Monday, January 26, 2015

Out of the Gutter: The Ken Lasko Story, Part 1

I've really gotten a kick out of reading people's IT backstories on their blogs, so I thought I'd add mine in.  This will be much like the Twilight and Hunger Games film series.  There will be 3 parts, but the third part will be broken up into Part I and Part II to drag things out and to maximize profits.

April 1941, London, UK. The Germans had been bombing London for more than 6 months, in what had been called "the Blitz".  I was a teenager wait. That wasn't me.

Part I - Boyhood, but not as good as the movie

I grew up in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in central Ontario, Canada during the 1970's and
You can almost see the sweat in this true-to-life simulation.
80's. Our nearest neighbour was nearly a kilometer away, and we had lots of land to entertain me and my younger brother. We rode our bikes, explored the forest, played in barns; very wholesome stuff. My very first exposure to anything computer-related would have been the seminal Atari Pong video game, which we had in our Grade 1 classroom when I was 6 years old. Even with the simple graphics of the time, it was something that we loved to play when allowed. A few years later, I started to waste as much time as my parents would let me playing the growing number of arcade games located at our local mall. I can still remember playing Space Invaders, Asteroids and all those early classics with the precious few quarters I got for an allowance. I was never the video game master that I imagined I was in my mind.

The possibilities were endless!
My first experience with a real computer was the Commodore PET computer that resided in our classroom. I think it was Grade 5, which would have been 1982. I remember inserting a cassette tape and waiting for sometimes up to 30 minutes for the program to load. The longer it took, the better we thought the game would be. The only game I remember was some variation of Lunar Lander, which I thought was awesome. This was also my very first exposure to programming, which usually consisted of the following extremely complex BASIC program:
10  PRINT "<InsertSwearWordHere>";
20  GOTO 10

This would endlessly scroll the chosen swear word, but with the added feature of filling the entire screen, instead of just a single column, thanks to the addition of the semi-colon. This alone differentiated me from the other students, and pegged me as a "computer genius" (or maybe nerd). From that moment forward, I knew computers were going to be an important part of my life....actually no. It was just a way to waste time with games and to irritate teachers.

Look familiar?
My parents brought home the Magnavox Odyssey2 gaming system sometime during the same period. This thing was a true piece of crap, with bad graphics even by the very low standards of the day. My parents thought the built-in touch keyboard would encourage us to take up programming, but we had very little interest in this. We only played the various terrible knock-off games that were available, like KC Munchkin (think Pac-Man). Despite the general awfulness of the Odyssey2 games, we played the hell out of that thing.

A few years later (probably 1984), my parents brought home an odd-looking beige box with a small, heavy 16-colour CGA monitor attached.  This was yet another attempt to get my brother and I to "learn about these new-fangled computer things".  This was the very first PC, an IBM clone.  It had no hard drive. It had 640K of memory. Its only storage media was a pair of 5 1/4" floppy disk drives. I remember inserting the DOS disk, listening to the floppy drive buzz and churn away until finally a single A:\ prompt flashed at me. Without any manual to read, I thrashed my way around until I figured out how to get things done. And by "get things done", I meant "play video games".

It's Sexytime! Imagine that "CENSORED" box moving up and down,
and you get the idea. Mass parental hysteria ensued.
I have no idea how I did it, but I managed to get illicit copies of all sorts of games. This was long before the Internet, and BBS's were still years away. My favourites were the adventure games of the era, starting with King's Quest, then Police Quest, Space Quest, and the infamous Leisure Suit Larry series, which was the first to have "are you an adult?" verification, which was extremely simple for a young, determined kid to get around.

I didn't realize this at the time of course, but this was my very first interaction with Microsoft via an early version of MS-DOS. Little did I know just how much of an effect this would have on my life, just not in exactly the way my parents intended.  I became familiar with computers, even though I didn't use them much more than a medium for playing games.

Later on, as I became older, I used the PC for more than just games. I used it in high school to write
My high school picture
papers with WordPerfect when others were still either writing them by hand or typing them on a typewriter (yes, a typewriter). I printed out my assignments on a dot-matrix printer, and my teachers were impressed by the neatness and lack of liquid paper normally required on most typical type-written papers to hide the mistakes.

We eventually got a 1200 or 2400 baud modem (can't recall which), which allowed us to dial-up to local Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), and download games at blistering speeds. (a 1 MB game would take about an hour at 2400 bps). If my mother picked up the phone while we were downloading (and that happened a lot), she would hear a nice screech, and our download would get interrupted, forcing us to start over. More screeching would happen from both me for the wasted DL time, and my mother who couldn't use the phone any more.

Other than dabbling with computer games and word processing, I lived life like a normal teenager. Rode bicycles all over the place (got into racing and did pretty well), chased girls (not so well), watched TV (yes, Knight Rider was on my 'Must-See' list), and got into typical teenage mischief (all too well).

This continued until one fateful day in 1988, when I encountered something that would change my life....forever. (Best read like a movie trailer voiceover).

Coming soon, the mid-point of this thrilling saga: Part 2 - Higher Learning