The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.

Where is Carmen Sandiego? On Netflix!

January 28th, 2019 10:50 AM
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I like to say that I got my start as a professional writer in the print industry, working for such publications as The Boston Herald and various MediaNews daily papers. But even before then, my first freelance writing assignment was for the Gamers Forum on CompuServe, whose sysop gave me a review copy of a Carmen Sandiego game for the Apple II.

I was still a preteen and was utterly unschooled in how to conduct a professional review. All I knew was that I'd been given a computer game for free, which for a kid was like Christmas in July! The resulting review was gushing, which I thought was a fair exchange for this bounty I'd been given. Between my amateurish writing and my lack of context for the review — I'd never played any DOS / Windows games and didn't know how the Apple II compared — the editor ultimately killed the review. I was more embarrassed by the experience than I was grateful that I got to keep the game.

Nonetheless, Carmen Sandiego has a soft spot in my heart: whatever factors may've unduly influenced my review, I did sincerely enjoy the puzzle-solving and using the reference book the game came with to decipher the history and geography of our country and world. It was nerdy and neat and actually educational in a way that Oregon Trail rarely was.

So my interest was absolutely piqued when I discovered Netflix was premiering a new Carmen Sandiego animated series.

This is not the scarlet thief's first appearance on television. First was the 1991 game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, perhaps most memorable for its Rockapella theme song, followed by the 1996 game show Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? In between, there was the 1994 animated series Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?. Of the three, I'd seen only the original game show, and even that only in passing; once again, I'm lacking context.

But the biggest change seems to be that Carmen Sandiego is now the protagonist. Whereas the original cartoon had her defecting from ACME Detective Agency to work for the Villains' International League of Evil, Netflix's series flips that: this young, teenaged Carmen Sandiego has defected from V.I.L.E. and now travels the world stealing back that which her former colleagues have stolen from their rightful owners. In both, Carmen communicates with "Player" — but whereas the original Player was an invisible, live-action character, here, he's a white-hat hacker who remotely partners with Carmen to get her past security intended to keep her out.

I've watched the first two of eight episodes, and I've liked what I've seen: Sandiego is a moral character who values teammates and teamwork but will stand up to her friends to be true to herself. I'm told there are homages, actors, and recurring characters from other Carmen Sandiego media, but I've not yet seen anything that references her Apple II roots.

Even if the new cartoon doesn't directly acknowledge the character's origins, it's still great to see the our favorite retrocomputer's legacy continue to this day. Where on Earth would Carmen Sandiego be without the Apple II?

… Just don't ask me to review it.

(Hat tips to TV Guide and Mashable via Susan Arendt and Sabriel Mastin)

Apple Personal Modem rescue

April 16th, 2018 11:32 AM
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When I recall my first dial-up connection, I think about the Apple II and CompuServe. But I often overlook the piece of hardware that connected the two: the Apple Personal Modem.

The Apple Personal Modem was a first-party peripheral, matching the color palette and design aesthetic of the Apple IIe I used it with. The modem maxed out at a whopping 1200 bps, which, if I recall, was roughly reading speed — perfect for the all-text interface of CompuServe. The modem dutifully granted me access to the Academic American Encyclopedia (GO AAE), an invaluable resource for my secondary education.

When we moved houses and upgraded to an Apple IIGS, many other upgrades followed, among them more RAM, a SCSI card, and a faster modem, and then still a faster modem. These years later, I can't tell you the brand or model of those later modems that enabled me to download such games as Plunder and Bouncin' Ferno — but the Apple Personal Modem has remained memorable for its heft, handheld-sized form factor, and unusual power supply, eschewing a power cord or brick in favor of plugging directly into a wall outlet. In fact, it wasn't until I watched this unboxing video that I discovered there was another model that did not have the inbuilt prong but instead used a more traditional power cord.

I don't know what happened to my Apple Personal Modem; I haven't seen it in decades. Rather than it being buried somewhere in my collection, it more likely was disposed of as soon as it was no longer of practical value.

Recently, a friend who was visiting Apple Rescue of Denver asked me if there was anything I wanted salvaged. Of everything in the store's inventory, I don't know what drew me to the Apple Personal Modem, but as soon as I saw it, I knew we needed to be reunited.

Since I still have those faster modems and even an Uthernet II card, the Apple Personal Modem remains more a curiosity than the connection to the online world that it once represented. But for the reasonable fee of $15, I'm glad to again own this pioneering peripheral.

Now if only I could remember the name of the telecom software I used with it…

The course of my life with the Apple II

January 30th, 2012 11:56 AM
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Fellow Massachusetts retrocomputing enthusiast and all-around neat guy Dan McLaughlin recently started his own Apple II blog. He's actually had one for awhile, but its latest incarnation is powered by WordPress, the unofficial CMS of the Apple II community. I discovered the relaunch of Dan site's via the story of his introduction to the Apple IIGS:

[My father and I] pulled into the strip mall and entered The Computer Shop. In The Computer Shop, everything was gray: The carpet, the room dividers and shelving that held books and software, even the display tables. I take that back there was an accent color: beige. There might have been a touch of maroon in there as well. It smelled like new carpet even though it had been open for a few years. There was a large plate glass window from which sunlight was streaming in on this beautiful fall day.

After we had walked past the software displays, and aisles of computer books and magazines, near the back center of the store, I saw it. There for all to hear and to behold was the Apple IIGS.

Like Dan, I was introduced to the Apple II through my father. My family's business is commercial real estate, and once upon a time, we had an authorized Apple dealer as a tenant. It's for that reason more than any other that our first computer was an Apple IIe and not a Commodore 64 or one of the many other platforms of the personal computer revolution. My three older brothers and I all made use of the computer for school projects, personal correspondence, and especially games, but I cottoned to it like none other in the family: I taught myself programming (and in the process destroyed some software for which we had no backups), expanded the hardware, and became a part of the community on CompuServe. Whereas my three brothers went to college and got their first PCs, I got my first Mac, sticking with the only brand that I'd ever known. After college, I became part of a convention, a magazine, and a podcast, leading me to make friends, pursue education, develop skills, attain jobs, and relocate across the country.

Dan's post reminded me how a financial decision made decades ago for practical and immediate reasons can have a snowball effect that we continue to experience and observe well into the 21st century. It's no understatement my father's fateful decision has defined the personal and professional development of my childhood and my adulthood. Although I can never know what timelines might've developed from bring a different microcomputer into the Gagné household, it's an alternative I'm glad I never needed to explore.

How would your life be different with a computer other than the Apple II?