Adventures in retrocomputing: Restoring a vintage Commodore 64.

May 18 2020

You've probably been wondering where I've been since my last update in the latter half of April.  I mean, where would I reasonably go right now when most of the country is locked down and only a relatively small number of people with more memes running inside their heads than conscious processes are running around with mall ninja gear and weapons (some props, most unfortunately not) doing their damndest to cut the population by infecting everyone around them with covid-19?  Well.. when I haven't been working (as one does) I've been reconditioning my old Commodore-64 computer, the first computer I ever used as a kid.  I've been carrying it around with me just about everywhere I've moved but it's only recently that I've had the time to really do any messing around with it (for obvious reasons).  It has been a learning experience if nothing else, because much of my knowledge of how to do stuff on a 40 year old computer has faded and been overwritten as technology has progressed.  It's also given me a lot of appreciation for how much things have changed for the better since the days of LOAD "$",8 and LIST.  Computers may not come with their own programming languages anymore, but the ones we have are significantly more featureful, significantly cheaper (I vaguely recall seeing an advertisement for a C compiler in 1986 for the Commodore 64 for the low, low price of $275us or therabouts), and way more accessible thanks to the Web and open source software.

This was not a quick process. I worked on this project in my spare time, in between working from home, going on supply runs for my family (and decontaminating afterward), taking care of stuff around the house, and waiting for orders of components, cleaning materials, and sundry things to arrive so I could proceed.  What with supply lines being all screwed up by the coronavirus quarantine, sometimes an order from Los Angeles would take two weeks to get to northern California but an order from Massachusetts would show up two days later due to unexpected overnight shipping.  It was also a labor of considerable monetary investment; I think my parents bought my C64 for something like $500us back in 1984.ev, and I easily sank that much money over the course of a couple of weeks into this effort.  Not that it's been in vain.

The first thing I had to do was clean everything up.  40 years of use, dust, and gunk can wreak havoc on any kind of electronics and I figured that I'd have my work cut out for me.  The first step, and arguably the most fun was taking the whole thing apart layer by layer.  I used old pill bottles and some tiny test tubes to sort all of the screws by purpose (hold the case together, hold the keyboard on, hold the keyboard together, and so forth) to make it easier to put everything back together later.  I also took copious photographs every step of the way, of which I will put up a gallery a little bit later.  It never hurts to know how things were put together before you started messing with them, right?  Working on the keyboard involved dismantling it into its constituent layers.  Popping all of the keys off required just a flathead screwdriver inserted under the key and using the shaft of same to pop them loose like a lever.  The springs and screws I soaked in vinegar for 24 hours to dissolve the rust; only one spring was rusted enough to break but that was near one of the ends, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.  The sheer amount of crap under the keys, however, was nothing short of hair raising.  A can of compressed air didn't really accomplish much.  I wound up putting the plastic body of the keyboard into the kitchen sink and working it over with dishwashing detergent and a pot scrubber to remove decades of cat hair, dust, dry skin, and crumbs.  The keys went into baggies full of warm water and hand soap overnight, agitated every two or three hours to get most of the gunk loose.  Afterward I scrubbed them in the sink with an old toothbrush to get them looking nice again.

Still on lockdown.

Apr 05 2020

All of March and most of February were spent in lockdown in the Bay Area.  I've no idea what's still open or not because the last time I was able to go anywhere outside of the house was two weeks ago.  The walk I'd planned for last weekend was cancelled on account of rain, and all things considered I'd rather not risk lowering my immune system a couple of points with cold and damp if I can help it.  Plans for the next 12 to 18 months have been unilaterally cancelled.  I've already sold my Thotcon 0x0b badge even though the conference has been rescheduled, and I've unfortunately had to cancel on HOPE as well.  The reason is this: Even though both conferences are supposed to happen after the covid-19 lockdown is (theoretically) over, there probably won't be a usable vaccine inside of 12 to 18 months. (one) (two) (three)  As the being in the house in the fewest risk categories this means that there is a good chance that I might contract asymptomatic covid-19, bring it home and give it to everybody else.  That's no good (as if that need be said).

There's really no point in watching the news for additional coronavirus news.  The pandemic is here and finding out the latest bad thing isn't going to do anybody any good.  Additionally, there's enough bad information being deliberately spread (one) (two) (three) (four) (oh, fuck it) that it takes way more processing power than a lot of us have to sort it out.  Just knowing that misinformation is being deliberately spread is disheartening.  I strongly advise that everybody take Samuel L. Jackson's advice.

Quarantine life.

Mar 22 2020

We're rapidly nearing the end of our first month of quarantine due to the covid-19 pandemic.  I've been working from home since the last week of February, which isn't anything particularly new to me because we have mandatory work-from-home days at least once a week at my day job.  Coincidentally, a few days in was when our landlord's scheuled demolition and renovation of the kitchen began.  This meant that we were down three rooms in the house - no kitchen, no dining room, and no living room - due to having to relocate everything.  Lyssa and I also had some amount of stuff in our respective offices, which made life less than fun for a while.  However the kitchen is back online, so we've been cleaning up the aftermath of the construction work and shaking down the new appliances.  Not only do we have more room in the kitchen, but we now have a dishwasher and a sink that's not painfully tiny.  The first pot of coffee and the first dinner were made in our new kitchen on Saturday.

Shopping for supplies in the Bay Area has been both easier and harder than expected.  Easier because people have on the whole been pretty cool toward each other.  No pushing, no shoving, only one instance of almost-violence and that was some weeks ago.  On the other manipulator, it's been harder because just about every shelf has been completely denuded of everything from toilet paper (the butt of many jokes which write themselves) to cleaning agents to vitamin supplements.  It's one thing to hear people talk about this happening, but it's quite another to actually see it in every store you visit.  It's a vicious cycle.  While I don't know for sure I think I can reconstruct the overall pattern of thought here: People are afraid that there will be runs on everything essential, from food to distilled water to stuff they might be running low on (such as salt or dishwashing detergent).  They don't want to get caught out.  So they flock to the stores to stock up on everything before there is nothing left.  Unfortunately, this is the very cause of those shortages.

So it goes.