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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast http://ataripodcast.libsyn.com/antic-the-atari-8-bit-podcast-episode-6-xmas-mike-albaugh
Source URL: https://archive.org/details/MikeAlbaughInterview
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
This is an interview with Mike Albaugh, who was an early Atari employee and the programmer behind the Atari 400, 800 in-store dealer demo. This interview was conducted over Skype. He was in his home in San Jose, California and I was in mine in Portland, Oregon. An edited version of this interview will appear in episode 6 of ANTIC: The Atari 8-bit podcast at ataripodcast.com. This is the full unedited version of the interview which was conducted on November 15, 2013.
Mike: When you get to be 100, which I did in July, you get . . . but that's only for people who use octal.
Kevin: But they say life begins at 0x40.
Kevin: Excellent. So you are in San Jose, right?
Kevin: Just to kind of give you what my plan is, this is going to be for the podcast that I co-host which is all about the Atari 8-bit Computers. So an edited version of our conversation will go on there — 10 or 15 minutes — and the full conversation that we do, minus any parts that you decide to go off the record will be at archive.org so the original, unedited, boring, long version will be there if someone really wants to hear it.
Kevin: So that's the plan. So how did you get started at Atari?
Mike: Let's see. I was living in the North Bay and working at one of three tech companies up there and the only one that regularly met payroll. They didn't feel like they actually had to give me much of an advancement opportunity. I was a draftsman basically laying out PC boards and I decided I needed to make a change and having been down to Silicon Valley on a trip looking at a vendor, I noticed that buildings had marquees outside, advertising job openings. I said this is where I need to be living so I started dropping resumes all over the place but HP didn't want me, IBM didn't want me, Amdahl didn't want me, ROLM didn't want me and I am like, “Damn.” So I just gave up and went to visit a buddy who was working for this place nobody had ever heard of called Cion [SP] Engineering up in Grass Valley. At the time he was working on something for this company called Atari who I’d heard of but not a lot. I’m bitching about not having a job or not having any prospect and he says, “You know, I think Atari might be hiring some people,” and the rest was 25 years of history.
Kevin: So you were hired in the Coin-Op division?
Mike: Yes I was hired in Coin-Op in 1976.
Kevin: Okay. I’ve got to show you my shirt. My shirt has got all of the Atari, the profiles of all the different Atari Coin-Op games.
Mike: Well, wait a minute. Do you have Boxing?
Kevin: I don't know if Boxing's on here. The writing's really small. I know it has Battlezone.
Mike: Yes. Well, Boxing basically is . . . to do the Atari Football cabinet, they took a chainsaw to boxing and took off the hood that would go over the play field because there was a black light audience.
Mike: Phosphorescent ink. I'm just messing with you. There is only one Boxing that I know of in the world and it's mine.
Kevin: You have it there at home?
Mike: No, actually a guy who took it away to repair it something like three years ago physically has it but technically I own it.
Kevin: Possession is nine-tenths of the law however.
Mike: Yes, nine points of the law actually to be pedantic.
Kevin: So you created this Boxing game which I understand was never released because the controls were too . . .
Kevin: Fragile, yes.
Mike: Well yes, more or less. Once the controls were robust enough, the game was too boring.
Kevin: And then that was later turned into a game by Activision? The Activision Atari?
Mike: Yes. Basically, Activision's game is a copy of mine just as their Drag Race is a copy of my Drag Race. I don't know if it's a unique distinction of having two of my games copied by Activision.
Kevin: Not licensed but copied?
Kevin: Nice. What other arcade games did you do?
Mike: So let's see. Let's try to do it in order. I started Pool Shark but didn't finish it and I'd like to disown that. I did Drag Race, Boxing which was never produced. Let's only do the produced ones. Destroyer, Atari Football . . . I went in to a long period where I was what I’d call a pick-up programmer. I mostly went into working on other people's games rather than doing my own games. So games that I worked on . . . oh God, I mean 25 years. The last couple of years there, I had a more . . . still not like lead game designer or anything but a bigger role in Beat Head which was not produced but is at least interesting, Area 51 Max Force, Area 51: Site 4 and then became a formerly valued Atari employee.
Kevin: Formerly valued.
Mike: One of the corporate buzzwords is stakeholders including our valued Atari employees. When someone left with a certain amount of push, they were called by us “a formerly valued Atari employee”.
Kevin: Right. So you skimmed over arcade games that did not get produced. You don’t think it's interesting but it is.
Mike: Okay. Ultra Tank, 300 copies made and I ran into one at a show. It’s like, “Dude, do you know there were only 300 of those?” So of course he filed a bug report with me and I have been grubbing through my floppies and found the sources. I guess I’m going to have to fix the bug that that one guy that I know in the world that owns an Ultra Tank complained about.
Kevin: If they burn your ROMs, it will be a whole project.
Mike: I'm just going to send him an image. It’s his job to bring the ROMs.
Kevin: What language were those games written in?
