Ever since the COVID stuff started, I’ve had the term COVAD stuck in my head. There’s a reason for that. Let me explain.

So back in 1999, I moved to New York to freelance and write fiction and do that whole lifestyle, and it lasted about six months and I ended up at a full-time job at Juno Online that fall. Juno was that free email company, where they gave you a clunky Windows program and you got a free email address but had to look at ads in a little sidebar thing. When I got there, they also got into giving away a limited number of hours of free web browsing, or you could pay a little per month to get “unlimited” use.

At that point in time, 99.99% of internet users connected through a dial-up modem. Some dorms and campuses had ethernet; some offices, too. You could also pay a ton of money to get an ISDN connection at a screaming 128Kbps. Like most people, I used a 56K modem, which wasn’t blazing fast, but my first modem ever was 300bps, and I spent a few years of college on a 2400bps, so it didn’t seem that horrible. The busy signals were, though.

One of the first things I worked on at Juno was a new product called Juno Express. This was a Juno unlimited connection, but also included a broadband connection. Juno experimented with every type of broadband technology coming out at the turn of the century. We did trials with cable modems, satellite, microwave, various radio technologies, and something that ran through power lines to the home. But the one that stuck was DSL. And our DSL partner was called Covad Communications.

Prior to the late 90s, the only real way into a person’s house from a communication standpoint was the voice line. Modems worked by connecting to the voice line and converting digital communication into an audio signal, that screeching sound you heard when you connected a modem to the internet, if you were old enough to remember using a modem. That worked, but only up to a certain point, because of the inefficiency of cramming a wide digital signal over a relatively narrow pipe.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed this. Among the other things they deregulated, they made it so that an Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC) – the big phone companies like Bell Atlantic or Ameritech – had to allow any company the ability to share the local-loop access of the pieces of copper that tied a home to a telephone exchange. That meant a company like Covad could lease these lines and run their own digital internet service directly to your home.

Of course, the big phone companies didn’t make this easy. They dragged their feet and instituted byzantine processes for partners and did as much as possible to discourage this forced competition. Part of what made my documentation of Juno Express so messy was the complicated dance of getting the customer’s phone company and someone from Covad to both work with each other to get everything connected. Companies like Verizon weren’t going to just hand keys to Covad and say “knock yourself out.” Getting appointments was tedious, and sometimes they just wouldn’t show up, so you had to reschedule the following Covad appointment. It would take weeks and sometimes months to turn on a connection.

Once you got all of this sorted, you ended up with a DSL box in your house that had a 10 base T ethernet connection at about 768Kbps. But it was on 24 hours a day. No busy signals! And over ten times faster than a modem. Yes, my current connection is usually about 600Mbps, but just under 1Mbps was so insanely fast at that time. And not having to wait an hour to get past the busy signal at peak hours was a huge plus.

I seldom worked with anyone from Covad. But they had a sales rep who, when he was in New York, was always good for a high-end lunch. I remember getting a three-hour, all-expenses paid steak dinner for lunch at Sparks Steak House once. I think we spent thirty seconds discussing business, and it was “how’s business?/not bad/let’s get more drinks.” Other than that and the usual swag that showed up (I’m sure I had Covad mouse pads galore at the time, maybe a stress ball or some pens, too) I seldom had direct interaction with them, just deciphering their emails and adding to the docs.

When I moved into my own place in Astoria in 1999, I got DSL right after I got my keys, but I didn’t use Juno. Covad also got hooked up with Speakeasy, who I still had accounts with from my Seattle days. Speakeasy started as an internet cafe in Belltown, and I got a shell account there when I got to Seattle. For five bucks a month, I got an account on a SparcStation, the address, and a few megs of web space. I kept that account for like ten years, but when I got to New York, they were doing dial-up access nationwide, which I used, until I got the DSL hookup. I later moved from the leased-line DSL, which used the second set of copper in my walls, to a shared-line setup, which ran on the same pair as my voice line, using DSL filters. I think that was maybe a 3Mbps connection.

