Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts tagged History

Interlude

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I wrote the three posts below (The Mac Turns 30, part I, part II, and part III) on the road in South Africa. Here’s my updated map of visited countries (66 now):

Connections underway were slow-to-non-existent, and this time I took only my trusty iPad 2. Unfortunately the combination proved unwieldy for posting, and I had to go back to those posts now, recheck formatting and add some links; if you enjoyed the stories, you may want to re-read them. (I also fixed some errors.)

Part IV should be out Real Soon Now. In the meantime, you may wish to read this reasonably accurate article out about the Unitron Mac clone debacle which happened roughly at the same time.

[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.

…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.

Chemistry

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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.

 

10 years!

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Wow, today is the 10th anniversary of this blog; at least that’s the oldest post still preserved in my database. Most of the pieces were already in place in early 2002, but it took me some time to get everything running. At the time, I based the blog on phpbb, but a few years ago I migrated to WordPress; only the support forums, which get very little use these days, still use phpbb. Here’s a screenshot of the early days:

The cringe-inducing title was patterned after several similar ones I saw at the time; later on, no doubt under the influence of Iain M. Banks, I changed to the current “Solipsism Gradient”, which I still think quite descriptive. I’m still working up the nerve to ask him to use the name in an upcoming book, though… 🙂

But earlier versions were still more cringe-inducing, look at this one, from mid-2000:

At least I can safely say there’s no <blink> tag, and the animated GIF for the visitor counter was actually well-received; can’t really use it again as there are too few digits to be future-proof, but here’s what it looked like:

Well, life goes on. In a few days we’ll take a month off, flying in to Denver and driving around the parks between Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City and Bryce Canyon. If all goes well, I’ll be able to work and post from underway. To coin a phrase, “we have cool things in the pipeline”… 🙂

Déjà Vu

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Just saw this over at Amazon:

Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) is a web service that provides resizable compute capacity in the cloud. It is designed to make web-scale computing easier for developers.

Amazon EC2 changes the economics of computing by allowing you to pay only for capacity that you actually use.

…Start, terminate, and monitor as many instances of your AMI as needed, using the web service APIs.

Pay for the instance-hours and bandwidth that you actually consume.

…Amazon EC2 passes on to you the financial benefits of Amazon’s scale. You pay a very low rate for the compute capacity you actually consume.

…etc.

History repeats itself… this is very close to what we used to operate with in my mainframe days. You punched out a job control deck and ran a job that used a virtualized instance of the OS. Later on you’d get billed by so many seconds of actual CPU time, I/O bandwidth, and storage. In fact, my M.Sc.-thesis-to-be (1975, I vaguely remember) was about implementing just such a billing system.

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