the changing range of nostalgia

I got an observation/question in email from Larry about this (and I’m paraphrasing): back when we were in high school in the mid/late-80s, there were a couple of kids who had old cars, “classic” cars like the ’57 Chevy, and that was a big deal, because they were 30 years old and “antique.” Or back then, the twenty-year-old range put you into classic muscle cars, like the ’69 Z-28 or Mustang Mach 1.

Now, a thirty-year-old car lands you in the mid-80s. And he posits, are kids now impressed with a 1985 car with a bad tape deck the way we lusted after old Bel Airs and T-Birds?

Oddly enough, that’s true to some extent. I read a reddit for project cars (which makes total sense, because I don’t have a garage, or time, or money, or patience, so I waste tons of time looking at pictures of people restoring old cars.) And the year range of what I consider “classic” is now insanely out of reach. Every baby boomer who has cashed in and is in The Crisis is searching for that ’66 Stingray or ’69 GTO they couldn’t get back in high school, which has made the prices skyrocket. Even the completely fucked and destroyed shell of an old Camaro convertible is going to cost more than my 2014 Toyota did new.

So, the kids of now are looking back to “old” cars that I still mentally consider “new.” Like on that reddit, two of the most popular resto-mod projects are old Fox-era Mustangs (’79-’93) and first-gen Miatas (’89-’97.) When I was in high school with a falling-apart rust bucket of a 1976 car, I was given endless shit by kids whose parents bought them a new car, and the one in vogue was the ’88 or ’89 Mustang 5.0 GT. That to me is a “new” car, but now they’re almost 30 years old.

If you were looking for a cheap project, you can buy one of those mid-80s Mustangs for a grand or two, with a beat-apart four-banger engine. This was right before computerization and fuel injection took over the engine bay of modern vehicles, so it’s not hard to tear out that engine and rebuild a pick-and-pull 351 V-8 for a grand or so. You can get all the Edelbrock bolt-on stuff like an intake manifold or headers online, and head over to Tire Rack to get running gear UPSed to your door. But yeah, kids now see those as “old” cars, and are into the retro aspect as much as they are into vinyl records.

I’ve also noticed this in another k-hole I fall down, which is retro computing. I also browse through a reddit for vintage computers. When eBay first came out, I went through this thing where I had to buy an old Atari 2600, which I never had as a kid, and also re-buy a new Commodore 64 and relive the past glory of my first real computer. And people still do that, and there’s a big community of folks with old Amigas and ColecoVisions and all that. But now, I’m also seeing a lot of kids restoring “retro” machines like 386 and 486 PCs.

My first reaction to this, seeing someone fighting with a 486DX-33 and a Windows 3.1 install was “wait, what?” Because those aren’t vintage, they just came out… well… okay, twenty-some years ago. If you pull an old 486 out of the garbage and have no memory of these beasts, it’s going to seem radically different from your new PC. It will have floppy drives, a 40-Meg disk drive that’s IDE if you’re lucky, or maybe even an MFM or RLL interface. There won’t be a DVD or CD drive, USB, any sort of memory card reader, and it probably won’t have a network card. (It might have an old 10 Base T Ethernet card, if it was from an office.) It would hopefully have a VGA card, but good luck if it was Hercules or mono. And prepare for that gigantic space heater power supply used to spin up the massively loud hard drive to have bulged and leaking capacitors that need replacement.

It’s an odd thing, because in some senses, a computer from 1992 is going to be much harder to deal with than one from 1982. That pre-internet era is not as documented as it could be, and most parts and spares went into the garbage. It was also the wild west as far as standardization. Only one company made TI computers; there were dozens of Taiwanese shops knocking out PCs in the early 90s, all using only vaguely compatible pieces, and most of them are vanished and unknown. Now, every computer looks absolutely identical, but then, even the same manufacturer might have a dozen differently-cased computers, each with entirely incompatible parts. Try finding a replacement front bezel for a Leading Edge computer – your only real hope is finding another complete Model D to cannibalize.

And these “old” computers seem like they are five minutes in my past. When I started this site, I had just upgraded from a 486DX-33 to a 486-DX120. I had the same beige mini-tower case from 1992 to I think 2002, and incrementally updated bits and pieces of the system when I got a few bucks. I wrote my first two books on computers shoehorned into that box, and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. But 1992, that was 23 years go.

