Story Title: Toys or Real Computers?

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Seven of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 6, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 6, 2019


The manual that came with my purchased-used Vic-20 microcomputer was designed for people very new to microcomputers. While I knew the FORTRAN computer language well after my Freshman year of college and even learned some BASIC programming on Albert's Sinclair ZX-80 microcomputer, in other ways, I was still very new to a microcomputer like a Vic-20. Fortunately, so were most people who bought one, so the manual took that into account.

Vic is short for Video Interface Chip. What the 20 stands for is unclear to me to this day. The screen had 22 columns, not 20. The machine came with 5 kilobytes of RAM. If one could afford to maximize that RAM, it would have 24 kilobytes addressable by BASIC. I had a little over 19 kilobytes of RAM with the memory expansion I had purchased. Nothing about the computer suggested the number 20, other than perhaps rounding down the number of columns!

Back in the school year, something that Josh Cistern told me that he read in a magazine about the Vic-20 was funny. It was marketed as the VC-20 in Germany because Vic comes across as an X-rated word over there.

The manual had a cartoon character offering encouragement. The character is a stylized integrated circuit with arms and legs, as well as a face on the middle of the chip. His name is Vic. In later decades, Microsoft came out with an animated character called Bob that was supposed to introduce people to microcomputers in a friendly way. However, most people found Bob highly annoying! Later in Microsoft Word, Microsoft had an animated Paperclip figure complete with cartoon face that was super-annoying! I loathed Microsoft's cartoon Paperclip because it kept popping up and getting in the way freezing what was going on when I was trying to do real work that I already knew how to do! You might note Microsoft got the hint, and there is no longer a super-annoying animated Paperclip in modern Microsoft Office! I did not mind the gentle cartoons of Vic in the manual, though, as they were only cartoon drawings in the margin rather than an animation wrecking havoc on the computer screen when trying to do real work.

The standard exercises of reading the keyboard and printing to the screen were easy. With what I learned after doing that, converting the FORTRAN programs from my Freshman year to the Vic-20 was surprisingly fast and easy.

However, none of the steady parade of kids who came by to see my Vic-20 system wanted to see equation interpolation, plots of sine waves, least-squares-fitting (LSF) of lines to paired data, taking a sample standard deviation, or anything engineering or math related!

The kids did have some interest in simple animations in the manual, which were short and fast to type in. One animation is supposed to show a flying bird, but it did not look much like a bird. It looked like a quarter circle facing up, a circle character, and then another quarter circle facing up. This in the same screen position was replaced with a similar thing, but now both quarter circles facing down. Back and forth it went. It only took five lines of code to make it appear to flap its wings. Increasing it to seven lines of code let the "bird" move around the screen.

My spectators were amused by the flying "bird" for maybe a full minute. Changing colors of the bird and the background screen added about another minute of amusement.

Another animation program in the manual has a ball that bounces around the screen. When that started bouncing around, my spectators liked that better. That was starting to look like a videogame. Writing a game like Pong seemed easy after doing the bouncing ball.

That is, all liked it except to my younger brother Tim. He watched closely.

Tim criticized, "That ball isn't moving smoothly. It jumps. It's like the neon sign at the bowling alley."

I knew the bowling sign my brother meant. The bowler figure had two or three positions, and the ball about six, and the pins two. It played an endless loop of crude animation. Neon signs are expensive, so there were only about eight "scenes" from start to finish creating jerky animation. Late at night when dark and viewed from suitably far away, the bowling animation sign looked fairly good, though. This circle as a ball on the computer screen had 22 columns to cross the screen left to right. It was done with 22 balls, one in each character position. There were no half-way characters, so it was fairly jerky as well. It was not like the smooth pixel-level animation common in coin-op videogames.

The parade of kids wanted to play games, of course. I had them play the games that Josh Cistern had created from scratch of Battleship and 3D Maze. Both were very popular. Tic-Tac-Toe had only been popular for about ten minutes even with color and sound. The kids wanted to see more and better games. I had some a few pirated ones they liked. They liked "Blitz" where a cartoon plane bombs buildings so they fall down. They really liked a clone of "Pac-Man" even though it was a long program so took a while for the cassette to load.

