computers

Contemplating my pencils

My wife has been away for the last week. She had to go back home to the Midwest to do some family reunion thing. I was invited, but money and work issues kept me at home. So you would think all this solitude would help me produce the world’s greatest teen romance/mystery/fantasy/scifi novel ever? Nope. I’ve just been sitting on my butt playing Kingdom of Loathing and watching the world go by. (It’s an awesome game by the way–I should write an article on that sometime.)

I thought that getting back to that plain blue screen with friendly white letters on it that fueled my writing in my teenage years would inspire me, but I got distracted by figuring out how to make old DOS programs like WordPerfect 5.1 work in 64-bit Windows. Then I got further distracted by articles advocating for WordStar (WordPerfect’s even-more-archaic cousin), an article on how much Microsoft Word sucks, and a very enlightening article which argues that all word processing software (especially Word) is inherently obsolete because it assumes you are writing words to be printed on 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, when most writing nowadays is shared electronically. But people just keep using Microsoft Word because it’s entrenched and people are just too used to it.

The same, in my opinion, goes for all those writers who are stuck in WordStar or WordPerfect: all they need is something to put text in, and mark it up with basic bold/underline/italics/etc., but instead they hold on to archaic, obsolete, proprietary software on systems that are prone to bugs and hard to fix when something goes wrong. There’s much better stuff out there right now. George R. R. Martin could probably do everything he needs to do in, for instance, emacs. (Not to infuriate fans of vim or jed or pico or insert-your-favorite-other-text-editor-here, but I just mention emacs because it’s the one I’ve used the most and am the most familiar with.) Not only can it be configured with WordStar key bindings, it can be run on both modern and ancient computers without much trouble (essentially anything that runs Linux, and there may even be a DOS version). He wouldn’t have to get up from his 30-year-old Kaypro and walk over to his other machine every time he wanted to check his wiki to figure out which of his characters are still alive. Emacs does have a tremendous amount of functionality, but unlike the auto-correcting flashy-ribbony Microsoft Word he keeps complaining about, it does a good job at hiding unwanted features from the user (in terminal mode, it just presents a text box with a status bar on the bottom, much like many old DOS word processors.) I admit there’s a steep learning curve on all but the most basic emacs modes (heck, I’ve been trying to master it for years, only to go back to Notepad or gedit or something like it when things go wrong.) However, it is suitably archaic for the likes of Mr. Martin, since the earliest versions of emacs predate WordStar by several years. But unlike WordStar, emacs has been constantly updated and bug-checked for over thirty years.

The best part of about something like emacs is, since it is open-source free software, I don’t have to worry about support for it being tied to a company that might go out of business. I can also be sure that anything I write in emacs can be read with any software that reads ASCII text. Plain text is future-proof. I recently discovered this by pulling some old emails from my backups that were also 20 years old, and I could still read them just fine, whereas I needed to jump through hoops to read my WordPerfect 5.1 files, and there are still some old files I can’t read at all. I think they were written in AppleWorks or the Mac version of WordPerfect or an old version of 602 Office (some shareware MS Office clone my mom liked) or Q&A Write (some other non-compatible program that was on the 486 I borrowed from one of my college roommates, that I used because I couldn’t afford WordPerfect or MS Office) or Tandy DeskMate or some other product produced by some other now-defunct victim of Microsoft’s office software wars. I really don’t want to track down all of those softwares again (especially when some of them require a pre-OS X Mac or Windows 3.1 to work.) If I had just saved my work as plain text, I could read it all today.

If I wanted fancy formatting in my document, I could just do HTML. Or LaTeX. Or save as RTF (which most word processors, even the feature-limited WordPad and TextEdit, which come with Windows and Mac OS X, respectively, can open). All those file formats will be readable in 10, 15, 20 years or more, unless there’s some kind of fundamental change in how we do computing (like if we all go to brain-implanted virtual reality quantum computers or something.)

I also know my modern laptop, modern flash drives, and modern cloud backups are a lot more stable and secure than a 30-year-old DOS machine. I can’t tell you how many times back in the day that I put a file on a floppy to print out at school, only to have the floppy fail or the file end up unreadable when I opened it up at the computer lab. Or, for that matter, in the late 90’s I had something called a “Zip drive” which… well, to say those were unreliable would be an understatement.

