A long time ago, when I was busy trying to read everything by Enid Blyton1, I came across The Magic Faraway Tree. And. I. Loved. It.
This being the age before Amazon and not having a large library around, I never got around to reading the other books in this trilogy, which was … frustrating at the time, for several years.
So it’s a bit … exciting? … to have bought this as something to read along with my daughter. We read the first chapter today, and I feel that … as “children’s books”2 go, this one has definitely aged3 well.
Speaking of which, I’m surprised I don’t see books by her around today (even a search at a place like Barnes and Noble comes up nearly empty). Possibly because they’re dated, but still … ↩︎
genres are so fluid these days, where does children’s literature end and young adult begin? While we’re here, I’m also not certain where young adult ends, or whether (judging from what I see) if it ever ends! ↩︎
the first book in the series was written in 1939 (!), and the third in 1946↩︎
Old computers sometimes had a “Turbo” or “Boost” button to manually switch to a higher clock speed. Toggling this on and off could count as a valid game-playing strategy, if you needed to “speed past” obstacles, etc. Yes, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.
In the last decade (and half, roughly) people have gotten used to a lot of niceties in our operating systems, smooth integration between different devices, nifty apps, wonderful cameras, and more — but not increases in speed.
It is hard to convey how different this aspect was in the 90s. Every year, sometimes twice a year, there were glossy magazine advertisements about faster computers.
A new computer
So around 1998, it was possible to buy a new computer, with a CPU rated at 233Mhz. Two hundred thirty-three megahertz. It also had a fancy new operating system, the just-released Microsoft Windows 98 (ooh 😐).
There was an actual sound card (something that isn’t thought of as a “pluggable thing” any more), which meant it was possible to get speakers to play actual sound (today if you buy speakers, it’s as a part of your room, not as a part of your computer).
The display (or “monitor”; heh, no one uses that word any more) had color, and there was a mouse that could be plugged in, and this computer didn’t just have a floppy drive, but a new optical media, the CD-ROM.
Aside: relative speed evolution
The first computer at our home, mentioned in the earlier post (late 1994), had a CPU with a clock speed of 33 Mhz. Thirty three megahertz (btw this seemed huge to me at the time: “so many calculations in a single second!”)
My first ever personal desktop (mid-2002, more on this later), had a single-core CPU with a clock speed of 1Ghz. One thousand megahertz, or a 30x increase.
My first MacBook (mid-2008) had a dual-core CPU rated at 2.0Ghz. Two thousand megahertz, or a 2x increase.
My current MacBook Pro (mid-2019) has a 8-core CPU rated at 2.3Ghz. Two thousand three hundred megahertz.
My iPhone (early 2018), uses the “A11 Bionic” with a maximum clock rate of 2.39Ghz. Two thousand three hundred ninety megahertz.
You can imagine the graph in your head.
QBasic was gone, to be replaced with … Visual Basic. This allowed a lot of experimentation with simple forms, but I didn’t really have any ideas on what to do with it, so I let it lapse.
There was also Turbo C , which, despite the name, was a reasonably popular language environment (from Borland, which is not a name most would recognize today, but at the time, it was … like JetBrains plus Visual Studio, and more). There weren’t a lot of materials to learn from, though I remember at least being able to copy in a few examples, and so on.
Still later on, around 2000-ish, I got some game programming books, and really liked learning from them, since it was very straightforward to build something with DirectX (never mind) in C .
Nothing comparable to the vast tools and materials available to kids these days, but … good times.
There were a whole bunch of computer magazines that came with CDs, containing free trials of all sorts of stuff, and it was something to look forward to every month — to try out whatever was new that month: install it, fool around with it, then delete.
I wish I had pictures or notes or anything, but I don’t, so this vagueness will have to do.
Something else that stands out: Microsoft Encarta. It was the first digital encyclopedia and they did a really good job of it. There were audio and video clips, lots of articles to read and switch between.
The pros and cons with paper should’ve been apparent already: the content was beautiful, though I can’t imagine someone spending hours and hours interacting with Encarta they way I can imagine someone spending that time with a paper version (but maybe that’s just me).
Aside: the time of Microsoft
In case it isn’t obvious: yes, this was the decade of Microsoft domination, something that people have no gut feeling for anymore — but twenty years ago, before big-Google, big-Facebook, big-Amazon, big-Twitter, big-Netflix, big-Apple, there was only big-Microsoft.
