Short Story Title: Fallout from the Video Game Crash
Story Type: Fiction
This Short Story is Chapter Sixteen of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"
Date Written: July 17, 2019
Written By: Joel T. Kant
Copyright (c) July 17, 2019
I had never been to a science fiction convention, so did not know what to expect when Josh Cistern suggested we go to one. It did seem a way to celebrate that my interview with Dr. Skidmark was over, and I was now an admitted Bill-of-Rights University student in the EE program. Josh told me that he had been to several conventions before. He told me that there would a large room with lectures, typically by successful authors or actors. One room even larger than the lecture room was always the vendor area. He said that was a tempting area to spend money as many rare items tended to be there, but I should avoid the temptation.
When we got there, I found the fee to get in a little painful, but it was not much compared to those who had to stay in the hotel. I was staying for free at Josh's house. Something that impressed me was displayed in the entrance hallway, although visible only after paying the fee. These were the actual oil paintings that had been reproduced onto the covers of paperback books. The paperback book was next to each painting for comparison. The images on the book were shrunk down to about a third of the actual size. Some of the paintings had prices on them, and I gulped when I looked how high.
Josh looked at the list of speakers, then said, "I've never heard of any of them this year. Nobody famous like they had last year."
I looked myself and admitted, "I don't recognize any of them either, but I stopped reading science fiction when I started at Cornfield University. I am years out of date."
Josh looked into a doorway and said, "The computer room is much bigger this year."
I followed him in. There were many microcomputers set up. Josh greeted some at computers as old friends. An Apple Macintosh 512K was on display. The number meant 512 kilobytes, whereas the Commodore 64 that Josh owned only had 64 kilobytes. The Mac screen was monochrome and small at nine inches diagonal, but many people gathered around it. This Mac was the first time I had seen a computer mouse used with a graphics user interface. Using icons and a mouse was exciting to see at this point in history so Josh and I were not the only people crowding around the Mac. There were some Apple IIe computers next to the Mac, but those were being ignored.
Across the room, somebody had an IBM AT with EGA graphics. Even in 1985, a budding rivalry existed between the Mac crowd and the IBM PC/XT/AT crowd.
Several of the microcomputers in the room had games going on them.
Josh mentioned to me, "To have a computer here requires paying a fee, similar to the fee for a vendor table in the other room. The fee is too steep for me, otherwise I might try to commercially sell some of my computer programs."
I saw that at some of the computers, stacks of videogames were for sale with the computer used to demonstrate them. Some games were slickly and professionally packaged in boxes with beautiful cover art, but other programs looked like a zip-lock bag with some photocopied instructions with a hand-labeled tape or disk.
I told Josh, "Some of that packaging looks amateurish."
Josh said, "The software itself might be better than the packaging. Maybe I should have paid the fee to get my computer and a table here, as my stuff is better than some of what I am seeing."
A couple years ago when Josh had talked of creating a software company that he had considered possibly naming Slan Shack Software, but his partners had apparently failed him, it had seemed to me an idle and overly ambitious dream of college sophomores. Now with over a dozen type-in magazine articles under his belt and both of us as Seniors in EE and based on what I was seeing here, the dream he once talked about seemed very possible after all. Nevertheless, my own opinion remained that for Josh to nail down the EE degree with Computer Engineering Minor was a more reliable career path.
By Sunday evening, I was back in my dorm room at Cornfield University having again gotten a ride back in the big Cadillac where I contributed gas money to the owner.
I told my roommate Albert Rose about how not only had I got into the EE program, but I was starting in June rather than August! That was only about a month away!
Albert stated, "You shouldn't go, Joel! Look at it mathematically. With your overall gpa, you could get D's in every course remaining, and still graduate in good standing! You only have two semesters left, and if you attend summer school to get two or three more classes out of the way, it will be two easy semesters! You've got it made, here! If you transfer, your overall gpa starts over! You could get D's, and be thrown out in just one semester! That's a big risk! Hiring in both EE and CS is so hot that you are practically guaranteed a good job at a good salary even if your EE degree is from here even though too new to be accredited yet."
I pointed out, "I cannot get a Computer Engineering Minor here, but I can there."
