My life: a technological tapestry

The early years (1960s and 1970s)

Kodak Brownie

Circa 1968:My mom gives me a Brownie camera. I struggle with it and a larger format Yashica twin-lens reflex camera my parents later give me, but despite the struggles, I get hooked on photography. My family gets our first color TV—a beast of a Curtis Mathes. I finally see what " living color" was all about. A lot of things were changing in the 1960s. Technology was advancing rapidly and used for good, such as in the moon landings, or ill, such as in the Vietnam War. Television was bringing us dreadful news, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and exciting news, such as three days of love and music in Woodstock, N.Y. Even as a young child, technology was advancing my understanding of the world around me.

Shreveport Times linotypes

Early 1970s:I develop a proficiency at repairing and rebuilding bicycles. My dad begins working at The Shreveport Times, one of two daily newspapers in my home town. They are both published in the same building. The newsroom is noisy with teletypes and pneumatic tubes to communicate with other departments—especially the composing room. The composing room has about 30 linotypes, and every time that I visit at least half of them are running. The presses are three stories tall, and the whole building shakes when they run. I get a thrill every time I walk through the composing room or press room. I still do. My dad, an Air Force veteran and college dropout, decides to use his GI bill benefits to go to college. He decides to follow his late brother (my uncle Howard, who died in 1966) into journalism. He returns to college in 1970 -- and I begin going to college with him. As he pursues his studies, I begin to absorb journalism. I see reporters, editors, and photographers in action. I meet other veterans, many of whom -- unlike my dad -- saw action in Vietnam. I see political activism help make the world a better place. I see technology used to teach, move, entertain, and inspire. Those lessons still inspire me today.

Underwood typewriter

Circa 1974:I take a typing class at Oak Terrace Junior High School. At first I hate being condemned to take a girlie class like that, but Sandy Turner is in the class, and she wears her sweaters rather well. She even talks to me! While raging teenage hormones get me interested in showing up, I work hard and discover the power of being able to think through one's fingers. In time, I get to the point that I can hardly write a sentence unless my fingertips are tapping on a keyboard. After spending my formative years in Catholic school -- where I feel increasingly out-of-place -- I enter the hellhole known as junior high school in a new setting, a public school. I no longer had to deal with uniforms, nuns, or priests, but I found a whole new set of hazards to my sanity. Girls, bullies, racial tensions, my own imploding self-esteem all conspired to make me feel miserable. A handful of good teachers, such as my science teacher Roosevelt Crosby, helped me survive.

Kiss Alive!

1975:I get the album Kiss Alive! While some critics may bash Kiss, that album changed my life. I became a rock'n'roller. Eventually my musical tastes moved well beyond rock, but if it weren't for that one Kiss album, I might have remained a soulless, thoughtless automaton condemned to a life sentence of listening to safe, spineless, unimaginative, playlist-driven drivel. I become born-again this year, but religion -- at least the traditional ones -- had nothing to do with it. I sat on my bed, headphones safely in place on my ears, and discovered the power of music. At first, it was only rock'n'roll, but in the years since I have become a devotee of many musical traditions -- all with mind-altering melodies and rhythms, all with healing and transformative power, all offering pleasure and salvation in equal measure.

Olympus OM-10

Late 1970sI develop a proficiency at repairing cars and small gas engines. I find I like fixing mechanical things. My family gets cable TV, and I learn about something called public television—and Monty Python. My parents get me a 35 mm single lens reflex camera (I think it was an Olympus OM-10). I also get my first guitar—an acoustic bought for $10 from my friend's brother-in-law—and start to learn how to play. I get my first electric guitar and amplifier and learn how to install pickups and adjust necks on the guitar, and repair circuits and replace tubes on the amps, among other things. It's not just about fixing things, it's about making them better, and I like what I learn to achieve.

1978: The Times switches from hot-type to cold-type. The computer system where the copy is written, edited, and sent for typesetting has a nasty habit of crashing on deadline. It's a dramatic change in how the newspaper business operates. Even though I don't work at The Times yet, I don't miss the significance. It's a dramatic change in how the newspaper business operates. Even though I don't work at The Times yet, I don't miss the significance.

