Nov 20

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

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.

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Comments: 33

  Jonathan Brodsky [11.20.05 07:46 PM]

I have always been jelous of those that grew up with commodore 64s. I think that coming up into a basic prompt does so much towards teaching a generation how to program. I think that tools like processing (for graphics) and RoR (for social / database apps) will certainly open up a door for those in the next generation to learn how to program, but for myself, the thing that I saw people doing with computers was making money off of them.

For some reason, when I was in my "I wanna make vidgeoGAMES, daddy!!" stage, the only thing that seemed to be available to me was visual c++. Perhaps I just didn't know better, but I am pretty sure that was the case.

I hope the future is one in which anyone that wants to program will be able to. Hopefully the future is one in which our computers will come with the developer tools preloaded. Hopefully the future is one in which all source code is open (the reason I learned HTML).

thanks. I appreciate that people are thinking about this.

  John H. [11.20.05 10:58 PM]

Oh, that brings back the memories.

Back in my teens, I did enough poundin' away on the three C64s I ended up getting (the first two eventually died) that I managed to sell a few programs to a C64 disk magazine.

Afterwards, I was quite disheartened to find out that programming for "modern" computers was almost an entirely different beast. Even today, I'm a thousand percent more comfortable thinking about registers and bit twiddling than things like COM objects. That's one of the reasons I'm not into programming anymore, I'm sorry to say... it lost a lot of the immediacy.

  Jason R Briggs [11.20.05 11:49 PM]

My experience was very similar: 8 years old, NZ, but a Radio Shack TRS-80, rather than a Commodore 64 (the C64 came a few years later).

Ahh... the 5mm pixel goodness...

  RichB [11.21.05 12:28 AM]

What's hackable?

  Phil [11.21.05 01:54 AM]

Heh, for me it was also the Apple II, but more so the good old BBC Model B--gotta love that BASIC/Assembly integration.

I can identify with the "As anyone who knows C knows, if you don't grok memory management then your programs will crash. Mine always did, eventually" as well--my programs certainly did the first couple of times I tried to get my head around C memory management.

I'm kinda optimistic that there's actually more out there for kids that want to do "cool stuff" today, they just have to find it.

  DD [11.21.05 02:48 AM]

I wonder if the phrase "Spectrum ROM Disassembly" brings back any fond memories for anyone else?

  yong-mi [11.21.05 04:38 AM]

Very interesting thread, since I've been reading up on research on teaching science and technology at the K-12 level. Have you seen ACM's model curriculum for K-12 computer science?
As for me, I got into computers learning BASIC on an Apple II+. I think this was when personal computers were still so new nobody had yet figured out girls weren't supposed to be playing with computers ...

  John [11.21.05 04:41 AM]

Ditto. Great article! Glad to see that you remember what it was like. My first was a C64 then C128 as well. I dibbed with the TRS80's as well. Man, those were the days. Still faithful to the PC though, could never really jump on the Apple bandwagon, eventhough I respect both platforms and would never deny my kids the opportunity to try Apple or even Linux for that matter. Again, great article!

  Frank Wales [11.21.05 04:55 AM]

I got into computing via HP calculators. The short version of the story is here.

  Art [11.21.05 05:02 AM]

I learned to be platform-agnostic at an early age: We had Apple ][s at school, my friends variously had a Commodore PET, TI 99/4a, and Atari 800. I did my school homework on a Hewlett-Packard desktop with a tiny little screen that my father brought home from his job, and would hand my homework in on a roll of thermal paper. In retrospect, forcing my teacher to have to read a BASIC dump without being able to prove the program worked could have been the cheat of the year, but I was an honest student.

I didn't enter in CS but learning how computers work -- not least by seeing what all these systems had in common -- still gives me an advantage over the other nonprogramming peers of my age. And now that I'm learning programming for a career change, I get to skip the early chapters in the tutorial books, a valuable time-saver!

