How I Got Into Computers (Part I)

In this (series of) blog post(s), I'd like to share how I got into computers and technology in general. More specifically, I will tell you a bunch of stories in a chronological order based on my memories. Some of these early childhood memories are quite blurry at this point; the details may or may not be accurate. I will try my best to put the context in place.

That being said, it's nothing sensitive or anything in that nature. I'm just trying to write down my memories and thoughts before I lose even more details down the road. If my stories ever bore interest you, I'd be glad to hear.

Windows Me

I was born in a somewhat privileged family somewhere in China. My dad attended a technology university with military background in the 1980s and stayed for teaching until the year I went to elementary school. As a result, I spent most of my early childhood days in a semi-militarized neighbourhood with kids who had exact same background as I did. In Chinese, the word "部队大院" is used to describe such a neighbourhood. It was quite common, especially in the north part of China.

My family is not among the super early adopters of computers, despite my dad's program involved with lots of computers (I think). By the time I started to memorize things, we still didn't have a computer at home.

The first computer we had was brought by one of my dad's colleague. It has a Sun Microsystems keyboard, a small but bulky CRT monitor, and a vertical style PC case. It was DIYed for cheap, but it was a generic x86 machine with an Intel processor. In early 2000s, computer was still a rare thing in common Chinese households, let alone internet access. My dad and his friend loaded the operating system, drivers (oh yes) and some games using floppy disks.

I started typing and playing around with this incredible machine. The OS was Windows Me, and I specifically remembered them saying it's newer than Windows 98. Only after many years I realized how badly received this version of Windows were. But none of it I cared; all I wanted to do is playing Command & Conquer: Red Alert and Age of Empires. So I did, for many preschool days.

I skipped the final year of kindergarten due to medical operations. Instead, I spent my flee time equally among playing with kids in the neighbourhood, looking after my fleet of rabbits, and playing single-player games on the PC.

It's worth mentioning my parents education philosophy. The computer was sitting in my room with no password or restrictions of any sort. I was free to use it basically any time I wanted. However, my parents never said the computer belonged to me; I was essentially "borrowing" it from my parents. They didn't have to set up a hard limit on how many hours I could play in a week since I never abused my privilege nor ruined my parents' trust. Or I did and they just didn't find out? Anyways, my relationship with my parents never got tense because of the use of tech. I thank them for giving me space to play and learn.

Computer Class

My elementary school had computer class: "microcomputer class" , as it is translated literally. Some 80+ school children wearing shoe wrappers would rush into a hot computer lab and start banging on datacenter styled plastic floor and on the keyboards. We certainly had curriculum, but I can't remember what it was because we were all too excited playing Flash games on some sketchy websites under the teacher's nose.

At some point we learned how to type (obviously) and how to manipulate Microsoft Word documents. Drawing graphics by typing commands is also part of the outcome. I wonder if China's elementary schools still have computer class in the age of iPads; and if they do, how does it differ from the class 20 years ago.

First Laptop

Fast forward to 2007, my dad brought home an ASUS 14-inch laptop and it effectively became my main computer. It was a cheap office laptop by any standard, but it was truly my first computer, which I can freely tinker with.

Around the same time we had internet access at home. I believe it was DSL PPPoE connection running at 2 Mbps down. The technician said we would need a special client on Windows in order to dial up (soon proved to be false as I connected successfully in Ubuntu).

Unlike my peers who were deeply into MMORPG games, my passion was hacking operating systems. By hacking I don't mean programming, as I'm still not a programmer as of today. I messed around with Windows XP as much as I could, trying to make it do what I wanted it to do. Eventually, at some point, I broke the stock install, and I was forced re-installing the operating system. That was when I went down the rabbit hole of "factory manufacturing" USB flash drives. With a dozen or so USB drives I collected, I flashed them using special tools, making partitions and loading multiple ISO images. I destroyed a few of them in the process, but remained largely successful. It was so satisfying that I ended up offering my magic USB drives to friends. No one was interested, obviously. However, they proved to be useful over the years and one of the USB drive remained in my pencil case to this date.

With these USB drives, I hopped among OSes with style. I ran WinPE in the USB drive to rescue system and try out live environment. I installed different variants of Windows XP ghost images that were popular in the Chinese market. Shameless to say, I swam in the sea of pirated software and operating systems. Does anyone know Deepin started out as a Windows XP image maker? Shady stuff nobody wants to bring up anymore nowadays.

My first point of contact with Linux was around that time. Back in 2008, Ubuntu already had a fairly large Chinese community around it. I got a bit bored messing around with Windows XP, and decided to try Ubuntu because it's free (as in beer; also free from safety hazardous of running pirated software). Normally I would spend hours configuring a fresh Windows XP install; I ended up spending days if not weeks configuring Ubuntu to my liking. I heavily relied on QQ (Tencent's version of ICQ) to socialize with my friends and classmates, so I had to make QQ work under Linux. The only option was using Wine, and the combination brought disaster for an absolute Linux newbie, me. I nuked and paved a few times before I finally gave up upon the idea of using Linux as a daily driver. I was not ready for Linux at that moment. However, Linux had planted a seed inside my mind; the freedom to tinker deeply attracted me and eventually made me come back some 10 years later.

The Computer Kid

During middle school, I became the computer kid who helped friends and family maintain their computers and install basic software from time to time. I would carry a USB drive in my schoolbag in case of someone needed a dose of Windows XP or Foobar2000.

The reputation spread, in ways I didn't expect. One day, one of my teachers asked me very nicely if I could help her with a wonky laptop. I was absolutely thrilled and terrified at the same time! This particular lady was famous for being super harsh on students and nobody ever wanted was to be summoned to her office. I, on the contrary, was invited. I went to her office with zero expectations, and she treated very nicely. I didn't know how to behave, so I did my job (reloading Windows XP like I did a million times) and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. After that day, though, she never gave me a hard time in her class, ever.

Oh, should I mention that I met my girlfriend - now wife - by teaching her how to troubleshoot computers over on QQ? I will save that story for another day I guess. For now, it's time to wrap up Part I.

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