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Journal Journal: Belonging to a different era

Feeling a little nostalgic at the moment, but also beginning to sense a serious part of why I feel like a dunce today when it comes to computing when once I felt like a genius.

Quick wall of text on the Nostalgia bit

That article on Vector Graphics the other day reminded me a little of the S-100 bus, and the whole move to the PC ISA that came just before I really got into computing. The first computer I really touched was our school's RM 380Z, which was a proprietary CP/M based system, but exposure to that at school was mostly a "You can book 15 minutes to use it at lunchtime but otherwise the school maths teacher will use it to demonstrate things now and then." So the first computer I learned anything from was a friend's VIC 20. I then used a variety of cheap single-board-computers until my Amiga 500+, the most powerful of which was a Sinclair QL.

So... I never touched S-100. And I didn't really touch the PC until there was literally no other choice that was viable. S-100 was never an option for two major reasons: it was expensive, and it was crap. I mean, seriously, awful. S-100 survived because the home computing establishment's equivalent of the Very Serious People decreed it was Serious, and it was Serious because it was "standard".

A typical S-100 system consisted of the S-100 box itself - a dumb motherboard (very dumb, the only components on it were the edge connectors and a few capacitors and resistors to do all that magic EE specialists understand and I could never get my head around) enclosed in a card cage, plus a CPU card, a completely separate memory card or three, a completely separate disk controller, and a completely separate serial I/O card. The disk controller would be hooked up to a disk drive it was designed to control (yes, proprietary), which would be unlike around 90% of other disk drives out there - that is, if you were lucky. And the I/O card would be hooked up to a terminal that frequently was more powerful than the S-100 computer it was hooked up to..

Each combination of I/O and disk controller cards required a custom BIOS so you could run CP/M with it.

The bus itself was essentially the pins of an 8080 turned into a 100 line bus. So you were essentially wiring each card to an 8080, or something pretending to be an 8080, in parallel. This required quite a bit of hardware in each bus to make sure each didn't conflict with other S-100 cards.

Now, technically, you could get graphics (and maybe sound) cards, but that was unusual. Likewise, you could get more exotic CPUs - though getting software for them was a problem. But the typical S-100 system was text only with a Z80, and the typical S-100 system owner spent rather a lot of time trying to figure out how to order a "standard" CP/M application in a form that would run on their "standard" S-100 system, taking into account their disk drive that only 10% of the market used and their terminal that used VT-52 codes rather than VT-101 codes or (insert one of the other popular terminals here.)

Did I mention this is expensive? While the original Altair 8800 was $500 or so, it came with nothing but the card cage and motherboard, the CPU card, and a little bit of memory. And even on this, the makers barely broke even, expecting to make the profits on after sales. Useful memory, a terminal, an I/O card, a disk controller, and a disk drive, pushed up the prices considerably. Realistically, typical "useful" S-100 systems cost somewhere around $4,000.

Given all of that, it's not really surprising it got supplanted by the PC. Much is made of the fact IBM was taken more seriously by people outside of the personal computer industry in 1981, and that undoubtedly helped, but I can't help but feel that S-100 couldn't have survived for much longer regardless. You could buy a complete system from Commodore or Apple that was more capable for a third of the price even in 1981. The PC didn't need to be cheap, it had IBM's name behind it, but it was obviously more capable than S-100, and it was obvious that if the architecture was adopted by the industry, machines based upon it would be more standardized.

The "Feeling like a dunce" bit

So anyway, that was my train of thought. And it occurred to me that the fact I even have opinions on this suggests my mindset is still stuck there. Back then, even when you programmed in BASIC, you were exerting almost direct control over the hardware. You had a broad idea of what the machine did, what memory locations were mapped onto what functions, and every command you typed affected the computer in a predictable way. The computers themselves were (mostly) predictable too.

As time wore on, especially with the advent of multitasking (which I welcomed, don't get me wrong) you learned to understand your software would be only one party to how the computer behaved, but you understood that if you followed the rules, and the other programmers did too, you could kinda get your head around what was happening to it.

And you felt like a genius if you understood this. And I say "if", because it was possible.

