My Cyberspace: Part One

Everyone has their own cyberspace: this is the story of mine.

My family first got a computer when I was about 6 years old. It was a Compaq Contura 4/25c laptop, a 486 computer running DOS with Windows 3.1. There were two games, both for DOS. One was a Berenstain Bears colouring book, the other was educational involving several minigames with a frog and lilypads. I spent a lot of time exploring every nook and cranny of that computer. I discovered typing “help” at the DOS prompt provided a list of commands to try out. I found the “dosshell” which I thought was edgy because it had the word “hell” in its name. I liked watching the Surface Scan in ScanDisk. I couldn’t figure out the difference between and beyond a few extra menu entries. I increased our drive space with DoubleSpace and then messed it all up copying a bunch of stuff to the host drive. In Windows I remember finding there were “hidden” applications I could find by inserting Objects into Microsoft Word documents, such as a drawing program that had no entry in the Program Manager. I remember doing ugly floodfills on, and saving the changes to several of the bitmap wallpapers that came with Windows, ruining them for future use. Once, in Microsoft AntiVirus, I decided to print off the list of viruses in the database, going through half the stack of paper on our dot-matrix printer. Probably wasted a ton of ink on the ribbon and several dozen sheets in a big chain which stretched across the room.

My most ambitious project on that machine was to attempt to type-up the script to The Wizard of Oz. The film’s mythos enthralled me; the notion of watching a monochrome film which suddenly, through technological miracles, became fully colour was astounding. I fantasized of being a film-goer in the 1930s experiencing this transition unaware and marveling at the beauty of it. This exercise in transcription was an effort which lasted at least a week, a few hours each day. I was probably 8. I’d hit play on the VCR for a few seconds, pause the tape, and type up the dialogue. I got as far as the part where Dorothy had run away and was about to meet the traveling psychic who later appears in her dream as the Wizard. Considering I probably didn’t type very quickly that was quite an accomplishment, although I remember the dawning realization of how long it would take me to finish the full film and my agonizing decision to pack it in.

My elementary school had Macintosh computers. We would play KidPix and MathBlaster, and were learning how to create documents in ClarisWorks. I would spend time in Cross Country Canada, but never really figured out what commodities were, or what the point of the game was until much later so it never really made sense to me. I remember that if you stopped the truck when a hitchhiker was on the screen, trying to bum a ride then you’d pick them up and the odds were good that they’d kill you for it. Horrifying!

Shortly after moving into a new house, we got an actual desktop computer around 1996. But it was still a 486. At least there were many more games on the hard-drive provided by the fellow who sold it to us. Commander Keen 4 and 5, the Castle Wolfenstein demo, and a similar 3D-type horror game that started off in a graveyard involving ghosts and whatnot. That game was too frightening for me at the time. But in retrospect I was the sort of kid who was hypersensitive and adhered to every rule I knew of: I didn’t watch PG-13 movies until I was 13. It took very little to scare me because I just avoided frightening things altogether. I remember being terrified deep in a dungeon in Castle of the Winds, saving a new game every few steps, breathing heavy each tile my icon (literally) moved perchance to encounter a goblin or troll. I’d spend much more time playing Wheel of Fortune.

This 486 desktop computer had a CD-ROM drive but for some reason it wouldn’t work with the IDE slot; I’m not sure why. But the computer did run Windows 95 although it only really had DOS games on it. My house was only just down the street from the Public Library so I would often book time there and surf the internet several hours each week. I had a directory of websites for kids, some yellow-paged sort of phonebook typical of the 90s when publishers thought they could sell such a thing. I’d go through it and find that half of the sites listed were already dead, although many more weren’t and had lots of neat stuff. There was a giant caveat emptor that even though all the websites listed were parent-approved, all the sites which were linked to couldn’t be trusted. I stayed safe.

At school I was given time to use the computers in the library on my own thanks to my individual education plan. I studied HyperCard and make a big, sprawling project exploiting every feature of the program I could find use for. I also got some instruction in LOGO, but that was only for a few days so that never quite sunk in.

