Category Archives: Misc

Penn & Teller’s BBS – MOFO EX MACHINA

Before the public Internet and the World Wide Web, there were computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). A device called a modem (modulator/demodulator) would turn computer data in to audio tones (modulate) so it could be sent across a phone line, and the modem at the other end would turn these tones back in to data (demodulate).

My first exposure to BBSes and modems was thanks to a local Radio Shack in Houston, Texas. They let me use their TRS-80 Model III to dial in to BBSes around the city. The salesmen there turned me in to part of a sales pitch. “This young man is currently connected to a computer across town…”

I never had a modem for my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20 that I received in 1982. I did, however, get to borrow a modem (from that same Radio Shack salesman) to use with my Radio Shack Color Computer I bought in 1983. That modem was a 300 baud (very slow, about the speed of a really fast typist) acoustic coupled version, which was the type with round holes on it that you would set a phone handset in so it could play sound to the mouthpiece, and hear sound from the earpiece. That’s right — you had to dial the phone yourself then set the handset down on the modem when the computer at the other end answered! (There were “smart modems” by then that could dial and answer the phone — that’s what the BBSes used — but they were vastly more expensive. I wouldn’t have one of those until years later when the price came down.)

But I digress.

Over the years, modem technology evolved, and they got faster and cheaper. BBSes were operating everywhere, and I remember calling them as late as 1995-1996 or so after I moved to Iowa. By that time,dialup internet was starting to spread, and soon calling a local BBS would be a thing of the past.

I miss my BBS days. I wrote one in 1983 that a cousin of a friend operated in Houston for awhile, and I ran my own several years later elsewhere in the state. I even started it up again (briefly) in Iowa. It was a fun time, and there was a greater sense of local community on them since most users would be from the local area (avoiding long distance charges).

Magicians Penn & Teller had a BBS of their own, too. It was called MOFO EX MACHINA. The following is a transcript of a dialup session I had with the system on November 24, 1990. Set your wayback machine to 300 baud (but hopefully 1200 by then) and read on:

Remote V.1.3  
Please enter your password 
Incorrect password 
Please enter your password 
Hello, FAN. 
11-24-1990 03:26:34 
Checking your terminal type ... 
Your terminal type is Universal. Please wait... 


(c) 1986,87 eXTended Software Services
(c) 1988 New York Municipal Computer Service Group
    Password series: Beta Trey

NYCDT                      Node 3                             XTPCSS v. 2.3

                 New York City Department of Traffic

         Employees are to take not that we are still testing
         this system and we are not yet ready to network this
         machine with the IBO-DEC 80 files.  Do not rely on this
         system as a sole source of information and do *not*
         count something filed here as "Recorded Diem" until you
         are notified to do so by your supervisor.

         We would like to thank those brave enough to help us
         work out the in-operatives in this system.  Remember,
         "We are rebuilding New York."

         Thank you for staying within the fifteen minute time
         limit, we are back-logged on reimbursments for phone
         expendentures.  These calls should be short enough to
         fall under the 'petty cash' heading on Form 36J3/201/6
         (available from Supervisor Bradley's Brooklyn office).

15 minutes Press any key -->

NYCDT                      Node 3                             XTPCSS v. 2.3

                 New York City Department of Traffic

         WARNING:  Any attempt to enter names for exception of
         parking tickets is ILLEGAL!  More importantly, before
         we bring this machine on-line it will be audited, save
         the favors until after we are up to speed.

         Notice: Meter maids applying for gun permits that were
         approved before January 21, 1988 please contact the
         assistant-supervisor's secretary: because of the
         Maynes-Fieldstein difficulty some permits were approved
         without official approval.

Press any key... except that one.

NYCDT                      Node 3                             XTPCSS v. 2.3

                 New York City Department of Traffic

  Verifying use-approval code.  Please stand-by.

  Usr apprvd.
  Accs denied.  Accnt clsd.

  Usr apprvd.
  Accs denied.  Accnt clsd.

  Usr apprvd.
  Accs denied.  Accnt clsd.

