System emulation time machine

I’m always talking about time machines, touchstones that launch you into nostalgia for some forgotten era of the past.  There’s one that I mess with that’s infinitely more detailed than any other, and it’s system emulation, which was once just a vague dream and is now huge and all-encompassing.

I guess it all really started in the 80s, when you could get the box for your Intellivision or Colecovision that played Atari 2600 games.  And that was a kludge, because it was nothing more than an actual 2600 that hung off the side of your existing system, so you basically used your Mattel power supply, joysticks, and connection to the TV to play Atari games.  Then the Commodore 128 had a Zilog Z80 CPU in addition to its 8502, so you could boot into CPM mode, which was great except none of us gave a fuck about CPM or running ancient crusty old office productivity software.  Later there was a lot of talk about the Amiga being able to emulate the Mac or run as a PC with external hardware, but I never knew anybody that really did this.

Fast-forward maybe ten or fifteen years, and I’m in the period when I’m firmly planted behind a desk in cubeland and want to relive the days of 1985, so I’m scouring eBay for a good Commodore 64 and 1541 and maybe an Amiga 500 or decent Atari 2600 setup.  And I’m spending my spare time browsing all of the web sites out there for 8-bit computers, now that there’s a whole world of freaky Finland hackers posting all of this crazy stuff on the interwebs that’s knocking loose the rust in my brain and making me remember to SYS 49152 after I load some ML at #C000.  And around then, some people started writing software that ran in a modern Pentium computer that would emulate the C-64 or the 2600 or any other old machine.  Because by then, you add all of the overhead involved, but you run it on a fast PC, you’ve pretty much got a 6510 running at 1.023 MHz.  The other major factor is that nobody can even keep track of who the hell owns Commodore these days, so there aren’t a bunch of cease-and-desist lawsuits over the ROM images, and a ton of the games are floating around.  That’s the other great thing: in 1985, you spent all day waiting for your 1541 drive to slowly load in that Zork game.  But now, a complete ISO of a 170K SS/SD floppy is smaller than the image of a rounded corner on a web page.  You could go download a thousand games at a clip and barely spike your bandwidth.

And this is truly amazing to me.  Because you can look back at some old era and look at a posed photo that’s two-dimensional and unmovable, or listen to a tape of some audio of an old song or an old conversation, and that partially captures a moment.   But this is trapping an exact bit-by-bit representation, a living and working version of the same environment you basically lived in decades before.  It’s like being able to download some magic thing that would recreate your college dorm room down to the last millimeter, every single detail and quirk and bug and problem, and you could step inside it and relive it.  I could sit at that BASIC prompt and look at every single one of the 65,535 bytes in that system, and run every old game that me and Matt Wanke would stay up all night playing back in the 8th grade.  I could load up Blue Max, the very first game I ever played on the C-64, and fly that little biplane through the weird 45-degree angled world, dropping bombs on the 320×200 terrain that scrolled past.

I spent a lot of time back at the blue and cyan screen, trying to type in some BASIC, playing some old games, and that was decent.  But what really pushed me back into the past was when MAME games started coming out.  MAME was an emulator that could simulate many of the common arcade cabinets that lived in the 80s and 90s.  Game cabinets weren’t all one-off creations; each vendor typically had some common chassis or series, so they could just pop out the ROMs from a dud game and pop in something new.  It wasn’t always that straightforward, and you had systems that mutated over time to add new features or new hardware or whatever, plus you had some games with weird joysticks or buttons.  But if you got bored of your X-Men game and wanted the Simpsons game, it was a straight switch.  And that made it easier to write a common emulator for a bunch of different ROMs.  And once I got MAME running on my laptop and started tracking down ROMs, I was absolutely hooked.  There were two games that were total time machines for me, because I spent so much time pouring quarters into both of them.

