Short Story Title: The FBI Does Stuff Sometimes

Story Type: Fiction


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

Date Written: June 15, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) June 15, 2019


After half a year of owning my Commodore SX-64, I sometimes irrationally missed my old Vic-20 despite how this new machine was so much more capable. In particular, I loved the portable aspect of the SX-64 as compared to a regular Commodore 64 while retaining complete compatibility. The twenty-three pounds housed in a case that made it act as its own suitcase with the keyboard clipped on the top is not much like the laptops of the modern world, but it was much easier than hauling around separate monitor, computer, disk drive, and a nest of cables if one wanted to move others of the early microcomputers! I occasionally took the SX-64 to the library to work on papers in a way like I would bring a modern laptop these days.

For the summer session of 1985, Josh Cistern, Waldo Venter, and I took an Optics Lab. It was a good class to get out of the way in the summer. Josh was still around for the summer since he lived with his parents, and they lived in Irate City. Unlike most EE students, Waldo Venter was married. He and his wife lived in Irate City as well, and Mrs. Venter did not get summer's off from her job.

For this lab, we had to come up, build, and demonstrate an individual final project.

Waldo came up with a solar tracker for a motorized solar panel. He had a solar panel, one-foot square, mounted in a framework. He simulated the sun with a portable table lamp. Two phototransistors mounted in V-shaped bracket would sense the received light was brighter in one phototransistor then the other. The motor would move the arrangement until the received light was balanced between the two phototransistors. When all done, it was impressive to watch Waldo move the table lamp around while the solar panel followed it. Granted, the solar panel only tilted in one axis. That gave Waldo Venter a certain A in the lab.

However, Waldo had to get some circuitry help from Josh and me before that happened. He kept blowing a transistor in what he had designed.

Josh looked at the mess of components laid out on Waldo's breadboard, and said, "Why do it this way? Why not let a microcomputer do the hard work?"

My own project was a set of infra-beams to go across a conveyor belt to detect both number and heights of boxes going by. Josh's project was interfacing infrared beams in a frame that would attach to a CRT computer monitor. This would make a simple touchscreen for a menu system.

Waldo asked, "What do you mean?"

Josh explained, "All I need is enough circuitry to get a 0 V or 5 V signal out of the detectors. I'm doing to run those into the User Port of my Vic-20 computer. Once the data is in, it is just a matter of writing a BASIC program. We could also change pins in the User Port to output instead of input for your project."

Waldo remarked, "I cannot risk my personal computer! If I do something wrong in the connection, I could fry it."

I admitted, "I was planning to do something like Josh describes using my new Commodore SX-64, but I have the same fear. Back at Cornfield University, another student shorted the 5 V power pin and the ground pin in my Vic-20 by pulling out the modem with the Vic-20 still powered. It just needed two fuses replaced and was fine, but something worse could happen."

Josh replied, "I have both a Commodore 64 and a Vic-20. I barely use the Vic-20 anymore. Let's all three of us use it. If we're careful, we shouldn't blow out anything. Even if we do, it will likely just be a fuse like Joel described."

I readily agreed, but Waldo declined. I wish he had agreed because it was a breeze for Josh and I do to our projects. The professor was quite impressed, and the two of us got A's. We never had to replace a fuse in Josh's Vic-20 either as we were careful. Probably I could have gotten away with using the Commodore SX-64, as it took both Josh and me hauling stuff to bring his Vic-20 system to campus and the lab room since this required the Vic-20 itself, the TV as monitor, a separate disk drive, and a lot of cables. The parking lot was not too close to the lab. Still, Josh and I got our projects successful done by hauling in Josh's Vic-20.

However, Josh and I ended up spending many hours over many days helping Waldo as he kept blowing out transistors. Eventually, Josh found the error. With the error solved, the circuitry worked flawlessly when demonstrated to the professor. Josh and I were amused how Waldo managed to sound brilliant to the professor when describing the same part of the circuity that Waldo kept blowing out until Josh set him straight.

