Enter, and exit, the SX-64

I routinely check out Kijiji for old school Macintosh Powerbooks (pre-G3 variety) and Commodore gear. A few years ago I did a Canada wide search and found an SX-64 for a great price, the only caveat being it was in Calgary of all places. Well, some power that be must have wanted me to have it…I reached out to the owner to ask him if he’d be willing to ship, and by pure fluke he was going to be in the Toronto area that weekend visiting family, and would be willing to lug it over for me. So a few days later, and $200 poorer, I had myself a nice new SX-64.

The system came with an RS-232 interface, Super Snapshot V4, and a few floppies with not much on them. I played with it for a bit with the software it came with, a few games, mainly The Hunt for Red October, but practically speaking I couldn’t do much with it without some additional software. Back at my dad’s I had literally boxes of Commodore gear in storage, so eventually I managed to get out there and snag my old CMD-HD, a 1581, and some random boxes of disks. Because everything was in storage I wasn’t sure what I would come back with, but I did come back with some demos and a bunch of Commodore 128 disks, which didn’t do me much good… sigh. Still not much to do with it. I couldn’t even download D64 images because I didn’t have the right cables to create a null modem connection between my current computer and the SX-64.

Fast forward a few months and I found myself at World of Commodore, and luckily Jim Brain from Retro Innovations was there. Which means I could finally pick up some new gear, and that I did!

With all that, I was finally able to download some D64 images and start using them on the SX-64, fun times!

I used the SX-64 on and off for about a month but eventually had to put it away. The SX-64 by itself is a great machine, but to get good use of it I had to pull out my CMD HD, 1581, and the SD card reader..all of that stuff takes a lot of space, and detracts from the portable nature of the machine.. So after all that money spent, the machine went into the corner beside my Osborne 1.

But then…

When the bug hit this year and I was able to connect to some telnet BBSes using CGTerm, I realized that using a terminal on a Windows 10 machine just wasn’t cutting it. But how the heck could I get the SX-64 online? I did have the Ethernet adapter I bought at WoC, but being in a wireless house that just wasn’t an option. I started doing some digging and found out about tcpser, yet another Jim Brain production. Luckily I had an entire box of cables in the garage, and in there was a null modem cable and a USB-RS232 adapter! I was able to connect the SX-64 to my Mac Mini and…SUCCESS!, log onto a real Commodore BBS using a real Commodore computer!

This led me down another rabbit hole as I discovered that my terminal program of choice, CCGMS, was still being actively maintained (albeit by a new developer), and it had been updated for use on telnet BBSes. I spent the better part of the night "dialing" out, signing up for a few boards, and having a blast. I left everything looked up, and hit the sack.

And then disaster struck. The next morning I went to check things out, and my SX-64 was on a locked screen. “No worries” I thought, reboot, and off we go, right? Not quite. When I rebooted everything the system was dead. Garbage characters on the screen, nothing responsive.

Once again I was back to square one.

Rekindling Interests in The Scene

Quite a while ago I had heard of telnet BBSes — I really don’t rememember how I found out about them. It was probably a thread on some message board when wifi modems were becoming popular. So, trying to alleviate my bordom back in June, on a whim I randomly searched for some telnet BBSes to see what was out there. I ended up finding a couple of names I recognized such as The Jamming Signal BBS, and a few I didn’t recognize when I found the site CBBS Outpost. I was a bit in shock that there was such a resurgence in BBSes, especially those running on real Commodore hardware. That was the first step in starting to dig myself into the retro scene hole.

Because the BBSes were running on real hardware, I would need a real Commodore to dial out to them so I could bask in the old school PETSCII glory, or so I thought. I stumbled upon the BBS guide by Triad+Onslaught (link, local copy), and from there did some more digging and ended up finding out how to run CGTerm on Windows 10 (link).

