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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.

What to do when an Xbox DVD drive sticks

So I got this Xbox really cheap. When I got it home, I found out why–the DVD drive wouldn’t open. Here’s what to do when an Xbox DVD drive sticks.

It’s a good thing I didn’t pay much for it.As it turns out, there’s an emergency eject hole below the drive, about an inch and a half to the left of the console’s eject button. Turn the power off (this is important) and then straighten a paper clip and poke that into the hole to release the tray. Provided there isn’t anything obstructing the tray, it will come out.

Hopefully it’s a temporary problem, but as a drive ages, apparently the teeth on the tray or the gears that mesh with them can wear down, making it hard for the drive to eject its tray. Supposedly you can also cause this problem by leaving discs in the system while it’s powered off.

Whatever the cause, the problem with my Xbox seems to be permanent. After I manually eject it, it will usually work a couple of times after that, then it starts sticking again. I can live with it, since I bought it mostly to experiment with. I probably won’t play Xbox games with it very often.

If you dropped your Xbox and now it won’t open, there’s a good chance something broke off and is obstructing the tray. In that case your best bet is to replace the drive. The best source for replacement drives anymore is eBay, at a cost of $35 and up depending on the vintage. Thomson drives tend to be the cheapest. Samsung drives, which are the most desirable, cost more. If you’re adventurous, read this Xbox repair page, but be careful. Once you open an Xbox, there is an exposed power supply inside, and if you touch the wrong thing, it will ruin your day at the very least. At worst, it really can kill you. I don’t think that page stresses that enough. The power supply sits under the hard drive. Don’t touch anything over there.

If any of this makes you nervous, you’re probably better off calling around and seeing if you can trade in a broken Xbox for one that works. Call your local game shops, or look on your local Craigslist for someone advertising Xbox repair or modifications.

As far as Xbox reliability goes, I don’t have any solid statistics. Whether the Xbox or the PS2 is more reliable depends on who you ask, but I see (and hear about) more broken Xboxes than PS2s. If you buy a used first-generation Xbox, make sure you buy it somewhere that gives you some kind of a guarantee.

Usually the manufacturer sells its consoles at a loss, hoping to make up for it by selling games, which are extremely profitable. Microsoft seems to cut more corners on its consoles than Sony or Nintendo, and the result is that the Xbox and Xbox 360 aren’t as reliable as they could be. I don’t usually recommend extended warranties, but if I were buying an Xbox 360, I would get one. (The original Xbox is discontinued now, so buying a new one of those isn’t an option, unfortunately.)

Blister on my thumb…

So, I got my hands on a working Nintendo NES and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out cartridge. I used to play that game at my cousin’s, about 20 years ago. It’s addictive.I think the nice thing about this game (and a lot of the older games) is that they’re easy to learn, and they’re challenging, but if you look closely enough there’s a definite pattern, so you can learn to play the game well and win.

I can’t remember exactly how far I used to be able to get in this game, but this time around I had a whole lot of trouble with Soda Popinski. Most of the advanced boxers have one big weakness and it’s the key to beating them. Soda Popinski doesn’t have one. What I figured out is that he’s predictable, and he’s fairly slow. So you beat him by anticipating and dodging his punches, throwing a whole bunch of punches yourself whenever you get the opening, and not worrying if it takes three rounds to get a KO or TKO.

Now if I can just get my timing right to beat Bald Bull in the next match…

Atari vs Nintendo

Every time a major anniversary for either system comes along, discussion of how the NES saved the videogame industry after the disastrous Atari 2600 comes with it. Your opinion of Atari vs Nintendo probably depends on your age.

I have to admit I scratch my head as I read this stuff. Did the people who write it live through both of them? By what measure was the 2600 a disaster? I can’t help but speak out in defense of Atari a bit.

Read More »Atari vs Nintendo

Commodore’s back!

Long, long ago, I owned a computer that was so reliable that it only ever crashed on me and caused me to lose work once. I remember it well, and I was livid about it. So much so that I never used that word processor again. And the computer never crashed on me or caused me to lose work again.