Fall 1979: I begin working as a copy boy at The Times, and learn to read, edit, and eventually write copy on the monocolor CRT/VDTs (cathode ray tubes/video display tubes) that form the basis of The Times barely functioning computer system. I only work during football season that year and the next, but while there I get to read the wires—coming through the computer rather than the teletype—and relish the opportunity to know what happens in the world before most people can hear of it, and to know things most people never hear of because the stories did not make it in the paper.

Summer 1980: I take a vertebrate embryology course and learn the joy of studying life through a microscope.

Fall 1980: I take a photography course to fulfill a speech/communications requirement for my biology degree. (I liked photography a lot before, but loved it afterward—and still love it now.) I especially love developing the film and the prints in a wet lab. There's nothing like the excitement of seeing if the film came out and seeing the image slowly come out on paper. I have all my work from that class and still enjoy looking at it.

Spring 1981: I take a course in cartography and graphic presentation. We don't have access to machine-based plotting devices—we do it all by hand. I become enamored with maps as well as with Leroy lettering sets, and eventually buy one from a campus police officer who had used his in the Navy. I do not plan on parting with it any time soon.

Summer 1981: I take a field course in biology and learn to use a plane table and other surveying gear for mapping in the field. I am enamored with the tools scientists use to make sense of the natural world around us.

August 1, 1981: I get my MTV.

Fall 1981: I take an aerial photography and remote sensing course, which enhances my fascination with spatial data and imagery.

Summer 1982: I practice my field mapping skills for a research project in Arizona and New Mexico.

Fall 1982: I take a statistics class which teaches me the joys of using a simple computer—the TI-33 calculator—to solve more complex statistical problems.

Spring 1983: I take an advanced statistics class, which means I get to learn to use a more advanced computer—a wall-sized mainframe fed by the seemingly indispensible punch card.

Summer 1983: I take an upper-level physics course in electronics. The transcript says I make an "A." (I look at it now and wonder how the hell that happened.)

Fall 1983-Spring 1985: I spend two years as a graduate student in geography at The University of Oklahoma. I get acquainted with a host of different technologies. While I do a lot statistical and other analyses with punch cards and mainframe computers, I spend more time learning photogrammetry and remote sensing and use microcomputers—Apple IIes—to digitally analyze and manipulate remote sensing data. I do more field mapping with theodolites and rods, topographic maps and aerial photos as a base in the Badlands of South Dakota. I discover the joys of the pocket transit to help me navigate the high-elevation forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. In addition to helping me navigate, the pocket transit helps me measure and map geographical features of interest. I see my first Apple Macintosh in a neighbor's apartment. He uses its graphic technology to visually "enhance" Michelangelo's "David." I find the graphical user interface (GUI) interesting, but not essential, as I know how to navigate a computer using a command-line interface. (I'm still comfortable with the command-line interface.) I believe I get my first exposure to bitnet during this time. I do simple programming in AppleBasic. I find I like cracking the computer code and making a machine do what I want.

Summer 1985: I spend three weeks as editor of the Caddo Citizen in Vivian, La.. I take photos for the newspaper, too, and find I like working in the darkroom—except when the crickets crawl through the ventilation at night and fall on me in the dark. I help fight a forest fire, using a rake to stamp out small fires lit by embers spreading ahead of the flames. The experience leaves me with a healthy respect for fire, that most basic of human technologies.

Summer 1985-August 1987: I begin working full-time as a sports correspondent and copy editor at The Times. We still use the clunky computer system, and I learn to despise it as much as the old newsroom veterans who were impressed into serving on it in 1978. The teletypes and pneumatic tubes are still in use—though their use is declining. Some of us reporters dictate stories when we are too far away to get back to the office by deadline, but same take an early laptop—the TRS-80—and hook it to a phone system for transmitting stories by phone. I am jealous of those who are blessed with its presence in their lives. All I get to play with is a thing called the bubble, kind of an analog modem with cups that fit over the earpiece and mouthpiece of the phone. I don't get to play with it much, nor do I want to.

Spring-Summer 1987: A local disc jockey, Tom Michaels, helps me make a radio demo tape ( I am still impressed with Tom's mastery of studio technology.

