Me, Myself and I

an alternative career history

In ca. 1992, I made a smart decision. Some term papers were due and I needed a word processer, the old mech typewriter I'd been using just seemed hopelessly quaint what with the millenium drawing to a close and all. Instead of going for the cheaper PC (386's and Windows 3.11 where all the rage then), I bought a Macintosh. A beautiful machine, the "pizza-box" LC II, with color monitor, blazing 20 MHz Motorola processor, 6 MB RAM and a whooping 40 MB hard drive, running System 7.6 - the most aesthetically whole and visually pleasing operating system I've ever dealt with*. But the beauty of this computer was not the reason for the decision being a smart one. It is because technical things suck me in. Had I gone for the PC, I would've tinkered with it endlessly, not getting any of the real work done, and probably never ended up with a degree. About 4 years later when my uncle who owns an agricultural engineering business asked me to try and improve an algorithm for a machine to automatically sort and package chickory (the NP-complete knapsack problem), I acquired an old 286 after all (absolute speed was irrelevant to work this out), and my first move was to disassemble it into the smallest units accessible with a screwdriver, and put it back together, before I started hacking on the problem. It seems to be an inbuilt need for me to appropriate things in this way which present themselves to me as technical. The Macintosh tries hard, and largely succeeds (or did; now that it's Unix underneath, the trap is lurking there again), in sidestepping the "technical".

I grew up as a science-whiz-kid, the sort who sits in their parent's house's basement every free minute to tinker with chemistry, electronics and whatnot kits, building bizarre machines and appliances and dreaming of outer space. All this more or less collapsed when I discovered to my utter despondency and confusion, around age 15 or so, that you just couldn't impress the ladies with expansion cloud chambers - I actually built one, but never managed to get my hands onto some radioactive material to test it** - high-voltage induction coils or optical grids (which did work rather well), wooden telescopes, jerry-built guns or counterfeit coins***. My attempts to extract Morphine from the poppy flowers in my mom's garden may have been a better bet to get through to the girls, but I never actually had the guts to try the vaguely crystalline substance I ended up with. Nor did I ever manage to try the recipe for Nitroglycerin I dug up because, strangely, our local small-town pharmacy which usually supplied the substances for my chemical experiments refused to sell me the required high-grade sulphuric and nitric acids and pure, water-free glycerin. I fell out of love with science.

Sticking with the long standing decision to study physics after high school was pure inertia and the inability to confront the loss of my love for it. I was confused. Luckily, I did manage to ditch it eventually, and went on to study about anything you can imagine - the German university system is both great and terrible in that regard, as it allows it; there are (or were, I hear it's changing now) no caps on raw greed for knowledge or total confusion as to what you might want to do. After a near-fatal sporting accident, I figured that this studying anything and everything business was getting a little old, and I'd better start moving in a particular direction and finish some degree. I managed to sell (compatibility between the educational systems was not given, so you had to blag it - there were no B.A.s in Germany then) my half-completed German M.A. as a B.A. equivalent to the University of Nottingham, and finished my degree there.

After university, I found a book that I liked, and developed a treatment for a television adapation. I must have been doing something right, because as a total newbie to this business, I won the American author's endorsement against a duo of established New York-based filmmakers. I also won a small grant from a government-sponsored media initiative meant to foster local talent to develop it further, but never managed to get beyond that point****. It found some freelance work translating computer game interfaces into German. Otherwise I didn't get a foot into any of the doors I tried. After a year of mounting economic pressure, I went back to Berlin, as I knew the scene there and would always find some kind of employment.

Within a couple of weeks, I'd found work with a hard- and software company. This was good experience, decent money, instructive, but I still felt trapped and the whole thing was already oozing corporate bs. It was 1997. Everybody got intoxicated with the booming bubble 1.0. I came up with a suitable get-rich-quick scheme, and recognized that further skills were needed. As I was employed with a high-tech company, I was privy to the understanding that you're basically screwed if you put yourself into the hands of those goddamn developers: First of all, nobody ever understands what they're on about, and then they always promise you the moon and deliver about 1% of it - if you're lucky, that is. Usually they just code the stuff they consider cool and don't care much about what you think is needed. So I bought some books - sod those bloody geeks - about database fundamentals, and started learning Linux. I already knew about networks from my day job. Some like-minded colleagues joined the frenzy, and we set out to be a company. The hare-brained thought (not the only one, obviously) was to get it off the ground while doing the day job. It was terrible. My business partners spent their evenings and weekends drinking, womanizing and motorcycling - wise people, with hindsight - and I was being a good, dumb soldier sitting evenings, nights and weekends in a half-finished office with broken heating hacking away, building networks, servers and routers from scrap parts.

It is 1998, millenium mania looming and bubble booming. To be continued ...


* Apple dropped the ball on it introducing system 8, and has been deterioating ever since. God, "Aqua" ... (puke) ... however they're still beating the pants off Windoze.

** I tried the incandescent mantle used in gas lamps from my parent's camping bus, which reportedly contained traces of the radioactive element Thorium - without success though; I suspect my intelligence there was a little outdated. Maybe the vapor-trail chamber just didn't work. I could've made sure about the Thorium content by means of a Geiger counter - too expensive ... yet plans to build one were in the drawer; I would've needed a high-grade 2 or 3-stage vacuum pump though to build the detector and that actually was the main hurdle with most of the things I was interested in then, like an X-ray tube, particle accelerator etc. ... my physics-professor uncle at some point mentioned something about some decomissioned mercury-vapor diffusion pumps at his department ... damn but he was in the GDR and getting that sort of shit over the border was just hardly feasible.

*** I never got hurt firing these absurdly flimsy weapons made from tent-tubing and using gunpowder scavenged from misfired firecrackers after a rainy New Year's Eve - which worked much better than the the homemade stuff; I had to conclude that there somehow must be more to manufacturing gunpowder than just naively mixing the textbook quantities of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur - though I did burn myself producing the money, as I was too impatient to let the plaster cast fully dry, so the whole thing exploded from steam pressure upon pouring in the molten lead.

**** The TV niche it was aimed at was very narrow and the Channel 4 commissioning editor just didn't like the idea.