Pages Navigation Menu

Computers and Me (1999)

Computers and Me (1999)

©1999, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1999). Computers and me. Unpublished essay.

My relationship with computers has been a long and productive one. I feel rather less harshly toward Microsoft today than when I first penned this.



Computers and Me

By Dallas Denny


Around 1962, when I was in seventh grade, the kid across the street got a toy computer for Christmas. It was a great gift, as it included not only materials for building simple but functional computers, but a detailed book giving the history of computing and discussing the two basic types: analog and digital. When the proud new owner of the kit explained the difference, I decided it was analog for me. Of course, we all know the outcome of the Beta vs VHS and analog vs digital wars!

My next experience with computers occurred in 1969 or thereabouts, when I was working as a busboy at Shoney’s restaurant on Thompson Lane in Nashville. One of the cooks was working part-time to earn Christmas money; during the day he programmed the computer at the Murray Ohio Corporation’s plant just down the way. Early one morning, after the restaurant had closed and we had cleaned all the grills and hosed the floors, he took us down the street and showed us Murray’s computer.

The computer didn’t quite take up the whole building. It was housed in a huge climate-controlled room with a floor made of big tiles which could be pulled up to expose wrist-thick bundles of wires underneath.

He showed us the multi-million dollar computer’s best trick— an image printed on wide green-and-white-striped fanfold computer paper, Snoopy was discernable from a distance, but up close was a jumble of numbers and letters and punctuation marks. I kept my copy of Snoopy for many years.

In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a trick.

My next run-in with computers occurred in the fall of 1967 at registration at Middle Tennessee State University. Registration was a cumbersome process for all, but was worst for incoming freshmen, as they registered last, when many classes were closed and others were closing fast. I was, of course, an incoming freshman.

The process required the student to work out a schedule with the advisor, then fill out punch cards at the Student Union; the cards were hand-carried a quarter-mile through the blazing sun or pouring rain or snow-filled sky to the administration building where, after a wait in queue, they were run through the computer— which, as it was locked away behind closed doors, I never saw. A printout eventually came back, showing one or more of the classes had closed during the wait. This necessitated a trip back to the Student Union. If all classes of a course were closed, it was necessary to track down the advisor and get his or her initials for a new course. The process with then repeated, with classes closing more and more frequently. Generally, it took two or three go-rounds— most of the day— to complete registration.

Registration was a day-long frustrating experience. It didn’t take me long— just one frantic trip to an advisor who didn’t know me or seem to want to, to realize no one would know or care if I forged his initials. I never again darkened his door.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Tennessee (1974-1977), the required course in statistics had us using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, which ran on the university’s mainframe. Students had to punch their data onto IBM cards, sort and stack them, add cards which instructed the conputer to run an analysis, and then take the cards to the computer center. A day or so later, the cards were returned, along with a printout which gave either the results of the data analysis, or (more usually) the disappointing news that an error in the cards prevented the program from running to completion. This led to even more card-punching and card-sorting, until finally the desired analysis was spat out. All-in-all, it wasn’t a horrible experience, but it certainly wasn’t a positive one.

What was neat, however, was the Star Trek game that was available on the mainframe. Users could navigate their ship through a simulation of three-dimensional space, going where no man had gone before, until blasted into oblivion by experienced players.

Input was not by the hated IBM cards, but via a keyboard at the terminal— and the computer communicated with the user not with printouts made of Xs and Os or blinking LEDs, but with a monocolor green screen. It was frustrating to use because the expert Klingon geeks who did little else but play the game woiuld blow me out of the sky would zap me almost as soon as it started, but it was a light year more sophisticated than Snoopy.

Gordon Burghardt, my professor, casually remarked one day that we were welcome to use his electronic calculator for our statistics homework. I was an avid user of the slide rule, and this was the first time I had an inkling that numbers could be crunched by any electronic device smaller than a 727 jetliner.

Dr. G.’s Wang was smaller than a Volkswagen but, but not by much. It sat, all several hundred pounds of it, on a sturdy table high up in Ayres Hall. “I paid a thousand dollars extra to get a square root function,” Gordon bragged.

For all its size and cost, Dr. G.’s Want had but five functions. It could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and, at great added expense, do the much-coveted square roots. Still, it gave students a great advantage over hand calculations or even a slide rule, even if we did have to use it late at night when it was not otherwise kept busy.

It was the development of very large scale integrated circuits— and specifically, the invention of a four-bit microprocessor-on-a-chip, that had made Dr. G.’s calculator possible. Calculators quickly became smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. The year after my stat course, I paid $150— big bucks at the time, as it was equivalent to my monthly salary as a graduate assistant— for a scientific calculator by Hewlett-Packard. It had the ability to do sophisticated analysis, provided the user could negotiate his or her way through the obtuse Reverse Polish notation of which HP was so fond. It was useful in my studies, but I never felt truly comfortable with it.

