Don’t Let the FCC Impose Dial-Up Access Charges!

Dial-up users, we have to unite! The FCC is attempting to impose access charges to interstate enhanced services, such as Sprint’s Telenet, that use local dial access. Or, they were…28 years ago…as can be seen in the above letter I received way back when as a user of PC Pursuit.

Telenet, which went online in 1974, was the first public packet-switching network. Telenet Inc., with Larry Roberts as President, was established to create a private sector version of ARPANET. PC Pursuit, for a flat monthly fee, let users dial into the Telenet in one city and then dial out through the modems in another city to bypass long-distance phone charges in accessing distant BBSs. It was a proposition that sounded better on paper than in practice, in my experience at any rate. I dialed in at a mere 1200 baud, but the effective data transfer speed was much slower than that. After a couple of months, I dropped the service.

I just ran across this letter Sprint sent out to customers back in 1987 in a box of items in my basement. I thought readers might enjoy the look back.

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New Blog Announcement: Nostalgic Virginian

This is not a vintage computing post, but it has to do with the vintage. Vintage memories. Of Virginia.

I’ve run this vintage computing blog for 11 years. Pouring out my own memories of thrilling geeky days gone by and sharing news of the retro new has been very fulfilling for me. Almost spiritual. And, as I’ve gotten older, my mind drifts back to the vintage more and more, but in realms beyond just computers and technology. My sense of nostalgia has grown in general, perhaps as a part of the normal aging process.

And, so, I here announce a new blog I have setup that will serve as an outlet for my reminiscence as a person who grew up in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have spent my whole life living somewhere within what was one of the original 13 Colonies in the American Revolution. I even grew up in York County, near Yorktown proper, where Cornwallis surrendered.

The new blog is called Nostalgic Virginian…and that’s what I am. I look forward to sharing memories with other Virginians who call this place home, and perhaps a small few outside the state will find it interesting reading. Perhaps.

At any rate, it’s been fun over the past two months and I just wanted to spread the news, here on my better known blog.

Come have a look. Or don’t.

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Whither Radio Shack [Updated]

As everyone reading this is surely aware, Radio Shack has very recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is in the process of closing 1784 of their stores. And there can be no doubt that everyone reading this saw the writing on the wall years ago. And that’s where I will leave the matter of their decline, as the purpose of this post is not to malign the once mighty, fallen. The purpose of this post is to share my memories of the Radio Shack that once was. Here we go.

The first memory I have, connected with Radio Shack, is the crystal radio kit my father gave me when I was about seven years old. (A crystal radio is a passive receiver that requires no external power source. I recall finding that pretty amazing.) The next memory I have is of the first time I recall being inside a Radio Shack store. I was with my mom and dad in a shopping mall in Harrisonburg, VA, wanting some toy from a toy store there. My dad told me to come with him, as there was something I’d probably like better than the toy. He took me to a Radio Shack a few stores down the way and bought me a portable AM transistor radio (this model but black, not red). He was right about the toy, by the way.

I grew up along the York River in York County, VA and, living on the water in that region, hurricanes were something we had to watch out for. I recall getting front-line weather news way back when via our Realistic Weatheradio, perched atop the kitchen fridge. (It was a hurricane that, ultimately, destroyed the house I grew up in.)

Dad was a NASA engineer and, unsurprisingly, enjoyed poking around the local Radio Shacks (in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia) with some frequency. I was often there with him or in a store on my own while my mother shopped down at the mall. The things I was most interested in, of course, were the computers.

I started taking an interest in the computer displays around 1981, as I recall. I would spend a lot of time on the TRS-80 Color Computer, playing whatever cartridges were laying out. I used to love playing the CoCo version of Mega-Bug with its nifty little magnifying glass effect — it was always a treat to find that running in the store. (Weak joysticks, though.) The more business-oriented machines were intriguing to me, as well. The TRS-80 Model II with its 8-inch floppy drives looked, to me, like an intimidatingly powerful computer. The Model III had my attention, also. I would sit down in front of those all-in-one systems and type things into their TRS-DOS command lines…but I didn’t know any of the commands.

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Bmp2DHR: The Best Apple II Graphics You’ll See This Week

I brought home my first Apple IIgs in the fall of 1987. That was year that CompuServe released the initial GIF specification (along with clarification that the “G” is soft). Up until then, the graphics files worth looking at existed mostly in Amiga IFF/ILBM, Atari ST Neochrome and DEGAS, and Apple MacPaint image formats. At the time, getting images of these  platform-specific formats loaded on different systems was not easily done. The purpose of GIF, the “Graphics Interchange Format,” was to solve this problem by giving developers a standard format to target that could properly encode graphics generated by most of the systems of the day.

