Freedom of speech is officially dead

In South Carolina last week, a teenager was arrested and suspended from school for writing a story in which a man shoots a dinosaur. And today in Maryland, 23-year-old middle school teacher Patrick McLaw was arrested, put under “emergency medical evaluation” and held at “an undisclosed location” because he wrote a science-fiction novel about a fictional school shooting 900 years in the future. This is the future of America, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t be surprised if they come for you next based on your “24” fanfiction. Now you know why I haven’t been blogging lately.

YA novel plot that’s been stuck in my head for years

By Jack Mileur

Based on some cartoons I drew in high school and 20 years of reliving bad high school memories

Coming this fall to FOX!

Fourteen-year-old scrapper Jack Dinero has been waging a one-man war against the inner-city drug dealers who hooked and killed his mother. However, his vigilante actions have made him a target for every criminal lowlife in the city. To save his son, Jack’s father moves him out to Creosote Canyon, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. But their idyllic dreams of peace and quiet in small-town living would soon be crushed. Creosote Canyon High School is a dilapidated wreck where ruthless teenage bullies terrorize the student body and disrupt the educational process. Jack decides to take them on to protect the innocent, but he’ll not only have to fight the bullies, but a leftist principal with an axe to grind, a sadistic PE coach who has his own twisted agenda, an apathetic faculty who care more about their tenure than their students, and a system designed to keep the good kids down. It’s too much for Jack Dinero to take on alone. Can he make some friends for this fight, or will he be destined to remain a “sullen teenage rebel?”

(Okay, I’m just bored. But I might actually turn this into something someday.)

I am a nerd; nobody can take that from me

Last week’s Comicon in Phoenix thoroughly drained my resolve. It made me question my nerd-identity. I wandered around the mass of well-dressed, attractive 18-25 year-olds, many of whom basing their costumes on animes and shows I had never even heard of before, thinking “Is this what a nerd is these days? Am I still a nerd, or am I too uncool to even hang with nerds anymore?” However, I have now come to my senses. I am still a nerd. I have been and always shall be a nerd. I’m not going to let the narrow definition of nerdness put forth by convention promoters define who I am. A nerd is not what someone appears like on the outside, but who they are inside. And on the inside, I fit all the classic definitions:

When I was eight, I spent my entire summer vacation at my cousins’ house in LA programming adventure games in BASIC into their Tandy 1000. I had to be dragged away from that location so that my cousins could take me to Disneyland and the beach.

When I was nine, I taught myself several words of German by comparing the sections in a multi-lingual instruction manual that came with Defender for the Atari 2600. Not that I could carry on a conversation with anyone with words like “Spiel” (game), “Kriegspiel” (wargame) or “Punkten” (points) but it was enough for me to know that other languages existed and that they could be understood given time and effort.

When I was 15, when asked to do a group project with another classmate in my “television production” class, instead of dealing with the embarrassment of having to ask someone to be my partner, I called upon my computer to be my partner and stayed up late every night for the next two weeks programming an elaborate CGI cartoon to fulfill that assignment (well, as elaborate as one could get on a TI-99/4a Home Computer with 48 KB of RAM). I still only got a C because “it was supposed to be a group project!”

When I was in high school, before I even knew of such a thing as the Internet, I wrote Star Trek and Lord of the Rings fanfiction… that didn’t involve slash pairings of anyone… and oh yeah, it was in French.

When I was in college, I spent more of my time playing Final Fantasy VII and Civilization II than going to classes or doing homework assignments, and I still passed my classes… mostly.

Far be it from me to base my identity on past achievements (not that they got me anywhere anyway). But even today…

I can name pretty much everybody who starred in the five series of Star Trek, but I couldn’t name you ten pro athletes (that haven’t been in the news lately) or the teams they’re on.

I prefer “children’s” television shows and movies to the sex, drugs and violence-filled nonsense they say is mature “adult” entertainment. I’d rather watch Spongebob make a fart joke than see Jaime Lannister fuck his sister any day of the week. To be fair, however, one of my favorite TV miniseries is I, Claudius, which has more than its share of incest and butchery, but they have the good sense and fair taste to leave most of that off-screen. Plus it’s historical, which makes it okay in my book.

Last night, I was in bed with a naked woman (aka my wife), and I was too busy reading a Wikipedia article about Klingons to notice.

