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AGW #27: Nearly 20 Years Seems Like Such A Long Time...
Author: JonnyGURU
Date Posted: December 17th, 2001

Nearly 20 Years Seems Like Such A Long Time...

For a brief moment in the tech room, there was silence.

Phones weren't ringing; CPU fans weren't spinning, p.o.s.t. codes weren't beeping... It was quiet.

Becoming uneasy from the awkward silence, I turn to one of the other techs and say, "Yo, Joe! Go voice!"

Back in the 80s we both ran BBSs. His was on a Atari 800 and mine was on a Coleco ADAM.

This simple phrase prompted us to set the controls on the way back machine and do a little reminiscing.

Time and time again, we get the customer that calls for tech support whose problem can easily be solved because the problem that they are dealing with is often a "known issue". Sometimes, the customers are "old timers" and they feel insulted that the problem that they're experiencing is so simple and simply solved.

Tech: "Sir, you're jumpers are set wrong."

Customer: "I've been jumpering boards for 15 years!"

Tech: "Your heat sink fan's on backwards."

Customer: "I've been installing heat sink fans for 10 years!"

Tech: "Sir, you're grounding out the board."

Customer: "I've been mounting motherboards for 20 years!"

It never ends. Of course, we want to say, "they didn't make that board 15 years ago so how would you know how to set the jumpers" or "they didn't make that heatsink that you're using 10 years ago" or "they didn't make that motherboard 20 years ago".

Try explaining to a man that has built nothing but AT PCs for the last 15 years that they can flip that switch on the back of that ATX power supply until pigs fly, but you'll never turn the PC on that way.

For us, it's an unwritten pact that we have back in the tech room that we never use our own experiences or certifications as a defense against these people. Never do we justify why we're telling people to do what we are telling them to do by stating that because we've been doing this a long time they must listen to us.

Perhaps it's because we know that the industry moves so fast and changes so quickly, and the way things work can be so different from platform to platform and brand to brand, that this previous experience is nothing more than a notch on a belt.

It could also be because we know how stupid someone sounds when they start spouting off about how many years they spent doing this and that and how irrelevant it is that you overclocked your 386 ten years ago when you just now chipped the core on your Athlon!

"Yo, Joe! Go voice!"

"What's up, Jon?" he responds.

"Got any phreak codes?" I ask, "I need to get some more G files from a BBS up in Michigan."

Joe starts laughing. "No way dude! Just use a War Games dialer. I've just about got this door game beat! North, West, North, North...."

"Come on, man!" I say to Joe, "They've got plans that'll allow me to control my electric train with my garage door opener!"

"Do you remember Temple of Apshai?" Joe asks.

"Oh yeah! Mold, slime mold and slime... The asp always kicked my ass. It's not fair to make and enemy that moves 5 times faster than your character!"

"I couldn't finish any of the rooms on the fourth level." Joe said sadly.

I remember finally getting a PC with over 64K of RAM, and now my video card has 1000 times that.

I remember floppies with only 256K, and now I have a CPU with that much Level 2 cache.

I remember breaking the 2MHz barrier. Yeah. 2MHz. Now we're 1000 times that at 2 GHz!

Hard drives? Who could afford a hard drive? For over $1000, you could get a Seagate ST506 hard drive. You were GOD with your 5 MB capacity. We were like, "Dude... What's a Megabyte? 5120K? NO WAY! That's like 20 floppy disks!" Now, 1000 times that isn't even enough. Seriously, how many of you are using a 5 GB or smaller drive on their main system?

Speaking of expensive, there was a long time where all I had was a 300 baud modem. Over a very short period of time, 1200 and 2400 baud modems came out. Even by 1983, I still couldn't even afford a 1200 baud modem at $700, and that unit didn't even have an auto dialer! As it was, I had to ask my parents and grandparents for cash for Christmas and for my birthday to save up the $300 it took to buy one 5 1/4" floppy drive. Good thing my birthday's in January! I don't know if I could hold out on spending the money on something like PacMan trading cards if I had to wait more than a month!

Not until 9600 modems come out did I move into a 2400 baud modem. I did this for two reasons. One was cost. I could finally score a decent modem for only $300. Another reason was the ability to auto dial and auto answer like my 300 baud. Not only did the computer have to run a BBS in my absence, but also at non-peak times the PC needed to randomly dial numbers for a covert operation that I was involved in, that the statute of limitations may not be up on.

Building or expanding a PC was something else all together. Most of the "universal" components were external and internal components wouldn't fit in everyone's housing, so it wasn't unusual to have open cases with ribbon cables coming out of them or expansion cards sticking 1" over the top. Despite the fact that the original Apple case was made of wood, I don't recall any of us picking up the title of "case modder" and making our own wood case that would actually accommodate our hardware. Why weren't we thinking!?

Software could be tricky too. We actually used hex editors extensively and some of us had to write our own machine code to accommodate our "not-quite-made-for-the-system" hardware (I had to peek and poke the hell out of my BBS software just to auto answer the stupid 2400 baud modem).

We had to walk up hill in the snow with pit bulls gnawing at our heels!! My parents made me mine my own coal to cook my dinners! Ok, ok... I know what I'm starting to sound like.

Over the years, friends were busted and BBSs went down. One day, my mom even kicked me out of the house and I had sold all of my computer stuff for cash and an old Vectrex game console. I loaded my motorcycle's panniers, strapped the Vectrex to the luggage rack, and rode off into the sunset.

One would think that by now I'd be some Luddite retro-grouch. Fact is that I'm still just as excited about hardware as before and I love my Radeon 8500 and couldn't be talked out of my Athlon XP. I've got 1 GB of RAM, even though I don't need it, and 75 GB of hard drive space filled primarily with MP3s. It's just fun to look back sometimes and think, "Wow! It's only 15 years later and my computer is literally 1000 times better than the ones we used back then, in more ways then one."

But tell me... what does any of what I had 15 years ago; have to do with my ability to build or use a PC today?

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