How to connect a Commodore 64 or 128 to a modem

I guess it’s not exactly obvious, to someone looking at a Commodore 64 or 128, how a modem plugs in. Commodore modems plugged into the port on the far right hand side, looking from the back. If the port is labeled at all, it will be labeled “User port.” Although it had other uses, that port was used for modems far more than for any other purpose. Read more

Of politeness and consideration in the connected age

I’ve quit several online forums in recent months, and lately I’ve been noticing a lot of Facebook wars–discussions that just got out of hand too fast. All of this makes me extremely nostalgic for the days of Commodore 64s and 128s, dialup modems, and hobbyist-run BBSs. It was hopelessly primitive compared to what we have today, but for the most part it was polite, and it certainly felt more like community.

What happened?

In the 1980s and even the early 1990s, computer adoption wasn’t extremely widespread. Today you can pick up a computer for $50 if you know where to look and get online with it. But 20 years ago, getting a computer took serious enough money that you needed to have some reason to be doing it.

BBSing whittled the subculture down some more–not everyone had a modem in those days. And the communities that formed around BBSs tended to be segregated by computer type–you had Commodore hangouts, Apple hangouts, IBM hangouts, and Atari hangouts. It was all local, because few wanted to pay the high long distance bills.

So everyone had a few things in common: From the same area, owned the same computer, educated and/or of higher than average intelligence, and wealthy enough to be able to own a computer in the first place. And nothing builds friendships faster than sharing. Sharing computer programs was a big element of the community.

When fights did erupt, there was considerable cooling off time. Only one person could dial in at a time, so saying something flip could take serious effort–dialing and re-dialing until the line wasn’t busy–and eventually you might decide it just wasn’t worth it if you didn’t get through right away.

That’s a big difference from today. Today you just start typing, and nothing forces anyone to consider any consequences. If you have a smartphone, you don’t even have to be home. When discussions get heated, everyone can pile on at once and say things in the heat of the moment, and things get out of hand really fast. And if one or more participants have had too much to drink, it gets even further out of hand even faster. That didn’t happen as often 20 years ago because sometimes people couldn’t afford both a computer and beer.

It’s not local anymore either. Today, the reach is global. I can talk to my cousin in Germany more easily than I can talk to my next-door neighbor. (Maybe my next-door neighbor should friend me so we’d talk more.) That means I can talk to the cousin I thought I’d never meet, which is great. The downside is that we become "friends" with people we really have only superficial things in common with and really don’t know and understand all that well.

Or maybe we do know our friends pretty well, but that doesn’t mean our other friends know each other at all. I have friends from my train habit, friends from work, friends from church, and friends from school. In some cases, the only thing they have in common is that they know me.

And let’s face it: It’s difficult for people who are too different to relate to each other. I had dinner a few months ago with some cousins who grew up in Cleveland. I learned pretty quickly that I know nothing about life in the Rust Belt. When they started talking about Cleveland, I didn’t understand half of what they were talking about.

And if my pet cause doesn’t solve a problem they’re facing, I can’t expect them to get as excited about that as I am.

We tend to expect all of our friends to agree with us, and to agree with each other, and that’s just not realistic. This has always been true, but we’re a lot more aware of it now that we’re always connected. We find out much sooner that we don’t know our friends as well as we thought we did.

Sometimes we’re disappointed that they weren’t what we imagined them to be. Ignorance was bliss back when we didn’t know one another so well, and we could imagine them to be whatever we wanted them to be.

And I think sometimes we just try to juggle too many relationships. Friends on Facebook are a status symbol, and sometimes people will try to juggle hundreds. That’s a recipe for arguments–essentially, inviting hundreds of people who probably don’t know each other into our living rooms.

In our real families, certain rules develop over the years. We learn what upsets certain people, and avoid those things. But all that goes out the window online, because nobody knows any of those rules.

But until we reconsider who our friends are, and perhaps lower our expectations of their ability to get along perfectly with one another, the situation will probably get worse before it gets better.

