Nathan Torkington is running a series of articles on the O’Reilly Radar called Burn In: How Alpha Geeks Got Into Computers. I am not really what you would call an Alpha Geek, nor was I asked to write one of the articles, but I felt inspired to write one anyway. So I am sharing it with you here.

We always had computers around our house. Growing up in the Seventies, my father would often bring home spare parts from DEC or 3M… 8 inch floppy drives, acoustic coupler modems, tiny displays. We assembled a Heathkit computer at one point. Had lots of fun with soldering irons.

When I was about 10, we got an Atari 400, and upgraded it to an 800 soon afterwards. For some reason I got to keep the Atari 400 in my bedroom, feeling like the luckiest kid in the world (a two computer household!!). I had received a pretty neat electronics science kit for Christmas that year, which had a lot of wires, a light sensor, lots of stuff like that. I figured out how to take apart one of the Atari joysticks and wire it up to the science kit, and wrote a BASIC program to tell me when it was raining (two wires out the window), when it was daytime (from the light sensor), and it would even blank the screen when a parent opened my bedroom door (again, two wires).

Our school system acquired Apple II+ systems, but could only outfit one full classroom, and even then each computer had to be shared between two students. In 6th Grade, our big project was to create a movie of some sort in Apple BASIC. Not an easy feat. I spent days storyboarding our movie on graph paper, turning each bit of animation into DATA command after DATA command. The movie was called Death in the Computer Lab and involved a relatively realistic rendition of our teacher being violently murdered, her head rolling out the door as the class period ended. A model student.

Eventually we moved up to an Atari 520ST, even getting a hard drive larger than the computer itself at one point. I dutifully ran a BBS during the evening hours, just for the sake of doing so. Before long I discovered the Internet, after realizing that the University of Minnesota provided free accounts to all students. Though still in High School myself, I found that you simply had to visit the University on registration day and grab a bunch of receipts out of the trash. The login was the student’s name, the password was their Student ID. Sssh!

My first impression of the Internet was that it was a kind of vast BBS running on a bizarre system called UNIX. The BBS systems at the time had email and message boards, much like you see today, but usually were limited to one user at a time. I could hardly believe my eyes when I discovered the talk command, and later, IRC. Could all these people really be using the system at the same time? Amazing! And the sheer number of sites out there already, even in the early Nineties, was overwhelming.

For several years the Internet seemed only available via command line interfaces and Gopher, but then along came graphical browsers and Linux. I was spending some time with a friend in Rolla, Missouri, and they had all of O’Reilly’s X Window books, which I poured over. I felt it was time to contribute something back to the Linux community, so I penned the X Window User HOWTO, based heavily on the O’Reilly books. I found X Window endlessly fascinating, with many tricks and hacks still nearly impossible to do on modern desktop systems.

Linux continued to be my system of choice until I started working on a monthly video show in Portland. I assembled the first show or two using Adobe Premiere and it drove me crazy. A friend demonstrated Final Cut Pro on his Mac, which was running an early version of OS X. I was very impressed with the software and the new interface, which I hadn’t really seen before. Then, just to show off, he opened the Terminal, and started showing me how it was actually running BSD UNIX underneath. Photoshop and UNIX in an affordable package? I was hooked.

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