Wanderings Blog

Autobiography Through Devices

My math teacher in elementary school, Bill, taught me how to do fractions, but he also taught me two other things. One turned out to be trivial: thanks to his patient tutoring after school, I learned to play “Waltzing Matilda” on my school’s upright piano, with chords and everything, and eventually played it at our holiday talent show to lukewarm reviews. The second thing Bill taught me had a permanent, far-reaching impact on my life: he showed me and my best friend how to type simple BASIC programs from the user manual into our school’s Commodore 64 computers. First we spammed the screen with HELLO MY NAME IS NATHAN messages until we got bored and hit the Run/Stop key. Then we moved on to calculating endless sequences of numbers, directing a turtle around the screen using Logo, and writing simple Choose Your Own Adventure-style text adventure games.

While other students used the school’s small computer lab to play video games like Jumpman and Jungle Hunt — the sum of their C-64 knowledge was LOAD "*",8,1 — we raced down to the end of the hall after class and monopolized the computers for our own little projects. One evening Bill even invited my friend and me over to his house, where he had an acoustic modem attached to his own computer, and demonstrated dialing in to a BBS (possibly Prodigy, though I can’t recall exactly). This was around 1984, when I was 9 or 10 years old.

NathanAmigaThen, Christmas 1985 happened, a day that I can honestly say changed me forever. My parents had purchased an Amiga 1000 for the family — easily the most expensive, most exciting Christmas gift they’d ever bought — and I remember helping my dad set up this amazing piece of technology on our old red wooden desk in a back room. The Amiga 1000 was a marvel: a 7.15 MHz processor with 512KB of memory and the ability to display as many as 4096 colors onscreen at once (in HAM mode), it bested my school’s C-64s in every conceivable way. In fact, it bested all the available personal computers in existence at that time. My parents had done something incredible and forward-thinking. They had purchased not just a computer, but the best computer. It had a graphical operating system with icons and folders… and a mouse to click on these things with. It had a Commodore 1080 monitor rather than an old black & white TV set like the computers at school. The Amiga didn’t have a hard drive in those early days, but it had a high-density floppy drive that used 3.5″ disks capable of storing 880K of data on each disk. It came with a set of mind-bogglingly beautiful technical demos; everyone who was into computers in the mid-80s probably remembers the Amiga’s iconic red-and-white bouncing ball. I continued to experiment with coding in AmigaBASIC, but also got into some of the Amiga’s first-rate games (Hacker, Marble Madness, Dark Castle, The Faery Tale Adventure), and spent countless happy hours drawing silly stuff in Deluxe Paint.

By the time I started high school in 1989, I had convinced my parents to upgrade to an Amiga 2000. This computer was nearly infinitely expandable, had twice the RAM of the Amiga 1000 (I later doubled the 2000’s memory to 2MB with a help of a part-time job), and best of all, it had a 20MB hard drive that was blindingly fast and could store all my book reports for school alongside my artistic IFF dabblings. A friend at school gave me a copy of Lattice C, so I began delving into some simple C programming projects with Dennis Ritchie’s book as my teacher.

But what really blew my mind freshman year? The internet, of course! A few of my school friends had 2400-baud modems at home and they’d figured out how to dial in to our local university’s modem pool. Anyone who knew how could do it, regardless of affiliation with the university. Once I had the right phone number and an arcane set of AT commands written down on a sheet of notebook paper passed to me surreptitiously in Biology class, I knew how to dial in too. It was a short hop from the ">" prompt to any telnet or FTP site in the world. My friends hung out on a TinyMUCK named Pegasus, so I did too. My username was Irvin’. In short order I was given wizard privileges and began creating my own areas, items, and minigames like a blackjack machine that let players place bets using the MUCK’s currency. Another friend derided TinyMUCKs as being overly focused on socializing, so when I hung out with him, it was on various DikuMUDs where we adventured as a group, collecting loot and leveling up. I can’t imagine how many hours I spend on MUCK and MUD games during my first two years of high school. Suffice to say, it was as much time as my parents would allow our phone line to be tied up… and then, eventually, it was as much time as the university’s computer lab employees would allow an underage kid to use their systems unmolested.

