Category Archives: Tech

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 5: Welcome To The Information Age)

If all my computer experiences before this were anything, they were the foundation in which I would interact with computers from this point forward.  Because once Windows 95 was out, and I was a part of it, like for many people, it became the environment that I would live in and evolve with until the present day.

It was 1997 for sure.  I remember it well.  I was 15 years old.  The year before we had just gotten the N64.  Then the next year, we got a … brand new computer!  I was freakin’ JACKED.  The specs of it I can’t really recall for sure.  It was either a 133Mhz or 166Mhz AMD K2 processor.  16MB of RAM at most.  Hard drive?  You got me.  But it had one.  And a floppy and CD drive.  What a time to be alive.

The early days were mostly just poking around.  Checking out the software that either came with Windows, or also some Word processory sorts of things.  I’m sure there was a spreadsheet application in there somewhere.  I don’t really remember playing too many games on it, though I’m sure that I did.  I’ll have to dig a bit deeper in my mental archives to see if anything pops up.

The funny thing about this machine was all the problems we had when we first got it. My parents had bought this machine assembled from a local computer shop.  I don’t know if was the same guys, but this shop was at least at a different location than we’d taken the old Apple IIe to.  I want to say this shop was on 2nd Street downtown in Dodge City.  I scrolled through Google Maps, but I couldn’t find for sure the place, but a couple that it may have been.  The funny part, was when we took the computer in after we just couldn’t stand the freezing anymore.  While they took it into the back to check it out, we were able to freeze absolutely every floor model PC they had on display, just by clicking around in Windows.  Whether they gave us a different PC, or our money back… only my Mom could say.  But I know we ended up getting a new machine one way or another.

The new machine still crashed.  But nothing like the old one.  You know, the standard Windows 95 just decides it’s done crashing.  But oh man, Windows 95.  In the way that the Original Super Mario Bros. game made it seem like there was a whole world hidden inside your TV that just begged you to come explore… Windows 95 felt like more than the machine it was on.

I want to try to draw the distinction as clearly as I can.  My old computers, it was all about what your computer could do.  What were it’s limitations.  With Windows 95 it was more like where could this computer take you?  You could meet new people, learn new stuff, make things, sell things, share things.  It was absolutely insane how it networked people together, made forming communities possible.

Our ISP that we used in Ingalls was United Telecom.  Or “ucom” for short.  Even just typing “ucom” brings back memories.  You’d dial into the actual local number, hear that all too familiar modem handshake.  And boom.  You were Connected!  Ucom in retrospect was a fine enough ISP.  Like a lot of places it was them, or nothing.  They definitely weren’t cutting edge.  We started out with 14.4kbps.  To put that into perspective that would take you 8 seconds to download this picture of a dial up modem.

modem

As slow and clunky as it was though, that internet was something magical.  Just talking to my friend next door on ICQ felt completely awesome.  Building my first website on Geocities really did feel like sticking my flag in the ground of this new digital homestead.  When I got my first email address of my very own, not shared with the family, it was a huge part of establishing my own identity.  I feel so fortunate to be there for the birth, the wild west of it all.

It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come.  Every device is connected now.  Phones, thermostats, game consoles, TVs.   But back then, you had one.  One portal to this online world.  Full of insane ideas, and honestly great people.  I remember having to share computer time with everyone else in the family.  I remember having to get a second phone line installed in our house because literally no one could call us or use the phone.  It’s definitely a thing I take for granted now, having the internet wound into so many places of my life.  It’s my calendar, it’s my work flow, how I take notes, how I take pictures, you name it.  But those old machines… Slow.  Noisy.  Unreliable.  The things they could do still impress me today.

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What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 4: The 386 and AOL)

This will be a brief entry as this was a pretty brief moment in time.  Like all of the other computers, we got an old 386 laptop way past its prime.  I say we, but I’m pretty sure this was the first computer I bought with my own money.  Also saying it was a 386 makes me think that what I thought was a 486 in my previous post was actually a 286.  I may have to go back and edit that.

This 386 laptop came installed with Windows 3.1.  I wish I could remember the model of the laptop, or even the brand, but for as much as I can retain, those details are lost.  I just remember it had a black and white backlit LCD screen and a pretty compact form factor.  Its size is really the reason I bought it because I thought it was a slick looking little laptop.  I did a little searching around and I couldn’t find anything that looked exactly like it.  But it was similar in size of what you might call a netbook these days.