Although taking the Optics Lab this summer, Josh Cistern had much more spare time now then during the regular semester. He took advantage of this to crank out his type-in magazine articles at an impressive rate. I was jealous of the cash that this brought him, until I computed how many hours he put into it, and realized on an hour-by-hour basis, he was getting barely more than minimum wage.

These programs did not emerge instantly working perfectly. If a computer programmer claims every one of his or her programs works perfectly every time, then do not trust him or her! Every decent programmer I knew spends more time de-bugging than writing! How Josh discovered bugs is by having a circle of friends that tested his software. Since most of his type-in programs were games, he called his friends, "Play Testers."

Josh's play-testers were a colorful group of characters. One standout was a young man named Vance who was still in high school, about to start his senior year.

One day as we messed with the Optics final projects, Josh told me, "Vance has about a thousand disks of pirated Commodore 64 software."

I said, "That sounds like an exaggeration."

Josh replied, "It isn't. Vance has about five times as many diskettes as York."

I remarked, "I've only got about fifty or sixty disks of pirated stuff, and have no time to play the computer games that I already have on them. I wouldn't have any use for that many disks of stuff."

Josh wryly criticized me, "Joel, that's why you don't make a very good play-tester for the games that I write!"

I shrugged and agreed, "I barely get enough sleep keeping up with my EE classes. When I do get a chance to relax, about the last thing I want to do anymore is use a computer. I don't know with this EE program being so intense how you keep your enthusiasm for writing computer games."

I was taking the maximum credit load allowed during summer session, while the only class Josh had for the summer was the Optics Lab. That's why I think I felt so ragged, while he seemed almost as rested as if on vacation. Then again, maybe he was just a lot better at EE and programming than me, but I was still surviving, not one of the two-thirds that Dr. McCullen at Cornfield University had forecast wouldn't make it what already seemed an eternity ago.

Josh replied, "What we do with computers in classes gets academic and technical. Writing games is a break, so keeps it fun. Vance is a good play-tester since he has so many other programs to compare it with."

Referring to a guy in my dorm who had about three hundred disks of pirated Commodore 64 software, I remarked, "It seems an expert in Commodore games like York would be a good play-tester."

Josh said, "I let York try one of my games to play test. He gave copies to some of his friends without asking me! Fortunately, I was able to sell the program to a magazine before it spread too far. I'm not letting York test any more of my games. Vance wouldn't do that."

I asked, "Vance really has a thousand disks?"

Josh suggested, "Once we get this done, and it almost is done, I am heading over there. I borrowed my Mom's car for the day. I am bringing a new game I wrote over for Vance to play test. Why don't I bring you along? You can see for yourself. However, don't try to trade software with him. I'm pretty sure you don't have anything he'd want."

Josh drove his mother's car with me riding along to an apartment building in a seedy part of Irate City. Vance lived with his single mother and a younger sibling or two. Vance looked nervously at me, but calmed down when Josh vouched for me.

Vance took us into his room. I figured a thousand floppy disks take a lot of room because it would be ten boxes of the 100-disk sort, which is a lot for a small apartment with several people living in it. Yet, a large table in his room and space underneath it by my count had at least a dozen of those big boxes that could contain 100 disks each. Every one I glanced at looked full! I realized Josh had not exaggerated. I wondered what all this stuff was, and why one would even want it!

Vance booted up his computer, then had Josh sit in front of it.

Josh put in his disk with his new game. He explained the gameplay to Vance.

I realized as Vance seemed to soak up the ideas like a sponge how burned out that I had gotten lately. Josh's instructions seemed a mere blur in my head. When these bubbles appear on the screen, it means this. When this shape creature appears, you need to do this. When this other shape appears, you do this other thing. At that point of my life, I would have been about the most useless game play-tester imaginable. I was feeling like the old folks who bought a VCR, and would never bother to change the clock from endlessly blinking 12:00.

Josh then moved over, and Vance started playing. Vance got the hang of it quickly, then had some suggestions for improvements.

As those two did this, Vance's mother showed up. To me, she looked as weary and run-down as I felt.

She asked if I was an EE major like Josh. I said that I was. She said that she hoped after Vance graduated high school that he would go into EE or Computer Science. She added that Vance looked up to Josh. Josh overhead and blushed.

