Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

We’ll take it

Posted by Trixter on July 10, 2016

I am the father of an autistic son, Sam.  One of the challenges of helping an autistic person get through life is the unknown:  How functional will they be?  Will they be able to communicate?  Will they be able to socialize?  Will they be able to live independently once my wife and I are gone?  A few times in our lives, we’ve gotten some answers to these questions.  Even if the answer has been negative, it still feels like a great weight has been lifted — not knowing is always worse than bad news, so we’ll take bad news over no news.

Every 5 years or so, we get some good news.  I’d like to share some examples with you.

When Sam was 20 months old, he started talking.  Two months later, he started losing his words, until he spoke “cat” on his 2nd birthday and then stopped talking completely.  By age 4, he started performing echolalia.  (This is something all children do when learning a language, but for an autistic child, it is usually the harbinger of bad news, a sign that the child is going to be low-functioning and unable to communicate effectively — think “Rain Man” repeating the station call ID.)  Six months later, Sam was repeating dialog on a Spot program playing in the basement:  “Where’s Spot?  Where’s Spot?  Where’s Spot?”.  My wife Melissa was in the kitchen when she heard, “Where’s Spot?  Where’s… Mom?”  Then again, urgently:  “Where’s Mom?”  Melissa flew downstairs and found Sam looking directly at her, and motioned for her to do something.  That one-word change signaled the beginning of Sam learning functional communication.

When Sam was nearly 9, he and his little brother Max were riding in the back seat while we ran some errands.  For a treat, we decided to run through a Dunkin Donuts drive-through to get some donuts, and we made a mistake while ordering and got a dozen instead of half a dozen.  When Sam saw the large box come into the car, he turned to his brother and said, “Max, we’re rich!  RICH IN DONUTS!”

Sam is currently 19 years old.  Tonight, my wife and I were watching a show in the basement when Sam called down the stairs to ask if we had gotten him some cream soda, something he mentioned to me before I went shopping.  I’d forgotten to get some, but as I apologized, I had the idea to turn this into a life skills exercise:  I told him that maybe we could walk down to Casey’s together, a local grocery store located about a 15-minute walk away with some other stores, like a drugstore, barber shop, Trader Joe’s, etc.  We could practice navigating there, going through a store, making choices, and paying for our order.  I told him we could practice that two days from now, my next opportunity to get home from work early and go over everything with him.  He agreed, and left us to our show.  45 minutes later, as our show was ending, he called down the stairs again:  “Casey’s was closed, so I went to Trader Joe’s instead.”

Being impulsive, he bought only snacks.  But we’ll take it.

Posted in Family, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Journey’s End

Posted by Trixter on April 21, 2013

I was part of the first wave of people tackling the gigantic task of preserving personal computing gaming history in the early 1990s.  (I suppose pirating software in the 1980s counts too, but scanning materials and interviewing people began, for me, in the 1990s.)  Without connecting to others or knowing what was out there, I started to hoard software and hardware where financially possible and appropriate.  I collected software I considered hidden gems, that should be given their due in some public forum before being forgotten.  I grabbed many Tandy 1000s and other early PCs to ensure various works could be run and studied.  I was an original member of the abandonware movement.  I wrote articles on how to get old software running on modern machines, and contributed to software that did the same.  I co-founded the world’s largest gaming database so that information about these works could be consumed and researched by millions.

I did this all before Y2K.  When you’re the only guy shouting in a crowd, you tend to look the lunatic, and that’s pretty much how most of my friends and family saw me.

Look around the preservation landscape today and much of what I was working towards for years has come to pass.  There are many vintage hardware and software museums, both physical and virtual, including some dedicated to gaming.  There are some wonderful emulators that get closer and closer to the real thing each year.  There are even some curated collections online.  (There are many more curated collections offline, orders of magnitude larger than what is online, but in a decade or so I believe these will move online as well.)  Most importantly, there are established communities that support these efforts.  All in all, I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out.

Looking around all of my possessions inside my home, I see the fallout of what I was trying to accomplish many years ago.  I see no less than five PCjrs, three identical Tandy 1000s, three identical IBM PC 5150s, and multiples of Macs, Apples, C64s, and Amigas.  I see crates and bookshelves and closets filled with hardware and software.  I see clutter where there should be a nice desk for displaying a computer in a respectful way, or an easy chair for reading or watching TV.  It’s too much.  It’s time to let most of it go, and focus like a laser on the things that are the most important.  I will be disseminating most of my collection, both software and hardware, in the following year.