The reason I bought it though was because of Windows 3.1.  Windows 95 was a thing already, so I was keeping the idea of running hardware a generation or more behind.  But the OTHER reason I bought this was because… it had a modem.  Windows 3.1, and a modem and I suddenly entered the arena of being compatible with the thousands upon thousands of AOL floppy disks you got in the mail, at the grocery store, pretty much everywhere in the 90’s.  So I picked one of those bad boys up with what I remember being 40 free hours.  By the end of the 90’s AOL was begging people to come over with like 700 free hours.  But 40 is what we had… so.

I remember setting this laptop up, literally on the telephone stand in the living room at Ingalls.  Went through the installation and of course at the end, you have to choose a phone number to dial into.  Well as you can imagine, in Ingalls, Kansas there were no local AOL numbers to call.  So we ended up having to call a Wichita number.

“Is that long distance?” I remember Mom saying.

“Yes… but we won’t be on very long!” I said.  Heck we only had 40 hours.  haha

We logged in, hearing that crunchy modem beeping and buzzing away.  Several long seconds later, the screen slowly refreshed to reveal the classic AOL starting page with all the different channels for news and fun.  All in glorious monochrome display for me though!

aol_v4-1

The amount of “things you could do” was a bit over whelming right off the bat.  So my friends and I went straight to the darkest corner of the early internet.  … Chat Rooms.

This was 1995 or 1996. So the internet was still “new” but it was catching on to the point that everybody kinda knew it existed.  The things you could do.  So we also knew the rules.  Don’t give people your real name, don’t give out your location.  You’d be proud to know that I lied on every A/S/L request that popped up in those chatrooms.

I’m sure you didn’t have to go far to get into the real nasty chatrooms, and while they all were somewhat coarse depending on who was online at the time, for the most part, everyone was there just to goof around, waste time, and have fun.  Or argue…  I don’t remember ever seeing anything that was absolutely shocking in a chatroom back then.

We popped around, we played some games.  But honestly we didn’t spend too much time on AOL.  Didn’t even hit those 40 hours.  It was just too expensive with the long distance charges.  Luckily soon enough we were entering the Windows era, and ISPs would make the internet available whenever we wanted it!

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 3: Macintosh)

Few words feel as stuck in time as the word Macintosh.  Of course “Mac” was used to refer to these Apple machines even back in the 90’s before Macs were just Macs.  But it’s actually against the law to call any contemporary Mac… a Macintosh.

I never owned a Macintosh.  In my youth, everything was black and white.  Nintendo was better than Sega.  Chevy was better than Ford.  And PCs were way better than Macs.  But of course we all used them still.  Because they were the defacto computer to be used in education.  From sixth grade until I graduated, there was at least one Macintosh in every classroom.

Oh!  But before that… I should probably talk about my first Macintosh experience.

My friend Paul’s dad had a Macintosh… I think Performa something or other.  I can’t remember the model.  I would have only been like 10 years old at the time.  He kept it in his home office and I remember Paul and I hanging out in his Dad’s office, watching music videos on TV while we waited for his dad to finish installing… something.  I remember feeling like his dad was just swapping out discs and restarting over and over to keep us from playing on his computer.  It was this day that the legendary Macintosh startup chord was burned into my memories.

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Never underestimate the determination of 10 year olds, however.  Eventually, probably when Paul’s dad was exhausted, we swooped in and got to play some Myst!  Talk about the most cryptic and impossible game for small brains… I don’t remember really doing anything other than wandering around the island.  The visuals were pretty cool though compared to anything else you could see at the time.

Now, back to school.

In sixth grade, I remember powering through the assignments because if we got done early we could play on the computers.  Not really a great way to encourage thorough work probably.  But between those assignments I was able to build some pretty epic Sim City 2000 Cities.

These were LCII machines, which looked like the same form factor as the Performa above.  I think the LC machines were targeted towards the education market, but I’m not sure.  I’m far from a Macintosh expert.  The neatest thing to me, was how the games were all installed right on the hard drive.  This was something pretty uncommon in my experience, my hard drive at home on the 486 was only 40MB.  So only the most basic programs were installed.  Nothing as rich and detailed as Sim City 2000.

The time that I was in school was right around the time where “typing” classes were becoming “computer” classes.  We spent time learning the proper way to type.  Rules I still don’t abide by (screw you right shift key).  But we did a lot of exercises then on what was then the Macintosh Classic.  The little black and white all in ones that are so iconic and, I admit, adorable.