Answering the problem is difficult because there’s no single answer to it. Part of the answer is to reconsider who our friends are, and perhaps pare things down a bit. A big part of the answer is to just step away for a minute and let life happen. Let yourself be interrupted. It gives you time to reconsider what you were going to say. And when time finally allows a response, try to remember the other person may have a valid reason for thinking differently, as hard as that may be. In light of that, challenge the idea, not the person. And when someone is challenging your idea, try not to take it personally.

Things certainly were a lot simpler when my buddies and I were dialing into the M&M Factory BBS in 1989.

The Revolution of 1985

Twenty five years ago yesterday, a revolution happened. Nobody really noticed, and nobody thinks about it today, but the effects are still here. That we take these things for granted today shows just how wide-reaching the revolution was.

It took the form of a computer with a 32-bit Motorola CPU, full stereo sound, a display capable of 4,096 colors, and a fully pre-emptive multitasking operating system. At a starting price of $1,295, though it rose to closer to $2,000 by the time you added a second drive and a monitor.

The specs on that machine don’t sound all that impressive today, but keep in mind what else was available in 1985. The state of the art from IBM was the 16-bit IBM PC/AT with very limited sound capability, color as an expensive option, and DOS 2.1. Windows at the time was little more than a glorified DOS shell. Apple had its Macintosh, but it cost twice as much as an Amiga, had only slightly better sound than that IBM, and just a tiny black and white display.

Over the course of the next nine years, Commodore sold 3 million Amigas. Along the way, they worked out the early glitches in the machine, and upgraded the capabilities, though not always as quickly as the competition. But the machine aged remarkably well. And ultimately it did for television production what the Macintosh did for publishing, replacing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of specialized equipment with equipment that merely cost thousands, and fit comfortably on a large desk.

The big problem was that Commodore sold those three million machines to one million people, and never really knew what to do with it. It should have been a great business computer. It was the ultimate home computer. It could have been the ultimate education computer. And it was the ultimate video editing computer. But Commodore never marketed it effectively as any of those.

Mostly the company went through the motions while financier Irving Gould lined his pockets with whatever money was left after Commodore got done paying the bills each quarter. Some years, Commodore spent more money on Gould’s and his yes-man company president’s salaries than they spent on Amiga development.

So, slowly but surely, the competition caught up. VGA was better in some regards than the Amiga graphics and worse in others, but over time, the combination of VGA and fast 386 and 486 CPUs became enough to keep pace. Macintosh graphics followed a similar curve. Affordable sound cards for PCs started appearing in the late 1980s and were commonplace by 1992 or 93. It was a lot harder to get it all working on a PC, but when it worked, it worked pretty well. But making DOS boot disks to get it all working was a black art, an art I remember practicing at least until 1998.

It was in the early 1990s that PCs and Macs got multitasking. First it was horrible cooperative multitasking, followed later by pre-emptive multitasking like the Amiga had. Eventually they even added memory protection, something Amiga didn’t have (when it was initially designed with an 8 MHz CPU and 256K of RAM, that was the one thing they had to leave out).

The money ran out in 1994, and the rights to the architecture changed hands more times than most people can count. The Amiga’s days as a mainstream computer–if it ever could claim to be one–ended then.

The rest of the world spent the 1990s catching up. When Windows 95 came out with its promise of Plug and Play, improved multimedia, and pre-emptive multitasking, it was all old news to Amigans. Amigas had been doing all that for 10 years already.

For a long time after 1994, I was bitter. I’m less so now that the rest of the world has caught up. But I still wonder sometimes what might have been, if the industry had spent the 15 years between 1985 and 2000 innovating, rather than just catching up.

Dinosaur hunting

Today I slipped over to Laclede Computer Trading Company for the first time in many years. I was in search of an ISA parallel card. They’re not easy to find these days, mostly because they aren’t particularly useful to most people these days, but I figured if anyone would have one, it would be them.

No dice. But man, what memories.