The lab of Dr. Joel Lubar at the University of Tennessee was filled with transistorized electronic components and early model microprocessors which measured and recorded brain waves. Within a couple of years, this room full of components would be shrunk into a microcomputer that could be carried under one arm.

As a result of working in the lab, I became aware of the newly available microcomputers, which fit on a desktop and carried reasonable price tags. Immediately, I wanted one. Why? I like to think it’s because I realized even at such an early date just how handy a computer might be. There were, at that early date, no word processing programs, no spreadsheets, no databases, and no games for these new computers— there was no commercially available software at all— but that didn’t stop me from wanting one.

Desktop computers were made possible by the development of 8-bit processors. The first computers available to an average person were kits like the Altos, which communicated to the user via light emitting diodes, but in 1974 Radio Shack created its Tandy Model 1, Apple Computer was getting underway in the the garage of Steve Jobs’ parents, and Jack Tramiel’s Commodore introduced the Personal Electronic Transactor, or PET microcomputer.

This new generation of computers accepted input from a keyboard and communicated to the user with a video monitor. The first models used green or black-on-white screens only, but the Apple ][ offered color and could be tricked into making sounds or playing music. It was the one to have. At about $1400, with additional cost for monitor, disk drive, printer, and other peripherals, it was out of my league. So was the less exciting Tandy. I didn’t know about the Pet.

By 1980 or so, I was really wanting a computer. It was a good time to have the bug, as new models were available— the Atari 400 (about $800) and 800 (about $1200), the Sinclair ZX-80 ($299), and the Commodore VIC-20 was being advertised for $299 also.

I signed up for a course in microcomputers offered through East Tennessee State University and taught at my workplace (Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greeneville, Tennessee). I learned all over about punch cards and other already obsolete technologies, but the class did take a field trip to nearby Kingsport to a computer store. I got to see the Apple ][ and Ataris.

I didn’t have pockets deep enough to afford an Apple or Atari 800 (the membrane keyboard made the Atari 400 a non-starter for me). I knew I could buy either the Sinclair or the Commodore, however, and I studied the ads.

I knew Sinclair was the man who had introduced batteryless transistor radios back in the 1960s. I remembered the ads: you stuck the radio onto metal and listened through an earpiece. The radios worked, but they were cheesy, and I rather suspected the ZX-80 would be also. Its advertised size was tiny, and it had a membrane keyboard that had to be difficult to deal with. Moreover, it was a black-and-white computer, and had no sound. I was already asking myself why, if a computer was an all-purpose machine, someone would make one that didn’t do color or produce sounds.

The VIC was a color computer and it was advertised as having a music chip that could generate three simultaneous tones. It also had a full-sized keyboard, and came with a full 5k of RAM; the Sinclair had only 1k.

The VIC-20 came with the BASIC language built in. Moreover, it had an expansion slot that allowed cartridges containing software to be plugged in. Commodore was advertising games and productivity software on cartridge, and had introduced a cassette recorder to allow programs to be saved and loaded. Since the Apple was out of my price range, it was the VIC-20 for me.

When I had pulled together the requisite $300, I sent away and soon received in the mail my “friendly computer” (as the ads claimed). I wasted no time hooking it up to my 17″ Sony television, and soon saw, for the very first time, my very own computer screen, with a flashing cursor and a reassuring READY message.

One of the VIC’s saving graces was the bundling of an excellent owner’s manual which included a step-by-step guide to learning BASIC. As I had no cartridges or cassette unit or money to buy them (the cassette wasn’t even available), there was absolutely nothing to do with the thing but utilize BASIC; it took me about five minutes to write my first program. Reading from the book, I typed in PRINT 5 and hit the RETURN key. There it was on the next line: 5. Then I typed instead PRINT HELLO. When I hit RETURN, the resulting screen read not HELLO, but 0.

Reading further, I discovered I hadn’t told the computer to print the word HELLO, but rather ot print the value of a variable called HELLO.

I knew what a variable was— theoretically— but my understanding was vague. I typed PRINT “HELLO” and hit RETURN. The computer responded with HELLO.

I then wrote my first line of code: 10 PRINT “HELLO.”

When I hit ENTER, nothing happened; there was the READY prompt. I knew, however, that line 10 was stored in memory, ready to execute when I ran the program. So I typed RUN, and the computer responded with HELLO.

So far, so good. I then typed 20 GOTO 10 and hit ENTER. I again got the READY prompt.

