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Wednesday, February 2, 2000
By Paul Ford
A love letter to a little white box.
I've never written it down, but I loved a machine, a squat, beige, boxy computer called the Amiga. This was in the mid-80s, the era of Wargames and Whiz Kids, when the media associated computing with the cold war and Pac-Man. To avoid stigma, I kept the fascination secret, didn't mention it to friends at school.
The machine had no modem, no way of speaking to the world. It had 512K RAM and 2 floppy drives, less power than a 1997 Palm Pilot. I used it for homework, and to write stories, draw pictures, process sound, play and create games, to make short animations. Processing text, manipulating images, I entered a prismatic world where my ideas spread out in space and glimmered, my inner worlds melting together into a long spiral wire of data and emotion.
In 1985, as a nervous 11-year-old, I decided that our family would be incomplete unless we owned a computer. I don't know why this was my passion, but I fixed on it with steeled desire. I didn't care much about video games; my world was cartoon monsters and books, school, trips to the library, occasional soccer with my father.
My parents listened, but with fiscal suspicion. My father was an English professor, about to retire early to write plays, and my mother was a puppeteer. We didn't own a car. $2000 for a complete setup - CPU, monitor, printer - was extreme.
But they didn't cut me off. My father was supportive. A creative writing prof in his 50s, he was also a computer type - a BASIC programmer who began the 80s using the large, heavy, monochrome Commodore PET machine, which lacked a period key. At the college computer lab, when I was 8 or 9, he and I played a game called "Hunt the Wumpus," loaded from a datassette, trying to kill an invisible monster in a textual maze. He'd also written a program to generate random words, to use in poems, and showed me the reams of dot-matrix output it had created, words in all caps. I was mystified and fascinated.
After a month listening to my whine, we made a deal: I had to prove commitment, and dedication. So I stayed late at Stetson Middle School, and spent time learning the C64, a simple, popular computer from Commodore. In my spare time, putting off homework, I read technology magazines at the local college library, Compute!, Popular Science, and an amazing periodical called Creative Computing.
Then, magazines published the code for programs, which you could type in and run yourself. Compute! was likely to print 20 pages of BASIC code which, when run, played Monopoly, or served as a spreadsheet. Creative Computing published programs to explore the migratory patterns of birds, or to generate random poetry. Creative Computing was published by David Ahl, who is now a financial planner. It was a humane computer publication, dead by 1986; it documented the folklore of early computing, when BASIC fit in 3K and lived at a hex address.A full year passed, and at the end of it, I presented my parents with a hand-drawn chart, rejecting the Mac, the C64 and C128, the PC, and the Atari ST for various reasons, and promoting the Amiga, which was modern, warm, and resonant, with an ad campaign profiling Amiga users Andy Warhol and B.B. King.
My parents were swayed by my magazine clippings and relentless squeaks, agreeing finally to pull out the checkbook. The machine had been on the market for less than a month, a new operating system, new chips, a new keyboard. We drove my grandfather's station wagon to Downingtown, PA, and payed the outlandish $2400 with a check.
My family lived bare miles from Commodore's offices in West Chester, PA. Before Commodore moved in, my mother had worked in the same building at Norcross, a greeting-card manufacturer that went bankrupt. The salesman at Downingtown Computer told us that we owned the second Amiga 1000 in the county. Tom, a video producer who lived above my grandparents, owned the first one. I chipped in $10 on the $2400. A 3.5" floppy disk cost $4.
Nearly no software was available. For months, I used DPaint, a painting program, Mindwalker, a game which mixed Cognitive Science, Freud, and magic-beam-shooting wizards. There was also Textcraft, a miserable word processor. With each of the machine's frequent crashes, it spat out red text on a blank screen: "GURU MEDITATION ERROR," followed by a bizarre string of numbers. The Amiga was a strange device.