Albert argued, "It'll probably take you a full extra year if you go after that, rather than just one more semester. Stay here to get your bachelor's degree in May of next year, and you could be well along into a master's degree in that extra year! That's what I plan to do in Computer Science."
I thoughtfully replied, "That's the best argument I've heard for not transferring. Still, I'm going through with it. We'll see whose plan works out better."
As a side note with jumping far ahead, Albert put his own words into action and was several classes into his master's degree by the time I had my bachelor's degree, but I doubt I would have gotten such a great starting job without that minor in Computer Engineering. In the end, we both had good plans.
Back then, I told Albert, "I feel bad about having to let those in the frat house know I cannot stay there this summer."
Albert replied, "When you explain the situation, I doubt there will be an issue."
I said, "I already found a cheap place to sublet in Irate City. Something that will be hard is the place has no phone. It would not be worth the cost to get a phone connected for only ten weeks."
Albert remarked, "Unless it gets resolved, there may be similar trouble at the frat house. A member last semester ran up a couple hundred dollars of bills that he didn't pay. I heard he was phoning computer BBS's up in Minneapolis to download software. One of my fraternity brothers contacted his parents, so it might get paid, but it sounds like his parents are going to take it out of his hide."
During the summer, I found it interesting that Josh Cistern and another buddy of his named Waldo Venter had loads of work to do on Spice on a mainframe with a 24/7 terminal room at Bill-of-Rights University, but I only had a modest amount. The course Josh and Waldo were taking that summer had transferred in for me so I did not need it. In turn, I was taking a Nonlinear Circuits course that both of them had already taken, but the Spice load in my course was fairly light.
Josh and I did have another class together.
Josh commented, "It's so hard to reach you without a phone! I hadn't really thought before how important a phone is."
I replied, "I certainly cannot use a modem without a phone."
Josh said, "I phoned Albert at the frat house. He complained that he's the only one that does the dishes. He hid a bunch of the extra dishes in the basement to force the other frat brothers to do some dishes to simply have something to eat on."
I put in, "If you phoned him and reached him, the frat house's phone issue must have been settled."
Josh replied, "It was, but it took getting parents involved. The frat tries to avoid that, but sometimes there is no other way."
As for Waldo Venter, he was married, and his wife worked without getting the summer off. That's why he was around this summer to take college classes.
Josh and I told Waldo about the computers we saw at the science fiction convention.
Waldo stated, "I have an IBM XT clone with 640 kilobytes, but only CGA graphics. I'd love to have EGA graphics, but that will have to wait. With my computer with 640 kilobytes and that Mac 512K with 512 kilobytes, that makes the 64 kilobytes in your Commodore 64 seem puny, Josh. You went with the wrong kind of computer."
Rather than argue, Josh said, "I'd get a computer like yours or the Mac if I had the money, but that won't happen until after graduation. Something you two might not have thought about is most of the coin-op arcade games are also limited to directly addressing 64 kilobytes similar to my Commodore 64. The graphics might be better, but there is still that memory limit. In my opinion, most coin-op videogames aren't keeping up with the higher end microcomputers. The videogame arcade that I work at is hurting. In fact, I should get going to it right now. My shift starts in less than an hour."
Waldo said, "I've never been to your video arcade."
"I have, but some time ago" I said.
Josh said, "I'm walking, as it's about two miles away. Come along if you like."
When we got to the video arcade, I found it disappointing. When I had last been there, it had been crowded. There had been lines for popular games. Now there were no lines and most machines had nobody waiting. The d‚cor had been of a space station, always corny but amusing. For example, the ceiling and most walls had been painted flat black with decals or paintings of planets like Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter here and there. Twinkling lights were supposed to represent stars. Unlike the last time I had been here, the flat black paint seemed to show plenty of dirt and grime now. Decals were peeling, and several of the strings of lights that had previously twinkled were there, but unlit. A fake silver beam was painted across three of the large glass windows, but missing from the fourth. Josh explained there had been a fight, and the window had been cracked. When replaced, the fake silver beam was not added to it.
As for the videogames themselves, some games did not match labeling on the cabinet. A couple cabinets had out of order signs. Looking at the games, I would rather go play games on Josh's Commodore 64 or Waldo's IBM XT clone. Even my now-quite-obsolete and finally actually discontinued Commodore Vic-20 had games that I would rather play than these, and it would not cost me a quarter for each game.