What I will continue to do, however, is archive and preserve software, as there is still a ton of IBM PC software from the 1980s that has not yet been released into the wild.  I am also committed to creating the “sound card museum” project I keep threatening to do.  To those ends, I will retain a few systems that will allow me to achieve both of those goals.

So, I’ll still keep buying and collecting vintage software — the difference is, I won’t retain the software after preserving it.  Consider me a vintage personal computing clearing house.

Posted in Family, Gaming, Home Ownership, Lifehacks, MobyGames, Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | Tagged: , , | 11 Comments »

Sleeping in a Mall

Posted by Trixter on December 12, 2012

Just now, watching some 80’s music videos, it dawned on me that today — the second Wednesday of December — is the 25th anniversary of the time I slept overnight in a shopping mall.  I keep meaning to write about that night, but keep losing interest… but today being the 25th anniversary of that night is too much of a coincidence to pass up, so here goes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Family, Sociology | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Living with autism

Posted by Trixter on November 28, 2012

Sam, my eldest son, is autistic.  We are fortunate that he is high-functioning, but it is something that the entire family will deal with for the rest of our lives as we try to find a pocket of the world for him.

When people ask me what autism is like, my one-shot answer used to be, “Ever seen Rain Man?  It’s kind-of like that, but without a 25 million-dollar budget.”  After last night, however, I have a new answer:  Living with an autistic child or sibling is damn near exactly as portrayed in The Black Balloon, a movie written and directed by a filmmaker who grew up with two autistic brothers.  The movie is full of insights and situations that come from that real place, such as what meltdowns are and what prompts them, reward systems, and how society reacts to something it doesn’t understand.

I highly recommend The Black Balloon if you want a quick introduction to what families with autism go through.  Although it can be hard to watch at times for those already familiar with autism, I recommend they watch it as well, because it reminds you how you’re not alone, and that life on all spectrum levels can be fulfilling.  The Black Balloon is available for Instant Play streaming on Netflix and on ShowboxA trailer for it is on YouTube.

A few times a year, I hear this from people learning for the first time about some of the difficulties our family has been through: “How brave!  Where do you find the strength?  How do you do it?”  The answer should be obvious — because we have to!  Spoken with a smile and a laugh, of course.  And that is the feeling perfectly portrayed in The Black Balloon.

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A Quick Vignette

Posted by Trixter on September 16, 2012

My 12-yr-old recently wanted to purchase something truly stupid, expensive, and transitory with his hard-earned money, and rather than try to convince him otherwise, I went ahead and let him.  Being disappointed with a purchase is something I would rather he learn sooner than later, so he can start making good decisions quicker.

I was not as lucky.  I bought some real crap in my time (the name Emerson should strike fear into everyone’s heart) and while it taught me to stop buying cheap crap (stuff that broke, stuff that was disappointing, etc.), it took longer than it should have.  My most cringe-inducing purchase was a Miami vice-like outfit the summer before high school (this is summer of 1985 for those wishing stage public humiliation — it’s okay, I don’t mind).  I put it on and walked nearly 2 miles to a party some girl I thought I had a crush on was throwing.  I thought I was going to be hot shit, but as I approached the outdoor party, everyone laughed at the Miami vice thing since it was cheezy (and I was in Illinois, not California).  Seriously, I had not even reached the front door when I’d gotten my third uncomfortable comment… so I kept walking, never stopped, turned the corner and came home, another 2 miles.  My grandmother was house-sitting at the time, and she saw me come in the front door less than an hour after I’d left, and wisely didn’t say anything.  I took off the outfit, hung it up, and never wore it again.

I should have thrown it away immediately.  It might still be in the closet in the house I grew up in.

