BBSing

For the sheer Back-To-The-Future-Ness of it, I’ve spent some time over the last few days working out how to get 20th century analog to work with 21st century digital.

See, back in the 80’s and 90’s pretty much everything was analog – especially the way we talked to other people. Radio, TV, the telephone, and even our computer modems used analog signals. But these days there’s pretty much no such thing as analog anything, let alone a phone line, which makes using a 90’s modem a bit of an exercise in haxx0ring reality…

For example, here at work my phone system uses a VOIP-based digital PBX to route calls around internally, and both the phones and the voice transport are digital. If someone places a call outside the building, the call is routed over a fiber connection to CenturyLink using what is essentially a sub-channel of the several gigabit connection into the building. From there the call is routed over the Internet to some other provider before being converted back to analog voice at someone else’s phone.

This works great for people, who have limited perceptual acoustic capability, but modems use a lot more of the audible spectrum to do their thing… Which is what all of that electronic screeching is about when modems and fax machines connect to each other; they are working out how bad the phone line is and how much acoustic space they have to talk to each other.

So, given all of this I’ve been teaching my PBX that analog isn’t a bad thing by working out a custom codec (basically an analog to digital sound converter) and some special rules for the timings and encapsulation used to turn modem screeching into 1s and 0s for the Internet.

And today I was successful in making an end-to-end modem connection to a friend’s BBS using ‘period’ hardware…

Said BBS has been running since 1992, I’ve had an account on it since 1993, and I still have hardware that I used in 1994 – so as something of a 30th anniversary thing I set my wayback machine to the early 90’s and made a phone call.

To do this took a surprising amount of work…

First, I had to get my circa 1994 Powerbook 165c working, which required replacing some capacitors in the backlight assembly. Then I had to bodge a serial cable that converted from 1994 Apple 8-pin to regular 25-pin. Then I had to get a decent BBS terminal application onto the 165c.

This software installation required two additional computers of various ages and several operating systems to move data from the present-day internet back in time to 1994…

See, the 165c uses antiquated file systems based on what density and how many sides the 3.5″ floppy you stuck in it happens to have – while my M1 Max laptop has no idea what a floppy is, let alone what MFS or HFS is.

So, the solution was to use my recently repaired G5 iMac as the intermediary, as it can read USB2 flash storage as well as operate a USB floppy drive, and it can still run OS9, which can read and write HFS on 1.44M floppies.

So the process is simple:

  1. on the M1 laptop go to an internet archive of ancient Motorola 68K Apple software
  2. download “Black Night” (an ancient ANSI BBS terminal application) as a .SIT (Stuffit) archive
  3. put that onto a USB2 flash drive via a thunderbolt-to-USB adapter
  4. plug USB2 flash drive into the G5
  5. move the stuffit archive to the desktop
  6. fire up the OS9 compatibility layer in OSX 10.3.6
  7. decompress the .SIT archive
  8. copy resultant installer to a floppy I formatted in the 165c
  9. put floppy into the 165c
  10. and install software.

See? Simple.

How2Install stuff on a 165c in 2022… The process goes right to left.

From here it was just a matter of configuring Black Night to use my old USR V.everything modem, which is using the DB-25 to Apple cable and the modified modem-friendly port on my PBX to call a BBS across town…

Connecting at 12,000 baud over several back and forth A/D-D/A conversions – not bad!

Pardon the HVAC noise in the background; my office has some impressive forced ventilation because I routinely let the magic smoke out of things as part of my day-to-day duties. 🙂

And a photo for posterity

I’d not been on EOTD in a couple of years, so it took some time to catch up on my ‘e-mail’ and the forums, but it’s nice to see that the system still gets some use… I replied to a bunch of folks going back a year or so, and now I’ll wait to see how long it takes to get a reply. 🙂

Listening to "When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies" by Gunship

The Apple “G-Machine” trifecta

Earlier today I posted some photos of my G5 iMac, so I figured I should show off the rest of my “G” collection…

Before the G5 there was the aptly named G4…

PowerBook G4 17″ 1.33Ghz – CD case for scale

I’ve actually had three of these over the years… The first I picked up off the shelf at the Apple Store in Tyson’s Corner Virginia on February 25th, 2004 for about $3500. Unfortunately the first one had a screen defect, so Apple swapped it out for me and that became number 2.

I used the second one until October 1st, 2004 – shortly after I started at where I currently work and needed a PC to do PC things with. I sold it to finance the PC, and a few months later bought the G5 iMac.

The above G4 PowerBook I picked up in October of 2020 just to have one again. Shortly after I got it I replaced everything in it with new old-stock parts, swapped the HD for an SSD, and maxed out the ram.

I fire it up a couple of times a month to do writing, old use old PhotoShop, or putter around in Garage Band – just like I used to.

