The 8-Bit Blues Full Circle

The 8-Bit Blues Full CircleI got my first computer in the early 1980’s, and began learning how to program. In the mid 80’s I operated a BBS, a Bulletin Board System. The BB Systems of the world at that time were the beginning of what we now call the Internet. I helped start this mess.

In 1986 I wrote a featured article for a computing magazine, “Analog Computing,” regarding the rapid pace at which technology changes and the feeling that we need to rush to the next, best things. It was the first article that I was paid for, as well as the first to appear in public print, other than things that appeared on my BBS.

The other day, on a whim, I searched the Internet and lo and behold there was the article. Text I had written before the Internet existed is now stored and available on the Internet. It is stored in “Internet Archive,” and is available in PDF, Text, eBook, and a host of formats. (https://archive.org/details/analog-computing-magazine-42) It is amazing how things come full circle.

I am posting the full article below. I think it is appropriate for Blog Yin Yang. While it primarily discusses technology upgrades, it is an interesting look at the idea of being content with what you have, which is an appropriate thought for the holiday season.

The article is written in several different voices, starting off with a take on Arlo Gutherie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” and then borrowing from other voices, such as the “Desiderata.” I have put in some editor statements [in brackets] and linked footnotes in order to give the article some broader context.

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The 8-Bit Blues Full Circle TOCANALOG COMPUTING
PAGE 86 /MAY 1986

The 8-Bit Blues

Two years ago I was painfully hacking away on my [Atari] 400, typing in *ANALOG Computing programs and saving them on my 410 program recorder.[1] About a year ago I finally scraped those bucks together. At the same time, the price of the 800XL dropped from about $225 to $175. Wow! What a savings — or so I thought. A few months later, when I bought my first disk drive [2], I watched the 800XL price drop like a skydiver who hadn’t deployed his chute.

I thought I had it made. I thought I had the leading edge of the Atari computer line. But no! Prices for the 800XL continued to drop — and were followed by lower prices for the 130XE and (with trumpets rather muted) the 520ST [3].

I mean, there I was. sitting at my desk, just sitting there at my desk, and I realized I had just bought a brand new, obsolete machine. I mean, right there in ANALOG Computing were all kinds of powerful machines with (what?) 500 + K of RAM. [500k is 1 half meg] I was just getting used to having 64K!

Tech is tech.

As a high school student in the seventies (before home computers) I had aspirations of being an Audio Engineer, and now I am one [remember, it is 1986]. At the time, the hip thing was to have the leading edge in Audio Technology.

I was proud of my portable GE cassette recorder and my Philco record player, but I lusted after the real hi-fi units pictured in Stereo Review, Mix and the other audio magazines. Eventually, I purchased one of those leading edge hi-fi units . . . But there, in the magazine the very next day, was a bigger, better, super new hi-fi unit. I had bought a brand new, obsolete machine?

I realized then that the wallet is not as fast as the engineer. I also realized that I did (and still do) have an excellent hi-fi system. Oh yes, better things will come along, but I don’t need them all. Some of them go beyond the limits of my needs. Someday I will have to replace the whole thing, but it serves me well for now.

Back to the future.

So here I sit, typing on my trusty antiquated 8-bit machine, and it’s working just fine. I can’t afford to trash a complete system because something new has come on-line, especially if what I have meets my needs. Oh yes, someday I’ll get one of those new-fangled, whiz-bang machines, but for now. . .

There’s the rub.

You see, those of us involved in any technology are alert enough to keep abreast of the latest developments, however, our wallets take a slower pace. And worse, unlike hi-fi enthusiasts, we hackers live or die by our magazines for low-cost programs, insight into our toys, tricks and reviews.

The magazines live on hackers and advertisers. The advertisers live on the computer manufacturers. The computer manufacturers must: (1) sell the user hardware; (2) sell the user more hardware; and (3) sell the user new hardware; or go out of business.

So what does this mean to those of us who’ve just spent all we have to buy brand new, obsolete machines? It means less space in magazines for the information we can use. It means looking at ads for equipment we can’t have yet. It means articles that are of little use, other than to make us feel a little puny while working with our toys. It means watching our $175 computers sell for $69.95.

But wait. Your system is working just fine now, and perhaps the wait will be beneficial. Let someone else find the bugs. Give the technical designers a chance to correct their mistakes (and
don’t try to tell me they don’t make any).

Desiderata.

If you compare your system with others you may become vain and bitter, by turns, for there will always be systems greater and lesser than your own. Stay interested in your system, however humble, if it serves you; it’s a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Sure, someday you’ll save up, relegate the ol’ 8-bit to the kids or the garage, and buy one of the new “Top of the Line” (for that week). But do not forsake your system until it’s really old. Only a few can afford to scrap a system just because something better exists.

Remember, as I learned with hi-fi: if it meets your needs, hang on to it. Enjoy it. Be at peace with your system and soul. With all its shame, drudgery and broken dreams, it’s still a beautiful, useful system.

(Keith Mosher has a Bachelor’s of Media Arts degree from the University of South Carolina, where he’s been working as an audio engineer/producer since 1980, producing soundtracks for instructional TV and film. He started computing in 1981 with an Atari 400, the Atari BASIC manual and ANALOG Computing.)

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Footnotes:
*At the time we were in the midst of the “computer wars.” The Atari 400 competed with the Commodore 64, which eventually became Apple. There were a plethora of magazines, each tailored to a specific computer type. Many offered program scripts. If the reader was so inclined, and if they had the right compilers and other support equipment, they could type in the programs and use them, or use parts of them in some of their own programming.

Atari went on to concentrate on gaming consoles, though they did continue to produce computers during entrance into the 16-bit era. For some context, the world entered the 64-bit era in the mid 2000’s. The Atari 400 that I used had 4k of RAM, running in an 8-bit format. Your current cell phone has probably 2000 times more capacity and speed. Nonetheless, people wrote some pretty amazing programs for those small 8-bit computers. BACK

1. The Atari 410 program recorder was a cassette recorder that recorded data instead of music. So yes, when you watch the old James Bond film, “Diamonds are Forever” and you see Bond handling a computer tape on what appears to be an old style music cassette tape, know that computer programs were indeed stored that way. Tapes did not allow ‘Random Access,’ the ability to jump to or from any point. They were used to store a program. The program was loaded, from beginning to end, into the computer’s RAM, at which point the tape served no further function. Once the computer was turned off or rebooted, you had to reload the program. As slow as tape was, it was very useful. BACK

2. Early computers did not have hard drives. Programs and data were stored on either tape drives (see footnote 1), or 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drives. These units were always external options that were not part of the computer itself. BACK

3. The Atari 520ST was Atari’s first bid into 16-bit operating systems. It did not have a hard drive, but did have a built-in 3 ½ inch diskette drive. The 16-bit systems gave us the first, comfortable user interfaces (the mouse and graphic interfaces) and multi-tasking. BACK

Sifu Keith Mosher

About Sifu Keith Mosher

My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge". I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager, and I am currently an Author and a Martial Arts Instructor.
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