Monday, March 8th, 2010 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/before-the-setup
hat do people use to get the job done, they ask over at usesthis.com. I’m going to answer that here. Soon. This time though, my computer history—I just want to get it down.
Back in 1996, during my year living in New York, I bought my gorgeous Macintosh PowerBook—even second-hand it still cost a cool round $2,000. One night I left it in my backpack in my car, which I left parked overnight somewhere after a party where I got drunk and/or stoned and crashed at someone’s place. The backpack had been in the front passenger seat, and when I got back to the car in the heat of the next morning the window was smashed and the backpack gone. A lot of ambitious writing ideas were on that PowerBook as well, not backed up. The loss of that computer was deeply demoralizing—I grieved for it and the data.
Running low on funds, and loathe to spend so much again, I replaced it with a much cheaper PowerPC which I brought back with me when I retreated back to Israel in 1996 (whenceupon for some reason I decorated the front of it with the sticker out of the top of my Barmah hat).
But the PowerPC was seriously underpowered and not too well supported in Israel, and I was now spending hours and hours working on web sites, and though I loved the tartan background screen I’d set up, its slowness was driving me nuts. I went over to Windows for the first time, buying an up-to-date no-brand tower desktop that was much faster. In fact I was kind of excited to be away from Apple, it sort of felt like a fast fresh start. After a few years I replaced this no-brand Windows tower desktop workhorse for another newer faster one.
I also spent about $1000 on a large Philips CRT monitor that I was proud of but never really loved. Then around 1999 or so I paid £800 for a second-hand purple Sony Vaio PCG-505 that I thought was really sexy and would enable me to, amazingly enough, work from cafes. When I left Israel in 2004 I gave my tower desktop to Juan Carlos—I think I’d also given him the previous one.
When I got hired at Deepend.it in Rome in early 2005 I was the only Windows user in the office. The secretary had a new iMac and the others used PowerBook G4’s which they brought to work from home every day. I thought this was crazy and inefficient, plus their screens were relatively small compared to the dual-screen desktop they’d set me up with on my Windows tower.
I continued to prefer Windows but I was beginning to waver. My main criterion was this: a window on the Mac can only be resized by dragging the lower-right-hand corner, rather than being able to resize it from anywhere along an edge. Like the British propensity to have separate hot and cold taps, this seemed completely and unnecessarily idiotic to me, and emblematic surely of further stupidities within.
At some point though I started to see that, like Britain, this little bit of stupidity was an outlier, not in fact emblematic at all. (And that there are third-party tools, such as my beloved Zooom/2, which fix OS X’s window handling to the point that it’s superior to Windows’.)
I was also intrigued and excited by the fact that with OS X the Mac had become Unix-based. I’d used the Unix command-line on Macs at college, and of course all the web hosting servers I worked with were Unix, and I understood that Unix not Microsoft is the true mainstream tradition of computing, and that having this pedigreed solid operating system at bottom and the slickest interface at top is the most impressive operating system yet—a simple elegant GUI for the grannies and a computer’s computer for the techies.
Then, when the MacBook was announced, I was hugely impressed with its physical grace and dimensions, the restraint in having no extraneous words and stickers on it, the innovation of the chiclet keyboard. At the office I was using a desktop but at home I was still using my Sony Vaio on Windows98, as I still had my own clients, and working on that little machine was becoming increasingly less fun. I needed a new computer.
With the Mac’s switch to Intel chips, the fact that it was going to be able to run Windows as well just clinched it for my greedy little mind. Two computer systems for the price of one! So, very soon after the MacBook came out, I bought the black one in a shop on Via Nomentana not far from the Deepend office. The others in the office were both mildly envious because this was the new Mac laptop and their Motorola-driven PowerBooks were now truly old; and also mildly contemptuous because from a materials point of view the plastic MacBook was a step backwards from their classy titanium. I’d never had a metal computer though before so I wasn’t bothered by that and was just very pleased with the machine.