  J�rg M�ller [11.21.05 05:53 AM]

I think my case starts back in 1981 when I saw the first arcade video games in the bowling center where I took Judo courses. Though I was too young to play myself, the intense colours and strange scenes fired my imagination to see them as portals into a different world. A few years later, when I saw the trailer for "TRON" on the german TV, I really wanted to experience the "computer space" myself. I was a TRON fan before I even had the chance to see the movie - being still too young. Quite some months I doodled TRON-like figures and colourful grids on my schoolpapers. In 1984, a friend showed me his expensive book on computer graphics and I got really excited. Later that year my dad bought his first C64 to program his own business calculations software. Playing time was scare on that machine and I had enough time to read the manual. I learned BASIC, but that was just too slow for my "ambitious ideas" of doing graphix. The only progs I finished were a simple image loader and a raster generator. The programs I used most - beside the games 'sentinel', 'ballblazer' and 'gunship' - where Koala Painter and Giga CAD. Years later when I was educated enough to try out assembly, the C64 was obsolete for good graphics since the AMIGA came out. On the AMIGA you had to buy expensive developer tools and books in order to program ( C-Compiler, Addison Wesley's 'AMIGA Intern'), as a 13 year old I couldn't afford that. I gave up programming and started doing graphics, collages and animations with 'Deluxe Paint' and 'Ppaint'. Later, I bought 'Art Department Professional' and 'Reflections'. Eventually I wrote batch scripts in ARexx to convert my 24bit images into a smaller format. Though I enjoyed doing that, I craved realtime graphics, which were very limited even in '3D Construction Kit 2.0'. Since it had a kind of SDK on it's own, I programmed quite a lot for it. At that time I was certain to study graphics design, which I did years later with emphasis on interface design. Designing, drafting and coding has always been very intertwined for me. Today, I have nearly all the resources - besides time and money - I need to do my work.

I think the motivation of most computer afficiados of my generation can be seen in at least one or more of the aspects below

Access restrictions:
If you had an older brother/sister who had more previleges on the machine than you, it might fan your 'desire' to sit before that machine.

Freezone, adolescent revolt:
Teens have an instinct for special 'zones' that only they understand or inhabit. Microcomputers were seen only as 'toys' by most grownups. Computers could provide a kind of 'magic world' like role playing games that helped kids educating and helping each other in. You could be a hero in that world.

Homebrew attitude:
My father didn't have an academic degree and no formal training in computer science but he finished that software which he still used about 6 years later. It seemed back then that anybody ambitious enough could create something special with a computer.

Lang lebe die freie Software!

An extraodinary read for this topic is 'Extra Life' by David S. Bennahum

  Dex [11.21.05 06:37 AM]

I started on PCs when i was 14. a freshman at a technical highschool, i was very impressed with all the cool things the upper class guys did. I had tons of free time during shop week, and the teachers let me do whatever i wanted. So i taught myself Basic,C++,C,Pascal and assembly. We even had a 8088 microprocessor trainer that no one even used, so i took it upon myself to hack that thing. I remember making ANSI/ASCII graphics for the upperclassmen's BBS's and i vividly remember learning impulse tracker to make beats. wow, those were the days.

As an aside, i think the gameboy advance sp is an awesome platform to start hacking. It brings things back to the basics, where there is no OS - just you and your low level programming. all you need is a linker/flash cartridge and there are several free compilers and homebrew libraries.

  KaraNagai [11.21.05 06:41 AM]

I grew up with a programmable microcalculator. That happenned to be in Soviet Russia in 1984-1986, and the calculator was completely Russian, having some machine code language and an address space of 105 "cells". Few registers as well. Although quite portable one.

Then I've changed schools and obtained an access to a monster of 60's, the most illuminated computer, the great and allpowerfull BESM-6.

We even had a terminal access to it and could program in Fortran.

Fortunately some of us, myself included, managed to escape the monster and go to a different lab (it all happened in a large research facility near St-Petersburg) to work on a Bulgarian clone of Apple II+, called Pravets-8M. It was really outstanding to have all the power of 4MHz 6502 processor and all its 48 Kilobytes of memory for you alone, not shared with anybody.

We used to program in Applesoft Basic, in machine codes of 6502, play games, use UCSD Pascal and even some form of dBase running on CP/M OS, which has been supported by an add-on card with another CPU (I believe Zilog's Z80) and some more memory on it.