So I have decided that I need to look towards the future instead of luxuriate in nostalgia. I want to write, not fight with ancient computer programs and obsolete file formats. (I admit it’s fun sometimes to do just that, but only when you’re just doing it for fun.) So I just have to pick up the closest pencil from the huge box of pencils I have in front of me–and just start writing again. And hope I can still read stuff written with that pencil in the future.

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.

Zx81-timex-manipulated

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.

ti_beige_larger
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.

IBM_PC_AT_01_full

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 egghead.com, 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.

windows98

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…

Mac_os_8_splash_screen

To be continued in Part 2…

Computer buying hassles

Thursday night, tragedy struck the Wandering Nerd househould. Our cat accidentally spilled a glass of water onto my fiancee’s laptop, shorting it out. While we did manage to salvage it by putting it in a pan full of rice, it wasn’t the same afterwards. It went really slowly and kept crashing. This is normal behavior for her eight-year-old laptop, but my fiancee assures me it’s doing it more than usual now. So now we’re looking for a new laptop for her… and boy is it complicated. It used to be that you could just walk into a computer store and buy the one with the biggest numbers that you could afford. Or if you were a Mac user, like I was for years, you could just walk into an Apple Store and buy the shiniest one you could afford. But nowadays it’s gotten so complicated. I mean, how is the average computer shopper supposed to know about:

  • All the different processor types there are now. Currently, Intel sells CPUs with Atom, Celeron, Pentium, i3, i5, and i7 branding. Then they’re split even further into dual-core, quad-core, Haswell, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Pentium B, Pentium G, Hyperthreading, Vpro… all these terms… It used to be that you knew that a 486 was better than a 386 because it had the bigger number. But how do you compare a Pentium G2020 with a i5-2300? Is an i5 running at 2.5 GHz faster than an i7 running at 1.7 GHz? 
  • And if you shop for an AMD processor, sure they’re all sorted by numbers, but they’ve also gone the Intel route of breaking their product into multiple types. And how do they compare against Intel chips of the same price? Unless you spend your whole life researching these things, you won’t know just by looking at the box.
  • Graphics cards. Everyone knows that Intel integrated graphics are crap for games, but how good is that AMD Radeon or NVIDIA chip in that laptop? Usually the box or ad will only list the RAM it has. But what about clock speeds, number of cores, Vsync, antialiasing, frame buffers? Which version of DirectX does it support? Does it support CUDA, OpenGL, OpenCL, or WebGL? You could buy something that looks great on paper, but when you take it home, it won’t play your favorite game or it might not have any driver support for your operating system of choice.
  • Operating system. It used to be that whichever Windows came with your machine was normally your best (and in most cases, only) choice. But my fiancee is really worried about adapting to Windows 8. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Do we buy a Windows 8 laptop off the shelf, or do we hunt for something still running Windows 7? And do we want to run the 32-bit or 64-bit version of the latter? Do we want Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, Business, or Ultimate? Or should we scrap the OS and build a Hackintosh? If neither of those are an option, which of the thousand different varieties of Linux or the dozen different varieties of BSD do we want to go with instead? 
  • Brands. Well, there aren’t nearly as many companies selling PCs as there were during the tech boom of the late 90’s, but even today, you’ve got HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Gateway, Samsung, and many others. And they’ve got very little to distinguish them from all the others. If all they’re competing on is price, pretty soon you get into a situation where it’s a “race to the bottom” and you get a lot of products that differ from each other only in how crappily they are constructed.

Choice is normally a good thing, but when there’s too much choice, it can be confusing to the consumer. I think this is why a lot of consumers are leaving the PC market in droves and going towards things like Chromebooks, gimped laptops that only run a web browser, and Android tablets and iPads, devices that lock you into a particular app store, but at least maintain enough compatibility amongst models so that you know you can run whatever new game or program comes out. There’s less freedom in those, but they are a lot simpler to deal with. However, that’s not an option for my fiancee. She still wants a laptop with a full travel keyboard and the ability to play her old Windows games like Cave Story, and Windows-only writing software like yWriter. Maybe anything made in the last five years will do, but I still want to get her the best laptop we can afford. I just wish it wasn’t so gosh darn hard to choose.