The first one was Smash TV.  Me and Ray used to play this constantly, back in like 1991.  When I went to IUSB, we never went to class, and would always drive around South Bend and Mishawaka, listening to death metal, looking for something to eat, something to do, and of course there was nothing.  So we always ended up at the arcade at University Park Mall, and we’d dump unending amounts of money into that game.  It’s basically a rehash of the movie The Running Man; a future where prisoners (in the game, the prisoner part was not mentioned) have to run through mazes killing mass numbers of robots and mutants and warriors with futuristic laser weapons in front of a televised studio audience in order to win money and prizes.  It’s a typical quarter-eater, where two guys can play, and you just shoot every damn thing that runs at you, and if you die, you just need to shell out another token to keep rolling.  The game has a lot of synthesized speech from the Richard Dawson game show host, saying “BIG MONEY!  BIG PRIZES!  I LOVE IT!”  And it’s one of those weird memory things, where I can’t remember my office phone number, but every single millisecond of this game is burned into my head so much that I can instantly repeat any of the lines or hum any of the music within it.  So when I pop it up in a window on my Mac, even though I don’t have the joysticks and have to use a/w/s/z or whatever, it instantly takes me back to those days of playing hooky and feeding quarters in a mall arcade that’s now probably a cell phone store or a place selling uggs or something.

The other game that I have memorized like this is Golden Axe.  This is a Sega ripoff of the Conan franchise (barbarian, not talk show host, although that would be a cool game too, with Andy Richter at your side dressed up as a wench, and broadswording Jay Leno in the head.)  It’s very similar to Altered Beast (also done by the same design team), a side-scroller with two (or was it three?) sets of joysticks and buttons, and you dumped in the quarters to continue.  You could be a barbarian, a dwarf, or an amazon woman (a tall Hilary Swank-type warrior, not a woman that buys a lot of books online on a Kindle.)  They had one of these in the tiny arcade in the Indiana student union, and they only had maybe five games, and all of them sucked, but this one sucked the least, so I was sort of forced to play it when I was killing time in there.  I’d rather go to Spaceport and play some Tetris or find a Smash TV console, but it was one of those captive environment things, and within a matter of time, I got hooked on Golden Axe.  I think it’s a funny game, because all of the various screaming sounds in it are too accurate and over the top.  I was playing this once when Sarah was in the next room and she came in and said “what the hell is that?  It sounds like some kind of Lil’ Jon krunk video game.”  But once again, all of those little sounds and sayings are etched into my brain, and when I fire up that ROM in a Sega 16-B cabinet emulator, I’m back to the student union in 1989, between classes and wasting time and quarters.

I thought of all of this because I was cruising around and wondered if anyone had ever installed NeXTstep in a VMWare emulator, and I guess a few people have tried.  I wanted to just find someone who did the whole thing and had a VMWare image I could download and fire up, but it’s considerably more difficult than that, setting up all of the drivers and crap.  Here’s a post on how to do it, though.  I think sitting at an OmniWeb browser in a NeXTstep login would be a pretty severe mindfuck for me.  I spent a lot of time lusting after that hardware when it first came out, and spent a good chunk of 1991-1992 trying to get some time on it.  It’s funny how fast the fall from grace was, though.  Those machines were total demons in like 1991, and by the time I got to the support center in 1993, we had a slab that was practically a doorstop, it was so slow.  But maybe if you took that awesome (in 1991) OS and dropped it in an emulator on a quad-core x64 i7 chip, it would be 5% faster than it was back on the 68040.  Something to mess with, but probably not during the same week when I have to move.

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The New USFL

I am excited about the new USFL (provided Donald Trump does not get involved.)  I have a lot of great ideas for running a football franchise, so I applied to see if I could get a team started in Colorado.  Let’s see what they say about it:

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Ten random photos

I take a lot of pictures that don’t end up in galleries in flickr.  Here’s a few of them.

A lunch at Fresh Choice, probably after a Weight Watchers meeting in San Bruno.  I liked to celebrate weigh-in by eating a ton of starch and calories.  This was after I made my weight goal and was just maintaining, so I went back and forth on actually counting points, and went through a brief phase where I thought I’d just take pictures of everything I ate and figure it out later.  This morphed into this brief idea that I’d write a program to do image recognition on the pictures and calculate points, and that went to not doing anything.

I struggled for a long time with the organization of my second book, experimenting with a lot of outlining software and different schemes to keep track of a nonlinear story.  At some point in 2000 or 2001, I had this idea to reorganize all of Rumored to Exist by printing the text onto index cards, then rearranging them all over the place until it made sense, like I was writing a screenplay or some shit.  It didn’t work, and I had bunches of these cards lying around every room of the house for months.

