House of Thirty Gables: The Art of the Con   3 comments

The AX at the beginning is entirely a red herring. The TROLL is a red herring. The FLUTE that you can use to charm a snake is a red herring (you get bit with or without using the flute beforehand). The stone IDOL is a red herring. The RAT is a red herring.

House of Thirty Gables is like a con as a text adventure game, and appropriately, one of the most infamous con artists in early computer history makes an appearance.

While he had already started his career in crime at least 10 years before, “Colonel David Winthrop” (aka Harry Hunt, aka Jim Anderson) first turned to computers in 1975 when he joined the Southern California Computer Society.

The Southern California Computer Society was formed that very summer as “a group of computer hobbyists and enthusiasts who are determined to build home systems and share their understanding and dreams with a world which has become dependent upon and soon must become familiar with those fascinating and perplexing machines called computers.”

From the Vol 1. No 1. Sep. 1975 newsletter of the Southern California Computer Society (SCCS).

Out of the 184 starting members (179 men, 5 women) 83 had interest in a group purchase; while it was possible to get a reasonably priced Altair 8800 at this time, more powerful computers were still very expensive.

They eventually gathered $7000, which “went to a vendor … who never vended.” This, combined with litigation involving a publisher, led to the SCCS’s dissolution a mere 2 years later.

The $7000, of course, went to the Colonel; around $33,000 in 2019 after inflation. This was a tidy payday, but he was just getting started.

On its surface, the advertisement above was a good discount for its time.

The picture is a mock-up; there are no parts inside.

The Colonel had refined the basic scam idea from the SCCS’s “group purchase” — get people to spend money for non-existent hardware, take the money, and run. The extra twist here is that the company is real. He hired four other people to form DataSync; they didn’t know they were part of a scam.

However, this time the police had caught up with him, and he was arrested the month before the advertisement above came out. That wasn’t enough to stop the Colonel, who instructed the receptionist to read, verbatim:

I must inform you that the DataSync Corporation advertisements currently appearing in the magazines are fraudulent and the man responsible is now in jail. We do have every intention of producing a 16K RAM and a low-cost video terminal that are similar electronically and cosmetically, but you have to be aware that the advertisements are false.

Our expected shipping date for the new DataSync DS-16K RAM is approximately July 28th, and the expected shipping date on the DA-100 Terminal is September 15th. Knowing this, would you still like to place an order for superior products from DataSync Corporation?

Most of the people calling in still put in an order.

The Colonel clearly had a knack for persuasion. He pleaded guilty to 3 charges of felony theft and was sentenced to 32 months in prison. After six months he used his knack to wrangle himself a transfer to the minimum-security Chino State Prison, where he then performed a prison break the very next day (February 26, 1978) by just walking away.

The Colonel was on the run. In their June 1978 issue, Kilobaud Magazine reprinted a bulletin from the Santa Maria Police Department.

His method of operation has been to move to a town under a new identity, rent a house with an option to buy and to make contacts in his field of endeavor (recently, computer hobbyists). Hunt will generally begin his operation by soliciting backing for product design from private parties. Often he will sell his qualifications so well that it is the victim’s idea to ask Hunt to design a product for him.

Despite this detailed description (with five mugshots!), the Colonel still wasn’t done scamming the computer world, and in 1979 he returned for his biggest score.

This time, the Colonel set up base in Tucson, Arizona. In January 1979, the unwitting Perry Pollock signed a contract to make a company called World Power Systems, Incorporated.

Perry Pollock’s job was to provide venture capital and credit. (He was the one with the good credit.)

The scam ran a little different. World Power Systems started like a real company. They bought equipment from suppliers, and they always paid on time. They took orders for merchandise and actually shipped what was promised. At first.

Kilobaud Magazine, April 1979. Yes, this is the same magazine that reprinted the police bulletin the year before.

They started to fall behind in shipping; they blamed suppliers and told customers to please be patient. Orders were still being sent, just with a delay.

In the meantime, because they had bought equipment and paid for it on time, they built enough confidence with suppliers to ask for items on loan.

You might see where this is going, but the final phase never quite happened. The ideal scenario for the Colonel, as described in Kilobaud October 1979:

Eventually, everything would come to a head. The creditors would threaten to go to the police and courts for their money; the customers would threaten to go to the Better Business Bureau and the police to get their equipment. At this point Phase IV would be initiated. This would entail cleaning out the bank accounts, shifting the merchandise around from one location to another and leaving a confusing trail as to its exact location — and setting up a fall guy.

However, the heat went on too early, due to the efforts of two computer enthusiasts, Bill Godbout and John Craig (the latter being the former editor of Kilobaud). The Colonel decided to try to take the money and run; carting off allegedly around $250,000 in merchandise (over a million in 2019 dollars after inflation).

