Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Path to True Geekhood.

My first ever computer was an ‘Acorn Electron’ that my parents bought in 1983 when I was just two years old. It wasn’t bought for me, but it was the computer I (literally) cut my teeth on. To this day it remains one of my favorite computers ever…and I actually still have it (although, right now it’s in the loft a my parents’ house).

From a quick check on Wikipedia, it retailed in England for around £199, or roughly $350 dollars…of course, this is in 1983 dollars, which would be roughly $800 dollars in today’s money…and considering the specs, it shows just how far we’ve come.

The Acorn Electron was the ‘cut down’ version of the extremely popular BBC Micro (a computer that was in nearly every British school in the early 80’s). It featured a whopping 32k of RAM, and blisteringly fast 1mhz processor, and had graphics chip capable of producing up to sixteen colors at a super-sharp resolution of 160x256.

To put it another way, a modern microwave probably has ten times the raw processing power of this beast…but I loved it anyway.

The Acorn Electron is one of the reasons I laugh when people call modern computers ‘hard to use’. When you hooked up your electron to your TV and turned it on, you got a blinking cursor and that was it. Then, you either loaded a program from a cassette tape, using a perfectly normal tape deck…or you wrote your program by hand. In fact, I remember my parents doing just that on many occasions. My dad would buy a computer magazine…but in 1983, ‘bundled software’ didn’t come on a disc…you got a printout that you copied by hand (and hopefully remembered to save to a cassette before you ran it).

The first game I ever played was called ‘Bugzap’. There was a capital letter ‘A’ at the bottom of the screen that served as your ‘spaceship’ and you moved it left and right with the ‘Z’ and ‘X’ keys. When you pressed the space bar, you’d shoot at a letter ‘X’ that disappeared and reappeared randomly at the top of the screen. Every time you missed it would move one line closer to the bottom of the screen. If it got to the bottom, you lost…if you got it, the game would start over.

Yeah, kids…think about that the next time you complain that the graphics on your Xbox game aren’t very good.

The game I remember most was one my mum actually hand copied from one of those magazine printouts. I don't remember what it was actually called, but I just called it ‘Santa’. This was graphically advanced for its time with four different colors and featured a very blocky red sleigh. (Games required imagination back then) The sleigh flew from left to right over the top of the screen, and when you pressed the space bar, a present would drop from the sleigh and you had to land it in a chimney of one of the three houses on the bottom of the screen.

In the 80’s, one of my favorite Electron games became ‘Exile’, check out this awesome screenshot:

If you're wondering what the multicolored mess around the screen is, that's an old trick where the programmers would leave non-graphical data in the display buffer to gain additional memory space. In case you're wondering what the multicolored mess in the middle of the screen is...that's the actual game. That's the jet-pack flying astronaut in his space ship.

Next came a computer legend: The Commodore 64:

This is the machine that solidified me into a fully fledged geek. You can count the time I spent in front of this machine in years.

It was a huge step up from the Electron, with its Herculean 64k of memory, 320x210 display...and the ability to play more than a single sound at once.

To be honest, I got this computer for Christmas at the very end of its life cycle. It actually came out in the same year as the Electron, but I didn't get it until the late 80's, and by that time, the Amiga 500 was king. Of course, the Amiga was selling at that time for £699 (well over a thousand dollars) and the C64 was selling for £100 at that time.

(In fact, I just checked, I mus have got this computer in 1991, because I remember it came bundled with a ROM Cartridge (!!!) that had the Terminator 2 game on it.

The ROM cartridge was a huge deal, despite the fact I never actually got another cartridge game for it. I had a Sega Master System at the time, but up until that point all my computer games had been on cassette tapes. Cartridges loaded instantly and that was a huge deal.

