4.04.2010

The iPad is a Starship Bridge Accessory Lacking Only Janice Rand to Fetch It.

I'm thrilled that a historical moment has finally come upon us that inspires this kind of thinking and writing about the environmental differences between being a fledgling hacker in 1979 and a fledgling hacker today.

I grew up in relative isolation in a village of 180 people in southeast Nebraska. During the summer between the 5th and 6th grades my dad bought, at great expense, a TRS-80 Model I with 4k of RAM. The machine held so much promise, for it represented - at long last - someone who would play with me. City dwellers will never understand.

The machine came with a pack of 4 games: chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe, and backgammon - on audio cassette. I was immediately thwarted by the fact that these games were written for the Level I BASIC interpreter, but our machine possessed a newer version of the ROM software, containing an incompatible Level II interpreter.

Fortunately, Tandy supplied a filter to translate between the two. One would have to put the cassette for the filter program into the tape drive, press play, enter a "LOAD" command on the bare-bones command-line interface, and wait. After an excruciating delay, another prompt would appear to let you know it's time to take the filter cassette out of the tape player and replace it with one containing Level I BASIC programs. After doing so and responding to the prompt, the filter program would read the Level I code and translate it to Level II code - At this point, you could grab a blank cassette and write the result so that the next time you want to run the translated program you would only need to interact with the tape player once.

That was the theory. In practice, there was a bug in the filter and all of the translated code came out broken. So I had to use the "LIST" command to view the Level II source, decipher its intent, and fix it - fighting through one unbearable setback after another, fueled by the dopamine hits of each minor success.

And so began my career in programming: by finding and fixing bugs in other people's shit, just so I could play tic-tac-toe. Soon thereafter, the computer itself became the game, and I was hooked.

Years later I adopted two awesome & bright young sons who could easily have been drawn into the magical world of programming had circumstances been a bit different. Their world is full of games, pre-packaged and perfect. They don't even have to configure extended memory managers to get them to run like early PC users had to do in the days of DOS. They just pull off the shrink-wrap, open the jewel case, plop in the CD, and play. Today they just download & play. They have it so easy, and they don't tinker tirelessly at all hours of the day.

So for years I've had similar thoughts about the fledgling young hacker, only the bugbear was not the iPad but the pre-packaged games industry.

I read posts from so many obviously brilliant young hackers over at Hacker News every day. Somehow their careers were not strangled in the crib by the hands of the pre-packaged games industry, but for each one of them I wonder if there are not hundreds of others who might otherwise have been drawn into computer science if only there were more hurdles between them and fun - or enough drive & inspiration to set up their own hurdles for practice.

So, although I'm happy that others are thinking about these things now, I can't bring myself to think that the iPad is anything but another tiny step in the maturation of the computer industry. The conditions that guided me disappeared long, long ago and nobody seemed to care until Apple released the next shiny-shiny.

At the same time, I reflect on how I imagined the future to be when I was young, and the iPad is something that would have made me cream in my jeans.

I am so getting one.

2.01.2010

internet dream

I had a dream last night. In it, a friend had tipped me off that some stuff I did back in the TRS-80 Model I days had appeared online in a search engine. I used the suggested keywords, and sure enough: a blast from the past.

I immediately began composing an update to my Facebook status: "The internet is an autistic savant manchild - 82, 82, 82...82 what, Ray? 82 flamewars".

When I tried to copy the URL, I was thwarted. The search engine was built into my Maytag oven, but was not very user friendly. I went to my MacBook to read more about it: it was a failed attempt to modernize kitchen appliances. I found a snarky post, in a forum, about how one shouldn't even bother creating a search engine if you're just going to abandon the effort a year later.

I woke, remembering that the last thing I had read was by Alton Brown.

7.09.2009

the burninator


"That looks pretty good...coming out of the back of his neck there." - Strongbad



I've been told, in no uncertain terms, that the name "Trogdor" cannot be used as the baby's name...in neither the first nor middle positions. Still, from the sonogram the baby is just a few consummate Vs away from the mighty dragon. Oh, yeah - check out baby's majesty.

And, speaking of mighty dragons, the sonograms this week also showed another beefy appendage. (It's a boy!) I won't post it, though, as that seems totally inappropriate.

So what would an awesome name for a baby boy be? Help me out, here.




6.21.2009

kwisatz haderach

March madness brackets are not an obscure form of punctuation? I'm disappointed.

9.26.2008

sold, closed, and closure

Hollywood makes it look like it's all over when you blow the alien out the airlock — as if all that stands between the nightmare and your new life is some chamomile tea, the soothing purrs of your feline friend, and some quality time in a hypersleep chamber.

In the real world, you own the Nostromo. God knows you don't want it anymore: more cubic feet than you can care for, someone else talked you into buying it in the first place, and you keep seeing facehuggers out of the corner of your eye.

But you wake on one of the core worlds to find that The Corporation's shipyards have been overproducing interstellar craft. The builders are starting to default on their subprime loans, and the entire financial system is a moon-sized ball of dung hurtling towards a planet-sized fan.

So you quickly replace the deck plates that were damaged by the acid, price it aggressively, and hope the buyers don't notice egg sacs under the mist during the walk-through.

When you close on the sale, it's over.

That is what I have done today. W00t!

Edit: And, just to keep me on edge, a last-minute miscommunication has pushed the closing back to Tuesday morning. I'm popping a cork anyway.