Basements have a typical feel to them that is hard to mask, regardless of how much money is spent with renovations. Moisture from the warm air upstairs condenses as it falls to give the area a cool, damp feeling. Many of my friends in high school lived in homes with basements that had become the de facto place for "the kids" to play and leave the parents alone. A friend of mine happened to have a computer1 and would spend endless hours in the basement on the Internet and chatting with people all over the world via IRC. I'd go to his place from time to time and we'd geek out over various things … typically tech specs and pushing his Intel 486 DX/2 66MHz processor as far as it could go.
One summer day we were on a school trip to Toronto to see … something. I don't remember what the school trip was about, but I remember that at one point we had 90 minutes of "free time" at the Toronto Eaton Centre2 for lunch. The University of Toronto is not too far from here, and my friend wanted to run to the book store there to get his hands on a 4 CD box set of something called Slackware. A new version had been released, and apparently it was the bees knees in terms of power and compatibility. We ran the whole way to the book store, found that the CD set was actually in stock, and ridiculously priced for the time. Just $14.99. Cheaper than the Robert Miles CD I had picked up earlier that day at Sam's3.
Because it was Thursday, he invited me to his house on the weekend where we planned to install the software on his computer. We were going to do something completely crazy, too. The partition would be split and resized, and a boot loader would be installed allowing people to choose whether they wanted Windows95 or this other operating system with the trendy hacker-like name.
Slackware. The very name was like something out of that early Angelina Jolie movie with all the unrealistic computer lingo. In the end, he couldn't wait. He got everything prepared and installed the operating system that night. I came over two days later and, because things weren't quite working out the way he had hoped, we killed the 150MB FAT16 partition4 and tried again to no avail. The problem we had was a common one at the time. One of the system components was just insufficient for the task at hand. In this case, it was running X-Windows without crashing out.
Computers back in the mid-1990s were incredibly underpowered by today's standards. The 486 that we were trying to install Slackware 4.0 on had 16MB RAM and a 420MB hard drive. The video card was a simple Vesa Local deal with an S3 chip and 512KB RAM. The 14.4 modem was, perhaps, one of the most expensive additions that had been installed and was a highly coveted device among the early tech enthusiast crowd as it was better priced than the stratospheric 28.8 and 33.6KB/sec modems, and could often be coaxed to run at 19.2KB/sec with the right software settings.
I can still remember with incredible clarity the hardware specifications of this friend's computer5, as well as all the things we did to eke out just a little bit more performance at every opportunity.
The ultimate problem, we thought, had to do with the system's lack of video RAM. On many of the Usenet boards we saw reports that people needed to have a video card with a whopping 1024K of RAM to use X-Windows reliably. The problem was that such cards could cost in excess of $100. Where would 14 year old high school kids get that kind of cash? Oddly enough, he found a way.
Somehow he managed to convince his mother that, in order for her to do some new task with an expensive financial package she bought, she would need to invest in a better video card for the machine. She conceded, and he was able to get his hands on a Matrox-branded video card with a brain-busting 4MB of RAM. The card cost several hundred dollars, and it was the card to end all video cards.
Armed with this new piece of hardware, he performed yet another clean installation of Slackware and went through the tedious process of configuring all of the settings files. We had reams of paper in a binder specifying what strings were required to initialize hardware, open a port, and activate one function or another. It was crazy. The following weekend I came over to see his handiwork and was stunned with the incredible clarity and speed of his unbranded computer. It was the fastest digital device I had ever seen, and the 14" CRT monitor absolutely sang at 800x600 and 16.7-million colours.
Slackware allowed for four virtual desktops, a feature that users of various Unix and Linux distributions have enjoyed for as long as I've known about Linux, and my friend would fly through the screens that would have different applications opened with different window settings. Everything was smooth and responsive. It was the greatest thing ever!
But it was not to last. The problem with Slackware, aside from it's lack of software and incredibly complicated configuration requirements, was that it required too much precious hard disk space. Once Windows95 started screaming about lack of space my friend was forced to scrub Linux from the hard drive and put things "back to normal". While he would occasionally dabble in Linux afterwards, he stuck pretty much to Windows from that point on until I moved to Vancouver in 2002.
We haven't spoken very often since then, and only through email, but I often think back to the times when he and I would stay up all night talking tech like a bunch of old hands who had worked in the field for decades. We didn't have the money to have the latest and greatest, but we had magazines and occasional access to the greatest resource that the world had yet to learn about: the Internet. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had he and I not geeked out and continually pushed the boundaries of what computer hardware was capable of back in the 1990s. It was a different time back then and, when I look around at the state of the technology community today, I sorely miss it.