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jkonrath@indiana.edu

I spent all of my school years with the same email address – jkonrath@indiana.edu. I didn’t always get my mail on the same machine, and I had this complex shell game of trying to get accounts on as many machines as possible so I could have all of the quota to store my email and other junk. But I had that general philosophy of having all of my files in a central place. My computer at home was always a piece of garbage, and I was too nomadic to pop all of my mail to one place. So it all lived on various ultrix machines named after metals. When I left, those accounts got tarred and zipped and came with me to Seattle.

When I got to my first job, I hoped to get the address jkonrath@shitburger.com (replace shitburger with the actual company name), but they assigned accounts by first name. In my case, it ended up being jonathan@shitburger.com. This caused great confusion on many fronts. First, everyone wanted to email me at jkonrath@shitburger.com. A lot of people still emailed me at jkonrath@indiana.edu, thinking it would still somehow magically work. I found (well, I already knew) that absolutely nobody can spell the name Jonathan. (Johnathan, Jonathon, Jkofuiw849fthan, whatever.) Also, this caused a lot of people at the new job to think I preferred the long form of my surname, when in fact I hate it. Since only my mom and law enforcement officials actually call me Jonathan, being in an office where every marketing droid called me that made me think I was ten minutes from an FBI bust or something.

I also quickly got sick of my personal and work email coming to the same mailbox. This was long before workplaces got really shitty about how proprietary email was, but it became increasingly difficult to get at my mail from home or away. And it sucked when someone was hovering over my desk and someone non-work-related sent me an email about dressing up a sorority chick in clown makeup and banging her on a pooltable. (I have weird friends.)

After about six months in Seattle, I decided to buck up and pay for a real ISP. At that time, the only place in town that offered a shell account was the Speakeasy Cafe. I think it was like ten bucks a month. Most people would go in there and sit at a computer, sipping their tea and sending emails, but I just wanted a unix machine, centrally located, a place to keep my junk, and run emacs.

Back before Speakeasy became a huge ISP, they were just a cafe. They had a big Solaris box, a bunch of terminals, and an espresso machine. The place was in Belltown, a part of Seattle filled with trendy art galleries, the kind where the walls are covered in dayglo tempra paintings of native american wolves fucking, the kind of stuff you don’t want to look at when you’re on acid. The cafe was all wood and black-spraypainted terminals, like something out of Singles, but with computers. I don’t drink coffee; they didn’t serve Pepsi or Coke, only Afri-Cola, a weird little import in a strange-shaped bottle that tastes like RC Cola at twice the price, but a penny of the cost went to the rainforests or something. They sometimes had food specials, scrawled on a chalkboard menu, free-range wok-seared something-or-other. No burgers. No BLT.

But I got that account, untarred my old bronze archive, changed three or four things, and it was running like I never left. All of my old mail was there. Emacs still ran, with the VM mail program and the BBDB address book. My web page came back to life. There were text files with lists of things I was selling six months ago, right before I left town. It was like taking everything in your house, shrinkwrapping it, and transporting it across the country into another house, so when you woke up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, you’d still find the glass on the counter.

I came to Belltown every month, to pay my tab. This was before the days of Visa-enabled online invoices; you showed up and put your cash on the counter. I think you could prepay a year in advance, but at this point, I was so tapped that all of my grocery shopping consisted of only buying the stuff in the Safeway coupon book. (And those are gone now too, thanks to those stupid cards.) But Belltown was an engram burned into my mind. Every time I came down there, I’d stop at a store filled with antique junk that was pried from houses that were gutted. Clawfoot tubs, ornate molding, wood bannisters sat on the floor, all of the pieces of last century that were yanked when some Microshit Millionaire wanted to redo their colonial house to look “zen.” I dreamed of somehow buying some land in Montana or Idaho or Wyoming or whatever and buying all of this shit and building a haunted mansion.

