Solipsism Gradient

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[continued from part II] This, my first Mac, consisted of: • a system unit with 128K of RAM, 64K of ROM containing the system toolbox and boot software, a 9″ black&white display (512×342 pixels), a small speaker, a 400K single-side 400K floppy disk drive, two serial ports using a new mini-DIN 8 pin connector DB9 connectors, a ball-based mouse also connected via DB9, and an integrated power supply; • a small keyboard with no cursor keys or numeric keyboard, connecting to the front of the system over a 4-pin phone connector; • a second 400K floppy drive, which connected to the back of the system; • an 80-column dot matrix Imagewriter II printer, connecting to one of the serial ports; • System 1 (though it wasn’t called that yet) on floppy disks with MacPaint on one, and MacWrite on the other; • a third-party 512K RAM expansion board which fit somewhat precariously over the motherboard but worked well enough; (this RAM upgrade board, from Beck-Tech, was actually 1024K and I now remember buying it a year later) • a boxy carrying case where everything but the printer would fit — I didn’t buy Apple’s version, though. I went to Berkeley and bought it together with a BMUG membership and a box of user group software; • a poster with the detailed schematics of both Mac boards (motherboard and power supply); • a special tool which had a long Torx-15 hex key on one end and a spreading tool on the other end. The Mac’s rather soft plastic was easily marred by anything else; • The very first version of Steve Jasik’s MacNosy disassembler software. All this cost almost $4000 but it was worth every cent. (Also see the wonderful teardown by iFixit.) Taking it back to Brazil proved to be quite an ordeal, however. We had made arrangements to get my suitcase unopened through customs, but at the last minute I was advised to skip my scheduled flight and come in the next day. We hadn’t considered the fact that the 1984 Olympics were happening in LA that month, and getting onto the next flight in front of a huge waiting list of people was, of course, “impossible”! As they say, necessity is the mother of invention and I promptly told one of the nice VARIG attendants that I would miss my wedding if she didn’t do something — anything! She promised to try her utmost and early the next morning she slipped me a boarding pass in the best undercover agent manner. And her colleagues on board made quite a fuss about getting the best snacks for “the bridegroom”… 😉 Anyway, after that everything went well and I arrived safe and sound with my system. More on what we did with it in part IV.

[continued from part I]

In 1983 I’d started working at a Brazilian microcomputer company, Quartzil. They already had the QI800 on the market, a simple CP/M-80 computer (using the Z80 CPU and 8″, 243K diskettes) and wanted to expand their market share by doing something innovative. I was responsible for the system software and was asked for my opinion about what a new system should do and look like. We already had all read about the Apple Lisa and about the very recent IBM PC which used an Intel 8088 CPU.

After some wild ideas about making a modular system with interchangeable CPUs, with optional Z80, 8008 and 68000 CPU boards, we realized that it would be too expensive — none the least, because it would have needed a large bus connector that was not available in Brazil, and would be hard to import. (The previous QI800 used the S100 bus, so called because of its 100-pin bus; since by a happy coincidence the middle 12 pins were unused, they had put in two 44-pin connectors which were much cheaper.)

Just after the Mac came out in early 1984 we began considering the idea of cloning it. We ultimately decided the project would be too expensive, and soon we learned that another company — Unitron — was trying that angle already.

Cloning issues in Brazil at that time are mostly forgotten and misunderstood today, and merit a full book! Briefly, the government tried to “protect” Brazilian computer companies by not allowing anything containing a microprocessor chip to be imported; the hope was that the local industry would invest and build their own chips, development machines and, ultimately, a strong local market. What legislators didn’t understand was that it was a very difficult and high-capital undertaking. To make things more complex, the same companies they were trying to protect were hampered by regulations and had to resort to all sorts of tricks; for instance, our request to import an HP logic analyzer to debug the boards turned out to take 3 years (!) to process; by the time the response arrived, we already had bought one on the gray market.

Since, theoretically, the Brazilian market was entirely separate from the rest of the world, and the concept of international intellectual property was in its infancy, cloning was completely legal. In fact, there were already over a dozen clones of the Apple II on the market and selling quite well! This was, of course, helped by Apple publishing their schematics. A few others were trying their hands at cloning the PC and found it harder to do; this was before the first independent BIOS was developed.

