Month: February 2014

My History of Computing, Part 4: The Year of Linux on my Laptop

Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Please read those before continuing me on my computer reminiscence journey… Thanks!

Even after my first attempt at installing Linux broke my AMD-K6 machine, and I had become a total Mac user, I was still keeping tabs on what was going on in the open-source world. Through the 2000s I was reading sites like Slashdot and Distrowatch, learning about the gradual expansion of Linux in the server realm, in embedded systems such as routers and smartphones, in supercomputers, and the field of desktop computing, where it was making great strides. It seemed like every year from about 2000 on, someone on Slashdot was declaring that this was “the year of Linux on the desktop.”

I wanted to experiment with Linux again, but I knew from reading online that there were only a few PowerPC-based Linux distributions, and installing them on anything older than the iMac was iffy at best. So I kept reading… and waiting.

Then, right around 2007, a new Linux distribution started appearing on my radar. Called Ubuntu, it was created by South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth who spent several years and a lot of his own money to hone and polish the open-source operating system to be user-friendly and run on a wide variety of home computers. The hype was incredible. The Linux nerds on the interwebs were practically calling Shuttleworth the next Steve Jobs. I was even hearing about it on non-Linux-specific websites and on the TV news. I knew I had to give this a try.

It just so happened that I had a guinea pig to test this new operating system on. My sister, who also lived in Yellowstone at the time, had a AMD Athlon-based laptop that had a hard drive corrupted by a virus. For some reason, I took a picture of the virus scan:


She wanted me to reinstall Windows XP on it. I decided that I would rather take Ubuntu for a test spin. I had gotten a disk with (I believe) Ubuntu 7.04 on it just by asking Canonical, the company that managed Ubuntu, for one. Back then, they were still mailing people Ubuntu CDs for free. I stuck the disk in her laptop’s CD drive and it started running a test version of the OS from the disk itself.


Everything just seemed to work, except for the wireless card, but I had a spare USB wifi adapter which was instantly recognized. The desktop was instantly recognizable and looked very Windows XP-like, except for the brown-and-orange “Human” color scheme. I could easily access files, settings, a web browser, and even an open-source office suite, unimaginatively named OpenOffice. It had support for MP3s and video files, and even included a video with Nelson Mandela explaining the meaning of “Ubuntu,” which in many Southern African languages means “humanity towards others,” or “I am what I am because of who we all are.” There were a few bugs and glitches, but the system seemed amazingly complete and simple enough for anyone to use.

So I installed Ubuntu and handed the computer back to my sister, saying, “Look, I fixed your Windows problem.” My sister turns the machine on and goes, “Well, this is nice, but can it run <insert name of proprietary Windows program here>?” So that was the end of Ubuntu, for now. I didn’t even bother installing it on my MacBook, because by the time Apple made it easy to dual-boot into another operating system on the same hard disk (via Boot Camp) I had already been using Mac OS X for a while and figured that I could do everything in it that I could in Ubuntu.

It would be a while before I would install Linux on another computer. In 2012, my sister, bless her heart, gave me another broken Windows laptop, but instead of asking me to fix it, she just gave it to me, because she bought herself a brand new one. This was a HP Pavilion DV7 with a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a 512 MB NVIDIA graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, a Blu-ray drive, 17″ screen, and a Harmon Kardon speaker system with a built-in subwoofer. Pretty awesome specs, and she just gave it to me. I have the most awesome sister.

(Yeah, I know, another stock photo, but the camera on my phone isn’t worth a damn.)

So I fixed the problem (another busted hard drive) and set myself to installing Linux on it. Well, there were problems. Not that it couldn’t run Linux, but many of the features were poorly supported. The audio system couldn’t operate the speakers very well, especially the subwoofer, which warbled terribly in every Linux distribution I tried on it. I used Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, and PCLinuxOS, but they all had the same problem.

Also, something about Linux’s display system refused to work quite right with the video card. It displayed video, it even played 3D games quite awesomely, but it hurt my eyes. It’s kind of hard to explain. I can only think it was something to do with font rendering, but working in Linux, any Linux, for more than a few minutes gave me serious eye strain. I complained about this on forums and the general consensus was “you need to get your eyes checked”… but this wasn’t the problem. I had a Mac laptop at home and a Windows 7 computer at work that I could both use for hours on end with no problems whatsoever.