It was also during high school that I first came into contact with the World Wide Web. My girlfriend had gone out of town for spring break and I needed a project to occupy my time. Somewhere I’d read about the new phenomenon, the WWW, which in 1994 was still only accessible with NCSA Mosaic on Unix workstations. The obscurity did not deter me; somehow I sensed that this was going to be a very big deal. So, I taught myself HTML and created the internet’s first website dedicated to the UK band, The Cure.

Starting college in 1994 was a good excuse for another computer upgrade. By this time, the Amiga platform had been eclipsed by IBM PC compatibles and I didn’t want to get left out in the cold. Plus, my college’s intranet required a PC or Mac that could be fitted with a fiber-optic network adapter. The school offered a PC purchase program through the bookstore which allowed me to buy a new IBM with a Pentium CPU (60 MHz!) on an interest-free loan. Unfortunately, Intel was having supply problems in the fall semester of 1994 so I had to wait impatiently while production of the first Pentium chips were ramped up. Of course, that CPU had the FDIV bug. An IBM field technician later stopped by my dorm room and swapped in a new chip for me.

It took me years to pay off that loan but being able to run Windows and DOS applications like the rest of the world was totally worth the price. Plus, the craziest things could be found on other students’ PCs on the school’s network. We traded pictures of Winona Ryder and a prerelease version of Windows 95 that, in my mind, finally brought the Windows GUI up to par with the old AmigaOS. During my second year of college, I partitioned my hard drive and began dual-booting Windows and Slackware Linux. Linux was a far better environment for working on my programming coursework and I created a login account for my neighbor in the dorm to use for his programming projects as well. I booted into Windows to share files with my Windows-running friends, and, of course, to play games. Mostly Doom 2 and Hexen, marvels both.

In my junior year, I used part of my financial aid money to buy all the components I needed to build my first PC. This was notable partly because I ordered all the components online — my first purchases using a web browser and a credit card. The PC was nothing fancy: a Pentium 166 MMX with 32MB of SDRAM, an ATI video card, a CD-ROM drive, and two hard drives adding up to a bit more than a gigabyte of storage. The crown jewel of this PC was a US Robotics 56k Sportster modem that I had won in an online contest. Since I lived off-campus by that point, it was important to have a fast internet connection, so that 56k modem was one of the best things I’ve ever won. Still, it wasn’t quite fast enough now that file-sharing was getting big. I was forced to use Napster in my school’s computer labs to download MP3 files and I transported them home to my apartment on a Zip disk.

That home-built computer survived, was added onto, had its parts swapped out, and generally persisted until 2000, when I gave it away to a friend and made the switch to Apple. I bought a wildly expensive Power Mac G4 but used that same 56k modem with it at first, which was dismal, but happily when I moved to a new apartment in 2001 I had the option to subscribe to cable internet. By then I also had an amazing little Dell Latitude X200 provided by my employer that garnered compliments when I took it to conferences. I had also traded the G4 for an iMac on which I installed the preview release of Mac OS X 10.0 and also experimented with BeOS. Not long after, in late 2002, I added an iBook to my collection of Apple hardware.

Since that time I have owned a succession of Apple laptops (a second iBook, a couple of MacBooks, including a black one, and now a MacBook Pro). Two massively disappointing netbooks got mixed up in there, too: a tiny eee PC and a Dell with a 9-inch screen. As for the desktop, I took a break from home-built PCs for a time, and in 2005 purchased a cheap consumer Dell mini-tower that was stable for many years and even ran Windows 7 just fine, but was, frustratingly, nearly impossible to upgrade due to its small form factor. In 2012 I built a new desktop PC with a solid state drive, 8GB of memory, a midrange GeForce GTX card, a DVD burner, and plenty of space for expansion. Media storage is ably taken care of by a Synology NAS.