This was the highlight of my time with the machine 🙂
First of all, I finally had something to play Quake with (the minimal RAM requirements were 8MB; our earlier computer had 4MB, while this one had 64MB. As a fun exercise, try to find out how much a single tab in your browser is using right now).
Quake was made by the same company (ID Software) that made Wolfenstein (which we had played so much of on our earlier computer), and Doom (which I missed out on for whatever reason). Again, this is something hard to convey now, but these were iconic first-person shooter games, the very first ones, in fact … which is probably why they were popular, since they seem quite boring by today’s standards.
Anyway, Quake was just the beginning, this machine was in a sweet spot to play most of whatever came out, and the free apps on the CDs in the monthly computer magazines were usually free games.
Aside: single-player gaming
Although much remains the same in games over the decades (apart from the massive improvement in their visual appearance), something that is very different is the experience “un-connected” solitary game.
Most games today either directly involve other players, or indirectly (through comparison in a leaderboard, etc). I think the only equivalents of “playing something alone, immersed in the world” are certain mobile games, like Monument Valley, etc. where you own the game, you play the game, and no one else really knows about how you played, the experience is yours alone.
Early on, everything was like this (although it was quite common for friends to sit along side you as you played, so there’s that).
Just as ID Software dominated gaming in the first-person shooter genre, in the first part of the decade, another company, Blizzard Entertainment (of the two, still going strong!) dominated role-playing games.
All that’s needed to convey this are a few names: Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft, each of which I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on.
It’s worth mentioning that there was a lot of competition early on, and the only reason these stand out is that they balanced a lot of factors in RPGs very well, designing the details very, very well.
Note 1: If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Starcraft.)
Note 2: But, more on all this some other time, especially an account of this one game that was insignificant but that I liked: Microsoft Urban Assault
Aside: storage media
Going from a floppy disk that stored 1.44MB to a CD-ROM that stored 650MB was a big change, one that really opened up a whole variety of new, rich content.
DVDs and Blu-Rays went an order of magnitude higher each, but have been used for richer and more detailed versions of existing content and not newer kinds of content (in my opinion).
There were other stops along the way, and not just for alternatives like HD-DVDs that no one remembers. For a while it was quite common to have a “Zip drive”, awkwardly between a floppy and a CD.
(Of course, a new laptop today has neither of these)
Aside: man and machine
I should point out something: I had a certain sort of … affection … for the first computer we had (I remember being upset and crying once (embarrassing, right) when it didn’t start and appeared to be broken), in a way that I didn’t have for the second one (which was “just a machine”), or any of the countless ones (laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, watches, appliances) since.
It might be a pets vs cattle thing, dunno.
I haven’t really thought through the episodic nature of this series, which means there isn’t any plan of having “equal chunks”. But yes, we’ll plod along steadily. Next time: the internet (!)
In a previous post1, I mentioned how my experience of Twitter is actually quite nice and I don’t encounter any of the craziness that other people report.
Is that still true? Well, yes and no.
The problem: “political” content
There isn’t really any escaping (hmm, what should I call it) “unexpected content” on Twitter, as long as the entity being followed is a Person and not a Topic2.
I had earlier decided to be “casual” in my use of Twitter, which led to me randomly following and liking posts and people in my stream.
The problem is, the “information ecosystem” for all “political facts”3 is extremely polarized. There are competing narratives4 for each “event”, and being neutral as a matter of principle, I end up seeing both sides.
This isn’t bad per se, and is … at least informative, but it puts me at odds with the (hmm, what should I call them) “reductionists”, who want to neatly classify profiles (people) based on who they follow and what they like.
So there really isn’t any more “casual use” on the platform, and there is much more that could be said about why that is, why the incentives turned out this way, “what could have been“ and so on, but either way, there is a need for a more guarded interaction.
Give up on Twitter?
For better or worse, I have found, and keep finding, really interesting stuff on Twitter. There are people who share interesting images, or links, or articles. There are people who provide expert opinions on topics I like.
For me, this is a supplement to Reddit, except without strong subreddit boundaries.
Which is to say: there is real utility for me on Twitter, and I don’t want to lose that.
A task for myself: I should try to figure out what I’m really following on Twitter anyway. What are some themes in what I like, etc. Again, I don’t actually have time to do this thoroughly, so maybe just broad impressions.
What I’ve decided to do for now, slowly, gradually, is filter out any profiles where I judge most tweets are political.
I don’t have time to sit down and do this at one go5
So instead, each time I find myself scrolling through my feed, and I see too much political content6, I’ll ask myself if there is any topically interesting tweets at all from this profile, and if not, simply un-follow.
