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