So I decided to restore the machine to its original state. I acquired a Windows 7 install DVD through completely legal means and installed it on the HP laptop. I promised myself long ago that I would never run that buggy, virus-ridden piece of crap on any of my machines long ago… but sometime between the time I gave up Windows and now, Microsoft really got their act together! Installing Windows 7 was a piece of cake, and once I got the necessary drivers from HP’s website, it ran like a charm. I was soon listening to music on the most beautiful-sounding laptop speakers I had ever experienced, as well as playing Blu-ray movies in 1080p, blasting my way through video games actually written this century, and everything else I normally used a computer for. And best yet, no eye strain!

I was even able to transfer all of my old Mac stuff onto it with a free HFS+ utility, which was my last hurdle to using Windows. So I was able to forgive Microsoft, seeing as though my hate of them was based on experiences I had a decade ago and buying all of Apple’s anti-Microsoft propaganda. This laptop became my primary computer for all of 2013, after my MacBook went to meet its maker in the big old Starbucks in the sky, and so far I haven’t had a single virus or incidence of data loss.

Of course, then Microsoft had to deplete all of their good will by releasing the horrid dreck that is Windows 8… but that’s another story.

So when my wife accidentally spilled water on her 8-year-old Windows XP-running Toshiba laptop last month, I was able to get her running on my HP laptop with no problems at all. All of her Windows programs run well on it, so she’s happy. Meanwhile, I wanted a new laptop so we could both get online at the same time, and I wanted a better Linux experience than the one the HP laptop could provide me. So I set out to get a cheap laptop on eBay that I could tinker with, that would tide me over until I could afford a new machine. One of my coworkers recommended Lenovo Thinkpads. They were rock-solid business laptops that you could get for extremely cheaply because companies lease them for three years, after which they end up flooding the market on eBay. I had also heard that they had excellent Linux support, and a small but devoted following of techies who worked on getting all the special Thinkpad bells and whistles working on Linux.

In January, I found an amazing deal on a Lenovo Thinkpad T400 with a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, and Intel GM45 Integrated Graphics for $120. Similar machines were running for $200 or more. So I snapped it up and had it shipped to my home. The hard disk was sold to me erased, for security reasons, I guess. I had originally intended to dual boot Windows 7 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, my current Linux distro of choice. But when I stuck the Ubuntu CD into the drive and turned it on, I was amazed. It had detected all of the hardware and ran it flawlessly. It even could activate the ThinkLight keyboard lamp, the TrackPoint pointing device, all of the media controls, and even the ThinkVantage button (which in the absence of the IBM/Lenovo ThinkVantage utility suite, defaults to activating Ubuntu’s help system.) And it wasn’t giving me any of the same eyestrain problems that I was experiencing on the other computer. So I just decided to put Ubuntu on the whole drive.

If occasion requires me to run Windows, I can just install it on a secondary hard drive, and just swap out the disks. Lenovo makes it so easy on this laptop–all you have to do is unscrew one screw on the bottom, pop out the drive caddy, and replace the drive with another one of your choice. I think I totally got my money’s worth with this laptop. It’s 5 years old, to be sure, but it beats the pants off of anything I could have gotten new at this price. And it has one of the best laptop keyboards I have ever used.


But I’m not about to join the Church of Lenovo… not yet, anyway. I hear their newer Thinkpads have dropped the iconic boxy look, magnesium roll cages, and great keyboards, and are are essentially commodity consumer laptops with Thinkpad branding. Kind of like that MacBook I bought. Oh well. Right now, I am happy with what I have, and happy that I can successfully compute in Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Unix, MS-DOS, and TI BASIC. That confounded Timex Sinclair 1000 still baffles me, though. Maybe I’ll try again with that one someday…

The first thing that popped up when I typed in "Timex Sinclair 1000 screenshot" into Google Images. I find it strangely appropriate.

Comments? Questions? Feedback? Contact me at wordpress (at) thewanderingnerd (dot) com, or leave a comment below!

My History of Computing, Part 3: Ten Years in the Cult of Apple

In Part 1 of My History of Computing, I discussed the series of beige boxes that got me through grade school and into college. In Part 2, I talked about my college years and my flirtations (and frustrations) with Windows, Mac and Linux boxes in the late 1990s. Now in Part 3, I am on my own, a confused kid with self-esteem and identity issues… prime pickings for the Apple cult…

In 2003, I couldn’t have been in a worse place. I had fallen out of college. I was fired from my job as a telemarketer, and couldn’t find another job in the post-9/11 economic slump. I sold all of my belongings just to stay fed, and when I ran out of belongings, I went to the one place I had left to me: my parents’ house in the middle of the desert. I was so emotionally depleted after the mess I had been in that it took over a year for me to even leave the house, and two and a half years to find another job.

