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Today is a perfect day to remember the 35th anniversary of the Commodore 64’s launch

The keyboard of the infinite monkeys

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

I asked my father to explain the sunrise when I was three. It was sometime after dinner, in 1977.

Dad removed the shade from a lamp in our den. He held out a tennis ball and, with a blue felt-tip pen, made a dot on it. That’s us. The dot was in the light, and that was day. He rotated the ball and the dot was in the dark. That was night. The den lamp was the Sun. Sometimes other things could cast a shadow on the ball. That was an eclipse. Got it.

2001: A Space Odyssey premiered on Home Box Office in 1979. This was a network we subscribed to so Dad could watch all of Wimbledon. We were watching live; no DVR, no VCR in the house then, so Dad had to explain a very abstract movie, in real time, to a five-year old.

Two groups of apes fight over a watering hole. Their only method of attack or defense is screaming. Loudest apes win. The next day, an alien machine appears and the apes touch it. One learns to use a tool. The apes who scream come to the water source and are met by the apes with the tools. One is crushed, the others repelled by a new and much more meaningful threat.

This is the beginning of human ideation, Dad says. This separates us from all other life on Earth. Got it. I have difficulty just spelling my name in kindergarten. But I turn the page upside down and draw an M until I discover the W.

In August of 1982 the Commodore 64 launched. I recall going to the Circuit City in Winston-Salem to buy it. I will stand the Commodore 64, the first mass-marketed and truly affordable personal computer, square against the printing press as the machine that most democratized human thought, expression and knowledge. And I would know. Dad, a newspaper publisher, ran a printing press. That thing may have bought my Commodore 64, but the press did not come home. It did not write my book reports. It did not record my ideas, or teach me to understand patterns, mistakes, syntax, to correct my errors, or to somehow make things I did not understand work, and to learn.

There is a straight line of reason from the lessons of the tennis ball and the movie to the Commodore 64. Concept. Tool. Application. The gestures I make upon this keyboard right now to create this expression of my thoughts come from that machine. They come from my brother and me, typing primitive video games in BASIC from the back of the user manual, learning where the keys were to speed our production. They come from our father reading code out of the back of a magazine, to create the checksum editor, to create the assembly editor, to create the word processor, to create the medium for our imaginations.

Today a total solar eclipse crosses the United States, sea to shining sea, drawing millions into its path to celebrate an understanding of things far larger than themselves. For me, this is a perfect day to remember the 35th anniversary of the launch of the Commodore 64, the greatest personal computer of all time.

An infinite number of monkeys pounding on an infinite number of keyboards, says the theory. Well, we had to start somewhere. It was 35 years ago.

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