Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

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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Lamentations about the disappearance of classical “science kits” appear on the media every few years. Recently, the New York Times, Boing Boing and others wrote about it.

A chemistry kit from Kosmos (a German company that still makes them) was one of several my parents gave me, and I used it intensively for several years. Here’s a picture of the kit itself:

kosmos1and here’s a list of the contents (in German):

kosmos2(both pictures are courtesy of Hugo Rune). Several compounds, notably sulfuric acid, nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, were not sold with the kit – for safety reasons – and my father obtained them at his company. I soon learned that there were a few chemical supply houses in town, where I could buy extra test tubes, glass and rubber tubing, and replacement chemicals.

As far as “safety reasons” go, I believe that almost none of those chemicals would be allowed today. To quote one manufacturer of modern kits (from the New York Times piece):

Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit.

I suppose that for today’s kids, with their nanosecond attention spans, atrophied self-preservation instincts and parents who sue anybody at the drop of a hat, these precautions are necessary. For myself, I was used to seeing my father handle dangerous tools and substances in his workshop, and although I had a few scares with exploding reagents, nothing serious happened. For a few years – until I discovered that there were actual computers available outside of science-fiction books – I even thought I would pursue chemistry as a career.

Even so, this kit was extremely important and life-changing for me. At the time, my father still smoked occasionally – this was in the early 1960s. My kit included a simple glass aspirator pump (it’s not on the above parts list, for some reason), and I noticed that one of the glass tubes had a flared end that was the exact fit for a cigarette. I hooked the pump up to most of my glass tubes and soon had a primitive cigarette-smoking machine. The pump vacuum was strong enough that a lighted cigarette was smoked down to a nub in less than a minute! But the most impressive result was that the tubes were completely clogged with a black, foul-smelling, viscous substance.

Cleaning the tar out of my precious tubes made me strongly resolve to never start smoking in any form, and I think that my father stopped smoking very soon after seeing the results of that experiment. Maybe some educator should consider selling such smoking machine kits; the episode was certainly decisive for me.

I also fondly recall several other science/engineering kits from my childhood. My chemistry kit, unfortunately, no longer exists, but I still have the Märklin Metallbaukasten I got at the age of 3 (and even use it now and then)! I also had a Lectron Elektronik kit, several other electronic kits from Brazilian companies (Heathkits were, unfortunately, unavailable), and uncountable puzzles and educational games. We also subscribed to several magazines about such subjects.

In retrospect, I’m extremely grateful to my parents in making these and other materials available to me under difficult circumstances.

Update: just found a scholarly paper by Daniel Wolf about science kits (in German); very interesting.


Back, Busy

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Time flies. Our 4-week trip to the US Southwest’s parks has been over for almost 2 weeks already. The trip itself was marvelous; one of the best in recent years, even though we had to skip a few parks – it was just too tiring. At least we now have a shorter list of places to revisit in the future. We then rested for a week in Denver and nearby Boulder, which are wonderful places, too. All in all we drove about 5000km (3000 miles). Here’s my updated map of visited US states:

In other news, I’ve been busy fighting off jet lag, catching up, and taking care of various private issues. If all goes well, coding (and therefore, progress on my applications) should resume this weekend. Don’t go away…

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