    Manual override/%THY!  MO:HCK@NYC

NYCDT                      Node X                             XTPCSS v.666

                New York City Department of Tra
                                          --trapdoor activated--

          Thanks to bribes, kickbacks and the department in
          charge of tracking municipally-owned equipment
          (or lack there of any such department), we are proud
          to present a bulletin board with a real purpose...

14 minutes Press any key -->

W E L C O M E   T O

                    M O F O   E X   M A C H I N A

A public service bulletin board from the good folks
at the Buggs & Rudy Discount Corporation.

Mofo controls this bulletin board, telling you about Penn &
Teller and the ever-changing world in which they live in.  Why
not give it a try?

Press any key... except that one.

14 minutes Press any key -->

                        T E L L E R   T A L K
      Hello, and thanks for logging on.  This is Teller.  I'm writing
this installment in a hotel room in Baltimore on November 10th, 1990.
We're touring this fall, and this is my fifth hotel room, if you don't
count the one in Chicago by the ice machine that I moved out of so that
I could sleep.
      I am reading SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVEN the Jack Benny
biography/autobiography.  In dark type is interesting stuff from a
manuscript by Benny.  It's nice, good-natured stuff about the life of a
vaudevillian, radio star, and tv personality.  In light type (the bulk
of the book) is petty crap, poorly written (dictated into a tape
recorder?) by his smug, talent-free adopted daughter.  Oh, boy, at last
she has the chance to brag about being a spoiled brat and get back at
her demanding mother.  Unfortunately, every once in a great while, she
quotes George Burns or somebody else good; so you can't get away with
just skipping the light type.
      The tour is going gangbusters.  It's a bit eerie.  We land in a
new city.  We drive into town.  We walk into the theatre, which is
always distinctly different from the last one.  And there on stage is a
little microcosm that is absolutely the same:  our set.  It's almost as
if somebody picked up everything in my bedroom, even the waste basket

13 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> ?
[C]ontinous, [G]oodbye, ,[M]ore, [Q]uit this file

13 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> C

full of trash, and placed it, exactly as it was, in the middle of the
      My happiest extracurricular activity:  I heard a great band in
Milwaukee, The Rhythm Club.  Four women and a bass player who are all
amazing musicians and who, like NRBQ seem to be able to do ANYTHING they
want at the drop of a hat.
      Upcoming events -- Letterman on November 20th.  Our big special:
"Don't Try This At Home" on the 23rd.  Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los
Angeles, then a short vacation.  Ta for now.

13 minutes Press any key -->

What's up with Penn - 11/20/90

Well Mofo computer friends,  

I'm on an airplane flying to Minneapolis where we'll do our show
for a few nights.  I'm writing this on my Grid 1450SX, a major cool
computer that I get to borrow because I'm writing the back page for
"PC Computing" magazine.  The issue on the stands right now has an
article of mine on the back page with a little drawing of me.  The
picture is okay - my fat smiling face sitting at a computer but the
computer has a sticker that says, "Kiss Me, I'm User Friendly". 
I'm sorry, it was not my idea.  They didn't show it to me before it
was printed.  As a matter of fact this whole article was edited
heavily but they promised that won't happen in the future.  I've
asked Pie to get my original one on this machine so you can check
it out.  I've written my next four back pages already and you can
tell because the vast majority mention Uma Thurman.  That means I
had to have written them before I saw "Henry and June" where Uma
doesn't feature her Thurmans.  Since then, I don't talk about her

12 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> C

much.  I hold a grudge.  I'll try to get all the "PC Computing"
articles on-line here so you can read them without having to buy
"PC Computing" but you have to promise that if you read them here
you'll write a letter to "PC Computing" and tell them how much you
liked my articles and how because of them you'll buy the magazine
from now on every month.  They've had someone cancel their
subscription and write a nasty letter because I'm too violent.  I
need your help.

We've been on TV a lot pimping the "Penn & Teller: Don't Try This
at Home" - If you have a Nielsen box, please watch it and nothing
else that whole week and if you don't have a Nielsen box, use your
own judgement.  I think it's a good special and if it does well,
they'll let us do it again.