That computer was a Commodore 128.It was slow, it didn’t multitask, and I could barely type on its awful keyboard, and it irritated me that MicroLeague Baseball took 15 minutes to load if I wanted to use its General Manager and its Stat Compiler add-ons (of course I did), but from a pure reliability standpoint, that simple machine was the best computer I’ve ever owned.

Read More »Commodore’s back!

Heading back to Way Back When for a day

Someone I know house-sat this weekend for a couple who are slightly older than my parents. Their youngest daughter, from what I could tell, is about my age, and they have two older daughters. All are out of the house.
It was like walking into a time warp in a lot of ways. There’s an old Zenith console TV in the living room. My aunt and uncle had one very similar to it when I was in grade school, and it spent several years in the basement after it lost its job in the family room. First there was an Atari 2600 connected to it, and later a Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousin and I used to spend hours playing Pole Position and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and various baseball games down there.

The living room housed a modern JVC TV, armed with a modern Sony DVD player and RCA VCR. But in the other corner was a stereo. The Radio Shack Special 8-track player was the stereotypical 1970s/early 1980s brushed metal look, as was the graphic equalizer. The tuner was also a Radio Shack special, styled in that mid-1980s wanna-be futuristic style. If you lived through that time period, you probably know what I’m talking about. But if you’re much younger than me, you’re probably shrugging your shoulders. Beneath it was a Panasonic single-disc CD player in that same style, and a Pioneer dual tape deck. A very nice pair of Fisher speakers finished it off. It was definitely a setup that would have turned heads 17 years ago. (I have to wonder if the Fishers might not have been added later.)

It seems like there are only two genres of music capable of being emitted by an 8-track player. Once genre includes Led Zeppelin and Rush. The other includes John Denver, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. Their collection was on the latter side, which sent my curiosity scurrying off elsewhere.

But I had to try out that stereo. I kind of like The Carpenters, but I have to be in the mood for them, and I’ve heard enough John Denver and Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow to last me forever. So I checked out the CDs. Their CD collection was an interesting mix, but with a good selection of contemporary Christian (albeit mostly pretty conservative contemporary Christian). I popped in a CD from Big Tent Revival. I don’t remember the title, but the disc was from 1995 and featured the song “Two Sets of Joneses,” which I still hear occasionally on contemporary Christian radio today.

About three measures into the disc, I understood why they hadn’t replaced that setup with something newer. It blew my mind. I heard a stereo that sounded like that once. In 1983, we moved to Farmington, Mo., which was at the time a small town of probably around 6,000. We lived on one side of the street. Our neighbor across the street owned the other side of the street. Any of you who’ve lived in small midwestern towns know what I mean when I say he owned the town.

Well, in addition to owning the biggest restaurant and catering business and tool rental business in town and a gas station, he also owned a mind-blowing stereo system. Hearing this one took me back.

I almost said they don’t make them like that anymore. Actually they do still make stereo equipment like that, and it costs every bit as much today as it cost in 1985.

And Big Tent Revival sounded good. If I’m ever out and see that disc, it’s mine.

Upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I spied a bookshelf. It was stocked with books of Peanuts cartoons, but also tons and tons of books I remember reading in grade school. Books by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and books by other people that I remember reading 15 or even 20 years ago. The only things I didn’t remember seeing were S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel, but as I recall, those books hit me so hard at such a period in my life that I didn’t leave those books at home. Or maybe Hinton and Zindel were a guy thing. I’m not sure. But seeing some of the names that made me want to be a writer, and being reminded of some of the others, well, it really took me back.

Next to that bookshelf was a lamp. Normally there’s nothing special about a lamp, but this lamp was made from a phone. This reminded me of my dad, because Dad went through a phase in life where there were exactly two kinds of things in this world: Things you could make a lamp from, and things you couldn’t make a lamp from. Well, this was a standard-issue wall-mount rotary phone from the pre-breakup AT&T Monopoly days. One just like it hung in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen well into the 1980s.