But I at least had a computer that made things a little more bearable. Jeremy’s father gave it to me so I could use it to find another job. It was another Mac, or more specifically, a Mac clone: a PowerComputing PowerTower Pro 225. It was a pretty special machine, and it was upgraded to the hilt, with 256 MB of RAM, an IDE card so you could use regular PC hard drives, an expansion slot with 4 USB ports, and a lot of very nice Mac software. It also had the most comfortable keyboard I have ever used in my life: the Apple Extended Keyboard. It’s a lot like the Model M keyboard on my old 286, but not nearly as loud.


(Not my particular machine, but close enough. Picture courtesy this classified ad.)

Why did he get rid of it? He had to upgrade to a Power Mac G4 in order to run Mac OS X. The new Unix-based Mac operating system had come out recently and it wouldn’t run on any Mac clones. Killing the clone business was the first thing that Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple, and specifically locking the clones from upgrading to OS X was just another kick in the teeth. But I didn’t care; I had sold my AMD-K6 beige box to a scrap metal dealer for $20 so I could eat one day, and by this point, having Internet access was absolutely necessary for finding jobs and applying for classes at the local community college.

Unfortunately, that’s what made the PowerTower a bit of a problem. While I had absolutely no problem getting online with dialup Internet, people weren’t upgrading web browsers for Mac OS 9 anymore. Internet Explorer for Mac, which was never feature-complete compared to its Windows counterpart anyway, stopped at version 5.5, and most businesses in the early 2000s were writing web code for IE 6. And there was no Firefox for Mac OS 9; the best you could get was its predecessors: the last release of Netscape before it went defunct and an extremely slow and bulky obsolete version of Mozilla Communicator. So at one time I had about 6 browsers on my PowerTower which rendered web code differently and thus was able to browse many modern websites, albeit extremely slowly and clunkily. Not a very Mac-like experience, let me tell you.

Not just web browsers left the old machine behind. I was taking a Spanish class at the local community college in order to fill in some units I needed for my degree. It had a CD-ROM with software inside. The CD-ROM, even though all it included was some Flash or Shockwave-based flashcard software that my computer could run easily, required Windows or Mac OS X in order to install. At least I didn’t need the disk to pass the class. It got worse though. I sent out a bunch of resumes via email to prospective employers and I never got any responses. One of them did write back, however, to tell me that my resume, which was in Word 98 format, was garbled. Apparently Office for the Mac didn’t play well with Office for Windows.

There was another reason why I wasn’t getting any call backs: the job market in Southern California in the early 2000’s was flooded with young college grads with student loan debt who were taking any jobs they could in order to make ends meet. It was even worse where I was at because I lived in a rural area 30 miles from the nearest town, and 80 miles from anywhere with decent jobs. I knew then that in order to find a job, I would have to leave California.

So I went on my computer and typed “jobs that include housing” into Google, and lo and behold I found a site,, that listed seasonal jobs in national parks and far-off adventurous destinations. Wilderness and adventure weren’t what I went to school for, but I was desperate. So I filled out the online application for a certain national park hotel concessioner, which, thankfully enough, was a simple web form. A month later, I jumped on a Greyhound bus and went to a job as a front desk clerk in Yellowstone National Park.

(It was indeed a necessary move, not just for my career, but for my soul too. Before going to Yellowstone I had never seen anything like this before. I’ll write more about it later.)

In my national park jobs, I lived in a 10′ x 10′ dorm, so space was at an absolute premium. I knew that if I wanted a computer I’d have to get a laptop. Thankfully, by 2006, laptops had gone down in price considerably and were almost as cheap as desktop computers of the time. So I saved up all my money from working that summer, and the following summer, I got myself a MacBook, mid-2007 model, with a 2 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1 GB of RAM, and an 80 GB hard drive. It cost me $1100, while a comparable Windows-based laptop would have been hundreds cheaper. Why did I blow so much money on a MacBook? Well, I hadn’t actually used a Windows machine since the late 90s. I still saw Windows PCs as hard-to-run computers plagued by viruses and a terrible user interface. I also thought that since it had the Apple name on it, it would have the fantastic build quality and ease of use that I had come to associate with that brand. I also thought that it would be compatible with at least some of my Mac OS 9 software.


I was wrong on both counts. The white MacBooks were bargain-basement PCs in a slick white plastic wrapper. The screen was so washed-out in color that I found it hard to believe it was sold by the same company that made high-end machines for graphic artists. The screen had a view angle that was so narrow, you pretty much had to look dead ahead to see anything on it at all. My sister and I could not watch a movie on it at the same time, even if we were sitting butt-to-butt right in front of the computer. The speakers were a particular disappointment, as even when turned up all the way, they were still barely audible. And since Apple had replaced the PowerPC architecture in its computers to Intel chips, no Mac OS 9 software would run on it. So none of the awesome games and productivity software I had collected over the years would run on it. (I was able to get a few of the very old ones working via the mini-vmac emulator, but that’s about it.)