Laclede has been around forever–at least 20 years, and probably a whole lot longer than that. I remember taking spare 286 and 386 stuff there in the early 1990s and they actually gave me money for it. Math coprocessors, Packard Bell power supplies, other oddball stuff like that. I’d salvage stuff from upgrade projects and get a little extra money that way.

Most of the stuff in the store now is Pentium 4-level. Recent enough to be useful, old enough to be really cheap. There wasn’t a single ISA board in sight. It was a little sad, but honestly, Clinton was probably still president the last time someone came in looking for something like that. No point in keeping that kind of stuff around.

I lingered around a while though. I saw lots of old SGI and Sun workstations. I remember in 1995, when I was taking a C programming class in college, we used to have to get on waiting lists to use one of the limited number of SGI workstations. They compiled code instantly, and unless you did something incredibly stupid, you weren’t going to crash them. They were a lot nicer than the NeXT workstations we usually ended up having to use when we got tired of waiting in line.

Those systems cost more than a decent car in those days. Each. And now, depending on configuration, you can get one for $30, $60, or $80. Incredible. They’re a lot more useful than the Pentium 75 I had back then, but PCs eventually overtook those weird and wonderful and odd proprietary Unix architectures.

I left, wistfully, but as I got in the car, I spied something. I wasn’t sure that distinctive shape sitting on a distant shelf was what I thought it was, but what else could it be? So I went back in. The clerk gave me a knowing look.

Yep, it was what I thought it was. There, on a tall shelf, on top. 1977 called. They want their computer back.

There it was. The Commodore PET 2001. The early one, with the built-in cassette recorder and the calculator-style chiclet keypad that was even worse than the IBM PCjr.

The  Texas Instruments TI-99/4A was a flop from the early 1980s but some of its technology ended up in successful machines from other companies.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for sale. I didn’t ask, because I couldn’t afford it, and don’t have room for it. I stood there for a minute, studying it, then looked around some more. They also had a TI-99/4A, a contender from the early 1980s that couldn’t compete with Commodore, but some of its technology ended up in the Colecovision and, if I’m not mistaken, the IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000. It wasn’t a bad system, but it was horrendously overpriced. It cost more than a Commodore 64 but its capabilities were somewhere between a C-64 and a cheap VIC-20.

They also had a Commodore PC-10-III, which was one of Commodore’s PC/XT clones. And, next to the PC-10, there was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1, the other forgotten personal computer from 1977.

Neat stuff. I don’t really have the interest to collect these old machines myself, but I’ll stop to admire someone else’s every chance I get.

The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

Why piracy matters

Rob O’Hara offers an interesting perspective on piracy.

I agree with him. 20 years ago, copyrighted material offered presence. It was something special.

Computer software was mostly sold in specialty stores. And if you wanted something, the store might or might not have it. There was a bit of a hunt involved. I still have fond memories of going to Dolgin’s, Babbage’s, and other long-gone stores to buy Commodore software. Sure, I pirated some stuff (who didn’t?) but mostly confined myself to out-of-print stuff that you couldn’t otherwise get.

Believe it or not, I took pride in having a shelf of paid-for software.

Music was the same way. Back then, the average record store had a comparable selection to your local Target. If you decided you liked Joy Division or Sisters of Mercy, you had a long road ahead of you to collect all their stuff. Acquiring material that was far off the Top 40 path took time and effort, not just money.

Today it doesn’t matter what you want, you can probably find it in 30 minutes online. Legally, or, in most cases, illegally. Like a friend asked me about 10 years ago when broadband connections became attainable and this stuff started to change, “How can data be rare?”

The solution some people give is touring. That works for musicians, but not so well for everyone else. Book signings aren’t very profitable for most authors. There’s no close equivalent at all for software. Charging for service works for application software, but not at all for games.

The solution is to find other ways to make a living.

The loss? Culture, frankly. Music gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. Record labels can’t (or won’t) take a chance on promising young bands whose first few records don’t sell. Had U2 come on the scene in 1999 instead of 1979, it never would have made it. The Joshua Tree was a huge seller, but who’s ever heard of Boy and October? By today’s standards for first and second albums, they were flops.