I left Juno in the summer of 2001, right as they got bought by NetZero. I kept using Speakeasy/Covad until maybe 2005 when I moved in with Sarah. Oddly enough, Covad and Speakeasy were acquired and mashed together with MegaPath in a three-way merger in 2010. The Speakeasy cafe burned down in 2001. And now when you search on Covad, Google suggests Covid. So I’m not the only one confusing the two.


Desks, part two

A long time ago, I wrote a post here about my various desks over the years. (It’s at Desks, a viewport into the mind) I was digging around in some scans, and found a few more pictures to babble about. Why? As I said in part one, why not. I have an obsession with the workspaces of other writers, so I’m always taking a snapshot of mine.

Anyway, exhibit one is my desk from 1991-1993, sort of:

This is actually a view of my infamous 414 Mitchell apartment, as it was being torn down on the 4th of July weekend, 1993. So, the computer is gone. It’s hard to see, but to the left is a green card table. That was my computer table from probably when I was a teenager, up until that summer. I used to build model airplanes on it before that, so it was covered in Testor’s paint, in various camo colors. I don’t know what eventually happened to this table; I think it was still at my mom’s house shortly before she sold it.

The whole summer when Summer Rain took place, I had a DOS PC in a generic mid-tower case sitting on that table. Here’s it’s full of books and dishes, although I also see a copy of the Danzig 3 box set with the weird plastic HR Giger cover on there. Also check the genuine IBM PC 83-key keyboard against the wall, which is worth more than a few bucks on eBay these days. (No idea what I did with that – I think it was broken.) And of course, the horrible wood paneling. This apartment was $177 a month in the early 90s, and it shows.

Same year, next exhibit. Here’s the next iteration in 1993:

I worked at Montgomery Ward in the summer of 1993, and wanted to get a “real” computer desk for my next apartment. We sold these Sauder L-shaped desks which I thought were cool as hell at the time. This was before everyone had a PC in their house, so the computer hutch was still a somewhat new phenomenon. And this was before particle-board furniture got value-engineered to hell, so this was a pretty sturdy setup. I think it cost $150, minus my ten-percent employee discount.

This was in my room in my mom’s basement, shortly before returning to college that fall. More nice wood paneling, sporting a Type O Negative poster I got from my zine days. Other things I notice are the twelve-inch paperwhite VGA monitor I had for a few years, my Kenwood stereo and Panasonic speakers that followed me through college, and I see a bottle of Obsession cologne, from back when I actually thought that shit mattered.

This was my first real desk when I started writing later that year. I either sold it or gave it away when I left Bloomington in 1995.

Next up, here’s what Seattle looked like, circa 1998 or so:

The entire time I was in Seattle, I worked on my old kitchen table, which was too small in area and too high off the ground. I’d upgraded to this ViewSonic color monitor, which was far too deep for such a narrow table. (Remember when monitors were more than an inch thick?) Other interesting (or not) things include a self-inking stamp for Air in the Paragraph Line Zine outgoing mail, and I spy a box of Travan backup tapes, when I used to back up my Linux machine to tape for some damn reason. You can also see my emacs setup on the monitor, with eyestrain-relief pink colors. I used the emacs text editor to write everything up until 2011 or so.

Fast-forward a minute (see the older post for other desks in between these) and here’s my work desk in 2001 right before I set it up for the first time:

This was at my office at Bleecker and Broadway. We moved in there in August 2001, and I left in February 2007. I spent a lot of time at this damn desk in the early/mid-00s. The friend who just passed away was two cubes in front of this, so this pic is a little bittersweet. It was also taken a month before 9/11. Ugh.

When I went back to the company in 2010 and visited in December, the desk was vacant, so I got to set up and work there, which was bizarre. That filing cabinet was still there, and was locked. I still had the key. When I opened it, all of my files and printouts from the early 00s were still in there.

