Notes about 1980s

October 23, 2022 permalink

Area 5150 — mindbending IBM 8088 demo

Another from the recent boggling demoscene demos, here’s a bonkers one pulling off tricks on vintage IBM 8088 PC hardware that the 16-color CGA graphics adapter shouldn’t be capable of doing. Remember this is a computer setup from circa 1981!

My favorite part of these kind of demos is when the audience goes wild (well, relatively) for the breakdancing elephant animation, even more than for the psuedo-3D graphics and psychedelic color scanline gimmicks.


November 13, 2021 permalink

Open to Conversion

Screen shot from PCPaint in 4-color mode

Over on Tedium, a nostalgia bomb roundup of 10 image file formats that time forgot. I wouldn’t say that BMP or even TIFF are exactly forgotten, and VRML seems like the odd one out as a text-based markup language (but definitely in the zeitgeist this month with all of the nouveau metaverse talk), but many of these took me back to the good old days. Also I didn’t know that the Truevision TARGA hardware, remarkable for its time in the mid-1980s with millions of colors and alpha channel support, was an internal creation from AT&T (my dad worked for AT&T corporate back then, but all we got at home was the decidedly not-remarkable 2-color Hercules display on our AT&T 6300 PC). JPEG and GIF continue to dominate 30+ years later, but it’s interesting to see what could have been, if only some of these other systems jumped more heavily into file compression…

March 1, 2020 permalink

The Making of Brilliance

In 1985, computer graphics were exotic enough that using them for a TV commercial was the kind of thing you might save for a Super Bowl ad slot, as seen in this short documentary. I would not have guessed that the first significant use of CGI on TV was for an ad illustrating the sexy (?) futuristic appear of _aluminum cans_.

(They fail to mention this in this mini-doc, but the ad studio was clearly lifting the chrome-plated sexy robots imagery of Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama)

April 10, 2017 permalink

The Making of Rock and Rule

The Making of Rock & Rule

Hey, it’s Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, and Maurice White talking about their roles in the odd, uneven 1983 toon film Rock & Rule. The movie itself is kind of lousy, except that it somehow was starring these folks (and their music), and despite Nelvana turning it into a very off Disney / Goofy-esque rotoscoped nightmare.

Possibly of interest for the above-mentioned musician interviews alone, the documentary also has scenes of how feature animation was made in the early 1980s (traditional hand-drawn cels with multiplane camera photography), and some talk about the synthesizer work of Patricia Cullen (who IMBD tells me recorded synth scores for a number of other 1980s cartoons and TV shows).

(via The Making of Rock and Rule : Nelvana : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive)

March 8, 2017 permalink

Douglas Crockford Atari Burgers and Maniac Mansion

I recently went on a dig through the Atari 8-bit Manuals archive, clicked on a fairly random manual for a not-exactly-popular shoot-em-up (Burgers!), and was surprised to find that the game was written by Douglas Crockford, well-known JavaScript developer and creator of the JSON data format standard.

This also reminded me that I’d also seen his name on early Lucasfilm Game products — he was the one who had to bowdlerize the NES port of Maniac Mansion for the NES! Go read his Expurgation of Maniac Mansion post, it’s worth it if you’re a fan of that era of adventure game.

Anyhow, I kind of envy his career path.

June 16, 2014 permalink

Dennis Hopper Russian Dynamite Death Chair

[Video no longer available]

In 1983, immediately after screening his new film Out of the Blue at Rice University, Dennis Hopper invited the attendees out to a racetrack outside city limits by way of school bus where they could watch the actor sit in a chair ringed by dynamite and witness him explode — or hopefully not, if the trick he called the “Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act” is pulled off successfully…

In attendance for the explosive, not-entirely-sober stunt: Wim Wenders (presumably in the vicinity while filming Paris, Texas?), Terry Southern (screenwriter: Dr. Strangelove, Casino Royale, Easy Rider), and a 22-year-old Sam Houston State student named Richard Linklater (!).