I’ve done this a bit already, and I expect it’ll be a few months before I’ll (probabilistically) get close to examining all my follows, but that’s the plan for now.
Digression: what is the best way to “thread” posts?
Retro-actively go back and apply a common tag? Create a linked list of posts? Lazy right now so will do neither.
There are a bunch of non-linear textual tools I use locally for this, but what’s the online equivalent? Again, lazy right now, will stick to WordPress, with its linear post timeline. But later … maybe one of TheBrain, Roam, or Notion.
Some other options
Just to brainstorm alternatives (for my future self, in case he has more time and interest)
I could create multiple twitter accounts, for different “bundles of interest”, each me7, but a part of me.
I could create a pseudonymous account and allow that one to be the one where I resume casually browsing stuff8.
Though well-visualized in Twitter’s new conversation view, so good on that. ↩︎
The total number of profiles I’ve ended up following is surprisingly high, nearly 5000! It would take a couple hours, at least, to go through all of them. ↩︎
Sometime later, I should mention how my news consumption patterns changed for the better in general. ↩︎
Like namespaces within me, which is how I would really want profiles to be, dis-aggregated and reflecting our true sub-selves. ↩︎
The right way for this would have been a single “read-only” view that everyone could have, of the entire graph of tweets. Imagine if we had the contract “you can either be authenticated and share/comment, or be pseudonymous and like/follow, but not comment.” ↩︎
Looking at my “online activity” for the past 5 years, I’ve been writing at:
A Static Blog
Of these, (3) is basically dead, and is around merely as a a personal homepage for now
The use of WordPress consists of
Periodic life updates
Occasional long-form “articles”
The use of Twitter consists of
Likes and re-tweets (duh)
Extracts (pics) from either books or online articles
The static blog remains in its “homepage purgatory”; I don’t have time to migrate that content over, and I don’t have any other plans for it
I’ve been bringing “my whole self” to Twitter, but I might reconsider that in the current … er … environment. I’m a self-described “centrist liberal” (I think?) which has been been an un-interesting position for as long as I can remember, but which in the context of current polarizing sentiment amounts to roadkill (so maybe a new pseudonymous account? we’ll see)
I’ll consider hiving off a separate WordPress blog that will basically be “my own Twitter”, the same way my current one is “my own Facebook” (wait, isn’t this what Tumblr was supposed to be? Lol, plus ça change …)
As mentioned earlier, I’ll try out Medium again, as a “duplicate” for any long-form content
There are a bunch of movies I’ve liked, over the years, in different genres, from different times. But there is an unusually large cluster of them around a single year, 2006 (about fourteen years ago now).
Among Darren Aronofsky’s movies (I still haven’t seen Black Swan (trailer), but I remember the revelatory feeling of watching Pi (trailer) a long time ago), I like this one the most (perhaps The Wrestler (trailer) would be a close second).
The trailer isn’t as bad, but (with the explicit dates and sections) it gives an overly structured view of what is (or feels like) a layered, mixed up, overlapping, interwoven something.
I’m pretty sure I saw a poor-quality, poor-audio version all those years ago, but I’d recommend watching it at night with good headphones, alone1.
The trailer for this movie was terrible; it makes the movie sound very gimmicky, focussed on merely some inter-personal drama between magicians (why should anyone care about that?) And yet, of the movies in this list, it is my favorite, and the one I have re-watched the most.
It is not at all, in my opinion, about the particular details in the story (though Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine give a magical performance), but something more. Of Christopher Nolan’s movies, I like this more than Inception (trailer) — if the latter is “a movie like a dream”, this one is “a movie like a magic trick”.
Fun fact: the novel it is based on won the World Fantasy Award2.
It seems as though Borden (Bale) and Angier (Jackman) embody two different paths. I suppose part of the reason I like this movie is that I identified with one of them.
This one is technically from 2005, but I watched it a few months late, so it gets to be in this bucket.
It was one of the first Blu-ray movies I watched3 on a then-new-and-exciting 1080p 50” TV, and it felt tailor-made for a giant screen.
Gorgeous visuals, a sense of history (that moment when Sibylla watching4 from the castle wall whispers, “Salah ad-Din!”), and a great soundtrack (I like all the instrumental pieces, but especially the song5 at the end.
I think I like this for its “period feel” (Vienna, pre-WW1-ish) and high production quality more than the story itself. Also, I had first seen Paul Giamatti in The Lady in the Water earlier that year, which was a disappointment, and he was excellent in this.