He (with his wife) was in the middle of dying his hair when the police found him.

So, back to the game.

It turned out I really only had two puzzles left to resolve since last time. The first involved finding an antidote for a snake bite, and as a number of commenters pointed out, the cryptic MAREZEDOATS… hint the game gave was a reference to a song.

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.”

“Eat ivy” at the end was the key — while not an object in the game, there was a room described as having ivy.

YOU ARE IN A LARGE DAMP ROOM. THE WALLS ARE COMPLETELY COVERED WITH IVY.
A NARROW FOREBODING PASSAGE LEADS WEST.
A GLOOMY PASSAGE LEADS NORTH.
A WIDE MISTY PASSAGE HEADS SOUTH.

EAT IVY

YOU CHOKE DOWN SOME IVY.
YOU SUDDENLY FEEL MUCH STRONGER.

This is the only spot in the game which lets you interact with something in the room description as opposed to being an object on a separate line. This would annoy me more except I’m fairly confident now the intent was for the player to use the hint, as opposed to it being only-for-those-who-give-up.

I say this because of the crushing ceiling scene.

>GET COIN

YOU HAVE THE COIN.
A HEAVY STEEL GRATE SUDDENLY COMES CRASHING DOWN IN FRONT OF THE ONLY EXIT.

Nothing helps here. The ceiling lowers over a series of turns:

YOU HEAR A RUMBLING SOUND AND THE CEILING SUDDENLY LOWERS A FOOT. THE CEILING HEIGHT IS NOW ABOUT 4 FEET.

THE CEILING LOWERS ANOTHER FOOT. CEILING HEIGHT IS NOW ONLY 3 FEET!

YOU SEEM TO BE HAVING A BIT OF TROUBLE. I WILL GIVE YOU A HINT BUT IT WILL COST YOU A GOLD COIN.
DO YOU WANT THE HINT? YES

THE HINT IS: PMPH IS THE WORD.
THE CEILING DROPS AGAIN! CEILING HEIGHT IS NOW ONLY 2 FEET.

If you then SAY PMPH:

YOU SAY “PMPH”.
CHUCKLE, CHUCKLE. MAN ARE YOU GULLIBLE.

THE CEILING DROPS TO WITHIN 1 FOOT OF THE FLOOR! YOU ARE FLAT ON YOUR STOMACH.

The game eventually offers another hint

YOU SEEM TO BE HAVING A BIT OF TROUBLE. I WILL GIVE YOU A HINT BUT IT WILL COST YOU A GOLD COIN.
DO YOU WANT THE HINT? YES

I APPRECIATE YOUR TRUST.

The second “hint” opens the gate so you can escape, but this entire sequence is a red herring; the hints are the only way to escape (if you say NO to the hint you get crushed) and by the end of the scene, the player has gained one gold coin but lost two.

Speaking of being trusting, let’s return to a man with a coin I mentioned last time.

YOU ARE IN A SMALL ROOM WITH YELLOW TILE WALLS.
A TUNNEL HEADS SOUTH.
THERE IS A MAN WITH A FRIENDLY SMILE OFFERING YOU A GOLD COIN.

If you try to take the coin, he takes all your money and leaves you with a WORLD POWER I.O.U. That means the Colonel is here, commemorated in text adventure form. You can “kill” him, but he just poofs away with his money.

The solution is to KISS him. He still poofs away, but leaves the gold coin behind. (If someone has misconceptions about the player avatar’s gender or sexuality, I could see this puzzle being a problem; my main issue was I wasted a lot of time trying to solve the crushing ceiling puzzle instead without spending any coins and assuming this puzzle was the red herring.)

This left me with 60 points and still short. However, the last 20 just come from returning to the surface.

YOUR SCORE IS 80 OUT OF 80.

The owner of Instant Software (who published this game) was Wayne Green. He was also the editor of 80 Microcomputing, a hobbyist publication of the kind that suffered misfortune via the Colonel. While 80 Micro was started too late to join in the “fun”, it really feels like a large chunk of House of Thirty Gables was meant as a sort of catharsis via inside joke.

Posted September 6, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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3 responses to “House of Thirty Gables: The Art of the Con

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  1. Kinda funny that eating the ivy is beneficial, since ivy is somewhat poisonous.

  2. I did not know that story about early computer days’ scam. Very interesting.

    • If you’re really interested, a book called Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Sparked the PC Revolution has a lot more detail (I did the highly abbreviated version).

      You can poke around Google and find a few more posts from others, including one that mentions Henry Hunt (the Colonel) did a tax fraud *from within prison* in the 90s.

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