Origin Stories: Victor Agreda, Jr.

Victor Agreda Jr
V. Jr|05.17.13

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Origin Stories: Victor Agreda, Jr.

I was lucky. My mom and dad had me while they were finishing up their graduate work in the 1970's at North Carolina State University. My dad was, at the time, a bit of a gadget nut. Of course, back then "gadgets" were more commonly found in the kitchen and came from companies like Ronco. My dad was more into the electronics side, and I remember seeing TAB books about building robots around the house. We never built those robots, but my dad did buy two pieces of tech which changed my life forever. One was an HP programmable calculator, the other was an Apple II.

For those who don't remember, the early programmable calculators from HP had less than 4 kilobytes of memory on them. My dad would program the equations needed to solve various math problems (he was getting his Ph.D in chemical engineering at the time), then he'd let the HP crank away on the math over the weekend. So yes, computers were a little slower back in those days.

While the HP lived at my dad's office on campus, and I only saw it a few times until he graduated, the Apple was a Christmas present for the whole family. He bought it in a bicycle shop, as there were no real computer shops at the time. In the back of this bike shop there was a hobbyist's corner filled with old computers like the Altair, and various electronics kits and projects for the budding "computer" hobbyist. As the Apple II had a keyboard and available software, it was an easy sell.

I still remember plugging it in to our color TV and hearing that beep as we loaded up Integer BASIC and tried out a game of Star Wars using a casette to load the program. We had 2 paddles to play, and Star Wars was hard to play with those paddles; one controlled your X-Wing's X-axis, and the other the Y-axis. That is no way to fly, for sure. More fun was Breakout, and later a Star Trek game where we obliterated ASCII Klingons in turn-based play. Even more fun than that: getting to program our own applications using AppleSoft BASIC, made from a little shop called Microsoft and licensed by Apple for use on the platform (the sad story of why AppleSoft BASIC for Mac never made it to market will have to wait for another day).

Within a few years I was happily using BASIC and fastidiously entering lines of code from books and magazines to make games, "screen art" and other fun things. When we moved to Tennessee I wound up getting a Laser 128, which, along with an external disk drive, allowed me to use some of the best software on the market -- for kids and adults.

Some of the software of the 1980's also had a big impact on me. Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set featured a visual interface for easily building virtual pinball tables. Music Construction Set similarly allowed the Apple II to turn into a synthesizer. Adventure Construction Set, while primitive, was used to make entire interactive worlds using little sprites and your imagination. All of those were from Electronic Arts, a rambunctious little gaming startup at the time. Then there was Broderbund, who brought me Lode Runner and The Print Shop. Lode Runner (still around today, sort of), had a level editor that allowed total freedom. I made dozens of levels; later, when I taught game design at a technical college, the lessons in game balance I learned from play testing those Lode Runner levels were not lost on me.

Origin Stories Victor Agreda, Jr

Then there was The Newsroom by Springboard (there's an archived review for the Atari here). Of course Broderbund made a killing with The Print Shop -- a simple software package which allowed anyone to easily print (on dot matrix!) posters, banners and other things. Every school in my town had a copy of The Print Shop, and judging from Kodak Disc photos of birthdays back then, I think most of the parents had a copy as well. But The Newsroom was like an advanced version of Print Shop. It was basically a desktop publishing package, complete with layout options, text editor, "image" editor, plus a couple of floppies worth of clip art. The Newsroom used the metaphor of an actual newspaper, complete with layout room and copy desk, to guide kids through the process of making newsletters. It was a powerful piece of software, and required several floppies (front and back!) to create and print your work.

I was also fortunate to grow up in a small East Tennessee town with a couple of taxpaying big companies located there. Eastman Kodak and Mead Paper had operations where I grew up, and because they paid so much in local taxes our schools were quite good. I remember attending computer programming camp where we worked on the Apple IIe at a local elementary school one summer -- apparently this was not common, and certainly rare in an otherwise agrarian locale. Along the way I got Microzine, a brilliant digital magazine available on floppy disk from Scholastic.

