Oct 2, 2020

Tract Computing, Inc - My days in computer retail

 

Back in 1989, I worked for a retail computer company called "Tract Computing." The operation had two locations: one in the Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge, VA, and the other in an office complex in Alexandria, VA. I have tried to research information about the company since, but have come up empty.

What I do remember, however, are a few of the things that I will probably never forget. They help lay the foundation for some of my core beliefs regarding business and handling employees. In this post, I'll share some of the things I remember (which may or may not have anything to do with business practices, but are rather memories).

  • I worked with several guys at the store. There was Rick and CJ (I cannot remember their last names to save my life). There were at least two other guys as well. The place was managed by a woman named Karen (I believe her name is/was Karen Williams, but that could be wrong). The company was run by a man named Alex and his wife (also named Karen, I believe). Alex's brother did the books, but I'm afraid I cannot recall his name. Their last name was either Nassif or Nassir, perhaps.
  • Alex had a vanity license plate with "DOS EXE" on it. So appropriate for the late 80's/early 90's.
  • One of the guys had an Amiga 1500 or perhaps 2000. We would go to his house to mess with it and eventually cobbled together a very cool PC/Amiga hybrid. I don't remember the details, but we used an IBM-PC bridge card from the Amiga with a ribbon cable that led to an AT chassis where a separate board served to add expansion ports to the PC side. That was crazy.
  • One of my most memorable moments came by way of a woman who came into the store one day. She held a computer mouse in her hands, and she approached me asking if we happened to sell just the balls that went into the computer mouse. In those days, we didn't have optical mice. Mice had a little ball that rolled around inside for movement. When I told her that we only sold complete mice, I asked her why she just needed the ball. She opened her hands and showed me a computer mouse that had been marred and scarred with a cable that looked like it had been chomped on for quite some time. She said, "Well, you see, my cat was playing with my mouse, and I think she killed it." Truly one of the funniest moments I've had. We sold her a replacement mouse.
  • Another stand-out situation came by way of an older couple. The woman had come to the store early in the day, picked out some software, then asked if it would run on an IBM-PC. I assured her that it would and she bought it. Later that day, she came back with her husband. Her husband was angry about something. When I asked what was wrong, he barked, "Are you the one that sold this (holding up the box) to my wife?" "Yes, sir," I said, confused. "Well, it will NOT work on an IBM-PC! This has five and quarter inch disks and we need three and a half! Where's your manager?" I tried to explain that the software WOULD work, but that I was not told the computer only had 3.5" drives. Didn't matter. He found the manager and proceeded to tell her how incompetent I was (using pretty colorful words to do so), and that I should be fired on the spot. She got him calmed down. One of the other guys copied the program to a 3.5-inch disk and sent the couple on their merry way. The manager got my side of the story and we decided it was a lesson learned - one I still practice as best I can to this day: ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS, ASSUME NOTHING. From that day on, I have tried to ask all the possible questions I can when given a task or a project.
  • Even though I couldn't find information online regarding Tract Computing, Inc, I do recall that the company had folded not long after I left in 1990. I was offered a manager's position in late 1989 as an enticement not to back to college (I was out for a semester, taking time off). They offered me a decent amount of money, but in the end, I thought it better to get my degree and return should the opportunity and offer still stand. By the time I graduated, they no longer existed. Plus, I wouldn't have gone back by then anyway. Life had taken me in a different direction.

In those days, we sold everything from hardware including PCs, Amigas, C64s, all kinds of peripherals. We were basically like Computer Shopper magazine in a little store. We weren't anything like Software, etc or Babbages or the myriad of other computer-related stores, but we were one of the few in the area. Sometimes, just being there is enough to have a moderately successful business. 

Shortly before I left, the manager was fired for allegedly stealing money from the company. Apparently, she wrote company checks to herself, which she signed, and then she endorsed on the back. The bank raised a few questions after the check amounts continued to grow, and things spiraled from there. Note: this is the story as I heard, so if facts are askew,  I am not making any accusations nor legal claims here. Nor am I trying to slander/libel anyone.

Anyway, I thought I would write this post in case any of the folks from back in the day started poking around looking for info about Tract Computing. Thanks for reading.