That's how I got involved with computers. Couple of years passed, I went to a university, obtained an access to IBM PC XT, AT, AT386, MS-DOS, Windows, AIX, FreeBSD, HP-UX.... nothing too exciting from this stage, of course ;)

  LewS [11.21.05 09:10 AM]

This thread is making me feeling OLD! You're all talking about products that appeared years after I got started with computers.

Growing up in Northern Ontario (Canada), my high school was lucky enough to have progressive teachers and a local telephone company that agreed to let us use their mighty IBM 360 DOS/VSE (which probably had 128K of memory) system to run our Fortran and COBOL programs overnight. We would use the IBM 029 keypunch machines (I was a "drum card" programmer of note!) to code up our Fortran/COBOL programs and then I was the keener who took the box of punch cards down to the telephone company, left them on the shelf, and picked up the cards and the listings the next morning. How aggravating it was to find you'd missed a comma somewhere and had to wait another 24 hours for the next run!

But I was hooked and went off to the University of Waterloo in their Computer Science program. There, two important things happened: First, I took my first Assembler course [it wasn't even for a "real" machine -- it was called WATMAP and was for a "virtual" machine called WATIAC that was actually assembled and "run" by a big COBOL program -- that's the only way they could get gazillions of undergrad programs processed quickly] and I went from being hooked to falling in love!! Being able to program the "iron" was like crack cocaine for the geek receptors in my brain...

Second, I was on the co-op program (alternating work/study) and on my 2nd work term I was at Bell-Northern Research (forerunner to Nortel Networks) where I learned VM/CMS. In those days within the IBM mainframe universe, VM was both the PC ("personal" computing) and the Linux ("open source"), compared to the OS/MVS establishment. Again, I fell in love -- if you wrote Assembler, then anything you didn't like, you could fix it!

I became a hardcore VM/CMS system programmer, eventually a principal in a mainframe communications software startup (in 1982, nobody even used the term "startup"!) where our products were all written in IBM assembler. Interestingly, we were very disciplined in the way we built Assembler components and modules -- years later I would come to realize that what we were doing was writing "object-oriented assembler", complete with encapsulated data structures, methods, etc.

I played with the TRS-80, but when the IBM PC was introduced in 1982, I started playing with DOS applications in a serious way.

In order to keep up with "modern" programming concepts [I was now primarily a manager and ultimately went to the dark side of Marketing], I taught myself Visual Basic, HTML, etc.

The most recent programming I've done is Excel/Access/Outlook VBA macros, PHP and ASP scripts for websites.

And the wheel turns, as in Sept my oldest son [Java is his thing] started as a freshman at the University of Waterloo in the Computer Science program...

  David [11.21.05 10:23 AM]

I've found that having people tell this story (how i got into computers / what my computing history is / 6502-based machines i have known and loved) has been a productive job interview question to ask. Nominally technical, but gets at folks' motivations and passions as well.

  Amit Riswadkar [11.21.05 11:23 AM]

I started off with a Tandy 286. Since then I've been facinated with computers and how they work. I really would have liked to have had a C64. But that Tandy does sure bring back memories like playing Jordan Vs. Bird with my brother with that wheel and all the other games that we had. I remember the II E systems and the Mac Classics and etc. I remember having discussions with one of my teachers about the superiority of PC. In the end, I think he won. I'm going to be purchasing a mac pretty soon.

But since then I've learned lots of programming C#.NET, C++, x86 ASM(which I hated with a passion), COBOL(which is super long and drawn out). Now I'm picking up PHP and SQL. Its great stuff.

  Jeff Fassnacht [11.21.05 12:03 PM]

To Nat's original question of what can my son use to build games... I wonder if Flash would be worth a look (people are selling previous version of Flash on craigslist for $40). The major concepts your son would have to tackle before getting started would be the timeline, drawing tools and the scripting window. With those three, he could start by drawing and animating some shapes using the timeline. Then apply simple scripts to add interaction. Nat, you may be able to find some straightforward and simple script examples from any of the online Flash resource sites like flashkit.