When my dad got our first Mac, it was an SE/30. The SE/30 was a great machine, but more importantly we got our first modem with it. Naturally, I was the first in my family to infect our computer with a virus. The virus came from a downloaded sound pack (remember when you could customize sounds on Mac OS?) featuring Monty Python noises. Virus writers definitely knew their audience. If you were on the Internet back then you'll also fondly remember how it was primarily a text interface, and "finding" stuff was largely done via print or word of mouth. Ah, BBS -- back when trolls were smote daily by mods.

Origin Stories Victor Agreda, Jr

I recall a youth filled with electronic toys, too. I still have a Speak & Spell, and a Entex Electronics Soccer game, briefly seen in TRON: Legacy. My dad was nice enough to get me several Erector and Capsela kits, and those awesome 100-in-1 electronics project kits, the old ones with springs and a million colored wires which inevitably became tangled up. Perhaps my most prized possession was Verbot from Tomy, a voice-recognizing robot which you could order around the house by shouting commands into a microphone. Verbot worked almost as well as Siri, so there you go.

In high school I helped our yearbook staff modernize. Mine was the first class to skip the old pasting methods, creating the yearbook digitally with Pagemaker (from Aldus at the time) and Freehand. I still have Freehand 1.0 on a disk somewhere. We also bought one of the first affordable color printers, which used thermal paper, and I remember being disappointed by the quality of the images.

One big side project in high school involved taking correspondence classes in electronics from NRI. My specific degree was to be in electronic music technology, but I only took the courses up until I made a mixer and a really terrible PC. The mouse was so cheap as to be non-functional by design. Building your own PC way back then gave one an appreciation for the fit and finish of Apple products.

It was also during high school that I continued my fascination for building things in software. I was never very good at it, but when HyperCard came along I churned out dozens of choose-your-own-adventure games. Often I was the only one playing them, but it further ingrained a sense that computers were the fastest way from thought to created reality.

By the time I was in college, and after switching from Electrical/Computer Engineering to Communications, Apple had started cranking out lots of Mac models. My first personal Mac was a Centris 610, the "pizza box" variety. I wanted a Mac TV, but had to wait until I treated myself to a graduation present of a PowerMac 8500. Until then I was an active member of several boards on Prodigy, took some time to make a fake ID with my Mac, and published a 'zine using, again, PageMaker. I remember not having enough RAM to load some of the photos.

The early-to-mid 90's were not exactly kind to Apple, but there were some important innovations. I watched my first QuickTime movie on a double-density disk in my Centris on afternoon in my dorm room. It blew my mind. That's also what got me into the video streaming business way back in 1999, at a now-defunct dot com startup. By then I had enough experience to know that if you could create something in the computer, you could *publish* that content in any form.

Now that video could be shown on a personal computer, the final wall had been broken. Of course I didn't consider bandwidth concerns, etc. but that was the origin point for my former stab at a multimedia shop, Superpixel.com. I founded Superpixel having grown up making stuff in computers, either in BASIC or hand-coded from a book, or in a construction set. Using software like HyperCard, and building electronics, printing yearbooks and editing video on a computer early in life also prepped me for the work I was to do later in life, both in education and blogging.

With a PowerMac 8500 under my arm, and After Effects 3.0 and Premiere 4 loaded onboard, I set off to film school. The 8500's analog output resulted in some hilarious attempts at visual effects. I spent far too much time painting fire and lightning effects frame-by-frame in Painter, and not nearly enough time writing scripts in Final Draft (still one of my favorite word processors ever). Still, by the time my final year rolled around the blue and white G3 had become available, so I grabbed one of those, a Canon XL-1 and an ultrawide SCSI hard drive with a whopping 8.5 GB of storage on it. With this setup I shot my final project, a sort of live action Robot Chicken, with a slight touch of Tim and Eric Awesome Show.