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Most of the teachers used newer Performa all in ones.  These are they style of Macintosh I would like to get someday.  I always, even then like the aesthetic of the whole computer contained in one piece.  These days I think that probably makes working on them, or expanding them a pain in the butt, but I’m not too worried about expansion.  And tearing it all apart and getting something working again is one of my passions, so I wouldn’t mind finding one of these, even broken and taking a shot at getting it working again.

One of these machines inadvertently taught me a lot about how CRTs work… we were playing with some magnets one time in class.  My friend Walter and I noticed that if we got the magnet near the screen we could distort the image.  Well these were pretty strong magnets and one of us, I can’t remember who, put the magnet right on the screen.  When we pulled it back, there was a permanently dark and distorted spot that stayed on the screen.  We tried everything to make it go away, but we damaged it permanently.  I think over time it slowly got better, but our poor teacher had to deal with that until she got a new computer.  I still feel bad about that over 20 years later.

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We were kinda turds back then.  At one point, one of the teachers removed all the games off the computers.  Well we copied them to floppies from other machines.  Put them back on the hard drives, buried them in obscure folders, and renamed the executables backwards.  We got good at looking up “pobeeb” and “mortselam” for some quick fun when the teacher wasn’t looking.

I remember only one Macintosh in school that had a CD caddy drive.  These kinda blew my mind even back then.  CDs were still new and cool, but I also was pretty used to seeing tray loaded CD drives on everything from stereos to computers.  So the caddy was pretty interesting.  You’d stick your CD-ROM inside a jewel case sized caddy with a little sliding metal strip.  Push that into the external drive, and viola!  You were in the future!

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Towards the very end of my time in high school the iMacs hit the scene.  Apple took pretty much everything to the candy colored scheme.  From the all in one iMacs, to the Power Mac G3s tower and the iBooks.  I thought they were pretty cool at the time.  And I still would like to have one to remember them by.  But if I had to choose, I really enjoy that classic 90’s off white style of the LC and Performa computers.

After high school, I never ran across Apple too often.  I did always enjoy their design, but as a college kid working at Arby’s, they were definitely way out of my price range.  I’ve thought about going back and picking up a decade old Macbook or something like that, but before that, I think I’d really rather dive into some of that pre-2000 hardware and relive some of those After Dark screen savers and filling up that trash bin.

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 2: The DOS Years)

So some time after moving to Ingalls, so at least 1994, my parents brought home a pair of PCs.  One was a Tandy 1000.  It was again already fairly dated by the time that we got it.  It still had the monochrome green screen monitor.  I remember thinking it was an old thing, but still very well put together and very useable.  It didn’t feel slow or anything, it just couldn’t run more modern software.  Figuring out of a piece of software would run at all on your machine in the 90’s always felt like such a gamble, but more on that here in a bit.

I never found myself using the Tandy a whole lot.  It did have a pretty awesome music composer that I remember playing with.  I had fun taking themes from different shows or games I was into at the time and arranging them in chiptune form.  Nothing impressive or anything, or worth listening to today, but it’s probably what I spent doing the most on that machine.  I wish I could remember what it was called.

(Quickly searches youtube)

Holy crap!  Of course everything already exists!  Here’s a video of that exact software!  Not the best video, but dang, this was exactly my experience!

The biggest reason that the Tandy got neglected is because we also had at the same time an unbranded 486 PC clone that was… sorta… modern?  It’s hard for me to remember really what would have been cutting edge, and I can’t for certain say when we got these machines.  I really don’t think they were new at the time.  Pretty sure we acquired them in a similar fashion to the Apple IIe we’d gotten a few years before.  I don’t know if my parents got these 2 PCs in a package deal… but true or not… I recall them showing up at the same time.

Getting a new computer has always been magical to me.  People now ask me how I learned so much about computers, well it’s experiences like this.  Getting something new and I just wanted to learn everything I could do with it.  When we first got the 486, it sat on our dining room table, which sat in the living room at the time… so the more I think about this, it had to be around the same time we moved into the house in Ingalls, because I don’t think that we had the table in the living room for too long.  Anyway, just me reminiscing.  Just interesting because I specifically remember not only the computer itself, but how the room looked and everything.  Crazy.

