8 inch floppy disks
My name is Andre Torgal and I was born in 1973 in Lisbon, Portugal.
My parents were both academics, physicists involved in the early stages of computing in Portugal. I remember the freezing rooms, the whirring tape reels, the screeching dot matrix printers. I remember punch cards and 8 inch floppy disks and how I was taught they contained "data" and were not to be messed with.
I remember that first, monochrome green, home computer. As long as I carefully parked the hard drive before shutting it down, I was even allowed to play with it.
Can't remember exactly what computer this was. But I am guessing a 5150. I have a vague memory of hearing words like Unix, Lisp and Fortran very early on in my life. But what I do remember with insane precision is the BASF, Maxell and Dysan logos.
Today, a toddler can tap and swipe away on a tablet before they learn to speak. But I am pretty sure that, for a 70s child, I grew up in an exceptional environment.
ZX Spectrum 48K
It wasn't long before I got my own computer to play with. My dad brought home this stupendous microcomputer from the UK and got me learning its rudimentary Basic.
In a couple of years there would be hundreds of games and a handful of mates to play them with. But I got a head start and had to copy hundreds of lines of code from magazine pages by myself. As an extremely curious and introverted creature, I got to spend days hacking these programs, modifying them, experimenting, invariably breaking them.
All PC, no consoles
Consoles were finally breaking into mass market and everyone was piling up audio tapes, cartridges and floppy disks with games.
Thanks to my father constantly upgrading his PC, I was once again ahead of the game. From 8086/8 to 80286, 386, blazing fast at 20Mhz and immense at 20Mb. I was all over the first driving simulators and football managers.
And I was either playing them or trying to code a "better one" from scratch. I needed a permanent excuse to deep dive into Quick Basic and Turbo Pascal. And what were these Paradox, dBase things? Ah! Persist and query data. Challenge accepted.
Meanwhile, I had become a teenager. I started riding my BMX around the block, building quarter pipes with new friends.
During high-school, music seized my entire life. I learned how to listen, how to feel, how to play. The tapes became the medium where we captured each other's vinyl collections and the mixtapes, the most real, p2p music discovery system ever invented, was at the center of everything we did.
I had been learning how to play guitar for 2 years now. Very slowly at first. But as soon as met other people learning instruments, we started a pop band.
And then a rock band, and then a punk one, and on to metal and several flavours of that. We spent countless hours in studios, played dozens of shows, and the mix tapes were replaced by our own demo tapes. Suddenly, computers didn't seem so relevant. I was acquiring other ways of expression. And growing a social conscience.
Full-duplex sound cards
Going to college, my friends were taking on Psychology, Linguistics, Sociology, Art. I was in love with all of it, but music was my real passion. Pragmatically, I chose Economics, the social science with a perverse twist and a better outlook into the job market.
Meanwhile, I kept throwing myself at every single calling: student association, activism, drama classes, voice workshops, assembling a photography darkroom in the school's basement.
And music, always the music: took on the bass, then the drums. Played in a few more alt-rock and alt-metal bands, almost graduating from Lisbon's underground scene. A hundred more shows and some more demos, a lot of sweat and a few scars.
Eventually I discovered MIDI, trackers and audio editing. I had my own nifty Pentium at the time and all it took was a AWE32 to get started composing, recording and mixing at home.
This primitive home studio would later evolve to a shiny full-duplex Terratec with a world of embedded synths. The old Pentium would eventually die and get replaced with a steady stream of audio oriented desktops. But some files dated 1993 lived on until today.
Meanwhile, the Internet had appeared. Some of my friends went straight to the bulletin boards, asking diligent questions, avid to learn how to build the web. But I was too busy finishing my degree and, at the same time, committed to a rock band and a drama group.
Don't get me wrong, the Internet was awesome. It had lyrics, tablatures, discographies and photos of setlists. There were fan clubs for all my favourite bands, both living and defunct ones.
And then there was the experience of downloading a song for the first time. We had access to UK radios and magazines playlists. And soon we would be uploading in Portugal for someone else to download in the US. For someone who grew trading mixtapes and pushing demos, you can imagine how deeply that resonated.
Well, MP2 sounded terrible. But you could totally see the future coming.
Adam Curry's unofficial MTV
When I learned about Adam Curry's unofficial MTV website, I gave it a go and learned just enough HTML to uploaded my band's lyrics and concert dates to Geocities. But it was a pointless exercise, I thought. The people attending our shows were the least interested in the school library.
Besides, the rock life was in decline. The 90s were a glorious rock decade, but ironically, MTV, the Internet, digital access and the massive summer festivals did nothing for the local music scene. On the contrary, small live venues were closing doors, bands were dissolving, band members were getting jobs and not turning back.
Despite all the art in my life, I did learn a lot during my Economics degree. The insane amount of maths, statistics and econometrics was too much for me to cope with. But I did acquire an incredible set of tools for modeling reality and developed strong analytical skills.
My favourite subjects were Behavioural Economics, Political Economy and History of Economic Thought. But, being pragmatic about my chances at a good job, I took on some Marketing and Management classes and even threw a bit of Finance in the mix.
Junior person with a tie
Not surprisingly, I soon found myself in a suit, making enough money to muddle through early independence. But my lack of academic focus through college got me the job I deserved. An irrelevant position in a stalling company with antiquated methods and backwards values.
Despite being no business visionary, I knew for sure this wasn't the future. But most importantly, I felt there was nothing I could do to change things around me in such an environment. I definitely did not have the skills to do it. And definitely, I did not feel the passion.
The next chapter was triggered by political events across the globe. East-Timor was on the verge of independence from Indonesia. The neighbouring countries were pressuring the occupiers and the situation was delicate. A tragedy like the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre felt eminent.
Triggered by the lack of mentions in European media, I decided to create a website in Tripod. In a couple of hours I had several pages up. In a couple of days, I knew all the HTML there was to know at the time. The website now had headlines, news, quotes, galleries and blinking banners.
I got a few emails from strangers in different countries, people that had never heard about Timor or its Human Rights struggle.
These people were now relaying the news in other networks and communities.
I was having an impact.
I understood the power of those simple tags and set out to find what else was out there to tame.
What was this HTTP thing anyway? And CGI? I can run a website off a database? Then I can write a program to manage and publish dynamic content!
Just imagining what else was there to come, the future looked full of possibility and my head was running rampant with ideas.
I have been working with web things and engineering teams since then. This story continues in a page about my work as a software engineer, where I cover 1999 to present day.
I'll soon write a continuation for the personal track as well. I am enjoying the exercise.