(BTW if I had to drop a movie from this list, though, it’d be this one; not because it’s lacking anything, but because I like the others more)
One of my all-time favorites, both for the movie and the soundtrack, I’ve tried to find “more like this” — as in literally trying to Google for “movies like Little Miss Sunshine” — but failed to find anything. It is a one-of-a-kind, sublime experience. It feels fresh every time I watch it.
This has the most accurate trailer of this list, in the sense that it conveys exactly what the movie is all about 🙂
In those days I used to track movie reviews actively, and also watch movies immediately after release. These days, a year or more frequently elapses between release and viewing, and it’s very common for me to never watch and also never intend to watch the popular or critically acclaimed movies (or, tv shows) for a year.
It’s quite possible, then, that the reason these movies still appeal to me is simply because I was more engaged with movies at that time.
Still, it is my subjective list, and I do end up re-watching these, and re-listening to their soundtracks, so at the very least, I’m sure they are not bad movies.
or not. I don’t actually know if it makes a difference; I think it does require some concentration ↩︎
1996 winners of science fiction and fantasy awards (scroll down to ”WFA”) ↩︎
Rented from Blockbuster, back when they (a) were around, and (b) had the same rental rate for DVDs and Blu-Rays 🙂 ↩︎
Picking up where I left off last time: we’d got a first, new computer, the first set of simple games, and a first operating system (ye olde DOS).
As I’ve mentioned, the only programming environment, programming interface, programming tool, programming editor I knew about or used, was the version of QBasic that came bundled with MS-DOS.
This might sound pathetic now, but felt very cool to me back then. I hadn’t experienced “programmable calculators”, so this was also the only “programmable thing”.
This beige box was the only thing that could compute at all. All this sounds redundant, because we have so many little computers all over the place now and they’re ubiquitous, but it’s hard to give an idea of how unique one of these was.
Everything was one giant file, with jumps all over the place. Incredibly messy, and IMO a terrible way to learn how to write anything (so much to unlearn later, sigh). But still, a great way to get started MAKING stuff.
Just to give an idea, here’s how a sample interaction might go (say I wanted to make some random patterns or drawing, in my “computer time” that day):
The computer is off, put it on (the idea of leaving it on all the time would have been crazy!)
It boots into the C:\> prompt, pretty quickly (no logins, single-user!)
I run QBASIC, see the screen above
I write some small fragment like
LINE (35, 50) - (100,150), , B
I hit run, and see a small rectangle (in the beginning, coming from LOGO, this is most of what I did)
I press a key, back in the editor, make some changes, repeat.
Game programming books
The installation of QBasic came bundled with an impressive game that gave the impression that a lot was possible (the code was very spaghetti-zed, but I supposed relatively okay).
At the time there were also a lot of books with games — by which I mean they had programs that you could type out and run (remember how I said everything is “just one large file”?)
I was fortunate my mother could bring these from the library of the school she worked at, and I learnt a lot (okay, questionable, but it definitely felt good) from reading through them.
I was also fortunate that my younger brother (with great patience!) would read aloud each line for me to type in, so we could play the game later.
One of these was a Star Trek game, the longest of the bunch, that we painstakingly typed in over several days, slowly making progress page by page (sounds ridiculous as I type this, but … yeah, you had to be there), and inevitably I must have made some small typo somewhere, that was then … impossible to track down, so we were quite dejected when it didn’t work.
However, the opening theme did play, with its signature tune, and that felt good. I should note that there were no speakers, so there was no sound, just a beeper with different frequencies.
I did try to read the source code, and it was essentially a “first RPG”, with an energy level that got depleted by actions, movement in a grid in space, ability to fire phasers and photon torpedoes, all that good stuff.
I had seen Windows machines at school, when I finally got a chance to play with one of two computers that had a mouse. All I did was use MS Paint, because moving the cursor, pointing and clicking and seeing dots of color appear was such a novel experience!
Finally, one day, my dad brought a stack of floppies (because that’s how anything got installed) for Windows 3.11. It required baby-sitting the whole install experience, removing and inserting each floppy in the precise order in which they were labelled.
Now, after starting up the computer, at the c:\> prompt, it was possible to run win, and then see a brief splash screen.
After which there would be, well, windows on the screen.
(Again: this, except in black and white)
Things were getting exciting.
Remember though, still no mouse (that would come a few months later). So we got really good at keyboard shortcuts for selecting windows, moving, resizing, whatever.