We brought it home, carried the boxes up to the attic, and turned it all on. We printed a test page, and the screaming dot matrix printer brought my mother, who thought that something was horribly broken. Carl Sassenrath, a name impossible to pronounce if you lisp (not if you (LISP)), wrote the original AmigaOS. He's pushing the ethos forward via Rebol, a "messaging" computer language. It was primitive, compared to the 400MHz Linux machine I use to write this, but it was marvelous, a wonderful toy for a boy. I've learned since that the Amiga was prescient in its design: graphically powerful, with built-in application libraries, real multitasking, disk-based ROM, all encapsulated within a multi-resolution, many-windowed interface. These were meaningless abstracts to me, and mostly still are, but they were phenomenal things to programmers who later would force the machine into digital contortions of incredible complexity.
With the shriek of the printer and the Guru Meditation Errors, my life in the digital space began. You see that life, in its present manifestation, in these words. I wrote a program in Microsoft Basic (when Microsoft was barely worth billions) which played endless, random music, drawing shapes on the screen which were half-as-wide in pixels as the Hz of the tones played. I learned how to edit photographs and process images.
Using the machine was profoundly social. I turned 14 and ended up spending time with Tom, the video producer who lived above my grandparents. He gave me software to copy and taught me to edit videos using the Amiga as an image processor and titler; he also counseled me through adolescent nightmares. My friend Jim Esch, a technical writer at Commodore, published a literary magazine via the Amiga, called Sparks. All of us still know each other; Tom recently did some video work with the Dalai Lama and gave parts of it to Jim and his wife Stacy to edit and annotate. I talk to both Tom and Jim at least once a month, normally more, even though, across the three of us, we range in age by 25 years.
The Amiga was my continuity. A year after we brought it home, my parents divorced, but my father bought an Amiga 500 with a full meg of RAM, a powerhouse. I shuttled back and forth between them on Philadelphia's SEPTA buses, with disks of public-domain software in my shirt pocket, sharing data between their worlds, continuing in the exploration despite the fact that the world around me was collapsing.
When it finally collapsed, at 15, I left for the Milton Hershey School, a free boarding school for poor children in strange lives, and there it was all Macintoshes.
Mismanaged and poorly marketed, the Amiga foundered in the marketplace against the more uniform Mac and PC, surviving only via a niche in desktop video, and as a tool of choice for European demo hackers. Then Commodore folded, leaving the Ami an orphan, supported by a furiously protective community whose hatred for Windows makes the Linux crowd look like U.N. diplomats. Hopes rose and fell as the company was bought and sold, the patents dispersed, and finally I gave up on the future machine, vowed to make the best of Linux, which is closest in spirit to the Amiga, if painfully behind in many aspects, and began to use the Amiga Emulator to do the things Linux, Windows, or the MacOS (I run all 3) wouldn't let me do.
2. Line, Dot, SineSimple images programmed one evening.
Turtle, come home.
When I was about to leave for college, my father, a playwrite and poet, explained why he began using computers. Extensive selections of my father's work, all written on an Amiga 500 with 1 meg RAM and 2 floppy drives, are available free, online, from Jim and Stacy Esch's Orange Street Press.
He said, "when I wrote a BASIC program, it was like writing a poem. You're trying to express the most, do the most you can do, in the most compact, elegant form possible, to achieve the greatest possible effect. I'm a 'brute force' programmer - algorithmic elegance is beyond me. But I can feel the similarity to poetry, the formal arrangement of symbols."
The Amiga had both poetry and power. It let me, as a child, think algorithmically and creatively, and mixed the sides of my brain more than any psychotropic drug or interdisciplinary college program. Its design is also the design of my mind; it informed the way I perceive the world. I miss it badly, and hope, too fervently, that these promises of a networked media future from the reborn Amiga, Inc. are real, so that I can leave behind my collection of Web hacks, MSWord workarounds, and general Internet compromises, and begin to explore the space inside the computer again, perhaps to find a new world, perhaps to find a way back home.