Getting a C64 online in 2020.

May 22 2020

As you might have seen in previous posts, my stuck-in-quarantine project has been restoring my C64 so I can play around with it.  Part of that involves figuring out what you can reasonably use such a venerable computer for in 2020.ev, besides playing old games.  Word processing and suchlike are a given, though I strongly doubt that I could get my Commodore playing nicely (or even poorly) with the laser printer in the other room.  Also, the relative scarcity of 5.25" floppy disks these days makes saving data somewhat problematic (though I've got a solution for that, which I'll touch on later).  Ultimately, the utility of a computer of any kind increases exponentially when it has a network connection of some kind due to how much data isn't kept on one's workstation these days but on remote servers, be they one room over or across the planet.  Plus, running applications on more powerful systems is thankfully still a thing, marketing making people forget all about that to the contrary.

Along with the other Commodore equipment I've been hauling around with me over the years is a Commodore 1670 modem that used to scream along at a spritely 1200 baud and a copy of Bob's Term Pro v1.9, gifted to me by a work associate of my mother's many years previously.  I also still have an acoustic coupler attachment that plugs into a modem's phone line jack which, at one time anyway, worked decently well for mobile communications in the days before wifi.  I don't have a landline anymore, just DSL and a mobile phone, so I decided to try an experiment.  A grand experiment, if you will, an attempt to get my C64 online and calling BBSes once more.

Faking a telnet server with netcat.

May 20 2020

Let's say that you need to be able to access a server somewhere on your network.  This is a pretty common thing to do if you've got a fair amount of infrastructure at home.  But let's say that your computer, for whatever reason, doesn't have the horsepower to run SSH because the crypto used requires math that older systems can't carry out in anything like reasonable time.  This is a not uncommon situation for retrocomputing enthusiasts.  In the days before SSH we used telnet for this, but pretty much the entire Net doesn't anymore because the traffic wasn't encrypted, so anyone with a mind to eavesdrop could grab your login credentials to abuse later.  However, on a home network behind a firewall between systems you own it doesn't hurt to use once in a while.  Good luck finding systems that still package in.telnetd, though.  However, you can fake it with a tool called netcat.

First, you need a FIFO (first in, first out) that, as far as a Linux machine is concerned is a file that multiple processes can open to read and write.  Whenever something writes into a FIFO, everything reading from it gets whatever came in the other end.  As passing data goes the question is "how hard do you really need it to be," and FIFOs answer the question with "Not hard."  Linux boxen come with a tool called mkfifo that create them; uncreating them is as simple as deleting them like any other file.  This is the first step toward faking a telnet server:

Montage: Restoring a C64 and 1541 drive.

May 20 2020

A couple of days back I posted a writeup of how I restored my old Commodore 64, from taking it apart to putting it back together and firing it up for the first time in over 30 years.  As I am wont to do, I periodically took photographs of my progress.  Well, here they are.  I didn't do a full how-to because folks more experienced than I have already done so (that's how I learned how to do this in the first place).  I'll put more stuff online as I make more progress.  Enjoy.

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.