My Computer History: Commodore 64

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

Commodore 64

Released: August 1982 – April 1994(!)

Specs: 64KB RAM, 1.023MHz CPU

“Gee, Will, with access to so many computers and parents who owned a bookstore, you must have been rich!”

No, we weren’t rich. My father ran the bookstore into the ground with his sketchy accounting and customer service (“It can’t be cheaper back in Michigan. They print the price on the fucking cover!”) by 1984 or so, but even at its height, there were only so many Judith Krantz novels and books about snakes we could sell. Soon, my father was working as a furniture mover and security guard, and my mother was working at a doctor’s office and as an EMT.

I was lucky in a few important ways, though:

  1. My parents had very strange financial priorities, often involved with keeping up appearances of our social class. So we’d eat Dinty Moore beef stew with my father’s restored Porsche parked out in the driveway.
  2. My grandparents, much better money managers, must have asked my parents at key birthdays and Christmas what my sister and I wanted.
  3. My family as a whole likes to give dramatic, wish-fulfilling gifts. (Which sucks as adults because we all have most of what we want.)

So it came to be for my twelfth birthday in 1985 that I got a Commodore 64 home computer. I remember my father did a lot of research and asked around to discover that it was a superior product for the price, which was essentially true. It came out of the box with a lot of features that required upgrades to an Apple II.

My father also imposed a rule for the Commodore: no games except ones I wrote myself. That felt draconian at the time, but in retrospect, it sparked me to learn programming in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise.

He eventually got a professional job again (at a mental institution, ironically), and my first black-and-white monitor for the Commodore was almost certainly pilfered from there, because that’s how he rolled.

Before I could work on games, my father was obsessed first and foremost with having me write a program that he could use as an address book.

What he craved was the convenience of:

  1. Sitting down at the computer.
  2. Inserting a tape into the cassette drive and fast-forwarding to a spot we’d written down for the counter.
  3. Typing LOAD “ADDRESSBOOK”,1.
  4. Pressing Play on the tape deck and waiting patiently for the program to load at 55 bytes per second.
  5. Typing RUN.
  6. Entering a person’s name precisely spelled in answer to a prompt.
  7. Waiting briefly for the program to churn through some READ and DATA statements.
  8. Receiving the requested phone number, assuming the person was in the data.

Even as a kid, I thought this was insane, so I suppose this marks my first encounter with unreasonable client demands for software.

It was also my first encounter with development delays and bad project management because he left my mother for another woman before I finished writing the program.

(And thank God, because as funny as I make him sound, he was a dangerous and violent sociopath and he exits the story here.)

In his absence, I got cracking on those games, including a Star Trek ship simulator.

My friends and I would position the coffee table and TV in the living room to be the bridge of the ship, and I’d write a program that could accept commands for navigation and combat. You could enter a heading and a warp factor, and the computer would show you scrolling stars as the ship was underway. At random intervals, Klingons would attack, and it was possible to fight them off with phasers and photon torpedoes after declaring Red Alert.

There are no pictures of this bridge setup, alas, but this was the computer at the time:

It was really a prop for role-playing more than an actual game, and that source code had to be an ungodly mess as I added feature after feature to make it better. A few friends remember my frustration at debugging that resulted in some loosened keys, but then, shit was blowing up on the Enterprise all the time like that.

What I learned most from that Commodore 64 was the power of tinkering and incremental changes based on making something user friendly. It wasn’t necessary to get the exact product you wanted on the first try, though my anxiety disorder didn’t let that part sink in for many more years.

The programs I wrote on the Commodore were all about entertaining people, and that’s a practice I maintain today not only with my fiction but also with my design and technical work. I’m less interested in what I can help people DO than in how I can make them FEEL. The Commodore’s emphasis on audio and graphics made that easy.

And yeah, I still own one (not the original).

My Computer History: TRS-80 Model III

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III

Released: July 1980 – September 1983

Specs: 16KB RAM, 2MHz CPU

Oh, Radio Shack, my favorite store as a kid: home of the 160-in-One Electronic Projects Kit, the Archer Space Patrol walkie-talkies, the PRO-46 radio scanner, the nigh-useless Armatron robot limb, and a whole bunch of adequate computers. I loved those catalogs when they came in the mail.

A couple of my childhood friends had the TRS-80 Color Computer, but the alpha nerds on the block – usually adult men for whom ham radio was too sexy – owned one of the massive Model I, Model II, Model III, or Model 4 computers. (Yes, oddly, they didn’t truck with the Roman numeral IV at Radio Shack.)