September 1987: After getting laid off from The Times, I move to Virginia to join my parents, who had moved there the year before. I plan to avoid newspapers given my lingering anger at the way I found out I was getting laid off (I noticed it when I was asked to hand out next week's schedule). Instead, I find a job at The Map Store in Washington, D.C., where I learned more about many types of spatial data products—including maps, globes, and guidebooks—as well as how to use a modern cash register and a credit card machine. I like how developing technologies make tedious jobs quicker and difficult jobs simpler.

Fall 1987: I begin volunteering for the Ecological Society of America's Public Affairs Office in Washington, D.C. I get familiar with Windows-based PCs, and get good at using software like WordPerfect and dBase. I get reacquainted—or acquainted—with bitnet.

1988/1989: I begin working for Chesson Consulting. The owner, Jean Chesson, encouraged me to buy my own PC, get software such as WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, and Paradox, join CompuServe, learn to program using PASCAL, and become adept at statistical analyses using SYSTAT and STATXAXT. As a result of owning my own PC, I develop skills in fixing hardware and software issues—including modifying and rebuilding computers.

Spring 1989-Spring 1991: I begin a master's program in geography at George Mason University. That first semester, I take a quantitative methods class that has me working with mainframe stat packages again (SPSS, primarily). During my time there, I also take a course in geographic information systems and another remote sensing course. I do research that forces me to become more familiar with ecological analysis software using various methods of classification and direct and indirect gradient analyses. All this reinforces my appreciation of how technology helps me better understand the world around me.

Summer 1991: I work as a research assistant for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, learning to use software that predicts non-point source pollution loading in streams based on watershed characteristics. I learn how the models work, understand how to program my own, and how the models help me accomplish scientific tasks that would be impossible without them.

Fall 1991: I begin a disastrous stint as a graduate student at The University of Virginia. I improve my programming skills—both in PASCAL and FORTRAN—as well as my skills in analyzing ecological and statistical data with a number of software packages. I learn to run as well as write ecological and environmental modeling software. I also learn tree-ring analysis—and with the help of folks at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at The University of Arizona, grow very skilled in using sampling, measuring, and analytical technologies required for the work.

Circa 1993: I buy Family Tree Maker to help organize genealogical research I do. Eventually, Family Tree Maker begins allowing patrons to store date online. I enthusiastically share, but unfortunately include 700 years of bogus data from a forged pedigree. That data still circulates among the Internet-unsavvy masses.. It's a severe lesson that technology can be used to confuse as much as enlighten.

1994: I buy Internet in a Box, which, with its bundled NSCA Mosaic browser, AIR Mail, and other programs, enables me to browse the Web independently of CompuServe. About that time I also begin to use Netscape Navigator.

January 1995: I begin working at the Tree-Ring Lab at Columbia University. I am the only PC person in a Mac lab. I become a cross-platform programmer, devising or modifying tree-ring utilities that can run on both systems. I also become adept at using a shareware software program, Versamap, to prepare maps of research areas around the world. Some of my maps have appeared in scientific publications in the years since.

March-April 1996: I go on an expedition to Indonesia in 1996. While there, I experience a number of different transportation technologies, from the modern aircraft (jets and helicopters) to wooden boats little changed over millennia—with the exception of them being powered by outboard motors. The culture shock of the gumbo of old and new technology, and the way that technology is used to promote centuries-old cultures—such as when muezzins use loudspeakers when singing the Muslim call to prayer—is almost overwhelming.

May 1996: Even though I'm still a student at UVa, I begin attending the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. While the start of a new graduate program has little to do with technology and how it affects my life, what I learn at Columbia has a huge effect.

Summer 1996: I begin learning HTML, and start making my own Web site ( using the composer module of Netscape Navigator as well as a text editor.

Fall 1996: In my second semester at Columbia I take the class, "Tools of the Modern Journalist," where I further hone my HTML skills, as well as learn a bit of audio and video recording and editing. I also do some work for faculty member John Pavlik, who is updating a book he wrote on the history of the Internet. One of the sites I begin putting together is a photo essay on my expedition to Indonesia ( In it, I use photos, image maps, javascript, and more. It is now part of a larger photo essay site that features my photography and cartography (Dave's Travels; One day I'll finish updating what I have on the site.