I never hung out at Speakeasy much, although it was the place to hang out for the hipster set. I tried to go in there once and kill a few hours on a Friday night, to see if anyone cool would be wandering around, but it was either people who already knew each other, or strangers who wanted to tunnel into their account and read the web with the lynx web browser. It wasn’t a swinging scene by any means. Later they started showing movies, having bands, but really eclectic stuff. I met Trent Harris there, when he was screening The Orkly Kid movie. And for a while, I was trying to do some kind of collaboration with a cartoonist named Daniel, and we’d meet there and then go elsewhere, where they had greasy food or cheaper drinks. (I was trying to get him onboard about filming a movie that parodied Apocalypse Now but was about trying to find a parking spot in Seattle, called A Parking Spot Now. Never happened, of course. I still have notes somewhere, though.)

Speakeasy became big and somewhat dumb, nationwide, and with DSL and wireless and whatever else. It was nice when I moved to New York, and I could keep the same service. But eventually, things got stupid, and they kept fucking up their shell accounts. Finally, I gave up, pointed my mail to my home machine, and turned on ssh so I could get to it anywhere. And the cafe, sadly, burned down. I think it’s condos now. They never reopened, and maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t think people can really wrap their heads around the idea of going somewhere to use the internet, unless they’re using their laptop and stealing someone else’s WiFi. Even the idea of a shell account is alien to pretty much anyone.

Bleah. Time to go read.

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Xanadu House and 80s nostalgia

I sometimes have this weird nostalgia that’s much more complicated than just “remember the 80s,” but rather a deep nostalgia for what I saw as cutting edge or a glimpse of the future way back when. It’s hard to explain, but it’s that weird feeling I had twenty years ago when I looked at some futuristic computer or technology, and I had this premonition that in the year 2000, this would be “it.” And the feeling is stronger when there are a lot of other interconnected memories or feelings about it. And the other day, this totally happened in a way that is easily explained, but probably still doesn’t capture what the fuck I’m rambling on about.

Okay, Wikipedia had a featured article the other day about The Xanadu House. No, it has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John or the Rush song from Farewell to Kings. It was a series of three houses built as demo/museum units by the architect as a showcase to “the home of tomorrow.” They were made of sprayed polyurethane foam and looked something like Yoda’s house or maybe something a Hobbit would live in. They were a very 70s-looking design, and I could totally see something like them in a Roger Dean-airbrushed Yes double gatefold album cover, or maybe done up on the side of a van with a wizard shooting lightning bolts that lit up along with the 8-track player.

Okay, the outside did look pretty borderline artschool-project, but the inside was the interesting stuff. There were computers everywhere: controlling the lights, monitoring the bitchin’ hot tub, cooking your food; measuring your calories and watching your weight; integrated into the Elvis-like wall of TVs, one tuned to each station (total: 3); and everywhere else. The house was a full-on wet dream of automation. Now you see why I was somewhat pulled into reading all about this house and scouring the web for more info. I’ve still got this land out in Colorado with nothing but cacti and prarie dogs on it, and the idea of building some huge, fucked up, unconventional structure like a geodesic dome or a decommissioned jet airliner or a giant tube made out of a million egg cartons and some nuclear-proof epoxy solution is pretty appealing. Add to that a slew of computers that I don’t really need and that’s damn near what-I’d-do-if-I-hit-the-Lotto material for me.

But as I dove deeper, I found a lot of threads that pulled me back to when they got this house built down in Florida, in 1983. These computers back in the day weren’t a bunch of IBM blade servers or anything; turns out the builders were using a slew of good old Commodore 64s in the styrofoam innards of this dream palace. The TVs weren’t giant plasmas like Bill Gates would have, but rather the old-school, silver, two-knob not-so-flat CRT sets like you’d find at your Aunt Barbara’s rec room back in ’80. The online shopping system wired into the food-processor kitchen used a 12″ analog laserdisc for its info. The “home gym” consists of the same non-resistance exercise bike your parents bought back in ’78 and used as a clothes rack for ten years before unloading it at a yard sale. This wasn’t a Jetsons home as much as it was my Christmas list from 1983.

And that’s when this unfamiliar house became a home I knew, at least in proxy, for some weird reason. I was IN Florida, in Orlando, in 1983. My parents loaded us up in the station wagon and drove south a thousand miles, first to Tampa, and then to the Disney kingdom. And we didn’t go to the Xanadu house, but it looks a lot like the kind of place we would have stopped. We hit a lot of roadside attractions that trip, and a lot of the gift shops and historical viewpoints, from Tarpon Springs to the Atlantic coast, had the same tacky yet “futuristic” sign that graced the front of the Xanadu house. Everything about the old pictures, the way they were framed, the style of the furniture, just rubs some weird brain cell deep in my head that makes me think of a million memories that have nothing to do with this house and everything to do with my own life.

