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Retro Computing

The first PC I ever built

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: Everyone who built his own PC knows everything. Just ask him.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s admirable to build your own PC rather than just buying Dell’s special of the week (although some people would be better off just doing exactly that), and it does require at least skill with handling a screwdriver. But it’s not what it used to be. Today, building a PC makes you know something. It no longer makes you an expert.

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How DOS came to be IBM’s choice of operating system

The urban legend says Gary Kildall snubbed the IBM suits by making them wait in his living room for hours while he flew around in his airplane, and the suits, not taking it well, decided to cut him out of the deal and opted to do business with Bill Gates and Microsoft, thus ending Digital Research’s short reign as the biggest manufacturer of software for small computers.

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Windows 98 CD-ROM drive not working? Try this

Occasionally, a PC’s CD or DVD-ROM drive will stop responding for no known good reason. Sometimes the problem is hardware–a CD-ROM drive, being a mechanical component, can fail–but as often as not, it seems, the problem is software rather than hardware. Here’s what to do with a Windows 95 or Windows 98 CD-ROM drive not working when the same drive works just fine in another OS.

If Windows has both 16- and 32-bit CD-ROM drivers, it can get confused and disable the drive to protect itself. The solution is to remove the 16-bit driver, then delete the obscure NoIDE registry key to re-enable the 32-bit driver.

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How to connect a C-64 to a modern TV’s S-Video input

In the 1980s, a computer monitor offered a clearer picture than a TV by eliminating the need to modulate/demodulate the video signal, which caused degradation. But in 2003, it’s next to impossible to find affordable composite monitors for 20-year-old computers, and when you can find them, their size pales in comparison to a $99 TV. Why bother with a really old, curvy 13″ monitor when you can retro-compute in luxury on a flat 19″ TV?
Fortunately, if a TV offers composite jacks, you can connect a computer directly to it. No tricks involved–you connect it just like you would a VCR.

But Commodore 8-bit computers (the 64, 128, and Plus/4) used a trick to get a clearer picture: They seperated the chroma and luma signals. This is exactly what S-Video does today. So it’s possible to get a better-still picture out of a Commodore, if your TV has S-Video jacks.

Note: Older C-64s had a 5-pin video connector that only provided straight composite. Those connect just like a VIC-20. Don’t modify it to provide S-Video, the machine is worth much more unmodified.

By far the easiest way to connect a Commodore to S-Video is to buy a cable. They’re common on Ebay for about $20.

You can also make your own if you want. Making video cables isn’t difficult, assuming you have decent soldering skills. Usual disclaimers apply: I make no guarantee as to the accuracy of this information. I believe my sources are accurate but I don’t have a working Commodore to try this on right now. Connecting the cables wrong should only result in lots of noise and lots of snow on your TV screen, but if you somehow mess up your computer, it’s not my responsibility.

Later C-64s, C-128s and Plus/4s used an 8-pin DIN connector. S-Video uses a 4-pin mini-DIN connector, the same connector used on Macintosh keyboards from about 1986-1997.

If you already have a Commodore video cable, you can easily make an adapter. Get a 4-pin mini-DIN connector and two female RCA plugs, red and yellow. Connect S-Video pin 3 to the center of the yellow plug. Connect pin 2 to the outside of the yellow plug. Connect pin 4 to the center of the red plug, and pin 1 to the outside of the red plug.

If you don’t have a cable but can locate the appropriate connectors, you can make a cable like so:

   Commodore              S-Video

        2                  4   3
     4     5              2     1
   1    8    3
     6     7

  (solder side)        (solder side)

Commodore pin 1 goes to S-Video pin 3 (luma)
Commodore pin 6 goes to S-Video pin 4 (chroma)
Commodore pin 2 goes to S-Video pins 1 and 2 (ground)

Commodore pin 3 goes to the center of an RCA connector for audio. Connect the outside of the RCA connector to Commodore pin 2.

To make a straight composite cable for a C-64 or VIC-20 (the VIC had a 5-pin plug, and so did early 64s–the later plug is backwards compatible with this 5-pin plug), connect Commodore pin 4 to the center of a yellow male RCA plug. Connect Commodore pin 2 to the outside of the yellow plug. Connect Commodore pin 3 to the center of a white RCA male plug, and Commodore pin 2 to the outside of the white plug.

Fare thee well, goodnight, and goodbye to my friend, OS/2

The Register: IBM has finally brought the Great Rebellion [OS/2] to a close.
The Register was the only online obituary that mentioned eComStation, a third-party OS/2 derivative that everyone forgets about. Interestingly, the product literature never mentions OS/2 by name, only bragging about its technology licensed from IBM.