Vance's mother discretely went back to the kitchen.

After some time, Josh and I left the apartment building. Josh left a copy of the game behind for Vance, showing he did trust Vance as I had learned he did not trust York.

As we got into the car, Josh noted a squad car going quickly by. What happened next has nothing to do with the topic of microcomputers, but I am including it just because I thought it was interesting.

Josh told me, "A friend of mine had a police scanner when I was in high school. We'd sometimes drive out in his car to see something we'd heard about on it. Look, another cop car going the same way."

All Josh's mother's car had for a radio was a typical AM/FM. Josh and I noticed both squad cars pull into a different parking lot. It was for a public park, only about a quarter mile away.

Josh suggested, "Let's go over then and see what's going on."

"Okay," I said.

Josh drove the short distance to the other parking lot. He parked some distance away from the two squad cars. We walked over where a crowd was gathering fast, while a third and a fourth squad car showed up.

Josh muttered, "Now I really wish I had a police scanner to find out what is going on. This looks like something big."

A police officer came by, shooing us and the rest of the crowd back. He was stringing yellow tape! Somebody in the crowd asked what was going on. The cop did not answer, just concentrated on stringing the tape after getting us out of the way. I overheard somebody in the crowd claimed to somebody else in the crowd that there had been a murder!

Then, Josh abruptly touched my shoulder, causing me to jump. He told me to look at his mother's parked car. In the rear of the car behind the trunk there were two police officers with guns drawn! One was on the driver's side and one on the passenger's! They slowly crept up crouched low, then pointed their guns into the empty car!

Showing they had not just singled out Josh's mother's car, they then did something similar with the next car in the lot. They did the next car, then the next. Soon, they had finished with all the cars in the parking lot without finding what they were looking for, so went over by the other police officers.

I told Josh, "I don't want to stick around."

Josh loves adventures especially if they might make a good story, but this time, he didn't argue. We quietly got into his mother's car and left. None of the police stopped us.

The next day, Josh told me what he found out about the murder either on the TV news or a Irate City newspaper. The suspect was in custody.

I resolved from that point on in my life if cops were busy doing some sort of job like that, it was best for me to find someplace else to be! My being around as a rubbernecker was not wise. I don't need exciting stories to tell that badly!

We were already into the fall semester when I noticed Josh on campus looking angrier than I had ever seen before.

I asked, "What's bugging you?"

Josh explained that he had been contacted by a type-in computer magazine who claimed that he had stolen authorship of a program that appeared on a Commodore User Group's collection of software.

"I don't understand," I said.

Josh forced himself to calm down, then said somebody took one of his previously published articles with a type-in program. The person had replaced Josh's name with his own. He successfully sold it to the magazine as if his own creation. Right before it got published, the publisher had learned the exact same program other than name of the author was on a Commodore Users Group disk. Rather than figuring out that the guy who submitted it was the thief, they had contacted Josh and accused him!

From when I had gone to the Commodore Users Group meeting that one time in Irate City, I was told part of the membership fee covered getting disks that had public domain, shareware, and magazine-type-in software. The phrase "under the table" would mean the pirated stuff, although sometimes not literally that hidden, but it was still not as open as to be covered as part of a membership fee! For the approved "above the table" disks that were covered, previously published magazine type-in programs were very popular. A fair number of Josh's earlier published programs were on those sorts of disks.

Josh said, "The thing is that the magazine hadn't published it yet, but the other magazine published it about a year ago. I told them the exact issue and date that it appeared."

I remarked, "That should have settled it that you were the author."

Josh explained, "That's part of what makes me so angry. It should, but rather than apologize, it made the editor for this magazine doubled-down and accuse me even more!"

I sympathized, "Some people will do that rather than admit to being conned. It reminds me of when I told Dr. Silver at Cornfield University how some of his students were cheating, so he screamed that I was the cheater, not them, then swore at me so much I dropped his class. Only Mom's intervention kept Dad from forcing me out of EE for dropping Silver's class. These things happen. You have solid evidence if it ever comes to a lawsuit."