At some point that stopped being possible. Part of it was the PC ISA, the fact an architecture from 1981 was still in use in the mid-nineties by which time it was long in the tooth and needed serious work. Its deficiencies were addressed in software and hardware. Intel essentially replaced the CPU, leaving a compatible stub there to start older applications, and the industry - after a few false starts - threw out most of the PC design and replaced it with the PCI architecture, again, like Intel leaving compatible stubs here and there to ensure older stuff would work. And Microsoft worked on making Windows the real interface software would use to access the hardware.

After a while, there were so many abstractions between your software and the underlying system, it really became hard to determine what was going on underneath. If I program, I now know there are rules I can follow that will reduce the chance of my application being a problem... today. But I don't know if that's the case for the next version of Windows, and all I know is how to reduce the chances, not how to eliminate them. I don't know if the Java I'm writing will generate a webpage that contains Javascript that will contain a memory leak that'll cause the part of the process managing the tab its in to bloat up an additional 100M or so. I can hope it won't, and use mitigation strategies to avoid things that might cause problems, but there are so many things outside of my control I have to trust now, it's just not practical.

Logically the right thing to do under the circumstances is to take back control, to use lower level APIs and simpler sets of rules, but in practice that's just not practical, and doing so means that my tools no longer fit inside the ecosystem with everyone else's. So it's not the right thing - it's actually the worst thing I can do, and if I tried to do it, I'd be shunned as a developer.

I was a genius once because I (mostly) understood the computers I was programming. I feel like a dunce today because that's just not possible any more.

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Journal Journal: MSS Code Factory 2.3.12932 Released to production!

MSS Code Factory 2.3 adds support for the specification of ServerProc, ServerObjFunc, and ServerListFunc methods that are performed at the server end and atomically committed when invoked by an XMsgClient application.

The 2.3 series also reworks the way that licensing and copyright information are tracked by the manufactured code. Now the license and copyright information of the originating project is used, instead of that of the project that is being manufactured. Just because you included a model someone else designed does not mean you get to take credit for that work.

There will be additional service packs adding new functionality to the 2.3 series, but those enhancements will not require further changes to the GEL engine, only the rule base.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Number Five 2 2

I just sent off for the fifth and, I hope, last pre-publication copy of Yesterday's Tomorrows. I was sure it would be finished a month ago, but there were problems printing it due to some of the illustrations being too high of a resolution. It took a month to get the fourth printed.

I can't decide whether or not to assign an ISBN to it, since the book may not be legal in all countries. What do you think? I only have three or four left, and a block of ten is $250. Should I use one? The only country besides the US that has bought my books was Great Britain, and very few there although the web site gets visits from all over the world.

I'm pretty sure I'll never sell a book in Australia, because they're crazy expensive down there; tariffs, probably.

Oh, if you want to read the copy of Huckleberry Finn at my site, better hurry because when I post Yesterday's Tomorrows I'll have to take the Twain book down to make space. It will be back up this fall when I renew my URL and upgrade my hosting level. When it's back up I'll have a version that's easy to read on a phone.

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Journal Journal: Winduhs

I think the whole mobile operating system thing has screwed up GUI design to a certain degree. Microsoft, Ubuntu, and GNOME have both been brave and tried something new, but what they ended up with ended up being highly unpopular on the desktop. And to be honest, I think only Microsoft ended up with something truly good on a touch interface, though I admit to not using Ubuntu or GNOME in those contexts, just being aware that they've not really encouraged an ecosystem for applications to work well in a tablet environment, leaving users with only the main shell being friendly. So the loss of optimization for the desktop lead to no significant gains elsewhere.

The way I'm seeing it, Windows 10 seems to be genuinely exciting, and a decent modern desktop, that also encourages cross interface design. Microsoft has learned from the mistakes it made with Windows 8, kept the good parts, and put together something truly great and modern.

I don't really want to be stuck with Windows though as my primary OS. I'm hoping Ubuntu et al actually learn from it.

This is something you'll never normally hear from me, but perhaps they need a Miguel type figure to take a lead in either GNOME or Ubuntu. At this point, at least to me, it looks like Microsoft is the one with the good ideas about how a UI should work and the relationship of an application to the UI frameworks of the underlying OS. I don't want anyone to clone Windows, but it would be nice to learn from it, at least.