The Reg also talked about OS/2 version 3 being positioned as a gamer’s OS. Maybe that’s ironic, coming from the suits at IBM, and that wasn’t how I saw it–I switched from Windows 3.1 to OS/2 because, coming from an Amiga, I was used to being able to multitask freely without a lot of crashes. Windows 3.1 crashed pretty much every day if I tried to do that. OS/2 knocked that number down to about once a year, and usually those lockups happened when I was running Windows apps.

Even though I never really thought of it that way, OS/2 was great for games. Since it used virtual DOS machines, each environment had its own memory management, so you could fine-tune it and avoid shuffling around boot disks or struggling to master the DOS 6.0 boot menus. Pretty much no matter what you did, you got 600K or more of conventional memory to work with, and with some fine-tuning, you could bring that total much higher than you could usually attain with DOS. Since 600K was almost always adequate, most games just ran, no sweat.

The other thing I remember is the speed at which DOS games ran. Generally, running it under OS/2 gained you a speed grade. A game running under OS/2 on a DX2/50 felt like a DX2/66 running under DOS would feel. An OS/2 wizard could usually squeeze yet more performance out of the game with some tweaking.

I have fond memories of playing Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and Tony LaRussa Baseball 2 on my Compaq 486 running OS/2 v3.

And there was another really nice thing about OS/2. When I bought a shiny new Pentium-75 motherboard and CPU and a new case, I pulled the hard drive out of the Compaq and dropped it into the Pentium. It just worked. All I had to do was load drivers for my new video card, since it used a different chipset than my 486.

And the cult of OS/2 won’t go away just yet. The talk over at has me almost ready to install OS/2 again.

In defense of Wordstar

Over at Ars Technica, there’s a thread expressing horror and dismay that the Navy is using WordStar in some of its departments–or, for that matter, that anyone alive is using WordStar.

Which leads me to ask, have any of these critics seen WordStar?

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A total blast from the past

I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but tries to collect documents from the classic days of BBSing, which the curator defines as having ended in 1995. I wouldn’t have thought it that recent. I was still BBSing in the summer of ’94, but by the fall of ’94 I’d discovered the Web, and I thought I was the last one to wake up to it.
I’d learned FTP and Gopher when I went to college in 1993, and I’d been using Usenet via local BBSs for even longer, but as everyone knows now, it was the Web that put the Internet on the map. I think a lot of people think the Web is the Internet.

Anyway, before the Internet, hobbyists would take computers, get a phone line, hook up a modem, and see who called. There were usually discussion boards, file transfers, and at least one online multiplayer game. The really big BBSs ran on 386s with hard drives, but an awful lot of the BBSs I called ran on 8-bit computers and stored their data on floppy drives. I remember one board I called used seven or eight floppy drives to give itself a whopping 6 or 7 megs of online storage. It was called The Future BBS, and the sysops’ real names were Rick and Jim (I don’t remember their handles), and it ran on a Commodore 64 or 128 with, ironically, a bunch of drives that dated back to the days of the PET–Commodore had produced some 1-meg drives in the early 80s that would connect to a 64 or 128 if you put an IEEE-488 interface in it. Theirs was a pretty hot setup and probably filled a spare bedroom all by itself for the most part.

It was a very different time.

Well, most of the boards I called were clearinghouses for pirated software. It was casual copying; I didn’t mess with any of that 0-1 day warez stuff. We were curmudgeons; someone would wax nostalgic about how great Zork was and how they didn’t know what happened to their copy, then someone would upload it. I remember on a couple of occasions sysops would move to St. Louis and complain about how St. Louis was the most rampant center of software piracy they’d ever seen, but I see from the files on that probably wasn’t true.

Besides illegal software, a lot of text files floated around. A lot of it was recipes. Some of them were “anarchy” files–how-to guides to creating mayhem. Having lots of them was a status symbol. Most of the files were 20K in length or so (most 8-bit computers didn’t have enough address space for documents much longer than that once you loaded a word processor into memory), and I knew people who had megabytes of them in an era of 170K floppies.

A lot of the stuff on the site is seedy. Seedier than I remember the boards I called being.

But a lot of the content is just random stuff, and some of it dates itself. (Hey, where else was I going to find out that the 1982 song “Pac-Man Fever” was recorded by Buckner & Garcia? forgot about that song. If I recall correctly, that’s probably proof that God is merciful, but hey.)

Mostly I find it interesting to see what people were talking about 10 and 20 years ago. Some of the issues of yesterday are pretty much unchanged. Some of them just seem bizarre now. Like rumors of weird objects in Diet Pepsi cans.

Actually that doesn’t sound so bizarre. I’m sure there’s an e-mail forward about those in my inbox right now.