There is an old maxim about “cattle vs pets”. Naming machines for personal use (naturally?) falls into the category of pets.
I was first exposed to “naming machines” during temporary sys-admin work, eighteen years ago. Up to that point, I had been limited to one computer at home, and the concept of it having a name hadn’t occurred to me.
I saw various themes over time: famous people, characters from mythology, literature and science-fiction, animals, etc. When it came to machines that I owned, I decided to go with planets, in particular planets from science-fiction.
I’ve never had more than half-a-dozen name-able machines (a laptop, a desktop, the odd Raspberry-Pi, a VPS, another VPS) and often had just one, or two. And so over the last decade or so, two planet names have dominated.
These were “well-known” but generally obscure enough that most people who came across these names hadn’t heard them before.
This year, however, saw the release of a movie and a TV series, each based on books that gave these two planetary names, so I feel they’re both a little less obscure now 🙂
I’ve been at Confluent for a year and half now, and it was fun in many ways, but I’ve decided upon a change, and I’m joining Sigma Computing next week.
Another instance where I was looking for a different “local maxima” but ended up finding a global maxima instead.
Everyone wants different things at different points, but Sigma feels like a sweet spot for me right now.
It’s not too big and not too small, with a rapidly growing engineering team, there is a whole different bunch of tech to learn from scratch, an opportunity to work on an end-to-end full-stack product while also having significant infrastructure challenges.
I’ve learnt a lot from the folks I’ve worked with at Confluent, and I’m excited to begin the new year on a new adventure 🙂
In my previous post I talked about how the realm of what was possible expanded when we got a better, faster computer … but it took a whole other leap with the first “on-line” experiences.
I think the first way of knowing anything about this was Internet for Dummies (probably this). Having literally no other point of reference, I read and re-read this.
It was wild.
Part of it was about the various “walled gardens” that were the most popular options: Compuserve, *America Online * (or so the dummies book told me, we had to start with what was available at the time, a “text” connection with a national telecom provider).
Part of it was gobbledygook about setting up PPPoE settings with an ISP (as an aside, folks who actually ventured into all this without a technical background in those days must’ve been effing brave. There was a lot of stuff to configure back then, none of this “oh is the WiFi on?”, no)
But all of it was about how cool it was to interact with people online.
I have a vague memory of this, but there was some sort of an “internet course” I signed up for (or rather my dad signed me up for). It was supposed to be a few days of an hour each, and was a bit dry, but in the end there was, yes, some time with an actual browser.
I’m sure there are millions who experienced it the first time this way: Netscape Navigator, the coarse-grained meteor logo with its brilliant flash … and then the page loads … what is this thing?!
If this sounds lame, well, I was lame, but this was also a genuinely rare experience at the time.
On-ramp to the information superhighway
The way magazines talked about this new thing was pretty funny too, in retrospect (and given where we’ve ended up, painfully idyllic). The world-wide web, the information superhighway, all kinds of phrases trying to describe what people thought about it, all of it optimistic.
Well, nearly all: I watched a talk by Neil Postman towards the end of the 90s, it was a devastating critique of the impact of television, it sounds like an early warning today (if you like that sort of thing, byte-sized versions: 1, 2)
“Cyber cafes” sprung up like weeds, offering 30-minute slots to be online. Just imagine that, having your entire web presence — not just your laptop or desktop, not just your smartphone or smart tv, everything! — being limited to this tiny slot of time, not just per day, but per week! This was, for many people, the only chance to catch up on emails, chat, whatever.
I used to go for a sort of computer class … think of it as a sort of after-school activity … and there was time at the end when I was waiting here, when I opened the browser (the wars were swiftly over by now, Internet Explorer had already won, though I kept trying out new releases of Netscape Navigator (later Communicator) on our home computer) and just randomly go places.
My early web
I wish I could remember more, but I don’t, so here are a few initial forays that come to mind.
I wouldn’t watch a minute of this today, but back then I was about-to-stop-being-a-fan. So I printed out a t-shirt design and my mom (yep, I had a great family) actually copied it onto a real t-shirt with fabric dyes. Totally lame, but it felt epic.
I was a legit fan (maybe I still am, at some level … more on that later). So the official X-files website was the first one I devoured in depth-first fashion.
Then discovered fansites. Then discovered the shipping sites. And now you know more about me than you want to. Okay.
Ooh, Geocities, such a 90s thing. A utopian take on having different tribes and communities(there was already such a diverse bunch) have clusters of home pages.
Obviously, I hung out at “Area 51”.
Someone tried re-inventing this recently with “Neocities”, but … you know, you can’t repeat the past.
My first email. Probably one of the first “email-as-a-service” offerings. At this point it might be possible to guess my first password.
Yes, for a long time, this was the only password I had: there were no other places to “log in” to, and the computer at home was single-user!
(It was a whole six years before I switched to Gmail, but I shouldn’t jump ahead)
There weren’t blogs as yet, just stand-alone websites (this was when people actually wrote html! Think about that! People are capable of so much more, and yet …)
Every online activity wasn’t directly related to “surfing the web”. There were a bunch of things like downloading themes and desktop backgrounds that happened because it was easier to do them.
MSN Messenger! AOL Messenger! (yes, the one part of America Online that survived longest)
ICQ! (what a weird name, now that I think about it … and having to memorize numerical userIDs … sheesh)
I forget which came first, but I ended up using all of these extensively, and (naturally) all of these chats and contacts are now lost.
There is definitely some tradeoff between keeping records and throwing them away. While I’m apprehensive about having everything I do recorded these days, I also like coming across at least a few key images or emails etc from the past.
I didn’t really use a lot of this, only knew about it from the Dummies book in fact, and … really one of those “alternative routes” that never really got taken because “the internet” and “the web” became synonymous, and that was before “the web” became “2.0”.
Hoo boy, Napster. The way people got music — and also the way music really became globally available and accessible, in the days before Youtube/iTunes/Spotify/whatever.
Run software. Search. See results. Download. Wait
I didn’t even have a fast internet connection (it was measured in kbps), in the beginning, so I waited a whole day to download one measly MP3.
I’ll tell you, it felt wonderful to listen to that one little MP3 over and over.
Yes, I know. It sounds … pathetic, now. No real takeaway, except perhaps that we value whatever we put in effort for, heh.
Time to stop, and hit publish, or this’ll never be done.
Next time? Dunno, maybe my first (and now that I think about it, also the last!) “personal desktop”.
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 (!)