Back in the 1990s, nerds like me put together our own "desktops", running random window managers, app launchers, and file managers (if that) that seemed to go together. I'm feeling like the FOSS "desktop" is heading back to that era, of stuff that doesn't really go together, being shoehorned to fit, with no real philosophy binding the system together.

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Journal Journal: I don't understand this Google vs. Oracle thing

For the life of me, I do not understand why Google doesn't just ship an ARM64 build of OpenJDK instead of futzing around with this fight against Oracle. From a pure developer's perspective, the whole thing is flat out STUPID.

Oracle is not preventing Google from shipping their own build of the JDK. They're just stopping them from breaking Java's portability requirement by shipping non-Java bytecode.

Java is not a compiler kit.

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Journal Journal: A suggestion to mobile browser makers and the W3C 4 4

There are an awful lot of pages on my web site, and I've been busy making them all "mobile-friendly". Most of them are little or no problem making them look good on all platforms, but there are three that are especially problematic.

I jumped this hurdle (well, sort of stumbled past it) by making two of each of the pages with a link to the mobile page from the index.

Ideally, I could just check to see if it was a phone or not and redirect phones to the mobile page, but there's no way to make this 100% successful*. Each brand of phone has a different user agent, there are a lot of installable phone browsers. On top of that, is it an Android phone or an Android tablet? With the minimum typeface size and viewport set, those pages are fine on the PC version but the phone version looks like crap.

Apple should have thought of this when they made the first iPhone, and Google should have thought of this when developing Android. The answer is simple, but it can only be implimented by browser makers and perhaps the W3C.

From the beginning of the World Wide Web, browsers looked for index.html, the default front page in any directory. This worked fine before smart phones, but no longer.

Phone browsers should look first for mobile.html, and if it exists display that, and display index.html if it isn't there. Tablets and computers would behave as they always have.

It doesn't have to be mobile.html, it could be any name as long as everyone agreed that it was the standard, like they did with index.html.

Maintaining a web site would be much easier if they did this. What do you guys think?

* A reader tipped me to the Apache Mobile Filter. It looks promising, especially since my host uses Apache. I'm looking into it.

User Journal

Journal Journal: How to make "mobile-friendly" web pages 3 3

I finally got the full texts of Nobots and Mars, Ho! to display well on a phone. My thanks to Google for showing me how, even if the way they present the information is more like trial and error, but it's actually easy once you jump through all their hoops. I'll make it easy.

First, you need to make sure it will fit on a phone's screen. I've been preaching for years that it's stupid to use absolute values, except with images; if you don't tell the browser the image size and you are using style sheets, your visitors will be playing that annoying "click the link before it moves again" game.

Some of you folks who studied this in college should demand your tuition be refunded, because they obviously didn't teach this.

Giving tables, divs, and such absolute values almost assures that some of your visitors will have that incredibly annoying and unprofessional horizontal scroll (*cough* slashdot *cough*).

None of the elements (images, divs, etc) can be more than 320 pixels wide, and you need to tell the browser to make it fit on a screen. To do this, add this meta tag to your page's head:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">

Next, you need to make sure the text is large enough to read without double tapping. The <p> tag does this:

<p {min-height: 16px}>

This needs to be placed after the <body> tag and before anything having to do with text.

To test it, just pull the page up on your phone. If it scrolls sideways, you need to work on it.

If you're worried about your Google pagerank, Google has a "mobile friendly test" here. If you flunk, well, when Google says "jump"...

My main index page fails their test. To make it pass the test I would have to ruin the desktop/tablet design. As it is now, the text is readably large on a phone but it has a sideways scroll, which is tiny if you hold the phone sideways, and I added a link at the very start of the page to a version that will pass Google's test, looks fine on a phone, not bad on a tablet but looks like excrement on a computer. The main index works fine on a tablet, since I've made it as "mobile-friendly" as possible.

I'd have it redirect if it saw Android or iOS, but it's been fifteen years since I've done that and I've forgotten how.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Sorry I haven't written...