Around grade 7, in the year 2000, my friend Kevin invited me over to help him make a website. It was some free Angelfire site and we learned, on the fly, what GIF and JPG files were, and how to write HTML. We had a fun evening and got a lot done: namely get a page up with some text and an animation of a stick man in a safety vest wielding a shovel inside a yellowish-orange warning sign underneath of which read “Under Construction”.

Shortly afterwards we got a newer computer, a Pentium II, which had Windows 98 and a software modem. At the time there were a few ISPs offering free dial-up in exchange for a permanent advertisement banner on your desktop. The first we used was called FreeWeb, which only lasted a few months before we switched to Juno. Finally, I had the internet at home! Around the same time, I got a 386 desktop computer in my bedroom running DOS and Windows 3.1. I would spend many hours searching the internet for “abandonware” to run on my bedroom computer, meticulously splitting files and copying them onto floppy disks for transfer. I found my first piece of GPL software, Calmira, which was an alternative shell for Windows 3.1 that gave it a Windows 95-style taskbar and desktop. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. The WebRing which Calmira was a part of was a treasure trove of free goodies for my bedroom computer, and I customized my desktop to the extreme. You could hack system libraries to do things like replace the minimize/maximize buttons. I drew a little Windows flag, pixel-perfect copy of the one in Windows CE, and made that the new Control Box in the upper left-hand side of the Windows; only problem was that when you clicked it the colours inverted. I would try different icon schemes, create themes, etc. Reading the changelog for Calmira was exciting, and I loved the idea of how anyone could contribute changes, create forks, etc. I was learning how Free Software development worked: a community of enthusiasts and hobbyists building what they wanted. I learned their names, many details of their lives, and came to appreciate what they were building together. Even if it was for a long-obsolete old operating system which practically nobody used any more.

I was basically the computer kid. I would make money around town setting up and fixing computers for people quite regularly. I’d advise everyone I met that free trial CDs of America Online were great for getting up-to-date versions of Internet Explorer 6 instead of downloading it the long way over dialup. When my friend Nathan at school told me about Napster and WinAmp I was excited as hell to go home and get them. I bugged my dad for a CD-Burner and we drove all the way to Toronto to buy one for about $250. The advertisement said it was a Yamaha drive, but later we realized that it was some off-brand which merely used a Yamaha chipset. What a ripoff. I sold a few music CDs to kids in grade 8 until Shawn complained that the songs sounded terrible and he wanted his money back. I hadn’t quite figured out what bitrate was, and had been going for the smallest possible file sizes to speed up my download time. I might have noticed the problem myself had I listened to the files before burning them but I didn’t like Linken Park.

Pokemon was a huge craze at my school (so was Crazy Bones, but whatever) and I didn’t have a GameBoy. I had a Sega GameGear which ate batteries like crazy and didn’t want to bring to school in case I lost it or broke it. So I’d spend recess watching my friend Troy play Pokemon Red, and then Yellow. When I discovered emulation I was ecstatic. I copied a DOS-based GameBoy emulator onto my bedroom computer and got rather far into Pokemon Blue. However, playing at home by myself wasn’t that fun; I’d have rather been on the playground where I could trade or battle using the link cable. I played a few Sierra and Lucas Arts adventure games, played the Interplay Star Trek TOS games, and mostly stopped playing video games on that machine after that.

I would, however occasionally try to play StarCraft with my friends online, however my latency always got me kicked from multiplayer games. I didn’t get into StarCraft very much; instead I played Civilization II after finding it for 10 dollars on a CD spinner at Canadian Tire in Barrie.

Highschool was when things got fun. Windows 98 machines with high-speed internet abound! I took business computing in Grade 9 with Mr. Buffone and had a blast. First thing we did was learn touch typing; was it a gift or a curse? I’ve a hard time saying today. We also watched Pirates of Silicon Valley, which became my favourite movie of all time. Finally I had a story, an origin, for this world of computers which I had been growing up in like the first explorer on a new continent. It was real; it was human. Wozniak and Jobs; Gates and Allen and Ballmer. We also watched Robert Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds, which had one scene which above all the rest had a deep emotional impact on me. It was Dan Bricklin explaining how his accountant friend break down upon seeing his “Magic Blackboard” software VisiCalc, saying “That’s what I do all week! I could do it in a few hours!” The immense societal changes brought on by the introduction of computers were brought into stark relief in that moment. All the talk of how computers were changing things were finally contextualized into a narrative about the world I could understand. Just like how Calmira was developed by regular people scratching an itch, creating what they wanted, computers were made in a similar sort of way: only they all got rich from doing it.

