Personal computing history

I’ve enjoyed reading the ten-year timeline (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and perhaps more to come), enough that I wanted to do a short wrap-up of my own computer story. Apparently it’s going around, but I didn’t realise that when I started this.

Approx 1990 My great-uncle died and my great-aunt offered us his computer. I was extremely excited, and assured it was portable, very expensive and top-notch. This didn’t turn out to be exactly true: it had been very expensive and top-notch when he bought it. I didn’t work out when that was, but it was some time in the past. The machine ran MS DOS 2-ish, had no hard drive, and had 2 5.25″ drives. One floppy held the entire operating system.

It was portable in the sense that it was one of the all-in-one designs that Compaq stuck with for so long. It was about the same size as a medium-sized hard suitcase and had a handle so that it could be upended and hauled around.

I learned some variety of BASIC (BASICA, I think) and spent many hours typing out programs that greeted me by name and let me add numbers together. I used it for school assignments for about six months before I discovered that it booted with the Insert key toggled off, so if I made a mistake it was just like a typewriter: I had to re-type everything from the mistake onwards.

I soon ran into what turns out to been a semi-imaginary bugbear of at least the next ten years of my life: I had no ideas for what to program. I realised I could learn from the program that displayed a bee flying around and played ‘Flight of the Bumblebees’ but I couldn’t summon the energy to pick apart 2000! lines! of code!

1993–1998 My parents got a new computer at the end of 1993, another Compaq as it happened. 486, and I believe 4MB of RAM and a 100MB hard drive. This was rather underpowered for the time, I think, but not radically so. I became something of a power user of word processors and the like. My parents were convinced that I was on the verge of destroying their machine. The poverty of our flat file ‘database’ application bugged me no end. When I came across relational databases much later I knew exactly what they were for. Towards the end of high school (I jumped a couple of years in computing studies and took my final exams in Year 10, so I had some exposure to the wider computer culture, however distorted) I desperately wanted to learn C, but what I was going to do with it I didn’t know.

In 1996 I got a copy of Fractint, I have no idea where from. Most likely the World Wide Web, which I used for the first time that same year. (Someone in my computer class logged on for me, went to Yahoo, and typed in ‘girls’ and started surfing for porn. 1996 was a big year in parental outrage at our school.) I even signed up for a Hotmail account. Anyway, not only did I spend hours and hours choosing just the right colours for my fractals, Fractint was my first exposure to the idea of collective, free, software development and I liked it. I read an article about Linux around the same time and liked the sound of that too, but I fundamentally had no idea what it was on about.

In 1999 I started undergrad and was immediately delighted with UNIX, which I considered as super-powered MS-DOS with better doskey. That said, it was at least a year before I learned to drive tar from the man page, and I think at least two years before I learned that see also crontab(5) means typing the command man 5 crontab (now probably my most frequently used man page). I was unimpressed with the university’s webmail system for a long time (I don’t recall why, but undoubtedly it sucked) and read my mail by telnetting to port 110 on the relevant machine. Very recently, someone suggested to me that doing that is an urban myth equivalent to whistling 9600 baud. No, no it isn’t. But it sucks for attachments.

Andrew and I started going out in August of 1999 and soon after that he bought his own desktop and installed Debian on it. He was pleased with my taste when I chose the username ‘mary’. The relationship was young enough that I still deeply cared about his opinions on questions like what is a tasteful user name? (I still use ‘mary’, it’s short. And tasteful.) At the end of the year he moved out of college and an rm -rf accident on my part and reluctance to download a year’s worth of email on his part means that we no longer have copies of about a year’s worth of emails to each other.

I did learn C in 1999, although I somehow missed the square brackets dereferencing syntax for pointer arithmetic and was doing a lot of accessing arrays like this: *(p + 5).

I had a job as a programmer in 2000. That didn’t work out so well, but I did get enough money for my first computer. Andrew downloaded SuSE for me because he wanted to see what it was like. Bad, that’s what, because it only had mutt 0.2 packages. I had to reinstall it and Windows several times each to get them on. (I was playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate at the time, I believe the Infinity engine still sucks under WINE in 2008.) I wrestled with Exim’s documentation for the best part of a day to get it to act as a smarthost, because ‘smarthost’ has nothing to do with the term ‘mail relay’. At the end of the year I registered It was hosted on a FreeBSD box for a while, using qmail. (This is not why Andrew and I have a lot of addresses rather than user+suffix. That is because we were later hosted on Crossfire‘s machine for a while, and another user on that machine had used qmail style suffixes and asked for them to be set in Postfix. No one has ever let me finish telling this story until now.)

At the beginning of 2001 Andrew and I skipped the second half of a holiday at the beach for the first (Not counting CALU, which I don’t consider the ‘zeroth’ because programmers count offsets from zero, but no one in their right mind counts objects from zero. Miss Manners would agree, I know.) This was an experience that in memory has not been surpassed in terms of pure mystical wonder. Especially Tridge’s hacking the TiVo talk. And Martin Pool’s rsync proxy thing. I think there is something irretrievably lost when you get better understanding of technology. No conference has been the same again. (And I don’t know that since taking up diving I’d be prepared to leave a beach holiday for any conference.) Soon afterwards, although unrelatedly, Andrew and I were living in a big sharehouse with Nicholas, Catie and Mark and Nicholas, I think, prodded me into installing Debian. And then was alarmed when the first apt-get command I ran was to install nmap. At the time, this was how I checked my machines for unnecessary services.

I tutored computer science from 2001–2003, and managed to always be a better programmer than my students. I suspect this was when I finally learned to program respectably. left Crossfire’s hosting after Andrew quit Weblink, was in shared hosting for a while at csoft and then went to various virtual machines and ended up at Linode. I managed to do all this without a complete meltdown a la the Exim smarthost thing. That was saved for trying to get pppoe working based on knowledge equivalent to an oily rag. Put the modem in bridge mode and all will be well.

This is making me feel as if everything I know about computers I had learned by 2003, and actually that’s largely true. I haven’t picked up a new programming language since then other than for specific projects (Perl in 2004, mainly). I switched to Ubuntu from Debian because Andrew was Canonical employee number 10 or 15 or so. I learned how DNS works around about the same time (from the point of view of configuring BIND, I can’t, say, parse the wire format). Things I’ve acquired since then belong to different stories: relationships, diving, travel, language, computational linguistics, experimental methodology, bits and pieces of statistics, some vastly improved life management skills around budgeting, a certain amount of peace that’s come from somewhere I don’t know. Writing. I’m still programming and doing hobbyist sysadmin, but success no longer comes with wow, I can really do this, finally, at last. I expect my stuff to work these days and I can even usually tell you how long it will take. (I remember Andrew claiming to have this skill as early as 1999.) New toolkits are no longer headline news, but if there was one thing I’d like to add to my store of skills it would be the arrogance of the gods that many programmers have as their birthright. Any problem a mere mortal can pose, they can solve. It sounds dreadful, but flip it over. See? It’s like flying.