When I typed run and hit ENTER, HELLO quickly printed down the left side of my screen; within a second, the entire screen was filled with HELLO. There was a bit of blurring on the bottom line; I knew it was caused by the rapid printing of HELLO, causing the entire line of HELLOS to scroll upwards.

I used the BREAK key for the first time and stopped the program. I modifed line 10 to read 10 PRINT “HELLO”;. The presense of the semicolon would cause HELLOs to be printed one after another, on the same line, until they spilled over onto the next line. I typed RUN and hit ENTER, and the VIC-20 responded with HELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLO with letters wrapping from line to line all the way down the screen. Then the lines began to scroll upwards, as new HELLOs were printed at the bottom.

I stopped the program and added a space between the O and the close quite character in line 10. When I ran the program, HELLO HELLO HELLO executed across and down the screen, the lines scrolling upwards in a pleasant fashion. I had completed my first program.

My second program was a modification of the first. Intead of HELLO, the screen filled with “I LOVE WENDY.”

When Wendy came by my apartment that evening, I ran the two-line program to show her what I had done. As we were watching “I LOVE WENDY” crawl up the screen, there was a knock on my door. It was Earl, my landlord. “Dallas,” he said, “Can you tell me why my television screen is reading ‘I LOVE WENDY’?”

I had been piggybacking on Earl’s television antenna; what had happened, of course, was that the RF modulator which fed the VIC’s signal into my Sony had also fed thessignal into my landlord’s antenna line.

Thereafter, I unhooked the antenna cable when using the VIC.

Because I had pushed my financial envelope when buying the VIC, and because tape recorders and cartridges for it were in high demand and hard to get, it was several months before I could afford a recorder and my first cartridge. I had little else to do with my computer (and I found myself wanting to spend all my free time with it) but write simple programs of my own devising and laboriously type in and debug the three sample games listed at the end of the owner’s manual. Whenever I would turn off the computer, or whenever the voltage would spike or brown out, I would lose the contents of memory and have to start all over again.

The cassette changed all that. By that time there was a magazine for VIC users (put out by Commodore) and cartridges and tape games, including Commodore’s great Scott Adams adventure games, were available. I had great fun with the VIC, and even more when I found there was a computer store in Greeneville—a town of 8000 without even a bookstore or record store. I had a great time hanging out there and talking Commodore with the proprietor. When the cassette unit became available I bought it from him.

When I moved to Nashville, I tracked down the Commodore dealer and dropped by. They told me they were forming a VIC-users group, which they were sponsoring. I went to the group’s firs-ever meeting.

Commodore’s full name was Commodore Business Machines. CMB was begun when Jack Tramiel bought a typewriter store in Toronto back in the 1950s. Commodore was an earlier player in the calculator market (although I never remembered seeing a CBM calculator). The Personal Electronic Transactor, or PET was the primary computer used in schools in Canada and Europe (the Apple had that honor in the US). CBM also released a line of business computers.

The Nashville dealer was very much interested in supporting everyday people with Commodore computers, but understandably, they wanted there to be something in it for them was well. There would have been, had it not been for Tramiel’s questionable business practices. CBM had convinced its network of dealers to carry the VIC by promising them the VIC would never be discounted. So if course, it soon was. Before long VIC-20s, peripherals, including the newly-released 1541 disk drive, 901 dot-matrix printer, Vic Modem and 1701 monitor, and assorted software by Commodore and third-party suppliers could be found on the shelves at Sears, Wal-Mart, Target, and K-Mart. At one point, the VIC was selling for as little as $69.

Commodore did its best to sooth the ruffled feathers of its dealers, promising them its new machine, the C-64, would never be discounted.

The C-64 looked like the VIC, except it had a cafe-au-lait case (the VIC’s case was ivory in color). It had a full 64k, or 64,000 bytes, of RAM. The VIC, by comparison, had only 5k as shipped. The VIC was expandable by cartridge, but only to 32k.

The C-64’s other great advtange was a 40-column screen. The VIC’s, by comparison, was only 22 characters. This made the VIC awkward for word processing and other text-intensive activities.

The 40-column screen made the C-64 a deal compared to the APPLE ][ and Ataris (due to issues of resolution, 40 columns was about the max possible to display on a standard tube-type television set). Dedicated computer monitors had not yet come into widespread use. In fact, they had only recently come within reason, pricewise.

Commodore had introduced its Model 1701 color monitor. I still use mine today. Amdek seemed to have captured the Apple and Atari markets.

Sinclair had sold his computer to Timex, which aggressively marketed it, but its lack of sound, black-and-white display, tiny keyboard, and 1k of RAM made it more of a curiosity than anything else. My supervisor at Cloverbottom Developmental Center had one. He had expanded its memory to 16k via a plug-in module, which made but chancy connection with the rails and made the computer horribly susceptible to crashing with the slightest jounce.

