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16.06.09 | Me and My Computer – A nostalgic look at the time when floppies were commonplace
Filed under: Computer — Tags: , , — Dr. Ivan @ 18:56 — Comments (0)

This is a history about how I started with computers going way back to the time when I was 6 years old and barely knew what keyboard was used for. [This is an old post of mine; re-uploaded for the sake of the new site]

(Originally written: 29.03.09)

Before Linux and the dawn of gaming

There was a time when we did not have a computer. The second half of the nineties was upon us and the only prior experience I had with anything relating to computers was something that I might have been a cheap clone of Spectrum. It actually used cassettes (!) to load games into memory. Unfortunately I cannot remember what the game I liked most was called, and after searching endlessly on the net I still haven’t found what it might have been. Anyway, whatever it was, it made a profound impression on me – I was 6 or 7 at the time.

After a short time it was thrown out an replaced with Sega Mega Drive. I remember having MK-II, NHL 97, some atrocious racing game (was it Mario Andretti Racing?), Alladin and Sonic (still can’t figure out which one it was). To be fair I have never been good at gaming, neither at the time nor since; many years later in high school someone remarked: “You’re not the one to play games, you’re one to make them”, and was at least partially correct.

The first game I actually remember playing on a PC was Winter Olympics for DOS. Several other games on this platform followed including a racing game (in which I insisted upon calling myself Matrelli), an obscure shmup called Wingstar which we got with one of the computers as well as something I think was some sort of card game, possibly blackjack.

The type of games I used to love has to be all tetris-like games. Mind you, this was only in the beginning of the mobile phone era, and therefore you either did not have a cell phone, or its screen resolution was so horrid that it could barely display one brick at a time (and if you were really unlucky, it only had a digi-type display which could only show numbers, weighed a tonn and probably microwaved your brain in mere seconds of talking in it). Therefore, I always had one of those cheap toy tetris games in my pocket.

And then one Christmas I got a Game Boy Color (GBC) including the cartridge Asterix & Obelix. I remember it as being a great fun for a long while. Then I got a chess game, originally released for the preceding Game Boy system. It was over-priced and unexpectedly boring. After this my interest in handhelds disappeared, lack of which persists to this day.

Allods was a game to which I was introduced to while in Russia. I think I got it for my birthday after which it law forgotten in my drawers for some time. It was inevitably rediscovered at the peak of my boredom; then forgotten again. After several such cycles I can assure you about two aspects of the game: one, weapons which you can buy in towns are very attractively rendered and have each their distinct look which has been burnt into my retina forever; and two, the game is hard as you will feel the need for hiring mercenaries already three or four missions into the game. Allods was probably also the reason why I have been as fond of the RPG genre as I actually have. Diablo 2 and its expansion were the next game to captivate me.

This too happened in several episodes, first pretty much immediately after release of the expansion and the other almost 6 years later. At the point of this writing I have grown quite tired of the game itself, although I am really looking forward to the third installment of the series and am seriously contemplating a pre-order.

My first introduction to Linux

I started using Linux in the dark old days when nothing was configured for you and drivers was something you were supposed to write yourself. No really, comparing to what situation has become now, those were indeed dark times. My first experience with the aforementioned platform began somewhere around the end of 2001. At the time I was using Windows ME and had been barely exposed to the kind of technological know-how I probably should have had to plunge head-first into all things Linux. Besides, I was just 14.

Mandrake (now Mandriva) was my first choice of distros. I still have some of the first CDs with version 8.1 or 8.2 stashed away in my drawer, although I do think I may have used earlier versions to begin with. First 6 months or so were spent with endless reinstalls, crashes, configuration file hell and the likes. It wasn’t easy – not necessarily because the OS configuration was a chore, but mainly because I had no idea of what I was doing. I still had not discovered the great community behind Linux and was therefore left to figure out its bits and pieces on my own. The one who introduced me to Linux (here addressed by his nick, Error_X) was already quite used to Linux and his explanations were for the most part far above anything I had even a remote chance of understanding.

Permanently etched into my memory are my attempts (only partially successful) at installing different kinds of modems and ISDN-cards, since these were my primary connection options at the time. My modem used the Conexant chipset which was not supported by the kernel. An obscure company called Linuxant seemed to supply a driver and I was one of the lucky ones who got hold of the beta version before they began charging money for the product. This was of course a pure coincidence – I was not aware of the distinction between FOSS, proprietary software and freeware; I just knew that some things you had to pay for and some not. I was really disappointed and angry when I found out that you were charged 20 bucks for the full version of the driver, even more so when I to my dismay found out that the open source beta version was permanently removed. I remember also being absolutely convinced that my mum would not pay for that sort of thing, I didn’t even try to ask her – which is a pity because I am sure that given the fact that Internet access was almost as important then as it is now, it wouldn’t have been problematic at all. Nonetheless, I didn’t, and was therefore stuck with the beta tar.gz for a long long time. This was especially unfortunate when they stopped compiling properly against the early 2.6.x kernel.

Likewise my trusty Canon S450 printer was attempted used with CUPS, which worked only sometimes and you have to journey to Mount Doom and back again to breath life into it after each system upgrade. It was frequently used to print essays and reports when I was in college. Several of the teachers were not too happy about collecting student works digitally, which is something that probably was very convenient for me: Compatibility with the proprietary formats would have been an issue – in the earliest of days I used KWord, and well, simply put saving a document in .doc format would most certainly mess up all formatting. So my printer was widely utilized. At this moment it is actually still in my possession, mostly for nostalgia than anything else (I do nonetheless believe it still functions). These days I hardly print anything and am used to reading from screen – both conserving rain forest and space left in my already overcrowded drawers.

I also distinctly remember KDE 2.x – its charming hicolor iconset still brings tears to my eye. And I can remember my awe as I upgraded to 3.x for the first time. Looking back it seems both silly and dated beyond belief but at the time it was something I invited my friends to look at (’cause it looked just so much better than that new Windows XP *cough* ). Just take a look at the screenshot section below!

Programming

Programming was something I began to be interested in long before I began with Linux. I remember looking at my grandfather’s pocket books on Fortran (still have them!). Seeing my keen interest, my parents bought me a book on informatics. As far as I recall there was a chapter in it about programming in Basic with a few nifty examples, like how to make a turtle walk through a maze. At that time we did not have a computer at home and I had absolutely no idea of what I was reading about. On several occasions I was allowed to use a computer where my mother worked. Me and some of my buddies used to play old DOS games for the most part, but I always wondered where that command window that they talked about so much in the book, was.

My next passion became my calculator. Yes, you heard correctly. My good ol’ black-and-white TI-83 served in my possession as a fun little gadget which could be programmed. I unfortunately did not have a PC link cable at the time and was therefore forced to do all coding on the calculator itself, which pretty much amounted to me choosing commands from a myriad of various menus as the TI did not accept plain written input. And you may of course imagine that with screen height being measly 8 lines and with the missing ability to copy and paste my dream of writing a tetris game fell flat. Two or three years later when I was 16 and began at high school I got my Casio graphical calculator. It had three colors (horrid orange, puke green and blue/black). To my disappointment having tripled the number of colors it also had reduced rendering speed three-fold as well, although I do suspect that the raw code run speed was slightly improved over TI-83.

My interests remain in the field of simulation, game creation, visualization and artificial intelligence. In the day-to-day work the most prevalent task is nonetheless writing scripts for merging, editing, searching and otherwise processing text files. Visualization sees some practical application as well.

Historical screenshots

Here is a small historical tour of my Linux boxes through times:

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