Path of a Polymath Programmer Part 3

So I talked about beginner polymath programmers in part 1, and books on role playing games and computer spies in part 2. In store for you in this post are typewriters, juxtaposition and XT86 computers.

Teaching English and learning typing

Due to my prolific reading, I have a moderately good command of the English language. My neighbour wanted to improve her English, and approached me to help her. She’s an adult and I’m just 11 years old then. I told her I might not be up to it, but she insisted. She also offered me an exchange. I’ll coach her on English, and she’ll teach me how to type on the typewriter.

This was in the dawning age of the computers, and typewriters were still pretty cool then. Hmm…. interesting. So I accepted her offer. She’s already attending some English classes, so basically, I was there to help her with some grammar exercises, spellings and pronunciations. She’s also attending typing lessons, so after our language sessions, she’ll let me practise on her typewriter using her typing course materials.

Type “d” then “e” then “d”. Stuff like this. After a while, I got really into the typing, and got my own typewriter. I still borrowed her typing lesson materials, but I practised at home. Typing is a very loud activity and irritating to the ears, and I didn’t want to bother her family.

It was good fun and my fingers were practically flying over the keys. I got to the point where I had instances of typebars (those metal things with the letter imprints) clashing with each other. You know, I think I still have that typewriter around. Excuse me for a second…

Introduction to computers

So, around this period of time, my school started these computer lessons. Computers were a new thing then, and the government wanted to expose young students to computers. So I signed up for them.

The first few lessons were utterly boring. We learned what a monitor was, what a keyboard looks like, the functions of a CPU (central processing unit). Frankly speaking, the worksheets handed out felt like an insult to my intelligence. “Fill in the blanks, what is this?” Monitor. “What does CPU stand for?” Central Processing Unit. Yawn…

Luckily, the teachers also mixed it up with some computer games. One of them had alphabet letters falling from the top of the screen, and I’m supposed to type the bottom-most letter to score. It ends when a letter hits the bottom of the screen. I was phenomenal at that game. The teachers couldn’t believe how a 12 year old could type that fast. Lessons progressed, but I lost interest and dropped out of the computer class.

I graduated out of primary school and plunged into secondary school. Joining other 13 year olds, I struggled with the change of environment, additional study work load and expanded social circles. My friends got me into Chinese comic books, or what one of them termed as “intellectual sustenance”. I remember sneaking a comic book into one of my technical classes and surreptitiously reading it, when I was supposed to be sawing and filing wood pieces for a woodwork project. The memory still brings a smile to my face.

Well, one of my friends was into pencil and paper type role playing games too, and introduced me to the Palladium series. I didn’t exactly got to participate nor game master a campaign, but I love reading through the books and imagining what it’s like to have the power of flight or intangibility.

I was also into console games. In those days, it was the Nintendo or Famicom or Sega. I love the role playing games because I got to live out imaginary stories without the tedious dice throwing and stats management. It was also through this exposure to playing games that I self taught myself Japanese. It was out of necessity, and I’ll leave the details to a later post.

The J word

So what with math formulas, mixing chemicals and wood sawing, I had to take art class as well. And I suck at drawing. I can never quite mix up a particular shade of colour I need. I remember making a colour wheel. That was fun. Then the art teacher threw a humongous word at me: Juxtaposition.

It unbalanced me. Hearing the word for the first time, and outside the context of a typical language learning environment (as in not in class or not while reading a book), I didn’t know what he meant. Later, I think he meant placing two different shapes close together and seeing how it looked like. Much like a polymath bringing two unrelated concepts together and seeing what happens.

Despite my ineptitude at drawing, I persevered. There was this task where I was to draw an apple. I must express the texture of the apple, the play of light across its skin, its shadow falling behind it on a surface. With a pencil. I bought apples and studied them for minutes before laying my pencil on paper. The monochromatic sketchings of that rosy fruit sowed the beginnings of an appreciation of beautiful artwork in me. Although I still can’t draw to save my life.

Programming destiny

My inescapable link with computers caught up then. Everyone around me seemed to have a computer. My friends attended computer lessons, and had cool games on their computers (Double Dragon was my favourite). I was envious and sad and jealous and frustrated. That toy computer I had was fun, but paled in comparison with the real thing.

My father found out about my disappointment. By a stroke of luck, his friend was getting a new computer and offered to give my father the old one. Thus I got my first computer, the quintessential XT86. It was old, displayed green text on black background, and only command prompts were useful, but I was ecstatic over it.

I went crazy trying out all the programs from the Orion adventure books. There wasn’t much of a user interface, but I didn’t care. I think I tried coding a mini text adventure role playing game. It didn’t come into fruition, but I learned a lot from bringing the mechanics of game play into programming. Time went by, and there’s only so much one can do with command prompts, so the computer became obsolete.

Parting words…

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the post. Stay tuned for the next episode by subscribing to my RSS feed, where you will learn the connection between console games and self-taught Japanese.

Continue to part 4