Soon the 386 in my room was replaced with something faster: an AMD Athlon K7. In Grade 10 I took Communications Technology, where finally the doors to media production were blown open. We did graphic design with CorelDRAW! and 3D animating with Cinema 4D. I burned Cinema 4D straight out of the Program Files directory onto a blank CD and copied the registry keys necessary to get it to run. Soon I was working on my next grand project: an accurate model of the Starship Enterprise. Starting with the Franz Joseph designs, I quickly learned of their inadequacy and after going through several different blueprints I finally annointed the Sinclair schematics as my definitive guide. I scoured the net for photographs of the original 11 foot filming model, many taken at its location in the gift shop at the Smithsonian many more during it’s several restoration projects where drastic expriments in hull texture were undertook. It took about 4 months to complete and I rendered a single, horribly-overlit flyby before dropping my hard drive on the floor one day and losing it all. I cried for a whole day; it was a painful lesson in why making backups is important.

MSN Messenger was the de facto communications tool at my high school. Everyone had one tied to their Hotmail email address. This was part of Microsoft’s Passport scheme which was intended to be a single, centralized sign-on for many web services; the goal which has today been achieved by Facebook and Twitter. I was a part of several web communities, most of whom were full of adults with great senses of humour. So usually on MSN I was actually quite witty and got plenty of LOLs from people who I wasn’t really friends with at all in school. It was confusing to me at the time. Why am I funny online, but not in person? On MSN your screen name could be pretty long, and so everyone used it as their online status. You would change your screen name to say what you were up to, where you were, or just to have some song lyrics or something funny. People would change their names several times a day. It was clean, elegant, and unimposing social networking. I seldom used my useername directly in that way, instead opting to run a 3rd party MSN client that would update my screen name to show what song I was listening to. Another added benefit was that there were no advertisements, however I missed out on playing some of the minigames that came with the official client, or using the voice chat. Oh well, at least it was Free Software.

Free Software was something I was getting into. I had started reading daily and was learning about GNU/Linux, the GPL, and Richard Stallman. Free software isn’t just free as in beer (a comparison I didn’t quite get), it’s free as in speech. That means every user had access and control over the source code and communities of volunteers and users were free to improve it, change it, and share it like they owned it. That’s what Calmira had been! A metaphor by Neil Stephenson was often employed to explain it: GNU/Linux is like hippies selling free tanks on the side of the road across the street from the more respectable car lots run by Apple and Microsoft. No matter how often the hippies yelled “free tanks! rugged and durable!” they couldn’t get anybody to take one since Microsoft and Apple were known to be the “safe” choices.

Some programmers saw the stipulations in the GNU Public License as a burden which removed their freedom to copy/paste the code from GNU software and put it into their own work. Doing that would instantly mandate them to re-license the source code to their entire work with the GPL and give it to whomever they distributed the software to. The GPL is a legal hazard to commercial software development firms since any lazy programmer who copied the readily-available source from GPL software instantly contaminated their products with some legal obligation to give it all away for free or get sued! Tesla only recently was forced to release the source to the software running their cars for having made this very blunder. This understandably does not seem like “freedom” to developers and software vendors. However this stipulation ensured end-users of GPL software would always enjoy full access to the source code of their own computer, in effect keeping computing free and open and thwarting any historical Orwellian 1984 scenario by means of proprietary software. If Apple, Microsoft, or any other major bedrock computer company ever went totalitarian, there would exist an auditable, trustworthy fall-back operating system and software base of upon which freedom loving people and societies could fall back upon, all thanks to the foresight of Richard Stallman. He had, in fact, preemptively saved the world from digital tyranny preemptively with a software license!