And to close, here’s a shot from last year, which is about current:

This is an Anthro cart I bought in 2010 when I started working from home. It’s not bad, although I wish I bought the one twice as wide, and maybe the matching filing cabinet. The only difference between this and 2020 is the Vanatoo speakers I just got. And the bass is usually in a stand. It’s also never this clean. This is both my work and home desk, so I spend far too much time here. It could use a bigger monitor. Maybe I should look into that next.



flu, rom-com dreams, unix history, holiday mall-walking

I think I have a bit of the flu right now. It’s the weirdest one, because I don’t have a lot of symptoms (congestion, throat, fever, etc) but I have been horribly underwater, unable to think, achy, and all I want to do is sleep. And of course this happens immediately before our Q4 deadline, when I have half a hundred things that have to ship. Last night, I slept about eleven hours, and felt like it was maybe three. I think I’m on the back half of it, and maybe if I waste the weekend sleeping, I’ll be over it.

* * *

I had this amazing yet disturbing dream – I plotted out the entire outline of a chick-flick rom-com, and it was an absolutely bulletproof story for that genre. And I remembered all of it when I woke up, and wrote it all down. It’s not a bad story idea at all if I was into that sort of thing, but I’m 80% sure it’s actually the plot of something I subliminally watched on a plane fifteen years ago. I’d have to spend a few weeks watching the entire Emily Blunt filmography to research that I wasn’t plagiarizing Richard Curtis. And what’s worse is if the thing ended up being entirely successful by ten orders of magnitude more than anything else I’ve written.

* * *

I’ve been reading UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan, which has been fun. I’ve had a copy of the K&R C book since forever – I actually had the first edition, sold it to buy groceries or whatever back in 1992 or so, and then bought the second edition when I was in Seattle. Kernighan is one of the Bell Labs folks who was around when unix first came to life in the late sixties/early seventies. He wasn’t the inventor of unix, but he arguably came up with the name, and he co-wrote that definitive C programming book. Anyway, the memoir is actually half about his personal time at Bell and half the beginnings of that operating system’s development.

It’s a fun read, because it makes me think of how quickly things changed in that period. They first started hacking together their system on a PDP-7, which had something like 32K of RAM. They had to write everything in assembly language, because there wasn’t a C language yet, and there weren’t portable libraries yet, which made later moving unix to the PDP-11 an overwhelming task. A dozen years later, my Commodore 64 had double that amount of memory. Six or seven years later, the computer I first used to learn assembly language had eight times that memory, and was considered largely obsolete at that point. (The C335 class had a cast-off lab of old Atari 520 ST machines, which were maybe five years old, but felt more like fifty, compared to the NeXT and SPARC workstations everywhere in Lindley Hall. It was nice learning assembly on the Motorola 68000 though. I don’t remember the details, but the 8086 seemed bizarre in comparison. The 68K had more registers, and they were all general purpose; the x86 had a bunch of specific registers, so like some were specific pointer registers you only used in addressing. Or something. Anyway, this was thirty years ago, and I never used assembly again.) Anyway, it’s fun to read about these guys writing an OS that’s now used everywhere, on a machine that’s slower than the alarm clock sitting on my desk.

The one weird thing about that book is that Kernighan has probably sold millions of programming books over the years, mostly through Prentice-Hall, but this book was self-published on KDP. It looks okay, but it’s definitely published on KDP. It makes me wonder why he didn’t get an agent to swing him a deal and maybe get more publicity on the thing. It does seem to be highly-ranked at the moment, and I hope he does well with it, but it is curious.

* * *

Not much else. Writing has been slow because of the flu. Mall walking has been increasing as the temperatures slowly drop. (Nowhere near as bad as the midwest, though.) It’s nice to see the holiday stuff slowly start to fill the stores. Macy’s is packed with new inventory; JC Penney seems to be well-stocked. Sears is Sears. The one in Concord has a sad display of trees in the basement, and not much stock on the floor. I still find it funny that I thought of Sears as The Enemy for years when I worked at Wards, but now I feel oddly emotional when I’m in the holiday department. It reminds me a lot of being in Four Seasons over thirty years ago, putting up the fake trees and telling people that no, we did not have any Nintendos in the back room.

