Without a Plan: Packard Bell

I really, truly am terrible at blogging. My last ‘Without a Plan‘ post was conceived as a notion on November 27th, written and posted by December 23rd, and it’s now August 23rd of the following year and I’m just sitting down for a Part Deux.

There’s not even a good excuse. Coronavirus restrictions and some truly random, bizarre and unpleasant weather throughout 2021 have conspired to give me plenty of free time outside of work, with which I have done remarkably little. I had loads of time to write this and many subsequent posts, but didn’t. Maybe I’ll unpack that one day, but today is not that day. Today is … the day I go back and read my first post in this series to get back into the flow of wherever the heck I was going in the first place.

Now I think about it, this rocky and unplanned start really does quite fit the theme of this whole thing …

Ah yes. So we’re through my ‘Creative Writing’ phase. However it appears my memory is imperfect. Upon re-reading I realized that my recollection was flawed, my storytelling imperfect. I wrote those Sonic the Hedgehog books on the first x86 computer we owned, and printed it out on a rather fancy Epson Bubblejet printer. This self-revelation rather dented my neat chapterfication (I also liked inventing new words) of my life, because the writing clearly didn’t just go away when the computer appeared. That being said, I suppose it’s more realistic that one interest would wane before being replaced by another, rather than just being an on/off switch.

It’s possible that I’m getting way too analytical about this, and probably should just have said nothing.

The first computer was a Big Deal. It wasn’t actually the first computer we’d ever had – my Dad brought home a BBC Microcomputer when I was around seven years old – but it was the first computer that I really paid attention to.

The BBC Micro was – for me – a games machine. It had a green CRT attached to the body, on which I struggled playing many games of Snooker (the phrase ‘pot the green’ was distinctly less helpful than it would have been with a color screen) and played lots of ‘Chariots of Fire’ through its Midi application. Otherwise I didn’t pay much attention to it. Plenty of people who came up through the technology field have stories about getting these machines – or alternatives just like them – and making their very first programs in BASIC, or something like that.

Not I.

I was a kid who wanted to play games, so I played games. The idea of the BBC Micro as anything else just didn’t occur to me, and it didn’t occur to my parents to get me interested in it.
Back to the first ‘proper’ computer.

By the time we got the machine, computers were a real thing. I’d used computers in school and was captured by this new digital world. My dad had a laptop from work running Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, on which I’d sit and play Solitaire and Minesweeper (there’s a theme here …) and he later had it upgraded to Windows 95, which was a whole other world but crippled the performance of the thing.
Our first computer was from Packard Bell. For younger listeners, Packard Bell was one of the big computer manufacturers in the UK, Europe, and North America. It’s now pretty much faded into obscurity and is owned by Acer.

The machine had a powerhouse 120Mhz Pentium Processor, with 8MB of RAM. I don’t recall how big the hard disk drive was, but if you assume ‘shockingly small by modern standards’ then you’re in the ballpark.
This big beige box came with a 15″ CRT with side-mounted stereo speakers that were a bit like long boxy ears, a mechanical keyboard and simple mouse. It had a CD-ROM drive, and that was the gateway to Encarta.

Encarta was amazing. Keep in mind, the internet wasn’t quite a thing yet for most home users, and an encyclopedia was the best thing we had for learning about the world.
Encarta was an encyclopedia on steroids. It was an interactive world to explore, and even came with a knowledge-based game where the goal was (I think) to make it up to a castle at the top of a mountain by answering questions that you had to use Encarta to find the answers for.
If not, then that may have been a drug induced dream I had recently, but I’m pretty sure that was it.

My sister and I loved it. We played a lot, which is saying something as we pretty much hated each other at that time.

The computer was a marvel outside of Encarta too. We could do homework on it, and Wordpad (we didn’t have Microsoft Office at first) had so many buttons to push and see what they did. When we eventually got Office with its many more features, my button pushing had reached fever pitch. Later on in my teenage years I took a Computer class that required the production of a range of Office documents and I crushed it, mostly thanks to my earlier tinkering.

Of course, eventually the internet came to town, which led me to destroying the computer.

The first time it happened, we called PC World (for the American audience, think of a smaller Best Buy in the late 90s and you’re there) and a tech came out, replaced the entire motherboard and wiped the disk drive.

Now, it’s been almost 20 years and I haven’t the faintest clue about what I did, but I know it didn’t require that kind of intervention. I was adamant about it at the time (even though no blame was placed on me) so I’m adamant about it now, and that led to what happened the next time it broke.

I knew that my parents would start getting annoyed at me if the computer kept breaking. My response to this fact wasn’t ‘stop fucking about with the computer’ but instead ‘learn how to fix it yourself’. The next time it broke (again, I don’t remember the details) I used my burgeoning knowledge and supplanted it with the burgeoning internet in order to try and fix the problem. To the surprise of me and all of my stuffed animals, it worked.

This and many other similar and small experiences taught me that you can never push too many buttons. You can never poke at a new thing too much because the more you do, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more competent and confident you feel. And, of course, the more you can fix it when you – or someone else – fuck(s) it up.

I still use this philosophy today, albeit in a severely moderated and adjusted form. For example, I exercise caution when working on workplace systems, or when stood in the control room of a nuclear power station.

This computer gradually became a bigger part of my life. Naturally I played games on it (Geoff Crammond’s seminal Grand Prix, Sonic CD (natch), and the peerless Starship Titanic) but it was also teaching me things and enabling a level of productivity hitherto unheard of for a Secondary School pupil.

I think, looking back, that getting into computers was one of the best things that I could have done. For all the above reasons, sure. But most importantly it enabled me to form a bond with my very best friend, one that has endured for almost 20 years and enriched my life in wonderful ways.

The Packard Bell didn’t come to the same house as the BBC Micro had inhabited. Just before I finished Primary School (Elementary School for the Yanks at the back) my family moved us three hours north (and in the UK, three hours was a long way to move). I got to spend my last 6 months of Primary School with a group of kids that had all known each other and bonded with each other for six years, before a lonely summer came and went, and I went to a school 10 times bigger, and in which I knew literally nobody.

In hindsight, that was a much bigger fucking deal than I’ve ever admitted before. The swearing’s absolutely warranted in that sentence.

Of course, I sat on my own at or near the front of the bus. There was an absolute zero chance that I could even make it to the front-middle of the bus, let alone middle or back. I had absolutely no street cred or contacts.

Looking back on this now, I realize that I could – maybe should – have gone in with confidence and bombast. Nobody knew me – I could have been anyone. But that’s not how my mind works, and I’m a terrible liar unless I’m following a script.

After a few days – I forget how many – a kid from Year 8 spoke to me. This was a surprise. I was Year 7 and – as mentioned – a zero and total nobody. This kid asked if I wanted to sit next to him, and so I did. Honestly I probably did it more because he was older than me than out of a conscious decision stream of ‘This boy seems nice, maybe we could be friends’, but I sat next to him either way.

Twenty years later I’d be stood up at his wedding as his Best Man. This was one of the proudest, happiest, and scariest moments in my life, but that’s a way down the road yet.

I feel like this is a good place to pause. I guarantee that the next one won’t take eight months to write.

2 thoughts on “Without a Plan: Packard Bell”

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