by Tom Filecco
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The cursor stayed there, blinking on the screen. It did not display a request for a username/password. There was no display of tiny graphic icons arranged in neat rows. It was just a blinking underline below a single word, telling him the machine was good to go. Johnny stared at it for a little while, and thought “So this is how it all begins...” He had found the box on the shelf in a dusty antique/junk shop in a twentieth century vintage strip mall that had seen better days. It was a black and silver wedge-shaped keyboard, a black rectangular power supply, and a couple of books. The price was right. The shop owner was happy to finally be rid of it. Johnny asked if there was anything else for it. The shop owner disappeared in the back, and came out with a couple of smaller peripherals, cables with strange connectors at either end, some flat black plastic flexible squares, and a few more books. It was all covered with enough dust to show that the entire lot had not been touched by human hands in some time. Johnny took it all, bungee-corded it to his bicycle rack, and covered it with a surplus army poncho. As he rode home, he felt rather fortunate that there was a place within bike-riding distance where he could find neat stuff cheap. Little did he know he was about to embark on a small adventure.
Johnny rode home. He unpacked everything, and cleaned off the dust. The instructions in the manual were clear enough. They mentioned something about a “TV modulator”. Johnny goes into the basement, and finds it. The old TV set is a big, heavy, glass and plastic thing labeled “RCA XL100.” It belonged to his grandparents. He hopes it still works. Johnny hooks up all the cables, plugs everything into a wall outlet, and turns on the switch. It all works just fine. He is rewarded with a single word, and a blinking underline. READY _
Johnny wondered if this was how it all began, back in the early heady days of computer hacking. He uses computing devices in school. They are safely locked down, “secure” against the threat of cyber-terror. They even worked more often than not. What, however, if you wanted to take a peek at the man behind the curtain? That was forbidden. A schoolmate of his once showed him this thing called “Linux” before said schoolmate's parents confiscated it. “Open Source” meant it was wide open for terrorists and pedophiles to get into, and the online consumption experience needed to be safe for the children. There he was, cursor blinking at him, and despite the fact that this old computer was over twice his age, he realized the enormity that it all was waiting for his command, and that no one or nothing was standing between him and the capability to create whatever at will. The whole magilla hit him like a ton of bricks delivered with the force of a freight train, and it was all he could do to stand up, walk away from the thing, and go ponder over it all with a walk in the woods.
The woods were former, now grown in, farmland on the back end of his family’s property. He wandered the woods for the greater part of an afternoon, eventually coming to one of his favorite places, the one he called “Engine Rock.” It was a giant boulder, a remnant of the glaciers. It was about six feet high, with a flat top where one could climb up and sit. A small metal scrap pile laid nearby from when there was once a farm here. Its most prominent feature was a rusty old engine block from a truck or maybe a tractor. He climbed up onto the boulder, taking in the clear blue sky and the scent of the trees. High overhead, a jet plane laid a white contrail over the wild blue yonder, persisting for a few minutes before being dispersed by the wind currents. Johnny had a moment of Zen, contemplating the experience he just had. He asked the Universe for, well, something. A sign. He climbs down off the boulder, and spots something next to the engine block. It is a shiny, square, angular, metallic-looking rock. He recognizes it as a piece of Galena. He remembers something his grandfather showed him. A “crystal radio” it was called. You made it with a piece of Galena, and an oatmeal box with wire wrapped around it. He still has the headphones from when he last built one with his grandfather. They had to be “high impedance” or something like that. He pockets the Galena and heads home.
He walks inside, and remembers how his family and him finished a box of oatmeal this morning. The empty box is still in the recycling bin. He recovers the discarded box, and goes to the garage. He finds a spool of bell wire, some scrap wood, and a half-inch copper pipe cap. He is ready to proceed. Johnny wraps 100 turns of bell wire around the box, scraping the insulation off the wire in a line where the top of the coil will be. He screws the pipe cap into the block of wood, and wedges the Galena into the pipe cap with some Aluminum foil. The coil is wired across his Galena detector. Johnny finds some more wire, and strings it from his bedroom window to a nearby tree. Next comes the ground. He thinks the baseboard heater in his bedroom should work. He remembers that crystal radios work best at night. Johnny decides he will wait until after dinner. He hopes he remembered how to put it all together correctly.