Tandy had introduced a color computer, but it did not do well. Hewlett-Packard had its own model also, but with its high price, small keyboard, and lack of software, it never really took off.

It didn’t take Commodore long to market the C-64 to the discount houses, burning the dealers yet again. Most dropped Commodore, which by that time didn’t mind, as the C-64, which had sold like hotcakes at $599, was jumping off the shelves at Wal-Mart at $299.

Most C-64 users also bought the 1541 disk drive. With the drive, it was practical to have programs that were bigger and more sophisticated (the two do not necessarily go together). The games, in particular, were awesome. Ports of all the Atari games were available: Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, Dig-Dug, Galaxian, Defender, Donkey Kong, Missle Attack, Centipede. Commodore-marketed games like Moon Lander and Omega race were available, and games from third party developers were also: Frogger, Summer Olympics, Lode Runner. There were great simulations as well: Microsoft’s Flight Simulator (about the only good thing Microsoft has ever done), a space shuttle simulator, a submarine battle simulator, Super Huey, Trains, and any number of Pinball and other table and board games. Eventually, there were powerful productivity programs like databases, spreadsheets, word processors, and telecommunications programs. There was even q WYSIWYG operating system overlay, but it didn’t appear until Commodore’s later days.

Commodore released two great computers, the C-128 and the Amiga, but the company had waited too long and its customer base, which included millions of Americans who had bought their first computer, moved to IBM clones en masse (as did the customers of other home computers). In its heyday, though, Commodore was a big thing.

I remember well my first computer user group meeting. It was in the back of the Commodore dealer’s office. There were about 20 people, all with VIC-20s, most men, sitting around, looking at each other to see what sort of geek would actually buy a computer. The second meeting was more of the same, and after that, there were no more, as the dealer had defected from Commodore and told the forming group it needed to find new space.

The group didn’t die, however. One of the members, Dave Rushing, sent a one-page newsletter to everyone who had signed up. I remember finding the letter in my post office box. I didn’t pay much attention, but when a second letter arrived, and then a third, calling for the group to meet again, I went to the meeting. There, the Nashville VIC Users Group was born.

In its last throes as a Commodore dealer, the Nashville dealership had formed a C-64 users group. We contacted that group’s leaders and suggested a merger. To their credit, they saw the wisdom in that, and so was born the Nashville Commodore Users Group, which had at its heyday more than 500 members and at least three meetings a month.

I was the first editor of the newsletter that replaced Dave’s one-page typed sheets. I remember making the novel suggestion that we produce the newslettter not on the typewriter, but on the computer. I was Newsletter Editor for several years, then Secretary for most of the club’s existence.

Finally, I was able to purchase a disk drive. I remember going to Carl Manka’s house, where we spent an entire evening trying to copy a single disk with Commodore’s kludgy backup program. “Surely there’s a better way,” we told each other.

The 1541 drive was famous for being slow, but it was slow only because of its great redundancy; it repeatedly read and compared data. It would take more than a minute to load a large program, which could be crazymaking. The 1541 was also famous for going out of alignment. Soon there was a fix for it, however, and everyone sent their drives to a friend of a friend for a new stop. Soon also, we were passing around a program called FASTLOAD, a little program which loaded itself into memory within seconds and then loaded big programs in a hurry.

With VIC programs averaging 3k, I thought I would never fill my first floppy— but if course I did. The capacity of the 1541 was about 140k, twice the capacity of the APPLE ][‘s drive. Moreover, if one clipped out material in just the right spot on the cover, the disk could be turned over (flopped, if you will) and the back side formatted and used. Soon a device called the Disk Doubler was introduced; it punched a perfect square hole in just the right place.

There was discussion in user circles about the advisability of double-sided diskettes. One school of thought held that only one side of the magnetic material was checked by the manufacturer for flaws and that flopping the floppy damaged the media because it rotated the “wrong” way in the plastic sleeve. Since the back sides of diskettes proved on repeated use to be as reliable as the fronts and since the data on the fronts didn’t seem to be damaged, most of us NCUGers double-sized.

Under the pen name Reggie Ramloose I wrote an infamous article called “Should You Double-Side your Floppy?” It was reprinted dozens of times, appearing in newsletters around the world. Alas, the 5 1/2″ floppy is obsolete, and so is the article. In retrospect, I wish I had called it “Should You Flip Your Floppy?”

One Saturday morning I got an exciting phone call from Joe O’Hara of the Huntsville, Alabama Commodore Users Group. He launched into a discussion of software protection.

