A Life, Through Computers

The following post originally appeared on Geek Force Network, August 16, 2013.

The other day, a short post appeared on Kotaku titled “Explaining Microsoft Windows’ Evolution Is Simple” that featured this image uploaded by Twitter by user @kataoka_k.


It made me chuckle, and it made me feel ancient. As the post and some commenters point out, this “history” omits a few operating systems like DOS, Windows 1, 2, and 3, and Windows ME. I’ve not used all these systems, but I’ve been exposed to most of them throughout my life either at home, school, or work. But my personal history with computers dates from before even DOS, when I learned to program in BASIC on our TRS-80 Color Computer.

If it doesn't look like it could do much, well, that's because it didn't.
If it doesn’t look like it could do much, well, that’s because it didn’t.

The TRS-80 was nicknamed “Trash-80” for good reason — it wasn’t much of a computer.   I mean, I liked it, but I was kinda young then. Oh yes, I can see it now…that dull, gray, boxy complexion, replete with small, square keys in rich, foggy-colored plastic with deep onyx imprinted letters and numbers.  And what of those itty bitty keys, filled with playful, independent spirits mingling among the electronic underpinnings! Why you made typing so, so…unique!  Did you just type a “p” or a “q”?  Well, let’s say you typed a “2″ and leave it at that. How jovial! The accompanying cassette player and its graceful if incessant whirring – it made a game out of recording!  How much force is needed to push the button today?  Only by trying and failing and trying again and failing again will you find out!

In my world, the TRS-80 was good for only two things: playing simple games like checkers (shut up about the fact that we did have an actual board with pieces) and writing BASIC programs. The computer didn’t come with a monitor, so we had it hooked up to the TV — a color television set nonetheless!  Oh man, and did I make that screen turn colors! Cyan, you were always my favorite.~

Pretty, on computers. Not clothing.

From the TRS-80, my parents quickly progressed to DOS and Windows machines; and for awhile, those were my primary gaming devices. (It was the only time in my life that I could truthfully claim to be a PC gamer. Also nobody did their homework on a computer, silly.) Meanwhile at school, I swear we were using Commodore 64’s for the longest time. In high school I took a programming class where I worked, for the first time, on an Apple computer – the Macintosh. I’ll tell you, I was terrible at programming, but I did like those Macintoshes. Yes, their screens were teensy weensy compared to the monstrous 15 inches of CRT monitor I had at my house, but they were spry machines with very little lag. The programs we created worked so smoothly and the interface was clean and simple.

When time came for college, I was sent off without a computer – why that’s just crazy talk! —  because mobile computing then was a thing for high-class business people in their stupid suits and ties, not poor, lowly, yet much cooler college students. Instead, I had a shiny, new electronic, Smith Corona word processing typewriter. Oh you can laugh if you want, but I got a good many assignments done on it AND there was no white-out or correction tape needed. And…

…okay, fine…go ahead and laugh.

It kinda looked like this, and it was just as sad. I mean happy! But sad. (source)
It kinda looked like this, and it was just as sad. I mean happy! But sad.

Speaking of college, I did end up having regular access to some pretty nice computers during that time. After my freshman year, my electronic typewriter was nearly banished because I did most of my work in the lab, using a new thing called the “Internet” on a fresh, white batch of Windows 95 PCs. That was a nice OS; it worked well for my purposes and was robust enough to handle whatever we threw at it. The first computer I ever owned after college was a Windows 95 machine. And yes, it was a brick, large and heavy, suitable enough to serve as a deadly weapon.

Meanwhile our household technology grew by leaps and bounds. In just a span of a few years, we had gathered up a number of machines: a Windows 98 machine was quickly and unfortunately replaced by a Windows ME machine, which was thankfully replaced by a Windows XP machine as soon as it could be afforded. We still have the XP machine running today, and only recently has it begun to show its age. But it still works like a charm, even if we could watch a full-length movie in the span it takes the thing to boot.

Like a gentle giant, only it eats less.

Several years ago, I made the mistake of getting a Windows Vista laptop. It was only intended as a home office computer – word processing, emails, and Internet. But its “security” interface was ridiculous and annoying, and it seemed to be constantly bogged down running some program or another. And forget about trying to run Norton scans or some such – those could render the thing useless for hours!

My current laptop runs Windows 8 – only every now and again do I regret having made the upgrade from Windows 7. I don’t mind the “tiles” interface but I also don’t use it much, instead favoring the regular desktop. As tempted as I am to use the Vista laptop under a short table leg, I have to keep it because Windows 8 isn’t compatible with everything, and that’s problematic. Case in point, not long ago I sought to update my old Android phone. The only way to do this was with a computer and some downloaded software.  Without reading the fine print, I stuck the necessary program onto my Windows 8 machine and attempted to run it; and each time it failed. After thinking that my phone was at fault, I took a closer look at the software’s specs. Nowhere was Windows 8 listed as compatible. So I went through the same process using the Vista machine, and…success!! Oh, Vista hated being made to work as it chugged along with the program, but it still worked. Hmmm…maybe I could update that laptop to Windows 7…

Future Retro

Everything old is new again to somebody, somewhere. While plenty of inventions get their 15 minutes (if that) of fame and are never heard from again, some things find a bit more staying power. In this Geek Force Network article, I extolled the virtues of material goods from the recent past that someday might find new life in the world of “retro tech.”
(And to complete the story that I started here about my niece wanting a typewriter for Christmas — she got one! And she’s already used it to type her first letter — typing paper, ribbon, clackity keys, and all. Amazing.)