I have two new stories nearly finished, but I've decided to see if I can sell first publication rights to a magazine. If everyone rejects them, I'll post them then. If one is accepted, it will likely be quite a while before I can post.

With three books in the works I've been really busy. Hell, I've been working harder since I retired than I did when I worked! I got the index pages to my three published books and the "coming soon" page for Yesterday's Tomorrows "mobile-friendly". I don't know why I'm bothering; almost nobody surfs in on a phone or from Google. But at any rate, I got the book Triplanetary and the first two chapters of Mars, Ho "mobile friendly" as well. The Time Machine is next; the epub versions of my books are better than the HTML versions, on a phone, anyway. Twain, Dickens, and God are going to be mobile-hostile for quite a while because of all the artwork in them.

I couldn't make the main index "mobile friendly" without making it look like crap on a computer screen, so I made a copy "mobile friendly", posted it as mobile.html and added a link from the main index.

Site stats say Google has spidered, so I tried to find Mars, Ho!" by googling on the phone. Nothing but Marsho Medical Group, Andy Weir's The Martian, and a facebook page for someone named Mars Ho. Googling "Mars, Ho! novel" did bring up Amazon's e'book copy halfway through the page.

"Mars, Ho! mcgrew" brought up Amazon's e'book first, followed by the mobile-hostile main index, THEN the actual Mars, Ho! index which IS "mobile friendly" (it passed their test). And I thought "mobile friendly" was supposed to raise your ranks? What's up, Google?

The second copy of Yesterday's Tomorrows came yesterday. I didn't expect until the day after tomorrow. I went through it twice yesterday and it's almost ready; there is still a little work before it's published, but it won't be long.

It's a really nice book, with stories by Isaac Asimov, John W Campbell, Murray Leinster, Frederik Pohl, Neil R Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, A. E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Poul Anderson, Phillip K Dick, Frank Herbert, James Blish, Lester del Rey, and Jerome Bixby. Covers of the magazines they appeared in are shown, with short biographies and photos of the authors. It's also well-illustrated with illustrations from the original magazines.

Random Scribblings: Junk I've littered the internet with for two decades will probably be next year.

Oh, how do you like my new shirt?


Journal Journal: I READ THE NEWS TODAY OH BOY 6 6

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User Journal

Journal Journal: April 2015 has been a busy month

April 2015 has been a busier month than I'm used to.

I got MSS Code Factory 2.1 Service Pack 1 out the door after over two months of work.

I packed up and moved to a new apartment.

Last but not least, I installed Ubuntu 14.04.2 LTS on my failing Debian box. I still haven't done any more work on the Windows 7 laptop to get it into a development-usable state, but since I did all that performance tuning on MSS Code Factory 2.1, I really don't need to use the Windows laptop. In fact, the poor beast is so I/O bound when running 2.1 that it sounds like the hard drive is about to rupture and spew it's guts out the keyboard when MSS Code Factory is running.

The shift to Ubuntu 14.04.2 from Debian 7 was a last-ditch attempt to resolve an X-Server crash issue (white-out screen in NVidia 8600-series hardware with NVidia drivers.) Although I did see one such crash on Ubuntu 14.04.2 since installing it in the first week of April, I have not seen it in the ten days since Ubuntu released some X-Server input patches.

So it wasn't entirely the NVidia driver's fault that my X-Server was crashing; there seems to have been some bugs in the input stream processing.

I'm still not 100% confident that the X-Server bug has been resolved, but it's looking like it has. Which is a good thing -- I can't afford to buy a new computer at this time (nor in any reasonably near future, as I'm on disability and get less than $17,000/year to live on here in Saskatchewan, Canada.)

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Journal Journal: Product Review: Seagate Personal Cloud 5 5

Around the first of the year all three working computers were just about stuffed full, so I thought of sticking a spare drive in the Linux box, when the Linux box died from a hardware problem. It's too old to spend time and money on, so its drive is going in the XP box (which is, of course, not on the network; except sneakernet). I decided to break down and buy an external hard drive. I found what I was looking for in the "Seagate Personal Cloud". And here I thought the definition of "the cloud" was someone else's server!

I ordered it the beginning of January, not noticing that it was a preorder; it wasn't released until late March. I got it right before April.

