Happy 30th birthday, PC era

I may be a hardcore Apple fanatic now (and, well, for about the last 20 years), but back in the ’80s, I lived in the “IBM-compatible” world, as it was called back then, in the days before Microsoft Windows.

IBM-compatible, of course, meant a computer with the same basic architecture, and capable of running the same software, as the (literally) definitive Personal Computer — PC — IBM introduced on this date in 1981. I have so many vivid memories of the ’80s IBM PC experience that I’m at a loss where even to begin to discuss them. So many games. Such terrible graphics.

I never actually owned the IBM PC, the model 5150 (not to be confused with this), myself, but my uncle did. It was always a treat in the early ’80s when we’d visit him and he’d let me go into the spare bedroom where he kept his PC. He was the first person I knew who owned a computer. It was dazzlingly futuristic, and I eventually learned some rudimentary command line skills — just enough MS-DOS to get myself into BASIC, where I loved to write stupid, pointless little programs.

Eventually, in 1987, I got my own PC-compatible computer, the Tandy 1000 EX that I’ve mentioned here before. The Tandy 1000 was an odd beast. It boasted a better graphics card than the average PC, allowing it to display a whopping 16 colors instead of the usual 4, but in almost every other way it was already hopelessly outdated at the time of its release. It was never able to run even version 1.0 of Windows, so we got Tandy’s feeble semi-GUI, DeskMate, instead. But I still thought it was cool.

It all began with the IBM 5150 PC, though. Without that, Apple might have become the world’s largest (technology) company 25 years earlier. But in the end it all worked out OK. The iPhone 4 I carry around in my pocket now is (approximately) a kazillion times more powerful than the 13-pound metal box IBM gave us 30 years ago today.

Still, I have fond memories of so many games I played on that old Tandy 1000 back in the late ’80s. Here’s a list of some of my favorites.

I brought my Tandy 1000 EX to college with me in the fall of 1992, but the campus computer labs were dominated by Macs (except for a couple of the high-tech labs in the physics building that were full of NeXT cubes), and it wasn’t long before I was a convert. I bought my first Mac — an LC 475 — at the college computer store in the spring of 1994 and I haven’t looked back. Except when I have. That Tandy 1000 EX is long gone but my love of those old games I played in junior high and high school lives on.

Pastarama

The FuturamaIn honor of the pending release of the first of four new feature-length Futurama DVDs, Wired magazine has an extensive feature about the past and, erm, future of the show. But it also has a feature on the original “Futurama” of the 1939 World’s Fair.

I’ve read a bit about the 1939 World’s Fair, about the eager anticipation of emerging from the Great Depression into a brighter and better “World of Tomorrow” (circa 1960), laughably naive from today’s perspective. But until now I’d never actually seen the film of the Futurama exhibit, with its swelling, dramatic score and overwrought narration. In some ways it felt like I was back in high school, watching the long-outdated science films our district had elected not to replace, devoting the precious funds instead (and to little avail) to our perpetually mediocre sports teams. But my response was deeper, and more disturbed.

It’s true that in many ways they got things right, though it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy: the “world of tomorrow” is dominated by controlled-access superhighways teeming with (free-flowing) traffic. It’s easy now to forget that back then, freeways didn’t exist. The idea that they would relieve congestion is laughable (or lamentable) however, especially considering that they also envisioned a megalopolis where residential, commercial, and industrial districts (I feel like I’m playing SimCity) are separated, for “greater efficiency and convenience.” (Ha! Good one, GM!) The current trend of revitalization (and gentrification) of depressed and/or abandoned inner-city industrial areas as mixed-use residential/commercial developments (such as the “North Loop” neighborhood of lofts and coffee houses comprised of converted warehouses and new-construction-designed-to-look-like-old-converted-warehouses here in Minneapolis) would suggest we’ve learned the error of that particular vision. And yet, the ominous portent of elimination of “undesirable slum areas” in the relentless march forward remains. (Just ask the former residents of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects… wherever they’ve been dispersed to today. It’s not that slums — and the side effects of concentrated marginalization of the economic and/or ethnic “Other” — are a good thing, it’s just that you can’t simply displace all of those people and expect their problems to magically vanish.)

On a lighter note, the enthusiastic prediction of a floating dirigible hangar in the city’s river brings some comic relief to an otherwise suffocating, earnest yet ultimately soulless and hollow, view of a future of “penetrating new horizons in the spirit of individual enterprise in the great American way.” For some, anyway. Women and slum dwellers need not apply. Freudians welcome.