Margaret Gorts Morabito, the author of the new book Vintage Commodore 128 Personal Computer Handbook: 2019 Survival Edition
accepted to be interviewed by AmigaLove.
In this exclusive interview Mrs. Morabito (aka Marg) talks about her time at RUN Magazine in the 1980s as well as her inspirations for writing and publishing a book about the Commodore 128 in 2019. She also expands on her experiences with the machine and the impact it made on her life.
AmigaLove's questions, conducted by Eric Hill (aka intric8), are in bold.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Marg. And congratulations on publishing your book after all these years.
You're welcome, Eric. Good to be with you and thanks for reaching out to me about the book and for this interview.
What compelled you to pull your C-128 out of storage in 2016 and start using it again?
Well, this was in the back of my mind for quite a while. But, I never quite got around to digging out my Commodore equipment until I had to clean out my porch. That forced me to pick up my three C-128s, various 1541 and 1571 disk drives, and my old 1902 monitor and physically move them. I decided at that time to find out what worked and what didn't, after all those years of storage and periodic relocation. Once I began to set up my C-128 system, I was hooked again. And, here I am today, with a published book and having lots of fun with my Commodore 128. Also, I have five granddaughters, ages 1 to 10. Four of them are at ages when they can use the C-128 and get some fun out of it.
When you started to update your manuscript, who did you envision your key target audience to be in 2019?
I had two groups in mind. First would be the old timers, like me, who had a C-128 kicking around in the porch, attic, or some out of the way spot. Many of these C-128 owners probably haven't used their computers in a long time. Life kind of gets in the way. At this point, decades later, many of us would not remember how to use the C-128. The second target group would be the younger people who now want to have a retro computer. There are C-128s out there at garage sales and in online listings. I wanted people to know how to use this versatile computer. Many of the C-128s that are for sale don't have manuals with them, or software, or peripherals. I figured that by updating the book, I could help both groups to get a good restart or start in using the C-128 in 2019 and beyond.
You mention at the beginning of the book that your original manuscript was written in 1985, but it ultimately wasn’t published. Did [the publisher] DATAMOST give you a concrete reason why?
Kind of, but I wouldn't say it was concrete. I had a contract with Datamost in February, 1985, and I started right away working on the book. During that summer, they designed a flyer, which they distributed and had received pre-publication orders. (I included it in the book for historical perspective.) Late in the summer, after having written the manuscript, someone from the publisher phoned me and simply told me that they would not be following up with publishing the book. I was stunned and disappointed. In September, I received a letter from the president of Datamost stating that "due to current demands of the market", they didn't feel that they could make a profit and wanted to let me try to find another publisher. I discovered later that Datamost went out of business soon after.
After sitting in a box for all these years, you write in the book that your son encouraged you to dust off the original manuscript and make it more contemporary. Is your son an active Commodore or other vintage computer user today? Did he grow up in the 1980s and live the Commodore lifestyle, too?
My son did grow up in the 1980s, with Commodore computers in the house. We had a VIC-20, C-64, Plus/4, and a C-128. The C-64 got used the most by my son and my daughter. I encouraged the kids to use educational software like StickyBear, Mr. Rogers, and the RUN educational programs and games. My son, Michael, is an engineering professor now, and does a lot of technical writing. He had just finished helping me put together a book on the early history of our Congregational Church and Meeting House here in Rindge, New Hampshire. That editing and self-publishing process went so well, that it seemed like we should dig out the Commodore book. The main reason for doing it was to have a sense of accomplishment at finishing this project. Better late than never! He just bought a Commodore 64 for his kids and is using the sections of my C-128 book that deal with the 64 mode to help get it running. (When he's ready, I'll give him one of my C-128s.)
How long were you at RUN Magazine and at what point did you leave? Did you work for any other Tech Publications?