Once GIF caught on, and it did so quickly, GIF viewers (or “converters”) appeared on most modern platforms — systems with “high” resolution displays and thousands (or hundreds) of colors in their palettes — right away. For older systems with relatively meager graphics and CPU capabilities, on which crunching on a modern graphics file was somewhat Herculean, the arrival of GIF converters took longer.

The 8-bit Apple II series was one such platform. With a 1.02MHz 6502 CPU, 64K of RAM, and just six colors in its 280×192 pixel High Res graphics mode (the enhanced IIe and //c brought twice the RAM and a 16-color Double-High Res graphics mode), it wasn’t a graphics powerhouse. Despite this, developer Jason Harper was right out of the gate in 1988 with ][GIF, an 8-bit program that could convert and display GIFs in the Apple II’s various graphics modes. The results were definitley crude but the Apple II could now view images created on other, modern platforms. And, that was pretty great. Jason went on to write SHRConvert (later to become SuperConvert) for the much more graphically advanced 16-bit Apple IIgs that took advantage of its improved capabilities in conveting GIFs as well as as native images from other platforms.

Original ][GIF to DHGR mode
Super Conv to DHGR mode Bmp2DHR to DHGR mode

Flash forward 26 years to 2014 and hobbyist programmer Bill Buckels releases Bmp2DHR, a utility for converting BMP images (which support 24- and 32-bit truecolor, beyond GIF’s 256-color limitation) to various Apple II image formats. As Buckels describes it,
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The iOS Family Pile (2015)

iOS Family Pile 2015

It may be that I need help. Here’s the breakdown:

iOS photo legend

Earlier piles: 2012, 2010

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Look What Came in the Mail Today!

An iconic holiday greeting from San Francisco (the town and the font). It’s good to be on Susan’s “nice” list at Christmas!

Have a look at my related post about Susan Kare and the 2013 holiday, “A Few Words About a Kare Package I Received Last Christmas.”

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Have a Helping of 8-bit Holiday Cheer! (2014 Edition)

I’ve been a computer guy for a long time now, but I’ve been enjoying Christmas even longer.

I got my first computer, a TI-99/4A, on Christmas morning, 1982. I was 10 years old, and from that Christmas on, it was games and hardware I wanted Santa to leave me under the tree. On through my teenage years, part of my ritual for getting into the Christmas spirit and enjoying the holidays was downloading and watching Christmas demos on whatever system I had at the time (and every platform out there had a few of them).

Enjoying these demos is a personal tradition that I had, sadly, long left behind until last Christmas when I was inspired to seek out one of the demos I remember best, Audio Light’s 1985 musical slideshow for the Atari ST. With the help of an emulator, I captured it to share online with readers.

Here, a year later, I recently brought it up and watched it run through it’s pixellated images and 3-voice musical holiday greeting. As I watched, it occurred to me that it might be nice to gather a few of the other demos I remember from those good ole’ days and present them here, in order to perhaps share some of the holiday cheer that they used to inspire within me.

The following list of demos ranges across a number of platforms of olde. I’ll start with the Atari ST demo I presented last year. Happy holidays, and I hope you enjoy the shows!

Atari ST: Audio Light Christmas demo (1985)

C64: Seasons Greetings from Commodore (1982)

DOS PC: Sierra On-Line’s A Computer Christmas (1986)

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An Apple II Anecdote: Fun with the AST RamStakPlus

Here’s a quick little little anecdote from my Apple II past that I thought I would share.

I was trying to mentally sort a bit of the computer chronology of my past in the shower this morning (no waterproof serial terminal in there to check The List) and I got to thinking about the Apple IIgs. It’s one of the two systems I had the most fun with way back when (the other is the Amiga 2000).

While I attended the Apple IIgs launch event in the fall of ’86 at the local Chaney Computer / Connecting Point in Newport News, VA (it took place at dealers all over the place), I didn’t get my first GS system until a year later. Over the next few years I loaded it up with hardware. I added an MDIdeas SuperSonic stereo card, a Central Point Software / VTech Universal Disk Controller, a Prometheus ProModem 1200A internal modem, an AST Vision Plus, a ThunderScan — I even threw in an Alaska (copy) Card, but it wasn’t GS-friendly, as it turned out.

Of course, the first peripheral to go in was a memory card, which I purchased along with the GS and monitor from a pleasant fellow named Dennis Long at local dealer Next Generation Computers (Williamsburg, VA). I had, of course, researched what was out there in the way of memory cards and the one that stood out to me was the AST RamStakPlus. The RamStakPlus would accept up to 1MB of RAM via standard 16-pin DIPs, but it had a rather unique feature. It sported four 28-pin EPROM / EEPROM sockets, allowing the user to setup a ROM disk. I chose the AST card for this reason and ended up eventually populating it with EEPROMS, which could be programmed right on the board (while EPROMS had to be programmed externally with a burner). The maximum EEPROM capacity was a whopping 32K, while EPROMS could take you to 64K of ROM storage. I filled that capacious 32K with a few crucial utils, such as CTYPE. The standard GS RAM disk was Slot 7, Drive 1. I think the ROM disk was at Slot 7, Drive 2—but it’s a little hazy after all these years.

