Burn In 0: How I Got Into Computers

A few weeks ago, Julie Leung blogged her thoughts about getting kids into computers. Her closing notes, “interview a number of people who became hackers when they were children, and compile their various experiences, advice and opinions into a book”, intrigued me. I don’t want to produce a book (I was an editor for four years, and one should never learn how sausage is made :-), but I do have a blog. So I asked some of my friends and I’ll be posting the results, several per day, so long as they keep coming in.

First up, my own. I’m an open source programmer turned conference planner, co-author of Perl Cookbook, organizer of OSCON, and board member of The Perl Foundation. I sent this to people as an indication of the kind of story I was after.

Nathan Torkington’s Story

When I was a kid in New Zealand, my parents were dirt-poor, with my
Dad subsistence fishing. While Mum was pregnant with my sister, they
saved and saved, and in the year of my 8th birthday I got not only a
little sister but also a Commodore 64. I began playing games, and
rapidly learned programming. I was fascinated by text adventures and
platform games, and still have a warm spot in my heart for Infocom,
Manic Miner, and Impossible Mission.

I started off programming in BASIC, with all the PEEKs and POKEs
required to do cool things. The Commodore 64 came with a great manual
that showed you basic audio and video hacks, and there were sample
programs on the C30 tapes that came with Commodore’s “Learn to
Program” series. The C64 had amazing video and audio chips, ahead of
their time, and I had fun making sound effects and emulating the
multicolored video bars that hacked games showed while loading. I
ended up learning machine language (assembly and ML were conflated a
lot in those days) and still associate A9 in hex with LDA. I never
did learn how to put software into the 1541 disk drive, though, as the
best disk copying programs did.

When I was 12 or so, we got a PC and I learned Pascal through
Borland’s Turbo Pascal. I went to a computer show in Auckland, New
Zealand, and demo’d my filesystem explorer to a software publisher. My
talent went undiscovered, however. I learned C, though didn’t fully
understand memory management. As anyone who knows C knows, if you
don’t grok memory management then your programs will crash. Mine
always did, eventually.

I was a PC user and my high school was an Apple shop. I poured scorn
on the Apple //e machines and AppleWorks as I moved through “computer
studies” classes. I’ve kept in touch with my teacher from those days,
though, and spent a few months in early 2004 working from the same
high school I attended in 1984. Vern, the computer studies teacher,
got the last laugh on me though: I’ve now switched my entire family
over to Macs and the only PC left will soon become a file server.

I went to Victoria University of Wellington in 1990 and took computer
science. This taught me the bits I’d missed while I was teaching
myself: memory management, efficiency, parsing, and all the other good
things. It also broadened my horizons: it’s often said that a CS
degree doesn’t make you a good programmer in any one platform, it
prepares you to be a good programmer on every platform. It didn’t
prepare me for the Real World of deadlines and management, but did a
great job of showing me what excellent code and excellent thought
looks like.

I’m moving back to New Zealand with my family, and I will be rolling
out my Commodore 64 for my son. We did

20 GOTO 10

last year, but this year I think he’s better prepared–he can read and
spell, and is desperate to learn how to make his own games. I’ve
steadfastly avoided buying a PSP, GameBoy, DS, etc. on the grounds
that they are consumption devices and not production–you can play
games but you can’t (without major hackery and warranty violation)
write games.

The beauty of the C64 (and the Apple // and every other micro that my
generation grew up on) is that it’s programmable as well as playable.
Kids today don’t have that, and I think we’ll feel the lack of it.
Four decades ago, nerd kids were into ham radio. Two decades ago,
microcomputers. What are they into today? What’s out there today
that’s hackable? MySpace profile pages? I hope this isn’t the extent
of what this decade has to offer the young hackers.