I find it frustrating and annoying when I’m talking to people and they say I’m using too much “college talk.” I’m not trying to confuse or patronize anybody, that’s just the way I talk. Sometimes a “big word” just slips out that I don’t realize is not in most people’s vocabularies. Like “vocabulary.”

I go to a comic book convention or a comic book store not to look for X-Men or Superman, but Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. I also look for Astérix, Tintin, and Lucky Luke, but only if they’re in the original French.

I watch Disney movies… unironically. And I don’t have kids.

My dream is to live in an underground house shaped like a Hobbit hole.

I’ve watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail approximately fifty times, and it still makes me laugh.

I’m learning French right now, but not just to do the tourist thing in Paris. I think it would be pretty neat to read Voltaire, Hugo, and Montaigne in the original language, as well as reading news and literature from the world that Anglo-American corporate interests don’t care to translate.

Once I have reached a certain fluency in French, I want to work my way around the other Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese) and eventually learn Latin. Outside of the Vatican and a few university classics departments, Latin is about as useful in the modern world as speaking Klingon, but it was the language of art, science, politics and culture in the Western world for over 2,000 years, so it’s got to count for something.

And oh yeah, I want to learn Klingon too. So I can finally understand Shakespeare.

And I think I might get back to German, too, if only to be able to read the rest of that Atari manual.

So yeah. I think I am very much a nerd. That, or a very peculiar, uncool hipster. Nerd is something that I will always be. If Star Trek ceased to exist, I would still be a nerd. If Tolkien never wrote the Lord of the Rings, the world would be a much sadder place, but I would still be a nerd. And just because I’m not a tech billionaire or a social networking millionaire or the target audience for Comicons doesn’t mean my nerdness is any less important or valuable than any other’s. At the end of the day, I’ll still be misunderstood, made fun of, and unpopular. And that’s what being a nerd is all about.

Phoenix Comicon Woes


(Here’s a picture of the Phoenix skyline. I didn’t actually get any pictures at Comicon. To know why, read below.)


Last weekend, my wife and I packed up the Ford Escape and went down to Phoenix for Comicon. We had hoped to get in touch with our fellow nerds, get some awesome nerdy merchandise to decorate our new apartment, and find out neat stuff about the shows and books we liked. I wanted to see Star Trek stuff and meet Uncle Scrooge artist Don Rosa, and L (my wife) wanted to get Dresden Files author Jim Butcher’s autograph and go to Firefly panels.

What we got was not what we expected, but probably, in retrospect, we should have. Phoenix was burning hot—of course it would be, it was June. I did okay. I grew up in the broiling hot deserts of Victorville and Barstow, and my body was able to acclimate to the hundred degree temps, albeit grudgingly. My wife, who is from Michigan originally, was not able to acclimate. She was fine as long as she was in an air-conditioned building—however, Comicon was spread out among the three buildings of the Convention Center as well as four other hotels in the area. To get from a panel in the North Building to one in the Radisson, two blocks away, took about 15 minutes because of all of the crowds and roadblocks we had to go around in order to get there. By Saturday evening, poor L was red as a beet and about to faint. The only shuttles or public transportation they had available were sweaty people on pedicab tricycles and the Phoenix Light Rail, which never seemed to get us close enough to the Convention Center or to our hotel room to be of much use at all. So on Sunday we drove to the convention—but the closest available parking garage was still half a mile away from where we wanted to be and they charged us $12 for the “convenience” of using it.

And the crowds—oh god, the crowds! I probably should have seen that coming too. Every corridor in the Convention Center was wall-to-wall people, including people with angel wings or spiky shoulder pads on their costume that would poke you as they passed, inconsiderate youngsters that would just stop right in front of you to take a picture of somebody in a costume and block the way for everyone else, people with onboard PA systems in their suits that would play awful music, and lots of people in militaristic costumes with full armor and very realistic-looking guns. Not just your standard fantasy knights or Halo Spartans or Stormtroopers, but people dressed like US Special Forces, complete with ghillie suits and sniper rifles, and “zombie hunters” that were better armed and armored than your average SWAT team. Add to the mix about five thousand security personnel and actual policemen barking orders in all directions, and the combined effect was enough to trigger both mine and my wife’s claustrophobia and agoraphobia on several occasions.

I didn’t go to nearly as many panels as I wanted to go because I couldn’t deal with pushing my way through the crowds and feeling trapped in that roiling sea of humanity. Meanwhile, L missed one of her panels because she accidentally wandered into a prohibited area of the Convention Center and a security guard repeatedly called her “Sir” as he shouted at her to leave. My wife is chubby, to be sure, but seriously? Being repeatedly mistaken for a man was enough to make her extremely upset. She was already upset about feeling invisible among the tens of thousands of people who just wouldn’t get out of the way for us.

