Thursday, February 18, 2016

11 years of blogging.

I began this blog 11 years ago today, which has prompted me to reflect on this blog and its still all too vague purpose coupled with inexplicable longevity, and on my relationship with technology, particularly computers, and the multifaceted and often even vaguer purposes they have served in my life over an even longer span. The first substantial interaction with a computer that I remember was with our comfortingly bland beige and brown Vic 20 when I was a young child. This must have been in the early to mid 1980s. I always thought the Vic 20 was so named because it had an awesome 20 KB of RAM, but I now see that it had a mere 5KB. How impossible to imagine is that compared to today. And you could do so much with it. We played games on it mainly. I remember the way the keyboard plugged into a screen, I'm fairly sure it was our television and not a dedicated screen, and its separate, also beige, tape deck which was how you wrote and ran programmes, which were recorded onto magnetic tape. I thought this computer was absolutely amazing, I can still remember it sitting on our coffeetable in our old house, how the curved, beige and brown tape deck looked, that contained the mysterious power to make things happen on the screen. My older brother and I spent what seems now like months but was certainly at least weeks, laboriously typing in pages and pages of code to create a game that would feature pirates. I was very excited at the potential of this process, from lines of type, to magically transform into a pirate game. We had a book of all the code needed for this game. We would take it in turns, one reading it out, the other typing it into the computer, then waiting while it recorded it. This took hours and hours and we must have had to check it so laboriously as well as any mistakes might cause the game not to function. We would do a bit each day, gradually making our way through the book of code. I was probably six or seven, maybe slightly older. Then, a few pages before the end, my brother got sick of the project and wouldn't go on with it. Without my erstwhile collaborator, I could not finish inputting the code as it was extremely difficult to type it in while reading it yourself. So we never got to play our pirate game. Probably my brother doesn't remember this at all or has a totally different version of this story, I must ask him! It was to be the first of many experiences with computing that combined fascination, laboriousness, mysterious power and, frequently, unfulfilled potential and frustration, ending with the technology not quite doing what I wanted it to do. But I still loved that tape deck.

I also clearly remember going to a computer club in the school hall after school once a week, in primary school. No real idea how old I was, definitely younger than 11. I have a memory of the few computers, laid out in lines though there weren't that many. I think it was there, and maybe also at summer camp that I played, with great enjoyment, the bouncing pumpkin game. This was a game that involved, you guessed it, bouncing a pumpkin around a basement/dungeon type environment. The only movement possible was bouncing of various types, the pumpkin was quite difficult to control but with effort could be bounced in different directions and over and under obstacles, avoiding ghosts and candelebra and similar spooky dangers. Due to what I much later realised were deficiencies in the programming it was quite possible to get stuck in infinite bounces with the pumpkin, for example, under the stairs, where the pumpkin if moved in a certain way would get stuck in one position between the stairs and the floor and then ricochet back and forth between them, basically forever, it was actually impossible to escape from this situation. I loved this game though and would happily bounce the pumpkin for hours, moving through the different layouts in the dungeon/haunted house/whatever it was. Just last year I rediscovered that this game was not the figment of my imagination that many who had never sampled its delights assumed it was, but is entirely real, it is called Cauldron II. Apparently it subsequently got a lot of criticism for the unwieldy bouncing control mechanism. Probably you can find a way to play it now, certainly you can see footage of it, just as it looked in the mid 1980s, when I was a kid in Dublin relishing the infinite bounce.

Meanwhile my life-long commitment to the Apple Macintosh computer began when my parents purchased the first Mac for our house. I remember a series of these, including the SE II and the Classic, computers that were a single grey box, a tall rectangle, amazing, mysterious and clearly, deeply, in their very essence, computers. The little screen built in to the grey shell at the top, the disk drive slot below it on the right, the little Apple logo. They were still Apple Macintoshes then, but I have stayed with them through their many iterations over 30 years, their name and brand changes, their company highs and lows, the multicoloured bitten apple logo, the white boxes, the coloured boxes, the i-everything. And I am simply a Mac user, from those days making blocky black and white pixels move about on an approximately 6 x 4 inch screen in my Dad's home office before I was even a teenager, to the actually awesome power of my Macbook Air today. I spent a lot of time as a child messing about with Hypercard. A programme that was essentially electronic index cards, each with a story or a picture illustrating a feature or font of the programme, that you could move through one at a time, sequentially. But the really big deal about Hypercard was that it also had magical things called Hyperlinks, and by clicking on a Hyperlink, YOU COULD GO TO A DIFFERENT CARD OUT OF SEQUENCE. Incredible mindblowing stuff to late 1980s me. And indeed to the computing world, it was to turn out. I spent a lot of time making Hypercards, and using it to make cards and presents for people, because I recall it had things like nice-looking picture frames that you could put around text, and you could use different fonts, all difficult to do on a computer at that time, and then I would print out the carefully created cards, as presents for my family. No doubt they were deeply impressed by this computing prowess, or pretended to be. Whether I was able, or even if it was possible, to make your own Hyperlinks, I'm not entirely sure, I think it must have been. I do remember the brilliant stories on the example cards, such as one about the manifestation in modern offices of the Greek god Xeroxes, who would usually appear as a large grey or white box machine in a corner of the office, and how this god Xeroxes had the power to make copies of whatever was placed upon it, however as it was a god it could not be commanded and it would frequently refuse to do the bidding of its believers, unless an appropriate sacrifice was made to it. The Hypercard suggested a watch, or a small goat, I think. If the believer made the correct offering, then the great god Xeroxes could be magnanimous and agree to provide the believer with the copies it prayed for. The watch or goat would be gone, taken as just tribute by the wrathful, temperamental Xeroxes.

