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Journal Journal: Belonging to a different era 1 1

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.

User Journal

Journal Journal: CuBox Wifi Streaming Solved

I believe I have mentioned before that every bit of media I purchase I digitize and store the files on a central server. That includes over 300 movies and over 100 television episodes, plush a few hundred audio tracks. Everything is available anywhere in my home via wireless streaming, however I had been having problems with reliably streaming 1080p HD video over WiFi to my main television units.

My back end device is simply a Buffalo AirStation AC 1750 running DD-WRT build 27456. It is configured for WiFi AC-only in the 5.8 GHz band, and G/N/AC in the 2.4 GHz band to accommodate some older devices.

A Western Digital My Passport Ultra 2 Tb USB 3.0 drive is plugged into the back of the wireless router, which acts as a NAS and makes media available via SAMBA shares.

Over all I like this set-up, though after several months of use I can't really recommend the Buffalo AirStation for the simple reason that it doesn't have any external antennas. It really suffers in coverage area because of this. DD-WRT is great, as is the little 2 Tb WD drive, but I'll never again get a wireless gizmo that doesn't use an external antenna.

The front end to my televisions scattered throughout the house is a CuBox i4-Pro running OpenELEC. This is a fantastic combination that has been almost -- but not quite -- perfect for me. It is also easy to use for my non-technical wife and future geek 7-year old child.

The one issue has been reliably streaming 1080p HD videos to a CuBox. Even with the unit less than 10 meters away from the access point, with no obstructions, it would routinely have such a poor connection as to not be able to keep up with the playback. Watching the dashboard of DD-WRT showed me it had less than 30% signal strength and constantly would drop to 5.5 Mbps connection rates.

To eliminate interference I got up in the middle of the night and shut off everything that used wifi except the CuBox and it still performed poorly.

The short answer is the built-in wireless on the CuBox is abysmal. Again, no external antenna and 2.4 GHz only. Further investigation showed it would not work with channel bonding, thus not use 40 MHz channels in 802.11n. I don't know if it is a chipset limitation or a driver issue. Either way, it sucks.

My answer was to buy a USB wifi adapter with an external antenna. This one is tiny, totally plug-and-play, and absolutely does the trick. And for $12.99, including Prime shipping, a bargain. It is marketed towards the Raspberry Pi, which is what I bought it for. It uses the Realtek RT5370 chipset and is supported at the kernel level (no extra drivers needed) in Android, OpenELEC, Raspbian and lots of other Linux flavors.

It support 802.11n and bonded, 40 MHz channels and, more importantly, handles HD streams without breaking a sweat. I just ordered 2 more to outfit my 2 other CuBox devices so I can stream everything to the TVs in bedrooms without running wires.

(Note: I'm in a fairly low-population subdivision and not a lot of 2.4 GHz wireless around. I'm not stepping on any of my neighbors with my signal.)

User Journal

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.

http://msscodefactory.sourceforge.net/

User Journal

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.

User Journal

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.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Magnetic Cell Phone Docks 6 6

Just a short note. I picked up an Air Dock back when their Indigogo campaign was under way. I have now had this thing for a little over a year.

In general it works fine and does exactly what it says. I use the CD-mount, which has a nice picture down on this page.

The one flaw with that mount is the bolt and nut used to tighten it are fairly large, and extend beneath the mount. On DIN I sized radios, with the CD slot on top of the unit, the nut blocks the view of the display.

The one other thing I have discovered is that after a year of use, it has magnetized my phone! The Nexus 5 comes with small metal plates built in to the back to allow for the native use of devices like this. After all this time they have become magnetized, and that totally screws up the internal compass.

Now any time I start the compass app it complains the magnetic field strength is way too strong and it doesn't give accurate readings.

To be clear, this happens when the device is undocked and I'm walking around.

My next dock will be non-magnetic, as I do sometimes use the compass.

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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.)

User Journal

Journal Journal: Windows 7 laptop is toast -- hello, Debian 1 1

My Windows 7 laptop was finally nuked. It was only a matter of time before something got to it -- Windows is a virus vector hell.

I'm downloading Debian for my Lenovo IdeaPad Z580 -- I hope it works. I've never tested the system for Debian compatability, though Lenovo has a good reputation for it.

Sadly, I'm pretty sure it's going to mean losing my glorious 192/24 audio playback, as I can only get 44.1/16 working on the desktop despite it having a HD soundchip. I'm going to miss that...