In a way, I’m sad that PCs are now becoming much less crucial at home, as smartphones and tablets are increasing in usefulness and convenience. There will probably be a day — and soon — when I won’t feel any need to dedicate a corner of my bedroom to a computer desk at all. I expect I’ll still keep my PC in a box in my storage locker, alongside my old Amiga and the hundreds of pounds of computer components, peripherals, dozens of failed hard drives and unreadable floppies, and cables. So many cables. I’ve kept all this equipment for over a decade but can’t seem to let go of any of it. In another 10 years perhaps I’ll dig it all out and just let the memories wash over me as I wonder why I kept that original Goldstar 8x CD-ROM drive from 1997…

Inca Traillog

I spent October 11-14, 2013, hiking the Inca Trail. Here is the story of my experience.

DAY 1: Kilometer 82 (9,200′) to Wayllabamba (9,700′)

Piled into a bus for a bumpy one-lane-dirt-road ride to our beginning place, Kilometer 82. Our bus driver, who on the day prior had proved himself worthy of lots of bonus points for fast/dangerous video-game driving, would nose right up to any buses heading the opposite direction and have a stare-off to determine who had to back up to let the other pass. Our driver won all three times. Once at the trailhead the porters carefully weighed our bags — amazingly, no drama with anyone trying to bring extra stuff.

We set off.

Our party of 14 hikers plus 20 porters, two cooks, and two guides (our assistant guide was named Jesus, which was an endless fount of jokes: “Everyone please follow Jesus”, “Jesus spoke to me”, “Thank you Jesus!”) walked and walked and walked, through any number of small rustic settlements where they charged 30 cents to use the toilet, and wanted to sell us water and Gatorade.

There were lots of horses and burros along the trail hauling supplies to other settlements further up. We also passed by numerous tiny Inca bars (marked, not with a sign, but with a red plastic bag, for some reason) where the porters could get wasted on fermented corn beer called chicha. We were forbidden from sampling this stuff.

First night’s campsite was in someone’s backyard. She sold us massive beers for $3.00. The porters had arrived early, set up our tents and laid out bowls of warm water for us to wash our faces and hands in. So swanky! Dinner was excellent too — soup and rice and veggies prepared by our hike-along chef. He gave us different types of soup for every meal on the trek and it was awesome. Peruvians know their soups… even a hundred miles from nowhere with only the ingredients they can carry on their backs.

DAY 2: Wayllabamba (9,700′) to Pacaymayo (11,800′)

Wakeup call at 5am, breakfast at 5:30am, hike at 6:15am. This was billed as the toughest hiking day; six hours of mostly uphill climbing, with a 3,000′ elevation gain to a grim place named Dead Woman’s Pass. Eek. It was hot, dry and dusty — basically a desert situation with cacti and everything. I remembered to put on sunscreen, luckily.

We stopped for lunch in a small green valley with llamas, alpacas, and old ladies selling snacks and drinks. This was the last place along the trail that civilization touched, at least until Machu Picchu, so I bought spare headlamp batteries and some beer.

Once we got to the top of the pass a couple hours later I was quite tired. At almost 12,000′ it’s difficult to catch one’s breath so I had to stop to rest far more often than usual. The view from the pass was astounding though. Standing in the saddle between two mountains we could see the desert where we’d come from and a much greener, lusher area ahead.

It was a steep hike downhill to our second campsite, which I took slow for fear of injuring a knee. Still I walked into camp at about 2:30pm, so there was plenty of time to relax before dinner, which involved more soup of course, and some fish and hot chocolate.

DAY 3: Pacaymayo (11,800′) to Winaywayna (8,700′)

Another early wake-up call and we were on the trail by 6:15am again. I was most nervous about this day’s hiking since it was nearly all downhill — and 11 hours on the trail! — and I had heard about the crazy Inca staircases we were to descend. Steep stone steps very unevenly spaced. Scary. Not to mention the fact that it began to rain very hard shortly after we got on the trail. And rained, and rained. In fact I remember very little about the first half of this day other than the rain.