After that book got published, I bought forty acres of land in Colorado.  I then had this stupid idea in that I would start gardening in my apartment in Astoria, despite the fact that I only had windows on one side of the place and there was too much shade to get any sunlight to grow anything except for those stupid cactuses that could live underground for twenty years. I think the grand scheme was that I’d learn enough about gardening that I’d eventually be able to live off my land in Colorado.  The whole thing lasted about a month until the bugs took over.

Go-kart racing in Fremont with Samsung. They took us there right before everyone had to take some survey on employee satisfaction, to make sure everyone thought it was a great place to work. The firesuit hood thing makes me look like I’m about to go to some renaissance fair to drink a bunch of mead and go jousting.  The worst part of this was getting knocked around for 200 laps and then having to drive 40 miles home that night, the whole time wanting to trade paint with other cars on 880.

All the fixins needed to make BBQ.  I’m surprised I was able to find Crystal sauce here on the west coast, but they sell it in the Oakland Safeway.  This is the really sour sort of BBQ, with the vinegar taste to it, which is pretty decent, although I realize there is this Pepsi/Coke religious argument about what school of thought you follow on BBQ.  Here’s the sacrilege: I used this to make a fake pork pulled pork, using some kind of engineered shredded soy fake meat product.  But the pork (or lack thereof) is just the vehicle for the sauce transmission, so it didn’t matter too much.  It is a mandatory requirement to make corn on the cob with this meal, though.

This was on my whiteboard when I came back from a trip to Vegas in maybe 2001.  I think it’s the work of my old coworker John Andonov, who had a habit of leaving his works of art on various cube walls when people were in meetings, which was pretty much constantly at Juno.  It’s amazing how many pictures of whiteboards I have in my photo library.  Most of them are insane system diagrams, where at the end of the meeting, someone says “make sure to take a picture of this” and then you never use it again.

I awoke one morning in my Astoria apartment to the sound of a waterfall, and saw the place above me leaking a river of water through my ceiling.  The piece of shit landlord never fixed it, and it looked like this for the next four or five years.  This was the same landlord that threw a fit when everyone organized a rent strike because he didn’t see the problem with not having a boiler for hot water or heat during what was one of the coldest Novembers in the last hundred years.  Nice tile color, too.

My car somewhere in Utah I think, during the first Denver to LA trip.  I drove this one solo, and don’t advise taking a tiny car with a 67-HP engine through the mountain passes of the Rockies during the winter, especially if the car is packed with a few hundred pounds of housewares and laundry.  A good chunk of the trip was spent fighting the transmission on the baby engine, which constantly insisted on downshifting as I struggled through the hills.  That pretty much cleared up when I got to central Utah, but I was certain I was going to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, since there’s a hundreds-mile stretch with absolutely no gas stations or civilization in general.  It’s also amazing how filthy the car got by the time I got to California.

The perils of ownership of a long-haired cat: every time I brush Loca, I come up with about this much hair.  Seriously, I brushed her for 20 minutes yesterday, and if I brushed her right now, I would produce at least this much hair.  And if I didn’t brush her constantly, the entire apartment would pretty much look like this on every single surface, except for the surfaces covered with cat puke where she ingested this much hair and then vomited it back up.  I should buy a loom and start quilting blankets and sweaters from it.  The big problem is that if I knitted a sweater out of her hair, the other cat would climb on it and lick it all the time.

The golden gate.  I took this one on Thanksgiving 2008 when me, Sarah, and A went to Sarah’s friend’s place in Sonoma for dinner.  Not bad for being shot through a dirty windshield.

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Computer inventory, fall ’10 edition

Okay, so I mentioned my computer count had grown over on my Facebook page, and Bill asked me a bunch of questions about what’s what, so here’s a quick rundown, in reverse order of age:

