Kevin Altis Autobiography

A Short (now getting a bit long and boring) Autobiography: or my trip down nostalgia lane
Most of this revolves around my experiences with computers; experiences with women, travel, books, films, family, etc. is mostly missing. Let's face it, computers are my life, so I'm probably only leaving out 20%. Besides I usually remember the date of events in my life by what kind of computer system I had at the time, so this lays some good groundwork. Yeah, I know that is pretty pathetic, but a nerd is a nerd, just don't say I'm a geek. ;^)

[This is a work in progress, so it will probably change as much as a couple of times a day over the next few weeks as I remember more, get my facts straight and so on. If you have some corrections on the timeline of events and products or just some comments because I brought back some fond memories, you can send me email at]

I was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri. I started out using computers in 1979 and did my first program "Walking Man" on an Atari 800 with my friend Robert Coffey. Robert and I were able to learn to program due to the kindness of Brian Waterman, who owned the Century Next computer store in Columbia. Brian let kids like us hang out in his store playing games or programming as long as a real customer wasn't trying to look at the machine we were using. Brian Waterman continued to promote personal computing after he sold his store and went to work for Apple until his untimely death in Iowa several years ago. Wherever you are Brian, Thanks!

We went to Century Next almost every day after school and spent countless hours reading manuals and writing example code down on paper while we waited for programs to load off of cassette tape. I can still remember what the bits sounded like as the tape head slowly read them into the computer and played them back over the television speaker. Worse was the repetitive sound being disrupted, which meant that you got a read error and had to rewind and start over. You'll notice I said television. When I started out, most computer monitors for the Atari and Apple II were small televsion monitors that because of the limitations of televsion could only display 40 characters of text per line with something like 16 lines. 16 years later it looks like set-top boxes are actually going to have a market, but we'll be back to using 40 characters or less; that single limitation may be the major reason set-top boxes will ultimately fail.

Walking Man was just a simple bit of animation of a stick man walking across a floor and up some stairs, but Robert and I didn't know anything about animation so we spent a lot of time analyzing how people walked and did several exploratory drawings to get the key frames down for the animation. Later, when I discovered John Lasseter and the wizards at Lucalfilm/Industrial Light and Magic/Pixar, I realized that Robert and I had gone through many of the same steps that computer animators used to create shorts such as Luxo, Jr. BTW, I can't wait to see Lasseter's new full-length animation Toy Story. If you're an animation fan, you should also go see the new movie Frank and Ollie about Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and the early years at Disney; of course, you should also read their classic, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.

For some reason I have never followed up on my original interest in computer animation by becoming a professional animator. However, I continued to delve into various graphics related projects as you'll see if you keep reading. Perhaps driven by a deep subconscious urge, I did go to the 1987 ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim with a few friends. I even met one of the "fathers" of computer animation, JPL's really tall Jim Blinn, creator of Voyager fly-by and Mathematical Universe animations, plus a wonderful trombone player. I even saw John Lasseter in an elevator on the way to a party that John appeared to have started much earlier in the day; later on I was in the same state so I can't be too critical. ;^)

Personal computing defined in my bedroom in the fall of 1986
from right to left: Compaq luggable (people actually carried these on planes), Televideo terminal behind it, Mac Plus sitting on a NorthStar CP/M box (real wood siding). There is a Hayes 1200 BAUD modem under the phone and an Okidata dot matrix printer somewhere off to the left of the photo. For more historical reference, the bulletin board on the wall has a 2010 poster, a Nekron 99 promo shot from the movie Wizards, various Oliver Wendell Jones cartoons from the comic strip Bloom County and a picture of myself and one of my best friends Joanna Shear; these are probably not real easy to make out in the GIF version of the image. The keyboard/mouse "shelf" is my own construction; you couldn't get a decent typing height desk at the time, just as you can barely find typing height keyboard "shelves" today that have room for a mousepad. Apparently, furniture manufacturers are about 5-10 years behind the technology curve?!

In the summer of 1981, I got first real computer, a NorthStar CP/M machine, complete with 64K of RAM, S-100 BUS, two floppy drives (hard-sectored no less) with real wood siding. When the IBM PC was introduced in August, 1981 it was a complete embarassment. It's only contribution to computing was its professional keyboard and a persisant green phosphor monochrome display. None of the cool computer enthusiasts would put up with the joke of MS-DOS (PC-DOS) 1.0 - formerly QDOS for Quick and Dirty OS, which was a cheap CP/M clone - loading programs via a cassette recorder (yes, I said cassette), a slow ISA BUS, or get stuck "programming" in Microsoft BASIC; I think I still have a punch tape roll back in Columbia with a version of the Bill Gates/Paul Allen Microsoft BASIC, but that's another story. Besides it had a lowly 8088 CPU; this was a machine that was obsolete before the first unit was shipped. By sticking with CP/M, I got to meet all the real computer gurus in Columbia like my long time friend and mentor Dr. Don Delwood, learn about Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), use WordStar (some commands are still burned into my brain) and program in Pascal. I seem to remember using Philippe Kahn's (Borland) wonderful Turbo Pascal towards the end of my CP/M days, but perhaps that was after switching to the PC?! Does anyone remember if Turbo Pascal ever ran on CP/M or was it just UCSD Pascal that I used? [Several readers have written to let me know Turbo Pascal was available for CP/M -ka]

It wasn't until the mid-eighties after DOS had gone through several revisions, Lotus 123 appeared, the PC got 16 color displays (though IBM picked which 16 you got to use), and a PC with 640K of RAM and a 10 MB hard disk was affordable (sort of) that I made the move to the PC. I think it was the fact that you could do color bitmapped graphics in 4 color (white, turquoise, magenta, black) 320 x 200 CGA mode that was most intriguing about switching platforms. Yes I knew about the Mac at the time, and in fact a friend of mine, Andy McIntosh (now at Apple in Austin, Texas), had one of the first 128K Macs in Columbia in 1984.