We hiked until 1pm when we finally stopped for lunch on the top of a mountain that surely had a wonderful view if only it hadn’t been socked in by a raincloud. One of the hikers in our group had gotten sick, was chilled and weak, and was just barely able to hold himself together enough to get to our lunch spot. He collapsed into our gear tent and napped while the rest of us had lunch in another tent. More soup: very warming.

And then, a miracle! It stopped raining at long last! We still had four more hours of hiking and this was the steepest downhill portion of the trail, so seeing the weather clear up lightened everyone’s mood considerably.

It was during this stretch of the hike that I had a small but important revelation, too. I had been so worried about my knees and steep stairs that I’d been going very slowly, but I was impressed with our porters’ ability to sprint down the trail even with their unwieldy fifty-pound packs on their backs. How did they do it? Well, obviously, it took some practice and a lot of strength, but it also seemed that they hiked on their toes rather than their heels. I thought about this and realized that it’s a lot more traumatic on your knees if you come down on your heel, even though that feels most comfortable and stable. Also, Luis, our head guide, told me that it’s better on the knees to go more quickly down hills, using your trekking poles more for balance than for support. I think both these tips really saved my knees on the hike and I’m definitely going to remember them for future hikes back home as well.

I’m surprised nobody fell, but we all did quite well, even the sick guy. We mostly dried off as it got warmer and we descended into the jungle. Finally rolled into camp, totally exhausted, at 5pm.

A really long day but it brought our trek nearly to an end — Machu Picchu mountain was in sight across the valley! Somehow our cooks made cake and jello to celebrate that achievement, and then with instructions to wake up at 3:45am to complete the final stretch, we all went to bed super early.

DAY 4: Winaywayna (8,700′ to Machu Picchu (8,000′)

Packed up camp and breakfasted by 4:45am, but then we had to line up at the final trail checkpoint and wait for it to open at 5:30am. I’m still unclear about exactly why we had to get up so early, but that did mean we arrived at the Sun Gate — the entrance to Machu Picchu that’s perched on top of a ridge a couple hundred meters above the main site of the city — nice and early, at around 7:30am.

The morning clouds had just lifted and the view was breathtaking! It seemed like a dream or fairy tale. You’ve seen the images we’ve all seen of Machu Picchu, but to actually be there — to take in the panoramas with your own eyes — well, it’s sure to be something to remember for life. Thousands of feet up a nearly-sheer but densely-vegetated cliff face, and all but invisible from the valley floor so far below, the Incas chose this mountaintop spot for its religious significance and proceeded to carve up the granite mountain to build temples, a school, homes, and terraces and storehouses to grow and store food for the few hundred important people who lived there.

For us in the modern day, spending some 3½ days hiking even just that small portion of the Incas’ sacred path to get to their most sacred city is probably one of the best available ways to gain perspective on an ancient civilization. If only the Spanish hadn’t destroyed nearly all other evidence of the Incas, we’d know so much more… (I hope they’ve formally apologized to Peru.)

After a few hours touring and exploring and taking photos, we hopped a bus down the mountainside — involving at least a dozen switchbacks and a single-lane gravel road with no guardrail — had lunch (pizza), then took a train and bus back to Cusco for a well-deserved shower and a clean soft bed.


A Life Well Wasted

Sometimes my nerdiness takes over and I end up doing the darnedest things. Today I finished a project, the results of which are pictured above. Yes, I painstakingly (and rather expensively) constructed this pixel art tribute to my favorite retro arcade game, Snow Bros, out of 285 LEGO bricks in nine colors. It stands 10″ tall. Why did I do this? Nerdiness.