In fact let me take a second to talk about cassette tapes, because it's something the kids of today have never and will never experience. Shortly before I got rid of the C64 I bought Street Fighter 2 for it...a game that went down in history as not only the worst Street Fighter port, but one of the worst games ever. Let me describe the experience:

You put in the tape, typed LOAD "*", 1 and pressed enter. The screen would go blank and start to flash. About five minutes later, you'd get to the character select screen. You'd pick your character, then...the screen would go blank and flash for another five minutes. Then you'd fight three rounds...then the screen would go blank and flash for five minutes.

Five minutes between every round...I'm not even joking.

But I loved my C64.

One school summer holiday, I went to the library, borrowed a book on BASIC and spent the next six weeks writing a 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' text adventure. I had almost no idea what I was doing and programmed it in the longest, most complicated way possible. I consisted of about fifteen rooms and a handful of puzzles, but I shudder to think how many lines of BASIC code I wrote.

By the time I sold it four years later, I'd accumulated three large trash bags literally stuffed with cassette tapes. Some where actual bought games, most were cover tapes from Zzap64! and CommodoreForce...but I'm really sad to say my own text adventure was among them. Sadly, the person I sold it to had no clue about computers and was buying it for her young daughter. I'd have loved to see my game end up for download on one of those retro software sites.

Then, in 1995, I moved up to the big leagues:

I've already explained in a previous post how I came into possession of my first real PC, and even though the specs are laughable by today's standards, after my C64, it might as well have been a mainframe supercomputer. I didn't even care that it didn't even have a CD-ROM or a sound card. (In fact, if you ask me, the only way to play the original 'Alone in the Dark' is with the sounds coming from the PC's internal speaker).

What I didn't tell you is that within two months of getting it, I completely broke it. In hindsight, I'm glad I did, because it's what finally cemented me into true geekhood.

You see, my awesome P75 had this brand new, ultra-sophisticated, brand-new operating system called Windows95. Unfortunately, the handful of my friends who had PC's (who I borrowed a lot of games from) still had old 486's running DOS. Windows95 wasn't exactly known for it's backwards I had a hard time getting a few games to run.

So I came up with an awesome idea. Why don't I just get an older copy of DOS and install that? All these games keep telling me I have the wrong version of DOS, so installing an older version will fix all my problems, right?

Yeah, I was about to learn a lesson. Mostly that you couldn't run two operating systems side by side, and that installing DOS 4.0 meant Windows 95 couldn't run...and, just to add the icing on the cake, you couldn't install Windows 95 under DOS 4.0

Of course, it was an easy fix. All I had to do was format the drive and re-install windows...but this was my first ever PC and I didn't have a clue.

Luckily, my Uncle Alan was a computer buff, and when I called him in a panic because I'd just broken the £1700 computer my parents had bought me, over the next few months I basically became his Padawan Learner.

I say I'm glad I broke the computer, because if I hadn't had the motivation to get my hands dirty, I'd still probably be a clueless computer user. Within a year I was making a sideline by building computers for people from scratch (although I eventually put a stop to this because most people assumed that if I built a computer for them, they were also buying 24-hour free Tech Support for perpetuity.)

Yup, there's nothing quite like getting a phone call at 11.30pm that goes like this:

"I bought this computer from you a year ago, now I've installed this thing I found on the internet and now it won't work! You ripped me off! Come and fix it now!"

Anyway, as I mentioned in a previous post, that P75 served me well until 2003 when I moved to the US. Of course, along the way it went through four different processors, three different motherboards and two different cases along with more memory and video card upgrades than I can count...but I never stopped thinking about it as that P75 that I found in the Kitchen in the great big box on Christmas morning.

My parents even used it for a good few years after I moved...but without anyone knowledgeable enough to keep it current, it eventually withered to the point where it was cheaper to buy a whole new computer than to upgrade the old one.

I'm not sure what my parents did with it when they got their new computer...but if I'd had my way, it would have been pushed out to sea on a flaming Viking longboat.

For completeness, I've also owned and played with a few more other computers, but these are the ones that stand out.

Anyway, I suppose the moral of the story is this:

Next time your computer doesn't work right and you feel like chucking it through the window...just be glad your software isn't on cassettes.

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