Eventually we got a desk for it and set up what became the “computer room”.  We had all three computers in there at one time.  North wall by the hallway was the Apple IIe, left from there on the west wall was the Tandy 1000.  And then left from there, the 486right next to the door that went to our bathroom.  That room was… pink… I think.  Crazy.  So if you’re wondering how I became such a nerd… here you go.

With the 486 it was definitely the most capable computer we had ever owned.  It had this menu matic software installed that it would boot to automatically.  It came bundled with a few productivity apps, a word processer, an infernal spreadsheet, things like that.  It also had a pretty decent file manager system.  This definitely wasn’t windows, but it did make the PC quite useable if you weren’t comfortable with command line.

Using the command line became a necessity though soon after I spent my hard earned allowance money on my first ever PC game.  “Test Drive: The Duel”  I remember my excitement putting the disk in, hearing the heads buzzing, searching, loading, then seeing “Not enough memory”.  We tried everything to get that darned game to work.  According to the box… we had enough memory.  So why wouldn’t it run!?  Vaguely, I remember my parents taking it to a computer shop and they actually got it running!  So it was possible!  From what I remember at the time, they wrote a “special script” that freed up more memory so the game could run.  Knowing what I know now, the Menu Matic software took up enough memory, that it wasn’t possible to launch the game from Menu Matic.  So you had to close Menu Matic, or prevent it from executing on startup, and then the game would run.  So the only way I could get Test Drive to run, was to start it from Command Prompt.  And from there I started learning a lot more about what the PC could do and how it worked.

I feel like I used that PC a lot.  But I can’t really remember anything specific I did or software I used.  I want to say I started a journal that I kept on 3.5″ floppy.  I spent a lot of time just messing around with DOS.  Doing things like prompt Press ANY KEY to delete all files.  And then walking away waiting for the next person to use the computer.  Haha.

There’s just something that I really miss about launching software off of a floppy disk.  Maybe that’s why I’m still clinging to physical media on my game consoles to this day.  It’s very satisfying to hold the ‘thing’ in your hand that has the software on it.  I miss the mechanical buzzes and hums these old computers used to make.  You really felt like things were happening.  It felt magical… but believable.  I carry a smartphone in my pocket now that does so much stuff, does it silently and I feel like no matter how much I learned about it I’d never understand all of it.  But with these old boxes, I feel like you don’t have to go far to get down to the base hardware and how it all works, and understand it.

This was really our first and last DOS era computer.  We’d soon move on to Windows and a world where every house had a computer.  But this time period before is a pretty magical one.  PCs weren’t really mainstream.  You definitely didn’t need to have one.  But they were so foundational for what would be to come later.  I’m so glad I got to experience this chapter of technology, and I really feel like I need to get an old 486 PC, and CRT monitor.  Not a monster or anything.  Something that was probably just as low end as I had back then.  It’s something that you can really recreate 1:1 the way it used to be back then, unlike any retro PC that would have been connected to the internet at the time.  A real time machine.  Someday… when I have a room I can have 3 complete computers set up… just like the olden days.

What I Miss About Old Computers (Part 1: Apple IIe)

I’ve been feeling really nostalgic lately.  More so than usual, which if you know me, I exist as a fairly perpetual statement of the past through my life choices.  I mow my yard with a 40 year old lawn mower, listen to 25 year old music, type on a 35 year old keyboard and drive a 20 year old truck.  If anyone has done a good job in keeping the past alive and kicking in the year 2019 it’s me.

I’m super glad I live when I do though.  It’s so easy to go back and relive so many things that may otherwise slipped my mind, lost from my own personal reality.  I’ve been following some guys on YouTube (LGR and The 8bit Guy) who spend time taking old 80’s and 90’s computers and get them running again.  It’s a nice way to re-experience some of those feelings, and let them carry the burden of physical space that all of those old machines require.

Our first proper home computer was an Apple IIe.  I remember going over to my dad’s Boss’s house to look at it before my parents bought it.  This would have been the early 90’s, so the IIe was already outdated by then, but I knew what it was from the elementary school computer lab, and I’m sure that my parents thought that it would be a good educational thing for me and my sister to have in the house.  Maybe they had dreams of printing out family newsletters to stick in Christmas cards, I don’t know.  I just wanted to play some Oregon Trail.

