Tuesday, November 17, 2020

First flight, and afterward


Over forty years have elapsed since I first saw a personal computer in operation, in a private residence in Marin County, a tony California precinct. It was an Apple II (or “Apple ][,” according to a curious typographical convention of the day, which I will not bother repeating), owned by a friend’s father, a fiftyish chemical engineer, and it was running, on a green phosphor monitor, and loaded from a cassette drive, a program called “Flight Simulator,” the distant but direct ancestor of the product marketed by Microsoft unto the present day.

A little background: in the initial years of my romantic history I was successively involved with three women who subsequently made their livings in the computer field—even before the (Mis)Information Age had wrapped its tendrils anything like so thoroughly around and through the populace and the polity today—and a fourth who, early in 1974, endeavored in vain to interest me in the computer terminals available for undergraduate use at various points on the UC Santa Cruz campus. “Faugh!” quoth I. “I am a humanities major. What have I to do with these machines?”

A fair amount, it was to turn out, but that proved true one way or another of many of us of a Certain Age.

Anyway, a few years later my then-spouse began to agitate for the acquisition of one of these gadgets, and because what we’d seen was a Cupertino product, we went shopping for an “Apple II+,” the current model as of October 1982, and landed at an outfit—was it in Berkeley or San Francisco?—called, I think, “Quest Computers,” at which a slick salesman (for some reason I still remember his name: Phil Sotter) unloaded on us a computer with 48K—that’s kilobytes—of RAM, a green phosphor monitor, a “floppy” drive and a dot-matrix printer. Woo! I think that the tariff, which we financed by means of a particularly avaricious consumer lender, was initially around $3500, which was probably close to half my net annual salary in those days.

As initially configured, the thing could only display upper-case characters, although it could output lower-case to the printer. Fortunately…er, not quite…fortunately the machine accommodated plug-in cards, and we acquired, for a couple of hundred dollars, an “eighty-column” card that permitted the monitor to display both cases. Did I mention that the software could also do italic and boldface provided the appropriate <tags>were entered</tags> in the word processing environment? But also, the eighty-column jobbie was a little slow: it could not keep up with my keyboard input, and then, as now, I am a fucking two-fingered typist.

Within half a year of taking delivery, although I purchased and played “Flight Simulator” (on a 5.25” floppy—how cool is that?) I could scarcely look at the goddamn machine without hating it, and myself for my folly in consenting to indenture myself to its purchase. The spouse, however, used it to “typeset” several pages worth of content in one issue of Tim Yohannan’s “Maximumrocknroll” magazine—this one. I met Tim Y, dead these many years now, once or twice during that period: he struck me as an exceptionally charmless character.

In late summer 1984 my wife again suggested a computer purchase, this time of an Apple Macintosh, which had first reached the consumer market earlier that year, and which had already struck me as the homeliest piece of consumer electronics I’d ever set eyes on. “Absolutely not,” I growled. “I will never consent to having another product from that loathsome company in my home again.” Perhaps I should mention here that for the nine years we cohabited following our move to Oakland in 1977, I was for various reasons the principal breadwinner as she worked lower-paying, temporary, part-time, voluntary or not-at-all gigs, and that I regarded my views on big-ticket expenditures as accordingly carrying a correspondingly greater weight.

Cannily, she said nothing to this. A couple of weeks later, working late—she was then employed at a software firm on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley—she called to ask if I could fetch her from the workplace. When I arrived, she apologized, told me that the staff meeting was running overtime, led me to an otherwise empty room with an original Macintosh, the 128K model, booted up and running, I think, MacPaint.

I’d never seen anything like this. When she returned after three-quarters of an hour, I sighed: “Where do I sign?”

Two years later, she’d moved out, and on, to gigs in the IT/tech writing field that paid far more than she—or I—had ever made when we had common premises. But a year after that I began to make my living on the Mac (a story for another time, perhaps), and did so until my retirement in 2017, so yay. I probably could have brought home the same or greater income from the same employer during those latter three decades, but I would not have enjoyed myself as much, and would likely never have attained anything like the sundry technical and artistic proficiencies I can claim today. Thanks you, K. No, really.

I owe this also, I suppose, in minor part to that horrible Apple II+ back in the day. I salute the machine, halfheartedly, in whatever metal-retrieval landfill might have claimed it, you otherwise unmourned old thing.

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