My Sordid History with Computers

eight bits

My family’s first computer was a TI99, which we got when I was really small. I did a little bit of playing around and BASIC programming on it, but mostly stuck with playing cartridge games. When I was just a little older – maybe six years old – my father got a Compaq ‘luggable’ 8088, which ran at a blazing 4.77MHz and had two 360k floppy drives. I used it for running a text editor and Infocom’s excellent interactive fiction games. (I had acquired a taste for these from playing mainframe Advent with my dad. We would later play the Zork trilogy together. I remember that we even had InvisiClues hint books and that he had to hide them so I wouldn’t reveal clues before we’d come to our Wit’s End, so to speak. I still have a hard time making myself solve problems instead of finding the cheat.)

One day, he brought it home with a flat panel where the second floppy was, I was terrified. How would I run programs if I had to take the DOS disk out? He explained that it was now a ‘hard drive’ that could store 21 ‘megabytes.’ We could even boot from it! I was, of course, amazed.

We had that computer for a long time. When I was eleven, I was still using it, now for word processing and Turbo C. We’d also acquired a 1200 baud modem (after a brief stint with a 300), and I used it to call the local BBS’s. After several handles, I settled into Futron and began my long (or at least long-seeming) career as a local BBS regular.

thirty-two bits

My system was clearly out of date as I got deeper into BBS’s. Most of my friends had Tandy’s or other more powerful color computers. In 1989, we finally acquired a more powerful system. It was a Gateway, back when Gateway was young and provided good hardware and support. The system was cutting edge: an 80386/33MHz, a 150MB hard drive, a QC-20 tape backup. Soon, we even had a 14.4kbps modem and a sound card. (Our first attempt to install the card, an original Sound Blaster, fried our motherboard.)

I ran a bulletin board system around 1989 or 1990 on Oscar, as this system would later be called. The software, UltiBoard, was an extensive, but crappy, rewrite of WWIV v4.12. (The source code is lost, for now, but may someday resurface. If I can face the humiliation, I will post it. For now, you can see a local ‘rival’ BBS, Illusion.) The BBS scene died out, at least for me, only a year or two later when I got access to the fabled Internet through my father’s alumnus account at Lehigh University.

The first of my “very own” computers, ralph, was bequeathed to me by my grandmother. It was a simple IBM XT clone, and I was really proud of actually having a computer of my own. Still, I can’t remember anything I actually did with it – other than eventually sell it to the stepfather of my friend Eli.

Working on Lehigh’s machines, I got relatively familiar and proficient with UNIX and the net. Pretty soon, I started running Slirp and Trumpet Winsock. In 1995, I got a copy of Slackware Linux and an account on a local ISP. (It was then that I first adopted what would remain my username for years.)

The pinnacle of my pre-college hacking came just after my junior year, when I acquired raziel, an excellent sub-notebook: the Compaq Contura Aero 4s25. It was just slightly smaller than a ream of paper and very light. Its screen was small and monochrome, and it only had 4MB of RAM. I got it for about $700 dollars, mostly subsidized by the permanent discontinuation of my allowance. It was very cheap, for the time, because it was considered underpowered. I only needed it to run EDIT.COM, and installed Slackware on it as soon as I knew how. I had at some point acquired another system, ralph-II, a 386/16, and set up a PLIP network between the two 386’s. Raziel was often used with minicom as a serial console, and I spent a lot of time playing around with understanding internet protocols through Lehigh.

stagnation and rebirth

Pretty soon, though, I was off to college. About a week before I left for school, oscar died. One of the incredibly brittle ribbon cables on his two full-height ESDI drives literally fell apart, and attempts at repairs proved fruitless. Giving up nearly all of my savings and several possessions, and with the aid of my father, I acquired a new system. Oscar, though upgraded with a Cyrix 486DR66, was still out of date, and this was something of a blessing in disguise. The new system, marvin (later ignatius and then humptydumpty), was an AT&T Globalyst, a Pentium 75.

Still, at college I gave up on learning much of anything new in computers. I worked for the on-campus computer labs and learned to administrate MacOS networks and Netware, and I worked for the university IT department and learned… well, very little. All that I did learn came from working on the Machine God, where I acquired john (our gateway to the internet) and gregory (the living room workstation). I also managed to pick up some working knowledge of Macs, mostly from working at BU’s RCRC and from briefly owning perpetua, an excellent PowerBook Duo. To be honest, though, it’s hard to imagine really finding computers more interesting than the things I studied, and I’m glad I didn’t put away Hegel to learn Perl. Still, it put me at a real disadvantage when I graduated – even though I’d maintained decent skills, they were the skills of a hobbyist and not of a well-educated computer professional.

When, after college, my wife and I moved back to Bethlehem, I had a hard time marketing myself as anything more than a moderately-clued system operator. The solution to this was simple: I spent lots of my out-of-work time immersing myself in TCP/IP Illustrated and other classics, mostly from O’Reilly. Half through luck and half through newly-found skill, I finally managed to land a job as a programmer/DBA (sadly, using Windows) and have been honing my skills since then.

To be honest, they’re still pretty meager. They’re enough, though, to let me understand the surface of the things I don’t understand in depth, which is about the most important thing there is.

I’ve kept a list of the computers that I’ve had. It is, I believe, comprehensive.

Written on January 27, 2002