The result is we see a lot more acts like Justin Timberlake, who can make a lot of money fast. If they fade from view, it doesn’t matter, because the record companies can always manufacture a replacement. Which leaves little reason to take a chance on someone who does things differently and takes a few years to really burst onto the scene. The environment doesn’t really favor the development of someone like Talking Heads, the Moody Blues, or much of anything else that deviates from the norm today. Or U2, for that matter, who may sound mainstream today, but they sure didn’t in 1980.

I see other arenas suffering too. Name me an innovative video game. There’s been very little innovation since Wolfenstein 3D came into being in 1992. Virtually everything since is just a variation on that same theme: Shoot everything that moves in a 3D environment. Yawn. That wasn’t even very innovative–it’s just that it happened in 3D. There were plenty of shoot-everything-that-moves games out there in the mid/late 1980s for the Nintendo NES. Wolfenstein itself was a remake of a 2D shooter from the early 80s for 8-bit computers called Castle Wolfenstein.

Creative people who want to have a house and a car and a few things to put in it find other ways to make a living. Like writing or doing graphic design for Pizza Today or another trade magazine. It’s steady work. It’s not glamorous and won’t make you famous, but it pays the bills. And it’s niche enough that it’s unlikely to be pirated.

Someone may find a way to make things work in this new reality. Odds are it won’t be someone in Washington. And it probably won’t happen tomorrow. Which is a shame.

DOS nostalgia?

I’ve been getting nostalgic for DOS lately. Well, certain DOS games *cough* Railroad Tycoon *cough*.

One of my coworkers’ wives is nostalgic for ’80s boy bands whose name I refuse to mention, so there certainly are worse things for me to be nostalgic about. Sure, DOS is terrible, but not that terrible.I’m using an old 128MB compact flash card in a cheap CF-IDE adapter. While 128 megs isn’t a lot, it’s adequate if you’re not going to have Windows and Windows apps loaded. After all, you can get all the DOS you’ll ever need for game playing in less than 1.5 megs. Even still, I’ll probably pick up a bigger card the next time I order stuff from Newegg. A 4 gig card is cheap, and to DOS, 4 gigs is huge.

DOS boots to a C prompt in about five seconds off the CF card, and a good chunk of that is the CD-ROM driver scanning the IDE channels for drives. The system takes a lot longer to POST than it does to boot.

The system itself is an old Micron Pentium II-266. Severe overkill, but I hear Railroad Tycoon Deluxe really wants a fast CPU. Plus, my 486 is missing in action right now anyway.

Now that I have the system running, I need to hunt down drivers for the system’s Sound Blaster card. Then I’ll get Railroad Tycoon Deluxe loaded, and then all I’ll have to do is find a little time to play it. That last step will probably be the hardest part.

If the games I want to play don’t like the P2 (unlikely but possible), I’ll just dig out a Pentium 75 or a 486 from somewhere. That won’t be a huge setback, since I’ll have everything I need gathered up to build the system at that point.

Secret Service BBS raids from the other perspective

I’ve written in the past about the Feds busting people using BBSs for nefarious purposes in the early 1990s. But the only stories I’ve ever heard were from the perspective of the people who got busted, often second or third hand.

Here’s a story from the side of someone who helped the Secret Service for three days in the 1980s.

The short version of the story: the Secret Service was busting the owner of a BBS who was using his board to collect and distribute credit card numbers and Sprint long-distance codes.

This particular bulletin board ran on an Atari 800 computer. An Atari 800 certainly would be up to the task, but Apple and Commodore computers were more common.

Jack Tramiel, the then-owner of Atari, had collected a favor from the Secret Service a few years earlier. Faced with an unfamiliar computer, the Feds called in the favor. So Tramiel loaned him one of his engineers: the author of the blog entry I linked.

It’s interesting to me that he said he wouldn’t help them again. He believed the Feds had a strong enough case without his help, and seizing computers didn’t really accomplish much.