Over time things went wrong with that black MacBook. Chips of plastic fell off around the edges; I lived with it. A hard drive died; I replaced it. The iSight stopped working; I followed instructions on the web to fix it, taking the machine apart, and reconnecting the little webcam, shocked to see that the thing was held in place by sticky tape! (This fix was my most ambitious hardware project ever.) Then recently the motherboard went; Apple replaced it for about £250, renewed the keyboard for about £55, replaced the bezel around the screen for about £5, and now this MacBook is better than it was new. It’s now the second computer, the backup if my late 2008 15” 2.4 GHz 15’‘ MacBook Pro is ever out of action. [Update 2016 Jul 9: Which it has been for nearly a year now. The motherboard burned out after hours and hours of dumb file receiving and sending using Panic’s Transmit. Rather than fixing this laptop, I replaced it with a 2.6 GHz Intel Core i5 Mac Mini with 8gb of RAM, which has a slow spinning hard drive so I bought a disk caddy and run the Mac Mini off the Crucial 512gb flash hard drive that was in the MacBook Pro. This is the first time since buying the Sony Vaio in 1999 that I’ve not had a laptop.]
Up to 2008 or so the Sony Vaio was still in the cupboard, but Davide was without a computer, and I gave it to him. Within a few months his ex-girlfriend had reportedly thrown it at a wall, breaking it. Which takes us to now.
The first computer I ever saw was Paul Johnson’s. Paul and his brother Mark lived on our street, Hillcrest Drive, in Newton Mearns, Glasgow. Their Dad bought them a Sinclair ZX-81. I was pretty fascinated and patient in trying to get it to write blurry words onto the television screen that I understood to be computer commands. I think even then there was some excitement about the power and potency of this.
Less patient than me, or perhaps more exposed to the darn thing, they gave up and got a Commodore PET. This was a magical step up; from being a thing you connect to the television and lie with on the living room floor, like a video game console, this thing commanded its own permanent corner of the living room and had a real computer keyboard. It looked like something from mission control on a spaceflight. It was exciting to load programs via the cassette player, that noise we knew was a series of instructions that would make characters move on the screen, such as to create the illusion of flight and landscape in the lunar lander game.
It was years later, 1983, when I finally got my own computer. With my Bar Mitzvah money I bought an Apple IIc. This I think was my first weighty and agonizing decision in life, and to this day seems fateful: Go for the Apple IIe with 64k that could be opened up as a hobbyist machine, or the smaller, sleeker and newer IIc with double the memory but a closed case? This was an early precursor to the question of desktop or laptop. I chose laptop, something I knew even then closed certain doors. I felt I was not a hardware guy; similarly, in the 1970’s I’d liked Lego over Meccano, much to my Dad’s disappointment.
That it would be an Apple to me there was no doubt; I wasn’t even considering any other computer. I’d taken a course at ComputerLand, a computer shop and school place at the Golan Center in Ra’anana. All the computers there were Apple II+‘s. I loved it, I really did, and after I took the course they were so impressed with my enthusiasm and competence that they hired me as an assistant teacher. It was my second job ever and paid quite generously for a 12-year-old. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a salaried job as much since.
The Apple IIc stayed as my computer through high school. I used AppleWorks for writing papers and tabulating things like my book, music and comic collections. Even then, I realize now, I had an inkling that this was slightly unhelpful, compulsive behaviour, taking up precious time that would have been better spent on almost anything else, such as programming. But somehow this data entry was sickly pleasurable and felt virtuous as well. I bought an Apple DeskJet printer, also pretty darn expensive, and that was all my Bar Mitzvah money used up.
Amazingly enough, after the Apple IIc I never had my own computer again until buying that $2000 Apple PowerBook in New York, some 12 years later (I just realized this now!). In the Israeli army I was exposed to DOS with IBM computers, which were ubiquitous there, and it became my standard operating system. I can’t remember if I still had my Apple IIc running at home at the same time, but I don’t think so; I’d mothballed it and eventually gave it to my Dad, who never used it. Looking back on this, I can see how much I avoid having my head contain the rules for two functionally similar systems simultaneously; it was either Apple or DOS, not both. Similarly, I work today with only one content management system, ExpressionEngine, and don’t touch any others.
I’m trying to remember how I wrote papers at Deep Springs College in 1991/92 without having my own computer. I have just one memory of being in a computer room with David Galbraith and about eight Macs. There must have been another room where there were computers, but I can’t remember, which surprises me, considering how vividly I remember the various computer labs around the University of Chicago campus. I didn’t particularly feel the loss, not having a computer; most people didn’t have one, and it felt normal to use the communal ones, which were everywhere. It’s coming back to me now that I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate with a 3.5’‘ disk in my chest pocket, and also a box of 10 or so of them in my bag. In college I had a bike, a pair of rollerblades, even a car, but not a computer. I’m kind of surprised about that.