My friend John Simpson had bought a program— a space game— with a most exciting appearance. The game play wasn’t much, but the graphics were exceptional. Problem was, it couldn’t be duplicated. When I copied the diskette, the copy wouldn’t work. Joe told me that was because a deliberate error had been created in track one (the outermost track) of the diskette. “Here’s what you do,” said Joe. “Copy the diskette.”

“But it won’t work,” I said.

“Humor me. Copy it,” he said.

I made the copy.

“It still won’t work,” I said.

“Now, with the diskette in the drive, give the drive a command to format the diskette,” Joe said.

“But it will erase the data,” I said.

“Humor me. Type in the command, but don’t hit Enter yet.”

“OK, it’s done.”

“OK. When the command is executed, you’ll hear a clicking sound.”

“I’ve noticed that.”

“That’s the head hitting the stop,” he said. “Then the formatting will start. Execute the command and when the noise stops count to three and use the power switch to kill the power to the drive. After a few seconds, turn it back on. The drive is likely to be confused, so tell it to read the directory. Do that now.”

I did.

“Now what?” I asked.

“The program will now load and run,” Joe said. “Try it.”

I tried it. It ran. I was amazed.

Joe told me one of the rocket scientists in his club had examined the disk and found the error. He told me his group had broken other programs by the same company; these programs used a dongle— a plastic cube that plugged into the joystick port— by hooking the dongle up to a Hewlett-Packard data analyzer. They found the data generated by the dongle, added it to the code, and the copy protection was broken. Dongle no longer needed.

Joe also told me how to capture the data from cartridge games, and how to play them. Loading required the command LOAD, 8, 1 instead of LOAD, 8; the ,1 told the computer to place the code in the same place in the C-64’s memory from which it had been captured. A SYS command would direct the computer to the starting byte of the machine language program, and the program would execute.

Joe opened a new dimension. I called my fellow Commodorians and told them what I had learned. Before long we journeyed to Alabama to meet the Huntsville people for a software exchange.

Software piracy violated copyright law, even in those early days, and we all knew it, but we also knew the high prices of software (games were $40 or so) and buying more than one once in a blue moon was out of the question. Most of us soon had just about every title released for the VIC and C-64.

I took my newly-purchased Tandy Model 100 portable computer (I’m typing this on my Model 102, which is virtually identical to the M100) along with me on the Huntsville trip. When we stopped near the state line at Hardees for breakfast, I was shortchanged 50 cents on my breakfast sandwiches. I argued the point with the cashier, who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. I marched out to the van, got my M100, brought it back in, and wrote and ran a little BASIC program to calculate the cost of my meal. The manager of the store caved in under pressure from science and gave me my money. My friends were amazed, and howled with laughter all the rest of the day.

As soon as a new copy protection scheme was developed and introduced, we or someone we knew would break it, and within a couple of weeks it had been transferred across the country via modem—not bad, for those pre-Internet days.

I eventually acquired a C-64; it was purchased for me by a dentist from Jackson, TN, on the implied promise that I would write for him a program to help him with his practice. I wrote a program called SUPER TRACKER, which let him work with patients who practiced saccadic fixation. It was a sophisticated little piece of work; eventually, it allowed data to be tracked on the patient, and even had several little games built into the program for rewarding the patient.

When the Commdore 901 dot-matrix printer was released, I wasn’t impressed. It lacked descenders, those little droppy-down things on gs and js and ys and ps and qs. I waited and bought a Star printer, which I eventually sold (because it had wrecked a print head) and purchased a Panasonix KX-P 1091, which I still have (although it has long been retired). It was a sweet little printer, trouble-free, although expensive to keep in ribbons, considering how much I used it. Even though its in my storage shed and covered with dust, I’ve little doubt it would work flawlessly if I were to provide it with a fresh ribbon.

At one of the NCUG work (i.e. illegal copy sessions) we had begun having several Saturdays every month, Manning Flaum showed me the earliest commercially available inkjet, an HP model. Its output was visually better than my dot matrix, and it performed soundlessly. The print head, Manning told me, was built into the ink cartridge, which was mightily impressive (especially to a poor student who had just paid $100 for a print head for her Star printer). It was clear dot-matrix was the wave of the future.

Later, I bought an HP Deskjet 500, which printed only in black. It was a workhorse, still churning out print when I retired it. I loaned it to a co-worker, Gary Williams, who used it for several years. Recently I retrieved it from the storage room at DeKalb Enterprises, and brought it home. I’ll soon be hooking it up to my old C-64 so I can print articles from Commodore-only diskettes.

Later still I bought an HP Laserjet 4ML. Because I was editing a magazine, I replaced it with a 600 dpi HP 5MP. I still use the MP; the ML is under the eaves, jammed up somehow, but could easily be made to work again if I only knew how to fix it— or if I was willing to pay someone to unstick it.

