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…

Letter to Cat Power

I sent this letter to Cat Power on March 1, 2003, care of her record company. I never received a response.

Dear Chan,

My name is Nathan and I am writing to propose marriage. I admit that this is an uncommon and unexpected question, simply because we have never met. However, I suspect you will agree that the merits of my proposal outweigh any arguments against. You and I have every prospect for a happy life together.

  • I enjoy traveling, which seems convenient given your lifestyle.
  • I have a college education and a lucrative career in computing, which may be a useful financial supplement to your music income.
  • I would make a good father due to my friendly, childlike personality.
  • As an Irish-American with reddish-blonde hair and blue eyes, I would bring an element of genetic variation to our progeny.
  • I am a safe driver.
  • I own two of your albums which are entitled “Moon Pix” & “You Are Free.”
  • There are a number of useful tasks I can perform around the house, such as cleaning, simple food preparation, and yard work. In addition I am quite tidy.
  • Lest you think I am overly domestic, I would also note that I enjoy mountain biking and caving.
  • If you ever want to retire to the Irish or French countryside, my citizenship in the European Union will be invaluable in achieving this.

These are just a few of the reasons why I’d make an excellent husband. And, in case you doubt my sincerity, may I point out that I have never proposed to anyone before, in person or in writing. I can understand that you might prefer to get to know me before the wedding; perhaps we can arrange to meet for dinner at the restaurant of your choice. So, please consider my suggestion and let me know what your decision is.


Octavia, Octavia

I’ve been a little depressed ever since I heard about the sudden, untimely death of local science-fiction author and “genius” Octavia Estelle Butler last Sunday. On a whim, I attended a reading by Octavia Butler at the UW Bookstore a few months ago and was struck by her sonorous voice and wise presence. I’d never read any of her books, so whilst waiting in the book-signing line I was forced to come up with some other topic of conversation. As she scrawled an autograph on the title page of my 5-minute-old copy of “Lilith’s Brood” we had the following exchange.

Me: So what’s your favorite local bookstore?
Butler: I usually go to Third Place.
Me: Oh, on 65th?
Butler: The one in Bothell. It’s just down the street from my house.
Me: I haven’t been to that one.
Butler: It’s nice.

Unfortunately, as of last weekend I still hadn’t got around to reading any of her works, so on Sunday I immediately started on that signed copy of the “Lilith’s Brood” trilogy. It’s one of the most engaging sci-fi novels I’ve read — right up there with “Ender’s Game” (but not written by a raving lunatic). Ms. Butler had an utterly unique vision and the talent of a clear storytelling voice which which to share that vision. The calibre of her writing was very much welcome in a genre where such quality can be hard to come by. What’s especially sad is that, at the age of 58, Octavia Butler surely had a few more of these wonderful novels in her still.

To me, thinking about the loss of Octavia Butler, it feels somewhat like the breakup of The Pixies back in the early nineties just as I was discovering their music. But in this case, there’s no possibility of a reunion tour fifteen years later.