With most things in life, the journey is often more important than the destination you reach. As someone who has got to a point in their life where technology plays an essential role each and every day, I sometimes reminisce about the journey travelled so far. Primitive recollections with early computers such as the Commodore 64, through to my first PC (an earth shattering 8086 beige monster), then on to my more recent introduction to Linux, the founding of Linux UK, joining the KDE project and onwards to professional Open Source advocacy and LUGRadio lunacy, all strike a smile when they enter my imagination. Each of these experiences has played a critical role in how I focus on technology and the views I have about a range of subjects pertaining to the industry and many of the philosophical issues surrounding it.
This article is the first of a series of articles that will document this journey. Before I begin, I should make my intentions for this series clear. My aim is not to present a biographical story; I certainly don’t feel my life has been interesting or different enough to justify this, but I do have two specific aims for this series. Firstly, I want to document all of this for myself. I myself have a shockingly bad memory; one criticised by my other half daily due to such offences as forgetting the milk from the shop, and this series will be useful to remember these experiences and know they are written somewhere safe on the Internet. Secondly, although I am no Steve Wozniak or Kevin Mitnick, I have had a number interesting, fun and wacky experiences as I spiralled into computers, and then onto Linux just before it started kicking off. Maybe some of these words can raise a smile on some of your faces, and inspire similar recollections from your own lives.
A northern boy
Back in September 1979, my mother squeezed me out into the world. Born in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, my hometown was fairly typical of a North Yorkshire town. A small and run-of-the-mill population, most people knew most people, and everyone certainly knew my father. As a man who struggled through his own childhood, he went on to achieve a number of notable experiences in his own world. One of the most notable was when he started a strike at a factory, one triggered by safety issues inside the trailer construction company. Although reviled by his employers, he went on to become mayor of Northallerton and defended his townspeople at every step. To this day, my father is still reviled by some and hailed by many as a working class hero. Irrespective of the onlooker, he has always rigidly stuck to his morals and beliefs, and his and my mothers inspiration has fuelled my own determination to ‘do the right thing’.
As a kid, I was fairly normal. I did not have the quiet, sheltered, nervous existence many geeks recall from their school days. Having two brothers much older than me, life was always interesting. Martin was the more hands on of the two who enjoyed such pranks as making circles of petrol in the garage and asking me to stand in the circle as he lit it. As someone with a bit of a fixation with fire, petrol and other dangerous entities, Martin took a great pleasure out of building and destroying things. Although not a computer guy, Martin exhibits many of the traits of a hacker, and he could always be found making something out of nothing out in the garage. Give him a spanner, bin liner, old pram, piece of wood and a belt, and he would erupt out of the garage on his own concocted vehicle - he really did watch way too much A-Team…
My other brother Simon was a different kettle of fish. As someone who demonstrated an appreciation of appalling haircuts and large boots, Simon had a love for The Cure and he showed it. Aside from his angst ridden appearance, Simon was also getting into computers when not staring at his shoes. One day I wandered into his bedroom when he still lived at home in North Yorkshire, and there was this cool looking grey thing with a cassette tape deck built in. I asked him what it was and he told me it was a Spectrum computer and you could play games on it. As we chatted, I heard his TV squawking away as he loaded a game in which you played a tiny white blob saving other tiny white blobs that he assured me were soldiers from a German WWII castle (no idea what game it was). Simon had a penchant for this unknown game and another curious tape in which he fought a competitor and then an odd looking dude came out and kicked the losers head out of the arena. Nice.
This computer thing looked cool. Sure, I had seen computers in films such as D.A.R.Y.L and when Dr Who was on, but I didn’t realise Simon had one. After this first encounter with the computer, Simon was rigorously against me playing on it unless he was there. This was understandable - the last thing he would have wanted was his little brother screwing it up. As such, I waited patiently for him to come home to get my fix on the grey box.
Hail the Commodore
After spending some time playing around with Simon’s computer, my parents decided to get one. The choice was a Commodore 16; a computer that few seem to have owned, but one that continued my interest in computers at that early age. Although I did not have free reign on it, I spent quite some time playing some early games on the machine, and I was fascinated by the graphics and technology that went into the machine. As time rumbled on and the Commodore 16 became outdated, my parents bought me my very first computer of my own - a Commodore 64. This ground breaking machine is where it kicked off for me.
When I got the C64, I wanted to learn more about how games worked; I wanted to create games. As soon as the machine booted, you were instantly thrust into a BASIC interpreter, and the C64 manual boasted the great things you could do with BASIC. I sat down with the thick blue book and its white ring binding, and typed in some introductory programs. They worked, but won no prizes for amazement. I wanted explosions, fire, death and destruction; all the things a young northern kid wanted. As I continued through the book patiently, the most interesting example seemed to be a hot air balloon that you could animate the move across the screen. When I got home from school on the hot summer evenings, I would sit in the dining room typing out the balloon program and trying to make it work. After a repeated affliction of failure, the gods smiled and the planets aligned and the damn thing finally worked. Although so incredibly primitive, it was just so cool, and I was truly psyched. I needed more. Although I didn’t know it, this was my first hack.