In secondary school there were computers, although the only time I remember getting to use them was when I took a Computer Aided Design class. We spent six weeks, or was it eight, meticulously following instructions until ultimately everyone in the class had produced a perfect electronic rendering of a doorknob. But what a doorknob. I can still recall the flat square bit at the bottom of the doorknob, and the roundy, knobby bit that was the top of the doorknob. Roundy! Now that was advanced computing. Meanwhile at home we played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? And the amazing amazing Crystal Quest. And mainly I watched my older brother play Prince Duncan in the game Dark Castle and later on, Beyond Dark Castle. Wonderful games. I also played but he was better at it and it was more fun for my other brother and I to sit around him playing and try to warn him of impending dangers or cheer when he made it through a room or a level. I remember there were these small monsters that made a nyih nyih nyih nyih nyih sound. We called them nyih nyih nyih nyih nyihs, imaginatively enough. When they appeared we'd shout watch out for the nyih nyih nyih nyih nyih! But unfortunately my brother's character had usually already been killed by the time we reached the second nyih. Oh well. Definitely life preparation, that game.

And onwards it went, the technology evolving incredibly. When I reached university we knew about email which was just starting to appear in Ireland - this was the mid 1990s - but it wasn't much in use. Messages from the college were sent on paper to every student; essays were handwritten on paper and (later in my college career) typed on typewriters or on computers and printed out; there were several microfiche machines in the library with which to look up old newspapers. I remember whooshing at high speed through the blue of the microfiches, the little slides in the reader below the large screen, amazing stuff. The Maths society had email accounts, not many of them, you had to be a member of the society and then queue up at the start of the year to get one. Again my older brother who was at the same university and I collaborated on this, he had a Maths society email account so we shared it, we would each log in and read emailss, politely ignoring messages intended for the other person. This didn't seem at all weird at the time. Having an email account was extremely cool. Of course you didn't get many messages because so few other people had email accounts, but still, very cool. You could only access them using Pine or I think ELM on one of the few computers in computer rooms on the campus, including those the Maths society maintained. Just text, scrolling through screens and screens of text, white or green? on a black background, if my memory does not deceive me.

Later we all got email accounts - though the university still barely used them. In 1996 I went for a summer job. The director of the company asked if I'd ever used email, I said yes, he said brilliant, you can design our website. He had gotten the impression that a modern company needed a website but had no clue what this involved. Knowing virtually nothing about websites I got a printout (naturally) of the Beginner's Guide to HTML from a friend who also designed websites, hid it under my desk and would read a few pages each day, typing it up and adding incredible things such as titles and tables to their clipart adorned cutting-edge website. I wrote all the HTML for that website 'by hand' as it were. Its address had a tilda in the URL. They only had one computer with an internet connection in the office, it was their main accounts computer. I would have to wait for the accountant to go out on lunch and then I could go on that computer and upload whatever I had written. They were awed. When I hadn't managed to do much and they would ask me how it was going, I would mumble some technical sounding mumbo jumbo such as 'I just have to FTP that to the server' and they would say, great, great, sounds brilliant, whatever you need. This was the start of me realising that the key to success in technological jobs is not knowing a lot, or having any real idea of what you're doing, it is just knowing slightly more than your boss.

After a year or two of many all night essay writing sessions in the Arches computer rooms in the brick arches under the railway line at the arse end of the college, and some time of, probably very annoyingly to her, occasionally using my room-mate's computer to type up the essays I'd mainly written truly by hand, on actual paper, I got my own computer, a hand me down from my parents. It was, of course, a Mac, a Performa. Quite odd and quite big. Not one of their design classics. The Performa is not appearing in any MOMA any time soon. But hardwearing and powerful and MY OWN COMPUTER. I did many things on that. Even later there was a blueberry clamshell laptop, after my parents had gotten the blueberry iMac. With a blue handle! Amazing to look at but much more amazing to use. All of these computers are still functioning now, or at least probably would be, they were still going a few years ago the odd time I turned them on.

Ah there is much more to say. This has become just a first chapter in my lifestory of technology. How I went from someone almost making the pirate game work on the Vic 20 to someone almost making many things work on a 8GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, 2.2GHz processor MacBook Air. Someone who doesn't use Twitter or most of anything computery these days. But that's another chapter in the story. Which no doubt I will write on a Mac.


Anonymous NiallM said...

Fantastic memories!

Friday, 19 February 2016 at 13:21:00 GMT  
Blogger lusciousblopster said...

Thanks Niallm! I was thinking of you quite a bit when I was writing that post, I thought you might enjoy it!

Thursday, 25 February 2016 at 12:45:00 GMT  

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