I should add the disclaimer here, so I’m not completely Andy Rooneying this, is that I don’t see anything “bad” about current computers, in a “they don’t build them like they used to” way. Same with cars – you can buy a $10,000 car and drive it for a hundred thousand miles easy, only changing the oil and maybe getting a set of tires or two. You don’t screw with distributor points and cam timing and cleaning spark plugs any more. I haven’t had to change jumpers on a computer in a long time, haven’t needed to run to the store for some random ribbon cable to get this to talk to that. They’re appliances now, and maybe something is gone in the tinkering, but I’ve got too much shit to do to mess with that now.

Still — christ, I’m getting old.



What happened to hypercard?

Hypercard was released 25 damn years ago.  Has it been that long?

Back in college, I spent a lot of time screwing around on the Mac, and there were certain programs that welded that old-school 68K Classic Mac experience in my mind.  One of them was Aldus PageMaker, which was the desktop publishing program of the day. This was in the very early 90s, in the days of DOS and WordPerfect 5.1, when the most advanced publishing work you could do on the WinTel side of things was using italics.  But the Mac had this funky and advanced program that enabled you to create page layouts and cool newsletters and even newspapers.  I saw many a journalism student slaving away on those old black-and-white Apples with the tiny grey screens, tweaking layouts and dumping fantastic publications to postscript printers.  I later learned PageMaker by doing the last issue of my old zine Xenocide in it, spending months tweaking page borders and reflowing columns.

The other program I messed with endlessly was HyperCard.  This was something included on all of the old Macs, and it was incredibly interesting to me.  Basically, you created a stack of cards, and each card could have a mix of text and clip art graphics on it.  But you could also plop controls on the cards, like links or text boxes.  You could then hook up those controls to link cards to each other, or do other freaky stuff like run scripts.

This sounds pretty pedestrian compared to what we do daily on the web.  And it sounds disturbingly like PowerPoint, which is probably one of the most evil things created in the business world. But back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, these concepts were absolutely revolutionary.  And even better, the interface to HyperCard was not that intimidating.  If you could make basic art in MacPaint or write a paper in WordPerfect, you could easily create a HyperCard stack.

I remember spending a lot of time at work creating a choose-your-own-adventure game using HyperCard.  I forget exactly what it was – I think it was a game about trying to score drugs on a college campus, and you could click on various pictures to move around.  It wasn’t exactly as sophisticated as the Zork series, but it was something I could do at work, under the guise of “learning more about HyperCard.”  I never learned much about the scripting language, but I did work with some people who did pretty sophisticated stacks.  The system was widely used by education majors, I guess to develop learning tools for kids.  I guess the original Myst on the Mac was written in Hypercard, each of the worlds a Hypercard stack, interlaced with heavy-duty graphics and audio, presented with custom plug-ins.

Like I said, the web came along, and HyperCard more or less vanished.  It was one of the products developed by Claris, which was spun off from Apple and then later re-merged.  The last version of HyperCard came out in 1996, but it was one of the projects killed by Steve Jobs after his return.  You could run old versions for a while, but it did not survive the jump from OS9 to OSX.  You could get it to work in Classic emulation on newer systems, but it only worked on PPC Macs.  On today’s Intel-based machines running later versions of OSX, it doesn’t work at all.

Its one big legacy on the Mac is that the HyperTalk scripting language was adapted and added to System 7, and called AppleScript.  It’s still around in modern versions of OS X, and is even more interesting, now that you can run unix commands from within AppleScript.  It influenced the development of HTTP, JavaScript, and Ward Cunningham said the whole idea of wikis goes back to using HyperText.

To me, HyperCard was always a bit of a missed opportunity.  I think it would be very easy for casual users to create HyperCard stacks and then use some kind of tool to push them to a web site; it would potentially be easier to create high-quality interactive web sites with something like that.  There are probably many programs that you could buy to do that, but none that come with your operating system and follow its UI paradigm.  It would also be great to develop mobile apps.  I could see creating a stack, testing it out on your computer, then pushing it through a compiler and shooting out a binary that could be run on a phone or tablet.  You couldn’t write the next Skyrim that way, but for simple stuff, like interactive kid’s books or multimedia guides, it would be great.  Same thing for interactive books on the Kindle or iPad.

I know you can do all of these things with XCode or by hand or whatever, but there’s something about the ease of use by a non-programmer, and the availability on every Mac, that make this a different paradigm.  There are some conspiracy theories that Jobs killed Hypercard in order to solidify the division between creator and consumer.  I don’t know if that’s true; I think he killed it because Apple had eleventy billion disparate things going on when he returned, and none of them were getting the company closer to profitable hardware sales or a decent operating system.  It’s too bad we don’t have something like this anymore.