Posted in Family, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

If you’re gonna screw up, do it while you’re young

Posted by Trixter on December 28, 2010

I’ve been quiet for a while due to dealing with changes in my professional life.  I normally don’t talk about work in my personal blog because I don’t want to misrepresent my current or former employers — when you have a family to support, you don’t shit where you eat.  But I owe a lot of people an explanation as to where I’ve been for roughly 18 months, so I’ll summarize:  I took a job in the trading industry, and while it had some awesome positives, it was the wrong environment for me and I was very unhappy there. The last four months in particular had me so depressed that I broke through the “eat to fill the pain” stage to the “stopped eating entirely” stage and started losing weight and sleep.  I started to doubt myself and my abilities, worrying that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living for much longer. After an ultimatum at work, I put myself on the market and 5 weeks later I accepted a positon in a large commercial industry. And I’m a lot happier — not because of leaving the trading job, but because I was able to recognize a bad fit, was willing to crawl out of my emotional hole, and rebooted my situation.  (The Winston Groom quote seemed appropriate, hence the title of this post.)

I also got a spiffy new Samsung Galaxy S variant (Epic 4G) which has data access no matter where I am (2g/3g/4g/wifi) and has a slide-out keyboard and other bells and whistles, so I have no excuse not to update the blog once in a while, even from a moving commuter train.  Which, guess what, I’m doing right now!

Posted in Family, Lifehacks | 7 Comments »

A box of nostalgia

Posted by Trixter on April 21, 2010

When I was three years old, my parents moved to the house they would spend the next 36 years in, which was not coincidentally the house I spent my youth and teen years in (minus a stint in New Jersey from age 6 to 11).  For almost two decades I have not lived in that house, but during a recent visit I was told I still had a box of stuff to take away.  It took a few minutes, but I found this mythical box of memories and took it home.

For those who are curious what a slice of the mid 1980s looks like, this box of my crap contained, in no particular order:

  • A Rolf muppet doll that I got for Christmas 1978
  • A folder of my entire 8th grade English assignments (Steve Littel, for those who attended Washburne Junior High and are keeping score), some handwritten in cursive and some typed on a typewriter, but most  printed in 9-pin dot matrix.  The standout?  An analysis of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun”, critiquing how Mama both was and was not a constructive influence on the family.  I was thirteen.  (I only got a 78% on that paper, but it begs the question:  Is it better to get straight “A”s in a normal English class, or mediocre grades in an advanced class?)
  • Three Bloom County anthology books
  • My eight-grade Washburne Junior High yearbook of 1985, complete with lots of signed notes for me to “keep practicing my nerd powers” and “keep on breaking” (breakdancing).
  • The supplement “10 Starter Programs from Family Computing” by Joey Latimer.  (I learned about a decade ago that nearly every single BASIC program ever to appear in Family Computing was written by Latimer — and that his primary hobby was music, not programming.)  All programs were written in Applesoft BASIC with additional pages translating them to the built-in BASICs for Atari, C64 and VIC-20, TI 99/4a, Timex Sinclair 1000, and TRS-80.  I guess IBM owners were out of luck.
  • An Atari 2600 Star Raiders cartridge
  • Mattel Electronics Basketball (with missing battery cover, of course)
  • King’s Quest II hint book, with every single “invisiclue” answer visible.  The fun part?  I only uncovered a few answers back then.  So I guess we know what happens to invisiclues if you never make them visible:  They fade to visibility after a few decades.

The only downside to this onrush of nostalgia is that I have Paul McCartney’s “Spies Like Us” song running around in my head, as it was one memory dredged up during the process.  Spies Like Us is not only the worst song McCartney has ever written or performed, it is probably the worst song of 1986.  And that was a year that graced us with Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time”, Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town”, and Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All The Way”.

Once I get something stuck in my head, it can last for a few days or a few weeks.  Heaven help me if I get Lady Gaga stuck in my head again; I was fighting the urge to dive for a gun after only a few minutes.  Imagine three weeks of that shit.

Posted in Entertainment, Family, Vintage Computing | 7 Comments »

Hello Again Everybody

Posted by Trixter on November 15, 2009

Exactly one year ago, I attempted to change my entire life to get ready for my 20th-year New Trier Class of ’89 high school reunion.  Brought on by conflicting emotions of wanting to be accepted and faint memories of truly good times, my head was swimming in thoughts like:

“I’m at a good place in my life right now, so I wouldn’t feel ashamed to attend.”

“Some of my old friends will be there, and it will be great to catch up.”

“Hey, I still have all my hair and none of it is gray; maybe if I lose a few pounds I can look closer to how people remember me.”

I can already sense what you’re thinking, and you’re right, but I went ahead with the plan anyway.  I joined Weight Watchers, and worked up the courage to look for a new job that would advance my career while being rewarding at the same time.  Lost 30 pounds.  Got the new job.  Mission accomplished.  Well, the reunion is right around the corner — and I will not be attending.  Why?