Josh nodded, then said, "It doesn't seem worth it. It just makes me mad. I always feared somebody would get something I had not published yet from a play-tester to publish as their own work. Whoever did this was so brazen he took a program that I wrote and had published a year ago, replaced my name with his, and managed to convince this editor it was his own original creation. I never thought anybody would do that! Then, the editor to accuse me of being the person who stole the work when there is solid, published evidence that it was the other way around is infuriating!"

It was considerably further along into the fall semester when Josh phoned me in my dorm room. He was in his own home. He said that he was using a bulk magnetic memory eraser and getting rid of his pirated Commodore 64 software. By the way, this was not much of a collection. Despite writing so much of his own Vic-20 and Commodore 64 software and enough success to get two dozen articles published, Josh's number of disks with pirated software was about equivalent to my own, so not impressive compared to most other pirates. He liked writing code and selling it, not pirating.

I asked, "Why are you doing it?"

Josh said, "I heard that Vance been taken into custody by the FBI!"

I thought of how Vance had over a thousand disks of Commodore 64 software, with almost all of it pirated. If going after a serious software pirate in Irate City, it seemed to me Vance would make a good target. I thought of how nervous Vance had been until Josh had vouched for me.

I wiped all my pirated software. It left me with about fifty or so blank diskettes.

The next day, Josh called me back.

He sheepishly explained, "It was a false alarm on the pirated software."

I replied, "Vance wasn't taken in by the FBI after all?"

Josh answered, "Oh, no, that wasn't wrong. Vance was taken into custody, questioned for a few hours, then released. When I phoned you, he had not been released yet. What was the false alarm was that it was about pirated software. The FBI showed no interest in his thousand disks of that stuff."

I asked the obvious question, "What did they care about?"

Josh stated that Vance regularly used various BBS's around Irate City.

I remarked that Albert had once told me that pirated software was distributed on some BBS's in Irate City.

Josh reiterated, "I told you it wasn't about pirated software. On one of the Irate City BBS's, stolen credit card numbers and stolen long distance phone number cards were posted."

I simply said, "Oh!"

Josh said that many people who used dial-up BBS's post with aliases. It could be like how people made up code names on CB radio, but applied to their avatar on a BBS. Yet, the FBI could track down locations of phone numbers that had called the BBS. Tracking the phone number had brought them to Vance.

Josh said, "The FBI agents became convinced that although Vance used the bulletin board for some things, he had nothing to do with this aspect. So, they let him go."

I wondered if that really was all that had happened, but then quickly decided that if more had happened, Vance didn't need that kind of trouble. Josh's version seemed all that should ever be said about this topic if there was ever a need to even mention the issue.

Josh apologized about the panic with getting rid of the pirated software.

I remarked with Vance having over a thousand disks of pirated software, I could understand how Josh had jumped to that conclusion.

After I got off the phone with Josh, my roommate showed up. Somehow, he had missed all of the excitement from yesterday.

He looked confused by how I had the stack of disks out next to the computer.

He asked, "If you're done with the computer, could I play some Zaxxon?"

I answered, "I'm done with the computer, but you can't play Zaxxon. I erased it."

He then asked a little nervously, "How about Ms. Pac-Man?"

"I erased that too. That stack there is all erased. You can play Baghdad. That's in the stack that wasn't erased."

He looked between the stack of what wasn't erased and what was erased, then asked, "Why didn't you erase Baghdad?"

I replied, "It's a magazine type-in. I didn't get rid of any of those. Nor of any of the stuff I wrote for classes. Nor the stuff my friend Josh wrote. I've still got all those PET games from TPUG."

He pleaded, "That stuff's garbage. Can you get the good games back again?"

He had articulated just what I had been thinking after getting off the phone with Josh, although I did not think what I kept was garbage. I liked what I kept, even if honest software. I meant I had been thinking about getting the deleted and pirated software back. By this time, I knew a fair number of people with Commodore 64 computers. I figured if I just went around and pleaded, I could probably without much effort get back about 75% of what I had deleted. Getting the other 25% might take more effort. Yet, some of what I had deleted were things I had gotten, then never used.

