My inspiration

Two nights ago, my father passed away. More than anyone else, he was a profound source of inspiration for me. What I am doing today, I owe it to him. And my love for computers is my father’s legacy. When I was eight or nine, he told me that “computers never make any mistakes.” From that moment on, I was hooked.

Mohammed Ghalimi was a sociologist, fascinated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. As such, he had to practice statistics and use a minicomputer at the university. I remember going with him into a dimly lit room and looking with wonderment at the glowing green screen showing numbers that made no sense to me at the time, but seemed to be of unique value to him. These numbers would then get printed on reams of green bar paper, which provided limitless supplies of media for my early drawings of fancy buildings and intergalactic spaceships.

At 10, I watched Whiz Kids on TV, and my inner geek was born. From then on, I became obsessed with the idea of having my own computer. My family had relatively modest means, therefore could not afford such an expensive purchase. For a while, all I could do was nurturing some dreams while flipping through the pages of SVM, the first computer magazine in France. I then went to middle school and enrolled into the computer club, where I learned rudimentary Basic programming skills on a Commodore VIC-20. PRINT and GOTO became parts of my vocabulary. And 3.5KB of memory was all I had to play with. Eventually, my father convinced some friends to lend us a French-made Thomson MO5, with 48KB of memory. A full order of magnitude improvement over my first setup. I could barely believe it…

Somehow, my very first program was not much different from what I am doing today: a simple barchart. And this is when I realized that I was not a very good programmer, because without knowing the existence of the FOR loop, I had to copy and paste the same chunk of code 20 times if I wanted to draw a chart made of 20 bars. DRY, I certainly was not…

A couple of years later, my family’s financial situation improved a bit, and my father and I drove to town on a Saturday afternoon to buy an Amstrad PC1512. With 512KB of memory, it gave me another order of magnitude improvement over my previous rig, and a real operating system. With it, I got my first spreadsheet (Multiplan), and my first database (dBase III+). One Summer, my father hired me to help him with data entry work for some statistical study. I spent days recording survey answers, and became a virtuoso typist with the numeric keypad.

Eventually, I went to high school, and my father upgraded to a 386 PC, which provided a faster CPU and more memory, but felt to me like an incremental improvement over the 8086. Truth be told, I was much more fascinated by the Apple Macintosh (and the Next), but it would be another 15 years before I could afford one.

Two years later, my father hired me again to write a database application for processing student registrations. I was 17, and this job helped me finance my very first trip to Japan. Back in 2009, I invited him to spend a week with me in Tokyo and Kyoto. This was our second and last trip together where we would be just the two of us. A time of blessing.

Looking back at all these years, it feels like what I am doing today (a Big Data Spreadsheet) is nothing more than the kind of tool that my father would have liked to use. Part spreadsheet, part database, with a solid pivot table and some nice charts. And as I am educating myself on the subject of machine learning, I keep marveling at the legacy of Pierre Bourdieu, my father’s role model, who pioneered the use of multiple correspondence analysis in the field of social sciences. It all makes sense now…

Dad, when you count the stars in the sky, you can use my tool.

And that will be all thanks to you.

Thank you dad. Thank you!


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