems analyst, was happy to indulge us when it came
to computer time. We eventually got a new Macintosh and
a modem.

Suddenly, I could experience an entire virtual world and meet people from other places and cultures. I had grown up listening to my dad’s favorite bands like Pink Floyd and Rush. I wanted to buy my own synthesizer, but they were retailing for thousands of dollars. So I figured I could make my own and found the synth-DIY community on the internet.

At the age of 13, I didn’t know what a Bode plot was or how to analyze a transistor amplifier, but the people on that mailing list were patient and recommended books and websites that allowed me to gain a basic understanding of the electronics that were starting to appear everywhere.

At the same time, a kid in my middle school had introduced me to Linux, an operating system available for free
over the internet. I wiped out the family computer’s files one too many times, and ended up convincing my family to get my own PC. I’d mess with it for hours, and learned the basics of programming.

Come college, it was obvious that I would be an electrical engineer. The computers we used were all running Linux, and it turned out that those years of playing with it as a kid helped tremendously.

I graduated into the 2008 recession. The only companies I could find hiring EEs were defense contractors, and I had no desire to do that kind of work. I worked retail for a few years before getting a job testing software for 911 call centers, which turned into another job testing software, and from there into a job as a Linux systems administrator — the kind of job 13-year-old me would have killed for, if it had existed back then!

The job has given me the time and money to pursue my electrical engineering interests as a hobby, and I’ve helped start a hackerspace in my hometown that aims to make all the equipment I dreamed about as a kid accessible to people who would never be able to afford it otherwise.

I’m still young relative to most of your respondents, but I wanted to share my little story of finding something I was good at and a field I love working in.

Thanks for your story, Mason.