Geek Force Network

My pre-teen niece recently celebrated another birthday. Prior to the festivities, I asked her what she was hoping to get.

“A typewriter!” came the enthusiastic response.

Taken aback, I paused. “Like… a computer?”

“No…a typewriter,” she repeated as if I had become deaf, and dumb.

“Oh. A typewriter. But why?” I queried.

She didn’t skip a beat. “Because they are cool.”

Well, duh.

Still, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the image of an young, modern girl sitting down to formulate a document via and old-fashioned typewriter, but what did I know. The fact that she even knew what a typewriter was floored me. But it became a strangely proud moment as I considered “hey, my niece knows what a typewriter is! Take that iPad society!”

It also got me thinking about the notion of “future retro,” which I might have just made up or might actually…

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The Story of a Forty Dollar Tablet

Sometimes investing in technology is meaningful. Other times, it’s an experiment. The latter was certainly the case when I picked up (mostly on a whim) a new tablet for $40. Yep, f-o-r-t-y dollars! I could hardly believe it myself when I saw the thing on sale, but there it was. Something called a Nobis 7 for forty smackarinos. After using it for a a couple weeks, I wrote up the post below about it for Geek Force Network. If you’re in the market for a cheap, non-bells-and-whistles tablet that’s questionably constructed and is the exact opposite of “sleek,” yet contains the exemplary guts of any current, brand name Android tablet, then click the link below to see if the Nobis 7 might be right for you!

Geek Force Network

I currently own a Nexus 7 tablet, and it’s been one of the best purchases I’ve made in a long time. The thing is fast and powerful, perfect for writing, web surfing, and moderate gaming. Being quite happy with it, I had in mind obtaining something a little cheaper for work, something I could use essentially as a digital notebook. Over the course of several months, I kept an eye on sales and Amazon just to see if something interesting popped up. I aimed to keep my potential acquisition in the one hundred dollar range with hopes of finding something for a little less than that. The mere thought of getting a tablet for as little as forty dollars never crossed my mind.

Only then, it crossed my path.

While skimming through the sale circulars from the Sunday paper a few weeks ago, a little item caught my attention:…

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Mario, Luigi, or Peach — who is the best companion?

There’s no “I” in team, right?  Well, there’s no “I” in Q-Force either, which, as I’ve just discovered, may or may not be the un-secret name of a new team of bloggers storming the Internet, namely My Two Caps, The Duck of Indeed, Planet Zombo, and yours truly.  Together we tackled a simple question: who would you rather hang out with — Mario, Luigi, or Peach? The Duck chose Peach from the Paper Mario series for her take-charge attitude and baking abilities.  I get that; and I agree that the strawberry cake that you had to make in Paper Mario, though usually and strangely difficult to complete on occasion, looked quite delicious.  Hatm0nster of my Two Caps chose Mario, and for good reason.  His staying power and adventuresome heroics are hard to argue with. You’re always bound to see a different part of the Mushroom Kingdom whenever you’re with him. Click on the links to check out their full arguments.  This time round, however, it looks like the Duck and I think alike, in principle anyway, for I also chose Peach — from Super Mario Bros. 2, that is.

Continue reading “Mario, Luigi, or Peach — who is the best companion?”

A keen commander shows the gentler side of id Software

In the late 1980s/early 1990s, had you rummaged through our cases and drawers full of floppy disks, you would have found a bunch of Shareware disks — they contained partial levels of games that were released free to the public.  Shareware games had limited functionality and you usually didn’t know just how much of a level was available until suddenly in the middle of an awesome alien headshot, the game stopped and an ad popped up telling you to buy the rest of the game — dammit!  That sucked. But much like today’s game demos, Shareware games were supposed to get you interested enough in a game to buy the full copy.  In our house, that extra purchasing usually didn’t happen. But, it generally didn’t need to because of our relatives with computer connections who would happily send along tons of PC games as Christmas/birthday presents.  Sometime we only got Shareware disks, and sometimes we got those AND the full games.  The latter was the case with Commander Keen (1990).

Continue reading “A keen commander shows the gentler side of id Software”

Duke Nukem, Double Dragon, and “me” time

Looking back on my childhood, it’s hard for me to believe that my parents allowed as many computer games into the house as they did.  Yes, we had several consoles over the years, but the number of games we had for them paled in comparison to the stacks upon stacks of games on those ancient  5 ¼” floppy discs we had for our computer (not to mention the cassettes we had for the TRS-80).

These guys times, like, a hundred. Or at least a couple boxes full.

I don’t remember being completely glued to a computer screen during my middle/high school years – my parents made us go outside, do chores, be social, etc. – but I did sink many an hour into a host of ubiquitous games, such as  Frogger, Centipede, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Breakout, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Q-Bert.  And I played them mostly by myself.

Continue reading “Duke Nukem, Double Dragon, and “me” time”

Let’s start with three letters and two numbers

Or, why I’m not a computer programmer.

The TRS-80 Color Computer, my first computer.  I can see it now…that dull, gray, boxy complexion, replete with small, square keys in rich foggy-colored plastic with deep onyx imprinted letters and numbers.

And oh, those keys!  Those playful, independent spirits intermixed with the electronic underpinnings…why you made typing so, so…engaging!  Did you just type a “p” or a “q”?  Well, let’s say you typed a “2” and leave it at that.  Jovial!

The playfully painted TRS-80 logo fitted just so severely above the keyboard.

The lovely cassette player and its graceful if incessant whirring.  You made a game out of recording.  How much force is needed to push the button today?  Only by trying and failing, and failing again will you find out!

Continue reading “Let’s start with three letters and two numbers”