Thursday, December 30, 2010

LiteBook Concludes

Starting in February 2009, I began studying the possibility, no matter how unlikely, of using a fairly old, portable, lightweight computer for field work. Truth is, I wanted to stretch the limits of retro-computing, to see what was possible.
It didn't turn out quite as expected.
Nonetheless, I learned.
And it was somewhat fun. Exasperating at times, but fun.
This is the final compilation of my notes. While dry at times, I still find them illuminating. I figured I'd share. For what it is worth. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lightening Things Up

New look for the old blog. New stuff coming. Promise.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sudden Death

Sudden Death

That's the only way to describe what happened to my Dell Inspiron 3500; it was suddenly dead. Now, this was an old laptop, so it really should be of no surprise. It was almost eleven years of age, but was performing just fine.

Most of the time.

In fact, it was very quirky. From time to time the screen would not start properly, being reduced to a quarter of the screen and flickering. It also didn't like to play nice with my Linux laptop tools, so things like battery status were a mystery. It would not go to sleep, and the fan would run quite a bit. This is actually one of the problems with many computers, especially laptops, from the late 1990's; they used too many proprietary components, so not only were you usually stuck with one operating system (Windows), but you were also strapped with drivers that would have to be updated whenever you performed any modest changes, including installing new PCMCIA/PC Cards. It would drive me crazy how you always had to have your Windows CD nearby.

Then there was the construction of those laptops from that period. Aside from the tanks being turned out by Apple and IBM, too many of the components felt as if they were going to give at any moment. In the case of the Inspiron, all of the plastics had become very brittle and there many cracks on the case. Turns out the case is probably polystyrene instead of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a tougher plastic). Compared to my ThinkPads and PowerBooks (and iBooks), the lack of internal metal components is of some concern. Those form a solid backbone that helps the entire laptop stay rigid.

Right now, I am using a far superior computer, an IBM ThinkPad X20, again running Xubuntu. It is of similar vintage but better build. But the battery has long since died, so it must remain plugged in.

It is aggravating, though, that in the rush to produce portable computers that many manufacturers (yes, even IBM and Apple) took shortcuts and turned out products that were, in essence, disposable.

Just what we need, more laptops for our landfills.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

You Got On The Internet How?!?

Every so often, I come across a post about whether or not a certain computer is Internet capable. Too often, this is with regards to computers that are a decade or so old.

Well, I've got news for you; this computer is a little over a decade old (Dell Inspiron 3500, 1999 vintage). It is running a very new operating system, Xubuntu 9.10, and I am typing this in Zoho Writer via Firefox 3.5.8. The performance is a little lacking, mind you, but it is better than what I got used to in the late 1990's.

The equation for what to expect really comes down to this: a willingness to accept that the computer will not be the fastest, that watching videos may not happen, but that access to content as well as the ability to post content is paramount. If you had to write that out, it might look something like this -


That is, Expectations times Performance over Access. Basically, living with lower expectations while still having access to the Internet.

This still doesn't answer the question of how new does a computer need to be to be able to access the Internet. In truth, any computer capable of supporting a modem or network card can gain access (gasp!). Just be prepared for somewhat less than dazzling results. Based upon personal experience, here's what I've found -

0 - 8 years - Good Flash support, videos play fairly well. All modern browsers will work, most major modern operating systems as well.

9 - 13 years - Browsers lag by average of three years if run on major operating systems. Open source solutions offer better possibilities, but videos play poorly if at all. Java is somewhat compromised, .NET sites (and specifically, ASPX) run sporadically. Secure sites might have problems. Email access is still good.

14 - 18 years - Some computers still have the ability to run newer operating systems actually designed for their processors. Better options exist within the open source arena, but browser performance is greatly compromised. Secure sites are very difficult to access.

19 + years - Very limited access.

Chances are pretty good that these numbers will roll forward and perhaps hold as much relevance in ten years as they do today. To be honest, very few computers over fifteen years of age are likely to run properly due to aged hardware (faulty hard drives, power supply issues, etc). Let me stress again that I said it would be difficult, not impossible, to get older computers online, I've done so.

Just be prepared for lackluster performance. Access, however, is access. So, to my friends out there who are getting on the Information Superhighway using the digital equivalent of bicycles, I salute you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

It's All About The Ferric Oxide

Magnetism. It's what really powers the computer. Not all those microscopic transistors and circuits in a CPU. It's magnetism. Information is locked in a magnetic matrix in solid state circuitry; that's where you get your ROM, your BIOS, what makes the computer run. Information can be changed, replaced, modified, deleted, all due to magnetism. Newer devices, such as compact flash and the various forms of memory stick, all store data that way. They owe this legacy to floppy disks, the original removable storage media.

