Growing up Geek: Sascha Segan

Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today, we have the lead analyst for mobile at PCMAG, Sascha Segan.

When I turned eight in 1982, we moved house, I starred on a game show and we got an Atari 800. The modem came a year later, free with the 850 serial interface. I needed it so I could print homework on my new Epson FX-80 printer.

The 830 acoustic modem had two rubber cups: you'd dial your number on a rotary-dial phone, listen for the "whee-ooo!" of the modem and slam it down into the cups, hushing everyone around you because too much noise could break the connection. One favorite game was to try to talk to the modem, figuring out which pattern of your own "whee-ooo"s would create something that looked like words. 300 baud was just about as fast as I could read.

The 830 came with too basic a modem program, unable even to capture to disk. I found a board, chatted to sysop, and had him copy out for me a 12-line BASIC terminal program which I wrote down on paper and later typed into the Atari. You could use that program to bootstrap a better program, and then you were online.

In BBS world, nobody knew you were a kid, but you probably were anyway. The sysop of Greyhawk's Gallery was 15. The Wizard's Chamber had great ATASCII animations: I hit Y, chat to sysop, and found out Jamie was 11, swapping floppies in his own 800 after school. We became friends and spent long hours playing D&D on the phone before our families gave us subway privileges.

Me, at age ten, according to something my mom wrote at the time:

"I notice that Sascha enjoys sitting at his computer, doing some mundane homework such as a handwriting exercise, while his automatic dialer is dialing a bulletin board through his modem, while listening to Scarecrow and Mrs. King."

At the time, most boards had four phone lines, max; you had to wait in line, enduring busy signals for hours if necessary to get those precious ATASCII animations of a knight fighting a dragon, or to chat on the message board with other people who knew how to get all the way through Ultima.

The Atari kids and Commodore kids were different tribes: ask me, and I'd swear our D1: was far superior to their ,8,1 and POKEY just spanked SID. All their games sucked. They just did, because our games were better and their games sucked. (My friend Ben, with the Commodore, felt passionately otherwise.) Later the vast superiority of the Atari platform was conclusively proven by the game Alternate Reality, which came to us first. Case closed.

I'd defect to Apple II at my friend David's house down the street because he had Wizardry, though, and Wizardry was the closest I could get to playing D&D on a computer before I found New York's role-playing BBSes like Ellena Caverns.

In seventh grade I discovered Usenet, thanks to the Big Electric Cat, the first public-access Usenet site in New York. I was now {bellcore,harpo,cmcl2}!cucard!dasys1!ssegan -- if you sent email to someone on the network back then, you had to spell out the whole path, because our servers didn't automatically create routings. After the Cat went down, I became a sysop at the Dorsai Diplomatic Mission, and then picked up an account on Panix.

I'd periodically go whole hog on Usenet on and off through high school and college. I found a refuge for a bunch of teenagers and college kids and mastered the "spew," the pre-Livejournal mass whine to a bunch of friends before there was a Web to post it on. I chased a French girl through Minitel in 1989 and met a girlfriend on Usenet in the '90s, but it took in the internet-dating heyday of 2001 to finally find my wife.

Internet kids, we were your prototypes, the primitive ASCII-art versions of your Pixar perfection. We grew up OK. Of my old Usenet buddies, one's an HR executive. One is an expert in the behavior of teens on the internet, of all things. One edits technical texts; one runs an arts education nonprofit. And Jamie, the 11-year-old sysop of the Wizard's Chamber? He's the senior mobile analyst at We chat all the time.

Sascha Segan is the lead mobile analyst for, writing about mobile phones and tablets for the past seven years. You can follow his views on mobile phones here, and (please) follow his Tweets at @saschasegan.