Dinner is filled with conversation as usual, but Johnny remains mostly quiet this evening. He is thinking about his new computer, and how his dad might react. Johnny and his sister both have Chromebooks they use for school, but those are more tools than toys. His parents have a computer they use for the family business, but Johnny stays off of it. Johnny knows his dad used to work with computers, but doesn’t talk about it. Johnny has always had the feeling that his dad’s old job was a forbidden topic for some reason, and doesn’t ask.
Johnny’s parents are both hardcore NPR listeners, and a part of dinnertime discussion involves what they heard on the news. The parents of Johnny’s friend who had the Linux CD confiscated would have called them “a bunch of fucking flaming liberals.” The rest of their discussion is about how their day went. Johnny normally has a lot to say, he’s usually a busy kid, His parents sense his unusual reticence this evening, but don’t comment. After a sausage and broccoli penne that would rival any restaurant in Little Italy and equally good cheesecake desert, Johnny excuses himself. It’s time for him to consult the aether.
It is dark now. He connects his headphones across the Galena detector. Moves the tuning wiper across the coil. A station comes in loud and clear. It sounds like a debate on a talk radio program. There is an author named Corey Doctrow talking about the “war on general purpose computing,” how people don't truly own things they can't take apart and fix, and why this is bad for society and civil liberties in general. Jimmy writes down the author’s name. The opposing voice and show host accuse him of being a supporter of terrorists and child molesters. The boy has has heard enough. He removes the headphones from his ears, his decision made. He sits back down at the old computer. “Where do I start?” he asks himself. One of the books is titled BASIC Programming. He opens it, turns to the first page, “Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.” He starts to read. The book gives him a programming example to try on the computer. He types it in. 10 PRINT “HELLO WORLD.” 20 END
Johnny finishes his first ever computer program, and types “RUN.” He is rewarded with “HELLO WORLD.” displayed on the screen. He reads a little more and adds another line. 15 GOTO 10
Now “HELLO WORLD.” is printed over and over again on the screen in what Johnny later finds out is known as an “idiot loop.” Wanting the feelings of accomplishment of elation to last, he keeps on hacking. It was a Saturday night, and Johnny didn’t have anything to do early on Sunday morning. He had Googled Corey Doctrow, BASIC computer programming language, and the model of his computer. Johnny had bought, for an incredible bargain he discovered, a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. The machine was powerful for its day, but something of an outlier and not as popular as other machines of the era. Nevertheless, he was having a blast playing around with the old piece of computing iron. He had put his crystal set’s headphones back on. He tuned around a bit, and found this crazy talk show called Coast To Coast AM where the host was talking about UFOs and other high weirdness. Johnny thought it was the perfect accompaniment to his newly-found love of what he learned was called “retro computing.” The reception wasn’t perfect. Whenever he ran a program on the TI-99/4A is would make noises on the crystal set, but he could still hear the show.
John Senior, Johnny’s dad, had just sat down for his evening indulgence. When everything is shut down and settled in for the night, he grabs a cup of decaf coffee in his old chipped and stained AT&T coffee mug he has had since graduating college, sits in his favorite Boston Rocker, and listens to Coast to Coast AM. John became hooked on the show decades ago when he was a young software developer right out of college working late at night to make sure a project was completed on time. Over the years he became disillusioned with the industry, despite the fact that it paid well. He put in his time, and retired early enough in life to be able to do something else. Now he has a wood working shop, a thriving business making heirloom grade furniture, and the ability to work on his own schedule and listen to his favorite show at night. It’s Saturday night, and nothing is going on the next day.