Having spoken at length with people who got caught up in this kind of behavior, it got me thinking. I suspect the Feds took the computers not so much to collect evidence, but to keep the computers from being used for that purpose for a time at least, and to try to scare people away from that behavior.

The question is, did it work?

I can’t speak for anyone else in any other time or place, but in the 314 area code in the early 1990s, the intimidation tactics didn’t really seem to work all that well. People talked about it in hushed tones, but it wasn’t much of a deterrent. It seems to me that everyone thought they could get away with it, that they knew something the other guys didn’t. Or they thought they learned something afterward that they didn’t know before.

So they’d get out of juvenile detention (in all the cases I’m personally aware of, the perpetrators were minors), and they might or might not keep out of trouble for a while, but the allure was strong, and in most cases they got back into the same things again.

This raises a personal question too. I knew what these folks were up to, at least to some extent. So why did I talk to them?

Curiosity, really. Growing up in the ’80s, I’d seen the Hollywood portrayal of hackers, and the news portrayal of hackers (which wasn’t very different). This was the closest thing to a real hacker I’d seen, and I wanted to know what the real story was like.

The reality wasn’t as glamorous as the media made it out to be. By and large these were bored teenagers who tried to use their computers to fill that emptiness in their lives. Some of them had some genuine talent, and are now using those skills to make a decent living. Some had very little talent but were willing to pull an all-nighter chipping away at whatever stood in the way of what they wanted.

And for the record, I never stole long-distance time or credit card numbers. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and this was clearly wrong. But besides that, pulling all-nighters would have killed my grade point average. I wanted to go to college, and I knew I would need my grades.

I guess to some people, this illegal activity was a way for them to get things they could never afford on their own. I figured I could go to college, get a good job, then buy whatever it was I wanted or needed.

I guess it’s ironic that I’m typing this on a computer I built, as best I can tell, in 2003 from parts that weren’t exactly new then. Oh well. My priorities have changed.

But the main thing that fascinated me about this account from the other side is that it confirms much of those decades-old rumors are true. Except now I know it was the Secret Service beating on the door, not the FBI.

Fairlight in the news?

A story today about the possibility that a prominent California Republican was once a co-founder of the Commodore 64 warez group Fairlight caused an uproar on Slashdot today.

Reading it brought back some memories.

During the time in question, I was an avid C-64 fan myself. I had a modem and a list of BBSs I called on a regular basis. There was a guy who went by the name of Chris Snyder who claimed to be a member of Fairlight and made a very big deal about it. Of course, members of these pirate groups didn’t use their real names (it made it too easy to bust them), so I doubt this Chris Snyder character was what he claimed to be. But that was my introduction to the group.

I was acquainted with a number of members of pirate groups at the time. Generally I initially knew them by handles, and in some cases we were on a first-name basis, but I don’t think I ever knew any last names. We’d talk about programming in 6502 assembly language, and they’d share some war stories. I found their world fascinating, but I didn’t have any interest in being part of it.

For those who are unfamiliar with how the C-64 worked, software publishers went to great lengths to keep people from copying games and sharing them with others. The C-64’s disk drive was actually a computer in and of itself, with its own CPU, RAM, and operating system. This sophistication allowed some rather complex and elaborate copy prevention schemes. So-called “warez” groups emerged, breaking these protection schemes to allow the games to be copied freely and easily, and since this was usually a non-trivial task, the groups would tag the now cracked game with an introduction, which was usually a graphics and sound demo with scrolling credits, greetings to people they liked, flames to people they didn’t, and then they would release the game to bulletin boards, where others would in turn download them and upload them elsewhere, and slowly the release would make its way around the world.

It rarely stopped just with breaking the copy prevention schemes on games. Since people who didn’t want to pay for software didn’t want to pay to make the long-distance calls required to distribute them, most of the members of these groups were phone phreakers–people who would trick the phone system into letting them make long-distance calls for free. And that often led to credit card fraud. Lots of stories circulated about the consequences of this behavior. I heard stories of people getting slapped with four-figure phone bills for the calls they made, and turning to selling drugs (or at least being approached to do so) in order to make the money to pay the bills back. I heard other stories about the FBI coming in, seizing computers, pressing charges, and the result was a stint in a juvenile correction facility.

