Telecommunications and Memory Locations
It has been nearly three years now since I first unboxed my Atari 800, and I can report that it has performed unfailingly over all that time and heavy use. I'm not saying I have never had a system crash or lock-up, but the computer has never required any service beyond cleaning the board contacts once in a while (I can handle that).
The machine was and remains an engineering triumph, which is still ahead of its time in terms of capability and cost, as well as reliability.
Atari owners have had to be a toughskinned breed now and then over the past three years, but that has changed. The "big three" are under the gun. Atari owners, now numbering over 300,000, know they made the right decision.
I am a member of this group, and a satisfying facet the hobby offers to me is the use of my machine to communicate with others who feel the same way I do about it: that the Atari is the best machine of its class, and that learning its secrets is an extremely pleasurable pastime.
Last May we instituted a call for reviewers, and many Atari owners responded. One thing that impressed all of us here at the magazine was our query concerning modems. Of the respondents who did not already use their microcomputers for telecommunication, nearly everyone responded that he had a modem on his "wish list," and that it wouldn't be long before he was hooked up. We have also had a very favorable response to the possibility of making Creative Computing downloads available over networks such as Compuserve and The Source. We are looking into this possibility.
The Modem Mystique
A great deal of potential presents itself. The possibilities of travel reservations, ticket purchases, shop at home services, a broad range of databases at your finger tips, are very exciting. Telecommunications herald a truly practical role for the microcomputer in the home.
I do not believe, however, that any of these practical notions constitutes the real basis for the "modem mystique." The thing that excites most people about microcomputer telecommunication is the opportunity to express themselves in a new medium, to tell others how they feel. They are less interested in using a modem to pay their bills than to state their opinions, to have their voices heard, and to respond to the voices of others.
The bulletin board service is growing in popularity. This is a phone line tied to a computer, running a program that accepts and displays information sent from other computers. The concept of the bulletin board is powerful and extensible. It creates a new kind of forum--a medium of communication--through which ideas can be expressed, shot down, modified, and spread. The importance of this kind of interaction, and its potential, is now being discovered. I think it may be a while before it emerges as a medium of major influence, but it is going to happen; it's happening now.
I maintain contact with about five Atari bulletin boards regularly. I enjoy leaving messages as well as reading what others have to say. I check the download files to see if there is any software worth trying out. I find out what other Atari owners are thinking about, as well as expressing my own thoughts. I may even start a "real-time" conversation with someone at the other end.
You may be a new user with questions concerning hardware. You may be an assembly language programmer wishing to share the results of a routine you have developed. Or, you may simply wish to voice your opinions concerning Tron or E.T. or to boast of your latest score at Zaxxon. The bulletin board is a worthwhile place to do it. Your thoughts join other thoughts, in what amounts to a marketplace of ideas--ideas that are shared.
Communication via computer may seem at first to be rather impersonal, but this is not the case. Through what other medium might you become involved in a lengthy philosophical chat with a sysop (system operator) hundreds of miles distant and at three in the morning? It is almost like being able to call your own user's group meeting whenever the mood strikes you--and then adjourn it without muss or fuss. It is at once personal and yet distant: and therein lies its unique value.
So get that Atari of yours talking to other Ataris, the way you've planned.
The Forth Wave
A very hot topic on nearly every board I have logged onto lately is the Forth language. This language offers hope to folks frustrated by the slowness of Basic, limitations of Pilot, bugs in APX Pascal, and obscurity of assembler. Although it has its own unique little quirks, Forth seems to be a natural for the Atari machine.
There are many implementations of the language available for the Atari, but the definitive version now seems to be Valforth, from Valpar International, 3801 E. 34th Street, Tucson, AZ 85713. We have received four packages from them, each of which shows a high level of professionalism and promise.
Valforth is a debugged and improved version of APX Forth, and is available with a powerful screen editor and utility package; a player missile graphics package, character and sound editor; and a display list formatter. We were able to create very smooth multicolored player/ missile animation as well as modified display lists with very little fuss. The speed of movement is not as fast or as smooth as machine code, but is many times faster than Basic, and quite acceptable--so are the ease with which these packages can be used, and their reasonable cost. I hope to present a thorough evaluation of all the Valpar packages in the near future.
Despite whatever you may hear to the contrary, you need not renounce your worldly ways to grasp Forth. Nor does mastery of Reverse Polish Notation cause hair loss or halting speech. Sure, the language has its peculiarities, but that's the challenge, right? Anyway, whenever you hit a real snag, you can ask for help on a bulletin board service! There's nothing like access to someone who knows the answers when you're trying to learn something.
Another byproduct of accessing user's group bulletin boards is the spreading of rumors. One such rumor I discovered on the MACE BBS has lamentably been confirmed: John Harris, brilliant young author of Jawbreaker and Mouskattack, had the only extant source code for his latest work, Frogger, stolen during a charity benefit. It is hard to understand what the thief had in mind--if we assume the thief had anything resembling a reasoning mind. What could he have hoped to gain by stealing the source code of an unfinished program? This will certainly forestall the release of Frogger for some months, and is sure to have put a real crimp into John's summer, if not his year. Upon capture, the thief should be forced to play Crystalware adventures to their solution or the thief's collapse, whichever comes first. (Are you taking any bets?)
I have yet to see a definitive list of memory locations for the Atari in any manual, periodical or book. We are compiling a list currently, and it will appear soon in the pages of Creative Computing. In the meantime, here is a very brief collection of some of the most interesting locations, and what values to POKE them with (all values in decimal):
65 - if = 0, I/O data transfer tones from TV or monitor will be disabled. Load will take place in silence. Nice with titles or especially music, to suppress "noise." If location 65<>0, I/O will be audible.
77 - if = 0, attract mode will be suppressed. It is surprising to me how many programs are missing this simple POKE in any loop of less than nine minutes duration. Although designed to prevent "burn-in" on an unattended machine, this mode drives me nuts. If location 77 = 128, attract mode is enabled without nine-minute clock countdown.
752 - if = 0, makes the cursor "invisible." I say invisible rather than disabled because the cursor still functions as if it were visible. Nice in title cards and text programs to clean up screen "look." If location 752 < > 0, cursor will be visible.
82 - if = 0, enables 40-column screen width. The Atari defaults to a 38-character screen width, which was a good thing for me when I used a regular color television with the computer. "Overscan," as it is called, cut off the left-hand side of the screen. When I upgraded to a color monitor (much to my wife's relief), I noticed two unused columns on the left side of the screen. A simple POKE brings them into play. If location 82 = any number from 0 to 39, that number becomes the left-hand column. The default value is two.
83 - Same as above but for right-hand margin. Default is 39. Less call for this one, but nice to know, anyhow. Right?
Third party game software for the Atari 400/800 computers continues to pour in to the magazine. Let's take a look at just a part of the cream of the latest crop:
John Anderson is an associate editor for Creative Computing magazine.