I’ve been thinking recently about how I’ve been using computers for a long time, since I was probably 7 or 8 (my best guess is I started sometime around 1990). I thought it was the coolest thing to play with my family’s Commodore 64 when I learned how to draw ASCII colors on the terminal prompt, in between sessions of games like Movie Monsters or Mickey’s Space Adventure. When I was a little older I moved on to experiment with BASIC, tinkering with the amazing GORILLA.BAS (now in Python!) to see how changing the code changed the game (and the music). That probably marks the beginning of my experimentation with coding and when I realized that it was pretty easy to hack an existing thing to do something new. In the years to follow I became a huge video game nerd, constantly having to tweak DOS settings and make bootdisks to get the latest and greatest games to run. In my quest for video game perfection I must have deleted, overwritten, and generally effed up the family computer so many times I don’t know how my parents tolerated it! As time went on I became better at fixing things myself, but I still remember one particularly disastrous ‘del *.*’ when I didn’t realize I was in C:\ and not C:\xwing\ like I thought I was. For some reason I thought that rebooting would make things better, which of course made things absolutely worse. Lesson learned, but I’ve still been burned by ‘rm *’ in the intervening years enough to know to keep up-to-date backups of all the important stuff!
Writing this, I realize that I should make sure to make regular images of my future kids’ computers since I’m sure they’ll put me through similar problems
All of these screw ups, experiments, games, etc. made me realize that 1) I have a strong interest in computers and their operations and 2) I’m good enough that I should probably do something with it and develop the skill in college if possible. Nowadays I liken it to being a mechanic, and being able to fix an expensive piece of hardware that you own yourself has saved me (and my family and friends) lots of money and privacy issues by avoiding computer fix-it places.
This post started out as a writing on Version Control and how it’s transformed my coding habits, but I decided to save that for a post in the next week or so when I’m burned out with job applications and need something else to occupy my brain. Instead I sat down, wracked my brain, and came up with a list, to the best of my recollections, of all the early computers I played/broke-and-then-fixed/worked with; all model numbers are to be taken with a grain of salt since it’s been 10 to 20+ years since I’ve seen any of the earliest machines!
IBM PS/1 Consultant 2155-G52 (I *think* it was a 25 Mhz 486SX but I can’t be sure anymore)
IBM Aptiva 2144 (100 Mhz Pentium, horizontal desktop with flip down door)
IBM Aptiva 2176 (120 or 233 Mhz Pentium, vertical tower with a button activated door)
Compaq Presario 5190 (or very similar model #; 400 Mhz AMD K6)
When I went to college I bought my very own laptop, and it (barely) lasted me through 4 years of a B.S. in Astronomy & Astrophysics and a year and a half of grad school for the same until I finally gave up on it. My grandparents kindly got me a new Dell desktop when I started grad school, a Dell E510 with a dual core 3.2 Ghz Pentium D that is still in active use as my DVD player/DVR/occasional game machine. After I finally gave up on my laptop, I depended on a loaner laptop from the NMSU Astronomy department. It was some sort of Gateway “convertible” laptop that had a stylus and a swiveling screen, but it was quite a bit speedier than my own laptop at that time. The analysis for both my CV paper and the NMSU LCROSS paper were completed on this computer!
After a while I had finally saved up enough to buy myself a new work laptop, my current Lenovo Y450. It’s a great design and I’ve been largely happy with the machine. As my computing requirements have grown I’ve run less and less on my own laptop and have depended on a mix of general purpose computing machines of varying quality and number of cores. My advisor and I recently were lucky enough to receive a NSF grant after many years of trying, and my new super workstation arrives tomorrow; I’ll probably be posting pictures and tweeting about it when I get it, since it will speed up my research by a huuuuuge factor!
One final parting thought; unlike most astronomers nowadays, I don’t use Apple products. I started learning UNIX on Sun workstations while an undergraduate at Villanova, and shortly after I had the basics down I dove into Linux headfirst by installing it on my own laptop and haven’t looked back. I prefer to make my devices do what I want them to do, using things like CHDK, RockBox, and DD-WRT, and not just what the manufacturer allows. Apple has good designs and battery life for their mobile devices, but Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) resonates with how I feel computers should be and as a result I’ll always choose a PC when possible. Add to that the fact that my research now depends on (high performance/high end server) computers that Apple does not make competitively anymore, and it makes more sense to keep my skillsets evolving on the Linux platform where I’m likely to spend more of my computing time anyways!