I briefly had an Apollo inkjet, but wasn’t really happy with it. This fall I hope to buy a combination printer/copier/scanner so I can print photos (all my photos are now on the hard drive). I’ll still use the laserjet for the heavy work, though! The combo machine will let me get rid of my scanner and the big Xerox copier that sits on a table in my office.

When IBM released its much-anticipated PC, I went with my friend John Simpson to see it. I wasn’t impressed. It was, as might have been expected from Big Blue, an uninspired and uninspiring machine. It had no color. It had no sound. It had no graphics capability. And it was expensive, and required lots of expensive add-ons. We also looked at the new Macintosh which was on display; it was the first time I had seen a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get interface. I wasn’t impressed with the Mac either, but I had to admit it was cute.

For years I was torn between a desire for three computers: the PC, because even though I thought it unexciting, everyone was using it; the Mac, because of its music and graphics capabilities, and Commodore’s blazingly fast, wonderful Amiga, a computer with truly impressive features and abilities. As I bitterly remembered the Beta/VHS wars, I was wary, and so I did nothing; I continued to use my C-64. I didn’t even buy the new Commodore 128, which had more memory and an 80-column display.

The PC has prevailed, not because of its elegance, but because it’s deliberately built-in shortcomings have been overcome by sheer processor power, heaps of memory, and because of Microsoft’s kludge of an “operating system” called Windows.

I used my C-64 for much imaginative writing and hard work (and I played some great games!). I wrote several novels using it. I produced several newsletters using it.

The C-64’s greatest limitation was the lack of a hard drive. Several companies produced compatible drives, but none caught on, and without a viable and inexpensive hard drive, the C-64 was doomed. Had the C-128 come out a year earlier (it had been waiting in the wings for the “right” moment), or had the Amiga not been available, or had Commodore discontinued the C-128 and promoted and discounted the Amiga for the home market, things might have turned out differently— but by then, Jack Tramiel was being edged out of his own company, and the MBA fuckheads who took over lacked his genius. It wasn’t long before they had run the company into the ground by trying to make PC clones. Commodore, which had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, would soon be out of business.

I made some money trading CBM stock— not much, since I had little to start with— but eventually, despite a huge computer customer base in the US and a huge educational and business base in Europe, CBM ceased operations.

After more than 10 years, I retired my C-64. It happened this way.

I still still disillusioned with the boring PC. The Mac seemed a better deal, but I didn’t like its high price and small screen or WYSIWYG interface. I couldn’t quite make myself buy an Amiga, either.

If the Amiga was the Ferrari of personal computers, and the Macintosh the Bentley, the PC was the Model T. It lacked flair, it lacked imagination, it lacked power and speed, it lacked everything. The business world was flocking to it, however; the handwriting was on the wall.

I remember NCUG going one Christmas to a computer show in Nashville. It was Christmas. Business types abounded. We bought an Executive 64 (a portable C-64 with built-in disk drive and 4″ color monitor), hooked it up to a larger monitor, covered the works with carcboard and draping, and ran a neat little Christmas demo with great graphics and music. It showed off the C-64’s abilities well.

The suits all gathered around to see what this computer was. They thought it was the soon-to-be-released Macintosh. Once we revealed our machine as a Commodore, they lost interest and wandered away. It didn’t matter what the computer could do, only who made it.

When I went to work at the DeKalb Workshop, I discovered two never-used IBM PS/2 machines with color monitors in a closet. After about two years, I appropriated one and set it up in my office. I upgraded DOS to 4.x, then to 5.x, and finally to 6.x. Everyone IBM was beginning to use Windows 3.1. I was able to load and run Windows, but the 5 mb (not gb!) capacity of the hard drive didn’t allow any room for programs. I removed Windows. Drives for the PS/2 were expensive, out of reason, so I made do with DOS, for which 5 mg was plenty of room.

I bought my first PC— it actually belonged to a nonprofit I founded and was running— in 1993 or 1994. It was a 486 box with a 40 mb hard drive— an impossibly large space, I thought at the time. I bought Windows 95— I refused to use Win 3.1— and began to use it. I soon enough had a Windows PC at work, too.

You’d better believe that any PC I would have would have sound and color capabilities!

I remember buying 8 mb (maybe it was 16 mb) of additional RAM for my PC for $500.

I was able to run Windows programs, get on the Internet (I first did so in 1992), so I may have purchased the computer as early as that. I continued to write using— I still use it— WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS.

In the mid-1990s I bought a 586 machine, and around 2000 I bought a Pentium 3 box, which I still own and use. I upgraded to Win 98, and then briefly to Win ME, and finally to Windows 2000, which Erin Sweonsonw as kind enough to install for me and undercharge me for.