Before the G4 was the similarly named “G3”, and I have one of those too…

PowerBook G3 “Pismo” 400Mhz

I’ve had two of these over the years…

The first was a G3 “Wallstreet” I picked up in 1998, about a year after moving to Virginia the first time. The Wallstreet was essentially my primary computer until I replaced it with the G3 “Pismo” in February of 2000.

The Pismo these days is maxed on ram, 1 whole gigabyte, and runs an SSD that holds OS 9.2.2 in one partition, and the OSX public beta in the other… I imaged the drive as I had it right after installing the OSX public beta, and that’s what I put back on it when needed.

The Pismo is essentially a time machine I use to transport myself back to the better days of the late 90’s. For example, it connects to a BBS I’ve been using since 1993…

bbs.eotd.com / 303-679-0161

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m very into self-contained machines and I generally have the bleeding-edge laptop for {current year}… I think it’s a function of moving so much over the years; it’s just easier to toss a laptop into a case and go when required.

Prior to the G3 Wallstreet I used a PowerMac 6500/225 which a PowerPC 603e machine – or a “G2”, and I had an 8100/110 back in 1995, which is a PowerPC 601 – or a “G1”. I don’t currently have an either of those because they’re towers and require a separate keyboard, mouse, and monitor – and a lot of space.

And before the 8100/100 I had a PowerBook 165c which I posted about a few days ago. And while it’s not a “G” machine, it was the machine that started it all for me back in 1994.

Listening to "Neon Blood" by Kalax

Capacitors

My G5 iMac started getting a little flakey the other day, which usually means one thing; the dreaded aging capacitor issue…

See, back in the old days capacitors were basically a can of electrolytic goo, and over two decades or so said goo dries up and leaks out of the can.

If you catch the caps early you can prevent the inevitable leaky mess, but either way this stops things from working. And the only real fix is to buy new capacitors of the same values and replace the old ones, which can be rather time consuming.

Fortunately, I have a spare newer “ALS” G5 that just needed some spare parts – and now I had them.

My old G5, stripped of everything I needed for the new ALS G5. The DVD-Rom goes in the upper left, the 3.5″ HD in the upper right, and the PSU in the bottom.
The bad caps in the VRM for the CPU. You can see the tell-tale expansion by the ‘doming’ of the caps, and the one in the foreground (and the one behind it) has just started leaking.
The new G5 up and running with the donor parts from the old G5 – it’s the circle of (computer) life.

I’ll hang on to the husk of the old G5 for replacement parts as the years go on; the screen is in really nice shape, and there’s a lot of little parts that could be handy someday.

Listening to "City Lights" by Robert Parker

History

Still on my personal quest to nail down specific dates and places for my memoirs; everything gets a bit murky after twenty-plus years, and I’m a stickler for detail.

Today I discovered that the social security administration, for the low low fee of $92, will send you an itemized list of every place you’ve worked, where that was, and when.

Of course the SSA is a government agency, so there’s a hefty form to fill out (SSA-7050-F4) and then mail in. And now I have to go procure an envelope and a stamp.

I’ve not seen a physical un-postmarked stamp in like a decade.

Once they get the form, and charge me the fee, it can apparently take up to 120 days for them to send the data back to me – via the mail, of course… Dealing with the government on occasion is good for a person; gets you to slow down and enjoy the process. 🙂

I’ve also started the process for my OMPF from my time in the Navy – which is another lengthy form – online this time – from archives.gov.

See, my military days were 32 to 36 years ago; before smartphones and digital cameras and social media memorizing every aspect of your life for you. So, while I know the big dates, like the day in July I raised my right hand and enlisted, and the day in October when I drove through the front gate of the Groton Sub Base base for the last time – the rest is kind of a blur.

Anyway, now that the zombie virus has abated, the archives folks are back up to speed and handling cases not directly involving death – so I sent that e-form off today.

Listening to "LA Late At Night" by Timecop1983

3D

Today we set the wayback machine to 1998; the very early days of 3D video games powered by dedicated 3D hardware…

The era of “3dfx” and a whole lot of voodoo.

This was the absolute best 3D card in ’98 – ran about $500, has 12 MEGS of ram, and a 90Mhz clock speed. This was in my EverQuest rig, which had a bleeding edge 300Mhz Pentium II, 128 MEGS of ram, and a very fancy SCSI-II drive subsystem.

I think at the time I was building this machine Windows 95 was the top PC OS – Win98 wouldn’t come out for a couple of months.

One of the nice things about this card is you didn’t have to set jumpers for hardware bus settings like IRQ. The drivers had evolved to a point where they could poll for the card and figure things out.

Good times.

Listening to "Standing on Higher Ground" by The Alan Parsons Project