According to my Tiger Mom, my first encounter with gadgets started as early as at the age of two -- I somehow managed to ceaselessly destroy home telephones at the time, thus forcing my folks to opt for the cheaper models. It's rather ironic that I'm now the one who owns the most number of phones in the family. At some point around that age I also accidentally killed my father's tank of koi carp by feeding them washing powder, but 'tis a story for another day.
Surprisingly, I don't think said mischief shaped my interest in gadgets later on. It really all started with our new life in Australia when I was four, and my uncle there happened to have a Nintendo Entertainment System. I still remember the "wow" moment when I first saw this gray box and the pixelated plumber on the Super Mario Bros. cartridge. Thanks to the lack of game-saving ability, my determination to uncover all the secret boxes and chambers quickly led to my first pair of prescription glasses.
Thinking about it, we didn't have a particularly rich collection of gadgets, nor were my parents passionate about electronics. The most impressive piece of tech back then would have been my father's mobile phone -- it's rather amusing seeing how he went from a massive brick all the way to a small candy bar over the years. I think he still keeps his first ever Motorola handset in his office for showing off, if not for self defense (admittedly, I was too frightened to touch it when I was tiny, fearing I'd drop and break it). Don't be mistaken, though: I definitely didn't get my nerd genes from my old man -- this dude doesn't even have a computer on his office desk, and he can only just about use a mouse. It was only last year when he showed interest in the iPad, so I got the couple each an iPad when Apple started clearing stock for the iPad 2.
Alas, I didn't quite have the same determination with my studies in my first year at high school, and looking back now, the various aforementioned distractions were no doubt part of the problem, and I also discovered PC games that year. The outcome of this was my parents sending me off to a boarding school in the middle of nowhere, aka Wiltshire in the UK (near Stonehenge, if that rings a bell for anyone). Thank goodness that I was able to fly back home two or three times a year then, because the countryside offered little more than grazing cows and the occasional fertilizer stench to kids trapped within the campus. In my first couple of years there, the closest I got to some new technology were the Royal Air Force jets roaring over us every now and then.
Of course, I didn't really hate the countryside nor the school. In fact, that special place offered many opportunities for me to show off my nerdy side in various ways. Most notably, I was one of the few kids in my first year there to possess a digital camera (a hefty 1.3 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix 1400 Zoom), and quite naturally, I became a general photographer for my schoolmates to document some skateboarding, pranks, birthday bumps and parties. In the later years I became our school magazine's photographer, so I was able to borrow the more powerful and eccentric Nikon Coolpix 4500, and then I eventually convinced school to purchase a Nikon D50.
While I was off my photography duty, I also built a couple of websites: one for the beekeeping club (yes, I was in it too; that's how awesome the school was), and one for our senior boarding house. Just last week, my brother asked where I acquired my HTML skills, and all I remember is that ever since I received my first laptop -- a bulky but tough Fujitsu LifeBook C2010 -- I started fiddling with FrontPage (come on, who hasn't?), until I got fed up with the limitations and migrated to Dreamweaver. I didn't take any lessons except for the few times when I asked an IT teacher for some advice -- the dude was even kind enough to give me a one-to-one crash course on making simple Flash animation.
On top of that, I gradually became my schoolmates' and teachers' go-to guy for all computer related problems. My proudest achievement was beating a technician at getting a projector to talk to a laptop just moments before we were due to perform Les Misérables in London's West End. Might I add that we were the first to perform a school production of said musical, hence the invitation to perform in London for one night -- I played the farmer who kicked Jean Valjean off his farm, though thinking about it, I should've pushed for a rice paddy field while I was at it.
It was a rather awkward conversation with the deputy head master, especially since I was also the deputy school captain or something like that (no, not the Zac Efron kind). Anyway, I got away with just having my connectivity gear confiscated, and I managed to behave myself for the remaining months in that school year.
Oddly enough, I ended up enjoying the photography club and writing for our student newspaper more than the course itself. I should've seen this coming -- I had already spent two summers as an intern soldering countless prototype circuit boards for some car audio head units, and that was quite possibly the most boring thing I'd ever done. Sure, the course at uni was much more than that, but similarly, I quickly lost interest while staring at circuit boards and codes for hours in the labs. Too bad I didn't heed the advice of one of the engineers at the company: he plainly told me to pick any course other than electronic engineering to avoid being stuck in his seemingly boring job (his words, not mine).
Don't get me wrong, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the company of my awesome (and super bright) coursemates at uni, and they were the ones who actively encouraged me to throw myself into Engadget. Coincidentally, the rare opportunity arose twice for me: one from an open call for a London editor (which I didn't get through), and another from a brief meetup with ex-Senior Editor Thomas Ricker. Eventually, I would quit uni for this job; and that, my friends, is how you seriously upset your Tiger Mom and Tiger Dad.
Do I have any regrets? Only a bit. I should've checked the male-to-female ratio when picking university (no offense, Imperial College London). As for this job, I don't think I can get any geekier given my circumstances (though it still feels good to know vaguely what Fourier transform's for and how FPGA works), not to mention that I get to lay my hands on some products well before my envious friends can. Well, the small proportion of friends who care that much about gadgets, anyway.
Richard is currently based in Hong Kong, surrounded by a vast range of gadgets and delicious food. On Twitter he's @richardlai, but be warned: he does tweet a lot. This guy's also just turned 24 today.