Age of Aquarius

I’ve talked a few times about my old Commodore 64, but this wasn’t my first computer. I actually owned a much shittier computer for about a year before the C-64: the Mattel Aquarius.  I thought I’d told the story before, but looking through the archives here, I didn’t find much.  So here’s the deal.

The personal computer pretty much started happening when I was in grade school.  I guess before that, you could solder together your own Altair, but in about the 5th grade, these platinum-cased Apple II computers showed up, and I learned how to do the 10 PRINT “HELLO” thing on one of those green-screen monitors.  If your parents had money, you could get one of these things in your home, but with an original 1977 list price of $1298 for the 4K model (plus monitor, plus disk drive, plus software), there was no way in hell I’d ever own a computer.  But as the 70s became the 80s, an explosion of cheaper machines hit the market.  Atari came out with their 800, which listed for about half the price of an Apple, and then the C-64 machine started selling at $595.  There were also some cheap-o machines with more anemic specifications, like the VIC-20, which dropped to near $100, and the Timex-Sinclair, which was even cheaper.

At the beginning of 1984, my parents split up, right around the time of my 13th birthday.  I didn’t know the political angle of being a child of divorce, and I didn’t consciously want to pit one parent against the other, but getting a computer was stuck in the front of my head.  I needed one of these things.  There was no world wide web that I needed to browse, and I didn’t need to type papers or balance spreadsheets.  I just needed to be able to hack at a machine and write programs and develop games.  I’d taught myself BASIC, writing programs on paper and getting to try them out on friends’ machines or with the very narrow slivers of time afforded to me with the school’s few Apples.  I wanted to be able to waste all of my copious amounts of free time writing some kind of Dungeons and Dragons game on the computer.

And right around then, the Kay-Bee toy store at the mall by my house started selling these bundled computer systems from Mattel.  And they were only a hundred bucks, and included games and joysticks and the whole nine yards.  I didn’t know anyone with one of these machines, and this was long before I could plug this into wikipedia and look up the specs.  But I needed one, and $100 was an easier target to reach than the $200 or $300 price of a Commodore, so I begged and pleaded, and before I knew it, at the end of one of those “every other Sunday” visitations, I had this big huge box full of computer, ready to hook up to the TV set’s antenna screws.

The Mattel Aquarius has a strange history, one that I didn’t know for decades. Mattel made the Intellivision video game system, and promised in ads and brochures that they’d come out with a magical keyboard that would plug in and turn the thing into a real computer. This was a big deal back then, because if you were already dropping a few hundred dollars on a video game system, there was a certain enticement in being able to avoid spending another grand on a home computer. Problem was, they didn’t have this computer expander system ready. They turned to the manufacturer of their Intellivision, Radofin in Hong Kong, and they had a low-end computer system of their own, which they rebadged as the Aquarius.

The Aquarius was quite likely the shittiest home computer of the 80s. It was based on the Z80 processor, which was used in a lot of other systems, and it ran it at 3.5 mHz, which wasn’t horrible for the time. But it came with 4K of RAM. Once you booted the system, the screen memory, other buffers, and the BASIC interpreter took up most of that, leaving behind just over 1K. That’s a K and not an M; we’re talking about just over a thousand of characters of memory. There was a very rudimentary sound generator, and support for an 80×25 screen with no real graphics.

The BASIC was a version of Microsoft’s, and it was a fairly crappy implementation. If you programmed BASIC back in the day, you may remember that there were good BASICs and bad BASICs. Like the Commodore V2.0 BASIC didn’t have an ELSE statement for IF-THENs, which meant a lot of spaghetti IF-THENs that were an eyesore in a language with no indentation. And the CBM version didn’t have any great sound or graphics functions, even though its chipset supported decent functionality; you’d have to PEEK and POKE to do anything cool, or spend some cash on Simon’s BASIC or some other extension of the language. The Aquarius BASIC, most likely because of the memory issue, was even more crippled than the Commodore version, with an extremely limited subset of commands.