Let me be frank. With the exception of Flight Simulator— and I liked only the earliest versions; it has since been kludged up— and their version of BASIC, which introduced me to computers, as it was built-into my VIC-20 and C-64, I destest everything Microsoft has ever done. They haven’t released a single program I find intruitive, clever, easy to use, or practical, and their operating systems, from DOS 1.x to Windows XP, are satanically obtuse and notoriously crash-prone.

Part of the problem is, of course, the PC itself— and more on that in a moment— but the corporate culture of Microsoft, which has made more billionaires than any other company in the history of the world, makes unbelievably stupid computer programs that operate erratically and slowly while using prodigious amounts of hard drive space and RAM.

I said the PC was like a Model T. Indeed, the original was. Ever since, people have been trying to retroactively engineer it to keep up with the needs of computer users.

First, Microsoft and software developers played all sorts of tricks to get around the engineered-to-keep-it-stupid 640k RAM limit. That was sort of like gimmicking up a contraption to bypass a governor on a carburetor. Subsequent “improvements” have been hardware-based, thumb-handed attempts to soup the damn thing up. Every new feature our speedup caused a system breakdown.

Putting in a faster processor was like dropping a 375 hp V-8 into a Model T, replacing the four-cylinder, 20 hp power plant. If you did that, you couldn’t even get the damned thing started because it would have too much compression to turn the hand crank. So you add a starter, a battery, and a switch to make the starter turn. It sucks the gas tank dry in 15 seconds. So you add a new and bigger fuel tank. Then you have to replace the gas lines because the diameter is too small. More problems: it’s the air filter; it’s inadequate. You develop a new air filter, which requires you to re-shape the sheet metal of the hood. So you’re ready to go for your Sunday drive, and what happens? You try to put the thing into gear and the powerful motor rips out the gearbox. So you engineer and put in a new transmission, and when you let the clutch out in first, the clutch goes out. New clutch. The first time you let it out, the rear end falls off. You put in a new differential, but you find you can go only five miles an hour because the driveshaft is inadequate and out of round. New driveshaft. So you are actually rolling now— but when you try to turn, the steering goes. You re-engineer the steering— a nightmare, because it requires new wheel, steering column, ball joints, tie rods, grease fittings, stabilizer bars, new everything. So you’re off again— but the first time you try to stop, you don’t. The brakes are inadequate.

So, you put in new brakes, and think to add better wheel bearings. All this necessitates beefing up the front end even more— and when you roll, you find you have to go right back to the shop to add stiffer springs and heavier shock absorbers. So now you can go and stop, but you still can’t corner correctly; you didn’t think of that when you reworked the front end. So you take care of that, and you drive, but when it gets dark the headlamps are woefully underpowered and you hit a tree. So body repair, and new headlights and taillights and oh, yes, a generator and voltage regulator (or even better, an alternator). Oh— and new tailights and turn signals— which require further reworking of the steering column and electrical system.

Meanwhile, you’ve added a rear-view mirror, an outside mirror, a radio— requiring an entire rewiring job— a heater, an air conditioner— an engineering hightmare— electric windshield wipers— the old vacuum-operated wipers wouldn’t work at all with the V-8. You’ve put in new upholstery. You’ve upgraded the exhaust system.

You’ve done all this, operating with the built-in constraints of the Model T. The entire thing is a kludge, kludges on top of kludges, full of compromises and half-ass solutions and Mickey Mouse engineering. But it runs, after a fashion, although it stalls every five minutes, requiring you to get out and crawl under the car and get all dirty and greasy. And then, one day while you’re under the hood at a traffic light you look over into the next lane, and you see a sleek and softly-purring Ferrari, and you want to kill youself and blow up your “Model T.”

I love the scene in the South Park movie where the general is showing the troops the plan for attacking Canada and the holographic globe projection crashes in the middle of the demonstration and he says, “Dammit, Bill Gates promised me Windows 2000 wouldn’t crash,” and he has Gates brought out and when Gates starts to give excuses, shoots him in the head with a Model 1911 .45.

I saw the movie at the theater, and the crowd cheered wildly when the general shot Gates. I clapped, too.

I came to the Macintosh by a different route. I was editing a magazine. A volunteer was doing layout on the Mac, using a professional page design program. I was still using DOS. When he quit, I was stuck with a production problem. Luckily, a boyfriend gave me his Mac Plus. I convinced my volunteer to give me a pirated copy of the design, and I learned 1) how to use Mac OS6; how to operate the design program; and how to do typography and page design. I don’t know how I managed, but after several months I had thrown together a credible magazine. I still have a Mac, although I use it almost exclusively for page design.

I’ve not yet had a laptop, although I bought a Tandy Model 100 portable computer back in the early 1980s.