When my brother and I were programming games on our TRS-80, we began by copying code from computer gaming magazines, then figuring out how they worked. We would modify bits for our own enjoyment, like creating different graphics. Eventually, after seeing all the different ways things could be built, we successfully wrote our own games from scratch.

  gnat [11.21.05 01:06 PM]

Jeff, I think Flash is probably beyond my 6 year old. We did some Logo and he enjoyed that, but I'm having a bugger of a time finding an English Logo implementation for the Mac that's easy for him to use. I may have to just boot up an Apple //e emulator and run the old Logo I remember :-)

Of course, it helps that I know Logo and don't know Flash. Perhaps if you were here, looking over his shoulder ... :-)

  Peter Yared [11.21.05 02:41 PM]

Hey Nat,

Great story, I tend to forget how it all started in the days before DOS, Windows, or the Mac. I started programming at age 9 on an Apple II at school and then a Commodore Vic 20 at home and a friend's Sinclair ZX-81. What was amazing back then was that it was you and the machine, there was really nothing in between. One junior highschooler could make a game that was state of the art.

Now we program with these massive layers like Windows and Linux between us and the processor and really have no idea what is going on in there. I haven't stepped through disassembly in over fifteen years. But at least we don't have to deal with everything going through the 6502 accumulator or Intel's %$#%$# memory segmentation anymore!!! I guess you could call that progress. :)

Apple had a really cool project years ago called KidSim that let kids program visually. It was like Logo on steroids. It would be cool if there was a web enabled version of that somewhere for kids to check out. My kid is trying to build a website and as we all know it is really tough.

  Wai Yip Tung [11.21.05 05:21 PM]

How did I get into computer programming? I pride myself being a teen computer science theorist. Long before I've touched a real computer, I have already learned a whole lot of Basic programming by reading computer magazines in public library. My first program is really on a Casio programmable calculator. It has a macro function, a random number generator and a conditional branching command. With those I have build a Blackjack game. Later my friend got a Casio pocket computer PB-100 ( He generously lent me this new toy several days at a time. PB-100 has a great feature that it supports the spade, diamond, heart and club characters. So I got to build a number of card games using Basic.

Then my friend invited me to his home to use his Apple II. By then I have already learned everything about 6502 machine code. I decided my first program should be an assembler. I coded all the machine code on paper and brought it to my friend's home for a trial. After an entire afternoon of debugging it went no where. This became my first abandoned project. Eventually my parents gave in and bought me an Apple II. I have to confess that most of these came from the thriving pirate computer industry at that time. I got to read the pirated Apple reference manual translated into Chinese. It includes the source code of Woz' Basic ROM. That piece of software was really an enlightenment for me.

In time I moved up to Turbo Pascal, 300 baud modem and so on. I was steps ahead of other when I started CS in college.

  Liz [11.21.05 08:21 PM]

Wish my story were as happy. My dad worked for IBM, so we had one of the first IBM PCs off the line. But my sisters and I got the message that computers weren't for girls. We didn't go near the thing except to use a typing program (my dad offered $100 to the first one of us to type 80 wpm -- good skills for a secretary).

It wasn't until I was 23 and making my second try at college that I even tried coding. My first class was in C programming, at a community college. I mostly took it so I could understand what my coder b/f and his friends were always on about. I figured I might like it or be any good, but wtf.

By the end of the semester I was beyond hooked. For my final project I created a version of the "mastermind" game for Windows 3.1 -- complete with full onscreen graphics and mouse support. Several years (and many remedial math classes) later, I had my degree from U.C. Berkeley.

I'm still a bit steamed about what I *might* have done when younger, given half a chance. And despite my 10-year career, good ol' dad still says women make poor engineers.

Give your daughters computers!!

  Steve Witham [11.21.05 09:56 PM]

Depends how you count. I was hooked by pictures of an old vacuum tube/drum memory/incandescent bulb/decimal arithmetic computer in a second-hand science book.

Then there were the plastic computers powered by marbles and rubber bands: DigiComp I and II. Not to mention Dr. Nim and Think-A-Dot.

The first real computer I had contact with was twenty miles away. Our junior high had an account on an HP 2000 timeshared BASIC computer owned by a school district in a nearby big city. We powered up the teletype, dialed the dial phone, and pushed the handset into the cradle of a 110-baud modem. I think I got more computer time after school by more aggressively pushing other kids away from the teletype! I would stay till after the late busses had left and my mom would pick me up.

