Finally Got My STacy

I remember knowing about the Atari STacy when it was released in 1989. I had owned a 520ST since I had gotten out on my own and could afford it in the fall of 1987, and was still running my original Atari 800 from 1980 right beside it, at the time. Although I always kinda wanted one of the Atari portables, the ST’s MIDI performance made it popular with musicians, and the built-in hard drive and monitor of the STacy models even more so… even during the time I was amassing the bulk of my Atari collection, no one was parting with a STacy at what I thought was a reasonable price.

As has been documented elsewhere, I’ve been going through my old machines to see what’s working and what isn’t. A parallel interest of mine  is retrogaming and emulation, and while I’ve been peeking through old hardware, I’ve been poking around new software and emulating some of the things I’ve been doing on the real things.

As far as STs go, I’ve been working with Hatari for emulation. It comes with EmuTOS, a reverse engineered publicly distributable version of Atari’s TOS operating system for the STs, TTs, and Falcons, and the ability to emulate different configurations of hardware. So the fun for me has been recreating some of my actual hardware setups in Hatari. I got it displaying the way I wanted, then starting playing with the hardware emulation configuration to recreate my original 520ST as I actually used it, upgraded to 2.5 megs of memory. I found images of the actual Atari TOS ROMs, and starting running TOS 1.04 rather than EmuTOS. As of today, I got one type of hard drive emulation running, and Hatari is reading a folder of my Mac SSD as its C-drive. As I was wandering around the house with the computer, I realized that in some ways, I finally had my STacy.

NeoDesk 4 on Hatari full screen on Mac OS X
NeoDesk 4 on Hatari full screen on Mac OS X

jjATR HC The Atari 1040STe

Spelunking

I am refining my process.

As I rediscovered my Ataris, I first went through the ST/TT/Falcon series, plugging things in and seeing what worked, getting what data about them that I knew was interesting and that I knew how to get easily. As I went through the 8-bits, I went a little deeper on each machine as I had it out, and figured out more things that were important and more ways to find out things. I’ve got jjATR HC summaries posted for the VCS and the XL series, and  summary for the XE series is in process. The 800 summary will be last for various reasons.

Now I’m going to make a second pass through the ST/TT/Falcons, and I’m trying to get ahead of the game by planning my summaries and scouting for what information I may want and how to get it.

The 8-bits dropped themselves into categories fairly easily along VCS/800/XL/XE lines. By that token, ST/TT/Falcon seems like the logical summaries, but there’s the complication of the Megas and the ST varietals, in particular the STe. I haven’t decided yet whether to group based on on the physical architecture (ST/Mega/TT/Falcon) or hardware capabilities (ST/STe/TT/Falcon). I do think I want to avoid the ST/Mega/STe/Mega STe/TT/Falcon over-encumbered solution. And if it’s physical architecture, then the STf, STm, and STfm models would rate their own summaries. I think I’ve just convinced myself.

I also looked ahead at the web to see what kind of info I might like to gather, and I’m glad I did because it turns out, for instance, that on the Falcon series, the serial number possibly never matches from the case to the motherboard. And because these machines tend to have lived with so many techie tinkerers over the years, there’s no guarantee that the case serial has even a passing resemblance to the “real” serial number on the running motherboard. So I’m going to be opening all of them along the way.

I already have my original 520STfm, stuffed with 2.5 megs by my own hands, running in the bedroom office, and the TT030 running in the music workstation. The first machine I’m looking at in depth is a 1040STe with 4 megs on board.

jjATR 1040STe serial number label
jjATR 1040STe serial number label

I mentioned that fact that this machine had 4 megs on board, and my time with the XLs has me attuned to quirks in these labels… the first thing that jumps out at me is the 4160STE in the FCC ID… perhaps this ST came with 4 megs installed from the factory? Quick Googling doesn’t immediately confirm this suspicion, but does tend to lend it some authenticity.

jjATR HC 1040STe SysInfo screen
jjATR HC 1040STe SysInfo screen

I picked this machine to be up next for a couple of reasons… first, as a 4meg STe in the old school form factor, it’s a prime choice to be my workhorse ST system. Second, although it currently has TOS 1.06, I do have a set of 1.62 ROMs I wanted to put in. Finally, I wanted to see what was up inside, because after booting several times to get info and test screen resolutions, it started three-bombing on me just as I was getting ready to pack it up. That indicates a bus error, so I was thinking I knocked something loose on the floppy drive. Now, though, it’s coming right up, again. Mojo electronics.

Related models

Mega STe – My poor Mega STe, the STe with the heart of a Mega and the body of a TT, has a missing F10 key on the keyboard.

jjATR HC MegaSTe
jjATR HC MegaSTe

Here’s a readable version of that SysInfo screen.

jjATR HC MegaSTe SysInfo screen
jjATR HC MegaSTe SysInfo screen

jjATR HC The Atari 800XL

Spelunking

20190627: This is a very pretty looking and mechanically sound feeling Atari XL. Runs, boots from floppy. Has Expansion Port Cover. Small hole drilled in the back panel of the case. I vaguely remember this coming from an active hardware hacker who removed an upgrade switch to reuse in another machine… maybe a socket for something already installed in here? Keyboard feels amazing… maybe an upgrade there?

jjATR 800XL, 1050, Commodore 1702
jjATR-HC 800XL, 1050, Commodore 1702

Wow, let’s get a better look at that power supply.

jjATR-HC Atari XL Power Supply
jjATR-HC Atari XL Power Supply

I’ve always thought these were great power supplies. I need to go back and see if I can find a page I used to know that compared the different types of Atari power supplies… apparently, some of them are easy to open up and work on, but some of them are epoxy globs on the inside. This is one of two like this I’ve ever come across.

So back to the main event…

jjATR-HC Atari 800XL-a Serial Number Label
jjATR-HC Atari 800XL-a Serial Number Label

The 83A indicates location of manufacture as the Atari-Wong plant in Hong Kong; HA is the code for NTSC 800XL machines. The three digit stamped code is a date code, here indicating week nineteen of 1984 as the manufacture date.

It turns out that the nice keyboard wasn’t an upgrade, just a solid piece of kit from the get-go. Further spelunking into keyboard variations reveals this keyboard to be the Alps switch-based model, generally liked for both its feel and its repairability.

jjATR 800XL Alps keyboard C024583-001 CAV. A REV. 2
jjATR 800XL Alps keyboard C024583-001 CAV. A REV. 2

This upper case is marked C024583-001 CAV. A REV. 2

jjATR 800XL bottom case C024584-001 CAV. A REV. 1
jjATR 800XL bottom case C024584-001 CAV. A REV. 1

Lower case stamped C024584-001 CAV. A REV. 1.

jjATR 800XL motherboard
jjATR 800XL motherboard

What we can see before removing the shielding. The little bit of information in the top right only appears in the XL motherboard list twice, either it’s Rev C APC Hong Kong or Rev D OPC.

jjATR 800XL motherboard
jjATR 800XL motherboard

This 800XL is in amazing shape, he mentions as he realizes how clearly you can see him taking that photo in the reflection off the shielding. There’s also a visible number stamped on there, C 024652-001R C. Google shrugs its shoulders at that particular reference.

Related models

The Atari 600XL is the little brother to the 800XL, literally.

jjATR-HC 600XL
jjATR-HC 600XL

That is actually a second of the cool looking power supplies, they both work!

jjATR-HC 600XL serial number label
jjATR-HC 600XL serial number label

Here again we see the 83A prefix for the Atari-Wong manufacturing plant, and the code for the NTSC 600XLs was EA. Fifteenth week of 1984. This machine apparently went out of the same plant about a month before the reference 800XL above. The keyboard externally appears to be a Stackpole bubble type.

Additional machines

jjATR 256XL, runs. Mojo switch on back panel.

jjATR 256XL
jjATR 256XL

Made in Taiwan, 72R prefix, HA for NTSC 800XL, 52nd week of 1984. Appears to have Stackpole keyboard.

jjATR 800XL-b, runs, no response from SIO.

jjATR 800XL-b Serial Number Label
jjATR 800XL-b Serial Number Label

Made in Taiwan, 72R prefix. Expected HA, 39th week of 1984.

20190705 – Opened this machine up. Learned a little something about keyboards.

jjATR 800XL-B Alps keyboard
jjATR 800XL-b Alps keyboard

This unit has the same keyboard as the reference 800XL above, the Alps socketed switch model. There is at least one switch version from AWC, then two Stackpole keyboards and one from Mitsumi.

jjATR 800XL-b internals keyboard
jjATR 800XL-b internals keyboard

Here you can see the Alps logo and various part numberings on the keyboard.

Turns out there was also a motherboard in there to learn about.

jjATR 800XL-b motherboard
jjATR 800XL-b motherboard

A post on the AtariAge forums has a list of the known motherboard types, which I’ve reproduced here.

Board Name Fits PN Revision Date Component Side Solder Side Manufacturer

800XL 800XL CO61851 A1 Chelco 1983 P/N: 150800011 REV A1 800XL 800XL/CO61851 A1 CHELCO

800XL 800XL CO61851 A2 Chelco 1983 P/N: 150800011 REV A2 800XL 800XL/CO61851 A2 CHELCO

800XL 800XL CO61851 C CAO24808-001 REVA CA061854 800XL/CO61851 REV C/MADE IN HONGKONG APC

800XL 800XL CO61851 D 3284 CA06220-REV? PBT 374 800XL/CO61851 REV D/OPC/1298A/32-84 OPC

800XL 800XL CO61851 D 3384 CA061854 REV.D PBT 414 800XL/CO61851 REV D/OPC/1298A/33-84 OPC

800XL 800XL CO61851 D CAO24808 REV D PBT 504

800XL-SECAM 800XL CO24968-001 X1A 4-84 CA025926-001 REV- GCI-A 18-84 CO24968-001 REV-X1A 800XL-SECAM

800XL-SECAM 800XL C024968-001 R3 884 800XL-SECAM ROSE CAO24969-001 REV- 8-84 GX-211 VO C024968-001 REV R3 800XL-SECAM

800XLF 800XL CO25925-001 R1 © 4-84 CA025926-001 REV- CO25925-001 REV-R1 800XLF KT201 8502

800XLF 800XL CO25925-001 R3 285 © 9-84 CA025926-001 REV- CO25925-001 REV-R3 800XLF KT201 8502

130XE 800XL 5084 © 11-84 CAOXXXXX-XXX REV- 50-84/COXXXXX-XXX REV-R1 130XE

There are two stickers on this motherboard, a green circular one that possibly says ICT Passed, and an orange one that definitely says Burn-In Passed. I’m beginning to think these stickers might be obscuring the main identification I’m supposed to be seeing on this side of the board. But it is clear that the board is fully socketed, which is nice.

jjATR 800XL-b motherboard
jjATR 800XL-b motherboard

The back of the board clearly marks it as a REV A2. But there’s some parts of identification that still aren’t clear to me. Upon further spelunking, I am confident in calling this a Chelco Rev A2 board.

Here’s a look up under the shielding…

jjATR 800XL-b sheilding C024651 REV. B
jjATR 800XL-b sheilding C024651 REV. B

Part number C024651 REV. B. Contrast with reference jjATR 800XL info above.

Here are the parts of the case dismantled for cleaning.

jjATR 800XL-b upper case C024583-001 CAV. B REV. 2 lower case C024584-001 CAV. B REV. 1
jjATR 800XL-b upper case C024583-001 CAV. B REV. 2 lower case C024584-001 CAV. B REV. 1

The upper case is stamped C024583-001 CAV. B REV. 2, and the lower case is stamped C024584-001 CAV. B REV. 1.

jjATR 600XL-b, runs.

jjATR 600XL-b
jjATR 600XL-b

So… made in Hong Kong, but with a 7YJ code, so, a different manufacturing facility? EA for NTSC 600XL, 49th week of 1983. Would appear to be the oldest 600XL/800XL series machine I own, also the only black serial number label model.

The 7YJ prefix seems to appear in the FCC IDs for some 410s, 1010s, 600XLs and 800XLs. Atari worked with Chelco for boards, and Chelco manufactured tape drives… we also have seen a few Chelco 600XLs and 800XLs, machines that have Chelco stamped on the motherboards rather than Atari. I wasn’t going to start opening up machines for awhile, yet, but now I’m all intrigued…

Judging from the keycaps, this unit had a Stackpole keyboard.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forums

jjATR HC The Atari VCS (1977)

Spelunking

20190626: So, for the 42nd year in a row, my original Atari VCS can officially be classified as “runs.”

jjATR-HC Atari 2600 running Star Wars: The Arcade Game
jjATR-HC Atari VCS CX2600 running Star Wars: The Arcade Game

I feel really lucky to have been in on this from the beginning… and to have it last so long and still work so well. This is a “Sunnyvale” VCS, or a “heavy sixer,” if you prefer: one of the first batch of Ataris that were manufactured in the Sunnyvale, California facility, had six switches across the upper front panel, and had a thick, heavy plastic shielded case. When manufacturing moved to Hong Kong in 1979, the body had a much lighter plastic case and shield with the six switches, hence, “light sixer.”

jjATR-HC Atari VCS CX2600 serial number label
jjATR-HC Atari VCS CX2600 serial number label

As best as I can ascertain, the Atari serial number system is pretty straightforward: run off a hundred thousand units, increment the letter, start over. One trick seems to be that Atari apparently started the VCS numbering somewhere in the E run, which coincides with the last production units of the Atari Pong game at the same facility. This speculation is supported by the fact that we haven’t yet found any VCS units with a serial number ending in A-D. The earliest serial number we know for sure exists on a VCS is #56910E, according to the most current list at AtariAge.

If we assume numbering started at ~#50000 E, my serial number would be about the 500,000th unit produced. Most estimates I see have Atari selling less than 500,000 units in 1977, allowing for some play in serial number existence and distribution, I think we’re in the right ballpark.

Even though the machine is now ubiquitously known as the 2600, it was referred to the Video Computer System, or VCS, at the beginning.

jjATR-HC Atari VCS CX2600
jjATR-HC Atari VCS CX2600

Sure, some of us geeks knew the actual Atari part number was CX-2600, as seen on the serial number label, but up until the 1982 introduction of the 5200 Super System, the on-product labelling was Video Computer System. The all-black, four-switch “Darth Vader” model introduced to accompany the 5200 was the first model to highlight 2600.

Discussion thread for this post on the jjewell forums

Pinnacle of Robotron:2084 Emulation

Here’s something fun.

Robotron 2084 Welcome Screen

My second favorite arcade game ever is Robotron:2084. This was a frenetically paced game, with dozens of onscreen targets and enemies converging on you first inevitably, then instantly. You got two joysticks for this, one controlling move, one controlling fire… so you can fire backwards at things chasing behind you. As is common in the genre, you are saving the last human family while taking out as many of the evil machines as possible. Here you see mommy in her pink dress and daddy in his blue business suit… and where you should see little mikey in his red t-shirt and shorts you will instead see a skull and cross-bones indicating a tank already ran the poor lil guy over.

Robotron:2084 Save the human family

Harder waves send more and different enemies at you… and apparently this family was a particularly fecund bunch, so they had that going for them, anyway.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave

What did it take to get that screenshot? Everything, as they say… here’s the screenshot timestamped one one-hundredth of a second later.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave Death

I also caught the brain’s “breathing” in that one. But, still dead. So many women left un-picked-up.

As you can see, I can play a pixel-perfect representation of the original arcade machine on my current main computer, a MacBook Pro, using OpenEmu software. This is an amazing (to me, anyway) jump in technology during my lifetime, even considering how popular Robotron was in its day and how often (and how well) it was reproduced. I own copies of Robotron:2084 for the Atari 8-bits, for the Atari 5200, Atari 7800, and the Atari ST… and along the way, I’ve played the versions for DOS, Apple ][, and Commodore 64. They all do a pretty good job… I mean considering the various hardware limitations in each case, the game always seemed to look good enough and play fast enough compared to other games available for that system. Yes, I like my statements well qualified.

But there has always been something missing. For the vast majority of those playing a Robotron port, they were playing with one joystick to move… and a button that shot in the direction you were running.

Completely unplayable.

Okay, that’s a bit far, but it was really hard to do well on the ports. And even with the few ports that allowed you to connect two joysticks to use as God and Williams intended… have you ever tried to control two separate lightweight joysticks, one in each hand? Think about those 2600 joysticks slamming over when you move in any direction… think about those 7800 controllers just sliding everywhere. I have two Wico sticks that it took me years to scrape off the duck tape residue where I taped them to a plank to make a Robotron setup. And that has been about the height of my Robotron play for years.

New day, new tech, new take on retrogaming, and I’m back at Robotron:2084. OpenEmu is showing me the most precise image from the original that we are going to get. And OpenEmu allows us to personalize the controller setup. I invested in a couple Logitech F310s, Sony-style controllers with dual thumbsticks.

Logitech F310

Once the joystick is connected, OpenEmu identifies it and allows you to determine how OpenEmu will use the different buttons, sticks, and pads in the game. The thing that’s a little quirky about setting up Robotron’s controls is that there is no obvious “map to second joystick” function. This is because “second joystick” just isn’t something that gets used much, so it’s not present in the standard format for the programs emulating the systems. OpenEmu happens to use MAME as the engine for arcade emulation, in particular MAME 0.149. MAME knows about the four-directional firing, but, there being no “second joystick” to map to in the format, those functions get mapped to buttons.

It only took a couple games of trial and error (with a couple face palming backslides along the way) before I found the secret of mapping Robotron’s fire controls the the Logitech F310.

OpenEmu Robotron 2084 right joystick configuration

With that set up, my scores jumped significantly.

Robotron_highscore

I happen to know my high score on the arcade original is over 1,000,000. Know this because I’ve been cleaning out the garage, and I found my Bronze and Silver Joystick Awards issued from The Endless Challenge arcade sometime in the eighties. So I know I still have a ways to go. But this is the best version of Robotron:2084 that I’ve been able to play without a quarter or a token handy.

There are actually two more options to possibly take this further. Already on my list of Things To Buy Next is a pair of 2600-dapters, little hardware interfaces that allow you to plug in old-school 9-pin joysticks to USB ports to use with emulators. The issue here will be the same as it was with the 7800, though… Wicos and duck tape as the best alternative.

And finally, I could build or buy a custom heavy duty controller. X-Arcade has a model with 2 joysticks and a trackball, which would cover almost all my retrogaming needs.

Almost all. Yes, Robotron:2084 is my second favorite game, despite the odd controls that make decently emulating it’s gameplay such a difficult task.

My favorite game is Tempest.

Discussion thread for this post on the jjewell forums

Boundaries and Expectations

I admit it: I have an addictive personality. When I find something cool, I want to find out all I can about it and how it got that way… and I want to see and understand the variations. Although I feel this has ultimately served me well in my life, there are times when it can become a stumbling block. The best idea is to approach these things with some idea of your limits in mind… not to mention an idea of what you actually want to get out of the interaction.

It’s like I keep trying to tell my kids, “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.” As I’m rebuilding my website to better reflect and serve my life, I’ve realized that some boundaries and expectations are in order.

The Roles of jjewell.com

In my personal life, I have tried to use some of Stephen Covey’s methods to be and do more. One of the main ideas I pull from Covey is that of Roles: we each play a certain number of roles in our life, and there must be a balance among and between them when it comes to our attention and effort. In that same way, I am expecting jjewell.com to serve several roles for me.

Information Repository – I want to be able to easily store and access all types of information and data that is important to me.

Connection Interface – I want to be able to easily share and enable collaboration on all types of creative projects that are important to me.

Neocapitalism – I want to be able to easily buy, sell, and trade my own goods and services in ways that avoid pitfalls associated with modern capitalism.

Information Repository

At one point, jjewell.com featured a MediaWiki installation focused on my life. I started making entries about certain events or topics of interest, with the intention that slowly but surely, everything I ever knew and loved would be connected and accessible through my website.

The wiki is not an aspect of jjewell.com that has been revived, at least as of yet. With that wide open a mission, there were just way too many rabbit holes to start down. These are the rabbit holes that I need to block off before we spelunk that cave, again.

I do have some idea of things I definitely want to have curated here. Most importantly, I want to create a repository for personal media: the photos, recordings, videos, documents, and other digital bric-a-brac I want to hold onto for personal reasons. I want to be able to add to and access the data wherever I am at the moment, and I want the access and backup options to be under my control.

I also want a repository for a more public type of media… things I want to curate for use beyond my own brain. In my case, this kind of media includes songs to practice and perform; recording tools and data; emulation tools and data; and comic books, art, and animation. These are things that I want to have access to for myself, but that would also be useful and of interest to others. Again, I want to be able to get to the files from anywhere and control access and backup.

Connection Interface

A sometimes overlooked aspect of our technological present is our ability to communicate, work, and play with people separated by distance. I am a musician, a writer, a collector, and a cook, among other roles, and all of those roles benefit from collaboration with others. I want my website to to an enabler of this collaboration.

Neocapitalism

Some history: I came of age during the 1980’s in America, a time when making money seemed easy, desirable, and honorable in and of its own right. Even at that stage, it seemed to me that “business” was being used as code for, and rationalization of, selfish greed and a lack of human morals and empathy. I equated the words “sales” and “marketing” with “lying long enough for the check to clear.” My work history is filled with 1 to 5 year stints where I systematically lost faith in the good intentions and nature of every employer I ever had. Early versions of jjewell.com featured a Capitalism Capitulation page… where I acknowledged the need to involve yourself in capitalism to some extent in order to simply survive.

I’ve decided that almost all of that is the wrong attitude. Despite the glaringly audacious greed of the owning class and the systematic destruction of the working class as featured in Modern American Capitalism, the concepts of using capitalism as a basis for trade in organized societies are sound.

We aren’t going to replace capitalism. But we do have to fix what is broken about it.

And that’s what I mean by neocapitalism: doing business the most “fixed” way possible can in what is undoubtedly a broken system.

Moving Forward

I will be building the website with those basic expectations in place. I know that a personal photo library with automated backups will be a part of the plan. The restructuring I’m doing of my physical environment has meant that my vintage hardware, particularly Atari computers and games, has taken a primary spot in my focus.

Perhaps most importantly, as I uncover artifacts in my garage and life, I’m going to create a model of both the boundaries and the expectations of jjewell.com in the structure of the website itself.

Discussion thread for this post on the jjewell forums

Technological Amnesia

A first step in changing my life is changing my surroundings, organizing my belongings, environment, and habits to make the most of what I have and expand upon that foundation. All that makes “dig through a bunch of old boxes” sound almost noble. Excavating my own history has gone, in one way, much as anyone would expect: old comics, toys, and games; old musical instruments and recordings; old technology of all varieties. What I didn’t expect was a different way of looking at these artifacts and forebears, and an examination of why they are actually important to me.

I started feeling the discomfort with comics… and it actually happened years ago. Collecting comics had been the great passion in my life for decades, but a change in my financial situation first left no budget to collect, and eventually led to a massive liquidation of the heart of my collection. Complete runs of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-man, The Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, basically every Marvel Silver Age first appearance and key issue… it was necessary at the time, but the experience took a toll on my love of collecting comics. Although I hear the call of old comics, the thought of starting over on a collection just isn’t appealing. I did miss a lot of the stories and characters, though.

A few years ago, I discovered a thing called Marvel Unlimited. Long story short, for a pretty reasonable yearly subscription, I get access to thousands of issues of Marvel history… even through my iPhone, wherever I am. I like this service. I get to re-read all my favorite stories whenever I want, and even try a lot of new-to-me comics that I wouldn’t have gotten interested in, back when reading the story meant tracking down back issues in comic stores and conventions scattered across this great land of ours. In many ways, technology has left the physical comic book behind; paper comics aren’t well-suited to modern methods of distribution and consumption. Comic books are still what they always were, but the essence of the stories and characters are traveling so much faster and more widely through digital means. The books weren’t able to keep up with things changing around them… almost like an anterograde amnesia, comic books couldn’t process or adapt to the inevitable future.

But there was another part to my comic collecting. Yes, I liked reading the stories and spending time with the characters, but in the days before instant global full-video communication, there was much more of a thrill of the chase to it. I finally found my last Fantastic Four, issue #15, when I was set up at a small local convention, and a guest was looking to sell this and some other books, and another dealer who knew I was looking for it pointed me out to the guy. I had been looking for it for years… it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it, I didn’t have the book in my collection because I had simply never come across one in all that time of looking. That was part of comic collecting, and comic dealing, knowing about who wants what and making connections. Knowing your business. You can now buy and sell pre-graded, plastic-sealed comics that you can never actually touch or open, without leaving your chair. Completing a collection is less about archeological detective work, and more about having a credit card without a limit. Modern comic collecting, actually buying old comic books, has become less about knowing the comics than about picking the right lottery ticket. In our zeal to make the transfer and sale of comics easier and faster, we lost a certain amount of institutional knowledge: collectors at the highest levels are often investors or speculators in a stock, and not necessarily a fan, advocate, or expert on the actual comics. The modern methods of both casual consumption and high-end collecting have forgotten important aspects of their history… they suffer from retrograde amnesia.

All that had been floating around in my head for awhile, and I’d thought about it in different directions trying to make sense of it; trying to figure out the essence of what drew me to comic collecting. It was only more recently, as I’ve been curating various old computers, tvs, stereos, and music instruments, that I started thinking about tech in those same terms. For instance, I have paid for at least five different copies of one of my favorite songs, Man Out of Time, by Elvis Costello: vinyl album, cassette tape, CD, and digital download. At several junctures, I realized that I was paying for something I already “owned,” in principle: when I bought that first vinyl album, I bought the right to listen to that song as many times as I wanted for perpetuity; but I rationalized the purchase as a fair trade of dollars to avoid the time, hassle, and expense of acquiring and operating the equipment necessary to do a quality conversion. The formats of their time had anterograde amnesia, and couldn’t continue to function with excellence as time and tech went on. The next greatest formats always had retrograde amnesia, and my tape player forgot about all the music my record player knew, as the CD would in turn forget about my institutional knowledge from the tape.

Everything came neatly together for me when I got to the computers. I got my first computer in 1981, an Atari 800… and I still have it and it still works. Everything about it is just as amazing to me as it was almost forty years ago: the games are still fun, the applications still perform their assigned functions… but that fun and those functions have not stood the test of time, were not adaptable enough to stay relevant, to keep up with the current and move ahead. Anterograde amnesia. I got my second computer in 1987, an Atari ST… and I still have it and it still works, too. That was an interesting time for me, because I “needed” to have two computers running: I depended on software on the 800 to do things in life, and that software would not run on the ST. The ST had retrograde amnesia, and forgot the institutional knowledge that came before it. I had to buy new programs for the ST to serve the same function… often enough  called the same title and written by the company or individual who wrote the one for the 800.

Computers are particularly gifted at battling retrograde amnesia. The ST wasn’t too old before a clever programmer wrote a program that could pretend it was an 800. You could actually run those old programs written for different hardware on this newer machine through this emulation program. By overcoming the amnesia, the ST gained the 800’s institutional knowledge.

Emulators are now a part of our everyday lives; computer evolution favors those who are able to retain or regain that institutional knowledge. One of my favorite emulators makes my MacBook Pro think it’s an Atari 800. It’s amazing to be able to play the best games of my youth here on my regular computer anytime. But I still have an 800 (several from the line, in fact) and I still use it sometimes. Emulators are cool… but there are differences in the way a wireless PS4 joystick interacts with an emulator than the way an old-school 9-pin joystick interacts with an 800, not to mention the differences in the way a modern computer interacts with its monitor compared to the way old computers interacted with analog tv sets. Long story short, although the emulators are amazing, there is something tangible lost in the translation.

I like to think that I am becoming more self-aware; that I am considering my tendencies and motives to improve in every way I can. So when something like this spends so much time in my headspace, I try to figure out the lesson. There’s a primary layer to this, which reflects a certain bitterness about things that were once important to you losing their meaning: perhaps my best songs includes the line “Your passions turn to clutter there in front of your eyes;” I’ve felt this disconnect between what I thought I was and who I actually am for some time. I’m realizing how relatable the amnesias are to this thought: it’s not so much that I’ve lost interest in an activity, it’s that some kind of amnesia has gotten in the way of my connecting to my past, or in the way of learning more capabilities for the future… and that frustration, that miss, that lack of connection… is what leads to the activity becoming less important to me.

So I’m going to try to be more like a computer. I am going to confront my retrograde amnesia, and build whatever emulators I need to process the value of my past. I am going to expect my anterograde amnesia, and remain open to whatever adapters I can use to process new value the future offers.

Discussion thread for this post on the jjewell forums

OK, So What Do I Have To Do? (jj church sermon 0.2)

I had a disagreement with my church. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere and will forego the details here but to say that the things I was hearing from my pastor, and the actions taken by my pastor, were simply not aligned with the scripture he is allegedly teaching.

It took me awhile to come to terms with the fact that that issue has been a primary feature of organized religion since it’s inception. The basis of all Christianity is Jesus Christ pointing out that the organized church wasn’t teaching the stuff that was there, but were operating in their own self-interest. Looking at the history of religion is looking at a litany of people coming to the conclusion “the church isn’t looking at this correctly, I can’t abide this… I’m starting something else.”

It dawned on me how much of organized religion is arguing over semantics, interpretations, and simple differences of opinion about what the “important” parts are. The history of how we have defined and practiced religion is a history of rift, schism, and holy war. The irony is how central thoughts of love and acceptance of others are to the teachings of religion: in the name of and quest for peace, love, and goodness, we have created these organizations that continue to divide and set individuals against each other, as they have through the centuries.

It seems obvious we are doing religion wrong. There will always be details, inconsistencies, and misunderstandings to disagree about… but we don’t have to focus on those areas. Religion is about bringing together… so the religion I am starting focuses on the things that bring us together.

  1. There is some existence beyond the three spatial dimensions and time we can perceive, affect, and understand. In some ways, I see this as the very question religion itself revolves around… the sense of knowing you are a small part of something bigger, wondering how you fit in the “grand scheme” of things. I won’t pretend to understand it’s workings, but I do think a basic belief in something laying above, beyond, around this world is the basis on which we are building.

  2. Some things are unknowable to us. Whether it is because of contemporaneous technological limitations, or our basic limitation to three physical dimensions and time, there are questions we cannot answer. Religion cannot answer these questions either.

  3. Scripture, even divinely inspired scripture, has been copied down, translated, and edited by fallible human hands, and often for political rather than religious reasons. We look to scripture for wisdom and guidance, but not for factual answers to questions… and particularly not those questions referred to above.

It is with those three basic beliefs that I started looking for the common elements of religions, in particular with regard to personal behavior: what do all these religions agree we should aspire to, should work toward? What I found was pretty simple: Forgive All, Do No Harm, Work For Good, Help and Share. These same ideals, thoughts, patterns, behaviors are basic to the teachings of all religions. And yet somehow, people who consider themselves very religious often ignore those teachings… sometimes even in the name of their religion. We lost the message somewhere, threw a baby out with some bathwater somewhere along the way.

I have an idea where I think we lost our way. I believe a big part of the problem is when we started using religion as the baseline for the behavior of others, rather than the goal for our own individual behavior. Whatever else this little church of mine one day becomes, it will be based on each of us taking the personal responsibility to Forgive All, Do No Harm, Work For Good, Help and Share.

Discussion thread for this post on the jjewell forums

Retrogaming on Mac: Getting started with OpenEmu

I started retrogaming when it was cutting edge gaming, and I still have all the hardware I accumulated along the way. And while I still enjoy dusting off an old machine and loading some forgotten format into a reader no longer made, I have grown into an Apple ecosystem user… and appreciate when something is simple and just works. I’ve toyed with the more complicated setups of individual emulators, and due to Atari allegiance have gotten a few of those working in the past, but it is with OpenEmu that the world of emulation has become simple and just works for Macs.

Before you start, figure out where you are going to store some files. Like a lot of files. Millions of little bitty files… and thousands of big fat ones. We are talking dozens to hundreds of gigs of stuff, depending on how complex you want to get at the start.

Download OpenEmu… not the big red “download” button, but the little red text underneath that says Experimental. This is the version that is starting to offer support for the MAME engine for arcade machine emulation. There will be warnings that MAME is not fully supported yet, but this is currently the best and easiest way to go.

OpenEmu is something called a frontend: it organizes the files needed for other programs, the emulators themselves, to run the game ROMs. ROM is an acronym for Read Only Memory, a type of chip used in things like game cartridges to hold the actual game program. Loading a ROM file into an emulator is like sticking the cartridge into your Atari 2600. OpenEmu works as a middleman to stick the right ROM files into the right emulators.

In addition to ROMs that are similar to cartridges or program files, there are ROMs that are more like operating systems. Because of the nature of copyright law, some emulators cannot be distributed with the ROM files from the machines they emulate; these files must be found by the user. Thanks to the Internet Archive, these files are easily found. The OpenEmu BIOS Pack includes all the files needed to activate the different cores, or machine emulations. Download and extract the files to your chosen storage location, then go to OpenEmu and select Preferences… System Files. You will see a whole list of warning symbols that we want to turn into green checkmarks. Just drag the files to the System Files window and OpenEmu will know what to do with them.

When all our checkmarks are green, OpenEmu is ready for some game ROMs. The Internet Archive Software Collection is your best friend in this process. This page links to libraries of archived software for different machines, and perhaps most importantly of all, for archived arcade machine ROMs… MAME ROMs.

MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is the gear OpenEmu kicks into when it is time to emulate arcade machines. While it is astonishing that MAME can do what it does, there is a certain amount of learning curve in getting MAME to sing to your tune. OpenEmu takes a lot of that confusion away for you, but there is still one thing you have to do correctly for all this to work: get the right MAME ROMs. In particular, the right MAME ROMs for OpenEmu’s version of MAME is 0.149. This is the sort of thing you are looking for. Download, extract, and drag the files into OpenEmu’s Arcade Library window.

This can be a learning moment for some people, so perhaps I can save you some pain.

At this point (well, after OpenEmu does a huge amount of chewing. Maybe you shouldn’t have dropped all 20K or so files on there at once, after all), you should able to play at least some of your old arcade favorites. If you downloaded the full MAME ROMset, there will be a lot of files that are for gambling machines that aren’t going to seem to work at all… and some of your favorites won’t look right, or may not run at all. This gets into more advanced MAME issues, and I bring it up here just so you won’t think there’s something broken.

A lot of approximations, there…

In case that was too vague, here’s some visual aids. This part is not really integral to getting the program up and running; feel free to skip ahead to the next section if you’re in some kind of hurry.

This is a list of the arcade machines I’ve played the longest in OpenEmu.

If you are my age, you will recognize quite a few of those. That’s what I mean by at least some.

Here’s a shot of my lowest rated games. Because I didn’t want to confuse games I hadn’t played having a zero and games that just didn’t work having a zero, if I tried to play the game and couldn’t get it to work, it gets a 1 star rating.

You can see there are some things I tried that didn’t work. Sometimes there might be multiple versions (or dumps) of a particular game, and perhaps a different version of the ROM will work.

Lastly, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular entry on that last list: Hulk, The (Bellfruit) (Scorpion 5) (set 1). Let’s take a look at the whole ROM list just sorted alphabetically.

OpenEmu

You can see several “sets” of that Hulk game, as well as a couple of other games that have the same names with multiple sets. My understanding is that these are gambling machine video game ROMs, and to run correctly they need to have the special hardware required by that kind of machine to be emulated somehow. I believe that parenthetical info refers to other ROM files to emulate that needed hardware. Not chasing that rabbit down the hole… can’t spend emulated payouts.

Back to our regularly scheduled emulation…

At this point, it’s time to play around with your console emulators. I’m a longtime Atari guy, so those are the first ones I checked out. Once you have installed the BIOS ROMs mentioned above, you will just need game ROMs to play. Rather than downloading entire sets (this was important for MAME mostly because of how difficult it is to reliably source individual files from a particular ROMset version), I found a few sites where it was relatively easy to download individual ROMs, Planetemu.net and CoolROMs.com.au being a couple I used most often. I also found the very interesting ROMCollector.com; if you decide you do want to have a full archival ROMset for some of these emulators, it looks like this guy has done the hard work for you.

One more thing about OpenEmu: the controls. In general, OpenEmu has a best guess as to how to map keyboard keys to game functions. You can open Space Invaders and expect the arrow keys to move your base left and right, and depending on what system you are emulating, there will be some key that fires. You can edit these settings, including telling OpenEmu to use attached controllers, in OpenEmu’s Preferences… Controls section. It may take a little while with some games for you to figure out your controller mapping, but it’s worth it if you happen to be, say, a Robotron 2084 fan who figured out how to set up his Logitech F310 controller’s two joysticks to move and fire like in the arcade. I lost minutes figuring it out, then I lost hours enjoying it. Also, if you do take the time to map something special like this, make some manual note of the settings: I’ve not been able to figure out how to make OpenEmu save game specific controller configurations.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.

Pando People (jj church sermon 0.1)

Have you ever heard of Pando? Pando is a forest of birch trees in the western US. Burton V. Barnes started studying the forest in the late sixties, and noticed something peculiar: the trees in the forest all seemed to be just alike. Simply based on morphology, what the plants looked and acted like, Barnes believed that the trees in the forest made up a single unit. Future tests and techniques bore him out: Pando is a forest of genetically identical trees, trees that are connected by a single root system. Pando might very well be the largest living thing on this planet, depending on how you go about measuring such a superlative, the largest living thing humans have ever encountered. But from the outside, without digging around for miles underground, or digging into microscopic genetic code… Pando just looks like a bunch of trees.
I have come to think of human beings as resembling Pando. From the outside, we look like a bunch of individuals of a particular type… but if we look deeply enough, if we are willing to dig… we will discover that not only are we more alike that we ever imagined, we are in fact all a part of one connected entity.
Genetic science has made incredible progress and discoveries; it is now within the grasp of many humans to submit their own material and find out specifics of their background. We discover that all of us trace back to a few lineages. Something like ninety percent of all humans can be traced back to sixteen historical fathers… some known to us, some lost to history. Genetically, our family tree grows from few roots. I have no doubt that with continued improvements in testing and data mining, we will eventually narrow those roots even further. I think it is obvious that, like the trees of Pando, individual humans grow from the same genetic root.
I also believe something less obvious, something that we have not developed the tools and methods for which to dig. Humans seem to have a further connection that science has not yet understood. Linguists have noted that, based on the amount of the language human children are exposed to, there’s no explanation for how we learn to speak, how we learn to communicate. Psychologists have described the collective unconscious, that which we all seem to know innately, that which seems to be passed down through generations without our realizing it. This connection is not the only thing beyond the limits of current science… the simple question “where do we come from” ends with the mysterious and poorly named Big Bang; which, for all we can explain, happened for no reason out of nothing at all. We can’t explain how the elemental forces that affect us work together, or really, work at all. We have ideas, theories… string theory is one that could help explain the nature of these forces; but string theory requires we do our theoretical math in sixteen or twenty-five dimensions, rather than the three we can point to and touch.
The Big Bang, the beginning of everything from nothing… and the the equal but opposite mystery of what lies beyond the universe we know… are particularly difficult to wrap our minds around. We understand height, width, and depth, and even the quasi dimension of moving inexorably forward through time. But we literally have no frame of reference for what might be above height, farther out than width, behind depth… or before that time zero when everything we know and understand just simply… started.
What if it is really that simple, though? We are creatures created within that realm of time and three dimensions, our perceptions are only built to conceive of those axes. What if the outlandish prediction of string theory is correct, and there exist dimensions outside our perception, outside our reason, outside our comprehension?
Human beings are Pando, individuals sprung from the same genetic stock, appearing separate and distinct but exactly the same underneath, and intricately and intimately connected. The Big Bang is the ground from which these apparent individuals grew, hiding the nature of our connected root system. That root system, that connection we have noticed but can’t define or explain, simply lies in dimensions beyond those which we were built to sense and comprehend.
Looking at life and lives in this framework, science and religion avoid their apparent dichotomy: science understands its limits are these three dimensions, and religion understands its implications lay beyond and aren’t always measurable or actionable in those three dimensions.
This probably sounds like a strange “sermon,” but it is an important plank in the platform I want to build, the church I want to attend. My church is intended to be an exploration of religion, a celebration of the paths and methods man has used and continues to use to find a larger sense of order, to find their place in the “Grand Scheme” of things. My church wants to deal with human information as far back as we have records… and my church isn’t trying to force those historical narratives to adhere to the three dimensions we can actually perceive. My church values the history of religion beyond its adherence to the limits of our science, and values science constantly improving the world within those limits.
I’d love to hear what you think of my church.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.