Not that any of the actual panels we went to were very good, mind you. The con’s major Firefly panels were a Browncoats cosplay forum and one entitled “Why Firefly is Dead and You Should Really Just Move On.” Seriously? That’s like telling a Tolkien fan that they shouldn’t read Lord of the Rings anymore because Tolkien’s been dead for forty years, and all the cool kids are into George R. R. Martin now, and they should just shut up. All the Star Trek panels I went to seemed to be too interested in the JJ Abrams movies, which I guess is what’s popular these days, but I wanted to talk about Picard and Data. I went to an entertainment panel on “Which Captain is the Best,” however, and while pedantic and silly, like all “Kirk vs. Picard vs. Sisko vs. Janeway vs. Archer” battles have been since the 1980s, it was at least fun. And it seemed like every panel was set up to sell you something. Even the “Astronomy of Middle Earth” panel we went to was essentially a commercial for the presenter’s Mobile Inflatable Planetarium business, which she uses to present astronomy lectures to elementary schools, birthday parties, business luncheons, and weddings, apparently.

And there was a comedy panel I went to where the comedian was extremely insulting and unfunny. At one point, she called Star Trek fans “fags” because they “invented slash fiction.” Really? She couldn’t do any better? Star Trek fans present so much humor, you could do an entire hour of comedy on them alone. And they’re so self-deprecating—they even thought it was funny when William Shatner told them to “get a life” on Saturday Night Live. But to call us fags? I just got up and walked out of the room. I wanted intelligent discussion about science fiction and fantasy and sequential art and to meet other pedantic, overly intellectual geeks like myself—instead I got panic attacks, never-ending commercials, and insults about one’s sexuality thrown at both my wife and myself.

I guess I should have expected this, but I at least thought that the convention organizers would at least throw a bone to old nerds like me. But no, this thing was geared completely towards the 12-20 year old crowd who just consume all the new comics and shows and buy what popular culture tells them to buy. It didn’t answer the big gaping hole in my heart, my deep need to connect and share and belong with people like myself, intellectual nerds who I can talk to with my entire vocabulary, not just the limited subset of words I hold myself back to in order to not be made fun of by the illiterate rednecks I live and do business with on a regular basis. I want to discuss things like science without having to rad it up 30% for people who normally don’t give a shit about discovery or space or curing cancer, like at the one panel I went to, “Adventures in Science,” where ASU grad students talked about all the times they “almost died” when they went to Africa to install radio telescopes. I wanted to know more about what they were actually studying with those telescopes, but my question was drowned out in a sea of questions about “Was it scary when you found that scorpion in your boot?” This is Phoenix we’re talking about here, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Scorpions in your boots are a regular occurrence around these parts, or at least they were when I grew up.

So I don’t think either my wife or I will go to that one again. We’re still looking for our nerd home.



French lessons

Lately, I have been trying to relearn French so I can help my elderly father fulfill his lifelong wish to travel to France, to meet his relatives and see his father’s grave in Alsace-Lorraine. I’ve been doing so mostly by watching DVDs of Disney movies and other films I know by heart with the French audio track on, and by reading anything I come across that isn’t too complicated, mostly children’s stories so far. I ran into one today on Project Gutenberg that was quite weird. Called Entre Nous: Lectures Françaises à l’Usage des Écoles Primairesit seems to be the French version of “See Spot Run,” a collection of simple stories for teaching young children. It was written in 1904, but I’m having no trouble with the language, as it is indeed very simple.

The stories themselves, however, are quite weird. The first story seems to be about a couple of very young kids, Jean and Marie, who are playing “papa et maman” with their toy dolls standing in for children. One of the dolls, Paul, is very naughty and eats sugar right out of the sugar jar. Jean and Marie catch him at it and get very annoyed. Jean punishes Paul by hitting him, which causes him to fall off the table. In the process, his arm falls off. Jean leaves and comes back as “le docteur,” and tells Marie that he will heal the wayward child. Jean goes into the kitchen and asks “la bonne,” who is apparently his family’s servant (it was 1904, I guess) for a piece of twine. He ties Paul’s arm to the sleeve of his chemise and tells Marie that Paul is cured. Marie sees her mutilated son and says “But how will he be able to work when he is older?” Jean says, with typical Gallic pragmatism, that “he can always be a singer; then he won’t need his arms.”


