Solipsism Gradient

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End of an era?

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I’m leaving for São Paulo to pick up my new laptop, put up the old iBook for sale, and make some business contacts. The new machine will have space and speed to handle the new Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) and I’ve been wanting a G4 for doing some AltiVec stuff, anyway.

By a coincidence, yesterday I found a new owner for my DayStar Genesis MP528, a PowerMac 9500 clone which I bought about 8 years ago. Originally it had 4 PowerPC604 processors running at 132 MHz, with a 40 MHz bus; after two processors burned out, I bought one of the first G3 boards (300MHz) for it, and upgraded it over the years. I stopped using it after Mac OS X came out.

Remember the recent story when Thailand’s Finance minister got trapped inside his BMW?

A high-ranking Thai official was forced to crawl out of the shattered windows of his luxury car following an onboard glitch that sealed all exits.

BMW has told CNETAsia that an electronic fault caused the problem, rather than a system crash of the car’s Windows-based central computer, as other reports have speculated.

In Prague, another Brazilian couple was staying at the same hotel we were in. They did one of those fly&lease plans and, as a part of that, had leased a brand-new Renault Mégane:

This is one of those computer-controlled new cars; a complicated dashboard display, no car keys or ignition, everything’s done by a keychain remote control. Very nice while it works…

It seems they drove into the parking lot with headlights on, got out, and turned the car off with the remote. One of them put the remote into a pocket where it presumably pressed again by mistake while they were going away. The result: the car was completely unlocked (including the trunk) and the headlights were turned on again.

In the morning, after checking out of the hotel, the car was completely dead. Nothing worked, all doors and the trunk were open. A helpful camper owner offered to help jump-start the car with the usual jumper cables; after connecting them and running the camper’s motor for several minutes, the Renault worked again, or at least partly; the lights could be turned on and off. However, the doors wouldn’t lock and the car wouldn’t start either; the dashboard kept displaying a message to “Call Service”.

We helped them look through the lease papers and located a service number in France. When we left, they’d already been on hold for over half an hour (at 2 Euros per minute!). Today, they called us and told the rest of the story…

It seems that once they succeeded to get a real live person on the phone in France, things happened very quickly. They said where they were in Prague and in about 45 minutes the local Renault dealer sent a repairman. He installed a new battery and reset the computer. They immediately got into the car and drove all the way into Austria, where they have relatives; they were afraid to turn the car off, so they left it running while tanking or eating. 😆

This turned out to be a wise precaution; after they’d parked the car in their relatives’ garage, the next day it was dead as a doornail again. After yet another visit from the local Renault repairman, everything was finally fixed… but guess if they’ll want another “smart” car again!

This is a very serious issue. Leaving aside the obvious jokes about cars, airplanes and even aircraft carriers running Windows CE, I think that onboard “smart” electronics must be smarter than that. Why didn’t the computer detect that the headlights were on, and turn them off before allowing the battery to run down past the point where the car couldn’t function?

Newly Digital

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Adam Kalsey is asking people to write about their early computing experiences, so of course I’ll have to goof off and write about mine instead of packing for our Europe trip icon_wink.gif. I was thinking of starting a series of notes for future biographers, anyway…

Sometime in 1967, while browsing at a local library I stumbled upon Elliott Organick‘s “A FORTRAN Primer”, and immediately realized this was hot. I promptly bought Organick’s more up-to-date “FORTRAN IV” and proceeded to learn it forward, backward and sideways. As I had no computer available, I typed my programs on long rolls of paper on an old Olivetti Linea typewriter and tried to single-step and debug them by hand. I remember doing factorials with many digits and other number puzzles from Martin Gardner‘s column in Scientific American.

The next year I casually mentioned the matter to my math teacher, who immediately sent me to the local university’s Engineering School, where they had a IBM 1130 mainframe. This was housed in a large air-conditioned room. The IBM 1131 CPU used magnetic core memory: 8K words of 16 bits each (later expanded to 16KW). The clock frequency was 280 KHz. The CPU also housed a 500KW magnetic cartridge drive and a keyboard with a Selectric-type “golf ball” printer. Other peripherals were the IBM 1442 card read-punch, the IBM 1132 line printer, a pair of paper tape read/punch units, and my personal favorite, the IBM 1627 plotter.

I immediately enrolled in keypunch and FORTRAN classes (with a special dispensation as I wasn’t a student), and began to pester the local staff to cadge computing time. After first getting the factorial calculator to run, I started to write a program for the plotter, inspired by yet another Scientific American article; over several months it evolved into a complex kludge, drawing an arbitrary number of (possibly intersecting) ellipsoids in 3D space from any vantage point, with hidden-line removal. Being unaware of existing hidden-line removal algorithms I tried to solve it by trigonometry, which worked but became extremely slow for the more interesting cases.

The next year I entered the school officially as an Electrical Engineering student, and promptly became attracted by a free systems analysis course to be offered by IBM. This was a 2-hours per day, every weekday, 9-month course sponsored by the university; 20 students were selected from over 200 applicants, and I placed second. The course was excellent, and the two best students were offered an internship at the university’s main computing center, so I made sure to place first…

CECOM, the computing center, at the time had an even older mainframe: the IBM 1401. The CPU had 4000 bytes of core memory; each byte had 6 BCD data bits, a parity bit, and a “word mark” bit to flag the end of a variable-length field; clock frequency was about 83 KHz. The only peripherals were a card read-punch and a line printer, and programming was in Autocoder (assembly) or machine language. It was already obsolete and soon was replaced by a IBM/360-40, itself replaced a few years later by a Burroughs B6700, which remained in use for 13 years. Amazingly, I can’t locate any photo or reference manual of this machine.