There is no point going into the history of the floppy disk here; Wikipedia has an especially good entry on the subject. No, instead, I would like to address a real problem that exists for us lovers of old computers.

Floppy disks are dying.

Not just dying in the sense that they are no longer being manufactured (in fact, you can still get them). No, the problem lies in the fact that older disks are losing their data.

Recently, in an attempt to get my IBM ThinkPad 500 sublaptop up and running, I burnt through some fifteen disks, five of which were unusable straight out of the box. This is not good; these disks had never seen the light of day, and now on a molecular level were severely compromised. That is a 33% failure rate, which back in the 1990's would have facilitated a trip to the office supply store with a major chip on my shoulder. These disks came from a thrift store, no such trip could be made.

Normally, on older systems, I like to preserve the operating system as much as possible. In the case of my ThinkPad 500, though, having it usable trumps nostalgia; it is the smallest laptop I own, fairly lightweight and IBM tough (though, to be honest, I suspect that it is a contracted item, designed by IBM but manufactured by another company). For in the field work (and here I am thinking some astronomy work) it would be pretty handy. Even one of my favorite old digital cameras, my Sony Mavica FD-83, uses floppy disks, and I am rather fond of the pictures it takes.

The problem exists in moving the data from this machine to others or to the Cloud. With the increasing failure rate of the floppy disks, another method must be found to move information. The ThinkPad 500 can support PCMCIA Compact Flash adapters and even CD-ROM, but the age of the drivers necessary means that they are becoming increasingly harder to find. There are many sites out there that have taken up "driver squatting", finding old, hard to find drivers and hoarding them, allowing access only if you become a member, which sometimes involves a fee (many, if not most of these drivers were formerly free).These were originally free; I will not pay someone for the privilege of downloading them.

Beyond the issue of whether the drivers are free or not lies the simple issue of what media to use. In the case of my ThinkPad, we really have three options; floppies, an external CD-ROM or using the PCMCIA slot for the various older media it will support such as Compact Flash. The media itself, though, has issues. Moving past the aging floppy disks, CD-ROM is really carving your information in digital stone, for once it has been written to a disk that's it. I have never had much luck with CD-RW; call me a doubter based upon experience. So, once data is added to a CD-ROM, it can only be copied, but never modified on the disk itself.

Compact Flash was fairly popular and in fact should have been more so. But they have found a limited audience, namely with camera enthusiasts. Also, not every operating system supports them.

A modern solution could be USB thumb drives. I've been using them for a while for moving data from system to system, regardless of OS, and always with a fair degree of success. For older systems, though, that is not an option. The oldest computer I have ever owned that would support USB was a Toshiba Satellite laptop running at 133 MHz. There may have been older systems, though I have yet to find anything less than a Pentium class chip (or, for that matter, a PowerPC 603e) that has been capable of dealing with USB. This really poses a problem for another recently acquired machine, a lovely IBM ThinkPad 760XD. It is on the lower cusp of being able to handle a USB PC Card, at 166 MHz, but I have yet to find one.

Which brings us back to how do I move data from that lovely old laptop to my other systems or the Cloud. When I bought it, the floppy drive was missing. It has a CD-ROM only. But it also has two lovely PC Card slots. I would like to replace the OS (Windows 98SE) with a more modern OS, a Linux (probably a Ubuntu derivative with a lightweight desktop). It cannot boot from the CD-ROM, and in order to install any of the modern OS's, it is a necessity. I can boot from a PCMCIA card, or even a network, however.

That ThinkPad gets saved.

My other ThinkPad, the 500, becomes a question mark. What do I do once my floppy disk collection has been burnt through, when I keep encountering problem after problem, once the read/write heads on the floppy drive can neither read nor write. How about my oldest computer, my Apple IIc? I have an Apple UniDisk 3.5” drive, so it has bought some time. The 5 1/4” disks, however, are beginning to fail in number.

One thing that is ironic is the fact that my 800 Kb 3.5” floppies for my Macintoshes seem to be faring fairly well. This actually has to do with the size of the ferric oxide particles themselves on this media. On the 800 Kb (as well as the associated 400 Kb for the Apple II and older Mac and 720 Kb for DOS) the particles are twice the size, and seem to have improved staying power. The 1.44 Mb disks, however, seem to be weaker, and to further complicate matters, cannot be really formatted to work in the older floppy drives. They might work for a while as 720/800 Kb, but they eventually lose their integrity and fail. And when they do fail, it is frequently thoroughly, making them unable to be formatted as either lower or higher density disks.