To get back to the topic, it was decided to send me to the NCC/84 computer conference in Las Vegas to see what was coming on the market in the US and to buy a Mac to, if nothing else, help us in the development process. (In fact, it turned out to be extremely useful — I used it to write all documentation and also to write some auxiliary development software for our new system.)

It was a wonderful deal for me. The company paid my plane tickets and hotel, I paid for the Mac, we all learned a lot. I also took advantage of the trip to polish my English, as up to that point I’d never had occasion to speak it.

The NCC was a huge conference and, frankly, I don’t remember many details. I do remember seeing from afar an absurdly young-looking Steve Jobs, in suit and tie, meeting with some bigwigs inside the big, glassed-in Apple booth. I collected a lot of swag, brochures and technical material; together with a huge weight of books and magazines, that meant that I had to divide it into boxes and ship all but the most pertinent stuff back home separately. I think it all amounted to about 120Kg of paper, meaning several painful trips to the nearest post office.

The most important space in my suitcase was, of course, reserved for the complete Mac 128 system and peripherals. More about that in the upcoming part III.

30 years ago, when the first issue of MacWorld Magazine came out – the classic cover with Steve Jobs and 3 Macs on the front – I already could look back at some years as an Apple user. In the early days of personal computers, the middle 1970’s, the first computer magazines appeared: Byte, Creative Computing, and several others. I read the debates about the first machines: the Altair and, later, the Apple II; the TRS80; the Commodore PET, and so forth.

It was immediately clear to me that I would need one of those early machines. I’d already been working with mainframes like the IBM/360 and Burroughs B6700, but those new microcomputers already had as much capacity as the first IBMs I’d programmed for, just 8 years later.

So as soon as possible I asked someone who knew someone who could bring in electronics from the USA. Importing these things was prohibited but there was a lively gray market and customs officials might conveniently look the other way at certain times. Anyway, sometime in 1979 I was the proud owner of an Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, a Phillips cassette recorder, and a small color TV with a hacked-together video input. (The TV didn’t really like having its inputs externally exposed and ultimately needed an isolating power transformer.)

The Apple II+ later grew to accomodate several accessory boards, dual floppy drives, a Z80 CPU board to run CP/M-80, as well as a switchable character generator ROM to show lower-case ASCII as well as accents and the special characters used by Gutenberg, one of the first word processors that used SGML markup – a predecessor of today’s XML and HTML. I also became a member of several local computer clubs and, together, we amassed a huge library of Apple II software; quite a feat, since you couldn’t directly import software or even send money to the USA for payment!

Hacking the Apple II’s hardware and software was fun and educative. There were few compilers and the OS was primitive compared the mainframe software I’d learned, but it was obvious that here was the future of computing.
There were two influential developments in the early 1980s: first, there was the Smalltalk issue of Byte Magazine in 1981; and then the introduction of the Apple Lisa in early 1983. Common to both was the black-on-white pixel-oriented display, which I later learned came from the Xerox Star, together with the use of a mouse, pull-down menus, and the flexible typography now familiar to everybody.

Needless to say, I read both of those magazines (and their follow-ups) uncounted times and analysed the screen pictures with great care. (I also bought as many of the classic Smalltalk books as I could get, though I never actually suceeded in getting a workable Smalltalk system running.)

So I can say I was thoroughly prepared when the first Mac 128K came out in early 1984. I practically memorized all articles written about it and in May 1984 I was in a store in Los Angeles – my first trip to the US! – buying a Mac 128K with all the optionals: external floppy, 3 boxes of 3.5″, 400K Sony diskettes and a 80-column Imagewriter printer. (The 132-column model wouldn’t fit into my suitcase.) Thanks to my reading I was able to operate it immediately, to the amazement of the store salesman.

More about this in the soon-to-follow second part of this post. Stay tuned.

You should not have noticed anything, but this domain (and several domains I’m hosting for others) is now running on a new server under a new hosting plan.

I’m still with DreamHost, but now on a Virtual Private Server – and they’re certified “green”, an obscure jargon word apparently meaning “carbon-neutral”. There’s a smaller green graphic in the footer on every page now – click either there, or on the round graphic to the right to check. By clicking on that (and on other similar links throughout this site) you will see details; also, should you be wanting to host your own site with them, I will get a modest commission if you sign up through such a link.

Together with that change I’ve done some  optimizing, rechecking, and updating of the infrastructure. We now have a newer PHP, new caching software, optimized server resource allocation, and so forth. What is not new, and becoming creaky, are the Support Forums; almost all recent visitors seem to be spambots, and the underlying software is proving hard to maintain. Very few of you seem to go there; or perhaps there aren’t any bugs left in my software…? 🙂 Anyway, expect the forums to vanish sometime early next year, and they’ll probably be folded into this blog in some fashion.

Should you notice something amiss while browsing around on this site, please drop me a line!

Quay 1.1.5 (357) is now out. This is compatible with the upcoming OS X 10.9.x (Mavericks). As before, be sure to update Quay to this new version before installing 10.9.

This will probably be the last version of Quay that comes out. Now that I’ve figured out how to get this type of application working under 10.9 it’s time to begin working on a new one…

Yay! Another update!

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RB App Checker Lite 1.0.3 is now live both for direct download and from the Mac App Store. Here are the release highlights:

  • Now opens and checks .ipa bundles.
  • Opening packages (like .xcarchives) that contain applications now works properly, showing the package icon and path.
  • More and better help and credits text, now with active popups.
  • Library licenses have been included in the credits.
  • New interrupt/redo scan button.
  • The list of known entitlements has been updated.
  • Better explanations for most code signing errors.
  • Complains about missing receipt for App Store apps.
  • Pop-up file lists are now slightly better-looking.
  • Unsigned frameworks aren’t incorrectly flagged with a signing error anymore.
  • Fixed: the app froze after clicking the full-screen button in QuickLook preview.
  • Fixed: issues with mailto: links in the About window.
  • Fixed: the File->Select… menu is now enabled; it doesn’t work for frameworks, though; the workaround is to drag one onto the app icon or window.

And a most important note that I wasn’t allowed to mention in the app itself because of Mac App Store restrictions: the new version should be fully compatible with Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks).

On the travel front, we had a few wonderful days in the old villages in the interior of Portugal, and now an excellent week in Ireland. The weather, which was abnormally splendid, has today returned to its more normal Irish standard of wet and windy. More anon.

Yay! An update!

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So, a long-delayed update.

A few days ago, and exactly 365 days after the last version (1.0.2, I dimly recall), I submitted RB App Checker Lite 1.0.3 to the Mac App Store. It should be out before the end of the week, I hope; watch this space for news. As soon as it’s on the store the developer ID-signed version will also be available for direct download.

There are a few new features and some bug fixes – the exact list will be out with the update. There are, also, many new features not directly visible by the user. In particular, RB App Checker (non-Lite) is now being built on almost exactly the same codebase. This will be a paid application, probably around US$16, with a new UI and explanations for the non-technical user – but the very detailed geeky stuff will still be visible with a click, don’t worry. It will also be able to scan the user’s Application folder.

Both versions of the App Checker build on a generic application framework that will make it easy for me publish more file-twiddling utilities. Two of them – one to count and scan folder contents, one to generate various types of aliases and file links – are already in alpha and should be available before the end of the year.

In parallel, I hope to, very soon, restart work on my next-generation System Preferences panel – the one that will obsolete and subsume my previous apps like Quay and (perhaps) Klicko. If all works out as I hope, this panel will be able to leverage the RB Utilities  to get extra funcionality not allowed by the Mac App Store, and centralize preferences and auto-updating for my non-App Store utilities.

In a day we’ll leave for a short vacation in Ireland, followed by a visit to lovely Köln and the Objective-Cologne conference, where I’ll present a short talk on (ahem) “Coding Secrets of the Ancients”. Well, the subject is a little misleading – there will be a section about history and reminiscences about early computing, but there’ll be a very practical and up-to-date section about protecting applications in the Mac App Store; tricky stuff like receipt and certificate checking. More details should be up soon at the ObjCgn website.

We’ll also seize the opportunity to visit friends, relatives and developers in Germany, and should be back early in October. I’ll post updates here whenever possible.

…Like an Arrow

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While the tempus is fugiting, I just remembered running across this comprehensive history of “tree swing drawings” which links to some new ones.

My previous post about this:Tree Swing was over 5 years ago, wow!

Update: just saw that I was hot-linking to the image in my old post, sorry about that; fixed.

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