A friend and I had a partnership: he would write all the PRINT statements at the beginning of the program that explained the premise of the program, and I had the job of writing the logic to work the way the instructions said. So we had a drag racing game where you typed in the throttle settings, a shaving game where you chose whether or not to use burny after-shave, and a version of Clue that starred Miss Ood, Colonel Nerd, Lady Junged, and Mr. Bonzini.

A couple years later we would take bike and train twenty miles in the opposite direction to haunt a college computer lab. Besides graphs made out of typewriter characters, my first graphics programs used an HP plotter driven by special ASCII commands on a teletype. One game drew the flags on a slalom course and you would try to "ski" the plotter line between the flags. In another you were trying to dive-bomb dirigibles with your biplane above the skies of Adlerschlossenplazburg.

I was the second of my friends to build his first computer from a kit with a soldering iron. The story from there parallels those of people who had an Apple ][.

The friend who wrote the intros to all those games later designed a lot of the C-64, so you could join other stories at that point.

  Jay Vaughan [11.24.05 02:48 AM]

wow, its really interesting to read these stories, and even more interesting to realize that what was once 'new-school' (C64 users) is now way, way 'old-school' .. I mean, I remember in the days of C64, there were computer geeks around even then, talking about their 'early computing days' with punch-cards, DIY 8-bit kits with keypad assembly interfaces, blinking lights, etc. Now, its "i wrote my first code on C64" thats old-school, coz all the ol' computer nerds have dropped off into the big /dev/null bit-bucket in the sky...

my first experience with 'a computer' was in the mid-70's during a visit to a friend of my mum's. she (my mums friend, not my mum, bless her heart) was studying 'computer interfacing' at the local university, and she had a teletype machine, paper-roll and all, in her little flat, where she had to learn unix commands and type C programs in, line by line, god help her if she had a typo ..

a while later i was lucky enough to witness the un-wrapping of a brand new Commodore Pet at a local appliance shop, and from that point on it was all pretty much rock and roll .. a local "Computer Age" (Apple ][/Atari re-seller) opened around the corner from my school, and I spent many long, hot, sunny afternoons (I'm Australian) after school tap-tap-tap'ing away on those machines, doing BASIC type-ins, hacking with the Atari carts, generally making a nuisance of myself at the shop .. though it wasn't long until the salesman realized the attraction that small fleets of school-kids tapping away on computers had on other small fleets of school-kids, and us 'elite little hackers' were all given floppies to save our works on, afternoon-to-afternoon ..

i still remember the point where school, and all its trappings, faded into insignificance in light of the Apple ][ monitor, 7pm in the evening, after the shop had rightfully closed, and i get a call from Mum (who somehow knew exactly where i was) telling me to get my ass back home straight away .. from that point on, school was irrelevant, all that i needed was a few more hours of POKE's and PEEK's and my game was done!

my first 'real' computer (other than the 8bit kit i made, as i had an electronics hobby in those days too, Dick Smith Kit-a-holic baby, ooh yeah!) was granted to me in 1983, and it was a good one: an ORIC-1!

man it was exciting, every day after school, coming home, watching Dr. Who for exctly half an hour, then ripping the TV Antenna out, plugging in my little Oric, and tap-tap-tap'ing away, some sort of reprieve from the monstrosity of modern education, learning to fling my own bits around .. and its been pretty much pie and roses ever since. From the Oric, i discovered the Unix machines (at 300baud no less) using the account of Mums friend, who by that point had resigned herself to taking a back-seat to my hacking, and from the basics taught me by the Unix boxen of those glorious early-80's days, I have been working ever since.

My first 'commercial' job was to write a device-driver for an Aussie-manufactured ISA modem for this 'new computer from IBM, some sort of "PC"', and at 15 i can tell you that was a life-changing experience, delving into the world of INT-13 TSR's and DOS hacks.. once i got that going, it was 2400-baud to the local Unix boxen, faster than most of the admins even at that time had at home, and it wasn't long until i got into trouble for having such access .. but from there, i went hack-commercial all the way, and now i build embedded systems packages for a German synthesizer manufacture ..

God bless the ORIC-1 is all I can say, all hail its lovely chiclets! :)

  Paul Morriss [11.25.05 07:16 AM]

Yes DD! I disassembled the Spectrum ROM by hand. It took 25 hours. Now I look back I think what a geeky thing to do.