Waldo did put in one quarter to play one of the newest games there, but in less than two minutes, the game was over. He pronounced it disappointing.
I don't think Waldo was any more surprised then I was when not too long afterward, Josh Cistern quit working at that video arcade.
Something I did fail at was finding affordable housing for the fall semester in Irate City. I tried many places, but the market was tight and expensive. I was told by Student Housing that I was too far down the waiting list to have any chance of getting in the dorms for the fall, but almost certainly could get into it for January since a good number of students regularly leave after the fall semester.
In class, Josh told me that my parents had phoned his house, and I was to find a pay phone immediately to call them. Well, Josh clarified, immediately once class was over, as it was not enough of an emergency to skip class. I thanked Josh for relaying the message.
After class, I found a pay phone. Dad told me a big company located near a Great Lake had phoned about interviewing me for a co-op.
I said, "I applied for a co-op there through Cornfield University, but not through Bill-of-Rights University."
Dad said, "I talked to the guy on the phone. The pay is three times minimum wage, forty hours a week. Co-op-ing there would fill one full semester. Being a co-op, the work experience will be in the field of electrical engineering. I like the idea of a semester of good pay and then you graduating with valid EE work experience."
I mentioned my problem with finding student housing for the fall, and told him how much the places that I had found would charge for rent. It was a lot more money than Dad wanted to pay, making him like the co-op idea even better.
Dad suggested, "Why don't you talk to this company? You'll find the vehicle situation different when you come home. My van went to the junkyard, as it was almost twenty-one years old. We have two brand new cars, a Ford Escort that I drive and a Chevy Celebrity wagon for your Mom. Tim and your sister take turns with the Chevy Suburban. The VW Dasher is broken. It overheats when driven even a short distance. I had the radiator replaced, and that didn't help. The water pump is good, so that's not the problem, and neither is the thermostat. Fix the Dasher, and you can use it for the semester. Return it when the semester is over in working condition, and then your brother and sister won't have to fight over who gets to use the Suburban."
I talked to the recruiter at the company, then to officials at Bill-of-Rights University. I found I could do the co-op administered through my new university just fine. I then went home on a weekend to look at the VW Dasher. I realized the electric fan attached to the radiator wasn't turning on.
Dad noted, "The fuse is good."
I was only home for the weekend, and had a good amount of homework to get done on the weekend to boot, so I didn't have time to mess around. I decided on a rude and crude approach. I went to the hardware store and bought some thick copper wire, an inline fuse socket, a fuse of the same size as what was in there. I also bought a heavy-duty switch that could take lots of amps. I ran wire from the hot lead of the battery, through the inline fuse, and to the electric fan motor. From the other side of the motor, I went to the temperature sensor at the bottom of the radiator. From the other end of the temperature sensor, I wired to the body ground. Just in case the temperature sensor was bad, in parallel to it, I wired the heavy-duty switch under the dashboard. If I flipped the switch under the dash, the fan turned on.
That cured the overheating problem. The emergency switch under the dash never had to be flipped. Dad was impressed.
I went back to college to finish off the semester. Until my co-op started, my brother and sister had a car each.
I think the Suburban went off with Tim to college in Minneapolis at the end of August. I took the VW Dasher off to my co-op that started about the same time. A retired couple that had become real estate agents had converted the second floor of their big, old farm house into a boarding house for people in transition between residents. The monthly rent rate was a pittance compared to anything in Irate City. It did have a communal kitchen and communal bathroom, but the low rent meant I would be saving most of my money.
The co-op went very well. I got to use some cutting-edge technology in computer aided design (CAD) and work with single-board-computers as controllers. At the end of the co-op, I had to write a formal report of what I did that summer. In my room in the boarding house over a weekend at the end of the summer, I typed up what I did that summer. I used my tried-and-true dot matrix to print it out.
On Monday, I handed the report to my supervisor.
He looked at it in horror!
I remarked, "I thought I carefully followed the instructions of what was required in the report."
He replied, "It's not you wrote, but that no engineer is allowed to type! Neither are any engineering co-op students! It's against the union rules! Violating that is a serious business!"
I suggested, "I only have a dot-matrix printer, so it doesn't look as good as when typed on an electric typewriter. Why not just give that to a secretary to type it over more neatly on an electric typewriter?"
He said, "No! You are not allowed to type! I have an idea. I'll look through what you've written. If it's fine, then just copy it by hand onto paper. Then, I'll give the handwritten copy to the secretary to type. Nobody but me has to see that you typed up the original, so nobody but me will know you violated the union rule!"
"All right," I said.
Later in the day, he handed me back my printout and said, "That's fine. In fact, it's very good. Just copy it over and give the handwritten copy to the secretary."
That's what I did, and everybody was happy. Since I was simply copying and not composing, it did not take too long. As I type this decades later, all engineers I know use computers to word process on almost a daily basis! The very idea of engineers being forbidden by union rules to type up a document seems from an impossibly distant era to me!
I was back at Irate City at the start of January with the co-op done in at the end of December, I found I had gotten through the waiting list so had a dorm room!
During the co-op, I had to use some of my earned money on an unplanned repair to replace the front Macpherson struts on the VW Dasher which was several hundred dollars, but after that, the car had worked fine. The car was back home where my sister was driving it. Dad seemed to worry I would be jealous that Tim and my sister had cars to drive, but I did not. I explained how a car at Bill-of-Rights University was more trouble than it was worth. For students living in the dorms, the student parking lot was so far out most students took a bus to get there! By the time one did that, one could take a city bus directly to a place in the city almost as easily. The university was surrounded on all sides by the city, so was land-locked. This made parking around campus at a premium, and expensive. That's why the undergrad student lot was located so far out!
Therefore, my sister got free use of the VW Dasher.
Back at Irate City, I decided to splurge on a Commodore 64 and disk drive. Josh and I went to a computer store in Westgate Mall. I looked at the system I was interested in. Essentially, a system like Josh had here and my former roommate Albert had at Cornfield University. I would keep using my old printer, at least for now. Thus, I needed three components: a Commodore 64, a disk drive, and a dedicated color monitor.
I saw something at the store that greatly intrigued me. It was a Commodore SX-64. It was a 100% compatible Commodore 64, a disk drive, and a five-inch diagonal CRT monitor all put into one box the size of a briefcase. This kind of computer was known as a luggable. The first two luggables in the market were the Osborne running CP/M and the Kaypro also running CP/M. Those had monochrome screens, and by 1985, CP/M had turned into a dud as an operating system as MS-DOS took over. The Commodore SX-64 was the very first color luggable offered in the commercial market. Getting a luggable that ran MS-DOS would have been preferable, and those did exist although not with a color display, but at about triple the price that I could afford!
The price of the three Commodore components bought separately was close to the price of the luggable Commodore SX-64. I made the plunge to get the SX-64, which was a predecessor to the laptops that came later. The SX-64 weigh a whopping 23 pounds, but I could and did carry it to the library and the electronics lab.
The keyboard would snap on the top, so it was like a briefcase looked at edge on when in use. The five-inch screen was small, but legible.
Years after I graduated, a power spike from a table saw killed the SX-64 by frying several chips. I now wish I had kept it and found replacement chips for the fried one, but I got rid of it. It was unusual enough to have been worth repaired, but I had not realized that at the time I got rid of it.
Since back in 1985 I already knew that the most used piece of software by far for me was a word processor, I spent another hundred and ten dollars on a word processor with spelling checker. The dictionary was on a separate disk. It took disk swapping to do spelling checking, but it worked. The company that made it, Batteries Included, desperately did not want it pirated, so there was a dongle that had to be put in the joystick port for it to work.
Because of trying out Waldo Venter's IBM XT clone, I knew I would rather have an MS-DOS machine and have it filled with a lot more RAM, but that was simply not possible from what I had earned at the co-op. This SX-64 was do-able, and it would let me word process resumes and cover letters with proper spell checking.
The deal was done, and I was soon in my dorm room typing away on a report. All seemed fine until I went to print it. It printed two-thirds of a page, then the printer froze.
I told Josh about it. It turned out there was a Commodore Users Group in Irate City that Josh hung out with. He investigated, then reported back.