The radical nature of this heavily political act — utilizing the nature of and copyright law in a manner so subversive to its intended cause — was awe-inspiring. Imagine: a software license which didn’t stop you from copying a work, but instead forced you to give away fully to its users and contribute your improvements to all for the greater good. Richard Stallman was a hero, and yet I had never heard of his name. Perhaps the nuances of computer development and intellectual property law were too arcane and boring for people to appreciate this historic impact of this champion for freedom against tyranny. Silly ignorant consumers… one day they’d learn the truth, I thought. And I will already be there with a great head start, and a smug “what too you so long?” look on my face!

I didn’t waste much time formatting my hard drive and beginning the long journey in learning computers all over again with GNU/Linux. Of course, since it’s free to copy there are in fact many different outfits distributing their own flavour of GNU/Linux. I started with Mepis Linux, a Debian derivative, before switching to Mandrake which was more rich in it’s initial distribution and developed in France. Afterward I bit the bullet and took the plunge into Gentoo, which is a distro the user must build from the ground up from source, compiling all the code for the software themselves. Doing so gives you an education in every level of the operating system since you’re creating it from scratch. It took me about 3 weeks since it was summer break of 2004 and I kept having problems with overheating which crashed the compiler. It was so long before I got the graphics stack working that I was forced to take a detour to learn how to surf the internet, play music, and chat on MSN Messenger using the command-line as though I were back in DOS!

I’ve recently read, in full, the Neil Stephenson essay from which the above metaphor involving hippies with tanks was taken. It’s called “In The Beginning was the Command Line” and I earnestly recommend it to anybody who wants a comprehensive history of personal computing (sans Stallman and Kildall, alas). Given that old telecommunications equipment known as “teletypes” or “teleprinters” were used as the first textual computer interfaces (instead of punch cards or switches), Stephenson makes the wonderful creative decision to refer to all textual communication with computers as telegraphy. He also calls text files on computers telegrams. This is something I myself had thought up on my own before coming across this essay, by serendipitous coincidence, and so I’ll include this metaphor here although I didn’t know it back in 2004.

Back when I was using MS-DOS on my x86 computers, their was only one terminal; one DOS prompt. You could only run one program at a time, launched from within a directory which was on a drive. The “root” of the command line was the C: drive or the A: drive, denoting whichever storage device you were working with, and then you’d go into folders. All of your commands being executed from wherever you are on the “path” you’ve traveled into the filesystem. Anything you type happens within this working directory, from which you can back out back to the root of the drive.

For instance you can start at the root of your hard drive, at C:\>. By typing `mkdir docs` you can create a directory in the root. You can go into that directory by typing `cd docs`, meaning you’ve gone down a path to end up in C:\DOCS>. If you type `edit readme.txt` then you can launch a text editor to create a telegram called C:\DOCS\README.TXT. Quitting the text editor brings you back to the C:\DOCS> prompt, where you can choose to back out, or copy the file you’ve made somewhere else, etc. I was used to this from my childhood.

Well, while struggling to get Gentoo up and running, I was learning how UNIX (and, by extension it’s derivatives like GNU/Linux) was basically a supercharged form of DOS. That’s anachronistic, since the DOS paradigm for microcomputers was developed after UNIX, but that was how I saw it. On UNIX you didn’t have one prompt; you had six. Each was called a TTY, which was short for teletype. By pressing Ctrl+Alt+F1 you can change to TTY1, pressing Ctrl+Alt+F2 gets you to TTY2, and so on. Switching to a new teletype gets you to a login prompt which asks you for your username and password before dropping you into your home directory. It’s just like having six teletypes (which look just like typewriters) on your desk, each of them providing you with a command prompt to the same computer. In fact, back in the da]y before video displays, that’s exactly how it worked! Each teletype was called a terminal, like the last station on a railway line, because it was at the end of the line which was coming out from the mainframe server computer running UNIX. In the 60s and 70s the teletypes (and later keyboards and video screens sitting on desks) were not computers, merely terminals which remotely accessed the real computer elsewhere which was probably quite large and expensive. This terminal/mainframe model of working on a faraway computer is analageous to what we today call the client/server model or the paring of apps/webapps in regards to “cloud” computing. Dilbert’s pointy-haried boss has many semantic marketing tricks to rebrand the old as the new.