  1. Lenovo ThinkPad T410 – the new work machine, running Windows 7.  Maybe this doesn’t count because it’s not mine, but it’s here 100% of the time now.  The hardware is pretty nice, with a lot of extras: 3G modem, DVD burner, 4 GB memory, a million ports I’ll never use.  But man, Windows 7 sucks.  I’ve spent far more time trying to figure out why the hell some 32-bit software won’t work, or why you can’t install 64-bit Visio and 32-bit Office at the same time, and why they insist on you installing 32-bit office on a 64-bit machine, and so on.
  2. MacBook Pro – My main machine, a 17″ 2010 Unibody with the fastest i7 CPU, 8 GB memory, and a half-terabyte of disk.  I absolutely love this machine, and it’s an example of how to move from 32 to 64 bit without turning your entire life sideways.  Other than reinstalling all of my MacPorts stuff, it Just Worked.  This machine is home to my iTunes library, my pictures, my writing, and pretty much everything else.
  3. MacBook Pro – Sarah has the 2009 17″ model.  Not sure of the processor, but it’s not the fastest one, and it has 4GB.
  4. Samsung NC10 – A tiny netbook, with a tiny screen and almost no memory, still running XP.  It’s next to the bed, and I mostly use it when I’m sitting in bed reading.  It’s also a nice travel machine, because it’s so light, gets incredible battery life, and if it gets stolen, the bag it’s in is probably worth more.
  5. MacBook – My old 15″ white 2007 model.  I don’t use this much anymore, but maybe every few weeks, I find something that I need on it or that won’t work in Snow Leopard.  For example, I still use it to import video, because I’m too cheap to go buy a different FireWire cable.  And until a week ago, I couldn’t get our scanner to work with the new Macs.  (Turns out if you swear at it enough, you can get Preview to scan stuff.)
  6. Toshiba Portege Tablet – This is a 2005 model that has convinced me that as long as it runs Windows, Microsoft will never get a tablet to work.  (A Windows Phone tablet?  Maybe that would work.)  It’s no longer running XP Tablet, because it needed an XP reinstall, and the included media won’t work.  It’s sitting next to my couch downstairs, and it’s a dedicated IMDB and baseball score machine.

Other computers-that-aren’t would include two iPhone 3Gs, a PlayStation 3, a Kindle, and maybe you could count the NAS I have in the closet.  (It takes up an IP address, anyway.)

The tablet is on its last legs, and the MacBook will eventually get fully retired.  I sometimes wonder if I just used an iPad for casual web browsing and travel, if I could get rid of everything but the MBP and work laptop.  But as I become more convinced an iPad would be an okay purchase, I get more in the hole with this move.

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Mandatory gym class

I was talking to Tom yesterday about something – I think how my body is physically falling apart as I reach the 40 year mark, and I somehow started thinking about how I was forced to take a gym class in my freshman year of high school to meet some bogus Indiana PE requirement.  I obviously was not the jock type in high school, didn’t play sports, and begrudgingly took this gym class and suffered through it.  I mean, I had to also take physical education periods in all of K-6, but you don’t shower in those, and they are unisex, and instead of doing hardcore calisthenics, you play four-square or play some stupid game with a kickball on a giant surplus parachute that everyone holds and flips up and down.  (Note to people born after 1990: four-square was a game you played on a playground with a 2×2 grid drawn on a pavement and an inflatable rubber ball, long before it was a stupid web site where you reported to your friends list every location in the city where you stopped to take a dump or buy a bottle of water.)

The demographics of my PE class in 9th grade also made the situation difficult.  There was me, Jia, and these other two geeky guys.  Then the rest of the class was evenly divided between multi-letter varsity sport athletes, and every drug-fueled shop class major that would soon be a convicted felon.  My worst fear on any given day was that we’d do some activity where we’d get divided into teams, because I was one of the absolute last people that would get picked in any situation like this.  It wasn’t just that I was unpopular; I mean, in 1985 I was pretty much my current height but weighed something like 120 pounds, and I know I could not bench even half of that back then.  And I had absolutely no hand-eye coordination, couldn’t swim, hated running, and forget anything that involved hitting a ball, like tennis or baseball.  My best hope was that we’d play something like soccer, where I could just sort of stand off to the side of the field and run back and forth with the pack and not do anything.

One saving grace: our gym teacher was also the basketball coach.  And at that time, Shawn Kemp was a sophomore, but he was a starting varsity player and was scoring an average of about 96 points a game and appearing in Sports Illustrated every other week.  So for months on end, Coach Hahn would need to spend his days reviewing scouting footage or conducting press conferences with ESPN or finding Kemp a college program that would pay him well under the table but not require him to know how to read.  And on those days, he’d dump us all in the gym with a bunch of basketballs and have us divide up and play unsupervised.  This was good, because nine times out of ten, I could get on a lopsided team with one of my computer buddies and talk about the Apple II on the sidelines while the rest of our team practiced for their future college athletic and/or department of correction basketball careers.