Dangerous Minds has the full story.

(hat tip to Caitlin Moore and John-Mike who heard the episode firsthand from Mr. Linklater at a recent Austin Film Society event)

April 25, 2014 permalink

On the Clash, Winchell’s Donuts, and 1980s Austin

My mind was somewhat blown when I discovered that the Clash filmed the video for Rock the Casbah here in Austin, TX back in 1981 (go watch it, it’s on YouTube). It became a trivia game amongst my office of long-time Austinites to try to identify all of the various shots in the video, most of which are at businesses and hangouts long gone (you’ll see the original Posse at 24th & Guadalupe, the Alamo Hotel, the Burger King on the Drag, the gas station across from Oat Willie’s on 29th, the old City Coliseum music venue, etc.).

Before I go into the long Austin-nerd story below, I learned a couple of other amazing things about this video via this great read:

  • The director of photography was Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later go on to film Raising Arizona, When Harry Met Sally, and direct the Men in Black trilogy and The Addams Family.
  • The “Sheik” and the “Orthodox Jew” characters were played by amateur actors. The two of them hung out with Barry Sonnenfeld that night at the Liberty Lunch, and met a couple of young dudes in town scouting for a location for their first feature film: Ethan and Joel Coen!

Now onto the deeper trivia investigation…

One long-standing mystery was the quick shot of the armadillo traipsing in front of a Winchell’s Donuts (a chain that hasn’t been seen here in decades). I came back to this recently and asked for help from Twitter and Facebook friends, and the best clue came from this excellent post from Troy Dillinger about the early days of MTV-era punk rock, Joe Ely, and the Clash. That post cites the location as S. Congress & Oltorf, so I jumped over to Google Street View to confirm, and lo and behold I think I’ve found the shot, documented with the photo below.

But then controversy: multiple people wrote to me to say “no no, it was South Lamar and Barton Skyway!” or “I remember going to that place, it was on Duval near UT, close to the Posse East”. This kind of gnawing uncertainty has a way of festering in my trivia-addled mind, so I needed to confirm for sure. Also, my officemates were now even more perplexed.


I work across the street from the Briscoe Center for American History, which conveniently has phone books for many Texas cities dating back to the early 1900s. Disguised as a researcher, I had them pull the Austin phone books for 1979–1983, and I looked up Winchell’s Donuts. Only three locations were listed, none on South Congress or Lamar or even the implausible Duval. What the heck, yo.

Thankfully, my boss earlier pointed out the red DRUGS sign on the building in the background (early subliminal messaging in a music video?? ;). We couldn’t read the blurry hexagonal sign just behind the Winchell’s, but this drugstore sign was a great clue. The 1980s phone books listed a Revco Drugs at 2301 S. Congress, exactly the address where I took this Street View shot. The logo looks right, if you can imagine what the 1980s stylized version would be, with the outsized script R. Also, Revco was purchased in the late 1990s by CVS, which exists at that location today, and to my eyes it looks like they just swapped logos on the hexagonal sign.

Further evidence: another shot in the Clash video was filmed outside a Victorian-style house, which is now a Wells Fargo bank right across the street from this Congress & Oltorf location.


Hat tip to one Daniel Lugo for pointing out the identical 3 poles and fire hydrant, and to everyone else who wrote to share links or other anecdotes about 1980s Austin!

UPDATE October, 2015:

I’ve heard from a number of nice people with personal connections to this location and even with this video shoot, but a reader just now pointed out that I got so caught up on the Revco detail that I neglected to mention where the stupid Winchell’s Donuts was exactly!

That reader speculates that the location is where the Subway currently is (2315 S Congress Ave), and I believe that’s true. The double-poled Subway sign is likely yet another clue / confirmation. Unless you know otherwise!