The Model III I first encountered was in the home of Eric Jones, the grown man who’d volunteered with foolhardy optimism to be the Computers merit badge counselor for our Boy Scout troop.

He’d told my father that he’d once taught at the American University of Beirut, which my old man told me was code for being a CIA agent. Maybe that was true. Mr. Jones (hell, maybe Dr. Jones, I don’t know) had the quiet patient badassery of someone who knew what democracy (or at least American hegemony) really cost.

By small town coincidence, Mr. Jones’s wife Margaret had been my third-grade teacher, the first of many educators who’d wonder what the hell was wrong with me. Her diagnosis in 1981 pretty much nailed it:

“While Will’s mind races to solve complex academic problems, his handwriting suffers. Further, he has a built-in resistance to applying himself to mundane tasks such as memorizing his subtraction facts. Will finds it painful to complete assignments which do not inspire his avid imagination.”

And luckily that problem has not persisted to this very day. Ahem.  

Three years after Mrs. Jones coped with what could be politely called my “quicksilver” (slippery and toxic) mind, it was her husband’s turn as he explained the workings of TRS-80 Level 2 BASIC in their den.

I did not take to it well.

One of the few values that both my parents agreed upon was that our family was eerily and perhaps tragically smarter than 99.9% of the human population, one generation or so removed from evolving into hyper-brilliant orbs of effervescent light. Work was something people like us invented robots or conned others into doing, and a single cursory read-through of a book would be enough to supervise a heart transplant or the construction of a nuclear reactor.

We were skimmers, not studiers. All we needed was the gist and we’d take it from there…if we felt like it.  

The trouble is that programming is not an intuitive inborn gift, at least not back then in BASIC. So I was bewildered to be bewildered by something, and I had no practice in listening carefully to parse out someone’s complex instructions. You can’t extrapolate the syntax of an arbitrary command from the first couple of letters.

You can’t just “get the gist.”

It turns out that ignorant genius is still pretty much indistinguishable from stupidity, and I wince even to this day imagining the Jones family discussing my progress at the dinner table: “You’d think a kid so maladjusted would be smarter.”

I may not be remembering it clearly, but that merit badge seemed to take agonizing weeks to earn, for Mr. Jones at least as much as for me. If he’d really been a CIA assassin, he must have been sorely tempted to garotte me.

The breakthrough finally came when I really listened and did my half of the work integrating what I heard. It was when I realized that the statement:

READ A$, B$, C$

could iterate through a series of DATA statements like this:

DATA Ludwigsen, Will, 555-111-1212, Amemiya, Norman, 555-222-1313,

to produce names and phone numbers.

It came to me like turning on a light. Or, more accurately, like a slowly warming filament over the course of days until it flickers into a dull red glow.

I learned from the Model III (and, more accurately, from Eric Jones), that smarts without input is useless…though it took me many more years to put it into practice.

(And yeah, I got the badge.)

But not one for sewing.

My Computer History: TI-99/4A

I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They’re easy to take for granted now, but for much of my childhood, computers were owned by geeky hobbyists experimenting with their potential more like ham radio enthusiasts or stock car mechanics than by people trying to get things done.  

I wonder how much of the thinking of Gen X has been influenced by the logic and problem solving it took to even open a game or a word processor. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck, and don’t accidentally provoke a thermonuclear war with it.”

I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A

Released: June 1981 – March 1984

Specs: 16KB RAM, 3MHz CPU

From 1979 to 1984, my parents owned a bookstore in Englewood, Florida, called The Bookmark. Though we carried the bestsellers of the day (Robert Ludlum! Harold Robbins! Judith Krantz!), most of the clientele wanted books about the treacherous Florida plants, fish, birds, and snakes they’d never seen before retiring from Michigan.

I spent many Saturdays there reading books very gently in the backroom so we could still sell them (Sherlock Holmes, Choose Your Own Adventure, Encyclopedia Brown), but when I got bored, I could walk to the other end of Palm Plaza to the Eckerds drug store where, for some bizarre reason, there was a kiosk demonstrating the TI-99/4A home computer.

(I never saw anyone but me ever using it.)

It had no tape or disk drive, and it may have had a cartridge with a demo game or two, but what I mostly did was write programs on it in BASIC until a store employee chased me away. Usually, that meant that I’d write the programs by hand at home and then type them into the computer.

Let me say that again: I wrote the programs at home on a piece of notebook paper, folded up the paper, walked into Eckerds, and typed them in…until someone chased me out.

I’m not sure what appealed to me about doing that, except perhaps a vague entrepreneurial spirit: smart people were making cool things (mostly games) with software, so maybe I could, too. I used to create instruction manuals for the games I imagined, too.

Which probably trained me to imagine creative projects in my head before putting them on paper or a screen.

In high school years later, I somehow got ahold of a TI-99/4A in my collection of vintage computers, and I always liked its sleek design, clicky keyboard, and nicely written manuals. I didn’t keep it, but recently I bought another one.

Flock of Seagulls hair unintentional.

I’m Like a Chocoholic, but for Caffeine

[Full credit for the headline due to this wonderful Onion article.]

My professor of Poe Studies in my senior year at UF, Dr. William Goldhurst, told us that Poe could well have been allergic or oversensitive to alcohol because usually it took only a drink or two to completely addle his senses. Other scholars may not go that far, but many agree that he drank relatively rarely but it fucked him up when he did.

I drink way less, perhaps two six packs of Angry Orchard and two bottles of Jameson’s a year (not all at once), and mostly it puts me to sleep. For much of my early life, I was afraid of even trying alcohol because of my father’s dependence, but when I think back on it, I wonder if he wasn’t actually BETTER when he drank: less anxious and angry, anyway. He may well have drunk so much to self-medicate his undiagnosed anxiety disorder.

I’ve got Wellbutrin for that, so score one for science.

Both my parents smoked heavily, though my father managed to quit about twenty years before he died. My mother never could, and we’re pretty sure that’s what got her in the end.

I bring all of this up because I seem fortunate to be almost entirely free of damaging addictions, which will likely disappoint scholars of my work.

Almost entirely free.

This is going to sound entirely ridiculous and perhaps insulting to people with real addictions, but I sincerely think that caffeine grabs me and damages me more than it does most people.

No, I’m not a Mormon.

When I was a kid, soda was what I drank when I was thirsty instead of water, and I went through a 2 liter bottle probably every couple of days. In college, Coke and milk were the priorities at the store with whatever cash I could scrounge, and since then, I’ve tried to quit countless times. Once I made it nearly two years, but more usually my pauses last a few months at most.

This is me at eighteen with a bottle of Coke in one hand and a tube of Orajel for the painful cavities in the other. Addict life, baby!

I think I forget just what caffeine does to me and therefore think it harmless when I need a quick jolt of “inspiration.” So (more for me than for you), I’m listing its effects out here for my future reference.

  • It makes me shaky and fidgety, changing my handwriting and fucking up anything that requires fine motor control.

  • It gives me this constant low grade feeling that things are Going Wrong Somewhere, or that I’m in trouble, or that I’m out of control of my life.

  • It provides that jolt of inspiration for only the first three times of using it, after which it has little effect.

  • It leads me to weirdly totalizing thoughts about the world, taking one bad moment or circumstance and reacting to it as a sign of a malignant universe.

  • It makes my heart rate quicken and blood pressure increase so much that I can see my vision pulsating when I sit still.

  • When I try to quit, I have one day of headaches and about a week of depression and muddled thinking.

  • One of the things I would tell myself in the distant past is, “You have anxiety disorder, and caffeine makes it much worse.” That sentence alone would have revolutionized twenty years of my life.

I’m on day six of no caffeine, and I’m beginning to feel better again. I just have to remember this blog post when I’m tempted by the allure of one exciting (and probably delusional) writing session.

In Which I Go Old School

Well, it’s been thirteen years so I guess the truth can be told.

I entered Jacksonville’s abandoned Public School Number Four with two accomplices thirteen years ago today, and we took pictures of the site as we explored.

I’ve been there a few times over the years, but it has been badly damaged by fire and even I’m not brave enough to poke around there now.

Forever is Composed of Nows

My friend and publisher Steve Berman has started a new online periodical called Bachelors, and the first issue includes my story “Forever is Composed of Nows” among other good stories by people like Nick Mamatas and L.A. Fields.

The magazine, as you may discern from the cover image, is of particular interest to gay readers, and my story has a gay protagonist.

FAQ about my stories with gay protagonists:

Q: Are you…gay?

A: What’s it to you either way?

Q: Well, it makes me wonder if you’re, like, writing from the heart or jumping on the lucrative Big Queer bandwagon that’s driving down our reproductive rate in direct contradiction to the Lord’s insistence to fill a quiver of blessed crusading children.