Best Albums of 2008

  1. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
    I adore this album. Its soaring lightness combines with simple earthbound beats, and the result is certainly their happiest and most perfect work yet. Seeing Sigur Rós live for the first time — finally — at Benaroya Hall earlier this year cemented my opinion that they are one of the best bands ever.
    • One great track: “Við spilum endalaust”

  2. Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
    I guess I didn’t realize that the hype swirling around West for a couple of years now was actually deserved. I started listening to Graduation shortly before 808s came out and was hooked immediately. 808s is completely different and completely genius.
    • One great track: “RoboCop”

  3. The Knees – Sexual Radio
    This is some of the catchiest music I’ve heard in a long time. Imagine Liz Phair fronting Weezer and somehow in the process creating some very, very infectious songs that you’ll be singing in the shower for days.
    • One great track: “Sick of Being Stoned “

  4. The Teenagers – Reality Check
    A surprisingly good, if sophomoric, pop album. Unfortunately I’m 100% certain that we’ll never hear anything from The Teenagers again (or at least not anything worth listening to).
    • One great track: “Love No”

  5. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
    Oh, my. It’s so beautiful.
    • One great track: “Graveyard Girl”

  6. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
    Where else are you going to hear Kelly Clarkson, Nine Inch Nails, MC Hammer, Elvis Costello, Shawty Lo, Rick Springfield, Chris Brown, and Nelly Furtado — all on the same track? This is a man who can do a proper mash-up.
    • One great track: “Here’s the Thing”

  7. The Grand Archives – The Grand Archives
    I am just so pleased that Carissa’s Wierd continues in these various new forms (see also: Band of Horses).
    • One great track: “Sleepdriving”

  8. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me
    The Notwist have definitely not produced an album to rival or even match 2002’s Neon Golden, but this is still a really strong offering. I’ll take it.
    • One great track: “The Devil, You + Me”

  9. Black Kids – Partie Traumatic
    Merits? A consistently good album with one obvious standout track, but also, they get props for an sincerely fun a-cappella performance at Easy Street Records.
    • One great track: “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You”

  10. The Cure – 4:13 Dream
    Yay! It doesn’t suck!
    • One great track: “Underneath the Stars”

The A-Y-P Exposition

Today the Seattle Public Library released its first online special collection, The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition Digital Collection, containing an impressive amount of material relating to the event that took place in Seattle almost 100 years ago in summer 1909. You can check out the Official Guide to the Exposition, or a map of the Exposition grounds sponsored by the city of Tacoma (motto: “You’ll Like Tacoma!”… hmm). There’s even a scan of a program for a Welsh history association event, which, surprisingly, must have been very popular because the pamphlet is chock full of advertisements!

Another thing that’s pretty cool is this map of Greater Seattle that includes the names of each and every neighborhood and housing addition in the city — and there are a lot of them. Unfortunately, it seems that the names of many of these areas have been lost in time or at least have fallen into disuse. For example, my neighborhood is generally known as the University District, yet in 1909 this larger area was made up of several smaller additions including University Hills, Harrison Heights, and Lake View — none of which I’ve ever heard of. According to this map I live in the University Heights Addition, an area bounded by Brooklyn and 15th Avenues to the West and East, and 45th & 55th Streets to the South and North. Interestingly, there is a remaining vestige of this name in the old University Heights School (now University Heights Community Center) where I buy apples at the U-District farmers market on Saturdays.

Best Albums of 2007

  1. Explosions in the Sky – All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
    Six more tracks of epic instrumental post-rock from these highly consistent Texans.
    • One great track: “Welcome, Ghosts”

  2. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
    Their sophomore effort wasn’t nearly as disappointing as I feared it would be.
    • One great track: “Keep the Car Running”

  3. Blue Scholars – Bayani
    The best hip-hop duo in the Northwest (and possibly the best anywhere).
    • One great track: “Back Home”

  4. Maps – We Can Create
    Hard to describe but easy to appreciate.
    • One great track: “So Low So High”

  5. Coconut Records – Nighttiming
    If these songs weren’t so dang catchy, I’d happily hate Jason Schwartzman’s self-indulgent new project.
    • One great track: “West Coast”

  6. Rock Plaza Central – Are We Not Horses
    • One great track: “I Am an Excellent Steel Horse”

  7. Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War
    I think the best of their creative juice has been depleted, but Stars can still write a dulcet tune.
    • One great track: “The Night Starts Here”

