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Digital Life, The Straits Times
Saturday, Apr 26, 2014

News, Science And Tech

What's in... Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's gadget boxes

Digital Life, The Straits Times | Kash Cheong | Saturday, Apr 26, 2014

By day, he has to deal with the haze, floods and other acts of God, but by night, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is a self-confessed techie who fixes his own gadgets.

As a boy, he began by hacking computer games.

"As far as games were concerned, I wasn't very good at them," he said with a laugh.

"I learnt to programme in order to hack the games," said Dr Balakrishnan, 53.

One of his very first hacks was a game called Odyssey. The text-based role-playing game, which came out in the 1980s, had players moving their characters with the keyboard.

Dissatisfied with the hassle of pressing up-down-left-right keys, he wanted to control the character with a joystick. So he re-programmed the interface to do just that.

"There was no Internet yet, so you had to learn programming through books at the library," he said.

"I am what you might call a serious hobbyist."

But computers had fascinated him since he laid hands on his first, the Apple II Plus.

He said his father, a lecturer, took a loan to buy it for $6,000 in 1982.

Dr Balakrishnan remembers taking apart the Apple II Plus to add hardware, so that the computer could run a word processing application called WordStar.

"It was the killer app of the time. The ability to edit, change, cut and paste was mind-blowing back then."

His tech skills proved useful in professional life. He developed programs to simplify the documenting of eye tests, when he was an opthalmologist in the 1990s.

After work these days, he often goes to hardware suppliers in Bishan and Woodlands to buy microcontroller boards and hardware kits to make his own gadgets.

Over several late nights recently, he put together a device to control his automatic gate at home.

"It's one of the few usable things I have made," he said. "With my job, there's hardly time to make a completed product."

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