A: Wow, you’re a weirdo and that’s not a question, but let me address it anyway in four bullets of escalating emotional importance:

  • The protagonists of my stories tend to be unusually perceptive and aware and imaginative outsiders wondering what to do in a world full of assholes…a struggle of particular pertinence to the LGBTQ community by ugly necessity.
  • In some of my stories such as “Acres of Perhaps” and “Forever is Composed of Nows,” I needed a particular kind of outsider with a particular kind of perception who would have a particular kind of emotional experience, and a straight person just didn’t fit because they can take too much acceptance for granted.
  • Though I wasn’t particularly homophobic as a kid – I got teased for being “gay” even though I wasn’t – I probably wasn’t the kind of person any of my closeted friends would have come out to without me being weird(er) and awkward(er). I want to be more welcoming now.
  • Many of the people I deeply care about identify as queer, and some of my stories are gifts to them.

Q: What do you know about the queer experience?

A: Not enough, but then, I don’t know enough about anybody else’s experience, either. I try to be a good ally to my friends, and for some reason, I identify strongly with people who don’t always feel safe being themselves. I don’t need a cookie for that.

Q: That slowly moving cottage in “Remembrance is Something Like a House”…

A: Totally gay.

Oh, To Be So Certain Again

When I was a teenager who wanted to be loved by as many people as possible for being funny, I thought Rush Limbaugh had it all figured out.

Back then, I traveled a lot as an inventory auditor, and my conservative Republican boss listened to talk radio for the hours between the grocery stores we counted. He even once unzipped the Bible-sized satchel in which he kept his cellular telephone, clipped the antenna to the window, and dialed Rush’s call-in number so I could raise a point with him.

Of agreement, I’m sorry to say. And yes, I got through and made the point to the man himself.

What I envied most about Rush Limbaugh (other than getting paid to talk) was how he always had something to say on any subject. I hated being caught off guard with no opinion when asked, and it seemed amazing to me that Limbaugh always knew exactly what he thought and felt about everything.

If you asked Rush about the death penalty, he’d say, “Burn, baby, burn!”

If you asked me at seventeen about the death penalty, I’d say, “Well, who are we talking about here? How many people did the guy kill? Is he likely to do it again?”

In my youthful anxiety, that felt to me like confusion and indecision, so I set out to find my own rigid core of certainty just like Rush’s.

Exactly like Rush’s, in fact. I read my girlfriend’s father’s back issues of Reason and The Limbaugh Letter and the American Spectator (where I applied for an internship). I read Ayn Rand and P.J. O’Rourke, too, and I wrote lists and essays for myself explaining the complicated logic why people deserved the lives they’d gotten.

Yes, I even read The Art of the Deal.

For a while, I felt warm and secure with everything conveniently packaged for me, always having a canned opinion I could rely on.  

But the more I honestly assessed the real world and talked to the people who lived in it, the more twisting I had to do for the logic to work. Around 1997 (in my twenties) came a series of personal events that snapped the infinite folding for good when I was haunted by a simple question:

“If an idea requires this much rationalization and still feels icky, how can it possibly be right?”

That’s how it all fell down, helped by Babylon 5 and Star Trek and Eyes on the Prize and Langston Hughes. (It was a strange semester.)

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy and it doesn’t always feel great, but it shouldn’t feel…ugly. Or empty. Or stretched thin between far distant facts that we had to scrounge for on the fringe despite our own intuition.

Of all the flimsy rationalizations and blithe cruelties spouted by Rush Limbaugh, one of the most damaging is the idea that it’s possible and desirable to always be certain. We’re dealing now with the people he emboldened to think that doubt and exceptions are signs of weakness.

That’s mildly excusable in a seventeen-year-old desperate for something to hold onto. It’s embarrassing in adults who have seen and experienced more of the world.

If you’re mourning Rush tonight, I hope you’ll ask just how much of your heart is his and how much is yours.

Dropping In on an Old Friend in 1968

Hello, Norman? Can I chat with you a moment before you go back to class? If there’s any trouble, I’ll take care of it with your teacher or principal because I’m a white guy and it’s 1968.

You don’t know me yet, but my name is Will Ludwigsen. I’m a writer of the kinds of things you like to read – science fiction, fantasy, horror – and I wouldn’t probably be doing it if it wasn’t for you.

See, I’m from the year 2021 where the world is very strange, and I found this picture of you I’ve never seen before in the 1968 Fairhope Alabama school yearbook. You look hopeful and happy here, but I know from what you tell me when we’re friends in 1986 and onward that things take a turn soon, with other kids (and some adults) bullying you for being different.

Here’s what you need to know: they are horrible beast-people who are afraid of anyone smarter and browner and more imaginative than they are, which is almost everybody. It has nothing to do with you but with bad evolutionary software that makes them fear others outside their tribe, and they’re not fighting it hard enough because they suck.