I have a much bigger post in me about the Wards thing. But one interesting bit I found out is that one of the guys who worked full-time in the automotive department who I always liked working with managed to stay until they locked the doors on the last day. And then, oddly enough, he jumped to Sears, and went down with the ship when they closed almost twenty years later. So that’s interesting.


WordPerfect for Mac

A stupid memory… I was thinking about how I used to love WordPerfect on the Classic Mac OS. It wasn’t a port of DOS WP 5.1; a different dev team wrote their own program, and the company called it WordPerfect, so it worked much faster. I always found it better than Word on the old Sys6/7 Mac.

Anyway, found this page: – Someone has set up the SheepSaver PowerPC emulator to run MacOS 8.6, along with a few versions of WordPerfect. So you can download one image file, and with almost no fuss (aside from the big download) you can then run WordPerfect on a modern Intel Mac.

I was messing with this and realized I have a Stuffit archive of the Mac machine I had at my first job, 22 years ago. I’ve never been able to un-stuff it, because of the weirdness of Mac resource forks or whatever. I brought it into this emulated machine, and it instantly opened it. So I had the same set of files I had back on my Centris 660 AV in Seattle in 1996.

There wasn’t much there: the 1984 commercial in QuickTime; a bunch of QuickHelp source for the Spry Mosaic browser; some other assorted utilities, like DropPS and GraphicConverter. The fun find was I had a Sounds folder, which had a few hundred short clips of audio from Beavis and Butthead and Pulp Fiction. They were all sampled at like 10kHz; the whole folder is like 38 MB.

It reminds me of a time when Windows audio was almost nonexistent, unless you paid hundreds of bucks for a SoundBlaster, but every Mac had pretty decent audio, standard. There was a big culture of hoarding these little ten-second samples of Star Wars and RoboCop movie quotes. Like I remember hanging out with my Calculus teacher at IUSB – this must have been in late 1990. There were almost no Macs at the South Bend campus, but for some reason, he had a brand new SE/30. I went to check it out one time, and he spent half an hour playing me every sound file he had downloaded from the internet, these little clips from science fiction films, all hooked in so it would play Darth Vader when he started up or shut down his machine.

I don’t even know how to play these audio files outside of the emulator, but it works in the program. I guess now I can just go to YouTube and play the entire TV show if I want, but it’s interesting to see a snapshot of how it used to work back then. Also, the old Mac interface looks so blocky and weird now, which is hilarious.


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:


Desks, a viewport into the mind

As a writer, I spend a lot of time at desks.  And I have some strange obsession with the workspaces of writers, which is why I always seem to be snapping pictures of my desks.  And every time I go back and look at it, I can tell the era and the project and the general zeitgeist by seeing what things I needed to keep within arm’s reach during the marathon stretches at the typer.

Here’s a bunch of pictures of my desks over the years.  Why?  I don’t know.  A good way to waste a Friday afternoon, I guess.

Here’s where I spent a lot of 1999: in Washington Heights at Marie’s, my first stop in New York, and where I hacked out the ending of Summer Rain. This must have been soon after my arrival.  There’s my Polaroid, which I bought during the cross-country trip, and some Hi-8 tapes, probably also from the journey.  That silver thing between the speakers is a MiniDisc recorder.

That winter, I moved to Astoria, and got my own place.  Still working off the office table, but I have a real chair now.  This must be in mid-2000, because I’ve got my surround sound speakers installed.  I probably got the bulk of my work from 2000-2005 done at this desk, where I used to type from nine to midnight over the sound of Jersey Shore wannabe douchebags screaming at each other outside my first floor window (hence the speakers.)

My desk at Juno, from 1999-2001.  I didn’t do as much fiction writing here, but I pumped out a lot of tech writing.  It was my first cube, after years of Seattle offices with closing doors.  There’s some xmas lights up; they told us we could decorate our cubes, so I went to K-Mart and bought $100 of lights, including one of those blinking strands that played 24 different holiday songs from an annoying watch-type speaker.