While I have some genuinely fond memories of both high school and the friends I met there, it became increasingly clear towards the end (this is the obvious part) that, 20 years later, I was still chasing feelings of inadequacy.  New Trier was (and might still be) one of the most competitive public schools in America, with more than 80% of students scoring well above the national average during the time I went there.   (The top 1/4th of my class had a weighted GPA of 3.9, and the top 1/10th had a weighted GPA of 4.6 which sounds impossible until you realize their entire coursework consisted of AP classes.)  It was one of the largest suburban public schools of the time, with a total student population of nearly 3800 when I attended.  My graduating class was over 800 students, nearly all of them grossly better than I was in almost every area of academia.  And in my head, then and now, I was trying to be accepted by everyone I personally knew, usually failing at the same time.  That’s not healthy.

I asked friends for advice on whether or not I should attend, and got good advice.  When asking ‘shouldn’t I go to catch up with old friends, etc.?’ the responses were along the lines of “Isn’t that what facebook is for?” or “You knew them for four years, then didn’t talk to them for twenty; why do you want to go again?” or “My reunion consisted of all the jocks and cheerleaders hanging out with each other while a few people sat alone at tables — just like high school!!”, etc.  The most humbling reply was from a friend who lives within driving distance:  “You don’t need a reunion to catch up with me; stop by any time.”

They’re all correct.  You can never go back, and in my case, I shouldn’t want to go back.  Still, in my head, it stings.

Many of my fellow classmates have gone in enviable directions.  Without naming names(*):

  • Our class valedictorian (and a friend of mine) went to Harvard and then scored in the financial industry in the 1990s
  • My first girlfriend became a Rhodes scholar and got her doctorate in a literary field and now lives in the UK
  • One friend who was always a better programmer than me leapfrogged me entirely by becoming an electrical engineer who also did low-level interfaces for embedded systems (some medical, I believe)
  • Another friend got her masters in environmental engineering and is now a director at a California water company, championing water quality
  • One of my oldest friends (even before we attended high school) entered one of the most selfless professions and became an educator (say what you want, that takes dedication and cajones)
  • My senior prom date got her doctorate in a musical field and has composed and performed music heard by hundreds of thousands people
  • One ludicrously talented composer and performer made the leap to Hollywood and married a brilliant mathematician (and actress)

…and the list goes on.  Compared to them, I could feel like a failure.

But I’ve done well too, in my own way.  There is a dumb yet succinct saying that goes “The only person who can make you angry is you.”  It took me a long time to realize that applies to how you feel good about yourself as well.  So here’s where I bring the reunion to me, and tell any fellow Trevians who happen to catch this blog post how I’ve been doing:

So that’s me since high school in a nutshell.  Nice to see you again.

In honor of the positive times I had at New Trier, I’ve done two things.  First, I’ve uploaded some photos of me during that time with friends to facebook, and I’ve tried to tag them where possible.  (They should be viewable even if you don’t have a facebook account.)  Secondly, and of substantially more interest to my typical nerdly blog readers, I’ve made available a transcription of the New Trier High School Fight Song played at every home game — as rendered by Music Construction Set running on a Tandy 1000 in loving 3-voice dampened square waves.  Seriously.

Hey, I’ve still got my hair.  That’s gotta count for something.

Jim, seperated by 20 years

Jim and Jim^2, separated by 20 years

Whoa — is it me, or did it just get fatter in here?

(*) Names available upon request

Posted in Family, Lifehacks, Sociology, Uncategorized | 15 Comments »

Nikki and me

Posted by Trixter on April 1, 2009

In 1994, when I was 23, Melissa and I adopted a kitten from a stray that someone from work had taken in, and named her Nikki.  She was more neurotic than playful, more stupid than smart, more heavy than svelte.  Her fur was dull, with a dander problem.  Once she was no longer a kitten, she didn’t like being held or scratched for very long.

She turned into a crotchety old woman in about two years.  She now wanted scratching, but only on the sides of her face — and if you weren’t doing it right, she’d bite you as a reminder of the proper technique.  She complained every time you brushed her, making her the only cat I have ever encountered that doesn’t enjoy being brushed.  She no longer purred, even when given a favorite food or scratched in an acceptable manner.