In the words of Buzz Lightyear, “I don’t believe that man’s ever been to medical school.”

I wonder what this was supposed to teach young French kids from 110 years ago. That child abuse causing horrible mutilation is okay as long as the victim can still sing for his supper? Apparently, it was a different time and place back then. Oh well, I’m still having fun.

Buyer’s Remorse

One thing I have discovered in this last month, while I was frittering away my time not writing, is how my Facebook friends react to my writing. If I write about the Atari 2600, I’ll maybe get one or two hits on my blog, and maybe a comment on how they remembered that from their childhood. If I write about Mario, Zelda, and other Nintendo games, I might get a high five or two. If I write about Linux, the only feedback I get is chirping crickets.

If I write about cars… suddenly, everybody has something to say.

Maybe I should write more about cars. It would definitely fit the “wandering” part of The Wandering Nerd. And even non-nerds love cars… or love to hate them.

Over the last month, I’ve definitely had a love-hate relationship with George, the 2003 Ford Escape I bought at a fleet auction back in February.

(Who is definitely an Autobot, not a Decepticon. Decepticons have way more style.)

The first thing that happened to the truck was that the check engine light came on a few days after I started driving it. It turned out to be the EGR valve, or rather, a wire came loose on one of the sensors attached to the EGR valve. It was an easy fix, but still cost me $60 at the local mechanic’s.

The check engine light turned off after that, but soon came on again. I took it to the mechanic again, and he plugged in his little computer, which told him that one of the sensors in the catalytic converter had “reduced efficiency.” He told me that it was probably nothing and that I shouldn’t worry about it. So I didn’t worry about it. And then a few weeks later, while driving my extremely sick wife to the hospital, the truck broke down. Thank goodness I was still in range of the cellphone tower or we might have been stuck there for quite a while. But thanks to friends and to AAA, we got my wife to the hospital and George back to the garage, where it was discovered that the catalytic converter system was completely clogged up with 11 years’ worth of exhaust particles, dust, and other crap.

In retrospect, I should have expected that. The Escape was used as a patrol car by my company’s Fire & Security department, driven anywhere from 50 to 100 miles a day for short trips at low speeds, with long amounts of time spent idling the engine. Under normal circumstances, cats can last the lifetime of your car, but these were hardly normal circumstances. On the other hand, since that little SUV seldom went above 45 mph (the maximum speed limit here in the national park where I work) and had all of its scheduled preventative maintenance, the engine is still in excellent shape. So you win some, you lose some.

But I digress. When I picked George up a few days later, the mechanic told me that he gutted the system, so now the exhaust is flowing freely. The car would destroy the environment approximately five times faster than before, but at least it was drivable. And he said that since the blockage was removed, the engine would be more responsive and I would get better gas mileage. He was right about that though. My in-town MPG was 19 before, now it’s about 22. And on the highways, if I stick to the speed limit, George is good for almost 30 MPG. I’ve confirmed this with an UltraGauge. I will need to get a new catalytic converter if I ever move to a county or state that requires smog inspections… or then again, I could just sell George here in the park and buy a new car when it’s time to move on.

I will admit that during George’s convalescence, I’ve been looking hard into buying a new car… now. I kept thinking “this SUV is going to be more trouble than it’s worth; I’d better just cut my losses and trade it in on something a bit more stylish and reliable.” I kept trolling the local Craigslist listings to see who was selling something I would like to change to. I thought first maybe a small car with good gas mileage, like the Tercels and Civics my ecologically-conscious parents used to own.

(Pictured: my dad’s dream car, circa 1982.)

The 1982 Toyota Tercel we owned was pretty dang awesome. Just look at that vibrant shade of yellow; 30 years and 300,000 miles did little to dint its sheen. This car got 40 miles per gallon easy, 10 years before the Geo Metro and 20 years before the Prius. And you could put an awful lot of cargo in that hatchback, especially if you put the rear seats down. It had no radio, no AC, no power anything, it had a top speed of 40 mph, and the driver’s door had to be opened from the inside, but this Tercel was awesome and damn near bulletproof… until the transmission went and my dad thought it best to sell it for scrap. Truly, my fantasies of getting an old Tercel for dirt cheap were dashed by the fact that if I had one of these cars, I’d probably have even more problems with it than I currently have with the Ford Escape. Not to mention that it would be a sitting duck on the highway, where 75 mph is considered the “minimum speed limit.”

