Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Time To Put Aside

So, it has been some (many) months since I last posted here. Just been busy. Terribly so, in fact. Alas, that is life. Many things have changed, and some things not necessarily for the better.
One of those things that has gone wrong is Selena, my Macintosh Plus. There is a very real possibility that the flyback transformer has gone awry, and I simply am not up to doing the necessary repairs. Besides, some things about this machine, while wonderful, are now more of an inconvenience, like moving data from the Macintosh 800kb floppy disks to a more modern machine by way of intercessors. Not efficient though romantic.
Sadly, that is the fate of many of these older Macintosh classic designs. Parts will eventually breakdown, and the want for replacements goes unfulfilled. As is, the computer has not been fired up in three months at this time, sitting there on my living room bookshelf like an antique, which it nearly is by the regular measure of such things and definitely is in terms digital.
But letting it go is hard. This has been a loyal friend, always there, especially when I need access to something that will run only under System 6.
I have another computer of similar vintage, my Macintosh Portable "Galatea". While this machine lacks a backlit screen, it does at least boast a 1.44mb floppy drive. It may move into Selena's spot while my old friend is retired. Perhaps the spot will be filled by my PowerBook 540c "Excalibur", which is far more practical (and many times more stable). I may lose System 6 in the deal, though, and that is a hard bargain.
However, the fact is that, as I mentioned before, these machines do get old, and the earlier the design, the greater that possibility. It may be hard, but I may have no choice but to move forward, if only a little.
Last night, played around with Selena one more time to see just how long it would take before the screen flickers would begin. In total, around 25 minutes before they made the whole task of using the computer unbearable.
But as if that weren't enough, I decided to pull out Galatea (my Mac Portable) and power her up to begin the process of moving data over. The Portable simply would not boot; total power management unit failure. In less than an hour's time, I discovered that two of my oldest machines were either unusable or quite simply dead.
I have discovered one workaround, though. By using vMac, or its descendant mini vMac, I can at least continue using some of my System 6 software on a much newer machine. In order to accomplish that, I had to copy over the ROM image from Selena, so in a very real sense, the Plus is not dead, just a ghost inside another machine.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

My What Tangled Webs We Weave...

I decided to take a little time today and map how my little computer collection interacts with one another and the Internet. This little chart was the result.
Suffice to say... that's... quite a mess.
Some of those machines are truly legacy machines that I just don't want to part with. Others were meant for some glorious ideas... and ended up becoming machines I didn't want to part with. No doubt you can see the mess that creates.
Looking over the diagram, I'm bemused and rather concerned. Have I become on of those hoarders whom I often decry?
Time to thin the herd, I suspect...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In Remembrance of Futures Passed

What happened to my future?
It seemed so bright and clean
With towers of glass and steel
Rising above me in shining splendor
While people, happy people,
Went to their business
In electric cars
And everyone wore a computer
And we were all happy
Or at least content
No empty stomachs
And people on the Moon...
...and Mars
And the Solar System was our backyard
And the Milky Way our neighborhood...


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Tale of Two Tandys

That I own a large number of old computers goes without saying. Perhaps I'm making up for the 1980's, when I was a serious but underprivileged nerd who lacked the funds to buy a computer (though, to be fair, I did have a really cranking Texas Instruments TI-99 4/A for a goodly chunk of it). During the late 1990's, I satiated that need but went perhaps a bit overboard, and rid myself of them. Now, my obsession is with portable computers.

My first portable machine of note was a Bondwell B-200 laptop. I purchased that in late 1996, and it served me as well as any dual floppy MS-DOS based machine could (I actually used IBM PC-DOS version 5). The machine I followed that with, though, was truly impressive, and I still own it.

A Tandy Model 102.

Just do a quick search on the Internet for Tandy Model 100 (the original design). This machine is legendary. Back when I did a little work as a space writer, I'd see rows of these things at the press site during shuttle launches. When I began my job at AT&T, a number of techs used them as well, and that was my first real introduction to them.

I bought mine for the princely sum of $15 in July of 1997, when it was 9 years old. In its basic form, it is almost useless; you can write on it all day long, but without a way to print or transfer documents, you're pretty well stuck. So, I built a transfer cable and used my Bondwell as its hub. In time, the Bondwell was simply ignored, being used less and less (finally lost it in 2000) while the Tandy took up more and more writing chores. When I officially completed my transition to Macintosh in 2000, it simply took an old Imagewriter II cable to allow the Tandy to transfer. It was a beautiful thing.

But this little essay is about two Tandys and the dangers in not thinking things through.

I have another Tandy laptop, a 1100 FD. And it's dead.