I worked fulltime at RUN from 1984 to 1987, as Technical Editor and eventually Technical Manager. This was an exciting time to be involved. Commodore was at its peak and we had a very large readership. After I left RUN, I continued to write for the magazine as an Associate Editor for a year or so. I was also a Contributing Editor for AmigaWorld and wrote the lead article about the Amiga in their Premiere Issue in 1985. I wrote for Link-Up Magazine, doing a series of articles about telecommunications. And, I wrote at various times for CD-ROM Review and inCider.
Is there an article that you wrote back in the day - or a particular industry event you witnessed - that in hindsight seems particularly noteworthy?
There was a lot of development in the Commodore world going on at that time. Here are some of the most notable things that I witnessed:
The opening of QuantumLink (Q-Link) was significant to Commodore users and specifically to me: it led to my career in online education. As most of your readers will know, Q-Link was a Commodore-specific online network, which opened in 1985. I developed the Tutoring Center, Q-Link Community College, Parent-Teacher Information Exchange, and the Resource Center. The Resource Center column that I wrote for RUN was helpful to parents and teachers in sharing information about using the C-64 and C-128 for education, and the column was brought onto Q-Link. Being an English teacher by training, the educational aspects of computing were my primary area of interest, and in particular the use of telecommunications for education. (If you're interested in seeing what I've been up to in the field of online education since the early days of Q-Link, take a look at a brief history of CALCampus, the school that I founded, located online at http://www.calcampus.edu/calc.htm
In 1986, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. The big excitement at that show for Commodore people was Q-Link and its newest addition, Habitat, which was developed by Lucasfilms. At the show, Lucasfilm's developers demonstrated Habitat to me and other media people. For the August 1986 issue of RUN, I wrote an article, entitled "Enter the On-Line World of Lucasfilm", in which I discussed the online world of Habitat and its residents, Avatars. Later in 2008, prior to the release of the science fiction movie, “Avatar”, my article was cited in the New York Times Magazine as being the first print article that used the term Avatar in its newest meaning. I don't know if it was the first, but it was a noteworthy article in terms of online interactive gaming history.
Lastly, the appearance of the Amiga in 1985 was big.
During your research for updating this book, you spoke with several Commodore alums, including Bil Herd. Did you ever go to the Commodore offices in Pennsylvania during the course of your work at RUN? And If so, what was the vibe like back then?
Yes. In 1985, I went to Commodore headquarters in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I went down there to be introduced to the new Amiga. I met with Amiga engineers (I actually can't remember their names at this point) who demonstrated the computer and answered questions. I would say that the atmosphere at that time was exciting and full of anticipation. This was something totally different from what we had been covering with the 8-bit computers at Commodore. There was a lot to take in. As a result of that visit, I wrote the AmigaWorld article mentioned earlier. At some point, I was given an Amiga 500 to work with. In 1985, I had thought that I would follow up the C-128 book with a similar book about the new Amiga. When the C-128 book got shelved, I didn't pursue working on the Amiga book.
You mention in the book the choice consumers had between the Amiga and the C128 in in 1985, where the C128 was the best 8-bit computer for the common person at a far less expensive price point. Did you ever make the leap to Amiga? What systems did you ultimately migrate towards after the demise of Commodore in the mid-90s?
While I had an Amiga 500 and wrote about it in its first year, I didn't use it much after 1985. My favorite was the C-128. I used that for my Q-Link work and for writing articles. I did get a Commodore PC-10 (their PC-compatible) and used that for my other online work on PC-Link and AOL. And, I always hung onto my original C-64 that I bought for $199 at Child World in late 1983. I use Linux on a Dell computer for my work these days.
I must admit I personally found your discussions around CP/M software to be completely fascinating as this was one aspect of the 128 I never really tapped into. Are there particular CP/M programs that you used or use regularly?