And the Tercel’s modern-day equivalent, the Toyota Yaris, is nowhere near as solid a car. I rented one once, and it felt extremely plasticky. The seats were cheap and uncomfortable. The cargo area could hold maybe two shopping bags and the spare tire. The passenger area was so small, I almost felt like I was larger than the car. It felt a bit like driving a Power Wheels car, except you would be insane to drive a Power Wheels on the freeway. Which I was doing, much to my chagrin, in Los Angeles, at rush hour, on a holiday weekend. While it was capable of matching the speeds of the cars around it, it was not a very stable car at 80 mph, and a single gust of wind could move it out of a traffic lane. Which it did, right into the wheel well of a huge Dodge pickup, which was trying to change lanes at the same time I was skidding out of mine:


Yeah, that truck’s wheel well came up to the Yaris’ door handle. If I hadn’t regained control of the vehicle in time, I would have died. The Yaris was severely dented, and the truck got barely a scratch, but the truck’s driver had the gall to sue the rental car company’s insurance agent for $1800 because “his baby” got “totaled.” Meanwhile, I had to drive 100 miles back to my parents’ house in a wrecked car, having panic attacks the entire way. And that was in 2009. I severely doubt the Yaris has gotten much better. I also doubt that the other cars in its class (Mazda 2, Ford Fiesta, Chevy Spark, the Smart Car, etc.) are any safer or fun to drive. What good is awesome fuel economy if you’re dead?

So maybe a subcompact econo-box wasn’t in my future, especially in Northern Arizona, where everybody drives a huge truck. But what about something larger than a Yaris, yet smaller than a SUV? Maybe something from a manufacturer with a track record for safety? Maybe… a Volvo?


I have always loved station wagons. Comfortable ride like a passenger car, but with lots of cargo space. I remember many an hour spent in the back of my family’s Toyota Corona station wagon as a kid, watching the world recede from me from the back window. And the best maker of station wagons these days? Volvo, a company with a record for safe, reliable, well-engineered vehicles. The fact that they’re one of the only car companies still making station wagons into the 21st century is besides the point. So today, I looked on Craigslist and saw a 2001 Volvo V70 on sale for $4500. I was almost about to call my bank, until I read the description and realized that while it was a good car that still ran, I wouldn’t be getting too much of an upgrade over the Ford Escape. It had a similar amount of miles on it, it had similar gas mileage (22/27 on the Volvo vs. 19/25 on the Escape), and it had much less cargo space. The only things I would be getting that the Escape didn’t have would be leather seats and a rumble seat in the back sized for two children. Big whoop. And since Volvo in those days was owned by Ford, I’d essentially be driving a Ford anyway.

So, I’m sticking with George for now. It might not get the gas mileage of a subcompact but it’s way more versatile. I can transport 5 adults in relative comfort along with all their luggage. Since it has a short wheelbase with the weight of the car well-centered thereon, it handles more like a car than a big, lumbering station wagon. And when you put the rear seats down, you can haul as much cargo as a small pickup truck. Or, you can put a full-sized mattress in the back and enjoy the fun of camping without the pine cones, rocks and critters which inevitably end up invading your tents and sleeping bags. So, it’s not the car I would have chosen for myself… but I am glad I have him. And I’m going to keep driving him until he dies, or until the smog test police come my way.

Some days in the park with George

I’m sorry I haven’t written anything in the last month or so. I have found a new obsession. His name is George and he is a 2003 Ford Escape with a 3.0 litre V6 Duratec engine and four-wheel drive. Yes, after all this time, I have finally purchased a car of my own. I know it’s weird for someone to have gotten to the age of 35 in this day and age without having their own automobile, but I was previously hampered by an extreme lack of money. With that problem taken care of by my admin assistant job for a tour bus and taxi service, however, I decided to bid on an auction for a former fleet car they were getting rid of.

I had fallen in love with the Ford Escape from the minute the company was deciding to dispose of it. For a 11-year-old old SUV with 200,000 miles on it, it was in great shape. There was no body damage apart from a few scratches and the engine looked pristine. And since it was a company car, I knew our garage had done all the scheduled oil changes and preventative maintenance. So I looked on the Kelly Blue Book website, and that gave me an estimated private-party sale value for the Escape of about $3,400. So for my bid, I divided that in half, giving me $1,700, and in order to throw off someone who might try the same thing, added a random number to it that sounded auspicious. So I bid $1,776.00 on it. And I won the Ford Escape on February 20, 2014.

