23 Years with the Mac

Today, the Macintosh turns thirty. I’ve been a user for 23 of those years.

I can’t say that the Mac was my first computer or that it made it possible for me to be a writer. My very first novel and a whole slew of (terrible) poems and short stories were written on a venerable old Atari 800XL computer (later upgraded to the Atari 130XE). It was typical of the personal computers of the day — user-unfriendly, unintuitive, complicated, and limited.

But it got me through high school and my first couple of years of college. I began a second novel on it, got stalled, started a third.

And then the Atari1 went to that great scrap-heap in the sky, sometime very early in my junior year at Yale. Still needing to crank out papers, I hied me to the Calhoun College computer lab, located conveniently in the ‘houn’s attic, which lacked any sort of ventilation. It was like a sweat lodge up there, and it’s a friggin’ miracle that the computers worked at all, given the heat and humidity.

This would be in — I’m guessing — early 1991. Yale was a Mac campus and its computer labs reflected this. I had no idea what I was getting into, having never used a Mac before. Fortunately, there were printed instructions posted in the lab.

I say “fortunately,” but they were hardly necessary. The Mac’s legendary ease-of-use reputation was well-earned.

I sat down at one of these:

(courtesy Vectronics Apple World – vectronicsappleworld.com)

The Macintosh SE! Oh, man — my eyes were opened. I was just pounding out a quick little three-page paper for a class, but it was like a whole new world to me. I knew, then and there, that I would not suffer the Calhoun attic for this little slice of heaven. Oh, no — I had to have one of my own.

And I did. In short order, I cashed in some savings bonds my grandmother had given me years ago and made the trek to the campus computer store. And I bought a student bundle that included this:

(courtesy Vectronics Apple World – vectronicsappleworld.com)

My Mac Classic also came with the MacWrite II word processing program and a StyleWriter printer.2 One of my first actions as a Mac owner, I’m ashamed to say, was to pirate a copy of Microsoft Word from a friend.3

I became obsessed with my new machine. I did my schoolwork, yeah, but I also leapt head-first into new stories, poems, and a novel. Now I had fonts! I could use bold and italics and underlining without having to insert memorized codes! I could adjust margins on-the-fly! And I could design flyers and even a t-shirt for the college intramural team. With ease.

I didn’t realize it, but I was spending every free moment with that Mac, figuring out its guts, learning how it worked. I would dash up to the lab in the attic with a stack of floppy disks and use the college internet connection (we didn’t have them in the rooms yet) to log onto the University of Michigan’s Mac shareware archive. I’d fill up disks with cool programs, then go downstairs to try them out. I ran up and down those stairs so many times that it became a joke amongst my suitemates how much time I was spending with the Mac…and how many calories I was burning.

I haven’t looked back since. I’ve gone through that Classic to a Performa 450 (remember the Performas?), then a Performa 460, a UMAX clone (remember the clones?), a G4 tower, an iBook, and two different iMacs (including the one I’m typing this on). With the exception of a few years when I worked in an office, I’ve never used anything but a Mac. And since that ancient Atari computer, I’ve never owned anything but a Mac.

I wish I could say that the Mac empowered me to write…but it didn’t. I was writing long before I ever touched my first Jobs-blessed mouse. I can say, though, that the Mac made writing less of a chore for me. It made it easier to push the mechanics of the process out of the way and move on to the actual work at hand.

We probably take that for granted today, given the incredible ease-of-use, power, and ubiquity of computers. Especially if you were born any time after the introduction of the Mac — in that case, you’ve never lived in a world where you had to confront a command line or memorize formatting codes and cross your fingers that the output would match what you had in your mind. Lucky you.

But it’s probably appropriate for all of us to take just a few seconds today to be grateful that we don’t live in that world any more.

Just a few seconds.

Because then, really, we should all get back to work.

  1. More accurately, its disk drive, without which the thing was useless.
  2. After years of crummy dot-matrix printing on the Atari, that StyleWriter was mind-blowing!
  3. I was so new to computers and so clueless that it didn’t even occur to me that I was stealing anything. My friend offered and I figured “Why not?” I still feel pretty bad about it.

Getting into Yale

The other day, I received an e-mail saying, in part:

i wanted to know how you got into yale. what classes did you take in high school? i know i am only 12, but i still want to know. thanks for your time!

First of all, I love that at 12, she’s already thinking about college and focusing on Yale. [Read more…]

Yeah, I Kinda Figured This…

The idea that the Dark Knight attended my alma mater somehow doesn’t surprise me. A lot of the buildings (especially on Old Campus) look sorta Wayne Manor-y…


YAM on Batman

Alex and Robots

Alex and Robots

Alex says: "Not finished yet, but close. Superhero? Not quite, but working on it. I have sensors on my skin that track the electrical activity in my muscles. The sensors cause the exoskeleton to move with my body."

Oh, the people you meet at Yale!

My college roommate takes one step closer to kicking Iron Man’s pansy ass.

Alex Sulkowski: Mad Scientist or Disturbed Genius?

Here’s the thing about going to Yale: people always say to you, “Wow, you went to Yale. You must be some kind of a genius or something.”

Well, no, sorry, I’m not a genius. I may not even be a something. But the absolute coolest thing about going to Yale was this: I got to meet geniuses. Bonafide off-the-wall, brains-coming-out-of-their-ears geniuses. I got to hang out with them, bask in the glory of their unfettered intellects, and generally enjoy the sensation of pure awe.

One of those geniuses was a guy named Alex Sulkowski. Alex was one of my roommates for my senior year and a good friend my entire time at Yale. He’s also the most brilliant person I’ve ever known. He used to build remote-controlled tanks with video cameras and mounted water guns, then sit in our room and control the things through the TV, driving around campus and drenching people with the automated water gun. He built a robot with bulletproof skin that could detect when it had hit an obstacle and reverse direction. All kinds of cool stuff.

The best part about it? Alex isn’t even an engineer or a roboticist by trade. This is the stuff he does for fun.

Last year, Alex won a contest for designing a mechanized exoskeleton. He’s entered a new competition this year and sent me some pictures of his work-in-progress. It was so cool that I just had to share it with the world.