But I really didn’t care about this at the time. The computer was still ten times faster than the one I left in California, and a hundred times more portable. And I pretty much did everything in a web browser anyway. Sure, I couldn’t run Office 98 for Mac OS 9, but I had iWork, a Mac-only office suite that was like Microsoft Office, but shinier. And I discovered easy ways to organize my digital photos in iPhoto, edit my home videos in iMovie, and even make music in GarageBand. This was the multimedia platform I had been dreaming of since the days of staying up all night programming frequencies into my TI-99/4A just to make my machine beep “Eleanor Rigby.”

(This is Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Moog version of “Eleanor Rigby,” my inspiration for all the musical things I’ve done on a computer in my life. It’s absolutely beautiful, unlike all the musical things I’ve done on a computer in my life.)

So that was my computer for the next six years. The legendary build quality of the Macintosh line hadn’t transferred over to this model, though. The shiny white plastic chipped from the palm rests almost immediately, making hard jagged edges that made resting my palms on there quite painful. The DVD burner stopped burning DVDs right around the time the warranty ran out, and stopped reading DVDs a couple of years after that. The battery started expanding in its case, and I had to take it out of the computer for fear that it would explode. It started to feel that Apple had made this computer to be disposable.

They might as well have. 2007 was also the year that Apple created the iPhone, and their entire design philosophy changed to match. The iPhone was a powerful personal computer inside the body of a cellphone. Even though it was as powerful as the first iMac, however, it was locked down even more tightly. It had no user-serviceable parts, not even the battery, and no user-serviceable software. You were stuck with iOS and its limitations whether you jailbreaked it or not, and all software installed on iOS had to come from the Apple App Store, where Apple got a 30% cut of all sales.

This was okay for a phone, but then they started applying these principles to their computers too. First they started making Mac laptops with batteries soldered into the units.  If they had done that with the faulty batteries in the first MacBooks, my MacBook would have exploded. Then, they rolled out the Mac App Store in OS X 10.6. Then they made the upgrade for 10.7 only available in the App Store, which required you to give Apple your personal information and credit card number just to log on. In 10.7, they reskinned the interface of a lot of the built-in programs to look more like their iOS counterparts, and started popping up warnings whenever you installed software not downloaded from the Mac App Store.

Or so I heard. I couldn’t actually install 10.7, because it removed functionality that I needed, such as support for the Apple USB Modem, which I needed to get online via dialup at home. It also removed the Rosetta compatibility layer, so a lot of my old software wouldn’t work at all if I installed the update. It dawned on me that Apple could just remove functionality from my Mac at any time. And then 10.8 didn’t support my model of MacBook at all, for no good reason other than they didn’t feel like it. Eventually, I reasoned, Apple would have computers be just like their phones: locked down, closed-source, and made obsolete at the manufacturer’s whim so you would be forced to continually purchase new product.


I saw the writing on the wall, and I didn’t like it. But what were my other options? Windows, which came from a company with even worse business practices? Whose legendary instability and susceptibility to viruses supported an entire industry of anti-virus software manufacturers and shady “clean my PC” websites? Linux, the geeky operating system with poor hardware support that only die-hard technical geniuses could run, and then only on special computers with hand-picked custom components? Or do I just continue to pay Apple $1000 a year for the rest of my life?

I was able to put off that question until 2013, when my MacBook got hit with a power surge that turned it into a white brick. Unlike the Power Mac, it didn’t make a crashing noise when it turned on… it just died and stayed dead. That poor little trooper that had followed me to Yellowstone, to Zion, and to the Grand Canyon was now no more. I didn’t have $1000 for a new one, or $300-$400 for a used one as old as my dead companion. What made matters worse was that none of my friends at the Grand Canyon had a Mac that I could use to get my data off of my hard disk, which was formatted with the proprietary Mac-only HFS+ file system, which couldn’t be read on Windows without expensive software.

I guessed I would just have to “think different.”

Mystery Logo

Continued in Part 4…

My History of Computing, Part 2: From the Dogcow’s Hoof to the Penguin’s Talons

On May 6, 1998, Steve Jobs announced the iMac, the computer that brought Apple back from certain doom, completely revolutionized the computer industry, and paved the way for all the other iDevices. It was just like every other Mac computer that came before it, but the genius of the iMac was that it didn’t look like a computer. It looked like a shiny blue egg from outer space.  And it wasn’t marketed as a computer. It was an “information appliance.” Apple sold it as a quick way for people to get on the Internet without the “fuss” of plugging a rat’s nest of cables into a series of beige boxes, configuring hardware drivers and fighting with the operating system. You just, one, plugged it in, and two, turned it on. There was no step 3, as Jeff Goldblum pointed out in that famous commercial.