So, what to do?

As it stands, I have to make do with the situation. My ThinkPad 500 (part of my ongoing experiments with smaller, older laptops) is more than likely going to be reformatted back to a DOS machine with some sort of graphical shell (probably Desqview/X), its PCMCIA slot being prepped to handle CF cards for the inevitable failure of my last disk. My ThinkPad 760XD will, hopefully, become a full-fledged lightweight Ubuntu machine with a USB 1.1 card installed, so it too can share with others. My older Macs have SCSI, and I have have a couple of external hard drives that still have plenty of life. Incredibly, there are other options for them, such as SCSI to IDE to CF; they will be running as long as those options exist.

As for the still older Apple IIc, only time will tell. Perhaps I will stumble upon a place where 800 Kb disks can be purchased and perhaps buy the machine another few years. Eventually, however, the floppy drive itself will die, taking with it the Apple's only way to communicate. There are plenty of projects out there to improve the odds for these eldest of computers.

For now, those damaged floppy disks will live on... as coasters and other objet d'art.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Internet as a Right

There have been a few moments in my life where an idea was cooked up and should have been followed. Those who know me personally would probably agree. One of the biggest missed opportunities in my life happened at the end of 2000. I had discovered a device known as the iOpener a few months before. Basically, the iOpener was an Internet only computer, which had a format similar to today's iMacs; a flat LCD screen with the computer built in behind it. It ran the QNX operating system, and used a dial-up connection. It was being offered as a package by one of those companies that has long since left this earthly realm; within a year of its introduction, the iOpener was gone, its company ruined. Their business model (basically, you got the computer cheap if you signed up for their Internet service) was flawed.

The iOpener only allowed access to the Internet, nothing more. It was an interesting idea to me at the time. Considering its price, it could have provided the end user with a basic computer, but no provision was made for it to load anything but the built in operating system. However, it could reach the Internet, albeit limited to 56k dial up.

That is where the synthesis for an idea took place. What if we provided the client with applications on line; cloud computing.

As is typical with me, I never followed up on the idea, one which, I might add, is becoming fairly ubiquitous. Even now, these words are not being typed in a word processor or even an editor, but ZOHO Writer, an online application. Since my initial idea of almost a decade ago, the notion of cloud computing has grown.

So, for that matter, has the on line community.

I cannot even estimate the sheer number of people who use the Internet today, but I do know from some of my contacts that Internet access is almost universal, it seems. I receive Linux tips from Uganda, talk astronomy with friends in Belgian, Ireland and Bulgaria, read the news in Tokyo, the list goes on. If I am accessing these sites, then surely the citizens of those host countries are doing the same. We have gone beyond cloud computing.

In recent years, a number of countries have declared Internet access as a human right, notable amongst them France, Finland, Greece and Estonia. They feel that there is more to the Internet than just entertainment, and of course they are right. This is interactive, this is international, this is community of the broadest scale.

It has been tempting to compare the Internet to television. Many pundits here and abroad have done so already. The difference is participation. You watch television, you cannot interact with it. If a news anchor reports on something, you cannot comment on it, for instance. If a news agency or even a blogger makes a similar comment on line, in most cases you can. This is the participation society at its best, and it knows no bounds.

Beyond the entertainment aspects of the Internet, there is information. Ideas can be shared, collaborations made. Communication is open, uninhibited. The Internet has provided the planet with a neural network.

More and more, information is being moved to the Internet that is crucial to many people worldwide. Information such as how to repair cars, plant crops, avoid diseases, community engineering, even personal development is being moved on line. While libraries are still a precious part of this information chain, there are many communities that lack them. Furthermore, in some areas, libraries are losing material, cutting staff and hours, and in some instances, being shuttered. Information is being throttled, restricted.

The ideas that are being presented here are neither unique nor revolutionary. What is needed is the will to follow up on them and the capital to do so.

Internet access should be universal and, in impoverished communities, free.

These networks will be open to all, regardless of economic strata.

The tools needed to access the Internet should be easy to use.

These tools should inexpensive; use recycled equipment where available

If these tools lack the necessary software, it should be provided, again for free.

We should not restrict access to the Internet to the newest, most up to date devices. Legacy access should be allowed.

It shall remain device and software neutral, requiring no additional software to serve as a gateway.

It may not be much of a manifesto, but these ideas are potentially powerful. We live in a time where the opposite sides of the planet are simply a millisecond away digitally. This is the path our world is taking. It is time to let others begin walking it.

Who wishes to join me?