Due to the Vic-20 having static RAM while the Commodore 64 used dynamic RAM, there was a slight timing difference as the dynamic RAM needed a periodic refresh. That slight slowdown for the refresh altered the timing out the serial port out to the printer.
However, and I am sorry I don't remember the name of Josh's friend in the Commodore User Group, had a bold suggestion. He had a new model of Commodore printer that worked with the Commodore 64 just fine. His idea was to replace the code in the EPROM on my printer with the new code. Josh and I had used EPROM's and EPROM burners before in a digital class. One had to stick it under a UV light overnight to erase it. Then, one put new code in. Josh's friend had his own EPROM burner that would do this. Scared that this might destroy my printer, I went ahead. We got it done.
My printer worked flawlessly with the new code! This was feeling like doing actual electrical engineering!
Around the time I got my printer working, Josh told me the video arcade he had formerly worked at had closed forever.
I made a joke, "It's all because you quit that it failed. They never should have let you go."
Giving a serious response to my joke, Josh said, "The entire videogame business is in bad shape. Atari may even go completely bankrupt. The magazines are calling this the Videogame Crash! Several makers of microcomputers are hurting as well. Texas Instruments entirely quit making their microcomputer last year. This may affect us getting jobs when we graduate if the market gets flooded with experienced ex-Atari and ex-TI electrical engineers and computer engineers!"
I thought the normally overly-optimistic-about-technology Josh had a strange flip in attitude as I did not think it could be that bad.
However, some days later, I bicycled out to the computer store in Westgate mall where I had bought my Commodore SX-64. I merely needed a new printer ribbon for my dot matrix printer.
The store still existed in the mall, but moved to a place much further back from the main entrance. The floor space about a third the size as the previous location. More remarkably, almost all the hardware was gone. The shelves had mainly software, and even in the much smaller space looked sparse. I talked to the owner. He did not have the printer ribbon I needed.
I asked, "What's going on with your store? Where are the computers and other hardware?"
He explained, "I sold two types of computers: the TI 99/4A and the Commodore 64."
I said, "The TI 99/4A was discontinued last year."
He elaborated, "I certainly know that! When it was discontinued, nearly everybody selling it got rid of their stock immediately. Yet, a good number of people had bought these computers. They still wanted memory expansions, disk drives, game controllers, and so on. I was the only one in Irate City selling the TI stuff once the computer was discontinued. It was a surprisingly good business with those TI 99/4A customers for about nine months, but I knew it was doomed in the long run. That doom is now here, as I cannot replace what TI 99/4A hardware I sell anymore because nobody is making it anymore. When I first became a distributor for TI, they were such a big company that I thought they were going to be making microcomputers for many years to come. I was wrong."
I replied, "You also sold Commodore 64's. I've been quite happy with my Commodore SX-64. I get a lot of praise from other students when I carry it into the lab room. Having a portable computer gets me noticed, even if it is too heavy to carry much further than from my dorm to the lab."
He sighed heavily and said, "I'm glad you like your computer. I got my Commodore 64's through a wholesaler. I only made about ten dollars on each one. Commodore International made a deal with K-Mart and Sears to sell the Commodore 64 through the toy department. I can go to K-Mart right now and buy a Commodore 64 for about ten dollars less than my wholesaler charges as a wholesale price! I talked to other Commodore independent dealers, and they've screwed us all over this way! People like me built up their business, and then the company just cast us aside!"
Looking around the shelves, I said, "It looks like you are almost only selling software now."
He replied, "I'm trying. It's not going well. Take this jet flight simulator for the Commodore 64. It came out a week ago. I sold just two copies. Your buddy Josh Cistern hangs out with the Commodore Users Group. Josh came by to tell me that this same jet flight simulator has had its copy protection cracked. As a result, there are dozens of pirated copies all over Irate City, and I only sold two copies!"
Sadly, it was not too much after this that this computer store was closed forever.
One day, Josh Cistern, Waldo Venter, and I were studying in the big lounge area in the engineering building.
From his backpack, Waldo pulled out a magazine devoted to MS-DOS computers and software and said, "Here's some big news. Josh, remember how hard we had to kill ourselves doing Spice on the mainframe last summer."
Josh replied, "How could I ever forget?"
I put in, "Using Spice was worse at Cornfield University."