Early on my parents expanded the memory in it.  I can’t remember if they expanded it to 64k… added 64k…  I don’t know.  I just vaugely remember there being some discussion about whether or not it was worth the cost.  I guess it was, because I still remember where that old computer store was on Gunsmoke in Dodge City where we had it installed.

gunsmoke

We had that computer for a long long time.  Almost all through the 90’s.  I remember playing games like Wheel of Fortune, Card Sharks, and more.  The thing came with quite a bit of software, and I remember going through every single disk to see what it was and being baffled about what anyone would use a spreadsheet for.  My aunt actually worked for MECC Software, so we got hooked up with all the good stuff.  Oregon Trail, Odell Lake, Number Munchers, and like four or five other titles.

But probably some of my fondest memories were with The Print Shop.  I would print out thank you notes and birthday cards on paper that you’d fold in quarters to create a little card shape out of a single sheet of paper.  Or we’d print out banners on that constant feed perforated paper with the holes on the side you’d tear off.  You’d listen to that printer just hammer away on that paper for like 15 minutes to crank out a banner, and hope that your ribbon didn’t run out of ink halfway through.

Old computers like that where so mechanical.  The drives whizzed and thunked away.  The keys had long travel an ca-chunked on every stroke.  The printer rocked the entire desk.  You really felt like you had a machine that was DOING something.

I even remember taking the old color Amdek monitor with me to college because I didn’t have a TV and I could hook my N64 to it!  Whatever my folks paid for that Apple IIe… I think we got our money’s worth out of it!

 

New for 1997

I remember being very envious of Gateway computers.  In the mid to late 1990’s, they had some really great marketing going on.  It was a time when computers were just barely starting to become a fixture in the home.  As they did, more and more people people started dialing up and getting online.

They hit a home run with their branding.  I remember they would always tout in their commercials, that their computers were built in South Dakota.  They used holstein cows in a lot of their early commercials and you really got the impression that Gateway computers were built in some barn on a farm in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota.  Every computer shipped in a cow patterned box, so it was just a fun package to get.  And they really pushed selling their computers as a complete package.  All together they did a great job of making the PC seem like something that was friendly, fun, and they removed all the complications of is X compatible with Y.  So for a lot of families, their first computer was a Gateway.

gateway cow box

We had several old PC’s by the time Gateway rolled around.  At this time, we had an AMD K6 machine that ran at 200mhz I believe.  Windows 95, 26.6kbps modem.  It wasn’t bad for the time.  But the stability was less than reliable.  This is from the time when you’d turn off your computer, and you’d get a message after Windows shut down that said, “It is now safe to turn off your computer”.  Then you’d manually push a button to turn it off. GASP!

But back to Gateway.  I’ve been trying to think about why in retrospect, I looked up to Gateway so much.  We never owned one, and I only knew one other person that did.  And it wasn’t anything remarkable, it did most of the same stuff any old PC would do.  I think it was just because the marketing was so prevelant.   Not only were there TV commercials, but they would send out actual paper catalogs in the mail which were chock full of desktops, laptops, printers and all the cool stuff that would be blazing fast.  And in that time there was always a lot of waiting around when it came to using your computer, so faster was always a huge deal.  Now a days you can get away with using even 10 year old hardware and plop around on the internet.  But using a 1987 PC in 1997 was pretty much impossible for any modern task.

Gateway Computer

I remember thumbing through those old Gateway catalogs.  I really wanted a laptop and I’d look at a modest, but not barebones model that would be priced at something like $2,500.  If I could just make $20 a week, I’d think to myself, it would only take (then I did the math)… 125 weeks.  To think that it would take me two and a half years to save up for something like that made them feel completely unattainable, and maybe that’s where my reverence for the brand comes from.

It’s fun to think back on this time.  Computers were booming.  Everyone was jumping online and into a world that was completely uncharted.

Biebs Bytes: Episode 5

We talk about Brick & Mortar stores vs. Online stores.  Will there be a winner, or can they co-exist?  Thanks as always to Biebs over at JoshBieber.com for inviting me!

Biebs Bytes: Episode 4

Sorry I haven’t been blogging much lately.  I don’t really have any legitimate excuses.  Just haven’t felt too inspired lately.

Joined in another Biebs Bytes last night.  The topic was “TV vs The Internet”.  Hope you enjoy.

How much traditional TV do you watch, compared to Internet Streaming?

Biebs’ Bytes: Hangout 3

Wow, my internet connection sucked tonight.  Sorry about that.  We had a lot of fun rambling tonight though.  Mostly griping about end users!

Biebs Bytes – Hangout 2

Had a lot of fun again.  One of the guest’s audio was really laggy, so makes for lots of awkward moments for you to enjoy.