For example, I remember, again on the trip, going to a Showbiz pizza with my family. For those who don’t remember, Showbiz was similar to Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza parlor where you bring the rugrats for birthdays and parties. But back in the day, Showbiz was very oriented toward arcade games, and had a fuckload of consoles, including duplicates of many popular games. And at that time, the big deal were laserdisc-based games like Dragon’s Lair. Nobody seems to remember this particular fad, but these machines had a big giant laser disc player in them, and when you jerked around the joystick, different scenes from this Disney-eque cartoon would play. The game totally sucked from a playability standpoint, but everyone was too busy circle-jerking over the fact that the output was basically like DVD-quality animation and sound, and this was at a time when most arcade heroes were 16 by 16 pixel sprites. I remember staring at people playing these games in amazement, thinking this was the future of arcade games. Of course, the future was that nobody wanted to pay 50 cents per game (this was one of the first two-coin titles), the laser players crapped out and took forever to load, and in another year, the entire coin-op arcade game industry would take a crap and completely implode, meaning nobody would be too interested in the progress of games for another five years. (About when Nintendo started slapping NES guts into consoles and charging people to play games on a console you could just buy and play at home on a TV – that is if you could find a NES, which you couldn’t, because Nintendo was in the middle of a price-fixing, fake-supply-problem war.)

And I went to Epcot on that trip, which was right when it opened and they had a lot of cool displays about the future and how science would win everything. (They’ve long since ripped all of this shit out and replaced it with “Bob the Builder’s Why Every Kid Should Buy More of My Garbage” exhibits.) And the exhibit showed electronic cars that we’d all drive to work in 1997, and ways to raise more food for the world through hydroponic greenhouses we’d all use when we went to Mars, and so on. Epcot was originally going to be a huge experiment in sustainable living, but when Disney realized there was no money in that, they had GE, GM, and AT&T drop these huge advertisements for life in the future. And the same thing is, in 1983, it all seemed so fucking feasible that in 20 years we’d all have video phones and TVs with smellovision and pod cars, and I remember that view of the future so vividly. And now that future is in the past, and none of it happened. I used to read in Compute magazine about how, maybe if we all tried hard, cars might have a single microprocessor in them, and it would be so cool to get so much blazing power out of an 8-bit 6510 wired into our engine. And now, I’ve got at least twenty processors sitting on my desk, in my watch, in my camera, in my mouse, and none of them are doing anything remotely as interesting as what I thought they would be. I have ten times the computing power of that Xanadu house sitting in the battery charger to my camera, and none of it is being used to automatically cook my food or turn on the jaccuzi when I get home from work. And that’s sad, in a way.

The house has a much more sad ending, though. It ran as a museum until the ’90s, then sat vacant, as Florida mold consumed the sterile white interior. Squatters broke in and tore up the interior, and eventually, last year, the owners bulldozed the place, and plan on putting in a condo on the land. There are a lot of pictures on line of the interior in disrepair, and then the dozer taking out the foam walls. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I forgot what my point is, other than to somehow describe that feeling I get when I look at an old Amiga or something. I remember the summer of 85 when all of the computer magazines were abuzz about that thing like all of the glamour mags are currently abuzz about the Jessica Simpson divorce or something. I mowed lawns and babysat and applied at every McDonald’s and Hardees within 10-speed distance of my house to scrape up money for that A-1000, and never made it. Just looking at the magazine pictures was like a view into the future of computing, something that could draw multiple windows and 4096 simultaneous colors! Looking back at the old beige-platinum machines, I imagine this massive future, but then I realize that my old Palm Pilot is probably faster and with a better screen.