This is the first thing I've written in a long time for the Mofo
machine.  Since the Wall Street Journal talked about it we're
trying to get it up and keep it good so, if you got any ideas - let
us know.  I'll be writing stuff for this area pretty often from now
on and maybe I'll even write something good but right now I'm on an
airplane and you know how that is.

I'll have a diet cola, no glass, no ice,


12 minutes Press any key -->

           P E N N   &   T E L L E R ' S   S C H E D U L E

Television appearances:

November 16 - Late Night with David Letterman
November 20 - "Live at Five" in New York
November 23 - Penn & Teller "DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME" on NBC at 8:00 PM

Live appearances:

November 21 - November 25    Minneapolis
November 28 - December 16    San Francisco
November 18 - December 31    Los Angeles

11 minutes Press any key -->

                      N E W   P A S S W O R D S

   There are a couple new passwords.  To keep things clear I'll
   just list them all.

   MOFO -- basic password, basic TTY terminal
   MOFOV -- for fans who can emulate a Dec VT-100 terminal
   MOFOC -- fans that want to skip the Cold Open screens
   MOFOCV -- combo of C & V, natch

   Let me know if there are more options you want.


-- Some people have said that the vt-100 emulation isn't working.
I'll look into it and let you know why.

11 minutes Press any key -->

                     Join Penn & Teller's F.B.I.

They're three thousand nine hundred and fifty three point twenty
five miles below Manhattan, to be exact.  Coming at you louder
and louder from the Center of the Earth.

Want to know more? (Y or N): Yup

                     Join Penn & Teller's F.B.I.
              F A N S   B E L O W   T H E   I S L A N D

Penn & Teller, with the help of MOFO the Psychic Gorilla have
gone under, way under, to develop a fan club for all of you out
there who know these boys are onto something big.  Yeah, you'll
get bimonthly newletters, discounts on wild t-shirts, records,
tapes and videos, and someday (after they're out of style), there
may even be a button.  Gives you chills, huh?  You'll learn how
to swindle and humiliate like a pro, talk a blue streak about
funky new strains of music, pull crack-up jokes out of thin air.
Hey, you'll learn how to be cool.  This club's not for wimps or
Doug Henning/David Copperfield fans (redundant), your stomach is
probably not strong enough to join.  Think it over carefully.
Then GET DOWN, and send six dollars to:

Penn & Teller's F.B.I.
Earth's Center
c/o Box 1196, NY, NY  10185-0010

10 minutes Press any key -->

                            S E R V I C E
                      without the smile, for now

No, there is no electronic mail for now.  Talk to the Evil
Overload SweetiePie about this if you wish.  Don't bother
me, I just do as I'm told, when I feel like doing it.

There should be some fresh stuff on the board soon.  The
email probably won't return until I figure out a stable way
for it to operate, and perhaps not even then.

We're thinking about it.

November 1990:

Someone called in and trashed all the files on the hard drive.
We're not sure why, but we've taken some measures to make it a
little more difficult.  There are two announcements here, each
written by Penn and Teller.  Soon there will be a way for you to
write to them.

10 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> C


10 minutes Press any key -->

                    A N O T H E R   W E L C O M E

    Glad you could squeeze in among the twenty calls a day that
    we've been getting.  Any comments you would like to leave for
    Penn & Teller should be sent with the electronic mail system.
    You have to log in with a name and password to use it.

Is this your first time on? Nope

 -- you said  to stop --
    by pressing a key

                   M O F O ' S   M A I N   M E N U

                This is Mofo's root menu, all submenus
               are accessed from here.  You can return
               to the previous menu from each submenu,
                       eventually ending here.

          Mofo ex Machina, version 3.0
          G: say goodbye (disconnect)

That was almost 25 years ago. Hopefully one day we can hear Penn tell us more about this BBS, and how it started and ended. Drop by Penn’s Sunday School (audio podcast) and drop him a note and maybe, if there is enough interest, he will make it a topic for an episode.

80’s text-based “where in the solar system” game?

I was calling bulletin board systems (BBS) in Houston, Texas between 1982 to 1984. After that, I moved to a small town with no such systems, and other than the occasional long distance call, I wouldn’t have anything to dial again until 1987 when I moved to a less-small town.