September 4, 2013 permalink

Box Office Success Is Wonderful and Thats What

Box office success is wonderful, and that’s what everyone wants,” says Landis. “But as we all know, lots of shitty movies are huge hits, and lots of great movies fail. You know, Peter Bogdanovich famously said, ‘The only true test of a movie is time.’ That’s the best thing about movies — they still exist.

September 5, 2012 permalink

Eff the Ineffable

Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

From Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I’m reading again for the first time since the eighth grade. It’s weird reading it now, knowing that it was originally written as part of Dr. Who series!

May 5, 2012 permalink

Wang Computers Commercial

The first computer at my house when I was a toddler was a Wang (presumably the 8088-based PC clone?) on loan from my dad’s job at AT&T, later replaced by the equally sexy Olivetti M24. All I remember about the Wang was that it had a letter guessing game called Wangman, and some kind of text-based dungeon / Adventure clone. And years later memories of it provided a good chuckle during an episode of the Simpsons (“Thank goodness he’s drawing attention away from my shirt!”). Unpopular computers FTW.

(Via John Nack)

March 8, 2012 permalink

Boston News on the Morris Worm

[Video no longer available]

A fun Boston nightly news clip from 1988 on the outbreak of the Morris worm, one of the first Internet-spreading infections that caught mainstream attention. There’s much to love about this clip: the “part-time virus hunter”, the scenes of MIT’s computer labs, the bizarre (but maybe slyly satirical?) footage of the infamous Atari 2600 ET game inserted, um, I guess to, uh, illustrate something computer-y?

(Via Dangerous Minds)

August 29, 2011 permalink

Ad Rock Sneaks in “Cookie Puss” on Nickelodeon

[Alas, video has been removed from YouTube]

DJ Jazzy Jay and Afrika Bambaataa on a 1984 episode of Nickelodeon’s Live Wire, showing kids how to scratch. Awesome enough as it is, but WAIT A MINUTE — is that a 17-year-old Ad-Rock in the audience sneaking in a plug for Cookie Puss at 4:18??!

(Via Dangerous Minds and  They Might Be Giants)

July 30, 2011 permalink

Visual 6502

Archeology Magazine has a feature story about the “digital archeologists” behind Visual6502, the group “excavating” and fully remapping the inner workings of the classic 8-bit MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor. That might not sound interesting, but if you’ve been alive for more than 20 years you know the chip: it was the heart of early home computers ranging from the Apple I and Apple ][ to the Atari game consoles all the way up to the Nintendo NES.

Very cool and all, but in case you’re still not interested, here’s some excellent trivia slipped into the article:

In the 1984 film The Terminator, scenes shown from the perspective of the title character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, include 6502 programming code on the left side of the screen.

Whaaat!? The SFX team working on The Terminator went so far as to copy actual assembly code into their shots? That’s pretty awesome! So where’d they get it? It was copied from Apple II code published in Nibble Magazine (even the T-800 enjoys emulators when its not busy hunting down humanity, I guess).

Bonus nerdery: check out this HTML5 + JavaScript visual simulation of the 6502 chip. Holy smokes!

(Via Discover, photo from the Visual6502 site)

July 9, 2011 permalink

Matt Groening Apple Ads

One of a handful of cartoons that Matt Groening created back in the late 80’s for a Macintosh ad brochure targeting new college students. Apart from Life in Hell’s Bongo, I think the other drawings are original characters? Just noticed this in the fine print on the back cover:

The characters in this brochure are fictional, and any similarities to actual persons, friends, or significant others is purely coincidental.

Whew, glad they cleared that up!

