I decided to actually write about my experiences and my introduction to computing. I wanted it down for some semblance of posterity. This is it– well, at least part 1. I’ll try writing the next two parts down soon.

An Introduction

I was first introduced to computers in the early 90s. My dad came home one night carrying several brown, relatively nondescript cardboard boxes. He carefully unpacked the boxes’ contents. I watched him assemble the pieces together, and before long there was a computer table and a computer sitting in our living room. I was enthralled. Before then, the only computer I knew about was the Nintendo Family Computer my dad bought a few months back. It was a curiousity for me, to say the least.

The next evening, we had a guest. My dad had apparently hired someone to teach him the basics– how to start the machine, how to run programs, how to use Wordstar and Lotus 123 and what-not. Over the course of several days, I looked over my dad’s shoulder while he was being taught, and picked up some of the stuff the tutor was telling my dad. He showed my dad this program that “sung” a not-so-old OPM song. (Later, I’d spin a similar trick and made a really nifty electronic card for my mom’s birthday. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

I was, and still am, a fast learner. I picked things up rapidly, and before long my dad trusted me well enough to let me loose on the machine. The only program I could run and understand at that time was this simple jigsaw/sliding puzzle, all in its 4-color CGA glory. I quickly grew tired of it, and asked my dad for more games. I accompanied my dad to Makati, to several computer shops, and we were able to get a copy of Prince of Persia. My game library slowly grew. Every time we’d go to Makati, to Quad in particular, I’d ask my dad if we could get some some games. Later, when my aunt also acquired a PC (one enviably better), I’d wheedle some games from my cousin Niño.

In any case, the games soon stopped capturing my curiousity, and I turned towards the applications I had seen my dad using. I started first with Wordstar, a popular word processing application back in the day. (Yes, that kind of dates me, but what the hey). Wordstar thankfully had a built-in tutorial, and I started with it. I learned how to use the various keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl-K B to begin a block, Ctrl-K K to end it) and soon I was using it to type. I stored my opuses on 5 1/4” floppies. (One thing I regret is that most if not all of those files are now long gone– I lost the floppies, and the floppies I still have I doubt I can read.) I even printed it out, once we had acquired a noisy Epson dot-matrix printer (LX-800, for those interested). I quickly learned Wordstar, then moved on to trying my hand at Lotus 123, then stopped at dBase III+. Why did I stop? Let me digress a bit.

A not-so fortuitous start

I spent all of my elementary and high school life in a school in the south of Metro Manila called De La Salle Santiago Zobel. In Zobel, there were two libraries: one for the grade school and one for the high school. Both were officially named the LRCs, the Learning Resource Center, but everyone called them the libraries. I was one of the heavy users, and would often borrow books every week (if I could). One shelf caught my fancy immediately, on the 000-100 section of the Dewey Decimal System. It consisted mostly of introduction to computing books, but there was one set of books that simply piqued my curiousity: books on BASIC programming, albeit for Apple IIs and TIs and Ataris, systems now long gone. But they were books on how to make things for your computer, and so they captured me immediately.

I borrowed one of the books, took it home, and was immediately stumped at how I could possibly try out the small programs described there. I knew how to create text files from the DOS command prompt (I learned the COPY CON: trick a few weeks before), and I knew that applications had a .EXE extension.

So.

I tried writing one of the short BASIC programs in the book as a file with a .EXE extension. I tried running it. Nothing. The PC crashed. (Thankfully, looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I did this on a system which was relatively resillient to such stupid things.)

I sighed, gave up for now, and returned to what I usually did. I finished reading the book though, knowing that I might one day figure out how to try my hand at coding. Little did I know that fate would intervene…

Fate does intervene

I usually spent my summer days at my cousins’ house– either at my cousin Niño, over at Cologne st., or my cousin Carlo at Munich st., both in the same village near ours. When summer came to, around 1992 or 93 I believe (I’m hazy about the dates now, in any case), me and my sister hied off to Cologne st. during the day, only returning home at night. In any case, I was informed by my aunt that we couldn’t play computer games on their PC, an AT-class machine, wonder of wonders, way better than our measly XT-class with no hard disk to speak of– heck, we had four color CGA while they had the full glory of VGA graphics! You could imagine my disappointment.

But imagine, then, my interest after me and Niño had tried booting up the machine to see if, indeed, we couldn’t use it. The words that greeted me, at the very top of the screen, were ‘PC BASIC’. BASIC, I mused. Wait a minute…

And at that moment, I remembered that my cousin had a bunch of computer books in their library. Including one that taught how to program in BASIC. Here it was, staring me at the face. I need not describe the sudden rush of realization, and the creeping feeling that it might not work, mixed with the desire to simply try it. (And yes, I knew of its existence simply because I have the habit of looking through books whenever possible).

So, with great excitement, I told my cousin I knew what it was that was happening to their PC (I didn’t), and I told my cousin I’d like to try something. We pulled out the book from the library, dived into a program, typed it in. And followed the instructions on how to run it. I was at first confounded by some of the syntax problems– this was, after all, terrifyingly but excitingly foreign soil to me– but eventually, me and Niño got it to run. And we were amazed. We were able to make the PC do something. We spent the rest of the day tweaking things, trying to figure out what each line did and what not. We still didn’t understand things, but heck, we programmed something. It bears repeating how we felt: we were able to make the PC do something.

Over the course of the next few months, I eventually learned about BASIC interpreters– about BASIC.COM, about BASICA.COM, about GWBASIC.EXE. (I learned much later about ROM BASIC, the mode that Niño’s computer booted up into for some reason). In any case, I had something else to fascinate me. I still played computer games, sure. But programming was surely too fascinating to me.

(Next: Explorations, and Doogie Howser)

Previously: DSL providers and Path MTU