Atari vs Nintendo

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.

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Joe\’s Secondhand Lions

Joe Rampolla is at it again. I linked to his toy train website a few months ago; today he sent me a link to a new animation project that he calls “My Secondhand Lions.”

I would have liked the project even if he hadn’t made reference to one of my favorite movies.Basically, his project uses a low-RPM motor, some papier mache, scrap lumber, and some heavy wire to animate some Fisher-Price toy lions. He says this project costs less than $25 to build.

If it had the initials M, T, and H on it, I’m sure it would cost $200.

I like his use of acrylic paint on cheap toys–many cheap toys have gorgeous details that are obscured by the glare of light off bare plastic–and his use of papier mache to make the plateau.

So… How would I add a sound effect to it? There was a radio commercial here in St. Louis that included a line, “Watch out for that plastic mountain lion!” followed by an extremely sarcastic and unenthusiastic “rooo-a-r” uttered by an obviously human actor. I don’t even remember what the commercial was for, but I love that line. These plastic lions with a pushbutton to play an unenthusiastically recorded human roar would be a nice touch.

It’s yet another something for me to build some day.

Coming back

The phone rang this morning, around 9 AM. I’ve gotten used to that; my recruiter’s been calling me around 9 for the last few days. But this time there was a different tone to his voice. He was nervous.

Great, I instantly thought. Another rejection. What is this, high school?But I let him finish, because he said he had some good news. "Dave, they’re excited about you. But there’s a problem. Do you think there’s any way you can start tomorrow?"

Tomorrow. He’d told me yesterday he thought they’d probably be interested in me, and that we’d be preparing for a start day of July 5. Being able to start tomorrow was about the last thing I expected.

I wasn’t the least bit prepared, but in reality, what did I have planned for tomorrow? A trip to the post office, certainly. A trip to a thrift store or two, most likely. Maybe I’d get ambitious and change the oil in my wife’s car, and maybe I wouldn’t. So I’d make $7, maybe $15, and I’d save another $20.

I figure that every day I didn’t work cost me between $150 and $200 (pre-tax). So you do the math. I told him I’ll start tomorrow.

Actually this was a longshot if there ever was one. The job position involves Unix administration. I’m not a stranger to Unix, but it’s been a year since I’ve done any Unix on a regular basis. I pulled out all the stops on the job interview, showing up in a suit and tie on a 90-plus degree day on just a couple of hours’ notice. It was all downhill from there. The entire department of five interviewed me, plus one guy who’d been recently promoted out of it. They peppered me with Unix and e-mail questions. One of them asked me why to never type "rm -rf /" and I asked him whether the "r" was uppercase or lowercase. Apparently in Solaris it doesn’t matter. It does in every Linux distribution I know. But I got the rest of the question right. I struck out on the others, sometimes badly.

I left the building with a little more than a thank-you for my time from the supervisor. I made a note to myself to make sure my recruiter briefed me better on what the responsibilities would be, and to get me enough time to actually brush up so I’d look like I know something, and not some idiot off the street who can barely spell "Unix."

Then they started interviewing other people. And with each passing interview, my recruiter felt more hopeful. I started to feel hopeful too. I didn’t count on anything–my wife and I all but started a business last week, and we’re profitable. It won’t pay the mortgage, let alone make us rich, but we made more than enough to pay the electric bill, and we did it on our terms.

And then the phone call came. A few hours later I drove 10 miles, signed some papers, and it was official. I’m a professional Unix administrator.

How to connect a Commodore 64 to a television

How to connect a Commodore 64 to a television

It is less than obvious how to connect a Commodore 64 to a television, especially a modern television, and it’s even more difficult if your C-64 didn’t come with the cables or the manual.

There are, as it turns out, several ways to do it. The C-64 and 128 have an RCA jack on the back that matches the RCA jacks on most televisions, whether LCD or CRT. Confusingly, this isn’t the key. If you just plug a cable from the RCA jack into the RCA input on a TV, you won’t get a display.

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A Bing in Marx clothing

The sign said "50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer." I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a "set." Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.

I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.At first glance, they looked like Marx 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t do 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t know why; I just don’t like ’em. Then I noticed that one of the cars had wheels that were too big for Marx. I picked it up and flipped it over. It had an uppercase "B" and the words "Made in Germany."

I looked at the price. "Set of 3. $39."

Now let me tell you the significance of the words "Made in Germany." Before World War I, most toy trains were made in Germany. The market leaders were Bing, which was the world’s largest toy company, and Maerklin, which was the company that everybody copied. The biggest U.S. maker was a company called Ives. Some upstart called Lionel was giving all of them a run for the money, but it was an also-ran. After the war, Ives and American Flyer lobbied successfully for protection, essentially pricing the Germans out of the U.S. market.

So this Bing car probably dates back to before World War I.

I picked up the other two cars in the set. "Made in U.S.A. The Lionel Corporation." Ah, so they weren’t a set. I double-checked them to make sure they would couple together. They weren’t a perfect match but they fit. And the wheel height was right.

Well, like I said, I don’t do six-inch passenger cars. Especially six-inch passenger cars that have no paint or have been badly repainted. But these weren’t just any six-inch passenger cars. And even though they were almost completely devoid of paint, amazingly they had little or no rust anywhere on them.

I hesitated. Then I ran through in my mind the value of the cars as parts. The wheels and axles were all in good shape. The couplers were all usable. The roofs were all nice and straight and even had decent paint jobs on them, considering their likely age. The frames were pretty straight. The bodies weren’t perfectly straight but they also weren’t dented, and they were rust-free. They were easily worth $20 as parts, I figured.

So I offered $20. The cashier looked at the price tag, then accepted without hesitation.

Still, it took me a while to justify my purchase. Call it shellshock from looking at Marx priced at 10x book value.

I explained it to my girlfriend this way. Yes, a Standard Gauge Lionel locomotive–the big mamas with the wheels 2 1/8 inches apart–is worth a minimum of $500 if it looks decent. It doesn’t even have to run. Cars are also worth a couple hundred apiece. Some rare sets go for five figures. Lots of people know this, so they automatically assume that any toy train is worth a small fortune.

Reality check: Lionel quit making those trains in 1938 because nobody could afford them. They’re worth that kind of money because they’re old and rare. And they look really cool. But Lionel made millions of trains in the 1950s and they ran forever. With few exceptions, they’re common and cheap. Marx made even more of them. You could buy Marxes anywhere with the change in your pocket. They’re even more common and even cheaper.

It’s like baseball cards. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card is worth a million dollars in best-possible condition. But that doesn’t mean my 1983 Johnny Bench baseball cards are worth even $100. They’re probably not even worth $10.

Back to the trains. What else can I tell from looking at them?

I found traces of red paint on the two Lionels and a slightly larger remnant of yellow paint on the German car (I’m guessing it’s a Bing, since the largest German makers were Maerklin, Bing, and Fandor, and only Bing starts with a "B"). I suspect the Lionels were red with black doors, roof, and frame, and the Bing was yellow with black doors, roof, and frame.

As for their age, no doubt they’re pre-War. Only Marx bothered to make six-inch tinplate cars after World War II. And since Bing had difficulty selling trains in the United States after World War I, the Bing might predate World War I. Lionel didn’t catalog O gauge trains until 1913 and they weren’t widely available until 1915. So maybe these are the same age as the Bing, or maybe the Bing is slightly older.

I set them up on a piece of display track. They looked pretty good there. Definitely rustic, but not bad.

But toy trains are meant to run. Even 90-year-old ones. I checked the coupler height against my postwar Marx 551 tender ($4 at Marty’s last week). It fit. I put the three cars on my track on my layout behind the tender, and lashed the tender up to my Marx 490 locomotive ($12 off eBay a few months ago). It looked good. I applied power. The Marx strained, but it pulled them.

After a few laps, I realized those cars probably haven’t seen oil in a good 70 years, maybe more. So I oiled the wheels and axles and spun the wheels to make sure they turned freely. I ran the Marx again, and it pulled them without difficulty.

I probably have no choice but to restore the cars. I expect they’ll rust quickly in my humid house, and chances are what paint remains on them is lead-based. I don’t want toys with lead-based paint in my house. So I’ll strip them down–I hear a long bath in a bucket of generic imitation Pine-Sol is all it takes–and repaint them after I manage to research how the cars were originally painted and lettered.

A taste of… Missouri, I guess

I have no idea how much of this stuff is available outside of St. Louis, and I don’t normally write about what I ate for dinner because it bores me to tears when other people do it, but an idea came to me as I walked down the aisles at the local grocery store, and I think it’s a pretty good one.

John Goodman once said in a Saturday Night Live skit that there are three secrets to great barbecue: You need meat, bread, and sauce. He was right.The meat is salsiccia. I have no idea if this stuff is widely available, or if, like toasted ravioli and pork steaks, it’s a St. Louis thing. Basically it’s an Italian sausage, but the spices are a bit different. The Gatermanns introduced me to it, and they’ve always just cooked them like bratwursts.

The bread, well, was Healthy Choice whole-wheat hot dog buns. Nothing too special about that. Next time I’ll probably go to McArthur’s Bakery and pick up something. St. Louis has tons and tons of great bakeries–it’s as easy to find great bread in St. Louis as it is to find great barbecue in Kansas City. Ahem.

In Kansas City, the bread gets third billing. I think Gates serves the majority of its sandwiches on plain old Wonder Bread. That’s the main criticism I have of Gates. John Goodman was being sarcastic, but the right bread can steal the show.

Good bread from St. Louis is available nationally. The Panera Bread chain of sandwich shop/bakery/coffeehouse originated here in St. Louis.

And the sauce. I picked up Gates mild BBQ sauce. Gates is possibly the most famous of the Kansas City BBQ chains (and keep in mind that for something from Kansas City to have any market in St. Louis, there has to be something special about it), and it’s known for heat. Rather than calling their sauces mild, regular and spicy, they really probably should call them hot, hotter, and hottest.

I don’t know if Gates makes its sauce available nationally or not. If not, the KC Masterpiece brand really was developed in Kansas City, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But Gates has been around longer, and I was feeling traditional. And Gates, as far as BBQ sauces go, is very low in sugar.

Slather a fairly generous amount of Gates on the salsiccias, grill or broil them, then serve on the best bread you can find, and I think you’ve got something special. Especially considering the amount of effort that goes into it. We’re talking five minutes’ prep time and maybe 30 minutes’ cooking time.

It ain’t health food, but hey, we need to treat ourselves every once in a while.

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.

How to get rich–the Biblical way

Money is a controversial topic in Christian circles. On the one hand you’ve got people who say money is the root of all evil. The other extreme says if you do the right things, God will reward you with health and wealth and who knows what else.(This was the topic of my Bible study last night, in case you’re wondering. And I’m short of material, so I’m recycling. I’m also mixing in some insights people shared.)

For the record, 1 Timothy 6:10 says money is a root–not the root–of all kinds of evil. That’s somewhat less of a strong statement than saying it’s the root of all evil. So, money causes problems, yes, but it’s not the cause of every problem in this world.

To see some other causes and symptoms of evil, see 2 Timothy 3:2.

Isaiah 55:2 asks why we spend our money on what is not bread (when the Bible says “bread,” it’s frequently referring to the necessities of life such as basic food, clothing, and shelter) and on things that don’t satisfy. The main reason we do it is because we’re surrounded by messages that say this product or that product will change our lives. And while some products have changed lives, let’s think about it for a minute: Those kinds of things tend to come along once a generation, if that. I’m talking about things like the airplane, the automobile, and before those things, the railroad. Computers belong in that category. But the soda we drink is not going to change our lives, at least not for the better. Drink soda instead of water and it could make your life worse–regardless of what that 7up commercial with the bear says.

The American Dream is to give the next generation things the previous generation doesn’t have. Some have said that dream is dead, because we’ve become so affluent that we can’t think of what the next generation can possibly get that we didn’t have.

But it’s not working. Our kids have entertainment centers in their room that give a more life-like experience than the movie theaters of 20 years ago. They’ve got videogame machines that play better games than you could find in an arcade a couple of years ago. They have everything imaginable, and yet they’re all on ritalin and prozac. Meanwhile, their parents are both working, to pay for those two luxury SUVs and the next big home improvement project and all the toys and all the drugs that are necessary to keep themselves and their kids afloat in the miserable life they’ve built together.

My dad wasn’t always there for me. It seemed like most of the time he wasn’t. But it’s safe to say that when we ate dinner together 5 or 6 times a week, it was unusual. Most weeks we ate dinner together 7 times a week.

My American Dream is for my kids to have two full-time parents. Screw the luxury SUVs and the $300,000 house in the suburbs. My Honda Civic has more ameneties than I need. I’ll drive it for 15 years so I can have more money when things that matter crop up.

I told you how the Bible says to get rich. And maybe you’d argue I haven’t answered that question yet. I think Isaiah 55:2 can lead one to wealth that’s very enviable, but, yes, the Bible also tells how to gain material wealth. Check Proverbs 13:11. It’s especially relevant in the era of dotcom billionaires.

You’ve seen stories of wealty people who nickeled and dimed themselves to the poorhouse. What Proverbs 13:11 says is that you can nickel and dime your way to prosperity as well.

What the Bible doesn’t say is how, so I’ll share the concept of opportunity cost, which is one of two things I remember from Macroeconomics. I don’t know how many other people in my class picked this up from the dear departed Dr. Walter Johnson at Mizzou, so I’ll do my best to make my examples clear.

Opportunity cost says a 13-inch TV does not cost $99. That’s the amount written on the sticker, but that’s not the price. The price is about 30 lunches at my company cafeteria.

The monthtly cost of driving a new car every three years is about half my mortgage payment. But my mortgage will be paid off in 28 or 29 years and my house will be worth more then than it is now. In the year 2031, I will have absolutely nothing to show for the car I’m driving today. Those people who buy a $2,000 used Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla every few years and drive it until it dies have more money than you think they do.

Assuming you work about 240 days a year, two cans of soda every workday from the soda machine at my employer will cost you $240. But not really. What happens if you invest that money in what’s called an index mutual fund, which follows one of the major indices, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Historically, you’ll gain about 10% per year on your investment, which means you’ll double your money every 7 years investing that way. (That’s taking into account times of bad economy, like today, or worse.) Anyway, I just grabbed my calculator. If you take that $240 and dump it into an index fund, in 35 years you can reasonably expect it to be worth $7,680.

The real cost of a can of soda is sixteen dollars. Unless you’re not going to live 35 more years. But unless you’re going to die tomorrow, the real price is considerably more than 50 cents.

There are a total of 118 verses in the NIV translation that use the word “money,” and considerably more talk about the concept without using the word. Of those, Matthew 6:24-34 is poignant, as is Ecclesiastes 5:10-20. What I take from them is this: If you build your empire 50 cents at a time, you’ll never be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But you’ll have more than you need, and you’ll be happier than Bill Gates, and you’ll sleep a lot better.

And if your name is Jackie Harrington, I suggest you start selling autographed 8×10 glossy photos of yourself. Sign them, “Bill Gates just stiffed me for 6 bucks! Jackie Harrington.” Sell then for $10 apiece to people like me. Then put the money in an index fund. Then in 35 years, when you’re a millionaire, write a thank-you letter to Bill Gates.

The bloatware antidote for Windows

I needed a Windows MP3 player that wouldn’t take over my system and wouldn’t take as long to download as the typical alternative Web browser circa 2003. Which meant I went looking at one place.
That place is tinyapps.org.

I found what I was looking for (besides a way to legally download a song for $1.75, which is beyond these guys’ control). It’s called Coolplayer. It’s a 170K download that expands out to a 350K executable that uses an ini file in the same directory. Installation consists of putting it where you want to store it. Uninstallation consists of deleting the executable and the ini file. Excellent.

Coolplayer plays MP3s and has a simple playlist editor. Nothing fancy, just the basics. Well, and I guess I should mention it keeps me out of the eternal war between Microsoft, AOL Time Warner, and RealNetworks over control of whatever PC I happen to be using. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a feature, and maybe its best one. No, Realplayer, you may not take over the filename association for textfiles! If I wanted a text editor, I’d have run Metapad!

Most of the apps linked at Timyapps are substantially under 1 MB in size and provide just the basics most people need.

If the executables are still too big for you, there’s UPX. UPX is a modern-day PKLite that works on Windows apps as well as DOS apps. Among other things. I used an old version of it–I haven’t downloaded the current version 1.24, which has better compression–to pack the CoolPlayer executable down to 173K. The superfast, minimalist Off By One Web browser packs down to 359K.

If you’re building a super floppy or CD of Windows utilities, packing them with UPX is a good way to get more space for them. (Betcha didn’t know you could fit a Windows Web browser, MP3 player, and a text editor on a 3.5″ floppy and have room to spare, did you?) Or if you’re stuck with a way-too-small hard drive, UPX can gain you some space.

See, if you’re stuck with Windows 95 on a 386DX40 with 8 megs of RAM and a 170MB hard drive, you can get the basics you need to turn that into a useful computer. And the tricks still work if you’ve got something better.