November-December 1996: I try out and am eventually hired as a copy editor for the Daily Record in Parsippany, N.J. I become a master of watching the AP wires, editing copy, and using Quark to design pages for the newspaper. Within months of my hire, I am volunteered to become the paper's second Web editor, responsible for updating the news portion of Daily Record's Web site ( as well as creating special content for the site. We use FrontPage to update the site. I also become the paper's systems editor, maintaining design styles and templates. In my day-to-day work, I have to use both PCs and Macs.

1997: My Isuzu Trooper dies in a rather spectacular fire in a shop. I replace it with a Ford Taurus. The computer system under the Ford's hood pretty much puts an end to my years of working on cars.

May 1998: I graduate from Columbia, resign from the Daily Record a week before Gannett takes it over, and moves back to Virginia, where my wife has found a job with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Shortly afterward, I get hired by Digital City Hampton Roads, a partnership between America Online's Digital Cities project and the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.

June 1998: I begin working for Digital City Hampton Roads/ ( My primary job is doing the afternoon updates for the AOL platform. I loved the work so much that later that year, when I had the chance to jump over to the A desk on the Daily Press side, I jumped. I worked as both copy editor and systems editor.

August 25, 1998: I obtain my own Web site,, and give it a entirely new design. In addition, I move my original "The David M. Lawrence BORING Home Page! (zzz)" from its Sprynet home to a subdirectory on

1999: I test javascript and perl for their ability to be used for advanced scientific programming on the Web. The first test is of a simple English-metric and map scale conversion page ( The second is much more complex, predicting incoming solar radiation at a specific location depending on time of year and local site factors (

January 2000: Weary of commuting between Mechanicsville and Newport News five days a week, and under contract for my first book, I left the Daily Press and began working in a wage position at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in its Waste Division. My job is environmental risk assessment, help design risk assessment spreadsheets and devise computer models that are used in risk assessment, prepare guidance, and set up a Web site where users can obtain both guidance and software. At home I have been using Microsoft FrontPage and Adobe GoLive to update my personal Web site. At DEQ, I also begin using Dreamweaver.

2001: I begin designing a portion of my Web site ( devoted to promoting my forthcoming book, "Upheaval from the Abyss". I also begin experimenting with online narrative, devoting a portion of my Web site to the life of my great-grandfather, Yee Jock-Leong (

May 2001: We move to a new apartment and I learn the joys of wireless networking.

August 2001: I begin teaching at both J. Sargeant Reynolds and John Tyler community colleges. I get overly familiar with Powerpoint, but find Blackboard an indispensible teaching tool.

2002: We buy a Sony digital video camera (8 mm format). Aside from practicing my video skills, I begin to learn to digitize and edit movies. Unfortunately, many completed movies are lost in a hard-drive crash a few years later.

October 31, 2002: Because of a state budget crisis, I get laid off from VDEQ. The irony of the date doesn't escape me.

February 2004: I begin a rather brief job as assistant sports editor at the Petersburg Progress-Index. As a result of the job, I have more updating of a poorly designed newspaper Web site ( to do.

March 2004: I take a trip to the National Archives in San Bruno, Calif., where I find my great-grandfather's Chinese Exclusion Act file. The data I find there help me greatly expand the narrative devoted to his life (

August 2004: I began updating my sites to incorporate valid HTML and CSS (cascading style sheets). I used validators developed by the World Wide Web consortium ( to check the code.

January 30, 2005: For years I had been mirroring the alt.spam FAQ ( On this date, however, Ken (aka Gandalf the White) posts his last update of the site. Sometime after that, I make my last update of my mirrored page. Periodically I check for updates to the original site, but have been none.

August 2005: I finally buy a digital SLR—a Pentax Digital *ist which can use my old K-mount lenses. While I have had Photoshop, I really begin to get proficient with it now.

April 29. 2006: I decide I don't want a cyber-squatter to claim my name, so add (and variants) to my stable of sites.

May 13, 2006: I launch my first blog, Notes from the Abyss (, using Blogger's platform. I like the idea of owning my own printing press, although the pay kind of sucks.

