Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father Geek

I wasn't born with nerd instincts. I learned them from Dad and his love of electronics.

My voyage into geekdom started in the early 80's, when Dad bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I. It was the most expensive thing RS had in the catalog, with a whopping 16K of memory -- that's 16K bytes, not megabytes -- a black-and-white display, and a cassette tape player for storage. Playing games meant sticking the tape in the deck and typing CLOAD. Two stars (**) would flash in the top right hand of the screen. If I got a READY prompt after that, I was ready to run. If I got a checksum error or the annoying ?SN ERROR, I had to rewind the tape and try again. The volume and tone settings needed adjustment from tape to tape.

A couple of years later, Dad decided to upgrade. Instead of going back to the Shack, he found a backroom computer supply company in North Kansas City that operated out of a dusty, wood-paneled office. They sold him a third-party expansion interface, a green-screen monitor, two 5.25" floppy disk drives, and a dot-matrix printer. None of this was cheap, but it was cheaper than the Tandy equipment and I gather more reliable. My cousin in the PC retailing business found a stack of TRS-80 game tapes lying around and sent them over.

In the 5th Grade, I bought a paperback book called BASIC Fun -- which is still available -- and finally learned to program. As I was getting good at it, Dad made another upgrade.

The TRS-80 went out the door and was replaced with a Sanyo MBC-1000. Never heard of it? Neither had most of the kids at school, who were flipping on Commodore 64's or TI-99's or TRS-80's. The machine was designed for business, not pleasure. It came with CP/M for OS and WordStar. But it was a lemon.

Something in the disk drive refused to spin up. I would turn it on and wait for it to boot. It took maybe 10 minutes, maybe half an hour. We should've tossed it. Instead, we sent it back to the place we'd bought it in Boston for repairs. The system behaved itself for them and they sent it back. Again, it lagged on the boot. Dad, frustrated, finally kicked it back to them and demanded a refund. The company talked him into another upgrade for about the same money: The MBC-3000.

The new machine was more obscure and a lot bigger, so big UPS wouldn't take it; it had to come via Flying Tigers air freight. The 70-poundish machine nearly didn't fit on the desk, but it worked. I used WordStar to do my 6th Grade reports on ancient Rome and started a novel on it. I kept on programming. Dad also bought me a tiny, inexpensive Timex/Sinclair 1000, which ended up in my bedroom, hooked up to my TV. I still have a tape full of programs for it.

Then came the Mac, the original Macintosh with 128K RAM, one 3.5" floppy, one mouse, and a $2495 price tag slashed down to something more palatable because somebody at Midwest Typewriter in Kansas City knew my grandfather. MacWrite took on more of my writings, including another attempt at a novel plus a screenplay. Multiplan managed Mother's gradebook from her high school literature, Spanish and English classes. Dad bought Microsoft BASIC, and I developed a version of the Boggle word game for it. I asked for and got Turbo Pascal one Christmas only to realize developing serious Macintosh software was a lot tougher outside the BASIC world.

"We bought another computer."

"Oh... have mercy."

That preceding agony was from Mother, upon learning Dad had picked up an Apple //c in addition to the Mac. This with two kids who were both planning on college. Mom learned to love it though, more or less, when she used AppleWorks to type up tests and her monster final assignment for her Masters degree in Education. It sat in the upstairs study, on a tray across from the Mac, which Dad upgraded to an SE with a built-in hard drive. The Mac SE went flaky at times, so I stuck primarily with the //c.

By the end of high school, I was saving up to buy my own computer, and I sunk hundreds of dollars into a used Amiga 500. That machine would accompany me to college -- after Dad and I solved various problems with power supplies. I must have gone through at least 3 of them, and I never understood why they kept going bad. Dad, meanwhile, moved into the PC world, where he has remained. I joined him there when I realized the Amiga had everything going for it except for software and parts. I bought my first Pentium computer in 1994 for an astounding $2300 -- without the monitor.

All of this started with Dad's geekdom. I had the gene, but he brought it from recessive to dominant, perhaps starting in my toddler years, when he bought me a Casio pocket calculator for Christmas because I wouldn't stop playing with his expensive TI, the one with the colorful 70's-chic orange, white, and blue buttons.

Dad's latest upgrade was moving to an LCD screen. I'm still serving as his tech support person. In my closet is a Timex/Sinclair similar to the one I had as a kid and a TRS-80 Color Computer I bought off my best friend, which probably belongs in a museum somewhere. Dad still has a few aging floppy disks lying around and has been looking to buy an old NeXT cube computer. I'm running TRS-80 and Apple ][ emulators on my quad-core AMD PC, which sits next to an second-generation iMac here at FrancisPage Central Command. The latter was rescued from the waste pile at my brother's job. The wireless router came from a trash bin at Dad's workplace. A wrench on one antenna brought it back up to spec. And Mom is still trying to understand the bond of men and their machines.


Suzanne. said...

Ah the glory days of the true drivers of the home computer market! I grew up with an IBM programmer for a dad, and always going through high school, I new that's what I was going to do. I'm a couple years older than you, and we oohed and ahed when my math teacher brought in a, GAK! portable computer to show us, probably the TRS-80. It wasn't an IBM, and I as yet saw no use for home computers, because "computers" were for business. I went off to college to major in programming, and wrote my first programs on a paper fed line "terminal", in da da da daaaaa, APL. I finally took a PL/1 class, which had a bit more of a top-down flow, writing the programs on punch cards, and "submitting" them, in the true sense of the word, through a window to a computer operator, who fed them to a card reader. About an hour later when he felt like separating the accordion stack of line printer paper into its separate jobs of output and cubby holing them, I'd get to review the output or core dump crash to see if I needed to submit it again. This could sometime take all night, if I needed to finish a final project and needed maybe 5-10 turnarounds. As soon as I could get a terminal (monitor & keyboard combined) with an acoustic coupler modem, at a connection speed of 300 baud, I could do my programming assignments at home. Of course at that rate, those could take all night too. IBM was particularly resistant to entering the home computer market. They thought it was a fad that would fade away, so my friends and I had, GAK!, turn to non-IBM companies for goofy games like Battleship and Dungeons & Dragons by text description.

Hampers said...

I just recently discovered your blog and am so glad I did. What a sweet post!