Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for October, 2014

Fun for the feeble-minded

Posted by Trixter on October 26, 2014

As a teenager in the 1980s, I loved using computers, and also building things, and especially loved building things with computers.  Naturally, I adored Music Construction Set and Pinball Construction Set.  The version of Music Construction Set for the PC floating around in the wild was mine; it comes with 30+ tunes more than the original diskette had, mostly covers as I learned to use the program, or learned my music lessons, or transcribed tunes I heard on other computers (the “power bots” MCS tune should be familiar to Apple II owners).  My Pinball Construction Set tables were not as enjoyable, so they stayed with me.

The more I built my own tables, the more I wanted to see how other tables were built.  I acquired a copy of Night Mission Pinball from a friend, and played it for hours, jealous of how much more it did than PCS:  Sound was more “authentic”, more complicated scoring, better graphics.  I ended up playing it exclusively and stopped using PCS.

Unfortunately, I played it so much that the disk wore out and wouldn’t boot any more.  Worse, my friend no longer had a copy to make for me, and I was too broke to buy it proper.  What to do?

Build my own in Pinball Construction Set, obviously:

mynight_000

I did this from memory just from playing the original game for so many hours.  It’s not perfect, but when you compare it to the original, I think I did a pretty good job:

pinball_000

If you’d like to play the amateur horror that is Jim Leonard’s Night Mission Pinball, you can now do so.

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Posted in Gaming, Vintage Computing | 1 Comment »

An Episode Guide to Monsters (The TV Show)

Posted by Trixter on October 11, 2014

The 1980s was defined by trends, one of which was the rise of the classic horror movie.  This manifested itself in the form of several “horror” TV shows that combined elements of The Twilight Zone (including a Twilight Zone remake itself!), A Nightmare On Elm Street, and elements of traditional horror.  These were sometimes hard shows to make, as they had to be sufficiently scary, disturbing, surprising, etc. while not violating any television broadcasting codes.  Many episodes used humor to disarm some of the more unsettling themes.  Due to the content, many of these shows were broadcast only in the late evening between midnight and 2am.

Two of these horror anthologies, Tales from the Darkside and later Monsters, were produced by Laurel Entertainment, the brainchild of George Romero and Richard P. Rubinstein.  Tales was pitched to networks based on the success of Laurel’s Creepshow, which WGN bought and syndicated.  When it ended, Laurel started Monsters.  Monsters is very much like Tales, except it focuses more on horror, whereas Tales delved into sci-fi, fantasy, and modern-day “ironic twist” stories similar to The Twilight Zone.

Being the month of Halloween, there’s no better time to check out Monsters.  It was recently released on DVD, and you can find the entire series online if you look hard enough.  To help you experience only the good stuff and skip terrible episodes, I’ve created Trixter’s Totally Subjective and Spoiler-free Guide to Monsters (The TV Show).  It’s presented as a Google Docs spreadsheet with some filters for your convenience.

By “spoiler-free”, I mean I’ve created a column that describes the basic plot of the show without giving away anything that would ruin any surprises, twist endings, etc.  If you want to only check out notable guest stars, there is a “notable guest stars” column.  If you are only watching Monsters because you were a fan of Tales from the Darkside, there is a column for that too: Because both shows were created by the same production company and most of the same people, many Monsters episodes feel more like TFTD, so you can filter on that if you were only a fan of the former.

But if you’re really short on time, just use the filter on the Grade column and watch anything graded A.  Some of those are just bananas.

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The Outlandish Adventure of Miss Amanda Collins

Posted by Trixter on October 7, 2014

In the world of vintage computing history and preservation, I am both an archivist and a conservator.  There are very many archivists in various corners of our field; it is easy to gather up collections from multiple sources and dump them in a single place for the viewing public.  Conservators, however, are the people who roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.  They perform the task of extracting the archival works in the first place from the original distribution medium.  This can range from reading files off of a disk, to reconstructing long-past systems using 3-D printed replacement parts, to figuring out the structure of unfamiliar data.  Conservation is work.  Our hobby needs more conservators.

Some data rescues have high visibility, such as the recovery of Andy Warhol’s early digital art.  But the majority of rescues are not notable.  My specific area of focus is very early (think 1980s) PC games on floppy disks, and recently I’ve recovered a few items not yet found “in the wild”, but painfully boring:  A horrible WWII flight combat sim, a chess tutor, a children’s A-B-C program.  The latter is PCjr-specific, which is intriguing, but for the most part these items hold no significant place in history.  Still, I do it for The Cause.

One enjoyable side benefit of this work is occasionally coming across something human amongst the digital clutter.  Like a trunk discovered in an attic that hasn’t been opened in decades, you can find all sorts of clues about a person’s or family’s past, pieces of their lives, hiding in the data: Letters to family, ledgers and receipts, creative writing, favorite recipes, comic book collections, a child’s digital fingerpainting.  I’ve found these and more during my archaeology, and it always makes me smile.  (Please don’t get the wrong idea; I don’t mean the above to sound voyeuristic, but rather more of admiration and respect for the original owners who actually used their systems to improve their lives.)