Now here's an example of good idea, bad implementation. When it was released in 1992, it was, for all intents and purposes, obsolete. But it was, in many ways, similar to the Macintosh PowerBook 100, the first real Apple laptop (not counting the Portable). Both use a fairly basic processor; the Tandy 1100 FD uses an NEC V20 (a better derivative of the Intel 8088) moving at 10 mHz. while the PowerBook 100 uses a Motorola 68HC000 (a lower power version of the venerable 68000 CPU). Both were designed to be entry level.

But Tandy dropped the ball this time. While it is in many ways comparable to the PowerBook 100, it is far behind it. First, it more closely resembles a PC laptop from the late 1980's than a laptop from the 1990's. The lack of backlit LCD is a sore point, the processor used another (286 laptops were common by this point and the first 386 equipped ones were appearing). The ROM based MS-DOS is nice, as is that most basic of GUIs, Tandy's DeskMate, but lacked an internal harddrive (though they did appear later). The floppy drive (something which was not internal to the PowerBook 100) was only a 720kb. There are other problems as well (it feels a little flimsy, to be honest).

But this was the line that was supposed to take over the Model 100/102 market. And it didn't last as long.

From a user standpoint, I believe that one of the reasons the Model 100/102 remained so popular had to do with the battery. The Model 100/102 uses regular old AA batteries. No need to carry around a recharger; simply run to your nearest store and grab another pack. And it runs forever on those 4 AA batteries. Okay, not quite forever, but you can easily get 24 hours straight. The Tandy 1100 barely managed two hours, and used a lead acid battery, requiring a recharger.

Did I mention that the Tandy 1100 seemed flimsy? It looks nice-ish, but... seems... well... not as well thought out as the Model 100/102. This probably has to do with the fact that this little computer is actually a Kyocera. They introduced the line in 1983, but for some reason didn't sell that well, so Tandy purchased and rebadged them. I can tell you that I've dropped, poured milk on and have many times simply punished that little laptop, and yet after a little cleanup, it continues to run. On the other hand, the Tandy 1100 FD is dead; at some point, a liquid was introduced to the keyboard and it failed. The belt driven floppy drive is also dead (the rubber band/belt broke).

Not that I wouldn't mine if the old Tandy 1100 FD ran; it'd be nice to have an XT class machine running in the Little household. But it is not to be.

But at least my Model 102 (named "Tandy"... duh...) still runs and gets used from time to time. How many laptops that are more than ten years get used these days, let alone one that is twenty?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Of Toy Trains & High Tech

When I was a kid, I loved model railroads. I not just to run them, either, but to make a miniature working world, where HO scale commodities would be moved over the rail from point to point and industry to industry, all for the benefit of the 1/87th scale populace. What fascinated me was the control I had over this miniature world. But it never really occurred to me until recently that model railroading is very much a form of robotics.

The comparison is a natural one. While not completely autonomous, there is much similarity to what we expect from robotics; a task performed by remote operation and control. The more sophisticated layouts use electric solenoids to throw the turnouts, and there is even software today that will allow computer operation of your layout.

But bringing a computer into the mix takes the hobby into the present (the first computer controlled model train layouts began to really spread in the 1980's). Look at this hobby in the historical context. A number of companies (notable among them were Lionel and Marklin) made features that added automation such as hopper cars that would dump their loads by pushing a button. Some of these layouts were complicated.

All of the beginnings were there, though. The automatic switching, the movement of bits back and forth, and an interface. No operating system, just direct control of the components. We tend to often look upon model trains as quaint. They were actually a foretaste of what was to come.

The comparison is natural. Let's start off with the interface, in this case the control panel . Here, you had a panel that would control both the train and its route. Normally, you would do a little switching. This would be comparable to loading an application; the miniature rail yard or spur would be data storage. Once all the components were assembled, the train would be run. Not completely automated per se, but certainly remote manipulation.

Compare that to today's robotics hobby and you'll what I mean.
So many other things in common as well; motors, switches, lots and lots of wires.
I'm sure that die hard model train enthusiasts of yesterday would probably feel at home among today's robotics fans. Too bad the robotics fans don't have those spiffy overalls and hats.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fun With Old Computers #1

That I collect old computers is obvious. They generally serve no purpose, really, except to perhaps access some old file, run some old software or to simply tinker with. Admittedly, my Macintosh collection is used quite a bit, and in fact are generally my main machines (I see no need for anything newer than a G3 processor and OS X 10.4). But while they may be just artifacts to amuse me, they are junk to most people.

The common mindset is that computers grow old and have to be replaced, and it goes without saying that the two biggest drivers for their design are the internet and multimedia. I won't get on a soap box and shout that there are people out there who have done some amazing things with older computers such as web access; a quick Google search will give you more responses than you can imagine. I'm not even going to say that you need to recycle and dispose of these old machines in an environmentally conscientious manner.