Of course, in my bedroom, the six teletype terminals were all virtual within the single computer sitting on my desk. For my purposes, that meant I was running DOS but had six different “windows” to run apps in simultaneously, giving my multitasking! Sweet. This was the future (of DOS), at least while I spent all my time trying to get my video card drivers working so I could begin spending the hours, days, and nights, compiling all the graphical software so I could finally start using my mouse again in a modern graphical user interface. This summer installing Gentoo was a real, practical lesson in operating systems. I had manually partitioned and formatted my hard drive, copied files over, crafted configuration files by hand, got my network card working, downloaded source code, configured each component, compiled it, and rinsed, lathered, repeated with plenty of troubleshooting, all in an environment which I was barely familiar with. In the final stretch I moved my operation into the living room, with my CRT on the coffee table and my open computer case up on the back of the couch leaning against the grill of the window-mounted air conditioner just to stop the compiler from crashing. Can’t say my family was super thrilled but I accommodated them the best I could. When it was finally over, and I had built an entire operating system from the ground up, I felt I could accomplish anything.

I had learned an entirely new paradigm for computing. Unlike DOS, in UNIX there is a single root directory; no A: drive or C: drive. Instead the computer has a single root and the various drives are “mounted” as subdirectories. This crucial difference in the lowest-level of the user environment made clear to me the arbitrary, human nature of operating system design as a model or abstraction which is crafted, like art, as something first-and-foremost meaningful for the user to understand. It is not for technical reasons, but for human reasons that computers are designed with the abstractions that they are. Steve Jobs called the Apple II (emphatically not, as the schmaltzy Michael Fassbender biopic would mislead you to believe, the Macintosh) a bicycle for the mind. Bicycles don’t have seats and handlebars in order to make the gear ratios work better; they have them for the sake of the human interface. Likewise the entire concept of filesystems and directory paths doesn’t exist because it’s technically necessary, but because the artists who thought up ways of interfacing with machines had to subdivide the whole computer into fragmentary parts which the user could learn and work with within their own imagination. This way they could learn which keys to press or buttons to click intuitively as though navigating through some sort of virtual space. The computer isn’t “in” a folder; you are! By learning DOS, Windows, MacOS, and GNU/Linux I was beginning to separate the specifics of implementation for the sake of interface from the universals inherent across all systems. Hardware is hardware and operating systems must boot precisely in accordance but interface paradigms and software design are for the benefit of the human; not the computer.

I saved up some money to purchase a Palm m515 PDA. It was beautiful. 65,000+ colours on the bright 160×160 resolution display. I could HotSync the calendar, contacts, todo list and notes with my the software on my GNU/Linux desktop just by putting it in the charging cradle and pressing a button. I could install tons of applications, and even archive websites onto it for offline reading on-the-go. I read many books on my Palm m515. I shared them with people, including the Commanding Officer of my Army Cadet corp using the infrared file transfer (imagine two people, standing around, pointing TV remotes at each other for 5 minutes). I played infrared Battleship across class one time with someone in highschool; we passed turns to each other back and forth from our desks. I even bought a folding keyboard and an pocket sized, AA-battery powered, infrared thermal printer and handed in a few essays in class which I had noisily printed in size eight font on long strips of receipt paper. My daily schedule was mapped and I followed it well. I never was, and have never since been, as organized as I was with my trusty Palm PDA.

Around this time I also decided to resurrect my original Compaq Contura 4/25c. My dad had found fresh batteries for it on eBay, meaning that I could get it running on the school bus into Barrie each day. I was in retro-land, reliving my early years in DOS and Windows 3.1. My main uses for the laptop was to play Warcraft (the first one), Lemmings, and Star Wars: Tie Fighter using the clip-on trackball mouse.


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