One favorite example in recent memory was when I rescued a no-name taiwanese XT clone out of the trash (literally; it was in a dumpster).  Based on the files left behind, the system was owned by an asian female college student in the late 1980s who was an accounting major and used the computer exclusively for school… or so it looked at first glance.  Tucked away among all of the spreadsheets, essays, and databases, in a tiny corner of the filesystem, was a single directory that was filled with poetry, in a style written with few carefully and powerfully chosen words.  The entire system and its files gave the impression of a young woman who was following her father’s wishes, but who longed for something more fulfilling.

And it is here I will introduce you to miss Amanda Collins, who holds the record for the most endearing recovery I’ve had this decade.  I don’t know anything about her other than her name, and I certainly don’t know which out of the nearly 1500 “Amanda Collins” located in the USA White Pages she is.  I don’t know how old she is, although I have a good guess how old she was All I can tell you is how I found her.

I was going through disks to archive and found a commercial business program from the early 1980s that looked interesting; I had never run across it before, and it was copy-protected which is always a fun challenge.  But more interesting is that it was sticky.  As in, peanut butter and jelly sticky — on the media itself (ie. the part that shows in the “window” that the diskette sleeve’s pictographs illustrated you were never, ever supposed to touch).  Rescuing this disk required actual warm water, a soft cloth, and careful rubbing.  Unfortunately, the diskette had been permanently damaged by whatever had stuck to the media, but I figured I’d work a little harder on the first few tracks just so I could see what was on the disk and call it a day.  At the end of the directory, after the commercial program files, was a file called ET with no date on it.  I wasn’t able to rescue the program, but I was able to get the ET file.  It is my pleasure to share it with you exactly as I found it:

ONE DAY I WAS WALKING DOWN THE STRET 
AND SAW E.T. HE REPLIED WHO ARE YOU.
I REPLIED I AM AMANDA N. COLLINS. 
SO WE WENT WALKING THEN E.T AND I 
WENT TO MARY'S SHE SAID WHAT A CUTE 
 CREATRUER I SAID IT IS E.T WHAT? 
REALY.IAM NOT JOKING.THEN PROVE IT TO 
ME OK E.T. GIVE ME YOUR FINGER LIKE YOU
DID IN THE MOVIES E.T REPLIED OK. MARY
SAID I DON'T BELEAVE  IT.  E.T AND I 
SAID BYE-BYE MARY SAID  OK GOOD BYE.
 THEN I WENT TO RICK'S HOUSE HE SAID
GEEPRES E.T.  I'LL BYE HIM OFF YOU 
FOR 50$ I SAID SORRY BUT HE IS NOT FOR
 SALE  AMANDA  50$ PRACTICEL IT IS NOT
PRACTICEL  THEN  IF 50$ IS PRACTICEL 
THEN HOW ABOUT  2.00$ COME OFF IT RICK
THEN 5.000$ NO-ON-NO STOP POOLING MY
HAIR NOT UNTIL YOU LET ME HAVE HIM.RICK 
I'VE GOT A IDEA I WILL HAVE HIM FOR SIX
MONTHS AND YOU WILL HAVE HIM FOR SIX
MONTHSRICK AGREED  AND THERE WAS NO MORE
FIGHTING ANYMORE BETWEEN RICK AND I SO 
E.T AND I WENT TO BERGER KING E.T ORDER
A CHEESE BERGER AND A HAM BERGER WITH 
EXTA ONIONS AND PICLES E.T. ALSO ORDER
A LARGE ORDER OF FRENCE FRIES.THEN WE
WENT TO MY HOUSE I HIDE E.T IN MY BARBE
HOUSE WHEN MY MOTHER WENT TO CLEANE MY
BARBE HOUSE SHE YELLED AMANDA GET DOWN
HERE AMEIDLE .I SAID WHAT IS WRONG
AMANDA STOP JOKING MOM REALY I DON'T
KNOW WHAT YOUR TALKING ABOUT THEN 
EXPLAIN THIS  E.T.GET HIM OUT OF HERE.
NOW IS MY ONLY CHACNE TO GET IN ONE OF
MY DOLLS   DRESSES AND HIDE HIM IN MY
CLOSET . WHEN MOM CAME TO CHECK MY 
CLOSET MOM SAID WHERE DID YOU GET THAT
NEW DOLL .I SAID I SENT AWAY FOR IT .GO
AHEAD BUT NOT NEXT TIME I'LL REMEMBER.
THEN WE WENT OUT FOR BREAKFAST.WE WENT
TO MC DONALD'S WE HAD PANCAKES OFF THE
OVEN THEY WHERE SHORE GOOD.E.T.SAID
LET'S GO  TO THE MUSEMS I SAID LET'S GO
SEE THE DINASORES. THEN WE WENT TO THE
PARK AND THEN BACK TO MC DONALD'S AND
HAD LUNCH AT 7.45 WE CAME TO A END AND
HAD DINNER AT 8.04 AT 12.55 E.T AND I
WENT TO BED.
                   THE END.
                      BY
                        AMANDA  COLLINS

This little girl had decided one day to write a story, and when the program prompted for a diskette to save it, she grabbed — with sticky jelly fingers — whatever diskette was closest and jammed it in… in this case, Daddy’s expensive business program, ruining it in the process, and possibly the drive it was jammed into.