Sep 23, 2020

1997: The Year of Mystique (Mercury Mystique and Matrox Mystique)


In 1997, I fell victim to two of the worst purchases I have ever made. On top of that, they both shared the name model name even though they were vastly different pieces of equipment.

In those days, I had been driving around in a Dodge Neon. I had a 1996 Dodge Neon. I had seen the car through some trade show something or other as a concept car and instantly fell madly in love with the car. In 1996, I convinced my wife that we should get one. 

About a year or so later, I was having weird trouble with the car and decided to get rid of it. I went shopping at the local Ford dealer and came across a maroon sports sedan. Er, more like a compact sedan dressed up to look sporty. That should have been by first warning sign. Instead, it had bells and whistles I could have only dreamed about in my base model Neon. No, this car had a much better stereo system, power windows, power locks, remote trunk, fog lights, cool alloy wheels and a spoiler on the back! And, it had a cool name: The Mercury Mystique!

Mercury Mystique
image from: https://www.iaai.com/vehicledetails/26779812?RowNumber=1

As if that weren't enough, though, at the same time (or around the same time), I had upgraded my computer. I saw a very cool ad with a clown-mime joker dude in it for an amazing new video card. Granted, the card had come out in 1996, but I could finally afford it a year later. Not only was this a supposedly awesome video card, but it share the name of the car I had just bought! This was the Matrox Mystique! How cool was it to own a car and video card with the same name!? Yeah, I was a doof. (Heh-heh "WAS?!")

By Swaaye at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4855006
 

Turns out, as far as the car was concerned, the only "mystique" was how Ford managed to sell a crap-ton of these things on poor unsuspecting schmucks like me. This car was a piece of junk. The power window system failed (just after warranty), the engine ran like crap, the air conditioner gave out, it drank oil like a man drinking water in the desert. Just anything and everything that could go wrong went wrong all in this one car. I got rid of it in 2000 and bought a Chevy Impala. Now, THAT was one of my favorite cars ever. That's a story for another time.

As for the video card, it ran my Windows installation at a higher resolution than whatever my previous card was. Nothing like squeezing more tiny dots onto a massive 19-inch CRT... As for gaming, though, I remember upping the resolution of certain games, but everything seemed muddy and blurry. It was like, in some games, I was playing with dirty glasses on. I bought some kind of daughter-card add-on for the card (TV tuner or video capture maybe), but it never worked. I even took it back to the store where I bought it and exchanged it. That one didn't work either. Now, it was still a better card than I had before, and even though it had been a year since initial release, the card still cost me a pretty penny that I didn't really have at the time. So, with the money invested and performance boost, I soldiered on with it until 2000 when I dove into the world of ATI and Nvidia graphics cards.

Both of the "Mystique"-branded equipment in life became unlovingly referred to as the "Mystakes." Both ended up being foolish purchases, which even to this day in 2020 I hold a deep hatred for both items. Though, I admit, I hate the Mercury far more than the video card.


Sep 1, 2020

FON-175 POST Mode Recovery (Factory Reset)


 


If you need to do a factory restore on a Fortinet FON-175 (or FON-175i, FON-375, FON-375i) device, they will send you a document that refers to the "Post Mode" in order to do a recovery via post mode. While the document is helpful, I couldn't make the recovery work as it was written.

In the document, it suggests you use FileZilla FTP Server. For whatever reason, I could not get the phone's built-in ftp client to connect to FileZilla. After much hair-pulling and Googling, I stumbled across another ftp server to use instead of filezilla: CoreFTP Server.

https://www.coreftp.com/server/

The setup is a little wonky, but in a nutshell:

  • Click the SETUP button at the top.
  • Click NEW in the "Domains" section
  • Type the IP you chose for your IPv4 (192.168.10.x)
  • Set the Base Directory to the folder where you stored your firmware
  • Click OK
  • Select your new domain
  • Click NEW in the "User" section
  • Enter a username
  • Enter a password
  • Set the HOME DIRECTORY to the location of the firmware file
  • Check the "Always Allow Login" option
  • Click OK
  • Click OK to exit SETUP
  • Click the "View Activity" option

Once you have done that, follow the steps outlined in the Post Mode document.

By the way, there is a version of the document online here (though in a foreign language):

https://startcom123.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/troubleshoot-ip-phone-fanvil-post-mode/

*Note: even though this method allowed me to update my phone, the phone itself was still bricked. It kept rebooting after getting to the user screen. At least it was worth a shot.


Jun 26, 2020

Lords of Conquest - A Commodore 64 Risk Like Game

Every now and then, my brain tries to think of the name of a game I used to play with my friends. I can describe it perfectly, but the actual name escapes me.

The game is laid out on a grid with very rudimentary landforms. It plays basically like Risk, where players take turns trying to attack/defend other players from taking over their land. It also has a cool feature where you can actually build your own maps!

I search and search on Google, trying to come up with the right phrasing that will expose the game and its long-forgotten name. Alas, one day, I am searching for "Commodore 64 risk like game" and nothing is coming up other than Risk or other like games but not the one I am seeking. I flip over to the image results to see if anything stands out. A few screens down, and there it is!


Unfortunately, the link to the image's hosting page leads to some weird Instagram curation page and the image above is nowhere to be found in the mess of images.

So, I save the image and do a reverse image search. Basically, you go to images.google.com and click the little camera icon to upload a picture. Google then tries to find your image compared to the rest of the internet. BINGO!

The game, as it turns out, is called "Lords of Conquest." Now, I have to say, I do not believe that is the name of the game I played. I am almost certain the game I played had to be loaded with the command:
LOAD"DELUXE",8,1

But, that doesn't matter! I finally found what I was looking for. Not only that, but I found a d64 disk image and fired it up on a C64 emulator (I didn't have easy access to my breadbin Ultimate 64 Elite at the time).


And there it is! The game plays like an overly complicated version of Risk. Players get resources (gold, iron, horses, weapons, etc) and they can use those resources to help with attacks and defenses.

The C64 Wiki has a great write-up on the game, so I will spare you the details.

The main reason I am posting this is so that in the future when I forget the name of this game, I can search my blog and find comfort in knowing the great mystery had been solved.

Jun 19, 2020

Force Zoom to QUIT Instead of Minimize!


Since the makers of Zoom don't play by the rules of 99% of the programs out there, I decided to make my own BAT file that will launch Zoom and provide a way for the user to force-quit Zoom after the session is over.

I have created a Windows batch file called "Quit Zoom." It has its own installer/uninstaller and it works very simply:

  1. Download the installer (qz-setup.exe)
  2. Run qz-setup.exe
  3. Once installed, double-click the "Quit Zoom" icon
  4. A window will open that launches Zoom
  5. Leave the window open until you are done with your Zoom session
  6. After the session, click in the window and press any key
  7. Zoom will exit (instead of being minimized to the task bar/system tray.)
  8. Quit Zoom will exit
 If you wish to remove the program, simply use Programs and Features to uninstall Quit Zoom.

Note, this program is a simple batch file. It doesn't collect data. It doesn't write anything to your computer other than the program itself. It's not elegant, but it works. I offer it for free. you can install it on all the computers you want. If you edit the file and/or share it, whatever happens from that point on is *NOT* my responsibility.

I will try to monitor this post for questions/problems, but I'm letting you know right now that you are more than likely on your own. I built this for me to use and am sharing it with anyone that wants it until such time the people at Zoom make their program work like 99% of the other programs for Windows: The X means EXIT!

Notes:
  • You may still see the Zoom icon in your system tray, but the program is not running. As soon as you hover your mouse over the icon, it will disappear. 
  • You may need Administrator-level rights on the computer in order to install or run this batch file.
  • This program invokes the "Taskkill" command in order to terminate Zoom. Access to that process may be blocked by your computer administrator. 
  • Terminating Zoom with this brute-force method may cause unintended consequences. Use at your own risk. Your mileage may vary.
  • This batch file will *NOT* run when clicking a link in email, calendar, etc. For what it's worth, it appears that the program exists normally when closing from a linked launch. Go figure.  
  • You can replace your Zoom shortcut by copying the command from the batch file to replace the launch command inside the program's shortcut. I am not providing the steps to do that here.