No, I have another thought.
Play with them.
But first; how many of you out there have taken an old computer and simply opened it up and looked at it? I tell you, just the evolution of them is fascinating (something coming soon to these pages, I promise). The old Apple II series (one of which I just acquired) and the first IBM PC's are amazing in their complete lack of sophistication. Many times the chips are simply socketed. Especially the RAM. Both the Apple II and the IBM PC had their RAM socketed so that increasing it was simply a matter of pulling out the existing chips and socketing a new set. Not as easy as sliding in SIMM or DIMM RAM, but still easy. The original Apple II and IBM PC were designed to be serviceable by the very people who would buy them. Not so the first Macintoshes, which were meant to be "digital appliances". Trust me, taking apart a Mac Plus was a real job.

Back to the notion of playing with the machine. What can you do with one? I guess a good way to start, if you have want to take a trip down the memory highway, is to download an old operating system. This can be fun, especially with PC's. The lineal ancestry of Windows takes you back to CP/M, the first operating system designed for a myriad of computers and where you can find the ever popular command line and prompt...


Ah, yes, what memories.

So, you can download a few operating systems from yesterday and relive the frustration. Great.  But there are a lot of applications and, dare I say it, games, that only operate on these older systems. Yes, you can probably play many of the later DOS games on a Windows XP machine, but there are some that are dependent on chip speed. There was a version of "Frogger", for instance, that was designed to run on an original IBM 8088 equipped PC, moving along at a blinding 4.77 MHz. I once tried it on an 486DX2 moving at 60 MHz. Was it playable? Like dropping frogs in a blender.

More than likely, though, the old computer you have moldering away in the garage/attic/closet/garden shed/that-hidden-room-with-the-neat-lighting-and-hydroponics is newer than an old IBM/clone 8088 PC or original Mac. It's probably even newer than something from the mid-1990's. It's probably even newer than your car, but you had to have the latest OS and bells and whistles. It's okay, it's what keeps the economy going (OBSOLESCENCE-GOOD, OLD MACHINES-BAD). Chances are, there are probably better computers in a landfill than in your local high school. Okay, I wasn't going to bring up recycling, but how about donating the old machine to a school? If it's too new to not be completely interesting but old enough to be, well, old, maybe that's a thought?

Better still... wire it so that it can get some modicum of internet access, wipe the hard drive (especially those... ahem... special files), install a good OS (I recommend Ubuntu for PC's) and turn it into a net PC. Even better... if you have one of those wall-sized televisions (you know, the type that glow brighter than the mothership in "Close Encounters" and use enough power to light up Mayberry), get a VGA to TV converter and turn your websurfing into a truly immersive environment.

You'll thank me for that when your eight year old discovers the wonders of the web. And your hidden stash of porn.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Digital Defiance

Motorola 68000 CPU
800 KB Built-in floppy drive
800 KB External floppy drive

This is digital defiance. Great term, really. I have a number of new
systems I could write this on, but instead am choosing to write it on
this 20 year old Macintosh Plus, "Selena". This machine is a rebuild,
by the way; it is the composite of two different Mac's. My original
was dropped and the case cracked. There was also an issue with the
analog board (for those of you not in the know, it is the circuit that
converts the digital signal into something the CRT can understand.
Hopefully, I won't have to explain CRT...). She still has problems,
though. Every now and then there is an annoying flicker on the screen,
possibly due to old capacitors.
But the machine still runs, and I might add looks to be in very good condition.
There are a few other quirks, though, that add character. It has an
original Mac 512k keyboard for one; I picked it up with a dead,
rebuilt Plus some time back, along with the original tan carrying
case. This smaller keyboard fits in there quite nicely. The lack of a
number pad and arrow keys, though, gets old real fast. There are times
I'd kill for a full Plus keyboard.
I also tend to use floppies only when running Selena. Old fashioned
and very, very quiet. The only noise I hear right now are my heavy
fingers and the rain outside. It is amazingly fast and responsive.
I'm writing this in MacWrite, version 2.20. Not MacWrite II, not
AppleWorks, not Microsoft Works or Word (of which I have Version 1.0).
MacWrite. The original word processor for Macintosh, from 1984, less
than 55kb in size and requiring less than 400kb of RAM. No spell
check, no word count, but good, basic word processing.
Selena lives on a shelf in my living room, the only computer that
spends full time out there. I have other computers, many in fact, and
only one is older, but the newest one is still six years old. I prefer
Macs because of their quality, but I won't snub an old IBM or even a
Tandy. I prefer portability, though Selena hardly qualifies.
But she sits here, amongst my books and artifacts, proudly being
used to this day for light word processing. This article will be
posted via email on another of my old Macs, my PowerBook 5300c.
If I had my druthers, though, it'd go up by Selena.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008