Mike: Primarily assembly of whatever. Like Drag Race was a 6800, Destroyer was a 6800, Boxing, Ultra Tank, Football were 6502. I’m trying to remember. I’m sure Captain Seahawk was also . . . well I don't even know. I mean we would typically do a game by taking a board from some other game and if necessary, mod-ing it, at least changing the graphics ROMs but you know maybe making some changes to the base board and start from there. Then we would lay out a new board for that but things kind of sprouted from each other. One of my many someday projects is to do like a family tree of games and the parent that they were originally prototyped on, etc.
Kevin: Yes. So talk about the games that weren't produced and why weren't they produced? Can you give us a couple of examples perhaps?
Mike: Well primarily because they suck. Pool Shark was produced and shouldn't have been. That was based on the Tank-8 hardware and that was my first job there that actually involved programming as opposed to finding a paper tape reader we could buy a lot of and interface easily to the development systems and building a real time clock calendar and boot board for the PDP 11. Startup, remember? There was a time Atari was a startup and people did what they needed to do like deliver games to arcades, for example. Dan Van and I destroyed a game because we didn't tie it down well when we tried to deliver it. Captain Seahawk was marketing decided that the world really needed just an exact . . . my screen went to sleep or something.
Kevin: You froze for a minute but you’re back now.
Mike: Yes. There's something wrong with the video and this is my wife's computer. The video card every once a while just goes to sleep and comes back. Did you lose the audio or just the video?
Kevin: Just the video.
Mike: Okay, so fine. I can just keep talking. So anyway they decided that Air-Sea Battle game number, I forget what, 11 from the VCS was a good game and they just wanted a coin-op version of it straight port. I'm like, “Are you guys crazy?” He said, “No, that's what I want.” I said, “Fine, I'm the bus driver.” I did a straight port and it predictably earned like $25 in two weeks on one cage [SP] which that's like 100 plays in 2 weeks. That's not a good result. So that at least died an early death. Ultra Tank, as I said, they made 300 of. They shouldn't have made that but they did. Let's see. I started an adventure game, similar to what Owen Rubin later did on their VCS, but we wanted really good graphics because at that time, coin-op had two edges. One was more social gaming and the other was better graphics, sound, etc. because we did custom stuff per game. That started out as being that we were going to use . . . remember ROM was very expensive in those days. We had an idea that we might use a film strip. You’re too young to remember those but educational things.
Kevin: I remember film strips.
Mike: Yes, we were going to use an automatically motor advanced film strip in a flying spot scanner to do really nice painted backdrops.
Mike: And then overlay a few more expensive than we have ever done before; motion objects on that for the things that we changed in the game. It soon became obvious that the film strip scanner thing wasn't going to work so Dave Sherman came up with a hardware that wouldn't give us quite as good a video but would give us better than state of the art at that time. I started working on that but then they had a crisis for a game called Malibu. This is sort of the start of when I stopped being a game designer and started being an all-around guy, pickup guy. Dan Pliskin and I quickly hacked together the Math Box for the 3D transforms for this game called Malibu. That Math Box was also used in Red Baron and in Tempest and Battlezone. Then I just kind of slipped into that service role from then on. Oh, I did Solar War which led to use up the last couple hundred video pinball boards and see what happens. They even laid out a custom board for it as well. It was ready for production the same time as this game you may have heard of called Asteroids.
Kevin: Little game, yes.
Mike: Yes. We have this factory and we can either build Asteroids for which there was phenomenal demand or Solar War for which there was some demand but not like Asteroids. So in theory or so I've heard, the couple hundred existing boards . . . and if you see . . . have you seen a Video Pinball? Coin Op Video Pinball?
Mike: So it's the half silvered mirror and the UV illuminates. So the kits, not a cabinet, but the electronics, the LED board, the little phone core playfield, etc. were sold to a distributor in Greece. At least that's what I was told. At that time, Pinball was illegal in Greece but video games hadn't been outlawed yet, so he was thinking of making a killing on the Greek market. I have no idea what happened on that but there were five what we call pre-prods, kind of a dry run on the production schedule made. I had one of those. Pinball Museum in Alameda has one. I do not know where the other three are. That was a failure success. God, what else did I do?
Oh, that adventure hardware by the way, the second one, that later got repurposed for Tube Chase, the one Ruben called the game that wouldn't die. Tunnel Hunt/Tube Chase was licensed to Centuri. I mean he just kept getting dragged back into that product. Things get a little strange and then I did support stuff on like Marvel Madness and Gauntlet and a chain of games that you've heard of. Then Beat Head, of course, which I think is an interesting game even to this day.
Kevin: I don't know that one.
Mike: You can find a name of it, but it's kind of not quite right. I've talked to you about my issues with getting involved with name. I had two PCBs of the five or so that were made. One of them for sure works or at least it did five or six years ago when I last plugged it in. I want to build a bartop cabinet for it someday again. I had the attention span of a gnat, so I have all these projects.
Anyway, in between, there was a point when consumer and Coin-Op stopped being separated by this Berlin wall which I'd always penetrated because my buddy who had got me the job at Atari worked for a consumer. I would have lunch with those guys and I kind of knew what was happening but LL Coin [SP] preferred that it not be but then he went off to Apple and they had a bunch of “adult supervision” for consumer. So we did this kind of exchange student thing and a guy named Rick Maurer came down from consumer to work on Space Duel with Owen Rubin and I went upstairs, literally upstairs. Coin-Op was in the bottom floor of 1272 Borregas and consumer engineering was in the top floor. Since they wanted a self-contained task that could be done in a reasonable amount of time and not throw a monkey wrench into their careful perk charts, I got assigned the point of purchase demo, and it was where we came in.
Kevin: Right, which is frankly why I'm talking to you today — because of the demo. Okay, how did the demo come to be? Who decided that this needed to exist? How did you end up with the job?
Mike: So the idea of doing a point of purchase demo came out of consumer marketing. I'm not sure and I think the first iteration of the demo which I have a preliminary form of somewhere on disk, which is totally boring. It's picture sort of a PowerPoint done on an 800. This died quickly and then a woman called Georgia Marzalek who had been a PR person who worked for National for a while, etc. I don't know whether she had specked the original one where again, I was just kind of a bus driver and did what they said and then everybody said, no, no, no.
Kevin: Okay, you were given a spec to do this thing and then it didn't come out as well.
Mike: And everybody. I just did the first couple of screens and they said, “No, this isn't working. Let’s go back to the drawing board.”
Kevin: And they gave it to you because they didn’t . . .?
Mike: Because it was a separable task.
Mike: I wouldn’t be getting in the way of any real consumer engineering development. I got to say, also because we had decided that a good development platform for it was Forth and Steve Calfee and I have done a port of DECUS, Forth for the PDP 11 to the 6502. Ed Logg — there’s a name you’ve probably heard — had done sort of Colleen [SP] bindings for the graphics and calls into the Atari 800 OS. We created “Colleen Forth". Ported the Forth to the Colleen and Ed did his bindings. So I had some experience with this relatively rapid development platform for the Atari 800. It seemed like a good fit for the job so we went that way.
Kevin: Because it was relatively high level but yet powerful enough to do the demo you wanted to make?
Mike: Right. It’s not so much a high level but the sort of instant feedback. You realize that the alternative would have been . . . and it assembled put on a paper tape or something, etc. I mean the official development for the 800 was kind of a messy task at that time, and Forth allowed me to sit at my own desk with my own 800 and not depend on any time shared computer anywhere in the building. I don't know if you have ever used Forth or Lisp or something like that. It’s a very immediate language in the way like BASIC is. So if you want to try something, you can type a couple of lines in and you can try it and then you can kind of keep that as a basis to do more on top. It’s a nice, incremental development environment.
Anyway, Georgia was the main one I talked to. There were a couple other people working on it. One of whom was the famous Neil that I have mentioned. I don't know his last name and I don't remember the name of the other woman that was on the project. Mostly I would talk to Georgia and we kind of helped out what we would like to see.
Kevin: This is when you were re-spec-ing it?
Kevin: Okay. All right. So what was the goal? What did you want to see? I mean what were you trying to do?
Mike: We wanted to actually to some extent . . . you know the old advertising mantra, “show, don't tell”.
Mike: The original one had been more “tell”, right? And like I said, it was kind of like picture PowerPoint on an 800, kind of like everybody treats the web as either slow television or electric newspaper. People weren't really thinking in terms of what a computer with some video capability could do. A couple of things we knew we wanted to show was the sound capabilities and the video capability including around that time . . . well, it's not like . . . today it would be like a YouTube viral video but there was this kitten I think in Las Vegas that come up with a rainbow logo thing. Now he is just kind of spun. So I said, “No, we can do better than that.”
I synced it to the actual scan rate and I took the grace out of the spectrum. So it was the rotating colors and it was smoothly rotating colors. It just didn't flip, flip, flip, and flip. So the first thing I showed them, they are saying, “What kind of things can we show?” I said, “Well we can do this,” and I was like . . . Everybody has seen it now but at the time it was pretty interesting. It’s funny because I was looking at the sources and the section code that does that is labeled Carla's logo and Bob's Atari. So the actual shape definition of the Atari logo was probably done by Carla Meninsky and Bob was probably Bob Smith. I don't even remember actually, but we only had one Carla.
Kevin: And then the actual color cycling idea was taken from?
Mike: The idea that you could do color cycling in the logo came from some demo that some kid in Las Vegas did. The actually syncing it up so that it would move smoothly instead just sort of like sparkling in colors, that was me. It was kind of jarring to have the grayscale, the color 0 so I slightly mod-ed it to do only the colored colors and then that was that.
For the sound, you know the old thing about “Great artists steal”, right? Ed Rotberg had done a nice synthesizer for POKEY, the audio chip in the 800. Dan Pliskin . . . this is the other thing where the first thing you do, people say, “Oh, cool.” Dan Pliskin had written this program called the Disco Dirge for the bachelor party of a friend of his who was getting married, and had played it with the Rotberg synthesizer, which is really a Rotberg sequencer for the POKEY synthesizer. Anyway, we called it the Rotberg Synth. So to demonstrate that, yes, we could do sound, we could do interesting sound, and we could do it simultaneously with stuff happening on the screen I just threw in Disco Dirge, and they liked it so that became the music.
Kevin: Because it was just a song, a file that you had around that somebody had already made a song.
Mike: Yes, basically. It was interesting because later Warner figured out that we really probably need to license this. They had to contact Dan and license Disco Dirge for the demo.
Kevin: Was he not an Atari employee?
Mike: He was. He had not done that as work for hire; he had done it for his buddy's bachelor party.
Kevin: Right. I read there is an article online about Disco Dirge from an old Antic Magazine. It said that the guy had two failings. One, he liked disco and second he decided to get married.
Mike: Oh, you mean the actual friend?
Kevin: Yes, the friend.
Mike: Yes, probably so. In addition to being an engineer as I mentioned, Dan and I did the Math Box that ended up in Battlezone, Tempest, etc. but he was also a musician. As many, many people working in tech and especially in the video games industry have a tendency. I can't carry it in a bucket but a lot of people can.
Kevin: So you are making this demo in Forth. You are putting in screen after screen, the logo, the school house, the star raters, funky looking star raters screen.
Kevin: And then what? What happened? Showed it to someone and they said, “Good,” that was it?
Mike: Well, yes. Eventually they liked it and I built the disk that booted directly into it and I managed to talk them in. There was apparently some debate on mahogany row but I managed to talk them into doing the self-cloning thing. I don't know if you are aware of that but if you hold down the Select button while the demo disk is loading, it will prompt you to remove that disk and stick and blank disk in, and then you hit carriage return or Y or something like that and it will write a copy of itself on that blank disk.
Kevin: I didn't know that.
Mike: And they’re like, “We’re giving away our intellectual property,” and I'm like, “Yes, and you’re giving away essentially an ad to people who are going to show it to their friends and their friends are going to want a copy.” I mean we didn't have the term “viral marketing” at that time but it's like, “You want to do this. You want them to copy this.” That’s how it shipped. Then they decided we want one for the 400.
Kevin: Originally, that was for the 800?
Mike: It was a self-booting disk for the 800.
Mike: And I'm looking at, “This is work,” because part of the way Forth helps you is that, like I said, it's very interactive. You can change, etc. but because of that there is a certain amount of baggage in the image of the program. At that point, I had to convert the whole thing to a different Forth which had been coming in. We started with Colleen Forth, I had to convert it to Fig Forth because Fig Forth had this thing called meta-compiling where they put only the stuff that . . . you could put only the stuff that you needed to run in sort of one area of memory and the stuff that you needed to develop in another area of memory. Then if you took a snapshot of the memory, it still ran and took less memory. To sandwich the 400 demo into the 16k cartridge which I think I was the first user of, I had to port it to this somewhat different language and develop this whole meta-compiling thing along with Steve. Steve Calfee is like Mr. Forth Wizard.
I recently was messing around with that and I had forgotten just how slow Fig Forth compiled on the 800. It's like, “Wow, how did I have the patience?” But I did apparently. I don't know. That worked out. It was one of those typical dive-and-catch kind of things. So I finally get it the way everybody likes it. Okay, do the cartridge. I burned a couple of 27 64s, plugged them into this prototype 16k cartridge board, plugged it into a 400. Okay, by God it works and my friend Barbara Lee who was a graphics person in consumer make a fake cartridge case with the label that says “Atari 3800 demo”. I think there was actually a part number for it that we actually put on it. This was hand carried to CES the day of. So I mean not unusual in that business but it got me. It was a real learning experience, like I said.
Kevin: Different versions of this demo. There's the disk version and then there's the cart version. That was basically it?
Mike: There was the disk version done in the original Colleen Forth and then there was the disk version done in Fig Forth as a run up to doing the ROM version that they actually sold to dealers as a cartridge. Well, of course there was that first sort of pseudo PowerPoint. There were kind of four version but they are all similar. I was just looking at it today and the disk version wasn't all that much bigger than 16k but the 400 demo has several screens missing. The 800 demo has screens that are not in the 400 demo and I'm sorry I don't know right off hand what those are, but I think that was a matter that they didn’t want to oversell the 400.
Mike: Some of the screens were just pulled to make the 400 demo.
Kevin: I think I'm more familiar with the 400 demo because that's what I've got here. I was running it this morning. It’s fun. Okay. You alluded to this a minute ago about something we talked about in email and I'd like you to tell the story. A version of the demo that's been floating around the internet, if you don't type, it says, “What's your name?” If you don't type a name it says, “Mark,” but you told me that originally, the default name wasn't Mark; it was Neil. Can you tell me about that?
Mike: Yes, so I mentioned the other two people who were working with Georgia. One of them's first name was Neil and he was one of those kinds of guys that goes deer in the headlights when faced with a computer. When we were showing him the demo and it says, “What's your name,” he just didn't do anything. Here’s this little text box essentially, you are supposed to type your name on it. Because nobody wanted the thing to just freeze, I had a time out essentially on that read and because we knew this behavior of Neil's, I had a time out essentially fill in Neil as the name. If someone got that text box and didn't type anything, their name was Neil. So at some point, someone apparently took the demo and I’m assuming someone named Mark or someone with a friend like Neil named Mark, you sort of run strings in the image and by golly there's a Neil there, it's 4 letters. I know a guy named Mark. I’m sure that what happened is they just patched Mark in over the Neil.
Mike: Wait. Your demo cart?
Kevin: My demo cart, it says Neil like it should.
Kevin: But the internet version that you have seen floating around says “Mark”.
Mike: Yes. The internet can be funny that way that most of INTERCAL manuals I've seen on the internet are mine, too.
Mike: This is going to be edited out I'm sure. INTERCAL, it's a joke language done by Lyon and Woods and yes you are right to suspect that the Woods is the Woods of Crowther and Woods. It’s this joke computer language that back in the day things would get passed around by multiple photocopies or mimeographs or something like that. I got a copy of the manual for INTERCAL and decided that it would be great to do a version for the Atari 800. About as far as that got was that my girlfriend at that time and I typed in the INTERCAL manual and because there are some things you couldn’t do on the Atari 800, there's an addendum to it about differences in the Atari version. Later when Usenet . . . you know Usenet? I mean it's still around but it's just poor man's Bit Torrent for porn nowadays.
Kevin: [Inaudible 00:34:56] my teeth on Usenet.
Mike: Anyway, when that subject of INTERCAL would come up and people are like, “What's INTERCAL,” I'd say, “Well, I could email you the manual,” and I did. So somebody has HTMLI's, but all the versions I’d found have that addendum about the Atari version. There’s this urban legend that there is an Atari version when in fact the only Atari version is the manual. As I say, I have the attention span of a gnat. Every once in a while, I go back and look at some of the preliminary notes that I’d made . . . there may yet be an Atari INTERCAL for the 800. You never know.
Kevin: Never know. There’s another joke language . . . I think it's a joke, I hope it's a joke language called Brainfuck.
Mike: Oh, yeah. And [inaudible 00:35:46] and Unlambda. I think INTERCAL is probably the great granddaddy of all these languages.
Kevin: I had not heard of it before today. I had a theory and I think you are going to say I’m wrong, but that's okay, that your demo was kind of the opening volley, the shot across the bow that created the demo scene but you just told me there was a kid in Las Vegas who was making demos. So am I wrong?
Mike: Well, I don't know. I basically heard like word of mouth about this. I don't know whether that logo was part of a larger demo or was . . . I never actually saw it. I just heard, “Oh, this kid did this cool thing where he did an Atari logo and then he messed with the color registers, cycling colors in it.” I quickly did that and I'm like . . . oh yes that what it looks like. No, that kind of sucks but as far as the demo scene, the earliest demo, the earliest demo would be if you could find Joe Decuir’s demo for the capabilities of the Atari 800 where he . . . you had talked about a shot across the bow or something. As I remember it, and I don't necessarily remember it well because I saw it back before there was an Atari 800 when development was a certain amount of wire wrapped chip boards plugged in to a Kramenko back plane [SP] etc. He sort of showed what things looked like on the existing consoles, that he could do as bad a video as each of the existing consoles on the 800 and then he could also do Atari 800 videos.
Mike: So he had things like shooting gallery ducks going by and multicolored pictures where most of the other platforms could do only single colors and stamp bay stuff. I forget exactly but certainly that's the first demo I saw and it was at least a year or probably two ahead of mine.
Kevin: But yours is certainly one of the first demos of any computer that the public saw, I mean of a computer really demonstrating itself, you showing off what it could do.
Mike: Wait a minute, Bouncing Ball on Whirlwind, showing what interesting things you can do with a computer when you have attached a CRT display to it and Space War on the PDP 1 which rapidly became something that every deck salesman would show off to people who are . . . Steve Russell beat me by what, 10 years?
Kevin: Okay, then I stand corrected.
Mike: There is nothing new.
Mike: I mean I still find demoing computers interesting.
Kevin: And are still people creating demos for the Atari 800?
Mike: Yes, you can find them on YouTube and stuff.
Kevin: Yes and then demo parties mostly in Poland and Germany and things and people just sit down and see what they can force the hardware to do.
Mike: You mentioned Germany, it's like what do you expect from a place that has PowerPC and Amigas, right?
Kevin: Right. Yes. It's true. Apropos of nothing, we got an email at the podcast. You probably never heard the podcast. At the beginning of the podcast, the opening intro music is Disco Dirge.
Mike: So you’ve got to send a nickel to Dan.
Kevin: Yes, I'll send a nickel to Dan right now. Someone wrote in from the internet and said, “I love the podcast but it's hazardous to listen while driving because hearing the Atari demo music makes me want to curl up in a ball and weep for my lost childhood.”
Mike: Yeah, in a similar vein, there was a guy and I don't have his permission to give you his name but anyway there was a guy that went to work for Atari at one point and we were working together. We were talking about stuff we did as kids. He had messed around with various things and I said, “Yeah, I didn't do a lot of 800 stuff but I did do a couple of Forth boards to it and I did the demo, the point of purchase demo.” He gets this kind of angry look that was like, “That was you?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” He says, “I worked in a computer store and I had to hear that damn music all day.” He didn't kill me and eventually forgave me and we became good friends.
Kevin: Yeah, I could see how that could get annoying. You volunteered at the Computer Museum in San Jose?
Mike: Yeah, well it's in Mountain View actually.
Kevin: Mountain View. What did you do?
Mike: It's all one piece, right?
Mike: Well, I made docent which means [inaudible 00:41:28] to lead, [inaudible 00:41:31], etc. I do tours. Mostly these days, I demonstrate Babbage's difference engine number 2 with large, bronze, Victorian-era calculator. I'm hoping to in the near future also start demonstrating the IBM 1401 because they are almost done setting up an exhibit that includes a pair of restored 1401s. You can't hear it on the podcast but I see your face, “1401?” At the time, it was estimated that half the computers in the world were IBM 1401s.
Mike: It was one of the first transistorized computers. It was one of the first small cheap computers, almost certainly the first small cheap transistorized computer. Just in the way that a lot of people, their first computer was an Atari 800 or a Commodore 64 for a certain age demographic like myself, their first computer was highly likely to be an IBM 1401 or an IBM 1620 depending on whether you are on the business side or the engineering side of your college because high schools didn't have computers in those days.
Kevin: Right, awesome.
Mike: You get a lot of people and it was like, “Oh, man. I used to use one of these.”
Kevin: All right, so at the Computer Museum, they interviewed you. I read your interview that they did with you a year or two ago.
Mike: I'm wearing my permit on a T-shirt in that, right?
Kevin: I didn't see it. I read a PDF so there was no photo but you talked about the T-shirt in that interview.
Mike: Yeah, I forgot to put it on for today but then again you are not presenting the video anyway so what the hell.
Kevin: Right. And so you talked about your contributions to the 400 and 800 which you said technically my only contribution to the 400 and 800 was kibitzing with Joe Decuir and Jay Minor and by then some of the other people that were working on them. You make it sound like . . . I mean you didn't really work on the 400 and 800 but then the stuff that you mentioned that you did insist that they do or contribute it’s so huge and so important these things and I wanted to talk about them. You said, “I made enough of a pain in the rear of myself to make sure the Atari 800 had upper and lower case in its text modes.”
Kevin: I just think that's . . . I mean, it's just so . . . of course it needed that.
Mike: The Apple 2 had uppercase only unless you bought something like the Mountain Hardware board which put the screen in bitmap mode and drew the characters in.
Mike: That's the plain 2. The later 2's did in fact have upper and lower case.
Mike: So it was a typical . . . Apple 2 doesn't have lowercase and nobody cares.
Kevin: Right and then you said you go to Joe and Jay into the display list interrupt which you called kind of a neat feature of the 400 and 800. I just interviewed a few weeks ago Chris Crawford and he called it the most important feature of that computer. Can you talk about why you thought DLI was important and how you worked it in there?
Mike: Basically, at that time, we were having lunch at a place called The Carousel and . . . I think it was called The Carousel. It was like a sandwich shop near Atari. We were taking about the display list and I’m looking at the display list essentially not looking at but we were talking about it and it reminds me of an IBM channel. One of the neat features of an IBM channel is the channel is essentially an IO processor, and the neat thing about it is you can have like a whole sort of program. It's not exactly a program but you have a whole program of IO operations to do. Sometimes it really helps for your processor to know that the IO has gotten to a certain point.
They had a feature in IBM channels — which I’m now admitting something is going to cause to sue whoever owns Atari now for patent infringement except that it was probably out of patent by that time — that you could interrupt saying essentially, I’d gotten this far. I’m looking at the Coin-Op guy relatively limited color palette capabilities and also the modes that you have. I was saying, “It’d be kind of cool to know when you finished drawing a section of a screen and can reuse stuff.” It was almost off handed but they had some bits to spare in the display list. What the hell? We’ll throw that in.
Kevin: Interesting. And the other thing that it sounds like you were trying to get in those machines but didn’t. You said you wanted packet numbering on SIO but you said for that interview that's pretty esoteric but it's not esoteric to us. Please talk about packet numbering on the SIO.
Mike: Okay. By that time, I have been doing some network stuff using a protocol, the Octopus protocol, which was developed at Lawrence Livermore, I think. I think both Lawrence labs used it. Keep in mind, there was no TCP/IP at the time, etc. Everybody who hooked a computer to another computer did it kind of ad hoc, right?
Mike: But I read this paper in IEEE Transactions about this Octopus protocol and started playing with it. One of the things they emphasize is you really need to number your packets. If only just like an A face, B face like USB uses because what happens is this. If computer A sends a packet to computer B and it wants to know when the packets get there so almost all of these protocols have some kind of acknowledgement. The problem comes up computer A says, “Yo, Computer B do this.” Computer B does it and acknowledges it but the acknowledgement is lost or garbled. Computer A times out and goes, “Yo, do this.”
Kevin: Right. It's already been done the first time.
Mike: It's already done. Now, if it's something like a disk sector right, these are what's called idempotent; that means you can do it a number of times and the result is the same. That's fine, but if it’s something like the printer, it’s not okay. If you say, “Printer, print ‘Hello world,’” and the printer does it and acts it but you miss the act, you are going to go, “Printer, print ‘Hello world,’” and you got two hello worlds, not one. This was exacerbated by the fact that there was a race condition in the original Atari OS that would cause it to — wouldn't you know it — occasionally, garble packets, garble received packets like act packets. Actually, it messed up the checks. I had sort of argued for it on general principles. This SIO really is a network, you really need to worry about problems like the lost act problem, etc. They’re like, “Dude, it's like a foot of cable. What could go wrong?” We don't need any of your esoteric CS shit.
Mike: I couldn't actually come up because the only thing SIO was really being used for at that time was the disk really that anyone had much of use for. I couldn't come up with a good enough reason that they should do it. Then later when they did the 825, apparently there was an issue with the precise timing of the acknowledgements on the 825 and the race condition in the Atari OS that caused it to happen a lot.
Kevin: So finally you got to say, “I told you so.”
Mike: Yes, but so what? I mean, I'd rather it not have been, right?
Kevin: Right. SIO is kind of amazing. I’ve got a gadget on my Atari back here that SIO to SD card and the Atari thinks this SD card is a bunch of big disk drives.
Kevin: I could swap it into my Mac, it's amazing.
Mike: Yeah, I did a similar kludge that again I lost interest once I saw that it could work. Are you familiar with Arduinos?
Mike: So Arduinos are often sold in combination with a mounted FTDI USB to serial chip and that's how you load the Arduinos that don't have native USB. So I had an Arduino, I had the serial chip and I was like, “This is essentially UR [SP] and it's got TTL [SP] level outputs. What else do I know that is essentially UR and has TTL?” Since I also had several of those 13-pin connector shell things around, I kind of wired it up and did a sort of cheap ass version of the . . . is it the Atari APE or the APE that . . . just because I could. I proved that I could and lost interest in it. Someday, I will again. My ultimate goal is to have sort of a triangular board that will have 1 SIO connector to connect to the 800, 1 SIO connector to connect to the rest of the chain and a USB connector so that the PC could be in one of several roles.
Kevin: It can be part of the daisy chain of SIO.
Mike: It could be part of the daisy chain, yeah. I think you might be able to do that with some of the purchased things but why buy when you can build, right?
Kevin: Right. My next question was going to be, do you still play with Ataris but it sounds like you totally do.
Mike: Periodically. Right now I’m playing with a KIM 1 and a TRS 80 model 100 and I have limited bench space. Right now the Ataris are in the boxes. The amazing thing when you consider the consumer electronics you use today is that I still have one of the Sony 13-inch TVs that we used to use as monitors for the Atari 800s and it still works well. When I do haul the Atari 800 out, I hook them up to the Sony 13-inch TV, which I bought when it was surplused from Atari.
Kevin: Because it was too old, right?
Mike: Yeah. Well, they used to have the Sony's for the really good stuff and I am going to bad mouth the brand and say they've gotten much better now. We also had the Samsung's because your stuff had to be playable on a Samsung.
Kevin: Even on a Samsung?
Mike: Even on a Samsung. Now, I personally also own a Samsung flat panel TV now which is fine but back in 1980 or '82 something like that, Samsung TVs were sort of the standard for . . . you don't want to be playing games.
Kevin: So how did you become a “formerly valued Atari employee”?
Mike: Well, essentially it was semi voluntary. By that time, it was Midway Games West. I mean I worked for Atari, Atari Games, Time Warner Interactive, Atari Games, Midway Games West, sitting at the same desk with the same phone number. Williams had bought Atari Games and operated them as Atari games for a while and then renamed the Midway Games West. There was obviously a shakeout coming. At that time, I was working on a six degrees of freedom light gun for Sword of Success of the Max Force but that project was having various — mainly political, but some technical — difficulties.