I briefly worked in the video industry, assisting AVID editors (who used Macs) and making labels and other assistant-editor duties on an ever-evolving lineup of candy colored iMacs. By the time I left that industry Apple was on the verge of releasing the first iPod.

After a brief stint making commercial websites and internal software solutions, all on Windows machines, I wound up teaching multimedia, then game design, again mostly on Dell computers. Still, 3ds max only runs on Windows, so I was quite fortunate to graduate from Bryce, Poser and Ray Dream Studio on my Mac to a "big boy" 3D toolset. While teaching I honed my skills in Photoshop, Director and Flash. Yes, this was back in the earlier part of the century when Flash was actually useful.

While teaching is awesome, there are times when you're sort of waiting around. During those times I would log in to Slashdot, or dial up a new site called Engadget. Phillip Torrone was a podcast host at the time, and I remember going from Phil's Flash hacking blog to Engadget. Through Engadget I discovered TUAW, where I wound up becoming the top-ranked commenter -- go figure! In 2004, Ryan Block wrote up my iPod case made from a milk jug (which hack-a-day had posted first). I also wound up writing a concept for a Mac mini-based home studio, much as Barb Dybwad did on Engadget, and that's how she and I met.

Origin Stories Victor Agreda, Jr

Eventually, the company then known as Weblogs, Inc. decided to launch a software blog, so Jason Calacanis asked David Chartier and I, along with Jordan Running and Marc Perton, to write for the new site. I learned a lot from or first lead, Marc, who went on to work at Consumer Reports before landing at gdgt. Funny how things come full circle, as gdgt is now also part of AOL!

Anyway, Download Squad was a sincere effort to find and review the best software out there, and report on the industry. What we didn't realize was that the industry would be forever changed as the concept of "software" became more mobile, more pervasive, ultimately morphing into "apps" with a huge growth curve in mobile. Download Squad was closed by AOL just a couple of years ago, but I like to think there's still a market opportunity in quality software reviews, covering all platforms that matter.

Once AOL acquired Weblogs (not long after the launch of Download Squad, incidentally), I started full time as a programming manager, in charge of several sites at once. I assisted in the administration of all of the foreign Engadget sites. I oversaw BBHub (a BlackBerry blog, can you imagine?), DVGuru and some of the rogue, hyper-niche sites we used to have -- like a site about web radio, and The Unofficial Yahoo Weblog (yep, that was a thing).

The rest is history, I suppose. As AOL shifted focus and CEOs, I kept working on making the sites great. We launched DIY Life at some point, with an eclectic and somewhat geeky bent, but that was folded into Lifestyle and is more home-focused now.

I'm incredibly proud of the team at TUAW, as many of us have been here for several years. Dave Caolo was at TUAW before me, in fact, and now he's full-time with AOL to make sure the trains run on time every morning. We were fortunate to have Laurie Duncan introduce us to Mike Rose, as his editorial love, deep knowledge and brilliant mind consistently bring clarity to the team and the site. (Mike's a damn fine writer, too. This farewell tribute to Steve Jobs is one of the best things I've ever read.) Steve Sande just joined AOL full-time as well, although I sometimes think he was installed as a patch during some overnight update -- the guy knows his Apple tech!

Oh, I also made a fart app video.

I've also been lucky to have worked with some amazing TUAW talent, now elsewhere. Brett Terpstra is now a developer with AOL Tech, but he produces a podcast and writes some amazing software. Drew Olanoff is kicking ass with TechCrunch. Christina Warren is with Mashable, but before she was big time, here's her interviewing David Pogue. I practically watched Nik Fletcher grow up! All amazing people, and there plenty of other, equally amazing ones I haven't listed because I'm afraid I'll forget someone -- it's been that great a ride.

Over the coming months I'll let the rest of the team tell their origin stories as well. Stay tuned for those, and lots more good stuff to come here on TUAW.

Origin Stories Victor Agreda, Jr

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