I never had a hard drive on that first GS I owned and the little ROM disk pocket of utils did make things a bit easier. I will say, however, that even back in 1987/88, 32K felt pretty small.

So, there you have it. I’ve never burned an EPROM in all my years of computing, and so there’s a badge of geek cred I may never wear. I did, however, load up a few EEPROMs and put them to good use once. The Apple IIgs was (and is) a fun system to tinker with.

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A Few Words About a Kare Package I Received Last Christmas

A digital tapestryLast year I received in the mail a Christmas gift from a person I greatly admire, and that’s what this post is about. But, let me back up a little.

As regular readers may be aware, I have a few tech / “geek” tattoos that I’m quite proud of. The most recent, I was motivated to have inked after the death of Steve Jobs on that woeful Wednesday back in October 2011. As a tribute of sorts, I had what I felt was the singular, perfect representation of what I was trying to both capture and express inked on my right forearm. The image in question is the 32 x 32 pixel icon portrait of (a 28 year old) Steve Jobs that designer Susan Kare created back in 1983. It’s the tattoo I’m most proud of.

I have great respect for Susan Kare and have written about her in a number of posts on this blog over the years (which I will link at the end of this post). She was a member of the original Macintosh team, coming to Apple in 1982 after receiving a phone call from high school friend Andy Hertzfeld, a chief architect of the Macintosh operating system. Kare created the full set of icons and fonts that made up the graphical user interface of the early Macs. She played a truly critical role, given that the Macintosh was the first consumer-oriented computer in the world featuring a GUI. (The Xerox Star and Apple Lisa that came before were priced well beyond the consumer bracket). Since then she has done a great deal of work in the field, some of which she discusses in her excellent EG 2014 talk (which featured my aforementioned tattoo in the closing slide!).

Now, back to the gift. Not long after I got the tattoo, Susan Kare saw my post and shared it on the Kare Prints Facebook page. And, then, a little before Christmas last year, I received an email from Kare Prints saying that Susan had something she wanted to drop in the mail  for me, and a week later this arrived at my door.

A gift from Susan Kare

Upon opening this carmine curiosity, I discovered a folded black cotton bandanna, 22 x 22 inches in size, featuring a lovely and complex design comprised of a wide array of images from Kare’s past works woven together with a wonderful variety of new shapes and patterns. And all of it is beautifully pixellated.

I’ve been waiting until I had the piece properly mounted and framed before writing about it. I recently got it back from the frame shop and now have it hanging on the wall of my office in D.C. I think it fits in quite nicely. It is a work, and a gift, that I shall always cherish.

Office wall

Thanks again, Susan!


Posted in Just Rambling, Macintosh | 5 Comments

After Thirty Years, Macworld Fades into the Night

Yesterday Apple unveiled the iPhone 6 line along with the Apple Watch. This latest iPhone brings the largest number of enhancements of any new model ever released, while the Apple Watch might just be the beginning of the proliferation of an entirely new type of personal electronic device that finds its way onto the wrists of hundreds of millions. Alongside all of this, the Macintosh line — both desktop and portable — are thin, sexy, fast, and selling quite well. Apple has never been more popular or relevant than it is right now.

And yet, today, Macworld magazine, which has been with us since day one way back in 1984 when the Macintosh first came to market…basically fell apart.

The tweets started rolling in just after 1pm.

I vividly remember the roll-out of the original Macintosh in 1984, when I was 11, and the degree to which I lusted after it for months. I had an Apple //c at the time, but I really wanted a Mac, and Macworld was better than a Playboy for me until I got my wish in late 1985.

I have many copies of Macworld on my shelves and I love to sit down and flip through them from time to time — especially the early issues, they really take me back. I recall my father and I building a wooden desk for the original Macintosh in 1985 — months before I had one — based on plans published in one of the first issues. (I am actively searching for the issue in question, so I can do a post on that long-ago particular.)

On the one hand, it seems amazing that with Apple at the top of their game such a magazine is not sustainable. On the other, a magazine covering time-sensitive tech news is set up to flag in the face of real-time web reporting. It’s great that the plan is for Macworld to at least live on in web form, but one has to wonder how that will work out, given that basically the entire writing staff was let go today.

Macworld was an institution. I feel it most critically went a long way towards spreading the faith in the early days but, really, it has always been a true friend to those within the Apple fold.

Today is a sad day.

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