The one thing about coffee, decaf or otherwise, is that you can only borrow it. Sure enough, after a while John has to go return his evening beverage. Walking up the stairs to the bathroom, he goes past his son’s bedroom. It’s summer time and a Saturday night to boot, so the kids don’t have a bed time. What catches his ear is the distinct staccato clicks of what can only be an old-school keyboard coming from his son’s room. He pauses. “Yep.” He thinks to himself. “That’s an old-school keyboard.” He knocks on the door. No response. He knocks again. Still no response. The keyboard clicks continue. John quietly chuckles to himself. “Sounds like me back when I cranking out code for a living.” John opens the door, and sees why his son didn’t hear him. Johnny’s back is to the door, and he’s wearing headphones. He’s sitting on front of the old TV in the basement, typing on a keyboard. John recognizes BASIC code on the screen, and knows a hacking session when he sees one. He sure enough participated in plenty of them. Johnny’s Chromebook is open to a website, “99er.net.” The ceiling light in Johnny’s bedroom is off. John flicks it on and off quickly to get his son’s attention.
Johnny was deep into messing with the TI’s graphics capability and trying to figure out some basic collision detection. The guest on Coast To Coast AM was talking about space aliens on Long Island in New York, and while to Johnny it sounded like a load of bullshit it was still entertaining listening. The station he was picking up was about 200 miles away which only added to the atmosphere. He was so into it, that he nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw the lights flicker. He turned around, and there was his dad. Nervousness gripped him. His dad caught him with the computer. He takes his headphones off, and starts stuttering. “Dad, I uh-uh-uh.” His dad walks over to the computer, a look of amazement on his face. “Where did you get this?!” his asks in a tone of incredulity and surprise. Johnny replies, “I got it at the junk shop.” His dad laughs. “No shit? Heh heh. How much did you pay for it?” Johnny pauses for a moment. He’s not sure where this conversation is going. He decides that it’s probably best to be totally truthful in this instance. “I paid Twenty Dollars for it.” His dad laughs again. “That’s all? They cost a lot more back when my parents bought me one.” John pauses for a second. “That’s a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, and it was my first computer in Middle School. I think my parents sold it at a yard sale when I went off to college. Why didn’t you tell me you bought an old computer?” A wave of relief washed over Johnny as he replied. “I know you used to work with computers, and quit. I thought you didn’t like them.” John laughed. “I was a computer programmer for 25 years, and retired when it stopped being fun. It wasn’t the computers I hated, it was the way the computer business turned out.” Not wanting to sour his kid away from hacking, John changes the subject. “I see you got grandpa’s old ham radio headphones, and you built a crystal set. What were you listening to?” John asks. “It’s this crazy show about UFOs and stuff called...” John and his son both say “Coast to Coast AM” at the same time. John gets thoughtful for a moment. “Hang on a second son.” John goes back downstairs and brings up his little portable radio. He turns it on to George interviewing some time traveler about Montauk Point. “So, tell me what you’re working on.” John gestures to the screen. Johnny replies, “I’m trying to get collision detection working.” John glances at the code. “You need to add an extra subroutine after that IF THEN line...”
John was a little rusty not having messed with TI personal computer graphics since the 1980s, but it all started coming back to him. He looked at the clock, realized it was 2:30 in the morning, and that the both of them should probably catch some sleep. They both woke up a little later than usual the next day. John’s wife was wondering why he came to bed so late the night before. He explained what happened during their morning coffee ritual. His wife snorted trying not to laugh out loud. “He’s a computer hacker just like his father was.” John just nodded and said “I guess it runs in the family.” Johnny came down all bleary eyed a little later. They all sat down for breakfast. Johnny’s mother opened the conversation. “Your father said the two of you had a late night hacking session. What did you learn?” Johnny gushed, “I found out we both have the same favorite radio show! And dad taught me how to program computer games!” Johnny’s sister rolled her eyes at her brother’s and dad’s geek-ness. She wanted to become a veterinarian like her mother.
After breakfast was finished, John asked his son to go out to the workshop with him. It was an old red wooden barn that he converted into a woodworking shop. John goes into a corner, pulls an old cardboard box out from under a bench, and starts removing items from it. He pulls out a beige keyboard, monitor, and CPU unit. The CPU unit has the old AT&T “Deathstar” logo on it, and is marked “3B1.” About five minutes later the system is assembled, pluged in, and booting up. John looks at his son and gestures to the machine while saying “BASIC on those old microcomputers is fun, but limited. Let me tell you about Unix.”