The computer was modern; a Gateway Pentium 4 running Windows Me. It desperately needed optimizing, as my Celeron-400 running Win98 runs circles around it. Note to self: The people who think Optimizing Windows was unnecessary have never seriously used a computer. But I behaved.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about this stuff. I just thought it was so cool.

But I remember long ago I wrote a column in my student newspaper (I’d link to it but it’s not in the Wayback Machine), which was titled simply “Retro-Inactive.” Basically it blasted retro night, calling it something that people use to evoke their past because their present is too miserable to be bearable.

Then I considered the present. Then I thought about the 1980s. We had problems in the 1980s, but they were all overshadowed by one big one–the Soviet Union–that kept most of us from even noticing the others. We had one big problem and by George, we solved it.

So I conceded that given the choice between living in the ’90s or living in the ’80s, well, the ’80s sure were a nice place to visit. Just don’t expect me to live there.

I’m sure people older than me have similar feelings about the ’70s, the ’60s, the ’50s, and every other previous decade.

And I guess I was just due for a visit.

Apple. you call this tech support?

This is why I don’t like Apple. Yesterday I worked on a new dual-processor G4. It was intermittent. Didn’t want to drive the monitor half the time. After re-seating the video card and monitor cable a number of times and installing the hardware the computer needed, it started giving an error message at boot:

The built-in memory test has detected a problem with cache memory. Please contact a service technician for assistance.

So I called Apple. You get 90 days’ free support, period. (You also only get a one-year warranty unless you buy the AppleCare extended warranty, which I’m loathe to do. But I we’d probably better do it for this machine since it all but screams “lemon” every time we boot it.) So, hey, we can’t get anywhere with this, so let’s start burning up the support period.

The hold time was about 15 seconds. I mention this because that’s the only part of the call that impressed me and my mother taught me to say whatever nice things I could. I read the message to the tech, who then put me on hold, then came back in about a minute.

“That message is caused by a defective memory module. Replace the third-party memory module to solve the problem,” she said.

“But the computer is saying the problem is with cache, not with the memory,” I told her. (The cache for the G4 resides on a small board along with the CPU core, sort of like the first Pentium IIs, only it plugs into a socket.) She repeated the message to me. I was very impressed that she didn’t ask whether we’d added any memory to the system (of course we had–Apple factory memory would never go bad, I’m sure).

I seem to remember at least one of my English teachers telling me to write exactly what I mean. Obviously the Mac OS 9 programmers didn’t have any of my English teachers.

I took the memory out and cleaned it with a dollar bill, then put it back in. The system was fine for the rest of the afternoon after this, but I have my doubts about this system. If the problem returns, I’ll replace the memory. When that turns out not to be the problem, I don’t know what I’ll do.

We’ve been having some problems lately with Micron tech support as well, but there’s a big difference there. With Apple, if you don’t prove they caused the problem, well, it’s your problem, and they won’t lift a finger to help you resolve it. Compare this to Micron. My boss complained to Micron about the length of time it was taking to resolve a problem with one particular system. You know what the Micron tech said? “If this replacement CPU doesn’t work, I’ll replace the system.” We’re talking a two-year-old system here.

Now I know why Micron has more business customers than Apple does. When you pay a higher price for a computer (whether that’s buying a Micron Client Pro instead of a less-expensive, consumer-oriented Micron Millenia, or an Apple G4 instead of virtually any PC), you expect quick resolution to your computer problems because, well, your business doesn’t slow down just because your computer doesn’t work right. Micron seems to get this. Apple doesn’t.

And that probably has something to do with why our business now has 25 Micron PCs for every Mac. There was a time when that situation was reversed.

The joke was obvious, but… I still laughed really hard when I read today’s User Friendly. I guess I’m showing my age here by virtue of getting this.

Then again, three or four years back, a friend walked up to me on campus. “Hey, I finally got a 64!” I gave him a funny look. “Commodore 64s aren’t hard to find,” I told him. Then he laughed. “No, a Nintendo 64.”

