Tag Archives: Commodore VIC 20

Hail, ye olde Commodore

Hello, old friend.

Ready.  That’s what my Commodore VIC-20 told me every time I flipped it on.  No “Press Ctrl+Alt+Del” or any other series of commands to get things moving.  Just Ready.  Ready for what seemed like the limitless possibility of high-tech adventure waiting at the first keystroke.  A basic calculator purchased at the Dollar Store today likely has more computing power than my old Vic, the chunky pillow-sized box you had to plug into your television.  Commodore has faded from the scene, its late founder Jack Tramiel, who passed away Sunday at the age of 83, hardly a household name with the recognition factor of Jobs or Gates.  But for many of us who have grown up never knowing a world without computers as a part of regular life, the Commodore line was our gleaming key to the front door, an inexpensive welcome into the virtual world of ones and zeroes that has come to redefine history.  It was ready, and so were we.

Pitched on television by none other than William Shatner, the VIC-20, introduced in 1980, was already obsolete when I unwrapped it one fateful Christmas morning three decades ago, but it cost half as much as its successor the 64.  It came with a pair of game cartridges – a thinly disguised Pac-Man clone called “Cosmic Cruncher” and the frustrating “Jupiter Lander,” where the goal was to guide a collection of pixels roughly resembling the Apollo 11 lunar module across the uneven green blob of an alien world.  I like many other youngsters of the era was more interested in the instruction booklet, because it included a tutorial on basic programming language, a rudimentary guide to getting your Vic to do anything.  A handful of sample programs were included, my personal favourite being one that showed you how to animate a stick figure doing jumping jacks.  10 PRINT “\O/” was the first line and you can guess where it went from there.  If you were really ambitious, you could get the jumping man to change colors too.

The most complicated program in the guide created a menu from which you could select one of three different dishes, the recipes for each you had painstakingly typed into the Vic’s memory, and these were the days when you couldn’t save anything.  Unless you had the add-on cassette drive, which used audio tapes you hadn’t already turned into bootleg recordings of Thriller to store dozens of primitive games and anything else you could dream up to impress your friends.  Can’t-miss cartoons of the day were swiftly forgotten, replaced by hours inputting commands to make the Vic do anything from drawing a happy face to calculating baseball statistics to asking trivia questions.  You didn’t need a degree in coding to get the Vic to perform for you; a quick study through the manual was enough to get you going.  In many ways its simplicity helped demystify and deprogram – pardon the pun – the idea of the cold, impenetrable, malevolent silicon intelligence of HAL 9000 and his cinematic siblings from the public consciousness.  Now, anyone could figure these things out and make them dance.  It made us feel in charge of our machines again.

Looking back the entire package was not much of a step up from punch cards and the telegraph, but that didn’t matter.  What differentiated the Vic from its competitors was that with the Vic, you weren’t just playing in somebody else’s pre-designed sandbox, limited to discovering new ways to guide a frog across a highway or save a princess from an angry barrel-throwing monkey.  The Vic was your sandbox – you were learning and creating.  You were computing.  You were laying the foundations of the next great evolution in human communication to come, even with the brown buttons and the beige box.  The Vic, and its more successful cousin, the Commodore 64, gave you the ability to exercise the most important muscle of all – your imagination.  All it asked was that you be ready, and at the appropriate time, type in RUN.

Tears in rain

Memory is a curious thing.  It is not the same trait as intellect; many of the world’s smartest people can’t remember where they left their car keys.  The most frustrating aspect of memory for those of us who don’t have the gift – apart from the headaches it causes those who live with us – is the failure of our brains to act like reliable nth-terabyte hard drives from which we can instantly access any desired thought as simply as double-clicking a mouse.  This can be particularly intimidating when attempting to participate in a conversation where your friends are sharing detailed recollections of events that happened twenty, thirty years ago, recounting every sound, every smell, every syllable of dialogue.  You feel lesser somehow.  Incomplete.  As we grow older, and friends and family fall away either through distance or the tragedy of passing, the reserves from which we can draw the history of our lives begin to dry up.  Without a reliable memory to keep the flame alight, it can lead you to feel like a part of you is missing – that like in Blade Runner, it has been “lost in time, like tears in rain.”  I’m envious of those who have had the foresight to keep diaries from a young age.  Like saving for retirement, there are innumerable advantages to starting sooner rather than later.  (If only there had been a version of WordPress for my old Commodore VIC-20.)

It’s been said that an unexamined life is not worth living, and how else can we examine that life without our memories to draw upon?  At the same time, one is forced to ask whether the sum worth of a person’s existence is the breadth of the memory he carries, or the impact he has left on the outside world – in a sense, the memories others have of him.  We must each arrive at a point in our histories where we question whether we have done enough with the life we have been given, if we have experienced, tasted enough of the richness that is our universe.  What is it about our memories that makes us walk taller than the others who share the street with us?  Are memories truly the building blocks – the only building blocks – of the soul?  The end of Blade Runner is one of the most poetic expressions of this question.  Nearing the last minutes of his four-year lifespan, the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Deckard (Harrison Ford), the man assigned to hunt him down and kill him.  As Deckard is about to fall to his death from the side of a building, Batty unexpectedly reaches out and saves his life.  Sitting quietly together with his adversary as his final seconds tick down, Batty recounts some of the wonders he has seen and mourns their passing.  Up to this point the entire film has posed the question of what it is to have a soul, whether or not it matters if the components of that soul are electronic or organic.  The replicants – the androids – show empathy for one another, feel fear, anger and sadness, while the humans are cold, relentless killers:  Deckard at one point shoots an unarmed female replicant in the back twice as she flees half-naked through the streets.  Batty’s final act of pure compassion toward the man who was sent to destroy him seems to suggest – notwithstanding his lament for his lost memories – that the soul is found in the actions, not the recollections.  Not what we bring to the game of life, but how we play it.  Perhaps that explains Batty’s wry smile as he whispers “Time to die” and his head sinks in the silence of the falling rain.

Whether we remember them or not, our memories have played a part in shaping our evolution as people, directing our choices based on past experience, the recollection of what works and what doesn’t.  But they are not the definition of who we are.  We exist in four dimensions and our future actions are as important to the overall portrait of us as what we have done in every second of existence leading to this point.  The key difference is that the future is still under our control, the way our pasts and our memories never will be.  We can choose to remember things a certain way, but that does not change how they happened.  Each new moment brings with it limitless opportunity to forge a new and bolder path, to create a lasting legacy – a complete soul – whose every minute detail you won’t need to remember, because the evidence of it will be all around you wherever you go.  Never to be lost like tears in rain.