I have always been a geek of sorts. As a child I would ride my bike to the local Radio Shack and lust after the TRS-80 computers. I would sit for hours writing programs in Basic. The sales guys loved it, an 11 year old kid typing away in the store. When a customer would ask about the amazing new computers (with 4KB of RAM!), they would point at me and say how easy it was to program one of them, “See even a kid can do it.”
Not long after this, I begged my mom for an Atari 800 computer. I spent so many hours programming it in my basement. I made all kinds of visual experiments, writing programs which exploited the incredible graphics modes like 160×96 screen pixels and even 320×192 pixels (these modes only allowed for 2 colors at a time). I attended an Atari computer camp in Minnesota the summer of 1983, where I completed my first computer game, a text only ripoff of Risk but with a more geographically accurate map.
Later when I first started playing poker in high school I made a computer program that dealt every possible hand for a 4 card poker game called 442 and analyzed them. It took an entire weekend for the computer program to run. I was so nervous that somehow the computer would lose power before it had finished it’s run. One of my first jobs in high school was creating a series of macros for an early version of Microsoft Works.
And this was all before the internet boom. You would think a kid like me would have looked at the Internet and realized that there was a huge amount of money to be made. I bet I could have been a dot com millionaire. I could have become a computer game innovator or even just fairly successful web designer charging $75 an hour to set up websites. But two things diverted me from what was probably a career that perfectly fit my abilities and aptitude. First, I got involved in film and theatre in college. I was seduced by the thought of being a film director and later an actor. Second, I made what was a serious blunder in judgment. I thought, “Nobody is going to make any money programming for the internet.” Yep, that’s right, I nearly completely missed it.
You see when I first started exploring the web after college, it was all HTML. And HTML was simple, clumsy and easy to learn, especially as used in the first burst of HTML web pages. I looked at those pages and thought, “Sure people are making a lot of money creating web pages now, but it’s just a matter of time before everyone learns HTML. It’s so easy! Once that happens, nobody will make any money doing it.” I knew the web would be big, I just didn’t see much of a role me. And besides I was far too infatuated with improv.
As I devoted myself more and more to my mistress, the theatre, my knowledge of technology began to wane. Sure I would have short periods where I focused my attention on computers again and tried to learn C or PHP or MySQL. Often I would get somewhat proficient doing these things, but I always returned to improv and acting.
But now I’m back living in my hometown in Illinois. It’s not exactly a bubbling cauldron of theatre here. I’ve been forced into a trial separation from improv. So I looked up my high school sweetheart to see if we still have some chemistry. I decided to take a class or two from the local community college. When I went through the catalog, the classes that kept calling out to me were the kinds of classes I should have taken 20 years ago (if they had been available). I signed up for a computer science class and a web design class.
So now I’m learning XHTML and CSS. It’s quite a challenge. While the basics are simple enough, it’s not at all like it was laying out pages with tables 8 years ago. I suppose the CSS revolution was well underway by then, but I barely had seen a <div> tag before and I certainly never coded a page that conformed to any HTML or XHTML standards. So even with my experience coding numerous small websites, a lot of the stuff I’m learning is new. CSS is proving to be a particular challenge. It’s a bit of a black art. You poke a parameter and see what it does on the final page. Most of the time the effects are just what you wanted or close, but often changing one thing on your style sheet can have very bizarre consequences on your page, especially with all the different browsers (Internet Explorer is the worst offender).
I set up this site about a week ago and thought it wouldn’t take long to tweak the style sheet to get a smooth look and feel. Instead it took many days. I would get one element correctly placed on the page only to find another pushed into the wrong spot. Finally I just started from scratch, building up a brand new style sheet one class at a time. What I’m finally left with isn’t bad. I like the general look, but I’m not sure about the colors. I’ll probably tweak it as time goes by, but it’s good enough to start writing entries (if you have any constructive criticism on the blog’s look, please let me know).
So after 20 years in the theatre, I’m back to my first love, computers. It takes me a little longer to figure out the solutions. And I don’t have the focus (or the time) to code for 12 hours straight like I did when I was a kid. But computers still offer me a very specific kind of problem that I enjoy solving.