Waldo said, "I don't believe you, Joel. It was horrible, so had to be worse here!"
I thought of telling the story of how Spice almost forced me out of EE and got me branded a snitch, but said instead, "Let's just say there is a huge amount of Spice work at both universities. What's the news?"
Waldo showed us the article and explained, "This is a review of a version of Spice called pSpice put out by a company called MicroSim. It takes a high-end MS-DOS machine to run it that has to have a hard disk as the program is too large to realistically run by swapping floppy disks around, but pSpice gets a glowing review!"
I took the article and read it. I recalled a year or so ago at Cornfield University that the Computer Science student Darnell Priest had predicted this. He had been completely correct.
I wondered what meaning there had been that relatively short time ago with the huge and ugly battle of which of the three mainframes to get when this article proved that a modified version of Spice really could run on a personal computer. True, it would never work on a Commodore 64 like Josh or I had, but toss a big enough hard disk in Waldo's machine, and it should work!
With this news and the video game crash going on in full force at the same time a well-equipped MS-DOS machine could now run what used to take a mainframe, I was feeling insecure about the computer knowledge that I was working so hard to obtain at Bill-of-Rights University.
However, then I remembered what I and others had been doing with single-board-computers used as microcontrollers during my co-op. Classes I was taking to get my Computer Engineering Minor were teaching me more about just that tope. The future still did look bright.
Waldo had good news about the future in another direction, "I have an opportunity to make some good money doing some work on my MS-DOS computer. I'll let you know more if it works out. I might make enough to buy a hard disk."
Days later, my own immediate future in a way a strange way.
The Bill-of-Rights University professor Dr. Azimuth asked to see me. I had had him last summer for Nonlinear Circuits, but not this semester.
Dr. Azimuth got right to the point, "I heard from Josh Cistern that you used to be a math tutor."
I replied, "Sure, at the Math-Science Learning Center at Cornfield University. I did that for two years, about six hours a week."
He asked, "Could I contact your supervisor there?"
I replied, "Certainly. I worked for Dr. Richards."
He said, "You did an excellent job in Nonlinear Circuits. I want somebody to grade homework and offer tutoring to students. You'd also help me proctor tests. It's minimum wage, about four-to-six hours a week. Are you interested?"
I replied, "I certainly am, but isn't that normally for a grad student doing a teaching assistantship?"
He said, "An undergrad close to graduating is allowed do it. That brings up the topic of graduate school. Have you considered staying on for a master's degree?"
Dr. Asimuth made a good pitch for graduate school. If my finances had been a little stronger, I might have gone for it. However, I was on borrowed time with Dad already in allowing me to get my Computer Engineering Minor.
Furthermore, I knew a T.A. fairly well. He told me how the pay worked as a T.A. He said the pay is livable, but the hard part is the cost of textbooks at the start of the semester. Almost all the courses in EE at that time had brand new textbooks required, with used books not being allowed! In the EE field, this was not just a money-grabbing technique from greedy textbook manufacturers because digital technology truly was changing that rapidly. His advice was that if one had a thousand dollars or more as a bank balance to get over the start of each semester with the huge expense of buying textbooks that was too high for what one got paid initially to cover it, then all was fine. Over the course of the semester, the big sum paid for the textbooks would all be gradually replaced if one lived frugally. However, if one's bank balance was only in the hundreds of dollars, he suggested taking the bachelor's degree and immediately getting a full-time job with it.
I told Dr. Asimuth that I would seriously consider what he suggested.
However, looking at how traumatically the EE and computer market had changed lately and how both the video arcade Josh had worked at was dead as well as the computer store that I bought my SX-64 and that my bank balance was only about five hundred dollars, I decided to get my bachelor's degree and a job! I would only re-consider grad school when I had a larger sum of money in the bank! For one thing, I wanted a more powerful microcomputer than just a Commodore SX-64! It was cute and was just enough to limp me across the finish line for the bachelor's degree, but it was obsolete for real computer work even before I bought it...and I knew it. It was just no other option was affordable, and I had stretched to my limit just for the SX-64.
My decision was made, but it was a blast working with Dr. Asimuth! I learned so much about electronics working for him that it was amazing!
THE END OF CHAPTER SIXTEEN
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