Among other things, I wrote my own simplistic windowing environment (Windows didn't exist yet) that had the novel approach of working in either text (80 x 24) or graphics mode within the same program and providing drop down menus as well as Lotus style menus so that one application could make use of graphics and text as it saw fit without using different subroutine calls. This worked extremely well for the scientific visualization software I was writing with my roommate Scott Dulebohn. The software not only had to track patient responses in realtime, but it had to graph 3000 - 5000 data points (try that in Excel). Actually, it was more than just realtime, hardware guru John Miramonti and Scott built a realtime data acquisition board that would give us data from the patient's brain signal milliseconds before the actual hand movement trigger in experiments.

This was my first experience with getting screwed by a big company. We had managed to create something really cool that didn't exist anywhere else in the market and was crucial to neuro research as well as having applications in patient care. IBM said they were very interested, dreams of licensing danced through our heads only to be met by the harsh reality of a big monolith that was just milking us for knowledge by dangling a carrot in front of us with no intention of ever letting us have a bite. It was a valuable lesson that all small companies need to keep in mind. I've never forgotten the lesson myself and I felt great joy as the eighties progressed into the nineties and little companies kicked sand in the face of the big bully IBM year after year. One year IBM lost something like 5 Billion dollars. Now the PC market has passed from IBM control to Intel and Microsoft, OS/2 is well...OS/2, PowerPC units shipped in a year (and most of those are Apple Macs) is approximately three week of shipments from Intel and Big Blue continues to get smaller each year and their recent purchase of Lotus proves they still don't understand what personal computing is all about.

I got my first experience with C, Unix, and the Net in 1985 while spending the summer in Pittsburgh with my friend Eric Gardner. I took only one class at Carnegie Mellon, so most of my time was spent exploring and generally having a good time. That was the first time I saw an old Xerox Alto, the Andrew system running on IBM RT workstations, or made use of the Carnegia Mellon Coke machine outside the computing lab. Personally, I've always preferred Pepsi to Coke, so the software was much more enjoyable than the drink. About all I can remember from the lab is the quality keyboard and display of the VT-100 terminals, total reliance on my copy of K&R, and what a pain it was to try and send email from Carnegie Mellon, which was part of DECNET to the University of Missouri in Columbia, which was on BITNET. Still, it was one of the most enjoyable summers I've ever had.

When the Mac came out in 1984 I thought it was pretty cool, but then the Lisa had been cool as well, and it cost something like $10,000, which even with Ronald Reagan/Milton Friedman (somebody please take his nobel away from him) induced inflation was a lot of money. The Mac was black and white, low on memory, short on hard disk space (HyperDrive horror stories, anyone?), ridiculously expensive, and you had to program on a Lisa. However, I promised myself that when the Mac got 1 MB of RAM I would make the switch, so in August, 1986, I got a Mac Plus and put the PC under the desk so I would have something to rest my feet on. That winter I taught myself how to program the Mac and wrote my first shareware program, a simple graphics application called Aimless that allowed the user to watch tiny balls or polygons bounce around the screen. Aimless wasn't particularly original and later on bouncing polygons became a standard feature of screen savers.

The summer of1987 was a very happy time.

[TO BE CONTINUED through 1991]

I've never been a good student and my early attempt at running my own startup business prolonged my college education. It didn't help that I switched majors several times. Also, I couldn't come to grips with the way personal computing was more or less ignored in computer science and engineering in the mid-west through most of the eighties, which continued to dwell on VM/CMS, VMS, Unix, and batch-like programming rather than interactive applications. In January 1991, after graduating from Mizzou with a degree in Economics in 1990, I moved from Columbia out to Portland, Oregon. In May, 1992, I joined Intel to support Macs and RS6000s - amazingly enough - for a group working on leading edge switching technology used in the Paragon SuperComputer among other things. It was at Intel that I discovered the web. In the fall of '92 I was looking at Gopher and the Net as a potential way of helping our multi-platform group work a little smarter. [TO BE CONTINUED]

CERN, Geneva at the May 1994 WWW Conference: This is the first time I actually got to see someone making use of a proxy server as a substitute for a network connection; I knew it was possible, but seeing is believing. I think that 486 running Linux had about 10MB of the web stored on its hard disk. This was the forerunner to client side caching now used in the most popular web browsers. That's me in my ever-present blue Patagonia jacket. Ari Luotonen is directly below me, Henry Houh is to my right with the notepad in his shirt pocket, Pei Wei is on the far right and standing next to Pei is Phillip Hallam-Baker. My apologies to the other guys, since I can't remember their names offhand.

Revised August 01, 1996.