I'm glad that you liked my coverage of the CP/M mode. I have received several positive comments about that section of the book. The CP/M mode interested me back in 1985 and in recent years. I use it regularly now, mostly for playing text adventure games. Back then, I didn't have the time to play these text adventures, so when I was refreshing my knowledge and use of CP/M on the C-128, I gravitated to them. I'm not that great at them, yet. I've been playing Wishbringer. I finally found the Magick Shoppe, but now I can't get back to town. If anyone has a suggestion, let me know.
Brian, at ParticlesBBS, was quite helpful. He transferred many of the CP/M text adventures into disk images. I write about this in the book. His work has made it much easier to run CP/M text adventures on the C-128. And, after doing quite a bit of experimentation with the SD2IEC, I use that device with CP/M all of the time these days.
Did you use Commodore hardware to write and submit your articles back in the day? Or did RUN use early computerized typesetting machines?
I used Commodore computers to write my articles. I would write them at home, print them out, and then give them to our editor in chief, Dennis Brisson. From there, they would go to other members of our editorial staff for proof reading, creating pull quotes, and arranging for photos and illustrations. Eventually, the proof copy of the article would get back to me for a final read and then it would go into the final version of the magazine for printing. We didn't submit articles in electronic form when I was there.
What are the most common programs you find yourself using these days on your C128?
Nowadays, I use all three operating systems on my C-128. I am currently writing a short story, called the Chronicles of Olga and Antonio. It is a family biographical story, written in an old timey style. I started writing it with SpeedScript 128+, but recently moved over to Word Writer 128. I'm using the 128 mode in 80 columns monochrome. I recently acquired a Commodore MPS 803 printer, which I use for my rough drafts. I also use the 128 mode when I access my UNIX Shell account for e-mail and reading articles on the Web. As mentioned in the book, I use KipperTerm 128 for that.
I use the 64 mode in color. When my grandkids visit, they like to play the 64 games. I have some of the old ReRUN games and education programs, as well as many commercial games that have been made available to the public. I also like to use the color 64 mode terminal programs to access Commodore BBSs. I currently am using the CCGMS 2019 terminal program.
What could people born in the 21st century learn from the 128?
There is a lot that could be said about this. I think that 21st century people can learn to appreciate the simplicity of the 8-bit world. Just look at boot up time, for example. I can turn on my C-128 and it takes only 2.5 seconds to completely boot up. Try timing your boot-up on your modern day PC.
People have more control when using the C-128 than when using a modern PC. Having control over things these days seems to be a vanishing aspect of life. With its built-in BASIC, in either 64 or 128 modes, you can learn to write programs and by doing that, you can control the computer. You can see how things get done. There is not as much distance between the programming level and the user level on the C-128, as there is with modern PCs. Even if you don't write programs, you can load and list BASIC programs and actually see the commands that make things happen.
People can learn that having fun with retro technology doesn't have to cost a lot. You can start off easy with just a used C-128, an SD2IEC, and a TV. Download software for free from the Internet and you'll have more than you could possibly need. The C-128 provides a lot of territory for exploration and learning. While sometimes it might take a bit longer to master certain aspects, such as learning how to use CP/M, the journey itself is a learning experience.
Lastly, you can take your time with your C-128, and not be infringed upon by pop-up windows and unwanted-to-be-seen images. All in all, it's a good way to experience wholesome fun while using your computer. And, there are lots of people out there, of all ages, who are ready to lend a helping hand and to share in the joy.
Marg, thank you so much for talking with us today. I hope you realize how much excitement your book has generated in the Commodore community. Speaking for myself, I found the book a total pleasure to read and will use some of the chapters as a future reference. Cheers!
Thanks for your kind words, Eric. Glad that you like the book.
Final Notes by AmigaLove
Whether you're a fan of the Commodore 128, or thinking of picking one up for the first time, I highly recommend Marg's new book
and reading it cover to cover. Much of it was written in 1985 and is an interesting historical document in its own right. But the text is completely updated by contemporary observations and experiences where Marg offers relevant advice for folks reading about this interesting 8-bit machine today. It's a fine addition to any C= fan's bookshelf.