I answered, "I'm going to leave it gone."

He asked, "Why?"

I replied, "I don't want the distraction. I'm getting close to graduating, and need to concentrate on that. I'm also low on cash, and now I have a nice stack of blank disks so I will be able to go all the way to graduation without needing to buy any more disks at all."

My roommate wasn't happy about my decision.

Then, he thought of what had already occurred to me and suggested, "Why don't you take a stack of those blank disks up to York to see what he'll let you copy."

I replied, "Sorry, not doing it. If you want to play those sorts of games, then why don't you go see if York will let you play on his machine?"

My roommate left, but I don't know if was to see York or not.

On campus one day, I happened to run across Zach Carr. Zach told me about having come up with a way around a new copy protection scheme being used. As usual, the technical details of what Zach said went far over my head.

I changed the topic, "Zach, have you heard of computer BBS's having ways of getting around paying for long distance phone calls?"

Zach replied, "Sure. It's called phone phreaking, with the last word spelled with a ph instead of an f."

I said, "That seems like something one could really get in trouble with to me."

Zach said, "You don't seem to know your home computer history. You know who Steve Wozniak is, don't you?"

I replied, "Certainly, the co-founder of Apple Computers."

Zach explained, "Before creating Apple Computers, he used to sell a device called a Blue Box. It put tones into the phone line so you could get free long distance."

I said, "A blue box?"

Zach nodded and added, "All the devices that do this get called Blue Boxes. The first one that Woz sold was called that because it came in a box that really was blue. After that, whether the physical box is black, silver, red, or whatever, they are all called a Blue Box in honor of the first one. The phone company changed things so Blue Boxes don't work anymore."

I asked, "What about using stolen long-distance calling card numbers?"

Zach said, "I wouldn't do it personally. Too much risk. I think you'll find a lot of people with home computers that would use it if they had it."

I took a deep breath, then said, "What about stolen credit card numbers?"

"That'd be nuts. The FBI treats that as a serious crime!" Zach said.

I left Zach. I don't think he knew yet that I had dumped all my pirated Commodore 64 software a couple weeks earlier.

Some time later, I ran into York in the dorms. He had heard from my roommate that I had gotten rid of all my pirated software. He thought that was hilarious. He claimed, "I heard you got religion and dumped your pirated software!"

"I suppose so. None of that stuff was going to help me graduate any sooner. I don't have to kick my roommate off my computer any more to use it for real work, so that's already a huge help," I answered.

I would much rather York tell the story that I dumped my pirated software due to some supposed religious conversion then bring Vance's name into it! I doubt York had ever heard of Vance.

York said, "I just got some great new games. All cracked, but you don't have anything to trade for them!"

I agreed, "You're right, I don't."

I wondered if the "great new games" would have a starting screen that had the line CRACKED BY ZACH. Well, with Zach's code name, anyway. Zach didn't use his real name in the line about who had cracked the program to avoid trouble. I suspected a fair chance I would see Zach's code name if I saw what York had. I was not going to investigate, though.

I then put in, "Have you ever heard of the Blue Box?"

York laughed and replied, "Sure! The Woz called the pope once with one of those."

"The pope? Like in Rome?" I asked.

"That's the guy! Woz was pretending to be Henry Kissinger," York said, laughing so hard he was getting hard to understand.

I asked, "Would you use a Blue Box?"

"I would if they still worked. The phone company did something so they don't anymore."

I suggested, "What if you could get some stolen long-distance calling card numbers that worked. Would you use them?"

"Certainly! It's the same idea as using a Blue Box," York replied.

I then asked him, "What about stolen credit card numbers?"

York claimed, "Credit card companies are all criminal gangs! They charge predatory loan rates like 18% or more on their victims when car loans are about 4%. Anybody who can steal from a credit card company is my hero!"

I only had one credit card at that time, which was for Sears. I would have hated it if somebody stole my Sears credit card number and went on a spree. Even if I did not personally have to pay for fraudulent charges, I felt it could still seriously damage my credit rating. I was close to graduating, so that could become important soon. After York had said this, I wanted to avoid him from then on, for the rest of my entire life!


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