Design-wise, the Aquarius was a fairly tiny machine. It came with a 48-key chicklet keyboard, these little rubber keys spaced far apart, and the machine wasn’t much bigger than the keyboard. The keyboard really, truly sucked. A few other machines came with a membrane keyboard (the Atari 400, and the Timex) which was pretty bad, but these rubber keys were the worst. You could not touch type in any way, not only because of the keyboard’s spongy feel, and because it had a substandard layout. For example, it didn’t have a space bar; there was a a space key off to one side. The one saving grace was that there were keyboard shortcuts you could use when typing, so if you needed to type GOTO, you could use a function key and hit G or something like that. Cartridges usually came with these two-piece keyboard overlays, thin pieces of plastic embossed with all of the special functions for the program. There was almost no extensibility to the machine, either. It came with plugs for a printer and a cassette recorder, plus the RCA plug for the TV set. It had no other plugs; even the power supply didn’t have a plug, and the cord and power brick were permanently attached to the back. It did come with a single cartridge slot, which accommodated these weird wedge-shaped cartridges that matched the angle of the top half of the console.

The Aquarius was a huge flop, and was discontinued after a few months. Most of them sold were bundled with accessories for liquidation, which is where I got mine. My system came with four games, and a thing called the “Mini Expander”, an oversized cartridge that plugged into the machine and hung off the back end, providing two cartridge slots (so you could plug in a program cart and a memory expander), two joysticks, and some built-in sound chip support. The joysticks were similar to the Intellivision, those crappy disc controllers that were almost unusable, with a set of six chicklet buttons on the top of the controller, and no other fire buttons. (I think the Intellivision joysticks were actually better than the Aquarius ones.)

One of the huge issues with the Aquarius was that it was somehow perceived as a sibling to the Intellivision, but it was more like a second cousin by adoption, and even though some assumed it could play Intellivision games (which were generally better than Atari 2600 games), the gaming support was fairly horrible. In fact, the joke was that Mattel used to put programmers on the Aquarius team as a punishment. The games couldn’t use high-res graphics, and had to resort to using the machine’s extended character set to draw stuff on the screen. (The machine did have some cool characters in the extended character set though, like little explosions and running dudes and aliens.)

I got four games with my system, in order from best to shittiest:

– Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin: This game actually kicked ass. You moved through a maze, Doom-style (but with much worse graphics), with the right third of the screen an inventory list of the couple of items you could pick up and carry, including swords, bows and arrows, potions, and keys. You crawled through the levels of this massive dungeon, and when you ran into a dragon or orc (all drawn with this random collection of ASCII art, like prehistoric emoticons), this round of combat would ensue, with fireballs being traded and hit points lost. There were supposed to be 99 levels of this dungeon, or if you killed the white dragon, you’d win. Despite the shitty graphics and sound, this was an incredibly playable game.

– Snafu: You and another player had these ever-growing lines on the screen, sort of like the Tron light cycle game, and you could not collide with the other person’s line. This was pretty fun if you had another player, but it was otherwise very basic.

– Night Stalker: This was a Pac-man style maze, there were no dots to be eaten; you just wandered around while alien dudes tried to shoot you. This could have been a much cooler game if it had more levels or mazes, but we’re talking about 4K of RAM here.

– Tron Deadly Discs – This game straight-up sucked. It wasn’t even a Tron game; it was just two emoticons throwing chunks of ASCII shit at each other. I would play it about once a month just to see if there was something I missed, but within five minutes, I’d realize how I was duped.

The worst part of the Aquarius was that Mattel went tits-up about 15 minutes after I got the system, so there was absolutely no support. The market exploded with add-ons for the Apple and Atari; the Commodore could use Atari joysticks, and you could buy tons of games, or buy any of the dozen or two magazines like Compute! and type in your own games. But there was no support for the Aquarius, and I could not buy any software or accessories. And this was long before you could hop on Amazon and search for stuff to buy. Aside from the lack of games, I did not have a disk or tape drive to save my own programs, and I couldn’t even print out my stuff to a printer. Every once in a while, I’d see the Aquarius mentioned in a computer magazine, but it was always a “what the fuck happened here?” takedown piece.

The biggest “fuck you” to the whole thing is that Mattel had released a bunch of cartridges, including an extended BASIC and memory expansion, and planned even more stuff.  The box for the system showed all of these unavailable items, and then had some black stickers covering pictures of vaporware items, like a master expansion chassis that would sit under the unit and provide a disk drive.  There was also an Aqaurius II that was very briefly sold, that had a real keyboard and the extended BASIC built in.

My tenure on the Aquarius was brief; by the next Christmas, the Commodore 64 was on my list, and I graduated to its much roomier 38,911 bytes free and full-motion keyboard that wasn’t designed like a crappy calculator you got for free at a Shell station.  But we did play the hell out of those four games, though.  And now my daily driver is a machine that has two million times as much RAM available.  But that crappy Aquarius is an interesting little footnote in my computing history.

And some linkage for you: