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#876 Savetz OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Dec 16, 2017 1:20 PM

This episode, about a product that you've probably never heard of, contains three interviews and took more than a year to put together, including a small team of people to recover software for three computing platforms. 

 

Databar OSCAR

This is a story about the rise and fall of a compter peripheral and the company behind it. The company was Databar, and the product was called OSCAR, which was short for Optical SCAnning Reader.
 
In 1983, it wasn't easy to get inexpensive software for your home computer. Floppy disks were expensive. Modems were slow and expensive. You could get software in magazines — a variety of computer magazines offered computer program listings that you could type in. You might spend hours laboriously typing in a program, and it might work. Or more likely,  it wouldn't, because of a typo or because of errors in the published listing. It wasn't easy to get inexpensive software for your computer.
 
One solution that a couple of companies came up with was to distribute software in books and magazines — but instead of printed listings that you'd have to type in, the programs were distributed as bar codes — long collections of black and white dots. You could use a bar code scanner to read the programs into your computer. 
 
The best known solution was, perhaps, Cauzin Softstrip. And although Softstrip may have been the best known, it was by no means a success. I've already published interviews with the people who created Softstrip
 
Another contender in this niche — and the one that this episode is about - was the Databar OSCAR. OSCAR was released two years before Softstrip. OSCAR had two parts — the hardware, the Optical SCAnning Reader that would connect to your Atari 8-bit computer, or your Texas Instruments 99/4A, or your Commodore 64. And, the bar code software, which was to be published in a special magazine, called Databar.
 
First, let's talk a little about the hardware. A silver plastic device, a little smaller than a loaf of bread, was the brains of the operation. A hand-held removable wand, connected via a telephone-style coiled wire, held the optical reader. That's the part that you would roll over the bar code to read the software into your computer. Finally, there was an interface cable that connected the main device to your computer. This is the only bit of hardware that's different in the Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments versions of the product. The Commodore version, for instance, connects to the C64's cassette port. The Atari version also emulates a cassete tape drive, and connects to the Atari's SIO port.
 
The hardware alone cost $79.95, but it wouldn't do much good without the bar-code printed software, which was the Databar magazine. A 1-year subscription to the Databar magazine would cost an additional $120.
 
So let's talk about the software: the magazine. "Databar - The Monthly Bar Code Software Magazine" which was published in 1983, and turned out to only have one issue published, so it wasn't very monthly after all.
 
Databar ran some advertisements in the Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments computer magazines. I'm going to read a bit from one of them. [ad excerpt]
 
The magazine was published in three versions: one for the Atari 8-bit computer, one for the TI 99/4A, and a version for Commodore 64. The cover and front part of the magazine was the same in all editions, with general-interest articles like "Computer Gaming," "To Your Health - Your Health Is Up To You," and "Climbing the Slippery Financial Hills." The second part of the magzaine was different in each edition. This was the part with the bar codes. Each version has pretty much the same set of programs, but customized to the dialect of BASIC used on that particular computer. The selection of non-confrontational, milquetoast programs includes OSCAR's Match (a memory game), Financial Quiz, Math Challenge, Health Assessment, The Law and You, and Miles Per Gallon Calculator.
 
Only 9 programs were ever published in this format for the Commodore and TI, and they are all in the magazine. 13 Atari programs were ever published in this format, in the Atari version of the magazine. 
 
The OSCAR box claims that the hardware is also compatible with the Timex Sinclair 1000, 1500, 2000, and the TRS-80 Color Computer. But I haven't seen any evidence that versions of the magazine were created for those systems, nor the hardware adapters to connect to them.
 
One of the benefits of the reader was that it was supposed to be faster than typing. My favorite ad for the OSCAR reader says "Programming the Home Computer — Expert Typist with Keyboard vs. Eight-year-old with OSCAR." The task: entering a two-page BASIC program. The expert typist with a 100 word-per-minute speed and a degree in computer programming can do it in 1 hour and 9 minutes. The little girl with bows in her hair and bubble gum in her mouth, with no prior computer experience, can enter the program using OSCAR in 8 minutes.
 
Now that we've set the stage, it's time for the interviews. There are three: first, Don Picard, the Executive Editor of Databar magazine; then Kim Garretson, the publisher of the magazine; and finally Neal Enzenauer, the principal engineer for OSCAR.
 
## interview 1: Don Picard
Don Picard worked for Webb Publishing, a large printing company that owned a number of magazines. Don worked in a division called  Creative Communications, that was a custom publishing house for corporate clients. The division did work such as in-flight magazines for airlines, and custom magazines for Farmer's Insurance and the American Automobile Association. He was the Executive Editor of Databar magazine.
 
Teaser quotes:
"Concept was basically dead before it got born."
"When money's invested there becomes a sort of momentum involved. Nobody wants to say, 'This was a mistake.'"
 
## interview 2: Kim Garretson
The next interview is Kim Garretson, the founding editor and publisher of Databar magazine.
 
Teaser quote:
"Sometimes you had to go across a single line of code three or four or five or seven times to hear the little beep."
 
## interview 3: Neal Enzenauer
Our final interview is with Neal Enzenauer, the principal engineer for OSCAR.
 
Teaser quote:
"We thought we were going to set the world on fire and make magnetic media obsolete — but I guess we didn't."
 
## closing
Thanks to Don Picard, Kim Garretson, and Neal Enzenauer. Thanks to Allan Bushman for scanning the Atari version of the Databar magazine and OSCAR instructions; @doegoxon Twitter for writing the python script to decode the barcodes without the scanner, @paulrickards for wrangling the Commodore software, and @travisgoodspeed for thePoC||GTFO 'zine, which was instrumental in bringing the pieces together. Thanks to the Internet Archive for hosting scans of the magazines and all the software. 
 
The interview with Don Picard took place on April 5, 2016. The interview with Kim Garretson took place on June 27, 2016. (A video version of that interview is available, including an extended version where we also discuss CD-ROM publishing and the Prodigy online service.) The interview with Neal Enzenauer took place on April 12, 2016.
 
Screenshot 2017-12-16 11.19.36.png


#877 Lynxpro OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Dec 17, 2017 10:42 PM

Does anyone have a Databar?



#878 tschak909 OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Dec 17, 2017 10:57 PM

It took so many iterations of this same basic concept for people to finally figure it out: Creating an extremely closed publishing ecosystem effectively puts the onus of content creation on the first party firm. Databar was hit with this, as well. If you don't create a method for others to publish in this format, you won't have enough of a reason for somebody to pick one of these things up.

 

(Ironically, the idiots behind the Cue Cat got this one aspect right, and got everything else wrong,)

 

-Thom



#879 _The Doctor__ OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Dec 17, 2017 11:13 PM

I have cue cats... and wow your correct on both accounts..



#880 tschak909 OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Dec 17, 2017 11:46 PM

I knew the genetic defective behind the Cue Cat, Jovan Philyaw... a network marketer turned dot com huckster. Just about a piece of shit.

At the time, I was 21 years old, 
 

When it came time to unveil the Cue Cat, it was unveiled in Dallas at a hotel near Channel 8, I forget which one now (could have been the Westin)... My firm had been invited, along with a host of marketing and business gurus to listen to the grand plans of Jovan and his team.

 

We arrived roughly 30 minutes late, and were pushed to a table in the back of the room, where we sat down, and I had a notebook, my partner had his Handspring with a keyboard. and as the CTO talked about the two proposed devices.

We were the only technical people in the room, besides the CTO of Digital Convergence (I can not remember his name anymore), the team behind the CueCat.

I proceeded to take them apart in my head. One of them was Cue Cat, the other was to be an embedded audio device that hooked up to the computer via parallel port that listened for modulated audio squawks from the TV, which would be URLs that the computer would load.

 

When it came time for question and answers, I wound up having the very last question, to which Jovan said, "yes, the...woman at the back?" (I had very long hair at that point, and my features are somewhat soft and feminine, so..yeah.. that happened.. I chuckled.)

 

I asked, "Given that it would be possible to cause a man in the middle attack by poisoning the DNS cache of your servers, what measures are you taking to prevent what would otherwise be a tightly coordinated and extremely dangerous hack from taking place?"

 

You could literally hear the fucking oxygen of the room being sucked out.

 

Jovan's face was pale.

 

The representative from Belo Interactive was pale.

 

So was the VP from the Dallas Morning News.

 

Jovan regained his composure and said, "Well, we can answer that with our CTO..." who was running towards the very door we were right next to.

 

And as the press conference adjourned, we were talking with the CTO for the next 15 minutes.

 

Followed by the heads of Channel 8, Belo, and a whole host of people who wanted to get myself, and my partners in a room, to... "Discuss" some technical details... leeches wanted a fucking brain dump.

After I went home, I decided to do a little sleuthing around and do some nmap probing of Digital Convergence's servers. Turns out, they were using a version of BIND that had a serious security flaw (it was the same one that was included by default in Redhat 6.2, which ran, of course, sans chroot, and I had been hit with it literally less than two days after installing my first set of servers in our lab.. I subsequently excised BIND from our systems and replaced it with a chrooted DJBDNS, and stopped that shit cold! but I digress.)

The next day, we get a call from one of the senior engineers with the CTO present, and proceeded to be screamed @ for the next 45 minutes for embarrassing them at a press conference!

After they had let all their air out, I replied, "You guys have a serious security problem with at the very least, your DNS servers, you are running multiple services that have known vulnerabilities that need to be patched immediately."

The CTO said, "Unless you're a top tier computer security firm, (they referred to it as a "tiger team"), we don't want any of your advice, we can take care of it all, ourselves. Thank you!"

Shortly after that, the phone hung up.

A few months later, Digital Convergence, and their Cue Cat, would wind up in the news with the hacking and capture of over 171,000 cue cat customer records.

Shortly after that, DC would implode. By 2001, the massive bubble that had been inflated in Dallas collapsed massively, and we found all of ourselves swept away by the resulting crash. The rest is history.


I haven't told this story publically, ever, but I figure, almost 20 years, can't get in trouble :)

-Thom


Edited by tschak909, Sun Dec 17, 2017 11:47 PM.


#881 Savetz OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Jan 7, 2018 4:56 PM

Maurice Molyneaux, Atari animation guru

 
Maurice Molyneaux was a game artist, Atari graphics animator, and writer. He wrote articles for Video Games & Computer Entertainment Magazine and A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing Magazine, and wrote "The Animation Stand" column for ST-Log magazine.
 
He created many animations for various clients primarily using MovieMaker, an animation program for the Atari published by Reston Publishing. Those clients included Broderbund, EPYX, Antic magazine, Omnitrend, and others.
 
This interview took place on November 20, 2017.
 
Teaser quote: "[Lee Pappas] said 'Oh, we get the reader service cards in, your column is like the most popular thing in the magazine.' And I said, 'Well, then you won't mind paying me the technical rate instead of the standard rate.' ... He said 'Oooh, you got me.' So I ended up making my rent every month writing that damn column.”


#882 Savetz OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Jan 18, 2018 10:21 AM

Orson Scott Card, Compute! Books

 
Orson Scott Card is a Hugo Award winning, best-selling science fiction author, perhaps best known for his 1985 novel, Ender's Game. 
 
But we're not here to talk about that — because for about nine months, Orson Scott Card was an editor at Compute! Books, where we worked on several books about the Atari 8-bit and other computer platforms. His work appears in Compute!'s Third Book of Atari and Compute!'s Second Book of Atari Graphics.
 
He also wrote extensively for Compute! magazine, primarily about computer games. His FontByter and ScreenByter graphics utilities for the Atari computers were published in Compute! His short story The Lost Boys features a character that plays games on an Atari computer.
 
This interview took place on January 5, 2018. A video version of this interview is also available.
 
