What it was like owning a Commodore in the 1980s

Since questions occasionally come up, and I remember well what it was like owning a Commodore in the 1980s in the United States, I’ll share my recollections of it.

It was very different from computing today. It was still interesting, but it was different.

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The problem with dictionary passwords

Consulting firm Deloitte is warning that 8-character passwords will be obsolete this year. Sound familiar? Of course, the Slashdot crowd blamed it as security “experts” (their words) creating hype to make money.

Well, I’m a certified security professional who doesn’t have a dog in this fight, except that I don’t want your accounts getting stolen. So here’s the problem with many of the solutions the Slashdot crowd posed.

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What happened to GEM?

GEM was an early GUI for the IBM PC and compatibles and, later, the Atari ST, developed by Digital Research, the developers of CP/M and, later, DR-DOS. (Digital Equipment Corporation was a different company.) So what was it, and what happened to GEM?

It was very similar to the Apple Lisa, and Apple saw it as a Lisa/Macintosh ripoff and sued. While elements of GEM probably were inspired by the Lisa, Digital Research actually hired several developers from Xerox PARC.

DRI demonstrated the 8086 version of GEM at COMDEX in 1984, and shipped it on 28 February 1985, beating Windows 1.0 to market by nearly 9 months.
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Digital distribution, not SOPA and PIPA, is the best long-term solution for the MPAA

Fightforthefuture.org declared victory yesterday, saying that SOPA and PIPA have been dropped. Their e-mail said some other important and interesting things, but most importantly, it made some references to China. Communist China. Totalitarian Communist China.

The distinction is important.
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What the Founding Fathers intended to be in the public domain today

If Copyright law was still the way the Founding Fathers intended, anything copyrighted before 1955 would be in the public domain today. A number of noteworthy things came into being in 1955.

But like Duke University’s Center of Public Domain Studies, I’m a bit more concerned about the stuff that isn’t as noteworthy.

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Microsoft sold 400 million Windows 7 licenses; what does it mean?

Steve Ballmer announced today that Microsoft has sold 400 million Windows 7 licenses, but anywhere from half to two-thirds of PCs are still running Windows XP and need to get with the program.

He also continues to insist Windows 8 will ship in 2012, which really makes me wonder why those XP users need to switch now. December 2012 is 17 short months away, and XP support runs until 2014. I see little need to rush out now and buy Windows 7, use it for 18-24 months, and then turn around and buy Windows 8. If XP is fulfilling users’ needs, what’s the hurry? Unless Windows 8 is going to be late, as bad as Vista, or both. But none of that can happen, right?

I’m sure the Windows 8 Police will be along to haul me away shortly for insinuating such things. But until that happens, that 400 million figure lets us do some other interesting extrapolation. Read more

Should journalists hack?

I experienced an interesting collection of contrasts going to journalism school in the mid 1990s. Inside the same building, we had investigative journalists who specialized in advanced use of databases and stodgy editors who missed the days of manual typewriters and wore technological ignorance as a badge of honor.

And yet, there were textbooks that said journalists ought to be learning computer programming, because there was going to be a need for journalists who had the ability to do both. It took a while, but it seems that day has come. Maybe not to sit down and write applications software, but to hack.

But is it ethical for a journalist to hack?
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How the Republican Party is losing me

I tend to lean to the right. For as long as I understood what it meant to be conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, I called myself a conservative Republican. In college, I wrote a newspaper column for 3 1/2 years brashly titled "No Left Turns."

In last year’s primary, I voted for Ron Paul for a couple of reasons. One, a lot of things he said made sense. Two, at least he sincerely believed in the things he said that didn’t make sense. And three, he’s a doctor. When Ron Paul predictably didn’t get the nomination, I voted against John McCain and for a Democrat, Barack Obama. The main reason was health care.I come from a long line of Republicans. My great great great grandfather, Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar, helped the Republican Party get organized in the state of Ohio prior to the Civil War. My great grandfather, Ralph Farquhar, worked for the powerful Ohio Republican Marcus Alonzo Hanna. And my dad was three things: outspoken, Republican, and a doctor. Sometimes the order varied.

In 1992, Dad was very much against Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, but he was very much in favor of some kind of health care reform. The system desperately needed it, even then. Rarely did a week go by without Dad getting an angry letter from one of his patients. The story was always the same. Patient comes to Dad seeking treatment. Dad treats patient. Patient gets better. Dad bills insurance company. Insurance company denies claim. Patient can’t afford to pay.

The only variance was the patient’s understanding of what happened. Sometimes the patient was mad at Dad. Sometimes the patient wanted Dad’s help. All too frequently, what happened was Dad just didn’t get paid. The insurance provider–be it Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance–wasn’t going to budge. The patient legitimately couldn’t pay the bill. Dad could press, but if the patient paid, the patient would go hungry. If Dad didn’t bill, Dad wouldn’t go hungry. Dad had a soul, so Dad would do what people who have souls do and just tear up the bill.