I recall there being an online game called “Where in the solar system”. It would present a description of a planet, and you would have to guess which planet it was. I expect it was some existing program found in “GAMES IN BASIC”-type books or something. Someone had taken that game (or wrote a clone) and changed it to be “Where in Six Flags” (referring to the original Six Flags over Texas near Dallas). It would describe rides instead of planets. I recall it describing things like “you can hear screams” or “you feel vibrations.”

Does this ring any bells to anyone out there? There certainly were localized original programs running in Houston (several BBSes I dialed ran on custom software which never existed anywhere else, and I contributed a number of small programs to Apple NETWORKS BBSes which I don’t expect ever got spread around). I wonder if any of this got preserved.

I bring this up after I uncovered some old paperwork last night. I found my original hand-written instructions for the *ALL RAM* BBS I had written. I did not have a printer at the time. I also found notes for the upgraded/customized version that a friend ran in Houston (Cyclop’s Castle) and discovered it had more things added to it than I recalled. I hope to go through all my old files and scan in all my documents to preserve them, and also clone all the floppy disks I have to disk images.

It does make me wonder how much has just been lost and discarded over the years.

Night Trap (classic FMV) on Kickstarter.

The classic full motion video game, Night Trap, is coming back, if they get Kick Starter funding.

I played Night Trap on the Sega CD, though it was later ported to other systems. It was one of the first, if not the first, live action full motion video games. It starred Dana Plato (from Diff’rent Strokes) as the heroin in a campy B-movie style horror flick.

It is noteworthy because of the controversy that sprung up around it, led by Nintendo, which caused the industry to adopt video game ratings. That alone makes this quite the historic artifact.

The original developers are wanting to re-release it for modern systems, and have gone back to the original 35mm movie film and digitized it in full resolution letting us see, for the very first time, what the movie was meant to look like (and not the low resolution 64-color versions we saw on the Sega).

Very cool. Check it out.

Virtual Reality … back again.

With the recent news that Facebook is buying a Virtual Reality headset company for 2 billion dollars, it seems I can’t get away from coverage on V.R. For some of us that are older than Facebook, and who experienced commercial V.R. over 20 years ago, I say: bring it on! Or rather, bring it back.

This is nothing new. But it should be improved: higher resolution graphics, and faster framerate.

My first experience with V.R. was a Virtuality “Dactyl Nightmare” arcade game in Dallas. My friend Larry took me on a road trip from East Texas to Dallas to check out a few places – including the defunct Incredible Universe store (look them up sometime for a mind blowing retail experience years ahead of its time). We also visited some placed called Dave and Busters which was, at the time, known as a place for V.R. type games.

Dactyl Nightmare was powered by Commodore Amigas, and thus was vastly more advanced than what any non-Amiga owner has seen. (Remember, it took the PC world YEARS to even remotely catch up to what the Amiga was doing in the 1980s.)

You stood on a small circular platform with a round railing around it, and put on a large headset (like a motorcycle helmet) and a belt. In your hand was a simple controller with a trigger switch button and a thumb button. In the game, you could see yourself inside of an Escher-like playfield with stairs and platforms. You would press the thumb button to walk forward in whatever direction you were facing, and use the trigger button to fire.

Above you flew a pterodactyl that you could shoot at. You could see a digital representation of your arm in front of you. You could hear yourself walking. It was a very intense few minutes inside this virtual world, and when the game was over, my heart was pounding and I had broken in to a sweat.

It was amazing.

A few years later, during a business trip to Canda, I encountered a later version of the Virtuality system running Missile Command V.R. It was an update to the classic Missile Command arcade game from the 80s, but you were seeing things from one of the missile launching stations and had to look up and all around to target incoming missiles and fire at them.

It also was amazing, but wasn’t as fun of a game (to me) as the original. The graphics were better.

Atari released a home version of Missile Command 3-D for their Jaguar system, though playing it on a TV wasn’t quite the same. Atari had plans to release a V.R. helmet, and even showed it off at a trade show, but it never made it to release.

Sega also was working on a V.R. project, and a friend of mine was one of the developers working on three launch titles. Google “Iron Hammer Sega” on YouTube and you will see footage of this old V.R. system.

Around 1994 or 1995, Disney’s Epcot was presenting an Imagineering exhibit on DisneyVision – their attempt to enter the V.R. world. They gave daily presentations where a few lucky audience members we brought up on stage and hooked up to the Aladdin’s Magic Carpet V.R. experience, while the rest of us watched the game play on overhead monitors.

A short time after this, that game was sitting at the Disneyland Tomorrowland arcade with a cast member. I believe it was $3 to play, which I did. The graphics were great and light years beyond Dactyl Nightmare. The goal was to fly on a magic carpet and collect gold pieces or jewels or something. I only played it once, but it was great. You sat down (on your magic carpet, though straddling it like a motorcycle), and you held the edges of the carpet (like motorcycle handlebars). Somehow I think they may have used a motorcycle game as a reference.

There were even home V.R. helmets. I bought a StuntMaster helmet for less than $100. It was a simple non-3-D LCD display in a helmet, and you would clip a rod to your shoulder sleeve. This rod was attached to the helmet, and as you looked left and right, it would rotate an analog input so the game would get LEFT and RIGHT motion. It was barely 3-D, but you could use it on a Sega Genesis or other home systems and turn your head left and right instead of pressing a joypad left or right.

There were many other higher end V.R. helmets being sold during those days, and games for them.

Nintendo even tried to get in to the home console action, like Sega and Atari were, and unlike those two, Nintendo actually shipped their product… As the VirtualBoy. Which sat on a table. And you looked in to the goggles, and couldn’t move them. Bascially, it was a 3-D Nintendo you had to stick your face in, and didn’t qualify as any kind of V.R. system (even the StuntMaster was better than that).

Google it if you haven’t heard about it.

Was V.R. ahead of its time back then? It was more than playable, and amazingly fun. Perhaps if the games were a quarter instead of $3 it would have stayed around longer… But even the .25 arcade games went away. Perhaps if the home helmets were $50 instead of $500 it would have stayed around longer… But larger and larger TVs came out and gaming when super sized…

Will it work this time? Have we lost 20 years of advances because of lack of development?

I can’t wait to find out.

It’s so retro, it might even be cooler this time around.

The quest for my first computer.

The first computer I ever used was in the 1970s at L.F. Smith Elementary School in Pasadena, Texas. The “computer room” was a small closet with a printing terminal in it. We would go in, pick up the old rotary phone and dial a number. Once we heard the computer answer the phone, we would set the phone handset down in to these small cups and then the computer would start printing.

We had notes of what we were supposed to type to get the computer going. I seem to recall playing a math game and some football game. I still have a roll of yellow paper that is the entire session of a football game I got to play on this machine once.

But what was this system? A few years later I would have my own home computer (a VIC-20) and then a second computer (a TRS-80 Color Computer) and would even be borrowing a 300 baud acoustic coupled modem to dial in to BBSes in Houston. Thus, I did learn that the “computer” I used in elementary school was just a terminal, and it was dialing in to the actual computer elsewhere.

Today, I looked up my old school and sent an e-mail to see if anyone there could tell me just what we were using. I am hopeful they can find someone who knows. It seems the principal I had during the 70s retired in 1995. I suppose I should have tried to look this up years ago when some of the folks were still there.

I should really find that old printout and scan it as a historical document of my first encounter with a “computer.” I know it led me to typing things in on a TRS-80 (probably a Model 1 or 3) at a Radio Shack, and then being interested in my friend’s TI-99 when I moved to Mesquite, Texas around 1979-1980 (his mom worked for Texas Instruments). It seems it took another year or two before I would actually have a computer of my own.

I regret not begging for one a few years earlier.

Nothing to read here. Move along…

UPDATE: A response from the current principal (via her husband who attended an area school) reveals that the machine being used may have been a Teletype Model 33:

Wow. That certainly looks like the type of thing I remember. This machine was introduced in 1963, so it would still have been “new-ish” in the 70s. (Think back: it would be about as new as the original iPod from 2001 is today.) Amazing.

Hopefully some more details will come through on what we were dialing in to. If only I had known computer commands back then — maybe I could have typed LIST and gotten to see the source code to that football program?

More to come…