And people bought them in droves. It was the 1990s. People went crazy about anything to do with the Internet. Everything in the late 90s was “e-this” and “i-that” and “something dot com.” And they went nuts over the iMac because it got people on the Internet, and non-nerds could use it.  Seriously, everyone went so crazy for the iMac that you could put colorful translucent plastic on anything and it would sell like hotcakes… even things that had absolutely nothing to do with computers:

(pictured: not an iMac.)

I went crazy for the iMac, however, because it was a Mac. It ran Mac OS 9, which was far superior to Windows 95 in that it didn’t crash and was less susceptible to viruses. And there was a Macintosh way of doing things that was a whole lot more intuitive than Microsoft’s attempt at a GUI. You could install programs just by dragging them from the install disk folder into the Applications folder. Device drivers came packaged in “extension” modules that you could install or remove just by taking them out of the Extensions Folder. There was no Registry to fuck up. And while there wasn’t as much software for the Mac as there was for Windows, it was on average much higher quality and was supported by a well-meaning and enthusiastic band of Macintosh zealots. I still hold that Microsoft Word 5.1 for the Mac was the best word processor released for any operating system ever, and that subsequent releases of Word only added needless bloat. And Windows had nothing like Hypercard, which was like a combination database, application builder, and multimedia program all in one that totally rocked.

And the best thing about the iMac was that it was surprisingly affordable… well, for a Mac. $1000 was considered a cheap computer back in the days. It wasn’t affordable to me then, but I figured it would be someday. In the meantime, my friend and later roommate Jeremy, had bought an iMac, and he let me use his old Power Mac 6100. My Windows-running beige box was currently out for repairs, again, I took him up on it. And I fell in love with the Macintosh way of doing things. But then one day, I turn on the Mac… only to be greeted by what sounded like the screech of skidding tires and the clattering of broken glass. That was the Mac’s cutesy way of letting you know something was hopelessly broken. No helpful diagnostic beeps or screens of undecipherable error codes. Not even a Blue Screen of Death. Just a car crash noise. Jeremy, who was an Electrical Engineering undergrad, couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it either, so he took it away and I never saw it again, except years later at his house, where his mom had turned it into a planter.

So it was back to the beige box and my loathed adversary, Windows 98. I needed another hit of that sweet, sweet Apple Kool-Aid, but I didn’t have the money and Jeremy didn’t have any more old Macintoshes to give me. (He did have one of those very old black and white Mac SE/30s, but I think he was using it as a telnet server for a MUD he was running or something.) Meanwhile, I had another roommate, a music and engineering major named Rupert, who was also a Machead, but his machines also ran something called FreeBSD. It was a version of Unix, like the computers I used in the CS labs ran, and like the new and improved Mac OS that Apple kept promising, but unlike those, it was open source. That meant that anyone could download the source code for free, compile it on their own computers, and change it however they wanted. Open source meant that you were free to operate your computer without the interference of Microsoft, Apple, or any other corporation. Of course, the only part of that sentence I heard was “free”, so I asked Rupert how I could get this on my PC, and thus be able to toss Bill Gates, and his $89 “upgrades” that were more like downgrades, out on his rear.

Rupert hesitated for a while, and said that FreeBSD was very rough around the edges and not really for the average computer user. I thought that he was trying to insult me, but he then suggested that I try something slightly different. He called it “Linux.” Linux was another open source operating system like BSD, but it was written primarily for the PC architecture. It wasn’t as mature as BSD Unix, but there were distributions of Linux that were more geared towards desktop computing and had better hardware support. And it had a penguin for a mascot. I always thought penguins were awesome.


I got install disks for two Linux distributions, Red Hat 5.2 and Mandrake 9.0, by finding them in books at the school library on “how to install Linux.” I knew that I would be unable to dual-boot both Windows and Linux on my puny two gigabyte hard drive, so I decided to make a clean break of it. I saved whatever personal files I had onto Zip disks and purged the hard drive of Microsoft, hoping it would be for good. Red Hat was a bust–the CD-ROM drive couldn’t even read the disk. Turns out there was a scratch on it as long as my finger. I hoped the library didn’t think it was my fault.

