Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer – Part 2

The computer I’d purchased a few months before became a puzzle to me. When that happened it became an irresistible source of fascination. I’m like that about solving problems. It’s my sort of OCD.

The next time I went to The Wiz to look other games for the kids that would work I decided to hang out and eavesdrop on the conversations between the sales persons and the customers, figuring I might learn something. Whether anyone knew what he or she was talking about was immaterial at that point. If they knew anything about computers they knew more than I did.

At work, when there was a chance, I picked the brains of everyone who owned a personal computer. They told me I needed to defragment my hard drive from time to time and that there was a program in DOS for doing that. Who knew that was important? Also I learned about how HIMEM.SYS, the magical file that loaded at the DOS level during the boot process, would allow Windows to load into upper memory. You see, it was a kind of shell game, actually. Everything had to fit into DOS memory for the computer to be happy, but Windows needed far more than the 640 kBs of room allocated. HIMEM.SYS performed a trick loading a 10 kB flag into DOS memory to redirect Windows into upper memory where it could find enough room but in the profess DOS believed all of it fit neatly into DOS memory. Nice trick.

Around that time was also the first occasion I heard the infamous quote attributed to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, that he could not conceive of anyone every needing more than 512 kb of memory. Some of that philosophy was related to the laws of the legacy architecture of the first IBM PC.

Yes, it sounds silly, doesn’t it? But that was exactly what was going on. Beneath which shell is the pea hiding? Later on, as Microsoft persisted in their attempts to make a better operating system, this little trick resulted in what became termed a memory leak that necessitated periodic rebooting of the operating system to clear out the flags resident in DOS memory.

There were problems with DOS memory beyond how Windows loaded, though. Because of HIMEM.SYS, loading a DOS game from Windows didn’t work. The program could not access the sound card, for example. So, with games like the Disney one my daughter wanted to use I needed to exit to DOS and load the game there. However, the reason he game was telling me I didn’t have enough memory was because I had to boot up the computer into DOS from the start.

My friends explained that playing with the order of execution of all those strange 8.3 files names that displayed on the screen while booting up in DOS could remedy the problem with my daughter DOS game.

As 1994 wore on, started buying copies of PC Magazine and other publications in more effort to learn everything there is to know about PCs. Also, my wife at the time invited her Korean friend and her American ex-GI husband over to dinner. He was reportedly a computer guru of some kind. If he knew anything at all about DOS he knew more than I did.

He helped me edit the order of execution in AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS and the result gave my daughters game enough memory to play properly. He resolved several other mysteries about how everything worked together as far as the computer was concerned. He invited me to attend a computer fair with him the first weekend of the upcoming month. It was held at a nearby hotel. He promised that I would learn more than I could ever want to know about computer if I went there, watched and learned.

Often since, I’ve wondered if that was the real beginning of my quest for more knowledge, that if I had not gone to the computer fair would I have continued to pursue learning everything I eventually would about computers? I might have found the answers to all my questions in a different way. But the fact was that going there excited me to learn more about building PC’s. That became one of my objectives, actually building my own system from component parts. Still, I knew I had a long way to go before being at that level of skill or understanding.

Also, it was while I was at the show I first learned or other operating systems besides Windows 3.1. There was Windows NT 3.51, OS/2 Warp 3.0 and I heard some talk about a rumored revolutionary new version of Windows that was to-be-released sometime in 1995.

Most of my free time I was converting pages of text into digital files. The scanner worked, sort of. The OCR program was not very accurate, so I ended up editing the ext. So I wants sure how much time it was actually saving me. Eventually I ended up manually transcribing the pages, typing them into a digital format because, in doing so, I could revise what I’d written years ago. I very long and involved process of converting thousands of pages of notes, stores and journals began that would take the next three years or weekends and some vacations.

As the document files grew I noticed how slow my computer really was. Repaginating changes to existing large document files took seconds to complete. So I ended up creating multiple documents, one for each chapter, in an effort to minimize the lag when the document needed to update with any changes I made. Still, it was considerably faster to editing things on the computer than it was to retype a page or cut and paste thing together using scissors and tape. I could already see the potential benefit of a computer for creating a book.

In the next installment, I go from knowing enough about computers to be dangerous to actually learning to build one from scratch, the essential step to becoming a computer technician.

#nostalgic #computers #PC’s #DOS #Windows #computertech

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