One type-in game I had was from Compute! magazine of January 1982. The exclamation point is not a typo, but part of the name of the magazine. This game was called "ZAP!!". The two exclamation points in that were not a mistake either. I think the editors of Compute! wanted to let readers know with these exclamation marks how excited the readers were supposed to be by microcomputers!

This game involves moving your square around a screen with your figure running into a hollow circle giving one point, a filled in circle two points, a diamond three points, a heart five points, and a spade figure ten points in a set period of time. Commodore had wisely modified ASCII to what came to be called PETSCII to include the suites for a deck of card among other changes. The PET came out in 1977 and the Vic-20 in 1981 with both using the same character set, so it is called PETSCII and not VICSII.

While the pirated commercial games that had elaborate shapes like the clone-of-Pac-Man figure looking as Pac-Man should look and the biplane in "Blitz" being a well-drawn biplane, the other games I had all used the regular PETSCII character set, although sometimes in clever and imaginative ways.

The controls for "ZAP!!" were four keys. All the kids liked that game, other than Tim. Tim complained it had the same problem as the bouncing ball since it also had jerky character animation.

I had the newest issue of "Compute!", which was June 1982. It had an article, "Using an Atari Joystick with Your VIC."

Referring to that articel, I modified "ZAP!!" to use the Atari joystick. The kids loved the game even more when played with a joystick rather than the keyboard.

Even Tim admitted, "It is better with the joystick. If it just had pixel-level animation, then it would be a good game."

I had purchased the June 1982 issue, so owned that. I think the "ZAP!!" game was something I got already typed-in from Josh Cistern earlier that he saved for me on a cassette with the mass cassette copying when I bought my Vic-20 in Irate City. I don't know if Josh or one of his many friends that used his Vic-20 had actually typed in that game.

My brother Tim made a great discovery. Although nobody else I knew in the papermill village or the papermill city next to it owned a Vic-20 system, the public library had a subscription to "Compute!" magazine! The library also had a copy machine at fifteen cents a page. So, Tim and I took some money to the library, and copied whatever we could find in "Compute!" that was for a Vic-20 computer. Only a few of the programs were for the Vic-20 computer, as the same magazine served TRS-80, Apple II, Atari computer, and some others. Still, there were some good articles for the Vic-20 that we got photocopied.

Tim took to coding even more than I did. He typed in a game of Pong, but then complained to me about it. One issue was it was designed to use paddles, but I only had a joystick. He had successfully modified the code to use the joystick, so that wasn't the issue.

I asked, "What's the problem?"

Tim explained, "The paddle on the screen is two-characters wide, just two box characters stuck together. The animation is character-based. Thus, when the ball strikes the paddle, the program only knows if the the right box or left box that got hit, nothing more. Without more detailed information, it does not use the Law of Reflection as if the paddle were curved like the Magnavox Pong game in the basement that uses pixel-level animation. This does not play like the actual videogame Pong."

While Tim was correct, the parade of kids liked the simplified character-animation version of the Pong game that he put in anyway. Tim was treated as a great computer genius. That is, around the village, Tim was treated as one of the earliest computer gurus! Since he was still in high school, he got a lot of attention for that. I guess my being a so-far-successful EE student made it expected and unremarkable when I did this kind of thing.

Using the photocopier at the library, I had another game from May 1982 that I typed in called "Meteor Maze." This one already came set up to use the joystick, not needing a conversion like "ZAP!!".

Mom seemed to think Tim and I doing all this coding on a microcomputer was a valuable form of education, but Dad did not. The more type-in games we got going, improved with modifications, or so heavily modified as to essentially new games, the more Dad regarded the Vic-20 as a mere toy!

With great reluctance, I suggested to Dad that I take the Vic-20 system back to Irate City to have Josh Cistern or Albert Rose sell it for me, for a small commission. The Vic-20 was too exotic and rare for citizens of the papermill city to have buyers who comprehended what it really was, so I was unlikely to get a good price here. In this area, a mere hook-it-to-the-TV Atari 2600 game console was what everybody wanted and considered the greatest height of cutting-edge digital technology! Tim has a few high school friends who were fairly well off that had an Atari 2600 videogame console. I did too. In fact, none of my peers had any interest in coming to see my Vic-20 computer system at all, now that I think back on it! My peers would gladly go to other friends to play with their Atari 2600 systems hooked to a TV, but one not came to see my Vic-20 computer! The huge parade of kids that regularly came by begging to use the Vic-20 system were all around Tim's age or younger! Tim had lots of friends, and it was commonly quite a crowd at the Vic-20.