Mandrake installed very easily–the installation was very user-friendly and fast, but once I started running it, problems began to emerge. X11 couldn’t understand my video card so it was stuck in 640 x 480, 16 color mode. I typed a bunch of mumbo jumbo into xorg.conf, and still no deal. I had to put in my old, non-3D-enhanced, video card to get a decent sized desktop. Then I couldn’t get the sound to work because it didn’t have a driver for my sound card. It also couldn’t read from my CD-ROM drive, which was weird because it installed from there! I wanted to go online to find a solution to these issues, but the Linux didn’t even see my Ethernet card, and wouldn’t use my dialup modem because it was something called a “Winmodem.”

I jumped on Jeremy’s iMac and went to Linux forums hoping for an answer to my problems, only to be told “RTFM, noob” in a brusque, mocking tone over and over again. I pored over man pages and walkthroughs on the Internet, digesting page upon page of obfuscated Unixy language and secret command-line code in a quest to get the machine working. This was definitely not a very Mac-like experience. Here I was, a Computer Science major at a major university, someone who had put a TI-99/4A back together from spare parts when I was twelve, someone who could squeeze every last kilobyte out of DOS’s 640 KB memory limit in order to play King’s Quest V on a 286, and I couldn’t get Linux to work. And I was being laughed at by my fellow nerds for even daring to try. Obviously, Linux was not yet ready for the desktop.

Rupert helped with the Linux whenever he could, but then, well… um… drama happened, and he left the apartment, and school, never to be seen again. I can’t really go into detail about it, but it was very ugly and I felt partly to blame for what happened. And that’s when life kind of started to fall apart for me. Jeremy and I moved to another apartment with another friend, but then my sister moved in, and things there started getting awkward. Since I didn’t have a working computer at home, and didn’t really want to be there anyway, I spent all my time at the computer lab. And instead of programming and doing my school work, I was browsing porn and looking for validation from strangers in online chat rooms. At this time I was taking prescription medication for depression, but this made me drowsy all the time and also caused severe emotional apathy, to the point that I didn’t realize, or didn’t care, that my grades were dropping and I was flunking all my classes. Before I knew it, I was out on my ass, with nothing to show for it all but $60,000 in student loan debt… and a broken computer that couldn’t even run Linux. And all I wanted was an iMac.

To be continued in Part 3, where I take the red pill… and see how far the Apple rabbit hole goes.

My History of Computing, Part 1: The Beige Years

I’ve been having a lot of fun lately on the AtariAge forums. Reading about people experimenting and creating homebrew projects with old 8-bit game consoles and computers really makes me nostalgic. Because of this, and because I just bought myself a new computer, I thought I would take a look back at all of the computers I have loved and lost.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the early 80’s, when computers were just coming out of the universities and major corporations into the average homes, businesses and schools of the world. Even in the low-rent area of the Mojave Desert where I grew up, my elementary school had a computer lab filled with Apple IIe’s and the occasional Commodore 64. I was fascinated by everything that had to do with this amazing machines. So when I turned seven years old in 1986 and my dad told me he bought me a computer, I was so excited. Was it an Apple? Was it a Commodore? Was it a TRS-80, a TI-99/4A, or an Atari 800? Was it like the incredible Tandy 1000 my cousin had? Um… no.


It was a Timex Sinclair 1000, the US version of the Sinclair ZX81. My dad, bless his heart, didn’t know a thing about computers, and he saw this one at a Thrifty Drug, of all places, at a liquidation sale and thought I would love it. I had never ever heard of this computer before, and there was a reason. It was a piece of crap. It had 2 KB of RAM, a black and white only display, and a membrane keyboard (like the ones on your microwave oven) that required herculean strength (at least to a seven-year-old) in order to register any keypresses. It was an incredible disappointment. It didn’t play King’s Quest, Oregon Trail, or Epyx California Games. In fact, we couldn’t get anything to play at all. We spent hours trying to get the “Mixed Grab Bag” software to load from the cassette that came with the computer. I did some of the BASIC exercises in the manual, but soon enough it went into the closet, and I went back to my Atari 2600.

It would be years before we had another computer in the house. Our family moved a lot and we didn’t really have a lot of money. But I was very happy that a friend of my mother’s gave me a TI-99/4A and a whole bunch of stuff for it for free in the early 1990s. Her son was blind, and her husband had tried to create a program with the TI’s speech synthesizer module in order to help him communicate with the outside world. But her husband had died, and her son hated the voice that came out of the computer. He said it was too creepy and gave him nightmares. So even though it was very obsolete at this point and everyone I knew had already moved on to Amigas and Macintoshes and 286 and 386 PCs, I gave it a good home and set out to plumb its secrets.