Of course I was later to learn that the next highest bidder only bid $700 on it, but I didn’t care. It was still half of Blue Book and once I took care of whatever minor problems it had, I could probably sell it in the closest city for $4000, based on what I’d seen on Craigslist. But I decided I wasn’t going to sell it. I had bonded with the car already. I had already given it a name: George, after George Washington, since I bid $1,776 on him and I won him on President’s Day.


I think I got a fantastic deal with George. Around here, $2000 will barely get you a piece of crap car with one or more doors or windows broken or missing, a bumper held on with duct tape, and the ominous ad description of “needs work.” As it stands, George runs great. His V6 engine has great acceleration and purrs like the proverbial kitten. Four-wheel drive works as well, although the only chance I’ve had to test it is going down a forest service road for a few miles. All the doors and windows work like they should. The interior, while not factory condition, at least does not have any serious rips or tears.

(But it does come with an awesome sun shade!)

The only mechanical problems so far are a small oil leak (which is not too serious or surprising, given the age of the car) and one of the catalytic converters is returning a problem code of reduced efficiency, which will only present a problem if I want to register it in a county or state that requires smog inspections. Since I’m not planning on moving anytime soon, I’ll just drive it for a few years or until a newer, more fuel-efficient vehicle catches my eye.

Ever since I got George, I’ve been obsessed with learning about cars. I never bothered to do anything with cars growing up. I was far more interested in video game cars than the real thing. Heck, I didn’t even get my driver’s license until I was in my late 20’s. So I have been catching up for lost time and busily absorbing all the information I can on the Ford Escape and its engine and how to do basic maintenance like oil changes and tire changes and reading the trouble codes with an OBD-II scanner. I’ve been poring over message boards like Escape City and sites like Fuelly to find out what other people have been doing with their Escapes and how to get the maximum amount of mileage out of the old beast. I’ve even been binge watching the British car show Top Gear, where three TV presenters and a masked race car driver tool around various exotic world locales in the kinds of supercharged sports and luxury vehicles you average blokes would never even see in real life, much less drive. They’d never touch a Ford Escape with a ten-foot pole, but I don’t care, because I’m obsessed with cars now. All kinds of cars. I even want to get a small sports car with a manual transmission now so I can feel closer to the road.

(Like this Geo Metro convertible… ’90s chicks dig denim jackets, 3-cylinder engines, and cars that crawl up Cajon Pass in second gear.)

I would have never thought in a million years that a SUV, of all things, would bring out my car lust. Growing up, we always had compact cars that got excellent gas mileage. It’s the kind of car you need when you live in Southern California, you’re poor, and you commute 100+ miles on the freeway to work and back every day. I always saw SUVs as gas-guzzling monstrosities driven by small-penised men with insecurity issues and suburban housewives whose idea of going off-road was parking in the gravel section of the church parking lot but they wanted the monster-truck tires and 18,000 lb. towing capacity “just in case.” My leftist public-school indoctrination had convinced me that SUVs were the reason the environment was fucked up and we were all going to die because us fat, evil American pigs wouldn’t give up our ozone-depleting urban assault vehicles.

Moving to a remote village in Northern Arizona changed my mind about SUVs, however. Out here, half the cars are Subaru station wagons and the other half are a SUV or a big pickup truck of some kind. And they all have four-wheel drive. You kind of need it because not only is the area mountainous and steep, it is covered in snow and ice six months out of the year. And where we live, they don’t even plow the roads until it gets “really bad,” and they don’t salt them either, because some environmentalist thought that elk and deer would supposedly mosey into the streets to lick the salt off the asphalt. Instead, we get red cinders, a kind of volcanic ash that turns the roads into gravel pits come spring. If you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle, you’re liable to scratch your entire undercarriage with those pebbles from hell. (I got one stuck in my eye once… it took three days to get it out of my eye and another week to recover from the scratches it made on my eyeball. Very unpleasant!!!)

So I’ll take the fact that George only gets about 17 miles to the gallon and is slightly harder to maintain than the old Toyota Tercel my dad could fix with Duct Tape and a pair of pliers as a small price to pay for having a vehicle that can survive our winters. Because when you’ve seen nothing but white on the ground for two months and you’re starting to go crazy from the cold and the isolation, nothing beats being able to jump in the truck and head out to Phoenix or Las Vegas or some place warm.

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.

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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…