Short Story Title: Josh Makes a Big Sale

Story Type: Fiction


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

Date Written: June 15, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) June 15, 2019


I got a floppy disk out of my backpack, then said to Josh Cistern, "Here's the section I wrote for our report."

We were in the basement of Josh's parents' house. He had a big desk. He had his Commodore 64 set up, as well as a Vic-20. He had two disk drives now, two monitors, and two printers. He had been spending some of the money he had earned on his sales to the type-in program magazines to update and upgrade his equipment. The two printers were to test his word processor on the two most common types. Although my Commodore SX-64 is portable, I had not dragged it from my dorm room to Josh's parents' house as it was a several mile trip that I had made on a bicycle. All I brought had fit in a backpack. I did not need my SX-64 because he had his own Commodore 64.

Josh asked, "Joel, you didn't leave the file in the Paperclip format again, did you?"

Josh meant the proprietary format used by the word processor I preferred to use, which was Paperclip with Spellcheck by a company called Batteries Included. I had paid over a hundred dollars for it. As a copy protection, it used a dongle that had to be inserted in the joystick port.

"No, I converted it to ASCII text. However, I did bring my Paperclip disks and the dongle just in case," I replied.

On his Commodore 64, Josh got going the word processor that he had written himself. He had improved it tremendously from what it had first been two and a half years ago on the Vic-20. Using his own disk in one drive and my disk in another, he skillfully merged the sections I wrote into what he wrote. He soon had it blended into one whole document.

I did some other homework off to the side while he read through it.

After some time, Josh said, "Done. Why don't you proofread this?"

Josh stepped away from his Commodore 64, and I sat down. I found a spelling error in the first paragraph, and corrected it. I found another spelling error in the second.

I stopped reading and said, "Josh, I want to run this through the spelling checker of Paperclip."

Josh seemed to take the criticism of his writing personally, but said, "Suit yourself. You'll lose the italics and underlines doing that. You'll probably just want to find the spelling errors, and come back to my word processor to correct them there rather than put those italics and underlines back."

Using Josh's own word processor, I saved the merged file he had made rather than in his own created file format into the pure ASCII text file either word processor could use. The ASCII was universal, but lost information on italics, underlines, subscripts, superscripts, and so forth even if the printer supported them.

I then put my dongle in the joystick, and then loaded up my Paperclip word processor. I loaded in the ASCII data file into it.

I commented, "Hey, I love how easier this is with two disk drives rather than just one like I have."

Josh remarked, "It is better sometimes to have two. One can be the data disk, and the other the program disk."

I had the data file disk in one drive and put the dictionary disk in the other. I began the spell check. The drives whirred. On the screen, word after word got marked as misspelled. On a few words, they were correctly spelled, just too obtuse as only used in the engineering field for them to be in the dictionary. Most that it marked as misspelled were correctly identified as misspelled.

After the spell check completed the document, I gave a whistle at all the marked words. Josh came over to look. As I scrolled around, it seemed to average about three or four spelling errors per page.

I started going through making the corrections. To me, there seemed far too many to have it worth going back to Josh's own hand-written word processor. Privately, I thought Josh's spelling could use some work. However, other than spelling, his writing otherwise was excellent. There were no grammatical errors, and it was very readable.

Josh frowned at how long it was taking me to fix the spelling errors. After I got done, I put back the italics and underlines, but for the Paperclip file format. I saved the spelling corrected file with italics and underlines back in.

I said, "Can I print it out?"

Josh remarked, "No, I want to print it from my own word processor, not from yours."

I said, "But it's all done now! If we go back to yours, then I have to go back to pure ASCII text. All the italics and underlines will need to be put in yet again. With this many spelling errors, you don't want to go correct them all again in the file I started with."

Josh said, "I'll move the corrected-spelling file back and add the underlines and italics using my own word processor. Go work on something else while I do it."

Josh then took over. I had to tell him how to save the file from Paperclip word processor into ASCII text, but once that was done, he was fine. He got the ASCII text file put back into his hand-written word processor. In short order, he had the underlines and italics put back in. He then saved the file, seeming vastly relieved somehow that he had a copy saved with italics and underlines and corrected spelling in his very own proprietary file format. He then made out a printout on paper.

Josh handed me the printout, and I read through it. For all the arguments about what word processor to use, I thought it came out very well. I also felt it was important that we had fixed the many misspelled words.

I asked, probably sounding more critical then I intended, "Why don't you switch to a word processor like Paperclip with Spellcheck so that, like me, you can spell check your documents? It may seem expensive, but most of my textbooks cost more than a hundred dollars each."

Josh went over on his desk and got a letter that he handed me and said, "Read that, Joel Kant! You can't make fun of me writing my own word processor anymore!"

It was a letter from the editor of a magazine that specialized in type-in programs for the Commodore 64. It announced it would appear not in the next issue, but the one after that. The letter said it came with a check for five hundred dollars.

Josh smiled and said, "I already cashed the check at the bank."

I told him how impressed I was. I had not thought a word processor without a spelling check feature would sell anymore, but I was clearly wrong!

Perhaps a month later, I shoved in my Paperclip word processor disk into the drive of my Commodore SX-64. I had a lab report to work on. It was for an EE class that I had, but Josh did not. Not all our classes were the same.

The Paperclip program didn't load. I feared the chip for the joystick port that read the dongle might have blown again as had happened once before. It also would be really stupid if I had simply left the dongle out. I confirmed the dongle was in. I still had a spare good chip if the joystick port had blown again, but first I tried the Paperclip disk a second time, and this time it loaded fine. I swapped disks to load the file for my half-completed lab report. The data file did not load. I tried again, but again it did not load. I was worried as I had already spent hours on that report. On the third attempt, it loaded. Worried about the disk possibly being bad and with this being important, I saved it to a new disk. After I finished the lab report and printed it and also saved a copy to disk, I decided I could play a game. It was only about half an hour before the cafeteria opened, so it did not seem worth starting the rest of my homework until after supper.

Although I had gotten rid of my pirated games, I had recently found a legitimate copy of the Commodore 64 port of a rolling ball game fairly cheap, so bought it. I had one other commercial game I bought too. Two legitimate games was not much compared to what I used to have, but it was something. Even my roommate liked playing the rolling ball game, even though still miffed that I had gotten rid of the rest of my pirated videogames. When I tried to start the disk with the rolling ball game, the disk drive made the typical bang, bang, bang sound common for loading all commercial games, but the game did not load.

I phoned Josh Cistern, and explained, "I just had some disks not work properly in the last hour. One's a new commercial disk, that rolling marble game I told you I bought. Have you any idea if I need to clean the heads or something like I used to have to do in the cassette recorder?"

Back with the Vic-20, I only had a cassette recorder. Years ago, Josh showed me how to use a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol to clean the heads. The first time I did that, there was an impressive buildup of crud on the end of the Q-tip. The cassette recorder worked perfectly after that. I had never done such a thing on a floppy disk drive, though.

Josh replied, "You can clean the heads, and that might help a little. I don't think that is the problem. I think the heads need realignment. It's a common problem in Commodore disk drives."

I nervously said, "Fixing that sounds expensive."

Josh said, "It might be if you had a shop do it. Look, I'll be on campus tomorrow. I can stop by your dorm room and do it for you. No charge."

I replied, "You really know how to do this?"


The next day, Josh stopped over. Using various Philips head screwdrivers, we opened up the SX-64. Using a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol, he showed me how to clean the head. I couldn't see any crud at all on the Q-tip.

Josh then looked over my disk collection. My software collection was pretty sparse now, but I did have two commercial games legitimately purchased and the legitimately purchased the Paperclip wordprocessor disk.

Josh took the Paperclip disk, saying he was looking for a reliable commercial disk since that could be assumed to have properly aligned tracks. He did not want to align to a disk made from my own drive because it might have been made when already somewhat misaligned. Then, he ran some program. He put in the Paperclip disk. The program indicated misalignment. Josh then loosened two screws that held in the stepper motor. He explained these screws went into slotted holes. He twisted the motor back and forth a little, then tightened down the screws.

Despite my fear with this surgical operation on my valuable computer, the operation was a complete success. After Josh was done, everything I tried loaded perfectly with only one exception. That exception was the disk I had just put my newest lab report on. I did get it to load after three attempts.

Josh explained, "That's because that new disk had the file saved when the heads were misaligned, but now they are properly aligned."

I saved the file yet again onto another new disk, and never had any problems after this with it.

Josh pulled out the marble rolling videogame that I had legitimately bought.

Josh said with the tone of a professor giving a lecture, which generally meant he had something valuable for me to hear, "Load this, and listen to what happens when it loads."

I had some idea what Josh was getting at, but complied. The drive made several bang-bang-bang-bang sounds, then the game loaded and autostarted. It was loading properly now with the properly aligned heads.

Josh explained that a common copy protection method was to write and read information from a part of the diskette not normally accessed. He said that many commercial games did this as their copy protection. The bang-bang-bang-bang sound was the head forced over to the part of the disk not normally accessed. Most conventional disk copy programs would not get to the part of the disk that required shoving the head over so far, thus making it a fairly effective copy protection method.

Josh said, "Over time, that constant banging moves the stepper motor out of position, and that misaligns the heads. Disks stop reading properly."

I protested, "You mean honestly bought software being loaded will physically damage my floppy disk drive?"

Josh relied, "Yes, over time. Not instantly."

I noted although my two commercially purchased videogames did this, the Paperclip disk did not do that bang-bang-bang-bang routine. That was because its copy protection was the dongle that went in the joystick port instead.

I remarked, "Before I got rid of my pirated stuff, I think some of those did the bang-bang-bang-bang routine."

Josh said, "I said conventional disk copy programs would not get to that part of the disk. The nibble copier program reads and writes to the forbidden part of the disk, so the copies made from it work just like the commercial disk with that same head-banging to get to the forbidden part of the disk. It then doesn't matter if a legitimately purchased game or a copy made with a program like that. Either over time will knock the head out alignment."

I said, "Is there no way out of it?"

Josh shrugged, then answered, "Never run software that uses that kind of copy protection, but that's a lot of stuff. Either that or find a cracked version so well cracked it has this kind of protection removed. That kind of cracking is difficult and pretty rare, though."

I replied, "I really appreciate you getting my drive going again."

While I was so very happy that Josh had successfully fixed my drive, he didn't seem as happy as me.

I asked, "Something wrong?"

Josh sighed, then said, "Remember how I sold my word processor program?"

I answered, "Of course! You proved me wrong by selling it without a spelling check feature."

Josh said, "The publisher just folded. The issue with my word processor in it will never come out."

I replied, "I'm sorry."

Josh brightened and said, "The check cashed fine, though! I got my money a few weeks ago! I've heard horror stories about writers getting checks that bounced from publishers that go under."

I nodded and said, "The five hundred bucks is nothing to sneeze at."

From then on, my drive in my SX-64 worked just fine. I felt nervous every time I loaded a program that did that bang-bang-bang-bang routine. I found out some other Commodore 64 owners also knew how to move the stepper motor to realign the heads. What they told me matched what Josh had said. Josh had tightened down the screws well, and my drive never needed this done to it again.


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