Since having a computer that could speak to you was a novelty to me at the time, I used the Speech Synthesizer, mostly to hear it say profanities, to laugh at how it poorly pronounced words, and to creep out my friends and family with its clipped, robotic monotone. I also programmed a lot in the included BASIC and the TI Extended BASIC cartridge. I used it to do my math homework. I didn’t have a fancy graphing calculator to do trigonometry homework, so I wrote my own graphing program. I also wrote a program to do matrix multiplication, which was easy when I figured out that a matrix was just a two-dimensional array of variables. Any four-year-old with a copy of Microsoft Excel can multiply matrices in two seconds, but I didn’t have a spreadsheet program, so I had to make do.

Later on, into high school, I also used it to create various graphics and sound demos which would play during my school’s weekly student-made news broadcast. Unlike the PC, it was easy to get stuff from the TI-99/4A onto a tape because it hooked up directly to a TV. I was very fond of the three-channel music you could get out of the TI’s sound chip, and spent many, many hours typing notes from sheet music into a BASIC program so I could hear Mozart and the Beatles played in tinny beepy amazement. I wish I had some of this stuff now to show you guys, but all those tapes went into a shed in the back yard that unbeknownst to us, became a impromptu chicken coop.

This is nothing I did, but it’s a good demonstration of the kind of sound demos I was doing on the TI-99/4A at the time, plus it’s pretty darn cool!

And I and my parents knew that this tiny computer wouldn’t carry me through high school, and especially not college, where something called the “Internet” was quickly becoming a big deal, and news of which had reached the lips of people even in my tiny town 30 miles from the closest T1 line. So my parents went into debt and bought a used IBM 286 for about $500. It was built like a tank and was nearly as large. It came with 1 MB of RAM, a 40 MB hard drive, and MS-DOS 6.22. Windows 3.1 also came pre-installed, but the speed at which it ran made GEOS on a Commodore 64 seem fast by comparison.


Even though it was super-slow compared to the 386s and 486s at my high school, it was still a “real computer,” and that made it awesome. I could type papers in WordPerfect 5.1 on a full-size display and a full-travel keyboard (one of the original IBM Model Ms with the clicky keys, wish I still had it) and print it out on the behemoth Epson dot-matrix printer we had or on the laser printers at school. I could do crude desktop publishing; in fact I helped one of my father’s friends make a newsletter for her church. I could use Quattro Pro to do math problems and basic accounting. I could design flyers for school events in Windows 3.1 Paintbrush. I could play a lot of the Tandy 1000 games that my cousin had, although it was still too slow for Wolfenstein and Doom. I didn’t do much BASIC programming for it though… there was never really much call for it. I already had all the programs I needed, and the ones I didn’t have (like Internet access) were far too complex to be cobbled together with my juvenile computer skills.

I couldn’t take the behemoth to college with me, because it was already several years out of date by 1996 and would have been nearly useless to me because everyone in college was running Windows 95 and getting on the Internet, neither of which the 286 could do. Also, my mom needed it for her own paper-typing and bookkeeping. So I took some student loan money and went on a shopping spree to, the precursor to the famous NewEgg. I bought a refurbished, no-name AMD-K6 233 MHz (a Pentium clone) machine with 32 MB of RAM and a 2 GB hard drive, a 15″ VGA monitor, and a 100 MB Zip drive (remember those pieces of crap?) for $600 in 1997.

JACKPUTE(Me sitting in front of my Big Beige Box, circa 2000 or so. You can’t see the machine very well itself, but if you were to do a Google Image Search for “generic beige tower,” you will get a pretty good idea of what it looked like. And that other beige behemoth to the left of the monitor is a good ol’ Apple LaserWriter Select 360. Best damn printer ever.)

Even though it was woefully underpowered even compared to machines of the time, it was the first computer I ever purchased with my own money, and it was my near-constant companion throughout my turbulent college career and for many years afterwards. I had upgraded to WordPerfect Office 8 (because then, as now, Microsoft Office was prohibitively expensive) and was churning out papers like nobody’s business. I was exploring the Wild West of cyberspace on dialup, reading primitive webpages about Mr. T eating people’s balls and Barney the Dinosaur being the Anti-Christ. (Lolcats and Youtube had not yet been invented.) I was discovering my sexuality through web content my parochial, small-town conservative upbringing did not in the least prepare me for. I had also discovered the amazing concept that you could use a computer to emulate other computers, and I put hundreds of hours into playing classic video games via early DOS-based emulators such as Nesticle and Genecyst.