  Tracey [11.28.05 03:30 AM]

Great story about getting into computers. Like many others, I also pretty much started out with the C=64. I almost hate that my parents bought it for me. Why? I spent too many hours behind that box from 1983-1989. I eventually sold it in 190 and joined the military and didn't really get back into computing until the late 90's. Back in the days, I was probably one of the only guys that really understood programming on the C=64 besides some of the teachers at school. My problem was that I used to make more complicated programs than what the teachers asked for. I have also been the owner of the Vic-20, C-128 and some of the early TI computers.

There is a big difference between computing in the early days compared to today. The entry barrier was low early on. Magazines printed source code (remember Compute's Gazette?) Depending on how fast you could type, you could litterally type a complete game in basic, save and run within an hour.

Where is the best place to start today?

  Larry Wright [11.29.05 04:59 AM]

I think the first computer I ever used was a TRS-80 in grade school. Then, in 1984, my Mom bought us an Apple IIc. I spent a lot of time on that computer, typing in BASIC programs out of the couple of programming books that I had, as well as the Incider and Nibble magazines. Regrettably, I didn't have much access to programming resources (or people who knew how to program), and we had limited money for books. As a result, my programming as a youngster never really got beyond little BASIC hacks.

Years later, I started programming again, in Visual Basic (yes, I'll admit it). With more disposable income (and the vast amount of information on the internet), I was able to learn more quickly. Since then, I've moved on to C, C++, Python, and now Ruby.

  Jim Ruby [11.30.05 05:48 AM]

Ya aint had any fun until you programmed a Commodor Vic 20 - 3 and a half K (thats 3500) bytes of programming memory. Talk about needing to keep programs lean and efficient!

My greatest feat in that environment was a function graphing program that used POKE to modify the code as the program ran - try that in a COM object!

  Ed Weir [11.30.05 11:59 PM]

As a kid I was given a Geniac for Christmas (think homebuilt rotary switches not rheostats)and LOTS of wires held down by ever loosening nuts and bolts. Each "program" was hard wired and I spent more time looking at the back of the machine figuring out just what I was switching in and out as I turned the dials up front.

In '62/'63 the teacher of our humongous physics class allowed us to play with the equipment instead of listening to lectures if we kept our grades up. I spent my time playing with their Heathkit ANALOG computer - learning mosre about ballistics than was healthy for a 16 year old male. I later used the experience to build a neurological analog of Pavlov's dogs, courtesy of a diagram in Scientific American.

Working in an academic lab let me at the castoffs that they could afford - things most of my cohorts never even saw. Relay controls w. stepping switches, snap leads, Mac panels and "backpath eliminators" (diodes). Still got my relay contact burnishing tool somewhere.

Play and work intermixed: National Semiconducter SC/MP (work & play), PDP-8 (work), Commodore SX-64 (playful luggable w. music & graphics !!! - still works - managed to figure out alternate indexes for Super-Base), Amiga (play). I'm an 18 year AOL vet with Q-Link before that and shopped from the first on-line bookstore via a BBS.

It wasn't too surprising that when my first career crashed at the end of the Vietnam war that I may computing my profession - it's still fun.

  Steven J. Owens [12.06.05 02:14 PM]


For your son, maybe toontalk (
will fill the bill.

  Janet Egan [12.14.05 09:27 AM]


This is a great project. Will you expand your idea of what alpha geeks to interview back in time a little to the likes of the RESISTORS ( who spawned, for example, Len Bosack? They started as kids in the late 1960s. Or how about interviewing Gordon Bell? He's a great interview when he's not munching on styrofoam cups -- as long as you don't get him started on the paperless office. Too bad Grace Hopper is no longer with us -- she was a dynamite interview and meeting her is one of the highlights of my life.

  Simon [09.24.06 09:11 PM]

Ill be doing the same thing soon. My 4 year old daughter likes computers (she has her own winXP box) and since Im a bit of a retro nut (still have a c128 and amiga 3000 setup in the comp room) Ill be teaching her BASIC programming on the c128.

The C64 was, and still is, an amazing teaching tool.



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