  8. Maserati – Inventions for the New Season
    Yummy, psychedelic experimental rock.
    • One great track: “Synchronicity IV”

  9. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
    More of the same, but that’s okay.
    • One great track: “Ode to LRC”

  10. Radiohead – In Rainbows
    How much did you pay for it?
    • One great track: “House of Cards”

Death of a Murderer

Rupert Thomson’s eighth novel, Death of a Murderer, is something of a departure from his earlier work. Previously Thomson has preferred to set his stories in blurred, dreamlike alternate realities such as Moon Beach, the pseudo-Los Angeles of The Five Gates of Hell whose economy is based on funerals, or the nameless European city where The Insult‘s protagonist finds himself unable to see except, paradoxically, at night. It is Thomson’s skill in treading the line between realistic fiction and outright fantasy — never fully crossing into either territory but always staying within spitting distance — which has earned Thomson the respect and adoration of me and many other readers.

Odd, then, that he’s decided to set his latest novel in a recognizable modern-day England, complete with accurate descriptions of existing roads and highways as well as a cast of characters that can only be described as normal. And, of course, the premise of the story itself is firmly based in reality, inspired as it was by the death of the infamous killer Myra Hindley in 2002. After Hindley’s death, her corpse was placed under 24-hour police protection until the funeral, such was the vitriol of the UK public’s hatred of the woman.

In Death of a Murderer, Thomson imagines what it may have been like to be one of those constables, sitting alone in a hospital morgue with the body of a serial murderer. Sounds creepy, right? We are introduced to Billy Tyler just as he’s being offered overtime pay to do the hapless job. Billy accepts, feeling a mixture of dread and curiosity, and for the bulk of the novel we are treated to a kind of psychological case study of Billy’s reaction to the situation. In the presence of the killer’s body (Thomson never actually mentions Myra Hindley by name) he cannot help but recall certain episodes from his own past, sometimes dredging up memories directly related to the murders and at other times addressing Billy’s lingering doubts about his own moral worth.

The macabre, fascinating subject matter, paired with Thomson’s trademark precise but evocative writing style, makes for a very good read. One reason why this book works so well is that creepiness just exudes from nearly every page. There is a pervasive undertone of death and sadism throughout the book, which is quite obvious at times, as in the passages describing the killers, but more often manifests itself on a smaller, more personal level as Billy explores his past, his feelings about his family, and the recesses of his psyche. Some readers might find the ending unsatisfactory; although we’ve followed Billy into some very dark places, learning quite a bit about him along the way, as he exits the morgue at the book’s conclusion it’s unclear what, if anything, he’ll do next. But I think with Death of a Murderer Thomson has really succeeded in creating a memorable and evocative case study contrasting the dark deeds of a serial killer with those of a simple everyman. I highly recommend this novel.

Sun Whitebox

My coworker and I toured Sun’s experimental Blackbox when it stopped by UW earlier this week, just for giggles (we run a fairly small shop, so we’ll never need one of these things). Ars Technica did a nice job on their writeup of the tour, but here are my own observations about this product.

  1. Project Blackbox only includes the shipping container full of racks and related infrastructure. No cooling, nor electrical generator, is included. This makes the product significantly less exciting (to me). Imagine if this system was completely self contained — just plop the container down in the jungle and it can run independently for a week on diesel or something — now that’d be awesome. Sun’s reps did, however, say that they have partnered with vendors for chillers and generators, so they can at least help you get everything needed to run one of these things.
  2. The way they cool these racks of equipment is pretty unique and clever. The eight racks are arranged in two lines along the sides of the container, back-to-front, kind of like lines of marching ants. There are no cold aisles or hot aisles; the (cold) front of one rack abuts on the (hot) rear of the next rack, with a condenser/fan assembly in between to chill the air and keep it moving. When the system is sealed by closing the doors at each end of the container, airflow takes a circular route around the perimeter, getting cooled at eight points along the way to keep each rack at optimum temperature.
  3. The guy giving tours was Conan O’Brien’s miniature doppelganger. But he was not hilarious.