Teaser quote: "I really miss programming. I miss those nights, starting after the kids were in bed — 8:30, 9 o'clock — just solving problems ... noticing that there was now light coming through the basement windows, and realizing that I had pulled an all-nighter ... just debugging three minutes of a game."
 
VIdeo version:


#883 InfoMan OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Jan 18, 2018 10:35 AM

Awesome! I'm looking forward to listening to it. Lost Boys was not only a short story, but also a novel. Not only do kids play Atari games, but the main character works is a technical writer for a company that publishes them and he also creates an Atari game. It's actually my favorite Card book (much better than Enders Game, IMO).



#884 Savetz OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Jan 18, 2018 10:38 AM

Awesome! I'm looking forward to listening to it. Lost Boys was not only a short story, but also a novel. Not only do kids play Atari games, but the main character works is a technical writer for a company that publishes them and he also creates an Atari game. It's actually my favorite Card book (much better than Enders Game, IMO).

 

 

I read the short story version of Lost Boys for this interview. In it, it is presented as autobiographical, with his own kids' names. Although I haven't read it, I think in the novel version, the main character is someone else.

 

—Kevin



#885 InfoMan OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Jan 18, 2018 10:55 AM

Yes, as I recall he decided the short story was too autobiographical, and so he changed some details. But it's basically the same family as the short story.

 

This summarizes the differences:

 

https://en.wikipedia...st_Boys_(novel)


Edited by InfoMan, Thu Jan 18, 2018 11:21 AM.


#886 ilaskey OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Jan 19, 2018 3:48 AM

Listening to the OSC one now, fantastic. As a huge fan of his writing I'd have been a bumbling wreck if I was interviewing him but he comes across as a really decent guy.



#887 davidcalgary29 OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Jan 22, 2018 8:06 PM

Question(s) to the interviewers: what on earth do people think when you contact them about things that happened thirty or forty years ago? Are the surprised, generally, or something else? And when are we going to get an interview about you guys and the development of the podcast?

#888 rkindig OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Jan 22, 2018 9:51 PM

Question(s) to the interviewers: what on earth do people think when you contact them about things that happened thirty or forty years ago? Are the surprised, generally, or something else? And when are we going to get an interview about you guys and the development of the podcast?

For me, many are genuinely surprised that anyone cares about things that happened that long ago.  Others are concerned that they won't remember enough or won't remember the correct details.  Some are flattered.  And most are happy to talk about those days.  I can't tell you how many times I've had the person on the other end thank me for talking with them about it because it brought back pleasant memories.

 

No one wants to hear about us.  We're just the vehicle for getting Atari news and interviews out to the community.



#889 Savetz OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Jan 22, 2018 9:56 PM

+1 to what Randy wrote. 



#890 davidcalgary29 OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Jan 22, 2018 10:04 PM

Except that you’re part of the Atari historical project. Not discussing your own role in this would leave a thread dangling. And then, in another thirty years, my kids’ll have to contact you to interview you on the Antic podcast to fill in the gaps. :)

#891 rkindig OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Jan 22, 2018 10:14 PM

Except that you’re part of the Atari historical project. Not discussing your own role in this would leave a thread dangling. And then, in another thirty years, my kids’ll have to contact you to interview you on the Antic podcast to fill in the gaps. :)

I hope I'm around to give that interview :)  If I am, I doubt I'll remember my own name, let alone what happened with the Antic podcast.



#892 Savetz OFFLINE  

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Posted Yesterday, 11:41 AM

Geoffrey Card, kid game reviewer

http://ataripodcast....d-game-reviewer

 
In my interview with Orson Scott Card, he mentioned that his son, Geoffrey, helped him review Atari games — thoroughly playing games, then providing a sort of executive summary for his dad, who then wrote about the games for Compute! magazine. I thought it would be fun to get Geoffrey's perspective about that time.
 
This interview took place on January 19, 2018.
 
Teaser quote: "One of the interesting, great things about that era was the fact that somebody could sit there in their garage and they could make something, and it really was indistinguishable from what the professionals were making."






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