computers (or how a boy became a geek) pt. 1


I was 10 years old when a very exciting event was about to take place. My father, a high-school math teacher, had followed a course in computer programming and he was going to put his newly acquired knowledge to good use and buy a computer.

Nobody really understood what computers were, or what they did. but everybody knew that they were the future, and that one day everything would be done by computers. What we kids knew, was that you could play games on them, and these games were totally cool and fun.

Handheld video games (as they were called then) were in vogue, and the Arcade was the most exciting place in the world. That was the extent of my knowledge, so the prospect of our own personal computer at home was one that kept me awake at night with anticipation.

The day came. In our sleepy rural town there was only one computer shop. We drove down there, and dad looked intelligently at a number of models. Other people were pecking away at the keyboards while strange indecipherable words appeared on their screens. It was nothing like the Arcade.

Dad talked at length with a salesperson and finally we walked out with a brand new Commodore 64, plus Data Tape recorder and -woohoo!- a cassette of Crazy Kong.

At home we could barely contain our excitement as pops unwrapped the machine and connected it to our black and white TV.

**** COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 ****

64K RAM SYSTEM 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE

READY.

…and a blinking cursor. What did it all mean? Basic is the programming language, dad explained. And 64K RAM means that there is 64000 bytes of memory. One byte consists of eight bits, which are either a one or a zero, and from long strings of ones and zeros commands were created and eventually these commands could make the machine do something.

Wow, dad. Can we play Crazy Kong now? It was a poor imitation of Donkey Kong (the most popular game of that day and a precursor to SuperMario) and disappointed we left it for what it was.

Dad got into programming, explained the fundamentals to me, and soon I got into it as well. but my ambition came to a premature end one day when I managed to create a rather advanced multiple choice program (for a 10-year old anyway) only to run out of memory before I was even halfway. And when the memory was full you could not save your work to tape. I was stuck and in frustration I switched the damn thing off. Bye bye programming, forever.

Dad stayed at it, even got some of his creations published, left his teaching job and went corporate. The new job meant a new PC. This time a real computer. By now I had come to understand that the Commodore was not a ‘professional’ machine but rather a ‘toy for consumers’.

Our first real PC came. It had a whopping 640 Kilobytes of RAM, a floppy disk drive and a hard disk drive! What? That is a large-capacity disk permanently mounted inside the computer, explained dad. But what if it gets full? That won’t happen, dad smiled, it can hold 40 Megabytes of data, more than 100 floppies! And it can access this data much faster than a floppy disk drive can.

New games came. Adventure games from Sierra. Our favorites were Space Quest and Lazy Larry. Unlike the Commodore, our new PC did not do Basic but ran on MS-DOS. It also had an easy-to-use interface called Windows 2.0, but dad removed it because “it does not serve a purpose”. The games were grrrrreat, fun with just the right amount of irreverence for political correctness and loveable 8-bit graphics and sound. Adventure games weren’t as fast-paced and exciting as the arcade stuff, but they were every bit as involving, perhaps even more so.

Yeah, computers were totally cool, and soon I’d discover that even cooler things could be done with them!

to be continued

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