By 2001, I added this stupid aquarium to my desk, in some effort to be less stressed out or something.  I was too lazy to buy fish though, which is probably for the best, since they would have died after 9/11 when my power went out for a week.  You can also see the corner of my beige mini-tower computer on the floor, the case I bought back in 1992.  I must have replaced it a few months later.

In 2002, I started writing on the road a lot more, taking last-second fare deals every time we had a long weekend, so my “desktop” looked like this a lot.  That’s my Latitude LS, the first “real” computer I bought new.  A screaming Pentium III with 256 MB of memory and Windows 98, for a only $2500.  I dual-booted into Linux so I could fire up emacs at 40,000 feet and type away.  No, no wifi.

Here’s what it looked like in action: a hotel room in they Hyatt connected to the Pittsburgh airport, on Good Friday of 2002.  There’s also a Handspring Palm-clone PDA in action, something I bought to jot down ideas and read e-books, but ended up using primarily to play Dope Wars.  I was probably finishing edits of Rumored to Exist around then, although I was also mostly getting drunk and thinking of stupid movie ideas.

When you’re a bachelor for too long, this is what happens.  This is probably early 2005, and the mail collection has gotten out of control.  I think the browser window is opened to my old /photos directory, running its hacked-together PHP gallery software, before I finally gave up and just started using flickr for everything.  If you look carefully, you’ll see a PlayStation 2 on the floor, which is responsible for my lack of writing output for most of the 2000s.

Hey look, I got a Mac!  This is from spring of 2005, and I also got an ergo keyboard.  And I must have started dating Sarah, given that I felt the need to clean the apartment so it didn’t look like a serial killer was there, or maybe they were filming a special two-part episode of Hoarders.  Don’t worry, the stacks of unopened mail are still there; I found a spot on a bookcase to hide them, which is a miracle, given the number of books I had at this point.

New house, new desk.  This was late 2005, when I moved in with Sarah on the Lower East Side.  That desk was brutal to put together.  That red phone followed me around since maybe 1988 or so; I’ve still got it in storage somewhere.  There’s also the receiver for a Microsoft wireless mouse, a wretched little pointing device that ate batteries faster than a walkman with a 20-inch subwoofer.

That desk followed me to Denver, and in 2007, this is where I spent most of my time writing an unpublished book about time machines, and hacking at Ruby on Rails code.  The thing in the center is a full-spectrum light; I hadn’t sold the Mac Mini yet; this was well into September and going into Rocktober, given the order form for postseason tickets sitting in the corner of the picture.

In 2008, we moved to LA, and I worked from home again, this time with a place back in Denver.  I spent my days in VMWare, slogging away in a Windows virtual machine, which is shown.  This was during my massive weight loss campaign, as evident by the 100-calorie pack and the diet Sobe Lean pink grapefruit soda.  I had an okay view from the window, with lots of California sun and the occasional crow on the tree outside.

Here’s my officemate for much of my writing.  Loca loved to crawl on the desk and crash, especially when I had documents spread out.  It’s always nice to have cats around when you’re writing, though.  You can also see how I hid my laptop on a keyboard tray, and a close look at the whiteboard shows some Ruby on Rails for hackers cheatsheet, which I probably looked at once and then ignored.

A bad stitch of some pictures of my office at Samsung.  Note the early 80s decor, like the old-school cubicles.  I didn’t have much on my desk, because any time a senior exec from Korea came to visit, they would go apeshit if anything was out of order, so everyone would panic and hide every single thing on their desk in an effort to make it look as sterile as an operating room.  Well, an operating room with early 80s wood paneling.

I wish I had pictures of my desk from 1992, when I lived at the Mitchell Street house and worked off of an old card table, the same one I used to use to build model airplanes in my early teens.  I also had a pretty kick-ass Sauder L-shaped desk in 1993, where I really started my writing career.  I either sold it or gave it away when I left Bloomington, but it was a nerd command center, with plenty of CD storage and a keyboard tray and plenty of room for 3.5″ floppy disks, since you needed roughly 87 of them to install Linux back then.


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…