I lack the skill to convey how adorable I find this.

In your own digital archaeology adventures, may you someday feast on cheese bergers, and see dinasores at the park.

Posted in Vintage Computing | 1 Comment »

Cyberpunx

Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2014

October is “National Cyber Security Awareness Month”, whatever the hell that means.  In recognition of this dubious designation, I’ve made an HD remaster of the 1990 documentary Cyberpunk available.  Consisting of interviews with William Gibson, Jaron Lanier, Timothy Leary, Vernon Reid (from Living Color), and Michael Synergy, and briefly featuring a few industrial bands such as Front 242, Manufacture, and Front Line Assembly, the documentary provides a look at what the cyberpunk movement was circa 1990.  Subjects such as cyber-terrorism, cybernetic implants/enhancement, virtual reality/telepresence, and general counterculture rebellion against “The System” are touched upon.  Inevitable comparisons with Akira are made.

Here Be Dragons

While the producer and director did an admirable job making the source material interesting and presentable to the public, there are a lot of flaws with the documentary.  Some are minor and can be overlooked, such as the 1990s trend of inserting faux computer graphic overlays (to try to make the material more similar to the world Gibson painted in Neuromancer).  Many of the problems are with pacing; there are entire sections that focus on a particular subject for too long, sometimes without impact.  One section in particular goes so long that different digital effects start to fade in and out after a few minutes, almost as if the editor was bored and resorted to doing something with the image to keep the viewer’s interest.

There are also some very misrepresented facts and predictions, but it’s not really fair to criticize a documentary for failing to predict the future correctly.  That being said, there are some real howlers in here, from the supposed power hackers wield(ed) against governments, to the silly, amateur computer graphics that obscure hackers’ identities, to the heavily hinted-at concept that Neuromancer itself was responsible for shaping technology and history.  The most egregious is equating hacker with cracker (although, to be fair, that’s happened multiple times before and since).

A special mention must be given to Michael Synergy, who perfectly embodies the huckster who started believing his own bullshit.  Some of his claims in the documentary are so utterly, patently ridiculous, so incredibly pretentious, that it takes a great deal of willpower not to scream at him when he’s talking (especially when he mispronounces the word “genre”).  Were I him, I would have wanted this stage in my life to disappear, and it seems as if that wish has come true: His moniker disappeared with the 1990s.  My personal wild speculation is that once the real, actual revolution of the web occurred and it was able to finally call him out, he quietly exited stage left.  (Last I heard, he worked for Autodesk in the mid-1990s, was going by his birth name again, living in Hawaii, working in IT; if anyone has a real update, I would love to know what actually happened to him.)

Most depressingly, there is a real missed opportunity with how Jaron Lanier’s involvement was portrayed.  In the documentary, he comes across as a stoner who only mentions VR, which is a shame because — then and now — he’s the most relevant and accurate representation of a hacker that the documentary includes.  Of everybody interviewed, Jaron is the only person who is still exploring these concepts and ideas, and more importantly their unintended fallout, which you can read about in his most recent book Who Owns The Future?.  (Even if you don’t buy the book, follow that link and read the Q&A to get a feeling for his concerns.)

Worth watching?

While it may be hard to sit through, the documentary retains glimpses of the innocent, wildly-optimistic, techno-hippie idealism that grew with the rise of personal computing and networking.  For that nostalgia factor alone — the time when the Internet existed but the World-Wide Web did not — it’s worth an hour of your time.  It’s also worth watching to catch which ideas were especially prescient, such as:

  • Whoever holds the most information holds the most power
  • Every device will be interconnected
  • Physical boundaries will not impede meaningful communication
  • People will be individual, mobile, uncensored “broadcast stations” (considering I can post to youtube from my phone, I’d call this a reality)
  • The “matrix” as a concept and/or allegory for God (later realized almost to the letter in The Matrix movie trilogy)

…and so on.  You could make an interesting drinking game out of catching which ideas succeeded (although you’d get more drunk, quickly, by catching all of the stupid and inaccurate comments).

Cyberpunk: The Documentary is now available at archive.org.  Grab the MPEG-TS file if able; it’s 60p, Blu-ray compliant, and won’t take up too much space in your memory implant.

Posted in Digital Video, Entertainment, Technology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »