Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for June, 2008

Faded memories

Posted by Trixter on June 23, 2008

No, I mean it — quite literally faded.  Check out the photo I found at the bottom of a box I was going to throw away:

WTF is that?  Some scanning and retouching later, and what do we see?

Why, it’s 12-year-old Trixter, petting the family pet, a gray Netherland Dwarf rabbit called Snicker.  How the hell did that get in the bottom of a box of software?  Oh, wait, never mind.

I still threw it away, but hey, I hadn’t thought of that rabbit in two decades.  Thanks horribly-faded silver nitrate!

Posted in Family | 2 Comments »

Utterly random observations

Posted by Trixter on June 23, 2008

I had to kill a mouse this morning before leaving for work; our young male cat catches things outside and brings them inside, and must have forgotten to deal with this one.  It was a young, small mouse, and it was really fast; I did my best to try to trap him such that I could grab his tail and remove him while still alive, but after almost losing him several times I just had to end it quickly to prevent him from entering the bowels of the house.  I am still saddened by this hours later, and I wonder why.  We kill insects and plants daily, sometimes without knowing it; this doesn’t trouble me, but killing a mammal does?  We have the largest cattle rendering industry in the world and yet I am bothered by killing a mouse.  What a screwy society.

George Carlin died today.  This is unrelated to the above discussion, I assure you.

I have reached an epiphany regarding weight loss:  I think it’s truly time to start losing weight when the distance of your belly from your waist exceeds the length of your junk.  (Applicable to men only, of course — I have no idea what the corresponding metric would be for women.)

Despite the above ruminations, I am not depressed.  Just introspective.

Posted in Sociology, Uncategorized, Weight Loss | 2 Comments »

Crushed under the weight of my own fun

Posted by Trixter on June 11, 2008

I find myself, routinely, in the odd position of having so many fun things to work on that all I can do is sit motionless, trying to pick one. Most of the time I look forward to it; other times I feel confused or overwhelmed, watch TV for four hours, go to bed, then watch more TV in bed.

But still: Most of the time I look forward to it.

So, what is running around in Trixter’s head at any given time? What is the nerd nectar he drinks to keep him going? What electronic dreams keep him awake?

Here is a list of projects that I am working on. Some you already know about, some I have hinted about, and others I haven’t mentioned yet until now. Some have very close completion dates; others I am scheduling to start in 2009 and 2010. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones have which dates! You’ll just have to wait until I announce their start… or completion. (Hint: I’m not even sure when some will start.) And lest you think me a monster, I only work on these after the kids are in bed (and usually after the wife is in bed too).

MONOTONE V1. Most people know about this, but probably haven’t heard much about it since Block Party. I’m still working on finishing up my original milestones for the project, which were PC speaker and IBM PCjr/Tandy 1000 support, a serviceable interface, and an open architecture. Of all my projects, this one really is close to completion (mostly because I want to move on).

MONOTONE V2: Volume control, more device support, more effects, more capable file format. While I’m mostly happy with MONOTONE, the interface was the most irritating to program, especially since I was patently aware of how much wheel reinventing was going on. Since I’ve always wanted to give Turbo Vision a whirl, MONOTONE V2 will probably be converted over to Turbo Vision (if the memory requirements aren’t rediculous).

Halving my collection. I have too much hardware and software, period. I’m holding onto a lot of it needlessly, so I need to pick my priorities and sell/donate at least half of it. Some of the machines will be easy to give up: I have a few 1984-era Macs because I wanted to show my kids what the dawn of personal graphical computing looked like; they’ve seen them, so I don’t need them any more (the Macs, not the children).

Soundcard Museum. The aspect of personal computing that has fascinated me the most during the first decade of my hobby was the multitude of ways you could produce audio with a computer. While I’ve had my share of Apple IIgs and C64 gawking, the history of the IBM PC’s awkward attempts to produce audio holds a special place in my heart because there were so many different ways to do it. Some were flawed (CMS), some odd (msound), some ahead of their time (IBM Music Feature). So, I would like to open up a Soundcard Museum, with history, pictures, audio clips (recorded with a much better card than the one producing the audio, obviously!), programming information, example programs that can really show off what the card(s) can do, etc.

An oldskool PC demo. While there have been tens of thousands of demos released for the C64, Atari ST, Amiga, 386-era DOS, and Windows platforms, I can count the total number of 4.77MHz 8088/CGA demos ever released on one hand. I can count the total number of Tandy 1000 demos on one finger (hi Joe Snow!). There has never been an IBM PCjr demo. That’s where I come in.

Oldskool PC Profiler. I love DOSBox but am frustrated by how it isn’t anywhere close to being cycle-exact, for any CPU that ever supported DOS. I also love my fellow vintage computing community, but am frustrated by how they rely on benchmarks like Landmark CPU Speed and Norton SI to compare machines, which are just plain buggy and inaccurate. I feel it’s time for a utility that can serve two purposes: 1. Accurately determine what hardware a machine is made of (8086? NEC V30? 80386? etc.) and profile CPU, memory, and video adapter to come up with a metric, and 2. Provide a continuous display of how fast DOSBox is running by doing said benchmarks realtime and outputting what machine the reported metric is closest to. By running this utility on your classic machines, you can compare like machines to see how fast they are. By running this utility inside DOSBox, you can “dial” the speed of DOSBox up and down by hitting the emulator keys F11/F12 so you can FINALLY get DOSBox to closely match, a 386sx-16, or 486-33, or 80286-12.

Convert oldskool.org to a real content management system. I built oldskool.org in Zope almost a decade ago. I never quite liked python programming (not because python sucks, but because I suck) so I think it’s time I ditch my nice little code (it automatically builds the navigation tree, puts headers/footers on stuff, etc.) and commit to something like Plone.

Convert all my high-school era cassette tapes to CD. This is more than just every nostalgic adult’s hobby. I hit my darkest time as a human around my junior year of high school, where I was deeply depressed, contemplated suicide on a weekly basis, and attempted it once (which I somehow managed to hide from my parents — hope they don’t read this) I credit three things for keeping me alive during that time: Royally screwing up the dosage, gaming and programming on my AT&T PC 6300, and The Wave. I made many recordings of music I heard on my local Wave affiliate (106.7 here in Chicago until around 1990 when it got switched to Christian talk), and I really want to preserve them. (Plus, they had cute little station IDs, where the time was announced with a little sketch, which I’d like to make available.)

Finish at least one text adventure game. I have started at least 15, but the only one I’ve ever finished was Tass Times in Tonetown, and that was kind of a hybrid, and it took me 11 years (I got stuck from 1986 until 1997 — seriously). So I guess the real goal is Finish at least one Infocom game. Any suggestions?

Convert my rare videotapes to DVD. I have some rare tapes, like some Missing Persons concerts, Urgh! A Music War, The Best of Sex and Violence, and Gadget, that will probably never see release on DVD due to rights wars and lack of interest. I want to give these the full video noise-removal inverse-telecine enhancment treatment.

MindCandy 3. Well, you knew this had to be on the list somewhere. While I dearly love the work our team has done, and I love all of the admiration of fans, I simply don’t have the motivation to think about volume 3 right now. Hint: Cheaper technology will probably raise this motivation.

BLAZE. I have written what I believe to be the very fastest LZSS decompressor for 8086, utilizing all segment and offset registers and using 1-byte opcodes without any segment override prefixes. My decompressor is less complex than LZO and should significantly outperform it on 808x. I just need to write the compressor…  I call this system BLAZE, because I am pretentious to think that I have created the very fastest decompressor and the project should have a similarly pretentious name :-).

8088 Domination.  I have some more animation systems I’d like to pursue.  I have thought of a compression mechanism for the 8088 Corruption video system that guarantees realtime decompression (mainly because REP STOSW is faster than REP MOVSW, and REP nothing is fastest of all of course).  I would also like to adapt the concept of compiled sprites into compiled differential sprites (like Autodesk Animator FLICs but compiled) to see if graphical animation is possible at high speeds.

I think I’ll go watch some TV now.

Posted in Demoscene, Programming, Vintage Computing | 7 Comments »

Even experts make mistakes

Posted by Trixter on June 9, 2008

I’ve been working with classic personal computers for 25+ years. I know all of the precautions in working with older PCs, and yet even I make a mistake so idiotic it just hurts to think about it. I will tell a cautionary tale; see if you can guess the ending before I get there.

At my workplace recently, we were clearing out a 20-yr-old “mini-datacenter” at work (one UPS, one cooling unit, about 50 servers) after a UPS power failure, and one of the machines in the corner was displaying an error message. I hadn’t noticed it before because its screen was usually blanked, but moving over to that side of the room it turned out to be an AT&T PC 6300 WGS. I’m a bit fond of AT&T 63xx machines, so I went over to investigate.

It turns out that the 6300 WGS was originally installed when the datacenter was built in 1987, and its sole purpose was to monitor the UPS. Month after month, the 6300 served as a graphical display of the UPS, with little color-coded pictures of each battery and component, which ones needed service, etc. However, the UPS had failed a few weeks ago (was replaced with power from another source in the building before the servers were affected), so the 6300 had nothing to do now. Some quick research shows that the 6300 WGS model was a much more compatible model; in additional to being able to take a VGA card, it is the fastest 8086 clone I’d ever seen at 10MHz. (I’ve seen faster 8088 clones, but not 8086.) Naturally, I had to have it.

After checking with our company’s obsolete inventory and salvaging procedures, I got the authority to take it home, along with the extremely yellowed VGA monitor, Microsoft bar-of-soap bus mouse, and 9-pin dot-matrix printer. I went over to it and looked at the contents of the hard drive; some directories were boring (Borland Sidekick, PFS:Write), some were moderately interesting stuff (Windows/286, which means the 8086 was replaced with a 10MHz NEC V30 to get it to run), and one very interesting and rare thing (Microsoft Professional Pascal compiler). Rubbing my hands with glee, I ran the program to park the hard drive heads so that the drive wouldn’t get damaged during transport, and powered it off to prepare it for shipping.

Did you see it? Throughout that entire scenario, what did I do wrong? Let’s review some points:

  • “was originally installed when the datacenter was built in 1987”
  • “its sole purpose was to monitor the UPS”
  • “powered it off to prepare it for shipping”

In a nutshell: A desktop computer with a hard drive was installed in 1987 and powered up. All it did was review data coming from a UPS. The desktop computer itself was plugged into the UPS, ergo it had never been powered down. It had been running continuously for over 20 years.

Which means the hard drive had been spinning continuously for 20 years. And I powered it off.

Checking the machine today, to do one last check on it before it was moved, the hard drive first returned garbage, then on a second boot refused to spin up. Which, after a moment of confusion, didn’t surprise me. Oh well; maybe a miracle will occur and I’ll have a second chance of getting data off of the drive, but I doubt it.

My friends, if you want to keep a hard drive running for 20 years, keep it spinning.

Posted in Vintage Computing | 6 Comments »