I could see the writing on the wall on that and it was the only thing that I was working on because I had . . . we usually worked on at least two things at a time but I’d wound down the thing before it. It was sort of my only job and the father of one of my daughter's friends was on my butt to go to this startup, this absolutely fabulous startup. I went it and I told Dan Van [SP], “It’s like I can see the clouds, right? If you want to lay me off because I had a fair amount of seniority, etc., I'm okay with it.” Anyway, so they did and I got a decent severance package out of it after nearly 25 years at Atari and went off to the startup and stayed three days. I told my friends, “Well, it's not bad. My average years of employment at a company since college just went from 12 to 9 but it's not so bad.”
Kevin: What was the startup?
Mike: You've probably never heard of them. Their name was . . . and they had this really interesting idea that I was viewing as something that had been done experimentally in Boston of a way of delivering . . . well people use the web now. Your mouse clicks are nothing compared to this stuff coming down. The Boston experiment was really cool. You had a phone connection out to an information service but the downloads were carried over SCA, you know the [inaudible 00:56:54] channel of FM. They were broadcasted which at that time with much higher bandwidth than a modem. So what these guys were doing was where they were overlaying digital information hidden in TV signals, regular NTSC TV signals.
Kevin: Like an over scan time or something?
Mike: Some of it in VBI, some of it tucked into places in NTSC. Technically it was a plausible thing and at the time I went there, they had supposedly got an FCC approval for a field trial. They’d done the field trial and things have worked well and they had prototype systems working and all I needed to do was productize it. The idea was this was going to be a thing that was a USB device that hooked to your computer, included a hard drive, included their receiver. What would happen, it was not like the Boston thing. It wasn't so interactive but it was preemptive. What would happen is that things that you might want to buy were being continuously . . . like videos or stuff like that, straight to video, Disney videos and stuff like that would go on to the hard drive and then when you bought them via giving your credit card number over your dial up modem, they'd be on the hard drive. You can watch them now. Anyway a whole lot of things that I was told when I agreed to go to work there turned out not to be exactly true. I said, “You know, I am not the guy who can do this. I’m going to get out of your way so you can try and find him,” but a month later, they closed the doors.
Kevin: I have a couple more questions but my laptop is out of battery so I’m going to put you on hold for a minute and run upstairs and get the charger.
Kevin: Of your time at Atari, what are you most proud of?
Mike: See, I thought you were going to ask me what I . . . what I liked most was just the people there. I love being in a place that just has such a variety of cool people all doing exciting stuff; much of it that I can't do but also being able to contribute to that because I did although as I said, mostly for at least 15 of those nearly 25 years. I was a behind-the-scenes guy making the onscreen audio control go to 11 and handling coins and all that sort of stuff doing diagnostics and bring up [inaudible 00:59:54].
Well, I'm kind of proud that we did some pretty amazing technology and for not much money because that's a biggie. We had one engineer that had on his wall something that said that it was a big $4. A dollar sign and a 4 and underneath the writing said, “An engineer is someone who can do for a buck what any damn fool can do for 5.” I like that. I like the fact that it was always different. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to a house warming for one of my co-workers moving into the new house and expect to see several . . . this is someone I worked with like . . . well certainly no later than the year 2000 because that's when I took the package. I’m happy that not many of them hate me. That's a good thing to be proud of.
Kevin: That's good. Sounds like there was some real camaraderie and you are still friends and talking to them.
Mike: Oh, yeah. If you ever get Beat Head running, that was really interesting because that was bringing back to consumer. I and about three other Atarians and some people at a contract chip design has did a 32 bit risk processor, that was the actual processor used in Beat Head and Beat Head hardware was Lyle Rains riffing off each other and developing what I called “Stella on steroids”. It was like what you would expect if you updated the Stella idea of being nearly an all-software but with a 32 bit 20 megahertz possible processor and V RAM and stuff like that instead of a 6500. It was pretty interesting but it was the wrong game at the wrong time.
Kevin: So if you could send a message to the remaining Atari 8-bit community and you can right now, what would you tell them?
Mike: Geez, I'm glad you guys are still having fun with it. I mean I do too at times. It’s one of several things. I'm hoping that gets them to do interesting stuff. I think the demo scene is some interesting stuff but you don't have to limit yourself to that. I understand that making video games is not what I would call fun anymore where it's you are one of 200 people contributing to a multi tens of millions dollar thing. There are still things you can do. One or two or three people together, riffing on an idea and that was what I loved about that and that's what people can still love about it.
Mike: Lot of fun stuff. My daughter does games. She does mostly interactive fiction so there are still people doing fun games that don't take an army. Go do them.
Kevin: Okay, we will.
Mike: All right.
Kevin: All right. I think that's about it.
Kevin: Thank you so much.
Mike: Are you going to send me a copy of the . . . when you’ve . . .
Mike: Just in case I said something like the name of that company that shouldn't probably be in there. Very few people will recognize that name.
Kevin: Sure. I can send you a version to proofread before it goes live.
Kevin: All right. Oh, pronounce your last name for me so I don't do it wrong in the podcast.
Kevin: Albaugh, okay.
Mike: That is Anglicized Albach [SP] or ill creek [SP].
Kevin: Great, thank you so much.
Kevin: Have a great day. Bye.