Someone had to give a crap about these people. Unfortunately sometimes Dad was the only one.

Dad told me once that if I decided to become a doctor, he would lock me away for seven years. Being a doctor is a family tradition. Dad thought there were better things for me to do than spend my life messing with computers, but being a doctor wasn’t one of them. He wanted me to have a better life than he had.

Dad died of a heart attack in 1994, aged 51. Had the health care system allowed him to practice medicine and stayed out of his way, I’m sure he would have lived longer. Maybe he would have been still been alive when my grandmother and father in law needed him.

Fast-forward to 2006. My wife was pregnant, but having a hard time of it. Extreme nausea was keeping her almost bedridden some days. Her doctor found one and only one anti-nausea drug that would work, a treatment normally given to cancer patients. Our insurance was willing to pay for it once. When her 30-day supply was exhausted, the doctor tried every treatment that the insurance company was willing to pay for, but none of them worked. She fell into a vicious cycle of dehydration and nausea. One built on the other, and she ended up hospitalized.

The drug cost about $80 a week to just buy outright. I bought a week’s supply to keep her out of the hospital for a week while I figured out what to do next. The doctor knew I was unhappy. I asked him if it would do any good to get a lawyer and sue the insurance company. I was serious and he knew it. He said he wished someone would do that, but if it was me, the only thing I’d accomplish would be getting some face time on CNN and meanwhile we still wouldn’t have the medicine we needed.

This is the free market compassion that Rush Limbaugh spouts about. I’ve yet to figure out what’s compassionate about cutting off a woman’s medicine so she has to go into the hospital. The insurance company will pay for part of her hospitalization, but not the medicine that keeps her out of the hospital. Oh, and while she’s in the hospital, she can’t work.

Writing some letters succeeded in getting her the medicine she needed. And my employer, to its credit, changed insurance plans the next year, to something that takes better care of people.

Unfortunately, this year I found myself working for a very large company that operated as its own insurer in order to keep the profits to itself. And that company quickly decided that my wife was using too much insulin and my son was using too many vaccines. Their doctors disagreed, but they’re only doctors. What do they know about profits?

One day, after getting yet another denial claim in the mail, I ran into a former coworker in a parking lot. He asked how things were going. I told him, then asked if my old company had any job openings. A month later, I was working for my old company again, with the only health coverage I’ve ever seen that actually covers what I need it to cover. When they offered me the job, I had to think for a whole two seconds before accepting.

Most people can’t do what I did. On paper, pretty much every health insurance plan I’ve ever had pretty much looked the same. But like I said, there’s only been one that ever covered much of anything.

And pretty much any old insurance plan works for me, because I rarely use it. As long as I visit a chiropractor every six or seven weeks or so, I have no health issues. I could save a lot of money by declining coverage entirely and just paying the chiropractor out of pocket.

But my wife has to go to the doctor more often. So does my son. Me paying into the system and getting next to nothing out of it covers for them, who pay into the system and take back out a much higher percentage of what they paid in.

The only companies who aren’t jealous of health insurance companies’ profits are the oil companies. Since 2000, their profits are up more than 400 percent. But year after year, more and more people find it harder to get health coverage.

The system has a good racket going, frankly. Food companies sell poisonous food to the unwitting (or apathetic) masses. The masses get sick and have to go to the doctor more. Doctors give them pills for their problems, but the problems get worse because they keep eating poisonous food. Eventually they develop diabetes or cancer, at which point the insurance company can cut off coverage.

Everyone makes lots of money in the meantime. Except for the consumer-turned-patient, who pays out more and more every year, then eventually ends up with a chronic and painful disease.

I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy. Not at all. The free market just found something that works really well for the people in power. It’s a beautiful system–for those who benefit.

Unfortunately that same system hurts people. I live with two people it hurts. And the system killed my dad.

Sometimes the market needs a referee. That referee is called regulation. And since the Republican Party isn’t willing to regulate, I voted for a Democrat that I knew would press the issue.

Actually what I expected was for Obama and the Democrats to push some kind of socialized medicine, and Republicans to counter with something like the German system, which is all private but highly regulated. You don’t hear much about the German system, mostly because it works pretty well.

That’s what I favor.

Some people may wonder why I care, since I have good coverage now. But if you think the plan I have will last forever, you’re smoking crack. Eventually the plan will get too expensive. Or the company could get bought out, or it could lose the contract I’m on. There are any number of things that could put me right back where I was a couple of months ago.

I’d much rather fix the system. I might need it someday, but not only that, I actually have a soul, and I’m tired of seeing other people suffering.

If that makes me a moderate rather than a conservative, so be it. If it means I’m no longer a Republican, well, some things are more important than labels and party affiliations.

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.