Growing Up Geek: Tim Stevens

I didn't even really like Superman when that picture was taken. I think I was three or four and well on my way to being a fat kid. I mean, sure, the movies were boss, and Christopher Reeve was the man -- all suave and all-powerful -- but I didn't know Kal-El from a candy cane. I liked his costume, though, and of course I knew that he was super strong and could fly.

I was obviously super strong too. Just look at me hefting that huge mass of leaves all by myself! I thought I could fly too. According to Stevens family legend I tried to jump out of a second story window in those very Underoos. Thankfully I decided to get a good long running start and my sister, two years older, grabbed me before I flung myself into that particular adventure.

I've never quite believed this story because my sister and I would go on to spend the rest of our childhoods trying to kill each other. She really could have saved herself a lot of trouble over the ensuing years by just letting me take that flying leap. We're close now but, back then, we didn't get along too well. That's okay, I spent most of my time sitting in front of some sort of a computer anyway.

I have fondest memories of the Commodore 64, bought by my dad at a Babbage's in Holyoke Massachusetts, a two hour drive from our home in Vermont. On that computer I got my first taste of BASIC programming, spending weekends with my father going clickety clack on that giant brown keyboard writing GOTOs and other statements I would later learn to hate.

I always had a steady supply of proper games, Dad coming home from work almost every day with something scored from a friend, copied onto a Verbatim or Elephant 5.25-inch floppy. I didn't understand what typing "LOAD "*",8,1" meant, only that it made the games go, and I of course had no idea I was engaged in wholesale piracy.

There were plenty of other systems and consoles that would come and go through my childhood -- the world's worst keyboard on the Atari 400, invigorating Pac-Man matches on our an Atari 2600, the obligatory NES. In Jr. High I'd change my mind a few weeks before Christmas, deciding I wanted a Genesis instead of an SNES, which sent my poor mother scrambling to return the hard-won Nintendo system she'd scored to find me something I could play Sonic the Hedgehog on. A couple years later I'd scrounge money and beg family members to get me a Sega CD. Sonic CD remains one of my favorite platformers of all time.

When I was in high school my mother made an investment in the futures of my sister and I and bought a proper computer at Caldor, a 486 Packard Bell. It was the age of multimedia and this sucker was loaded, having not only speakers but a CD-ROM and a giant stack of shareware games on CD. Even with the OverDrive processor I later added it could barely run any of them, but thankfully a good friend had not one but two properly equipped rigs and even some Ethernet strung between them. Every day became Duke Nukem 3D day.

The Packard Bell wouldn't do much to support my gaming habit, but it did open the door to a few critical things. On it I learned something a little less BASIC, picking up C++ and getting my first taste of coding with semicolons. But, more importantly, that machine got me online, 14.4Kbps at a time. An account with Netcom scored me an e-mail address comprised of random characters, a copy of Netscape Navigator, and the app that would really change my life: mIRC.

I could look back shamefully on those many late nights at the keyboard, instead I'll take the positive angle. It's through IRC I learned to touch-type at 100wpm, it's in those hours chatting that I developed a writing voice, and really that was about the only way I felt comfortable communicating. I'm a chronic stutterer and sometimes in school it got so bad I couldn't talk. At all. So I rarely did. I have it more or less under control these days, but I'm still hardly a chatty person -- outside of a chat room, anyway.

In college I split my time between comp sci and writing. My love for gaming and my Saturn scored me my first paid writing gig, reviewer for Games Domain -- at that time one of the biggest gaming sites in the world. For my senior project I used connections at Sega to get a copy of the SDK for the Dreamcast. Well, the VMU part anyway. There was no documentation in English, only reams of raw assembler files, but I figured it out, writing a few games, including the first (and possibly only) two-player VMU game -- a type of Pong played vertically from one screen to the next.

I was destined for a job in the gaming industry, but when a dot com startup flush with cash made me a tasty offer suddenly consulting seemed like the way to go. Since then I've split my time between writing and coding.

And of course I can't sign off without at least mentioning my love of things that go fast. As a kid I didn't even want a car, just a motorcycle, but it would take me a long time to finally get one I could ride, a Yamaha Seca II, replaced with a Triumph Speed Triple a few years later. Buying a racing kart and hitting the track was a big step for me, but this time of year you'll find me getting my kicks in my Subaru, racing wheel-to-wheel on frozen Adirondack lakes.

So here I am, mixing my love for cars and bikes and gadgets and doing my best to turn you all into gearheads, even if it means strapping into the goofiest looking car known to man to show that riding around in something with a top speed under 30mph can be a total blast. Oh, and the Superman Underoos? Those have been lost to history.

Tim Stevens is Automotive Editor at Engadget and has been contributing to the site since 2008. On Twitter he is @Tim_Stevens, where he rarely swears and almost never stutters.