Suffice it to say, these weren’t the best people for a 15-year-old with ambitions to be hanging out with or linked to, so I did my best to try to keep a safe distance from these people. We’d talk programming over e-mail and sometimes over the phone. Looking back, talking on the phone with these guys wasn’t necessarily the best idea I ever had, but it didn’t exactly last very long. I soon made a number of more upstanding friends.

I remember taking a phone call sometime in 1991 or 1992 from someone I now only know as Iron Doctor. I’m sure I once knew his first name, but I don’t remember anymore. He’d been in and out of legal trouble and we’d fallen out of contact. I don’t remember much about the conversation anymore, and the only reason I can place the year was because he asked me what CD I was listening to, and I said I was listening to Nirvana. “Yeah, we like Nirvana up here too,” he said. There’d been a time when we could talk for hours on end, but I don’t remember that last conversation being very long. It was clear we’d gone different directions. I had an Amiga, and while I hadn’t totally given up on programming, I was starting to get the idea I’d end up doing something other than that for a living.

Some of the people involved in the warez scene outgrew it. The way one guy put it, when we were both 16 or 17, was pretty simple. “I don’t understand why someone would risk prison to pirate ‘Grover’s Magic Numbers,'” I remember him saying to me. I don’t know if he’d ever been involved in cracking software to distribute, or if he was just a demo programmer. But we ran into each other in college. We only ever had one class together, but we crossed paths a few times as undergraduates, and by 1998 we were working in the same building. Occasionally I’d walk down the hall and ask him a Unix question.

I never spoke with anyone in Fairlight, so I can’t comment at all on whether the California politician is the infamous Strider because I have no idea. But the story breaking sure brought back a lot of memories.

It makes me wish my old Commodore 128 still worked. I’d love to fire it up for old time’s sake, and maybe even see if I can remember how to program a raster bar.

An insider’s view of the Atari ST

I’m sure pretty much everyone who cares has already seen this on Slashdot or wherever, but I found this blog entry from Landon Dyer, one of the designers of the Atari ST, fascinating.

I was a Commodore fan, but all of the old-fashioned computers (except maybe the Mattel Aquarius) are more interesting than anything that’s being built today. Commodore computers are kind of like the Marx trains of the 1950s: extremely cheap, yet capable and durable, but it’s the rival that made the costlier, sometimes less capable products during the same era that gets all the glory. When you talk 1950s electric trains, Lionel gets all the glory. Talk 1980s computers, and Apple gets all the glory.

The funny thing is, when I was growing up in the 1980s, I only ever met one person who lusted after an Apple II*, and only one other person who owned one. That guy was a snob, and not very many people liked him.

The ST is an interesting beast, because it was built by Atari under Commodore’s old management (Jack Tramiel and his sons) and they brought in some ex-Commodore engineers to work with the Atari engineers they retained. So the ST was a very Commodore-like computer made by Atari. As opposed to the Amiga, which was built by Commodore but designed by some former Atari engineers.

One Commodore magazine, Transactor, actually gave the Atari ST a lot of coverage early on. This may have been because Atari’s then-state-of-the-art machine was more Commodore like than the machine Commodore was using to compete with it. Or it may have been because the ST actually hit the market a few months before the Amiga 1000 did.

Commodore’s story has largely been told. Many ex-Commodore engineers over the years have been willing and even eager to talk about what they know to anyone who’s interested, so their stories are everywhere. So it’s nice to read some perspective from someone with inside knowledge of the ST. Much of Atari’s story remains untold, which is a bit odd because I suspect more people are interested in Atari’s story than Commodore’s.

*Joe Posnanski-like footnote: One weekend, my Dad and I watched the guy who lusted after the Apple II help his dad paint a small delivery truck in their driveway using cans of cheap spray paint. On Sunday it looked better than it sounds, but of course after a summer’s worth of sun and rain it was a bigger eyesore than it had been when it started.