The B6700 was huge. The CPU had 800K of semiconductor (static) memory, which was state-of-the-art at the time and had a 800ns access time, if I recall correctly. It also had a 10MB fixed disk drive for virtual memory and operating system bootstrap; this had one magnetic head per track with several huge platters revolving on a horizontal axis. There were half a dozen magnetic tape units, removable disk packs (100MB each), and several fast line printers and card readers; later on about a dozen video terminals were installed. The B6700 had a very interesting architecture, with 51-bit words: 48 data bits which could be interpreted as 6 characters, as well as 3 tag bits which defined the word format. There were different formats for instruction words, address pointers for integers and floats, strings, and stack pointers. The machine was stack-oriented and and had no assembly language; the MCP operating system was written in an Algol dialect called ESPOL. As we had full source code for the MCP and for the compilers, I had a merry time – for several years, it turned out – hacking around and learning about operating system and compiler design.

In 1977 I acquired an Apple II and left the mainframe world. More in the next chapter…

Mario Jorge Passos directed me (by e-mail) to Fastfame‘s website, apparently a Taiwanese manufacturer of PC motherboards, LCD monitors, and other goodies:

Fastfame is a professional manufacture of PC hardware process and assembly computer motherboard and interface card for electronic and communication as well as others.

At the bottom of the page there’s the company’s slogan:

Futer we make it brighter.

Hi Daniel,

Daniel Steinberg wrote:

One of the engineers noted that it was possible to turn all of the processor off with this application. Some users complained that this caused the machine to crash.

I remember testing one of the first BeOS releases on my Genesis MP528, which had 4 processors… performance was very impressive. I didn’t try turning off all processors, unfortunately – I thought that they obviously would test for that.

I still have the Genesis stashed in a corner here, although with a G3/300MHz CPU card instead of the original 4-processor monster, which burned out due to (I think) non-tropics-proof heat-sink paste.

Posted by Daniel Steinberg:
Your thread about users having difficulty with .dmg and most recent note about the Be installer reminded me of this Be story from one of their first developer conferences.

Be supported multiple processors early on. They had a cute application that allowed you to turn processors on and off so that if you had a dual processor machine you could see that apps ran faster with both processors on than with just one on. One of the engineers noted that it was possible to turn all of the processor off with this application. Some users complained that this caused the machine to crash.

I finally yielded to temptation and bought a Freedom Chair from HumanScale as a Christmas present to myself. 😉

…it’s the model without a headrest – although the headrest looks extremely cool, the additional cost is significant and I’d rather get up periodically instead of leaning back, anyway.

The “upscale chair meme” infected me when I saw the “Hot Seat” article in Wired 8.07 some time ago. The article (by Bruce Sterling) compares the Freedom with the market pioneer, Herman Miller‘s Aeron, and with the up-and-coming Leap Chair from Steelcase. There’s also a recent fourth contestant – Allsteel‘s #19 Chair, which seems to combine several desirable features from the other models, but I was unable to find a reseller for it in Brazil.

After over a year of incubation, I did get a chance to compare the three contestants. On a visit to Canada last June I had occasion to sit (briefly) in the Aeron and Leap chairs, while a few months later I found a local store that had both the Aeron and the Freedom in stock. The store kindly borrowed me the Aeron for a week, but I finally decided for the Freedom.

While the Aeron’s mesh back would be ideal for this tropical climate, I found it somewhat unyielding. Since I usually work without a shirt, my back was soon imprinted with a hexagonal pattern. Also, the Aeron’s back and seat are at a fixed angle – the whole upper structure leans back as a unit, cutting off circulation unless I used a footrest. I suppose I’d need a somewhat lowered table to avoid this… also, the Aeron’s armrests are hard to adjust, although I liked the way they swivel horizontally.

I only had about 10 minutes to check out the Leap chair. The multitude of adjustments is somewhat daunting. In terms of comfort I saw no great difference from the Aeron, although it’s hard to tell in such a short time. Unfortunately, although they do have a reseller in Brazil, there are none in my city, and I was unable to locate another place to do a longer test. Coincidentally, Illiad’s User Friendly very recently did a long sequence (from here to here), spoofing the Leap chair’s extreme configurability.

What finally decided me to buy a Freedom, despite also having little time to test it, was the automatic back adjustment and the way both armrests moved together. I’ve been sitting in it for a few days now and both features are a definite win over the Aeron. While the gel padding feels warmer than the Aeron’s mesh, it’s more comfortable. The only part that still feels uncomfortable is that the seat feels a little too horizontal, so that I keep sliding down, and there’s no adjustment for the seat angle. I’m studying the mechanism to see if something can be hacked there.

While some friends are gasping at the price I paid (and there’s a 100% customs charge over the US price!), I feel that, since I’ll spend most of the day in that thing, I’d rather pay a little more now than have to deal with medical complications later.

Re: I’m off…

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Back from São Paulo. The trip’s highlight was a visit to the Chinese exhibition, which included a dozen members of the Xi’an Terracotta Army in individual display cases, the largest number so far shown outside China. This alone was worth the trip.

Besides several other interesting museum visits we managed to see Deborah Colker‘s new dance, 4×4. We’d seen her previously in the wildly innovative MIX. Highly recommended.

In between, I visited Macmania Magazine‘s offices, to play with a 12″ PowerBook G4 they’d just gotten for review. I found it noticeably faster than the iBook/600 I’m posting this on, and the left handrest isn’t all that much hotter. If I find someone to buy my old one, I’ll switch in a minute.

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