diary of a mad

12 may 2000


 what was your first computer?

Suzan posed the question in the Canada & Friends Forum.

My first computer was a Commodore 64 (always spelled C=64 by True Believers), purchased in 1985, at a discount electronics chain store (the Federated chain, new at the time, bankrupt soon after); the price was about US$250. The Star SG-10 dot-matrix printer, the Tymac Connection parallel port printer driver, and the Commodore DATASETTE cassette tape drive brought the total investment to over $600. Monitor? We don't need no steenking monitor! Just plug it into any old TV!

(In fact, following a 1987 burglary which relieved me of custodial responsibility for a good TV, the steenking monitor was a horrid 12-inch black and white with a defective power cord, which was literally dug out of a dumpster. But that's getting ahead of the story.)

We acquired this C=64, this little jewel, with its mighty 1MHz Motorola 6502 CPU (OK, 6510 for you purists-- back off, dammit! I'm spinning this yarn!) and 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE (of the total of 64KB of RAM whence the name derived) for programs, for the specific purpose of word processing. Even more specifically, we got it to do a monthly newsletter for JJ Balance, the musical duo we (my late wife Judy Ann and I) perpetrated.

Our word-processing software was a compact, efficient 6KB in size. I was intimate with those bytes in a way the Heir wouldn't believe if I told him: The program was printed in a magazine (Compute!), and I typed it in (082,255,146,032,008...) as Judy Ann read the numbers to me. It was an all or nothing proposition; if it wasn't perfect, we had to start again from the beginning. We got it right on only the third try.

Here's how we did the newsletter: The copy went on one side of the accordion-fold laser-cut printer paper. It took more than three noisy hours to print 150 copies in what we solemn-facedly agreed was Near Letter Quality (each line was printed twice, to fill in the gaps between the dots; the other, faster option, Draft Quality, left much to be desired, such as readability).

By crafty use of the word processing software's text-positioning and pagination features, we were then able to turn the paper over, align the holes at the edges with the printer's sprockets, and run it through again, to print mailing and return addresses. Draft Quality was plenty good enough for this-- it took only minutes!

Then it was time to strip and rip, lick and stick. (No, silly, not what you're thinking. We were already naked-- why get dressed when each of us enjoyed the sight of the unadorned other, and there was no one else around?-- but the fun stuff had to wait until the work was done.) Carefully, we stripped the sprocket-holed borders from the paper, never failing to admire the neat edges made possible through the miracle of laser perforation. With equal care, we detached each copy from its neighbor. Tri-folding in small batches was a little faster than folding each sheet individually, but we still had to lick and stick each postage stamp. One of us would have to dress for a brief run to the nearby mail drop box. Then we could celebrate.

If the process sounds time-consuming and tedious, consider what it replaced: I typed the first several months of newsletters on a character- and strength-building Brother Charger 11 manual portable typewriter. (No, my memory isn't that good; the typewriter is currently serving as a bookend on a shelf a meter to my right.) Even with the miracle of Liquid Paper or WhiteOut, it usually took two drafts to get a page sufficiently presentable to warrant one of us dressing and going to the office supply store to make photocopies (which were much more expensive than laser-perforated printer paper). Then the real tedium began: Addressing each copy with a hand-held marking device which required its operator to form each character manually. Oh, the humanity...

Not long after Judy Ann died, the C=64 got sick. When I once again had the inclination to deal with such matters, I investigated the possibility of repairs. Told the price, I opted instead for a new C=64C (the same computer, except for the sleek new plastic case); the US$119 price tag, less than half the price of the original C=64, was only slightly more than the repair quote. Not long after, I took the big plunge, and bought a Commodore 1541 disk drive. Each 5 1/4" floppy disk could hold a whopping 144KB of data, and access was like lightning compared with the painfully slow searching of the DATASETTE.

That was my songwriting computer. I had written several dozen songs before Judy Ann, but managed to write only one in our five years together; we had higher priorities. Between 1990 and 1992, liberated by the possibility of instant electronic revision, I wrote the songs I consider my best-- the ones that satisfy me most. The ensuing dry spell was broken by a couple more keepers in 1994.

The C=64C went into retirement in 1995, when I was given a third-hand Compaq LTE286. Wow! 12MHz! 640KB of RAM! A 1.4MB floppy drive! A 20MB hard drive! And, most important of all, a built-in 2400 baud modem! Internet, here I come!

I haven't finished a song since.

As I type this, into a computer with two 500MHz processors, 192MB of RAM, and a 13.5GB hard drive, it occurs to me that my thoughts aren't reaching this 17-inch monitor screen any faster than they appeared on the horrid steenking garbage dumpster TV screen, with a C=64 and a 6KB word processor typed in from a magazine.

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