When I was a kid, people in Yorkshire were not exactly tech savvy. Although my parents took me into computer shops in Newcastle to get games such as Out Run, Green Beret and NARC, in Northallerton there was one computer shop; an emporium run by a guy who looked like an ugly Mick Hucknall (yes, I know, it was quite a sight; this guy need a public health warning stamped on his forehead). Whenever we went into town at weekends, I would spend my £2 pocket money each week and buy a game. Within the shop, it was like something from a cold war movie. Inside, there were five cordoned off areas segregating the different platforms, and you only looked at your own shelves. The people from the other shelves didn’t speak to you, and you didn’t speak to them. There were good reasons not to speak to them though. The Spectrum owners were a strange bunch, the Amiga owners were rich, the Atari people were old farts, and the SEGA/Nintendo people were the cool kids. While perusing the Commodore section and avoiding eye contact with the monocle wearing, horse riding Amiga owners, I noticed some Commodore books stuffed at the side of the shelves. One such book stood out a mile - a book on writing Commodore games. Wow, I could write games and be really cool. In retrospect, the book was actually pretty appalling. It simply contained listings of pre-written games, but this was good enough - I just wanted to see and run more code. I certainly got that; the listings went into tens of pages. My mum helped patiently type in the code, and she also mastered the strange multi-fingered keyboard combinations to get these odd C64 symbols to appear. My suspicion is that Emacs users spent far too much time with the same book…
Around this time, my parents decided to move to the south of England. My dad had gone for a new position in Leighton Buzzard in East Anglia and we all moved South where I started a new school in Bedfordshire. This was interesting in itself. All of these southern kids with their very slight cockney accents suddenly had this kid with a bowl haircut join their school who no-one could understand. My thick northern accent amused many of the kids, and I reacted with good humour and developed some good pals. At around the same time, my brother was moving up in the world too. Simon had been working in computers (I never knew what he did at the time, but he administered UNIX systems), and he had just bought a snazzy new computer which left him with an old orphaned PC that he offered to me. This was a big deal. No, this was a huge deal for me. As someone who was just getting into computers, the geekery was further bolstered by watching WarGames over and over again; a film in which Matthew Broderick does all kinds of amazing things with a computer. Inside my pea-brain, the computers in WarGames were PCs, and Simon’s old computer was going to open me up to all that. Would you like to play a game?
Bring forth ‘ye PC
Shortly after moving to the South, Simon was going to deliver my new computer while visiting us for the first time at our new home. The new house was pretty crazy. Built by a guy who won a bucket of money on the dogs, the house was decked out in full-on seventies glam. At the time, we were renting the house while my parents looked to buy a place, and this rented dwelling was a superb home for the amount of rent each month. It included a swimming pool, games room, sauna and as a bonus, was horrifically haunted. At the time, my parents never told me the stories of the unusual things that happened in that house, but later in life they filled me in on the rocking chair moving my itself, figures on the stairs and other weird occurrences. When I look back, I do remember hearing footsteps when my parents were out. Ugh.
On the big day, Simon came in and dumped the beast on the floor. Emblazoned in beige, the chunky base unit and green screen monitor were augmented by a huge keyboard, complete with dust and the likely-hood of a pube. With no regard for my generous brother, I snapped the machine up, and eagerly hulked the machine upstairs to plug it in. As the machine booted, I heard the 40MB hard drive whir, and the machine booted into MSDOS. Scribed on a piece of paper, my brother had also written instructions on how to start GEM; an usual but at the time, gripping graphical user interface. With no mouse, GEM needed to be controlled by the cursor keys. I didn’t care though; I had a PC and it rocked good and hard.
That PC brought great things to my experiences with computers. For some reason, there were about four BASIC environments installed, and one of them allowed me to convert my program into a program you could run without the BASIC environment. This was a big stepping stone, as I could write software anyone could run. I would spend endless amounts of time fiddling with BASIC and writing fairly pointless, but interesting programs. When not writing programs, at school I would draw flow charts, write scraps of code on my books and imagine the wonderful things I could create on that fantastic green CGA screen. Most of these primitive experiments included basic concepts such as data input, menus, tables and more, but they were so cool, and anyone could run them. It was just a shame no one else had a PC; they only had those stupid Commodore 64s (I never looked back, such a snob). As I played with it further, I realised that programming was something that gave me so much control. I could write a program and make the computer do things that I wanted to do. As I listened to Iron Maiden’s Somewhere In Time album one evening, I realised that I wanted to run a software company, and there was no better time than to do it right now…while I was…er…13.
