Monday, December 04, 2006

Still crazy about Commodore 64
Devotees of the seminal Commodore 64 gathered last weekend to praise the majesty of their PCs, poring over manuals and swapping stories
Dec. 4, 2006. 07:24 AM

Dropping his ears close to the motherboard now and then, Greg Nacu fiddles with the guts of his Commodore 64 laptop computer like he's tinkering with the engine of a car.

Once the pride of 1984, the hulking dinosaur lies open on a table in the basement of a west-end church as the 25-year-old hooks it up to an equally archaic 13-inch monitor.

It doesn't work right away.

But that's just fine for Nacu, a computer programmer from Kingston, who's been using this laptop exclusively since he found it hidden under his parent's bed more than a decade ago.

Being able to troubleshoot with ease is one reason he's crazy about his Commodore.

"It's just like a car," the pony-tailed man says, referring to the entire line of primitive, personal computing machines, specifically the suitcase-sized box before him.

"All you have to do is pop `em open and listen. Oh! there's a problem with chip CI #2, so you just slip in another chip — that's the best thing about these computers and it's cool in a geeky sort of way."

More than 75 others share his sentiments.

Their love of the yellowing clunkers is what brought them to Alderwood United Church, near Sherway Gardens mall, last weekend for the World of Commodore 2006 conference.

Coke-bottle glasses, flood-pants and a kind of tech-testosterone were in ample supply at the annual Toronto PET User's Group conference, which draws Commodore 64 fanatics from all over Canada and the U.S. to revel in what is now seen as nascent technology. The Commodore PET, unveiled in 1977, was billed the world's first personal computer. Even so, the Commodores were in production until the early 1990s.

Formed in 1979, TPUG is known as the second-oldest Commodore 64 club around and is dedicated to talking about, playing with and worshipping the computing equivalent of Ford's Model T.

Wearing "I Heart My Commodore Computer" buttons on the left side of their shirts, TPUG members flocked to the event to swap ideas, ancient DOS manuals and obsolete computer parts, such as the floppy disk drive.

Many user group members are more than mere hobbyists.

Leif Bloomquist, 33, has been crazy about Commodores since acquiring his first in 1988.

`I wish Commodore 64 were still alive. The rest of the industry is so boring'

Programmer Greg Nacu

Hovering beside a black screen blinking with a line of fluorescent green text, he says he's here to corroborate with like-minded individuals about a special project — getting Commodore computers to communicate with one another over the Internet.

"I had this idea when I was 15," says Bloomquist, a contractor to the Canadian Space Agency who's involved in writing software for the next Mars mission.

"I can now take what I've learned back to the computer I started with and do all the crazy ideas I had as a kid.

"We can create things now that were impossible 20 years ago."

Some enthusiasts, like Joe Palumbo, prefer to remain in the past. The 39-year-old, who sings the Commodore's praises at every opportunity, remembers fondly when "science fiction came into his home" in the late 1970s.

To this day, he uses a Commodore 64 to run his small business. He sells Commodore parts.

"It was a giant leap," Palumbo says, of owning such a device, "and being able to program it ... I was God." He adds that another advantage of living in this bygone era is that the technology of the best-selling single computer system never changes. About 17 million units were sold.

Erik Kudzin, an electronic technician, who drove in from Chicago to attend, says it's liberating to be freed from the shackles of having to keep up with the latest, increasingly pricey and complicated hardware.

"You can pull your hair out trying to use the computers nowadays," he says, from a room filled with vendors selling past-their-prime games such as Jump Man, old joysticks and even a Commodore 64 in its original 1982 wrapping.

"And, it does what you want. These are from a simpler time."

Waxing nostalgic about his childhood Commodore, Rob Adlers, a Toronto software tester, came to show event-goers that these devices, which long ago joined banana hair clips and Pac Man in the history books, have a purpose in today's world.

He demonstrated how the Commodore's SID (sound interface device) can be used today by DJs looking for the grainy, retro sound only this type of computer can produce.

"It gives them a new life," he says, as a handful of people gather around a small television nearby.

They watch with folded arms as a TPUG member shifts a joystick to make a pixelated man run through a maze. In another part of the room, a computer screen comes to life in front of Nacu, who hopes there will one day be a Commodore renaissance.

"I wish Commodore 64 were still alive," he says, as he types Load "*",8,1 onto the screen — it's the most common first command the defunct computers understand. "The rest of the industry is so boring. The Commodore has personality."