CompuTalk: Texas-Sized BBS
20Mb hard disk networking six Atari 800sby Gregg Pearlman, Antic Assistant Editor
In the Texas tradition of doing things BIG...Computalk of Fort Worth may well be the largest online Atari bulletin board system (BBS) operated by a private individual.
Computalk consists of six 48K Atari 800 computers with modems and Atari 850 interfaces, all linked together via a 20Mb Corvus Hard Disk and Multiplexer. The BBS currently contains 2,000 download files arranged on 30 logical (simulated) disk drives—15 each for 8-bits and STs.
Sysop Kris Meier, 25, who founded Computalk in 1982, plans to add more material—even a compu-date system. The databases consist of seven multi-user online adventures, eight multi-user message bases and nine specialty sections. It all started with one Atari 800, an 850 interface, an 810 disk drive and a Hayes modem.
Meier bought the Corvus Hard Disk with Multiplexer and cables in 1984 for $3,500. Each Atari 800's joystick ports 3 and 4 are cabled to the Corvus Multiplexer, which plugs directly into the hard disk.
Computalk has six phone lines, one per computer. The system automatically shifts you over to the first free line. Only if all lines are busy will you get a busy signal.
The system currently runs on a "radically modified" version of the AMIS BBS program, written in BASIC with some machine language modifications. Computalk operates 24 hours a day at 300 and 1200 baud, and Meier plans to add 2400 baud by April 1988.
"Normally if two people want to upload at the same time, it would cause massive hard drive errors—you can't have two OPEN statements at once," says Meier. "But Tom Hudson (author of DEGAS and CAD-3D for the Atari ST) built a device that I call the Brain Box, which decides which file can access the drive at a given time for writing. Without that feature there would be no way to run this system."
Because each computer has only 48K, the BBS is programmed in modular form. The BBS loads and runs these modules the same way you'd load and run programs from a disk menu. The main BBS program welcomes callers to Computalk. Then it asks for an identification number or the word NEW, before letting you into the main BBS area.
"Once you're there, you've got nine other modules or 'rooms' to go into," Meier says. "A file called RUNMEM saves all the important information in your account--name, password, password level, last time you called. After loading the module you've chosen, the program goes back to that RUNMEM file and updates the information stored there."
CompuGab, the CB simulation, is in a three-file queue form. "Let's say you type faster than I do," says Meier. "You type 'How are things in Texas?' and press [RETURN]. But since I only type one character per second, you've already typed out two more lines before I can respond. Without the queue I'd miss all but the last line, but with it I won't miss anything. Six people can talk together using this."
When you log on, if you're not already a Computalk member, enter NEW at the "ID# or NEW" prompt. This will send you to the new user area. New users who don't have valid passwords may only visit selected areas of the system, to guard against abuses.
35,000 CALLS YEARLYMeier conservatively estimates that Computalk receives 35,000 calls a year. "It gets crazy in the summer and on holidays," he says. "The worst time of day to call is from 4 to 9 p.m., Central time, because that's when everyone gets home from school."
Members pay $15 for six months. There are no additional charges, and for every public domain file you upload, time is added to your account. "If you sent uploads once a week, you could have an unlimited account," says Meier.
Meier, "religion sysop" Bob Mele and assistant programmer Matt Pritchard run Computalk out of Meier's home. "I personally make no money from this," he says. "Every dime Computalk makes goes into a Computalk bank account, though I do pay Bob and Matt on a per-job basis, and my actual job pays for other expenses incurred."
The message bases have a wide range of topics. "In one message base you can say anything you want: why you're mad, why you shouldn't have been treated the way you were, etc.—and people respond to it," says Meier. "Here in the Bible Belt a lot of people keep up with religious issues, I started a religion section after I saw how much demand there was for it.
"Our CompuNovel feature is a do-it-yourself storybook. I start with a basic scenario, then you add to it, then someone else, and so on. Each chapter is a separate file—you can pick up where you left off, so you don't have to reread anything. So many people access it that I have to clear out the older material every week."
There's also an "Alien" game. As in the movie, you take off in the ship and destroy it, escape in the pod—all the while fighting aliens. If you die, the computer logs you off and you must start at square one. "If you could just keep playing instead of being logged off, you wouldn't try as hard," says Meier. "You'd just keep reincarnating. How much fun would that be? We have six adventures like that, and they're really popular."
Meier strongly suggests that 8-bit users play CompuTrek, programmed by Matt Pritchard. It's just like the standard Star Trek game—but for up to six players. You can log on as either a Federation ship or a Klingon. CompuTrek puts a graphics screen on your computer, as well as a status report. "It's incredible. Even I'm hooked," says Meier.
PHREAKING OUT"The first year, my bulletin board got 500 to 600 callers a month—it was free," says Meier. "I had several phone phreakers (telephone 'pirates' who use phones illegally) trying to damage my system and get me into trouble."
A phreaker once called Computalk collect. "How could he have done that when there's just a connect tone on my system?" asks Meier. "No voice actually answers the phone. Finally, they traced it to a 12-year-old in Memphis. Somehow he pretended to be an operator. They almost put him away, but his parents were prominent doctors and paid his fines."
Meier, a public relations major with minors in computer science and psychology at North Texas State University in Denton, Texas, attends school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then he works on Computalk until it's time to go to his job—from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.—as the night computer operator at A.B. Culbertson, a Ft. Worth securities company. Then he works on Computalk for two more hours. "That's not much sleep," he says, "but it's enough.
Why does he do all this? Perhaps a $490 CompuServe bill when he first started going online is the answer. "I didn't like spending so much money for a service and I wanted to build a system that Atari users could enjoy."
Meier would like a commercial online service to take over Computalk eventually. "I haven't looked into that," he says, "because part of me says 'You idiot, this is your baby.' I've had Computalk for five sweaty years. It's been up 24 hours a day—never down except for maintenance. It's hard to let someone else have it."
P.O. Box 18346
Ft. Worth, TX 76118
(214) 589-2588 via PC Pursuit
CORVUS SYSTEMS, INC.
160 Great Oaks Boulevard
San Jose, CA 95119
$2,795, 20Mb hard disk
$11.30, 5-foot cable
$26.43, 15-foot cable