After I graduated from high school, I went to college like many of my classmates. I decided to go to the University of Alabama in Huntsville because I could afford it and it was as far from home as I could get in the state of Alabama. It probably wasn’t my best decision. UAH was a satellite school and served mainly locals, both my age and lots of adults. There was only one on-campus housing building; most students lived off-campus. I had three roommates and a tiny space and I was severely not ready. I’m still not the most social person, but I’m a butterfly compared to myself back then. I ended up holing up and skipping most of my classes.
Then I discovered the computer lab. It was within walking distance of the dorm. It had networked computers, something I’d never seen before. (I had used, and even run, BBSes, but that was single-user.) There wasn’t the Web yet, but there was Gopher and telnet and FTP. I found out about this new operating system, Linux, and decided to try it. I downloaded Slackware 1.0 on 24 3.5” floppy disks and walked those disks back across the road and to my computer. It took forever to get working, and I never got graphics working for X, so I was stuck in the terminal, but I was so excited. I dropped out of college, and often think of my time there as a failure, but in writing this, I realize how that year changed my life and made my career what it is today.
I made a few friends in the computer lab. We shared a mutual love of MUSHes, a sort of text-based multi-player RPG, but with less rules and shared freedom to edit the world we were inhabiting. It’s like World of Warcraft + Wikipedia + community theatre. We ended up running our own for a while and I got really obsessed, to the point where I slept in two-hour fits, waking up to keep playing. I had days I didn’t get out of bed – I just turned my monitor toward my bed and dragged my keyboard in with me. To edit a MUSH, you used MUSHcode, which was my first functional language. Again, a time I generally look back on with disappointment ended up being influential in retrospect.
At the end of the year, I dropped out. I hadn’t gone to any classes for the second half of the year. I had my first real girlfriend (I know – reading this makes me think “how in the world did I manage to have a girlfriend?”) and my MUSH obsession, and I lost my scholarship. I went back home, where we had no ability to remotely connect to magical worlds you could build yourself like a wizard. There was a new ache in my heart, for programming and games and the Internet.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about how I learned to program, or more accurately, who I was when I learned to program. The first four: