Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Baseball in the rain

Jerry Stratton, July 27, 2012

Playing baseball on the TRS-80

You might think I’m intently leaning in to work. I had to lean or hit my head on the slanted ceiling.

I have very few photos of myself; there are huge swaths of my life for which there is no photographic record. One of the things I don’t think I have any pictures of is my first computer, a TRS-80 Model I that I bought used in the summer of 1980 or 1981. It was a very simple computer and could be programmed in “Level 2 BASIC”.

The computer was amazing just for what it was. It was also amazing that a kid could save up on his paper route to buy one complete with monitor and printer. Nerd that I was, I’d been saving up for a programmable calculator; when I reached that goal I realized, only a few more months and I could have one of those computer things I’d been seeing advertised in the same magazines as the calculators.

I set my sights on the TRS-80 because it was affordable, and because the text on the screen was much crisper than alternatives such as the Apple II that used a radio frequency modulator to convert the video to a radio signal to be picked up by a normal television set. The TRS-80 was a standard television set, but the tuner was replaced with a direct interface.

The reason that the keyboard in that photo is so big is that the computer was in the keyboard. That was standard for the time, mainly because people used their television sets as monitors. In this case, the computer is both in the keyboard and under the monitor. Because after selling a baseball program to Hobby Computer Handbook for $150, I took that $150 and bought a $170 expansion board.1 The expansion board brought the computer up from 16 kilobytes to 48 kilobytes of RAM!

It surprised me, at the time, what a big deal it was to own a personal computer. One of our science classes actually took a field trip to our basement2 to see it. When I brought in a school paper on a printout rather than typewritten3 or handwritten, another student remarked that they wished they had a computer to write their papers for them. Fortunately, the teacher knew the computer hadn’t written it.

But most amazing was when my parents got a call from a reporter for the Muskegon Chronicle. A friend of my parents knew someone at the Chronicle and passed on the story that a high school kid had written a computer program and sold it for money. They thought it was potentially worth a story and sent someone to interview me. I remember nothing about the interview itself or of the photos. When the article came out, I cut it out to save, and my dad made a frame for it. I also fielded questions about it from customers on my paper route, including one person confusing computers with atomic energy.

I found it again in my parents’ garage when I went to visit them this summer. I also found a couple more issues of Wayne Green’s 80-Micro. 80-Micro was not the magazine that bought my program but it was where most people went to sell computer programs to magazines, and I sold several to them over the next few years. I’d already heard of Green through his 73 ham radio magazine.4 When the engineers and electricians in our circle heard Green’s name, there was usually at least a sardonic smile; he had a reputation for rants, especially against the establishment organizations such as the ARRL, that brought more than a little disdain from the old-timers. But they still bought his magazine. It was a serious, hard-core ham and radio electronics magazine. If it hadn’t been for computers, I would have buried myself in the electronics projects in 73.

80-Micro was a serious, hard-core TRS-80 magazine. If you had a TRS-80, you had to have this magazine. Green ranted there, too. He tended to rant against Radio Shack, because they wouldn’t carry his magazine, and for various design flaws he saw in their products. Some of which I had to agree with. I wrote in Priming the Pump about how word processing took people by surprise; it wasn’t considered important by Radio Shack either: they even left out lower-case letters from the Model I. I can understand that any design is a compromise between price and features, but if there was one feature everyone agreed was necessary after a few months of owning a computer, it was lower-case letters.5

That was not something that could be fixed in software, but many others could. One of the amazing things about personal computers, even then, is that manufacturing flaws can be fixed in software after the sale. The keyboard doubles up too many letters? Patch into the system to “debounce” it. The computer doesn’t have any sound output? Well, it does write its files to a cassette tape as audio. Write a subroutine that uses the file-saving hardware to create sound!

In that era, customers fixed those problems, and then, at least in the case of keyboard debounce, Radio Shack rolled the fix into later versions of the shipping software. Many of the fixes and extra features came in 80-Micro.

In the October 1982 issue that I just found again, Green ranted about the unlicensed copying of copyrighted software, sometimes on such a massive level that it legally constituted theft. He tacked this onto “the court decision to uphold the Disney Studio request that the sale of video cassette recorders be stopped since they are usable to copy copyright movies”.

This is the theft if massive royalties for the programmers involved. This explains why it is getting more and more difficult to get programmers to write the needed programs for microcomputers.

His solution was a copyright tax on floppies and hard disks. In fact copying was a huge problem, as I learned when I went to college in 1982 and discovered two TRS-80 owners next door. They had copies of hundreds of pieces of software, and I ended up with copies of some of them, most of which I never used.

80-Micro was huge; this issue was 434 pages of extreme TRS-80. It included a very basic spreadsheet and a very basic BASIC compiler. It also contained a program for displaying a jack-o-lantern on screen, with a moving mouth, the idea being that you could position the computer screen where it could be seen by trick-or-treaters but you could not. And then put a speaker system next to it. You talked, the computer mouth moved.

That was too much for me, but I did take the basic outline and added another article that showed how to create tunes, and set it to play the “eight more days to Halloween” theme from Halloween 3.

Toward the back, a J. M. Keynes6 gave us stock market tips in his MONEY DOS column:

I can’t leave without one hot tip. As this is written, DeBeers Consolidated (DBRSY), on the over-the-counter market, currently sells for about $3.12 per share. In 1980 it sold for $12.50 per share. They have a monopoly on the world diamond market as well as a multi-billion dollar portfolio of non-diamond investments. The dividend this year will be about 49 cents, which, after South Africa takes its 15 percent off the top, amounts to over 12 percent for you. “Hard Money” investments (gold, silver, diamonds, and so on) are out of favor. I don’t expect inflation to begin immediately, but sooner (if the liberals gain control of Congress this November) or later, it will. A fat dividend will make the waiting painless.

If I’m reading this 2001 article correctly, this would have been a pretty good investment. In 2001, DeBeers became an unlisted subsidiary of Anglo American; shareholders received, per share, $14.40 plus a final $1 dividend as well as a .43 share of AAUK, which was trading at $64.58 when the deal was announced. That would turn a $1,000 investment in DBRSY in 1982 into $13,836 in 2001, and that doesn’t include the regular dividends over those nineteen years.

Keynes also included a “failsafe (?) stock-market program” in his column:

  • 10 CLS
  • 30 CLS: A = RND(2): IF A = 1 THEN PRINT "BUY" ELSE GOTO 20

In case you don’t read BASIC, this clears the screen and prompts you to press enter to determine if it’s a good time to buy or not. If you press enter, it has a 50% chance of saying “buy” or of clearing the screen and prompting you to try again.7

In fact, it doesn’t have a 50% chance of saying “buy” or of clearing the screen. If you run this after reloading the page, it will repeat the question twice, and then say “buy”. That’s because the TRS-80’s random number generator didn’t randomly seed itself on restart. It always produced the same sequence of results. One of the things people tried to fix, both in hardware and software, was the predictable “random” number generator in early personal computers.

And yes, it’s amazing that I can provide a simulated TRS-80 inside of a web page using JavaScript compiled on the fly by a web browser. I understand the nostalgia in a book like Priming the Pump, but I’d never want to give up the advances we’ve made since then!

  1. Hobby Computer Handbook folded before they printed my article. However, they paid on acceptance rather than on publication like everyone else. (Which might be part of why they folded during a boom.)

  2. I moved the computer to the basement for the field trip, because there was only room for a few people to stand in my bedroom. My bedroom was in an attic space, and you could only stand up in the middle of the room; otherwise you had to bend. But it was my room which I didn’t have to share with my brothers. After I moved out for college, one of my other brothers took it without hesitation.

  3. Unlike today, it was very obvious that computer printouts were not created using a typewriter. Printers then were mostly “dot matrix” which meant that they had a series of dots on a stamper, and depending on the letter or number being printed, some of the dots would be activated and some would not. There were very few dots on that old printer, so the printout was crisp but not high resolution.

  4. You can see my rig next to the computer in the photo, an old Kenwood TS-520. I still have it, thought I rarely bring it out.

  5. Most other computers of the era didn’t have lower case either, even the much more expensive Apple II. In the case of the Apple II, however, it had just enough resolution in its graphics mode to display letters as graphics.

  6. A lot of people used pseudonyms in 80-Micro. I don’t know why.

  7. Note for those using the TRS-80 Model III emulator, this was written for the Model I. For the Model III you’ll need to add a semicolon to the end of line 20.8 You can see it here by typing “list” and pressing your return key.

  8. It is entirely possible you need a semicolon in Model I BASIC, too, and that this was a typo in the magazine. I don’t have a Model I emulator to test it on.

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