June 16, 2011 permalink

Maniac Mansion Disassembled

The Mansion – Technical Aspects

If you love the old Lucasfilm games and want a peek into how their venerable game engine worked from a very technical perspective, you should read this article that walks through a disassembled Maniac Mansion. Extra bonus: Ron Gilbert, the creator of the SCUMM scripting language, drops a lengthy note in the comments section with insider info:

One of the goals I had for the SCUMM system was that non-programers could use it. I wanted SCUMM scripts to look more like movies scripts, so the language got a little too wordy. This goal was never really reached, you always needed to be a programmer. 🙁

Some examples:

actor sandy walk-to 67,8

This is the command that walked an actor to a spot.

actor sandy face-right
actor sandy do-animation reach
walk-actor razor to-object microwave-oven
start-script watch-edna
stop-script watch-edna
say-line dave “Don’t be a tuna head.”
say-line selected-kid “I don’t want to use that right now.”

I think it’s amazing that they managed to build a script interpreter with preemptive multitasking (game events could happen simultaneously, allowing for multiple ‘actors’ to occupy the same room, the clock in the hallway to function correctly, etc.), clever sprite and scrolling screen management, and fairly non-linear set of puzzles into software originally written for the 8-bit C64 and Apple II era of computers.

(Via the International House of Mojo)

June 15, 2011 permalink Brings Back Usenet from 30 Years Ago

Screenshot from an interesting project, ― Usenet posts reappearing in realtime as they did exactly 30 years ago, a new way of experiencing the history of the early Net. See how things were mere months before the launch of B-News, long before the Great Renaming and the creation of the alt.* hierarchy, and best of all, the introduction of spam is more than a decade away still!

You can use either the browser-based client to poke through the messages, or point your favorite NNTP client to the site and experience it as you would the real Usenet. Nice!

Also, I like this answer from the FAQ:

Can I post to
Your posts will be accepted, but will not show up for at least 30 years. 🙂

(Via Waxy Links)

November 27, 2009 permalink

From Endless Loop a Brief History of Chiptunes

From Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes:

Pressure Cooker was an ambitious exception among its contemporaries. In 1980, most home computer music remained limited to single-voice melodies and lacked dynamic range. Robert “Bob” Yannes, a self-described “electronic music hobbyist,” saw the sound hardware in first-generation microcomputers as “primitive” and suggested that they had been “designed by people who knew nothing about music” (Yannes 1996). In 1981, he began to design a new audio chip for MOS Technology called the SID (Sound Interface Device). In contrast to the kludgy Atari TIA, Yannes intended the SID to be as useful in professional synthesizers as it would be in microcomputers. Later that year, Commodore decided to include MOS Technology’s new SID alongside a dedicated graphics chip in its next microcomputer, the Commodore 64. Unlike the Atari architecture, in which a single piece of hardware controlled both audio and video output, the Commodore machine afforded programmers greater flexibility in their implementation of graphics and sound […]

When I saw this headline linked by Waxy I took it to be an overview of the recent (late 90’s to now) chiptune music craze, but it’s actually a nice little overview of the nearly 30 years old history of writing music on game hardware. Even includes sections on cracktros, the demoscene, and the early advent of trackers, along with some good videos of the relevant technology.

(Photo of the SID chip via Chris Hand)

October 19, 2009 permalink

The Complete History of Lemmings We Did Manage

The Complete History of Lemmings.

We did manage to fox Psygnosis now and then, and I can lay claim that it took John White an hour to figure out “Its hero time”. When ever psygnosis did some testing, we’d get back a fax with the level name, time taken to complete, and some comments and a difficulty rating. These were usually aound 3-6 minutes, and some general coments on how they found it.

Every now and again though, the fax would be covered in scribbles with the time and comment’s crossed out again and again; this is what we were striving for while we were designing the levels, and it gave us all a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

(Yet another good link via O’Reilly Radar)

August 13, 2009 permalink

The Women of Leisure Suit Larry

From The Women of Leisure Suit Larry. I don’t think I could sum it up any better than the post’s author: “there is a seriously ugly and amazing coffee table art book dying to be made out of this”. Hopefully such a coffee table book would include a portion dedicated to the even-more-awkward non-Sierra attempts at smut like Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender.

(Via Offworld)