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On the Commodore 64

How could you possibly put so many memories into just 64 KB of RAM? The Commodore 64 launched many a computer science career--including mine. Too bad our children won't know the joys of REAL computing...

ZDNet article about a resurrected Commodore 64-capable computer: a likely-out-of-date-link is here...
http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/zdnn_lggraph_display/0,3442,2128102,00.html

(And if you want a good starting point for C64 lore and ware, try http://www.c64.org.)

My comments, which I posted to the forum on zdnet in 2002:

The main thing that the Commodore 64 provided for me as a neophyte 12-year-old hacker-in-the-true-sense-wannabe was an understanding of what a computer was and how it did what it did. I learned basic principles for all other computer education I've received. It was a self-contained degree in all aspects of computer engineering, but small enough to wrap your mind around.

The memories are flooding back... grief, and I'm only 32.

With the Programmer's Reference Manual as your guide (the Commodore Bible--containing details on every register, address, feature, and pinout of the entire machine), you learned essentials that still apply today:

  • RAM: 64K of it, if you used the "shadow RAM" under the OS ROMs
  • ROM: entire OS in 20KB? Can't get a mouse driver in that now.
  • registers: 3 of 'em, X, Y, and the accumulator
  • video modes and resolution
  • audio: synth-style, and digital voice sampling was still possible with some black magic
  • software interrupts: ever code your own split-screen?
  • hardware interrupts: ever build your own reset button on pins 1 and 3 on the cartridge port?
  • programmable devices -- like the 1541 diskette drive (KwikLoad? Fast Hack'Em? Epyx Vorpal Utilities? RapidLok?)
  • 6502 assembler code vs. interpreted BASIC: remember keying in your own copy of Compute's SpeedScript via MLX off a multi-page hex listing? or the first time you typed in a completely assembler-based game. Remember the speed of raw assembler?
  • basic electronic components: lousy voltage regulators in the power supplies that would die in a few years if you didn't have perfect 120V at the wall.
  • telecommunications: BBS-ing at 300baud?

Ah, the good old days! I even remember some things I said back then that I thought I'd never see in my lifetime:

  • About Activision's game, "Hacker":
    Then: "Live video feeds over a modem dialup connection? Come on! That'll NEVER happen! The phone lines would melt!"
    Now: RealPlayer 5.0 on a 28.8 or better.
  • About SubLogic Flight Simulator:
    Then: "I wonder how this would look if the frame rate was outrageously high, like 4 frames a second?"
    Now: MS Flight Simulator 98 on a Direct3D card.
  • About Castle Wolfenstein:
    Then: "I bet this would be great if you were actually _inside_ the castle."
    Now: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, UnReal... E-Nuf already!
  • About loading 64K in 12 seconds off the floppy drive:
    Then: "Wow, this fast-load cartridge is so much better!"
    Now: v.90 dialups.
  • About GEOS:
    Then: "Neat, a GUI OS in only 64K RAM, just like a Mac!"
    Now: "Installing Win 98? Better go with the 64MB RAM to allow for future expansion... of the OS."
  • About SpeedScript:
    Then: "I can't believe I typed in this whole word processor out of a magazine!"
    Now: "I can't believe how much hard drive space Word takes..."

*sigh*

It's 1998. In the guest room is a brand-new Pentium II system with scads of hard drive space and RAM. In the closet--unused, but by no means forgotten--rests a Commodore 128 and a 1541 diskette drive. With the help of some schematics from the 'net, I'll soon be connecting the 1541 to the LPT port on new Pentium. I'll run a Commodore emulator, and copy all 124 170Kb floppies onto a single IOMega Zip disk--with lots of room to spare. To run an emulator feels wrong somehow, but I admit that it might be the only way to preserve the future.

The SpeedScript word processor will fire up for one last day as my college papers and letters are loaded and re-saved in "true" ASCII format for archiving.

I'll surf around with my v.90 modem and download unprotected copies of various games I own--I actually bought Commodore software as recently as 1990 (Sega Turbo OutRun)--since my copy-protection cracking abilities have faded with disuse. Each diskette image will download in less time than the 1541 could ever possibly load them.

These will go onto the Zip disk, too. With room to spare.

After ensuring that all the software runs on the emulator, and that the Commodore and its drive are still functional, I'll pack the Commodore and its oh-so-fragile diskette drive carefully into a box... and then what? Pitch it onto the trash bin as so much landfill fodder? Donate it to a school or church--as if they'd not laugh at me!

No, I'll have to keep it. My wife would really like the closet space, but to store this vintage piece of memorabilia in an uncontrolled climate like the garage or shed is unthinkable. It would never survive.

I want my children to learn about the Commodore. I want them to have a small, self-contained world of the technological essentials to play in, without the dangers that have created the V-Chip, ESRB, and RSAC. I want them to learn about the computing basics first, sans glitz and gore, before they venture out to www.thebigworld.com.

I'd like for my children to touch the piece of history that is the Commodore. So it will stay in the house, protected from the cruel elements.

To get a smidge of closet space back, I will very grudgingly part with any of the 5 1/4" diskettes that showed evidence of bit-rot: possibly over half of them. I'll keep the commercially-labeled ones, useable or not.

I'll dupe the Zip disk, just in case.

On our next trip to the bank, my wife will understand, I hope, as I hold the half-empty--no, half-full--backup Zip disk in my hand for a few moments and place it carefully in the safety-deposit box, wondering if IOMega will still be around... no, don't think of that now!

What's on the disk, she'll ask.

Memories, I'll say.

The Commodore holds a lot of memories in only 64K.