My first contact with a computer was a printout of Snoopy made out of x’s and o’s and ampersands. I don’t remember where it was, and not what the computer looked like – although in my head I saw it during one of our field trips during my two weeks with the scouts and it was one of those room-sized mainframes but both claims are just as likely to be fake memories I created as I typed this – but I can see that Snoopy as clearly as if I was holding the two-tone continuous form paper in my hand right now.
To me, it was the work of genius. Looking at it up close, it was just a mess of characters, but once you took two steps back, there was Snoopy dancing! Snoopy!
If that’s what computers could do, count me in! However, it took me a couple of years to get my hands on one.
The computer in our high school had 16KB of RAM memory and it looked like a thick television set with a beige keyboard attached to it. Or vice versa. The beige tone of the keyboard was the only color available as the monitor was naturally a black and white TV set but we didn’t care. In our imagination the white square in the middle of the white lines was a racing car, and if it hit that longer white line, the anguish was as real as if we had been sitting in the car ourselves.
We also had “programming” at school, which meant that once a week, our math teacher stood in front of the class and wrote BASIC code on the blackboard, which we then copied in our notebooks. At the end of the semester, all of us in the class had to do a final project, to code something. Since our computer only had 16KB of RAM memory, the products weren’t too advanced, and many of us wrote a program that printed out an image, such as Snoopy. (There were many Snoopies).
Now, by the time I got my time at the ABC80 in the classroom, I had already taught myself the BASIC language at home on the ZX Spectrum I had got as a Christmas present about a year earlier. I spent that Christmas mostly indoors, playing the game that came with the computer: Thro the Wall, in which the player bounces a ball off a bat and tries to break the colorful bricks that the wall is made of.
Colorful? Yes, my ZX Spectrum was connected to a 14-inch color TV on my desk. Next to it, there was the red cassette player, the Spectrum’s mass storage unit.
The Spectrum quickly became my friend, and something that divided my world into pockets. First, it separated me from my parents who didn’t have any interest in using it. Second, it rooted me in the Spectrum camp, not the Commodore gang. Since the computers didn’t speak with each other, there was little reason for the users to do it, either.
Dad sold Spectrums in his store, and more importantly, he sold Spectrum games in his store, so I had access to more games than we could’ve otherwise afforded. I played Hungry Horace, the Spectrum’s version of Pac-Man, Hungry Horace goes Skiing, a game that combined downhill skiing with a Spectrum version of the Frogger, and I played Horace and the Spiders. I played JetPac, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, Beach Head, and the Ghostebusters game. One of the happiest days of my life was when I finally figured out how to get past the Stay Puft marshmallow man.
And, like Peter, the main character in Someday Jennifer, I played The Hobbit (all the way through). And like Peter, I originally read the book that came with the game just for hints for the game, just like I read the computer magazines for shortcuts and secret keys that opened doors in the games. I still remember that to get a free choice of a level in Manic Miner, you had to type “typewriter” after the game had loaded.
For that school project, I programmed a multiple choice English quiz, first trying it at home on my Spectrum, then re-typing the lines of code into the ABC80 at school.
But my proudest programming moment came weeks after I had graduated from high school and was cramming for the university admission tests. One of the six books I had to read was on linear optimization and to really understand how to find the optimal price point for Product X – or maybe to procrastinate and play around with the Spectrum instead of studying – I wrote a short program that did the calculations for me when I punched in the variables.
I’m still bursting with pride when I think about how my Spectrum plotted two lines on the Philips TV set, and pointed the optimal point to me. In fact, I may be prouder of having written that program than the fact that I actually got into the Helsinki Business School.
Two months later, I moved into a tiny student apartment that I shared with a roommate. It was an old hotel room and right in the middle of the room, there was an invisible line that separated his side from my side. We both had a desk, a chair, and a bed, nothing else.
On his desk, there were two school books, and a lamp. On mine: my stereo, my tapes, my magazines, and my TV which I had taken with me from home. Meanwhile, 400 kilometers north of that desk, on another desk, there was a lone, black Spectrum, the cord wrapped around it, partly buried under a pile of MAD magazines.
I took the TV with me, but left the Spectrum and traded it for an electric – yes, electric! – typewriter – yes, a typewriter – that I wrote my university papers on.
That fall, my first exam at the university was on mathematical economics.
I failed it.
No Snoopy’s happy dance for me.