No matter the outcome, time heals all wounds.  It took the both of us about a decade before we had each other figured out.  Some examples from the last six years:

  • At night, I would sit down at the computer, and she’d bug me to scratch the sides of her face (complete with impatient biting).  Sometimes she’d stand on her two hind legs just to reach something to bite.  Then she’d lay back down, either at my feet or under the nearby table.  Clockwork.
  • I could call her name; like a dog, she would come from anywhere in the basement.  (She preferred to live in the basement, even though she had full run of the house.)
  • When guests visited, she was abnormally affectionate and purred loudly.  To mock me, I suppose.
  • When I tried to record video of anything, she made sure to get a word in edgewise to ruin the shot.  You can hear her at the end of the 8088 Corruption google video, for example.
  • When I got up and left the computer room, she pretended not to notice.  Yet whenever I returned, she’d be at the doorway.
  • When we developed a mouse problem one year, she left me mice under my chair until I got the hint that the mounting corpses were not an isolated event.
  • Amazingly, she learned to teleport.  At least, I think she did, because whenever I sat down to watch some TV, she would somehow appear next to me on the couch without me noticing how she got there.

I also found out that if I held her very tightly, as in preventing-her-from-escaping tightly, she would actually enjoy it, settle down, and start purring.  This, after 13-odd years of not purring.  Crazy.  The world’s first autistic cat.

A few months ago, we noticed that the common pet water bottle in the kitchen was getting emptied at nearly double the rate it had the previous year.  We discovered we had a raccoon problem (let that be a warning to those of you with pet doors), and we took care of it… but the water usage continued to be high.  It turned out to be Nikki, who was escaping the comfort of the basement to get additional water when hers ran out.  We then found her pooping outside of her litter box.  Then the pooping slowed to one movement a week, while the wayward urination grew to such volume that it saturated her litter box every day.  I didn’t want to admit it, but recognized this as chronic renal failure.  We’d been through CRF with a previous pet.  CRF is terminal.

Two days ago, I made the heart-wrenching decision to put Nikki to sleep.  My decision was made to spare her the later stages of CRF, which include severe pain, wasting, uncontrollable vomiting, and convulsions, all of which can last for weeks before death.  I wanted her to leave this world in comfort, with dignity.  I spent last night with her doing whatever she wanted to do, which was mostly laying on me and watching TV.  (I am fortunate she enjoyed watching UFC and Adult Swim as much as I do, so we didn’t have to fight over the remote.)  I dragged a string around the floor, which she chased, even at her age.  I let her eat some of my cereal.  She took a nap while I read a book.

We said goodbye this morning.  I had to pull over driving back.

She was 15 years old.  She witnessed my marriage to Melissa, then the birth of my two children.  She was that unique type of cat who acts more like a dog than a cat, as she was somehow always in the same room you were in.  In fact, I think that’s why she preferred to stay in the basement:  Not to avoid the dog, but to be around someone with consistent patterns (me).

Most owners would prefer that their cats not bite their fingers.  I am already missing it.

Nikki in 1994

Nikki in 1994

Nikki in 2009

Nikki in 2009

Posted in Family | 51 Comments »

Yes, Virginia, things will work out fine

Posted by Trixter on January 28, 2009

Our 12-yr-old son Sam is autistic, as I have written before.  While we are thankful he is somewhat high-functioning, it is a constant battle.  From (re)enforcing proper hygiene, to worrying about his future, even weathering the occasional act of violence, life with Sam is a constant adjustment, filled with stress.  Recently he has developed a verbal tic, a soft “hmm” that repeats once every two breaths on the exhale.  Since this is involuntary, and since increased involuntary tics can be the result of incorrect medication dosage or the sign of wonderful new symptoms to look forward to, this is usually cause for concern, and more worry.

But we’re not worried.  At least, not by this in the short term.  Why?

Melissa and I were talking about this new development tonight, and we usually discuss anything around Sam because 99.997% of the time he’s in his own world and not paying attention.  Melissa asked me, “Do you think we should bring this up to his doctor?”  To our utter shock, Sam replied out of nowhere with “It’s my autism, guys.  I just can’t help it.”

Sometimes you get what you need right when you need it.

As I type this, Sam is heartily laughing at the same 10 seconds of a Spongebob Squarepants episode he is replaying over and over.  I can’t help but laugh along with him.

Posted in Family | 1 Comment »