a report from the Alan Alda trenches

Remember how my friends got Alan Alda to record my voicemail for my birthday? It's one of the perks of his podcast's Patreon. You also get to join a monthly Zoom Q&A. I've been thinking all month about what question I wanted to ask.

Alan is 88 years old. He won Emmys, directed movies, wrote best selling books. He doesn't need to be doing this anymore. He could've retired years ago. But here he is on the internet, still doing stuff—making content!—because he's also endlessly curious.

I asked him how he was introduced to the internet and what he thought about it the first time. I asked what he thinks about computers and the internet today, having watched it grow from the beginning.

He told me about learning BASIC. He taught himself BASIC ("I wasn't fluent.") and wrote program about therapy, like a branching dialogue video game. You could type your questions, and the answers would be triggered by keywords. Then, just as it was getting good, he explained, it would end with “Sorry your time is up.”

I said that reminded me of a segment from Scientific American Frontiers about testing computer's ability to have a conversation. It was a Turing Test, actually, where participants had to guess whether they were talking to another person or to a computer. He said he doesn't remember that one, which, fair! (I guessed it was 1993—bingo.)

The link up there is timestamped to the actual segment so you can watch exactly that, but it starts with Alan inside a giant computer, an exhibit at the Computer Museum in Boston. If you like that, you're gonna love these Atari commercials. I knew the cast of MASH did IBM commercials, but I didn't know about Atari.

He just loves computers and science and learning new things. Hilariously, the Q&A was delayed because he was away from home and using someone else's old laptop 😅.

PS. I went and looked at my Twitch channel for the first time in more than a year, and I realised I had never downloaded my clips, so I did that last night, and I'm probably gonna upload some to YouTube next week. In particular, the saga of me speedrunning crossword puzzles and finding ALAN and/or ALDA in every single one.

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