Dad considered that idea of my selling it, and looked at Tim rather than me, and said, "You might as well use it now while you and Tim have time during the summer. I doubt the value of a used Vic-20 system will go down much in just one summer. You can sell it when the school year starts."

Dad was completely wrong! Commodore International company in August 1982 was going to release a new machine called the Commodore 64 that was so obviously technically superior that the value of Vic-20 computers was about to go into freefall! I did not know this, so I could not tell him.

Dad then said to me, "I thought of one good thing about you being home and unemployed this summer. You will come along on our two-week vacation to see your grandparents and Uncle Tim in Albuquerque, New Mexico."

Those grandparents were Dad's in-laws: Mom's parents and Mom's brother Tim. We never flew, but drove down there. This trip, we would be taking the tan 1976 Chevy Suburban. It did not have air conditioning, and July in New Mexico got very hot. The Suburban also only got about twelve miles per gallon on the highway.

Dad was one of those people who would write down amounts filled up and then compute such things. Once after a tune-up when it was still new, he recorded fourteen mpg. Now in 1982, it was a little older and got around twelve. The Suburban was considered Mom's car.

The other vehicle was considered Dad's. It was a blue Chevy window van. It had a straight-six engine rather than V-8 of the Suburban. Under ideal highway conditions, the van got about seventeen mpg. However, that blue van was now about eighteen years old, and full of rust holes since we lived in the rust belt where the roads are heavily salted in the winter. That was too old and too worn to be trusted for a cross-country trip.

The last time we had taken the same trip, which was when I was still in high school, the Gas Crisis, also called the Energy Crisis, had been in full-force. We had taken the Suruban that time as well. Certain gas stations had weird schemes like selling gasoline to people on alternating days if the license plates ended in an odd or even digit. Some gas stations closed for days at a time as they had run out of gasoline to sell. The last trip had been scary because of the uncertainty about being able to buy gasoline, although it turned out the gas stations on the Interstate highway from the Midwest to New Mexico all had gas and had all stayed open during our trip.

By 1982, the Gas Crisis was considered over in the respect that gas was always available and gas stations stayed open. However, now that it was the post-Gas-Crisis era, gasoline still cost vastly more than it had when my parents had bought the Chevy Suburban. Dad claimed the gas mileage wasn't really that bad when one considered our family was six people. However, now I was a hundred-and-fifty miles away, so lugging around six people was rarely required anymore.

Dad's idea was to buy a used fuel-efficient car in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In that desert climate, cars lasted far longer than in the rust belt. With Mom, Dad, and I all having driver's licenses, we could bring the two cars all the way back home. Tim was very close to having a license, but did not quite have it yet.

Dad told me, "Most of the summer jobs that you could have gotten probably wouldn't let you take a full two weeks off in July, so maybe this is a good thing after all. This will probably be the last time you will ever be able to come to New Mexico with us."

Since I had not been allowed to keep my swimming pool job due to needing to be at Cornfield University during the last week of August, I felt Dad was correct about taking off two-weeks in mid-summer would not be tolerated by any employer in this area!

We made it down to Albuquerque, New Mexico just fine in the big, gas-guzzling Suburban. Dad would have preferred buying a used car down there made by a domestic manufacturer, but most off those either were big land yachts that got mpg as bad as or even worse than the giant Suburban or else had a rear seat so crammed that even my youngest brother could barely squeeze into it! Tim and I were much too large for those rear seats.