Ah well, enough rambling. I’m still reading this Neil Armstrong book and it’s going to take me forever to finish. Better invest some more time into it…

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History Channel, Blind Date, eBay madness

I have the History Channel! See, I have cable, but not really. I plugged in the cable in my apartment and I get some channels, but not any good ones. I don’t actually pay for anything, so I’m not sure if this is the “basic” or “local” package that you get for free, or if I’m getting half of my neighbor’s feed or what. But I get all of the local network channels, and a bunch of the throwaways, like TNN, SuperStation, Food Network, Shop at Home, etc. I was dicking with the TV programming the other day, and found out I get the History Channel! I’m completely psyched because I could probably watch the History Channel 24 hours a day and never get bored. There’s nothing better than watching an hour about Chinese opium trade, then going into a special on guys restoring planes they found in a glacier in Greenland. So I might not be getting much writing done in the future, depending on their programming schedule.

I’m pretty pissed right now because I lost an eBay auction. I was bidding on a Tandy 102 computer, an old and primitive laptop that still works pretty neat and only uses 4 AA batteries. I had the winning bid up to the very last minute, and when it was 0.00, someone else came in and bid twice as much and took it. I was so pissed, I thought for sure I had it, because I was reloading the page every minute and watching. I think they used some kind of program to bid in the last minute. I also got run out on an auction for an Amiga 500 bundle that isn’t over, but that I didn’t want to pay too much for. I got onto another Tandy 102 auction, and I have a bid on an old MicroVAX. I don’t know if I will get any of them, but I hope that at least one of the auctions works out.

I watched all of the Blind Date DVDs and it pretty much reconfirmed my belief that I can never, ever, ever, date again. That doesn’t change that I want to, so the self-confusion level is still pegged.

And a freelance writer from AOL just used some of my pictures of St. Pete for an article, so I can add professional photographer to my long list of occupations. (writer, tech support, developer, designer, graphic artist, dishwasher, master paint specialist, truck loader and unloader, telemarketer, painter, landscaper, salesman, tutor, babysitter, game show contestant, cameraman, followspot operator, and fake advice columnist.)

The history of Lear jets is on. I better go.

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Repressed memories about computer cases

A reply RE http://elemeta.com/retrocase/index.html

Oh man, you just brought back a horrible repressed memory with your case page…

When I was in college in 1991, I didn’t have the cash for a computer, and needed one bad. This guy sold me an XT clone motherboard for ten bucks, and I scoured the used junk shops looking for the rest of the pieces to get something together that would run Procomm and sit behind a 2400 baud modem so I didn’t have to leave the house to get my email.

So a local place that sold lamps and lighting equipment and had a side-line selling mail-order Commodore 64 parts also had a beaten up 5150 case, PS. and keyboard, and I talked the guy down to five bucks for all three. Great! I could just slap in that newer motherboard and get to work, right?

Um, no. Turns out, as you probably know, that not a damn thing lined up between the case and board. Every single mounting hole except one was off, and I had the whole thing supported by a suicidal mix of plastic standoffs and mix-and-match screws and bolts. My mobo had like 8 or 9 expansion slots, which didn’t jive with the 5-slot webbing on the back of the case. So I borrowed a friend’s dremel and went to work, tearing out all of the slots on the case until the whole thing looked like a Civil War field amputation done with a blunt butterknife. The worst of all was the keyboard connector. The damn thing did not line up at all, so at three in the morning one night, I got out a soldering iron, melted out the stupid thing, and reattached each wire with a few inches of lampcord or whatever I had laying around. I could then move the plug a few inches over.

The whole thing sortof worked for a semester. I fried that 55-watt power supply when I got one of those full-height, five Meg hard drives on usenet for about ten bucks. I went to a local place and got a 100-watt power supply for a few dollars, and managed to get the drive working, although when it spun up, I was afraid it would blow out every fuse in the house.

I had a lot of intermittent shorts and lockups, and I figured the case was flexing the board, or crossing some traces on the backside. So when I got my tax refund next spring, I went out and blew $100 on a really nice mini-tower that I ended up using for the next ten years. But the shorts continued. I would disassemble and reassemble the damn thing in rage every night, hitting the case, the PS, flexing the motherboard, doing everything to get it to come back on. Finally one night, I had the whole thing torn down to air, earth, fire, and water, and I found the problem – the damn CPU was replaced with a V20 before I got it, and it was seated in the socket crooked. When the system heated up, it would pull half of the pins from the socket. I re-seated it, and all was well until I got a real 486 a year later.

Anyway, your project made me nostalgic for the old days, and glad I have a nice case now.

-Jon