More to the point, I won't be able to do any further work with Oracle, Sybase ASE, or SQL Server for my pet project. Such is life. What's there at this point works; someone else will just have to pick up the ball for those databases.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Parents aren't perfect 7 7

Seen rather a lot of the "Parents are evil because they did something wrong because they believed that something was right" meme that's going around at the moment.

Worst case: massive harassment and threats against the parents of a trans teenager who killed herself blaming their insistence on "Christian" therapy. Horrible case, entirely the wrong approach by the parents, but at the same time if the parents hadn't cared, there wouldn't have been any therapy to begin with, bogus or not. The parents were convinced by people they trusted that the wrong thing was the right thing. Screaming at them, particularly at a time when they are mourning, that they are evil and heartless is evil and heartless.

Now seeing it in the vaccine "debate". Not the only problem I'm having with the pro-vax side (Reminder: yes, I'm pro-vax, and yes, I'm in favor of it being mandatory for the obvious deadly common diseases), but there's a world of difference between a lazy parent not having their kid vaccinated because they can't be bothered, and a parent being too scared to vaccinate their child because they've heard from convincing sources that vaccinations can cause terrible things.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Is the Touch UI irredeemable? 4 4

Thoughts related to the Windows 10 "Desktop is a desktop, no "Start" screen" thing:

From 1984 to 1990, there was a serious debate as to which was better, the command line or the WIMP (Window/Icon/Mouse/Pointer) UI. Why? Well, because Mac OS's Systems 1-4 were user friendly in the sense people knew how to use them, but user unfriendly in the sense that they got in the way, were kludgy, awkward to use, and offered zero advantages - beyond a lack of training for users - over the command line. At best you could say some applications needed a mouse, but some, such as word processors, were actually harder to use in the prehistoric era of WIMP user interfaces than the keyboard based versions.

What changed? Microsoft Windows. From Windows 1.0 onwards, Microsoft offered a vision, initially a very, very, ugly vision, as to how a computer could be more, not less useful with a WIMP UI. The critical feature was multitasking. Windows offered a better way to multitask than command line based systems, because each Window, representing an application or document, could co-exist in the same "world", the desktop.

Windows wasn't anything like the best implementation, but it was the only implementation of the concept available on standard PCs.

When Microsoft pretty much forced manufacturers to provide Windows and a mouse with all MS DOS based computers, users had a straight choice of using one UI or the other, and they overwhelmingly chose Windows. By comparison, when GEM was bundled with many PCs in the late nineties, GEM was a nice to have that was ignored by most users (anecdotally, outside of stores, I never saw an Amstrad PC1512 running GEM in the wild, despite it becoming with it and being a major advertised feature.) GEM, a Mac OS UI clone, did not offer multitasking.

So: timeline:

1. Mac OS released around 1984. Causes schism between WIMP and command line users
2. Windows 1.0 released 1985ish. Most users recognize it's a very powerful system, but are put off by user interface and memory requirements.
3. DOS vs WIMP rages for next five years largely because Windows is crippled by other factors.
4. Finally PCs are forced to be powerful enough to run Windows in 1990, and Windows UI improved enough to be "good enough" compared to Mac OS. Everyone jumps to Windows. End of DOS vs WIMP debate.

Touch UIs? Where is the touch UI that is more powerful, as opposed to being easier to use, than the WIMP UI? It took Microsoft (and Commodore too) less than a year to come up with something that was actually an improvement on the command line having seen WIMP. It's been nearly a decade now, who has come up with a touch UI that is more versatile than a WIMP desktop?

User Journal

Journal Journal: Classifications 1 1

Apropos of nothing, just some thoughts in the shower this morning: I see people getting very upset when they hear Doom being described as "3D". "It's 2.5D!" they scream, pointing out that the maps are two dimensional albeit augmented with a height map.

The thing is while I kinda see their point, it essentially puts Doom in the same category as, say, Isometric games, while Quake is in the same category as numerous 1980s Flight Simulators. And then there's "First Person" vs "Third Person" where, again, the latter is so overly broad that it puts, uhm, a lot of isometric games in the same category as modern 3D games that are clearly "nearly" FPS but with a view of the protagonist.

Me, I'm kind of wondering if any of it is ever going to be anything but misleading anyway. 3D Monster Maze (for the ZX81), Hired Guns, the various flight simulators, Quake, Doom, Wolfenstein... all with slightly different takes on technologies that were ultimately trying to converge on the idea that you could see something broadly real, rather than an abstraction. The classifying makes it harder, not easier, to see the leaps forward each type of game engine made.

Gosh that takes me back... or is it forward? That's the trouble with time travel, you never can tell." -- Doctor Who, "Androids of Tara"

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