The M100 sold for $199, with 8k of RAM. For another thousand dollars or so, you could expand it to 32k. I eventually expanded mine.

The M100 had an 8 line by 40 column LCD display, built in BASIC and text editor program (it was something short of a full word processor, but did the job), and a built-in 300-baud modem with terminal program. Data and programs were retained in memory, even when the computer was turned off, or could be saved to tape or to a floppy drive.

I used my M100 extensively at Greene Valley Developmental Center, where I did several hundred psychological updates per year; these were less extensive than full-fledged psychologicals; they merely restated previous test results and discussed current functioning levels. I wrote a little no-frills BASIC program that automatically generated the updates. I would enter demographic data and test results and functioning levels, and the program would would insert the correct words in the proper plate in a boilerplate and generate a text document, using female or male pronouns as appropriate. I would then load the file into the text editor, check it, add a sentence or two of personalized information, and print the update. It took like five minutes to generate a two to three page report.

I had a couple of games which I would keep on the M100; I would play them during boring meetings. Most people assumed I was taking notes, and those with suspicions couldn’t verify them because no one but me could read the direction-sensitive LCD screen. One day the director of the speech department, guessing that I was goofing off, said, “Since Dallas is taking notes…”

I smiled and said, “No problem. I’ll send copies to everyone.” After the meeting I sat down in my office, generated minutes from memory, and sent them out; everyone had them within an hour or two. No problem.

When I was a graduate student at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for the M100 called BOSCO— Behavioral Observation System, Computerized. It allows users to assign codes to any number of behaviors and track them by use of the keyboard. Because the M100 was so small and light (about the size of an octavo book) it was a completely portable data-collection device— and not only a data-generating device. It analyzed the data and created statistical reports. The program was used widely by the applied behavior analysts at the Department of Special Education, where I was a graduate assistant, and I did posters about the program at several professional meetings and a paper for a professional journal.

I was especially proud of BOSCO’s user interface— what the user sees— and in the user interface of SUPER TRACKER, the saccadic fixation program I developed for Joe the Optometrist.

A few years after I had retired my Model 100, I came across a Model 102 at a flea market. On a chance it was operable, I bought it for five dollars. It worked just fine. I gave away my M100.

The M102 is identical to the Model 100, with the exceptions that it comes with a full 32k of RAM and that because of chip refinements it gets up to 40 hours from four AA batteries (the M100 gets only 10). That’s cheap enough that I don’t bother using the power supply!

When my job responsibilities changed recently, I resurrected my M102. I was finding myself with time to kill, and far away from my desktop. I typed this essay on my M102!

Back in my VIC days, I realized that microcomputers offered promise to people with difficulties in communicating. I did quite a bit of work in that field, developing several BASIC programs. They made it possible to use inexpensive microcomputers instead of expensive dedicated devices for augmentative communication—and the computers were much more flexible.

My most significant contribution was a program called SIX BITS, which selected from a field of 64 characters and actions with six presses of a single switch (I cut a joystick cable, adding a female banana plug at the end so the VIC would connect with commercially available and homemade augmentative switches).

Each click of the switch in SIX BITS eliminated half of the field; six clicks, or six bits of information, would result in a selection which append a character to a message to cause the computer to perform an action (print the message, speak the message, flash the screen and generate a tone to bring help). Six Bits worked with a Votrax speech synthesizer, allowing human-like speech (it sounded rather Scandinavian).

Just as the word processor changed the way I write and the program Quark XPress allowed me to produce and publish newsletters and magazines, e-mail has revolutionized my life. It has certainly saved me a bunch of paper and stamps!

These days I edit the magazine of a nonprofit. I’ve never met the art director, although we’ve produced three issues together. We communicate via telephone, file transfer, and e-mail. Whereas six or seven years ago the nonprofit employed two people who worked 40 hours a week in the nonprofit’s office in Boston, today it contracts with me in Atlanta and the art director in Boston (he just happens to live there). Submissions, almost all of them, arrive by e-mail, and I reply by e-mail. I send the edited text to the Art Director, who e-mails me Adobe Acrobat files of the laid-out pages. I give him feedback via the phone, and get the final pages again by e-mail— and so does the printer. Eventually, a finished magazine arrives at my door.

I miss the built-in BASIC that was bundled with the first generation of personal computers. It made it quick and easy to do calculations and repetitive tasks (as with the psych updates)> Somewhere along the line the BASIC that was bundled with DOS stopped working with the bigger and faster processors, and I misplaced QBASIC, which came with DOS (I didn’t like it anyway).

Now here I am, again using the Model 102, and I’ve dug out my Mac to retrieve data files and my Executive 64 so I can retrieve old files and perhaps play some games. Funny how things go around!