A brief history of my early digital life.

As far back as I can remember, Dad always got us into whatever the latest and greatest technology happened to be.

In 1980, we had a Tandy Color Computer (TRS-80) model one, with a whopping 4k. We even had a newfangled data cassette drive, so that we could record and play back programs off audiocassette. 

Back in the 1980s, there were computer magazines that had programs in the back that you could type in to make your computer do something. I’ll never forget the time that I was typing in a four-page BASIC program and I ran out of memory… Dad always said he meant to get the upgrade to 16k, but he never did get around to the upgrade.

1980 was also the year I talked Dad into getting us an Atari 2600 so I could play Berzerk. At least I think I talked him into it. It’s entirely possible he wanted it just as much as I did because I distinctly remember waking up from a sound sleep late one night to find Dad hunched over the controller, guiding Pac-Man through his dot-filled maze in the dim glow of the tv screen.

In the same time period, we also had a TI-994a, which had some program cartridges you could slide in on the right side. We had a couple of game cartridges and one or two other programs that I never paid much attention to.  There was one music program cartridge that played a jaunty little tune when you locked it into place, and I loved that thing even though all I ever did with it was slide it in to hear the song.

Dad also had a knack for getting us into trial services. Between the years of 1983 and 1986, Knight-Ridder and AT&T piloted an interconnected videotex machine called Viewtron in homes in South Florida. Dad was fascinated and immediately signed us up. This consisted of a box that you plugged into your tv with a little wireless chiclet keyboard (a big deal back then!,) and it dialed into a set of servers. There was weather, shopping, a digital dictionary and encyclopedia, and an early “CB Chat” system. I remember using it to research reports and projects for school, but the part I loved the most was the chat system.  Viewtron was ahead of its time, with all kinds of services that we take for granted now, and it folded after just a few years.

Flash forward to 1984, and Dad once again signed us up for something new and exciting- our family was charter subscribers to the new Prodigy dial-up service. Some of my earliest uses of something like e-mail were done in the message boards on this service, and I made my first “Internet friends” during this era. Alas, I lost touch with all of them when we left Prodigy a few years later, but it was still an interesting time.

In 1986, I got the first computer that was just mine- a Commodore 128. I used it for word processing, to write reports, and I dialed into BBSes with it, but mostly I used it to play games, and I loved that it used the same type of joystick as the Atari 2600. To this day, I still prefer one stick and one button for my gaming- the newer game consoles have far too many sticks and buttons and I can’t ever remember which one of the eight or ten buttons does which action.

My brother had an Atari computer in his room, an Atari 800 I think, and each of us spent time running a BBS on our respective machines for a while.  A BBS is a Bulletin Board System, and these were popular when computers used separate modems to dial out on a telephone line.  Most BBS setups had message boards, some games which were called Doors for some reason, and a few other things.  Some allowed the sharing of files, and some were set up as multi-node, which meant you could have multiple people connected and those people could talk to each other- this was an expensive setup because each node required its own phone line.  Another early feature of BBS life was FIDOnet, an early form of long distance messaging where the FIDOnet nodes would call one another and messages would be sent from node to node to reach users across long distances.   I loved running a BBS in the early 1980s, partly because I loved that sense of community, and partly because I loved being able to jump in and chat with whoever happened to be on my computer at the time.

Here we are, more than three decades (and dozens of new computer systems) later, on what would have been Dad’s 81st birthday. He used to say that he wished he would have paid more attention and learned more technology when we had all those computers in the house all those years ago, but I think he did just fine. 

I started a new job about two months ago, doing some pretty neat stuff with a great technology company, and I can’t help but wonder if my life would have taken a very different path if Dad hadn’t encouraged my fascination with technology so much over the years.  

What was your first computer?

Data Rot

I’ve long been fascinated with data rot.

Data rot has two basic types.  The first is about the medium on which information is stored.  For example, hard drives can have mechanical failure.  Audio cassettes and other recording media can be affected by moisture, heat and humidity, so that they don’t retain their information as effectively.  Translation:  If you leave your “Now That’s What I Call Music #38” tape in the glove box for more than a few months, it will start to sound terrible.  (And, according to Good Omens  it will also become a Best of Queen album, but that’s a separate problem.)

The second type of data rot is the one that fascinates me the most.  It’s that the machines to read the older types of data are simply harder to find.  When’s the last time you saw a reel-to-reel or an 8-track player outside of a pawn shop or a garage sale?  Betamax, anyone? I had a brief flirtation with MiniDisc in the 1990s, even going so far as to convert a bunch of my Best of Queen tapes to MiniDisc, right up until CD burners and mp3 technology caught up to my needs.   Heck, even my modern laptop has no floppy or optical drive.   (Astonishingly, some of our nuclear arsenal is secured by the use of archaic 8-inch floppy disks. Security by obscurity!)

More recently, I’ve been thinking that there’s a third type of data rot, one which is much more personal.  My company has been going through changes for the last year or so, and they decided last summer to sell off the part of the business that I work in.  The user base of our servers is being migrated away to another company, and everything will be transferred out within the next seven or eight months.

These are the servers I’ve been working on for the last fourteen years.

Here’s where the data rot comes in-  many of our systems are home grown or proprietary.   Sure, the systems that I work in every day have a basis in FreeBSD and Linux, but much of the environment on top of those operating systems is not used anywhere else in the world.

In less than a year, the only place those systems will exist is in the minds of the people who have worked on it.  I have so much specialized knowledge that I will never use again.  That’s data rot.

This past week was a brutal time at our company, with a tremendous round of layoffs taking out people who were there for ten, fourteen, sixteen years.  My department lost something like 60% of our staff.  My row of cubicles went from ten people to four.   When my usefulness is at an end, I’ll almost definitely be fired as well.  I wonder if that could be considered data rot too.

The other day, I was driving home and I noticed a big, fat iguana sunning itself on the grass on the side of the road.  I’ve been having a lot of memory problems lately.  I don’t know if it’s all the headaches I’ve had over the last few years, or whether it’s just a sign of getting older.  Amelie thinks that my crappy short term memory is just because I don’t sleep enough.  Whatever the reason, I spent the next mile and a half of that drive trying to remember the word for iguana.  I was absolutely convinced that it started with A, but all I could think of were aardvark, avocado, abogado.  My memory is definitely swiss cheese compared to where it used to be.  I can’t even remember where I put all my Best of Queen tapes. I guess that could be data rot as well.

What do you think?  Have you ever experienced data rot in your own life?

 

Automation is cool.

This may be one of the coolest things I have ever seen.

Most train stations have a room with lockers where you can store your luggage for a few hours. Köln’s Bahnhof has a row of automated machines that fill the same role.

It’s coin operated. You select either ten or 24 hours and pay accordingly, then you put your bag in a metal cube and a conveyer belt whisks it away to the underground land of gnomes and cookie dough. When you come back later in the day, you give the machine your magnetic stripe receipt and it retrieves your bag from the Keebler Elves and sends it back to you via conveyer belt.

This is so cool that I may need to lie down.

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