No matter what, remember that.

What they want to do is terrify you into hiding who you are, making you flinch the rest of your life for liking monster movies and Star Trek and Dr. Demento, because you are alive in a way they will never be.

You can’t let them do that. You’ve got to get that degree in Physics or Computer Science that you want, and you’ve got to be the amazing person you are.

So here’s what I want you to do when the bullying starts. I want you to cock your head to the side and squint with one eye as will one day be your habit, and I want you to say this:

“Really, you’re gonna hit me? Like some kind of savage? Let me clue you in, cowboy: I’m a citizen of the future where people like you are on the run back to their caves, and when the bruises you give me are gone, you’ll still be a nobody forever and ever.”

They may still hit you, and I’d tell you to hit them back but I know it’s not in your nature.

What’s important most of all is that YOU remember those words because they’re true. These aren’t your people or your place. You ARE a citizen of the future, and we don’t take them with us. We leave them behind choking on greasy squirrel bones clogged in their lungs.

Uh, oh. Here comes the second bell.

One last thing: if you can find a doctor here or out of town who actually wears shoes and went to college, tell him or her that you have diabetes. That shit’s going to kill you.

Live long and prosper, my friend.

That One Time I Tried to Be Inspiring

Ten years ago(!), I graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and I was honored to give a speech on behalf of my fellow graduates in Popular Fiction. I tried to be inspiring about writing our kind of fiction, but nobody stormed the Maine statehouse, so I guess it was a failure.

I think a lot of it still applies. Here’s what I said:

You know, there are days when I seriously doubt my writing will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, chasing the dog around my yard with the Millenium Falcon yelling “pyew! pyew! pyew!” I lived so much in stories then — talking to stuffed animals, looking for hobbits in the woods — that I was barely distinguishable from schizophrenic.

Don’t worry – I’m better now. Thanks for asking.

I suspect — I hope — that’s how it was for many of us graduating this evening, and I’m sure there are people out there in the audience who shudder to remember the symptoms of our madness: all those plays, skits, puppet shows, poetry readings, magic performances, comedy routines, concerts, and oh-so-many long-winded stories.

Don’t forget to thank them tonight. Or, you know, apologize.

Whatever forms it took then and takes now, we’re all crazy. We hear voices just like any hobo yelling at a mailbox – the only difference is that we know you don’t start a scene with dialogue. Most of us have lost any hope of pleasant neighborhood barbecues because we talk too much about the seas of Titan or the Manson family or the birthing habits of dragons…or all at the same time. People worry about us, and I think that’s a sure sign we’re doing something right.

I came to Stonecoast, perhaps like you, to learn how to be intelligently and usefully crazy. For two years, our wonderful mentors have shown us how to hold madness in asbestos gloves just long enough to get it on the page. We’ve studied the masters. We’ve critiqued the work of our peers. We’ve filled our mental toolboxes with structure and meter and point of view. We’ve discovered that the best writing is risky and dangerous.

We’ve learned, in other words, how to do it “right.” And, God, how I needed that.

But the worst thing that could happen after Stonecoast, I think, is for us to let all the intelligence and usefulness we’ve learned to overcome the crazy. It would be terrible to lose all we’ve learned by trying to hold it too consciously, failing to trust that the voices of our teachers and our friends will come again when we need them.

Because that madness we share, that reckless abandon, is really our only hope of making something wondrous. It’s the fuel by which we get out of our minds —  risking our comfort, giving ourselves away, revealing the feelings that most people don’t. All that’s left is to decide whether we’ll get enough out of our minds to escape the gravity of ordinary life, and whether we’ll achieve enough lift to take others with us.

It’s easy to call what we do escapism, and I certainly don’t deny it. Stories of ghosts and spaceships helped me escape a harrowing youth to be sure, and I see all too many things worth escaping as an adult, too. I don’t think escapism is a bad thing, especially when we’re escaping the tedious patterns of existence, the prejudices that confine us, the fears that estrange us from ourselves.

Either people can be as noble and adventuresome and intelligent as they are in our fantasy stories, or they can’t. If they can, then our “escapist” fictions are the experimental conscience of our culture. If they can’t, then our “escapist” fictions are the last refuge of the human spirit from the coming darkness.

Either way, people are counting on our ability to escape. They’re counting on the demented and relentless verve we had when we told ourselves the stories as if nobody was looking. Art is never stopping short, and if it is worth doing at all — worth the dedication of our lives — it’s worth overdoing, right?

School’s out, my friends. Go play.