The Germans had a completely different mindset on fuel-efficient cars than the American manufacturers. The American manufacturers had the close-minded idea that a fuel-efficient car like a Pinto or a Vega or Ford Mustang II that is shameful to have the Mustang badge was only for a young couple just starting out. Therefore, the back seat only needed to be big enough for a toddler. I believed at the time and still believe this was deliberately planned obsolescence. This forced people to buy a new, bigger, and more expensive car as their kids grew up! It may have been a clever and effective economic strategy for the American manufacturers for many years, but the German manufacturers with their VW Rabbit and VW Dasher were not playing that game! The VW's although highly fuel-efficient had spacious rear seats with plenty of knee room and head room. I've been in gigantic, gas-guzzling cars like a full-sized Ford LTD land yacht that had far more cramped rear seats the much smaller VW Dasher, and the American-made small-cars were a joke for the rear-seat!

Back in the papermill town, most of our neighbors were heavily pro-union and would only buy American cars. However, when I saw and tried out the rear seats of the 1976 VW Dasher that we eventually bought in Albuquerque, I had no sympathy at all for the suffering of American car manufacturers. Their greed and forced planned obsolescence schemes were to my way of thinking shooting themselves in the foot just as much as how the used car lots were chock full of gas-guzzling American land yachts!

By the way, as I type this, I own two cars, both American manufactured. One is a 1993 Saturn sedan and the other a 2013 Chevy Volt. Halleluiah, after the U.S. car manufacturers got their butts kicked in by the Japanese and Germans for enough years, they FINALLY got the painful hint and put in rear seats an adult can fit in even with a fuel-efficient car! Adults can sit in the back of my Saturn sedan and my Volt!

Alas, this was not the situation in the used car market of 1982, so my parents bought the 1976 VW Dasher despite Dad knowing the neighbors would complain about him buying foreign. The great mpg and the rear-seat that adults can comfortably sit in was an unbeatable combination for that time.

Something else was noteworthy during our visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother's brother Tim was about five years younger than her, but sometimes acted a decade less than his actual age. He proudly showed me his collection of eight-track tapes. He expected a young man like me to greatly appreciate his taste in rock and pop music. I did not.

My uncle complained, "Joel, don't you listen to the radio?"

I replied, "Sometimes I listen to NPR."

Uncle Tim could hardly believe it. Fortunately, my brother Tim named a rock music radio station that he listened to back home. It turned out my brother Tim knew immeasurably more about rock and pop music then I did. Then again, most people do. Tim's knowledge of rock music pleased my uncle who shared my brother's first name.

Besides music, Uncle Tim had something else to show off to my brother Tim and me. He treated my other two siblings as too young to appreciate it. This was his Atari 2600 game console and cartridges. He had about forty to fifty cartridges. Tim had played the popular Atari games many times back in the papermill town since he had high school friends with an Atari 2600, although given a choice, he seemed to prefer the Vic-20 system.

Tim pleased our uncle when he noted, "You've got about three or four times more games than anybody else I know."

The Atari game console went for about a hundred dollars with that including about three game cartridges. Game cartridges went for about twenty to thirty dollars each. So, assume 37 cartridges paid for at twenty dollars each and 3 with the $100 that bought the console. That was $840. That was considerably more than my entire Vic-20 system with the printer and 16 kilobyte memory expansion!

My favorite pirated game on my Vic-20 was a clone of Pac-Man. Back when I had been in Irate City, Josh Cistern had resorted to a music stereo player that had a dual cassette to make that because it was about the only cassette game he had with a copy-protection scheme. All the rest of the "pirating" like the game "Blitz" took no more effort than typing LOAD and SAVE, which did not take any cleverness.

Using the audio gear worked for copying the Pac-Man clone, though. I loved the clone of Pac-Man on my Vic-20. I felt it was much better than the official port of Pac-Man on the Atari 2600. For color and sound, the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man was terrible! I could see why buying a microcomputer then pirating games was appealing compared to buying games on cartridges. Because each cartridge has inside a circuit board and soldered-in ROM chip, the cost could only go down so much. It wasn't like the very low cost of buying sixty-minute audio-cassettes at three-for-a-buck as I had and then pirating!

I tried to act suitably impressed with my uncle's Atari 2600 and game cartridge collection as I thought these economics through in my head, so actually was unimpressed.

Between Mom, Dad, and myself doing the driving, we got the Suburban and the VW Dasher safely back home.

With the summer halfway over, Dad made a bitter complaint at the supper table, but not about any of us. Dad been assigned to have a summer intern do a task. This was a paid internship through the papermill's summer work program, not unpaid. It paid about two-and-a-half times the minimum wage! I filled out the applications for that and badly wanted to get chosen, but been rejected.