A big boost came from getting (in another long bunch of floppies) Microsoft Office (!)
Each app took about a minute to load up, but we could now use (still one at a time) Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Access!
I remember Access has a dialect called AccessBasic that I read the manual for, tried to use, and failed. I wanted to make a “home library system”, but spent all my time prettifying the frontend and never quite got the flow of entering books and looking them up to work properly.
I vaguely remember repeating this painful install process a couple times, and using Norton Disk Doctor and a bunch of other tools that simply have no analogue today.
Bundled games included Minesweeper and Solitaire, though I never quite liked them all that much.
At this time, windows was very much (until Windows 95, I think) a “shell within DOS”, so it was quite normal to play some games within Windows, and to exit Windows and play some games within DOS.
As far as I can remember (again, I wish I had written something down), there were better games in DOS, especially the ones my brother got from his friends.
One game stands out: Wolfenstein. Again, this was black-and-white without sound, but … it was the first-ever FPS. Let me repeat that: the first-ever first-person shooter (for me, at least). All I had seen were flat, 2-d games, maybe a few platforms, and … here was something totally different.
In today’s world of bloated “built on Electron” apps, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the skill that went into creating an experience like this on a limited computing platform such as we had.
I do remember a visual Chess game on Windows, perhaps Chessmaster?
Time to stop again, so I can come back and write again later. Next time: an upgrade.
As hinted at in a previous post, I thought I’d go over a history of my interaction with computers. This was … harder than I thought, mostly because I barely remember anything. If only I had pictures, notes or journals, sigh (so, I picked a generically representative image here above). Still, it’s a useful exercise to try to recount all this, so I will do my bit.
Chronologically, this post is set between roughly 1994 and 1997.
Before I physically saw a computer or used one, I knew of its existence through magazines, and reference books1.
I do remember one occasion where someone I knew bought a big and expensive computer at their home, and I got to see it, and was very impressed by the (at the time, very, very novel) color graphics display and a mouse.
I was fortunate to have a “computer lab” at my school. It was populated by what would today by utter relics, not notable enough to feature even in a museum2.
Yet with no context and not having every physically touched anything else, they were, of course, quite marvelous to me. They were even then oddballs, one-offs — and they had to be, because hardware was incredibly expensive then! — but I do recall a good number of them being BBC Micros3 (and there might have been a solitary Sinclair4).
Two features to note here, common to each:
a Floppy drive, the sole mode of connection to the outer world (no network of any sort), and also the sole means of storage (yes, no hard drives either!)
Basic5 as the sole programming language (okay, it was Logo before that for a while)
Black-and-white raster graphics on a roughly 14-inch screen. Yep.
Thinking back, I can accept the floppy drive (noisy and slow, and this was the older 5-1/4” jumbo drive, btw), but thinking of how anything to do with “real programming” was limited to Basic makes me tear my hair out. It made it so hard to imagine how anything else was made.
It was a big deal then, when we at home got a computer of our own. This was relatively very expensive at the time, and I’m fortunate to have parents who spent money on this as opposed to almost anything else for themselves.
I used to keep taking off and putting on the dust cover on it. Seriously. ↩︎
At the time, I remember the “range” of computers were roughly defined as Intel chip generations. So, 186, 286, 386, 486, and 586 a.k.a. the “Pentium”. This sounds silly now, the equivalent of people deciding whether to buy a Kaby, Coffee, Comet or Cooper -lake today ↩︎
I remember thinking, wow, 4 million sounds so big!↩︎
A big upgrade from the floppy-disk-only machines I had seen earlier ↩︎
I remember the version because I read the manual (cringe) front-to-back a couple of times ↩︎
I had tried out Medium earlier, perhaps three years ago. At the time, I found it redundant for what I had started doing, which is sharing the curated monthly links. WordPress was a better fit for that, and I left Medium.
Looking at my WordPress usage, I stuck to essentially posting the curated monthly collections, and life updates.
This year, I’ve been reducing my personal “barrier to post” by allowing more of a sort of “micro-blogging” to happen. For me, this is “my Facebook”; I don’t mind sharing tidbits from my life, but I want to own the content.
More recently, I’ve been challenging myself to write longer pieces, and for these I think it might be useful to give Medium a try again.
P.S. I will cross-post these longer posts on both WordPress and Medium. I don’t want to think about this sort of stuff more than a couple of times a year, so I won’t change my mind till about the middle of next year 🙂