Anyway, the reason I remember all of this is the Presidential fitness test, or whatever the hell it was called.  It was some neo-fascist Reagan Youth attempt at getting the country into shape, and I think Ahnold had something to do with it, and I’m sure it was a stepping stone toward reinstating the draft and having a huge mass of young recruits ready to run obstacle courses at top speed.  The challenge consisted of a dozen or two different exercises, and to get an A on the semester, you had to do a certain number of repetitions, or do exercises in a certain amount of time.  And of course, if you at least tried to do these things, you’d get a C, but giving a competition based on how fast you can do a shuttle run to all of the type A personality disorder jocks in the class made this probably the worst possible outcome, short of having everyone line up the cars their parents gave them and hand out grades based on which ones were newest or cost the most.

When they came up with this test, they basically said, “let’s find thirty things Jon Konrath can’t do, and then invent some ridiculous numbers for each one and hope he gets publicly humiliated thirty times in a row.”  For example, there was the aforementioned shuttle run; I don’t remember how fast you had to run it, but I would get shin splints from running any more than thirty feet, and had the aerobic capability of a high-level World of Warcraft junkie that typically needed a Rascal wheelchair to get from their SUV to the grocery store for another case of ring-dings, so it took me roughly double the required time.  Chin-ups?  I think I did one.  Push-ups in a minute?  I’m sure I could do at least a couple, but it probably required 30 or 60 or something well outside of the reach of someone who could only do curls if you took all of the weights off the bar first.

Probably the worst one was the rope climb.  I don’t remember how high the rope was, and I’m sure if I saw it now, it would be shorter than the ceiling in our apartment, and I’m also sure some crazed helicopter parents got the thing removed years ago because they were afraid their precious spawn would fall.  But we had to climb the damn thing, and do it in a certain speed to meet the challenge.  And two things went through my head as I sat on the ringworm-infested wrestling mats and looked up at this thing tethered to the ceiling.  One, there’s no way I can pull my weight up this damn thing if I can barely achieve a single chin-up.  And two, if I did manage to climb up to the top, how the hell do you get back down?  I had vivid visions of sailing thirty feet down, balls-first against this coarse rope that had splinters of whatever the hell ropes were made of back then scraping against my sac.  So I managed to get maybe two arm-grasps up the thing, froze, and dropped back to earth.

And of course I got endless shit from all of the jocks in the class, along the lines of “yeah, your fuckin’ computer’s not going to help you now.”  And all I could think of, which was little consolation at the time, was that in twenty years, all of these fuckers would be stuck on an assembly line, five minutes away from where they were born and where they would die, their good looks faded, their physique gone, their trophy cheerleader wives worn and uglied by a half-dozen kids, and I would be long gone, riding whatever technology I could find or invent to riches and happiness.  Okay, I’m not rich, and the jury is still out on whether or not I’m happy, but from the looks of the reunion pictures, I was right on all other counts.  But that didn’t comfort me much when I was sixteen and had to shower with these fuckers after failing their stupid tests repeatedly.

But here’s the one thing I did good at: sit-ups.  We had to do something like 56 full sit-ups in a minute, and I thought there’s no fucking way I’ll do 30, given my progress on the rest of this nightmare.  But I slugged it out, and ended up doing seventy-two.  I have no idea how I did this; maybe it’s something about weighing next to nothing, and having absolutely no gut at the time.  But I did that.  And now, I don’t know if I could do ten sit-ups without throwing out my back, so it’s a good metric about how far from being in shape I am now that I close out my fourth decade here.

The other thing about that stupid class was that by the end of the year, I had played so much damn basketball, I was pretty much an idiot savant for shooting from anywhere within the three point range.  I mean, I couldn’t defend, or do lay-ups or any of that shit.  But if you wanted to play Horse or something, I would completely kick your ass.  All of this quickly faded after I got this stupid requirement out of the way and never thought of basketball again in my life, but for a brief period in the spring of 1986, you could give me a ball and place me on any random point, and I knew the exact physics and the exact angle to get it from here to there.

By the way, I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I will be in Vegas this year for my 40th.  If you have the means and you’re free the weekend of the 20th, drop a line.

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