So, I went to school, met up with some of my pals and proudly announced TECH; my own software company. The idea was to create a game called Splat The Rat, and I had even mustered my horrific drawing skills to draw the ambivalent rat. With my comrades in tow, each playtime was spent talking about how we would create this platform game called Splat The Rat and how cool it would be. Sure, none of us knew how to make it, and many of my friends had never coded, but that didn’t matter - we were gonna do it anyway. As the motivation continued to flow, I read up on creating computer games by visiting the village library and ordering in stacks of books on anything that sounded vaguely related.
When my books arrived in at the library, there was a distinctive problem. Each one of them talked about this language called C, and the code listings looked complex and cryptic. This successfully killed off the doomed TECH, but I was still keen on furthering my own learning. I remembered reading in SEGA Format that most of the SEGA games were written in C, and this mystery language had me intrigued. As I read through the book I discovered that I needed something called a C compiler, and having checked my PC, there wasnt one installed. I gave Simon a call and he assured he could sort me out with a compiler. That weekend I was going to stay with him and he showed me this box containing something called Turbo C++. We spent a few hours trying to install it (my floppy drive was playing up), but we finally got it installed, and I was excited. This new tool looked incredible. It had all kinds of complex commands, menus and more. It also had a huge manual, but Simon could not lend me it. I sat on his living room floor with a small ring-bound notepad and pen, and copied vast chunks of the manual while he watched TV.
Although C was an exciting proposition, it turned out to be an impossible proposition. Sure, I could do some coding in it, and I had a good grasp of the core principles like functions, commands and input/output, but I was not really getting anywhere very quickly. While chatting with my dad, he suggested I looked into going to college to learn C. Although I was only 14 and still at school, I was excited by the idea of getting some formal training in C. My mum took me to Bedford College and signed me up for a City and Guilds Programming in C Level II night-school course. Once a week, I would go to study my course between 6pm and 9pm, and I successfully got my certificate.
At this point, I started fiddling around with graphics in C. Creating simple animations and doing some basic 3D animation were the activities that took part in my bedroom when I got in from school. Life was simple, and I did two things, I played guitar in a band and I hacked on C when I got home. Although there were plenty of people to talk about guitars too, there was no-one to talk about hacking to. Anyone who was into computers was busy running Logo at the time. I found this utterly uninteresting and I was more interested in writing programs to give to my friends.
BBSs take control
The Christmas after my 14th birthday, my parents decided to upgrade my PC after constant whining from my good self, and I was treated to a 386. At the time my dad was running a project that was creating the first interactive multimedia kiosks for selling cars. This was quite a cutting edge project back then, and you would be forgiven for thinking my dad is some kind of technical genius. Not quite. My dad is a genius when it comes to ideas and innovation, and he managed to run a project in which he could drive the direction and leave the techies to actually carry out this vision he had. As part of his work, he managed to get a cheap 386 from Olivetti that he gave me for Christmas.
As someone keen on IT, I always loved to find out about how my dad’s project was going. He would come home and tell me what he was doing, and I was always fascinated by the software and people who worked in it. He even took me to a few meetings, one of which was a technical development meeting, and I met for the first time some professional programmers. Although COBOL and VB developers, it was fascinating to get a view of the industry I would hope to get involved with. I wonder what those people must have thought about the director of the project bringing in his pimply faced son with a pathetic bowl of a haircut to meetings. You may have noticed a recurring theme with the ‘cut - I am not going to deny that I had unforgivably stupid hair when I was a kid.
One day at school we were informed that we could go on two days work placement. I had a chat to my dad and he said he would take me into work to work on the project. On my first morning, I put on my shirt and Flintstones tie and he drove us into work. As we sat in his office, he gave me my first task. My job was to get the company on the Internet.
At the time, the Internet was not something people had really heard of. Companies were just starting to come out and offer net access, but the computer magazines were mainly riddled with ads for BBSs. As I read some magazines, I discovered that I needed to get a modem. We went and bought a 28.8k external modem for over £250 (they had recently come out), and I started dialling up BBSs. This was amazing. I could talk to people over the other side of the country, or even the other side of the world. BBSs contained files and online rooms, and it again acted out one of the many dreams from a film such as WarGames. Hooking your computer to another one was incredibly cool, and my dad gave me permission to do this for a full two days on work experience. I did some more research into TCP/IP, addressing and the World Wide Web and eventually suggested he used a certain company to dial up. His company had now been put on the Internet by a 14 year old kid…with a bowl haircut.
After the two days, my dad must have been feeling flush and as a reward, he bought me the same modem to use at home. I was now set to get on the net at home, and this could potentially open me up to a world of different things. It certainly did…
To be continued…
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