Dad complained, "The summer intern can barely do arithmetic and is almost functionally illiterate! It's taking me ten times longer to have him do a task then if I just did it myself! He's as dumb as a rock."

Mom responded, "I thought the summer work program was highly competitive, so only the best students got chosen. Consider Joel's high grades, and he didn't get it."

My grades had come in, and nearly all A's again. Once again, I was on the Dean's List. For this performance, I had been admitted to an Honors Society. Dad was impressed by the course list that I had completed in my Freshman year in EE, saying none of them were fluff classes.

Dad explained, "Other than minimum requirements that are clearly much too low, the summer work program is entirely based on seniority of the parent working at the paper company. Many of the line workers only have an Associates Degree. A few came in with only a high school diploma! I know plenty of guys who started at the papermill at age twenty! I cannot compete in seniority with that!"

Dad had a bachelors and masters degree in Physics. He had also been a high school science teacher for three years. He was in his late twenties before starting at the paper company as gaining that much education and experience takes time that driving a forklift does not!

Mom suggested, "Maybe you'll have enough seniority for Tim to get into the summer work program."

Dad said, "Maybe. For now, I have to nursemaid this young idiot along. I'll be glad when summer is over and he's gone so I can get work done again."

In August, Dad said that he would have to bring work home this weekend. On Saturday afternoon, he got out out what seemed a super-sized calculator. I came over to peer at it. At Cornfield University, various engineering students had fancy calculators, some that were programmable. None were as fancy as this.

I asked, "What's that?"

Dad said, "This is an HP Pocket Computer that the papermill bought for me. Despite being portable, it's a real computer that does real math. The programs are stored on these little magnetic cards that I swipe through this reader. I am putting in the least-squares-regression fit program."

I picked up and looked at one of the magnetic swipe cards. It seemed to take a stack of the small cards to make a program to do this task. It reminded me of the punchcard decks on the IBM mainframe, only the small magnetic cards were about one-tenth the size of a punchcard.

Dad got out a small printer form his briefcase. It had a roll of silver-colored paper about the width of a cash-register receipt. I had seen those thermal-paper printers before as some other engineering students had them to hook to their fancy calculators. The thermal paper was very expensive, but the printers themselves were inexpensive. At least with one of these, a person could have a printed output. Dad got the tiny printer connected to the oversized calculator gadget. He had already swiped in the stack of magnetic cards so his program was loaded

Dad got out a standard paper notebook. It had many numbers written in pen. Dad started typing those numbers into the little keyboard. With only a one-line display, it seemed to me an utterly miserable experience.

I asked, "Is this just a regular least-squares fit routine without anything special about it?"

Dad said, "You may have learned about the LSF method in your classes."

I replied even not bothering to hide my irritation, "Certainly! Why are you doing it so laboriously on this little TOY rather than on a real-computer like my Vic-20?"

Dad claimed, "The processor in what you just called a toy is as powerful as what is in your videogame!"

I replied, "That may be so, but look at how you're hunting and pecking on that tiny keyboard! Look at the long list of data you have to type in. You check it on that one-line display? It's the keyboard and one-line display that makes it a toy, not the processor!"

Dad sarcastically said, "I suppose you have an LSF routine all coded and ready to go!"

I replied, "Sure do! It's one of the first programs I converted over from FORTRAN to BASIC. Bring that list of numbers up to my bedroom, and I'll show you."

Rather than arguing, Dad grabbed the papers with data. Up to my room we went.

I found the correct cassette tape, then loaded it.

I explained how I would put all the numbers in numbered DATA statements. An actual spreadsheet like VisiCalc that I had seen used in the MSLC by Bruce Brown would make the data entry even easier. Last semester, Karen the Math Tutor had highly approved of Bruce doing VisiCalc on the Apple II microcomputer, even coming over to say that was what the Apples were bought to do! I did not know of a similar spreadsheet that existed yet for the Vic-20, but with the full-screen editing function and DATA statements in BASIC, this was almost as easy as a spreadsheet.