Wanting to try CGTerm out, I poked around a bit more on CBBS Outpost and found a couple of BBSes to try out. The listings were pretty old, but I finally found one that allowed me to connect, that being the 8-bit Playground. I managed to log in, and was quickly taken down memory lane for 15 minutes with PETSCII CG graphics coming across the pipe, and created an account. I poked around the BBS for a bit and then logged off, forgetting about the whole experience.

As an aside, I did all of this off of an old Thinkpad X200 I keep in the TV room. At some point after that, the laptop died on me, but I managed to find a replacement X200 a few weeks later, transferred the HD, and was up and running again. Now, fast forward a few weeks and I had the laptop I was working on up and running again, and again I found myself bored. Remembering that I had signed up on the 8-Bit Playground, I tried logging in again and was successful–they hadn’t deleted my account due to inactivity! Once again, I started poking around the board, even trying to write a message.

The message editor on 8-Bit Playground is horrendously slow. I was literally typing 1 character every two seconds (i.e. 30 characters per minute) so that the editor could keep up with me. The sysop of the board must have seen my frustration and dropped into one on one chat with me.

And this is where things turned the corner.

The internet as it is today is, well, the internet. There are a pleathora of sites, bulletin boards, social media sites, online shoppoing, video, etc. All..Over..The..World.. For the most part, putting up a contemporary BBS involves buying a domain, buying a hosting package, installing the software (e.g. phpBB), and that’s it. And even then, “installing” the software usually means going to Softalicious in the CPanel on a site, clicking “install phpBB”, and being done with it. People would then “log in” to your BBS by going to the website, which is running on some virtual server somewhere god knows where.

This is a big contrast to how things were before. Back in the hayday of Commodore BBSes, putting up a BBS meant setting up a computer somewhere in your home, buying (or programming!!) a BBS program, installing a phone line (or using your current line for those BBSes that only ran after hours), and hooking up your modem. On top of that you had to have a good feel for the hardware, and the BBS program, and do a lot of setup. You had to figure out how to structure your multi-drive system, and perish forbid that something happened because then you’d have to figure out how to fix your disks due to corruption. For someone to call your BBS they dialed from their computer (also hooked up to a modem), over a POTS (Plain Old Telephone System, i.e. “land line”). Practically speaking, their computer was then connected directly to your computer. Essentially the person calling your BBS was virtually inside your house. Remember up above when I said that the “sysop of the board must have seen my frustration”? BBSes back in the day were running on your computer, so typically the sysop could literally see everything you did. If they wanted to drop into chat, they hit a key on their keyboard, and you were magically transported to a one on one chat room where just the two of you could talk–err, type.

When the sysop dropped into one on one chat with me, I suddenly remembered how intimate the entire experience was. With a modern BBS on the internet any number of users can be on the board at the same time, and you are just one user floating in a sea of users. There is a physical and logical divided between the person (or persons, or corporation), running the bulletin board, and the user. The user logs into their computer, which traverses internet connections to some server. The owner/operator of the bulletin board also logs into their computer, traverses different connections, to probably the same server. But either way the user and the owner/operator are abstracted away from each other by the basic design of the modern internet.

Commodore BBSes, by their design, are one on one experiences. Only one person online at a time, smaller message boards, basically a more personal affair. You are sitting directly at your computer, connected directly to the owner/operator (i.e. sysop’s) computer. To be fair, the land line is sitting between your and the other computer, but it is still basically a physical connection between the computers. Of course, a Commodore BBS running today is not running over a land line – it is abstracted just like a modern day bulletin board system, because it is leveraging the internet as the transportation mechanism. However, the locality of the hardware still exists; you are still connecting to a computer in that person’s private space, which reinforces the intimate nature of the affair. All that to say, BBSes, at least those running historic BBS software that runs on a single computer, offer a different experience than a BBS where you simply rent a server and install phpBB.

Needless to say, this direct connection aspect really triggered something for me, and made me remember when I ran my own BBS years ago.

And then I asked myself, could I not put up a BBS myself today?