September 23-24, 2006: I become a certified scuba diver, which opens doors to a range of underwater technology—including underwater cameras. My first underwater camera is a Sea & Sea 35-mm SLR. Unfortunately, I flood it on a dive on the U-352 off Morehead City, N.C.

October 2006: In an effort to keep up with former students, I creep into the social networking world by joining MySpace.

2007: I begin experimenting with a php-driven genealogical data sharing program, first phpmyfamily ( and later phpGedView (

May 2007: Again, spurred by former (and current) students, I go further into the social networking world by joining Facebook. Before long, I find I spend more time on Facebook than on any other social networking site.

October 2007: I serve as the official blogger for the 69th National Folk Festival ( I use Blogger's platform.

November 2007: I buy a digital underwater camera, a SeaLife DC-600, which can take video as well as stills.

December 2007: My wife gets a digital camera attachment for her microscope, and I use it to take photos and make videos of microscopic life from a quarry where I do a lot of dive training and ecological research (

August 15, 2008: I post my first videos on YouTube—though those videos are marked private. They were taken at the pool session of a scuba diving class for one of the students, who was planning to use them in a school project. I don't think he ever used them.

September-October 2008: I begin to experiment with photo-sharing sites. First, I try Picasa (my Picasa site no longer exists). I quickly switch to Flickr ( and soon purchase a Flickr Pro account.

October 2008: I serve as the official blogger for the first Richmond Folk Festival ( Again, I use Blogger's platform.

November 2008: I experiment with a php-driven bulletin board system ( so that I can hold election-night chats with all of my geography classes at the three schools I taught at then. The election night experiment works well, but I learned the perils of ignoring the site afterward—spammers take over and flood the site with porn. In my desperate effort to clean up the site, I have to the archived election night discussion. It is a tragic loss. I get invited to join Bebo by a person I worked on the 48-Hour Film Festival with. It's another social networking site. So far, its primary use seems to be as a conduit for adult-oriented services to contact me.

February 2009: I join Twitter. It can come in handy—particularly for catching bits of breaking news I might otherwise miss—but it can also be a huge time sink.

May 22, 2009: I launch an environmental news blog, The Chickahominy Report ( This new blog is designed using WordPress as a platform. I find I like WordPress much better than blogger, but I also find that I don't pay myself well enough to post frequently on the site.

September 2009-January 2010: I take a job as temporary science writer/editor for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I am hired to write encyclopedic introductions for WHOI's Ocean Topics portion of its Web site ( I also end up writing animation treatments and scripts. (I still don't know if any of that work is live.) While there, I make some movies of nor'easters on Cape Cod ( and, as well as a movie about WHOI for my great-aunt's 90th birthday party (

March 9, 2010: I am awarded a National Association of Science Writers Career Grant that will pay for digital audio recording equipment, a telephoto zoom lens with autofocus capability for my Pentax, and a SeaLife DC1000 digital underwater camera. I plan to use these on an Sea Education Association oceanographic expedition to study plastic debris in the North Atlantic Ocean.

April 30, 2010: After Google dropped FTP support for its Blogger platform, I migrated by Upheaval from the Abyss blog to WordPress. The look and feel changed, but the content and URL are still the same:

June 10-July 14, 2010: I serve as science writer/editor/photographer for the Sea Education Association's Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010. I also serve as crew member in the regular watch rotation. The expedition studies plastic debris in the North Atlantic Ocean. My main responsibility is to write and edit daily updates to the expedition's Web site ( and taking, selecting, and editing photo submissions to be included with the daily Web updates. I make some use of the digital audio recorder, and a lot of use of the telephoto lens. Some of my photos are subsequently moved over the AP wires and used in publications around the world to accompany stories on plastics in the oceans. In addition, I experience the joy and hard work of sailing the seas the old-fashioned way—by the wind—and navigating by the stars. I had long been interested in celestial navigation, but have little time on the expedition to learn how to use a sextant to shoot the stars and planet—I am usually working to meet my daily deadlines when we had the right conditions for taking celestial readings. Nevertheless, in a fit of desperation at the end, I quickly learn how to manage the sextant and take three sights on three days that were within a few miles of where our global positioning systems said we were. My last sight was probably within two nautical miles of our GPS location, an accomplishment I take some pride in.