The Vic-20 had cursor keys that allowed the full-screen editing. An important difference for editing this way versus using the word processor was one had to remember to hit ENTER key for the editing of the DATA statements to take effect. Other than that quirk, putting in the data was similar to putting it in a spreadsheet.

Dad noted, "The computers at work have numeric keypads. The secretaries can enter data incredibly fast on those. Your computer keyboard is like a typewriter, so doesn't have a numeric keypad."

I said, "I learned that on touchtone telephones, the order of the numbers is upside down from the numeric keypad of a computer. Secretaries like you described could type in numbers faster than the phone company equipment could keep up! The touchtone phones have the inverted order just to slow down their typing!"

My year of high school typing lessons paid off as although the numbers were located above the letter keys rather than in a numeric keypad, I made very short work of entering the list of data. Once in and double-checked, I ran the program. It worked flawlessly. Then, I printed out the result, including a plot. Granted, the plot was only with characters for a dot, like an *, but it showed the line and the original data scattered around the line quite well. Under the plot was printed the Regression value.

I gave Dad the printout that was on normal printer paper, although it had tractor-feed holes at the edge. There were perforations so the tractor-feed holes could be torn off for a professional look. Dad took the printout, examined it closely, and actually seemed impressed.

Dad asked, "Can that toy do trigonometric functions?"

I showed him an appendix of the User Guide. The Vic-20 has sine, cosine, tangent and inverse sine functions built in. The manual has a table giving simple one-line conversion formulas to put in code to compute cosecant, secant, cotangent, and hyperbolic values from the built-in functions.

Dad whistled and wondered, "What's the range of integers?"

I looked it up and reported, "Integers are stored in 16-bit format, so -32768 thru 32767."

Dad said, "That limit can still get you in trouble. If working with money in dollars at the paper company, then it is easy to end up with more than $32,767."

I countered, "What's the range on your HP Pocket Computer?"

Dad humbly admitted, "The same as this. How about real numbers?"

I looked that up too and reported it. The exponent on the ten could be as high as 38 and as low as negative 38.

Dad reluctantly said, "You actually weren't wrong! That Vic-20 actually can work as a real computer! Why doesn't anybody use it as a real computer rather than as a mere toy?"

I replied, "The memory it comes with is too limited to do much real work, but I bought a 16 kilobyte memory expansion, giving me a little over 19 kilobytes. That's the secret to using it as a real computer. Well, that and having a printer for the results."

Dad suggested, "The Vic-20 has an impressive math capability after all, but my summer intern couldn't take advantage of it even if shown to him! He was supposed to have done this LSF, and has no clue what LSF even means! I told him the R value should be close to 1 for a good fit, and I might as well have been speaking Greek."

I hoped that Dad would say he was impressed enough that my Vic-20 system was a real computer after all that he might give me some money to survive my Sophomore year without having to sell off the system at the end of the summer to refill my bank account as had originally been planned. No such thing happened. Yet, when I thought of the used VW Dasher in the driveway rather than my parents buying a brand-new car, I felt I was being petty and greedy wanting to keep my Vic-20 system once the summer was over.

However, a fancy letter came from the Cornfield University soon before I was to go back. During my Freshman year, I had applied for various academic scholarships. I had not gotten any of the major ones, but I did get a minor scholarship of about two hundred dollars. The small scholarship was under the same name as one of the buildings on campus.

At Bill-of-Rights University, two hundred dollars would only buy two new textbooks so would not make a noticeable difference. However, Cornfield University was different from every other university that I have ever encountered for textbooks. Some public high schools supply the book at the start of the school year and collect them back at the end. If undamaged beyond a little expected wear-and-tear, then there is no charge to the student. The same system was used at Cornfield University. I had already bought my required drafting set of T-square and dividers and so on my Freshman year, so that expense was over with. Therefore, unlike Bill-of-Rights University, two hundred dollars would go a long way at Cornfield University.

If I could just somehow find a minimum wage job in the upcoming school year for even a few hours a week, then I could both survive my Sophomore school year and keep my Vic-20 system! I certainly hoped I could find such a minimum-wage job as the time spent learning to use it this summer had me firmly believing I would almost have an unfair academic advantage with it! Whether I found a minimum-wage job on campus or not, I was going to start my Sophomore school year still owning it despite this summer of unemployment!


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