It’s funny how nicknames recycle themselves.

For old times’ sake. I see that Amiga, Inc. must be trying to blow out the remaining inventory of Amiga 1200s, because they’re selling this machine at unprecedented low prices. I checked out www.softhut.com just out of curiosity, and I can get a bare A1200 for $170. A model with a 260MB hard drive is $200.  On an Amiga, a drive of that size is cavernous, though I’d probably eventually rip out the 260-megger and put in a more modern drive.

The A1200 was seriously underpowered when it came out, but at that price it’s awfully tempting. It’s less than used A1200s typically fetch on eBay, when they show up. I can add an accelerator card later after the PowerPC migration plan firms up a bit more. And Amigas tend to hold their value really well. And I always wanted one.

I’m so out of the loop on the Amiga it’s not even funny, but I found it funny that as I started reading so much started coming back. The main commands are stored in a directory called c, and it gets referred to as c: (many crucial Amiga directories are referenced this way, e.g. prefs: and devs: ). Hard drives used to be DH0:, DF1:, etc., though I understand they changed that later to HD0:, HD1:, etc.

So what was the Amiga like? I get that question a lot. Commodore released one model that did run System V Unix (the Amiga 3000UX), but for the most part it ran its own OS, known originally as AmigaDOS and later shortened to AmigaOS. Since the OS being developed internally at Amiga, Inc., and later at Commodore after they bought Amiga, wasn’t going to be ready on time for a late 1984/early 1985 release, Commodore contracted with British software developer Metacomco to develop an operating system. Metacomco delivered a Tripos-derived OS, written in MC68000 assembly language and BCPL, that offered fully pre-emptive multitasking, multithreading, and dynamic memory allocation (two things even Mac OS 9 doesn’t do yet–OS 9 does have multithreading but its multitasking is cooperative and its memory allocation static).

Commodore spent the better part of the next decade refining and improving the OS, gradually replacing most of the old BCPL code with C code, stomping bugs, adding features and improving its looks. The GUI never quite reached the level of sophistication that Mac OS had, though it certainly was usable and had a much lower memory footprint. The command line resembled Unix in some ways (using the / for subdirectories rather than ) and DOS in others (you used devicename:filename to address files). Some command names resembled DOS, others resembled Unix, and others neither (presumably they were Tripos-inspired, but I know next to nothing about Tripos).

Two modern features that AmigaOS never got were virtual memory and a disk cache. As rare as hard drives were for much of the Amiga’s existance this wasn’t missed too terribly, though Commodore announced in 1989 that AmigaDOS 1.4 (never released) would contain these features. AmigaDOS 1.4 gained improved looks, became AmigaOS 2.0, and was released without the cache or virtual memory (though both were available as third-party add-ons).

As for the hardware, the Amiga used the same MC68000 series of CPUs that the pre-PowerPC Macintoshes used. The Amiga also had a custom chipset that provided graphics and sound coprocessing, years before this became a standard feature on PCs. This was an advantage for years, but became a liability in the early 1990s. While Apple and the cloners were buying off-the-shelf chipsets, Commodore continued having to develop their own for the sake of backward compatibility. They revved the chipset once in 1991, but it was too little, too late. While the first iteration stayed state of the art for about five years, it only took a year or two for the second iteration to fall behind the times, and Motorola was having trouble keeping up with Intel in the MHz wars (funny how history repeats itself), so the Amigas of 1992 and 1993 looked underpowered. Bled to death by clueless marketing and clueless management (it’s arguable who was worse), Commodore bled engineers for years and fell further and further behind before finally running out of cash in 1993.

Though the Amiga is a noncontender today, its influence remains. It was the first commercially successful personal computer to feature color displays of more than 16 colors (it could display up to 4,096 at a time), stereo sound, and pre-emptive multitasking–all features most of us take for granted today. And even though it was widely dismissed as a gaming machine in its heyday, the best-selling titles for the computer that ultimately won the battle are, you guessed it, games.