I was annoyed with its lack of documentation -- it had a tiny pamphlet full of pictures and icons and very few words. Whoever put that pamphlet together must beleive the old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words". Tell me, if a picture is worth a thousand words, convey that thought in pictures. I don't think it can be done.

I did find a good manual on the internet. For what I wanted, I really didn't need a manual, but since I'm a nerd I wanted to understand everything about the thing. Before looking for a manual I plugged it all up, and Windows 7 had no problem connecting with it. It takes a few minutes to boot; it isn't really simply a drive, it must have an operating system and network software, because it looks to the W7 notebook to be another file server. Its only connections are a jack for the power cord and a network jack.

The model I got has three terrabytes. I moved all the data from the two working computers (using a thumb drive to move data from XP) and the "cloud" was still empty. Streaming audio and video from it is flawless; I'm completely satisfied with it, it's a fine piece of hardware.

However, it WON'T do what is advertised to do, which is to be able to get to your data from anywhere. In order to do that, Seagate has a "software as a service" thing where you can connect to a computer from anywhere, but only the computer and its internal drives, NOT the "personal cloud". And they want ten bucks a month for it.

I downloaded the Android app, and I could see and copy files that were on my notebook to my phone, but I couldn't play music stored there on it. I uninstalled the crap. "Software as a service" is IMO evil in the first place, but to carge a monthly fee to use a piece of crap software like this is an insult. Barnum must have been right.

If you're just looking for an external hard drive, like I was, it's a good solution. If you want what they're advertising, you ain't gettin' it. The Seagate Personal Cloud's name is a lie, as is its advertising.

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Journal Journal: We've been spelling it wrong for over a quarter century 8 8

I'm surprised that this hasn't been addressed by the academic communities. Someone with a degree in English or linguistics or something like that should have though of this decades ago.

This word (actually more than one word) has various spellings, and I've probably used all of them at one time or another. The word is email, or eMail, or e-mail, or some other variation. They're all wrong.

It's a contraction of "electronic mail" and as such should be spelled e'mail. The same with e'books and other e'words.

So why hasn't someone with a PhD in English pointed this out to me? I have no formal collegiate training in this field. It's a mystery to me.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Are printed books' days numbered? 4 4

In his 1951 short story The Fun They Had, Isaac Asimov has a boy who finds something really weird in the attic -- a printed book. In this future, all reading was done on screens.

When e'books* like the Nook and Kindle came out, there were always women sitting outside the building on break on a nice spring day reading their Nooks and Kindles. It looked like the future to me, Asimov's story come true. I prefer printed books, but thought that it was because I'm old, and was thirty before I read anything but TV and movie credits on a screen.

And then I started writing books. My youngest daughter Patty is going to school at Cincinnati University (as a proud dad I have to add that she's Phi Beta Kappa and working full time! I'm not just proud, I'm in awe of her) and when she came home on break and I handed her a hardbound copy of Nobots she said "My dad wrote a book! And it's a REAL book!"

So somehow, even young people like Patty value printed books over e'books.

My audience is mostly nerds, since few non-nerds know of me or my writing, so I figured that the free e'book would far surpass sales of the printed books. Instead, few people are downloading the e'books. More download the PDFs, and more people buy the printed books than PDFs and ebooks combined.

Most people just read the HTML online, maybe that's a testament to my m4d sk1llz at HTML (yeah, right).

Five years ago I was convinced ink was on the way out, but there's a book that was printed long before the first computer was turned on that says "the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated".

* I'll write a short story about the weird spelling shortly.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Where's my damned tablet? 11 11

I'd like to know why in the hell nobody is selling a tablet, or maybe an app for existing tablets, that will let me watch over the air TV on it?

All the necessary hardware is there. Wi-fi and bluetooth are radios. Some cell pones can pick up FM music stations, and have been able to do so and have done so for years.

The FM radio band sits between channels six and seven on the VHF television channels. If it can hear radio, it can see TV.

The technology is there, why isn't the commercial device to be found? Offer a tablet I can watch TV without the internet and I'll buy one. Maybe two.

egrep -n '^[a-z].*\(' $ | sort -t':' +2.0