Monday, 6 October 2008

ATDT 1992

Imagine it's 1992, more or less. It's five AM, and it's a wet Canadian winter; it's pitch black outside, but a thirteen year old boy sits in a desk chair, not feeling the chill of the drafty house, mesmerized. Folders, sheafs and scraps are stacked monstrously high in a miniature cityscape; skyscrapers brush the bottom of the desk, tottering dangerously in the breeze from his unconsciously swinging legs, and the valuable real estate surrounding the chair has been parcelled off. There is a screen, glowing amber, and letters and glyphs stream across it at roughly reading speed.

This morning, like every morning, the boy made sure to silence the modem's squeals and squelches, and he dials out to dozens of other homes, trying them in rapid sequence until he finds one that doesn't ring busy, and the machines connect. Information! This is no library; this is raw, chaotic information. Libraries don't have sections for some of these topics. Opinion and fact mix, chemistry and politics and ad hominems swirling crazily from across the globe, and he swims in it, no more aware of time or the dusty-smelling room than he is of the colour of the letters on the screen. He's a curiousity junkie who's found a never-ending hit.

Even the games enthrall him: he is a space trader, surviving like a mouse that darts from hungry owls; he is a brute who fights magical creatures daily in the forest, looting their corpses for coins to pay healers and to buy tougher leather to protect him, sharper weapons to let him slaughter faster; he is a survivor in a fallout-stricken world, where desolate outposts of sanity wall themselves from expanses of radioactive wasteland populated by humans driven violently mad and by dangerous and unpredictable mutants.

Before this, he used to write programs for a computer that saved software with a tape deck onto cassettes, often transcribing line from line from books, but those games held nothing to vivid depictions of mothers gone insane, clutching rolling pins like clubs, of inns where a bard and a wench flirt, but not with each other, or of the creation of a new world in an empty solar system. How could making a car dodge other cars compare to the desperate hope that no pirates or ransackers would stumble across your new home planet, fertile and green? How could copying lines from books compare to recipes for pyrotechnics, descriptions of how to distill banana peels, and stories of secret government organizations?

But eventually he'd be startled as grey light brightened outside. He'd snap up, turn everything off in a hurry, and run to get dressed for school in a rainy world that somehow had less colour than those monochrome words.

(Two points to anyone who understands the post title. Yes, this is obviously a story about me, but I doubt first-person would've worked at all. No, I don't think it's all that good, but I do need to write more to get back into the swing of it.)


Chris said...

I had a feeling I knew what the title referred to, though not the actual acronym, but Google answered that. "ATtention Dial Tone (MODEM)" yes?

The thing is, you got your math wrong. You were 10 and then 11 in 1992, not thirteen. By the time you were thirteen, I believe you had moved from using the 386 in the basement office to the computer you bought (also a 386?) on the round white table in the living room upstairs.

ToTheFront said...

Yup, ATDT means attention (hey, modem, I'm talking to YOU!) and then dial this using tone-based dialing (faster than pulse).

Yeah, I got the age wrong (I meant to figure dates out properly then correct them, but I'm not 100% when I got that 386, nor when I started using the downstairs computer(s) on a daily basis - do you happen to recall?). The ones downstairs were a 286 then later a 386, were they not? I don't recall if there was an XT in the lot. I do remember that damned 1200 baud (2400 bps, 2-bit-per-baud) modem, which when it broke got replaced with another damned 1200/2400. People had 14.4s, then fancy 56k externals from US Robotics, and we were still reading as fast as the modem could get text over.