But not all was fluffy digital clouds and CGI rainbows in my computer world. My cheapo clone was poorly built and sometimes the CD-ROM drive or power supply would just stop working… and then start again. After upgrading to Windows 98, every system upgrade after that seemed to make my computer slower and less useful. Making contemporary 3D games run on my computer and its “Voodoo” graphics card required more peeks, pokes, and undocumented feature exploits than Commodore 64 assembly programming. And I also lost more than one term paper due to the Zip drive’s famed “click of death” or worse, from a computer virus. Computer viruses ran rampant through our university networks, and in the mid-to-late 1990s, they were mutating faster than famed bespectacled nerd Peter Norton or famed fugitive nutcase John McAfee could fight them. After reloading everything onto my computer from dozens of CD-Rs for the ninth time and crying myself to sleep, I started to wish for the good old days of the TI-99/4A when I didn’t have to worry about this crap.

But then, I learned that not everyone at my school was having the same problems I was with their computers. Many of my classmates in the Computer Science program had Macintosh systems with PowerPC chips. My friend Jeremy had a PowerMac 6100, that even though it only had a 60 MHz processor, still ran rings around my 233 MHz Pentium clone. For starters, he could play MP3s, have a web browser open downloading a file, and play a video game at the same time–something my poor machine struggled to do. And Macs didn’t get viruses, or so he said.

He also kept talking about the fact that soon, Apple was going to release this brand-new operating system called Copland, or Rhapsody, or something like that, that would actually be real UNIX, like the $10,000 Sun and NeXT workstations in our Computer Science labs. It was at that moment that something in my soul burned, and I knew that I needed to get one of these amazing miracle Macintosh machines…


To be continued in Part 2…

Family news and a new toy

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in over a week, but I was very busy. For you see, my fiancee is now my wife. We got married last weekend, or more accurately, we eloped. We were planning this huge wedding in the national park where we both work, but we couldn’t figure out the logistics (and the expense) of getting all my family there from California and getting all her family there from the Midwest and finding accommodations for them all. And we started thinking about all the people we wanted to invite, and all the people we had to invite, and soon it just became this huge fiasco. We knew that we would be miserable trying to have the wedding her parents wanted us to have, and we would piss off a good deal of people by having the wedding we wanted to have. So we decided to piss everybody off and save them the cost of airfare by jumping in the car, getting married in the county courthouse, and spending the weekend at a delightful bed and breakfast that we were almost too sad to leave.

(Artist’s conception of the wedding, courtesy of Bitstrips)

And there’s more news as well. When we got home from our rushed weekend honeymoon, I had a package waiting for me… my birthday present. Last month, I bought a cheapo computer off of eBay to tide us over until my wife (wow, it’s still so strange and so wonderful to call her “my wife”) got the new laptop she wanted. I got an amazing deal for just $100. I bought a Lenovo Thinkpad T400 with 4 GB of RAM and a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. Even though it only had Intel GM45 graphics and didn’t come with a hard drive, it was still an incredible bargain. I had seen similar models go recently on eBay for twice this price.


I had been looking for a decent used Thinkpad for quite some time. For years, I had heard about how reliable and well-built the Thinkpad line was, from the IBM days onward, and all the features built in: the roll cage that protected the motherboard, the spill-proof full-travel keyboard, the built-in keyboard light, the hard-drive shock absorber, the ability to easily swap out the CD-ROM for a second hard drive, and then some. But they were business laptops and therefore considerably more expensive than ones designed for average schmoes. Which is why I was so excited to find a Thinkpad new enough to be a decent web browsing and emulator machine on eBay for such a decent price.

I put a Ubuntu install disk into the machine in order to test it. I was going to make sure that all the pieces worked before I went to all the trouble of getting  a hard drive for the thing, installing Windows 7, and tracking down all the dozens of driver files one needs to get a modern laptop running. But, as I was playing in Ubuntu, I discovered that it had detected all my hardware flawlessly (even the TrackPoint and the media buttons) and was running quite fast even from the CD. It was the most painless Linux experience I had ever had with any of my computers. So I decided to say “screw it” to Windows and install Ubuntu to the hard drive. It does just about everything a computer needs to do, it has most of the classic game emulators I like, and I didn’t want to download hundreds of megabytes of drivers, patches, and software updates in Windows just so I could use Microsoft Office or attempt to play some 3-D Windows games that probably wouldn’t run well in Intel graphics anyway.

So, in the future, I’m going to be writing about my new Thinkpad, discovering the joys of Linuxing on it, and continuing to work through the Atarimania 2600 ROM collection looking for unique and awesome games to turn into nostalgi-retro articles for this blog. But most of all, I will enjoy being married… to my wife. My nerdy and wonderful wife. So you may not hear from me for a while.