Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.

 

 

Warning for OSX users

I’m not sure exactly when this happened, possibly with updating to Sierra, possible during one of the security updates to OSX that took place over the last couple of months, but you want to double check your iCloud settings on all of your iMacs and Macbooks. I didn’t find this out until I suddenly got a warning that I was running out of capacity on my iCloud drive.

I had disabled all automatic storage and backup from from my iMac to my iCloud account because I don’t need it except for photo sharing. I do my own backups to external devices so I didn’t need it for that. I also didn’t want documents, emails or other information being stored off-line out in the cloud because I don’t particularly want things like financial information, tax returns and similar information stored heaven only knows where on some server I have no control over.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps with the upgrade to Sierra, Apple decided to reset all of my iCloud preferences and now everything was turned on. It was automatically saving my entire documents folder, desktop files, contact lists, calendar, and pretty much everything out on the iCloud. Even worse, it had also turned on iCloud for every third party application that has iCloud capabilities – word processors, accounting software, a couple of photo editors — all of them were now storing duplicates of everything out on the cloud as well as on my local drives.

Not only is this a privacy concern, it also sucked up a hell of a lot of storage space, and while iCloud storage isn’t exactly expensive, it still costs money.

So if you use iMacs or Macbook computers, go to your system preferences and check your iCloud preferences so you know what’s actually being stored out on the cloud somewhere.

Important – just found out the hard way that if you do disable Sierra’s ability to “share” your documents and desktop with iCloud, and then delete the documents and desktop folders on your iCloud account, it will also delete the documents folder and any documents, photos, etc you have on your desktop from  your iMac’s local hard drive as well.

And, of course, I’d emptied the trash bin before I found this out and had to restore my documents folder from backup (Thank you Time Machine)

Additional note: Apparently just switching iCloud functions off doesn’t actually do anything. After switching it off, deleting the unwanted files from the cloud, I discovered OSX put them right back again. I had to log out of my iCloud account, reboot the computer, then log back in before the changes actually went into effect.

 

 

The Echo from Amazon

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-39-44-amI’ve been curious about the Echo from Amazon for a while now, and I finally broke down and bought one, suspecting that like most of the high tech gadgets I end up with, it would be an enormous disappointment. I’ve heard all the ridiculous hype, and in the vast majority of cases, ridiculous hype is exactly what the claims for these products turns out to be. But in the case of the Echo, well, it seems to pretty much live up to all of the hype. I’m having a lot of fun with this thing.

I didn’t really expect much from the Echo at first. About the only reason I bought it was because it’s supposed to be able to link to Amazon music and I have Amazon’s unlimited music service.

So this thing showed up on my doorstep two days ago and I get to work setting it up. Amazon doesn’t exactly make this easy. You apparently can’t just plug it in and turn it on. You have to download an app for an IOS or Android device, and use that to set it up. So right off the bat I’m irritated because I didn’t remember anything in the product descriptions that said you had to have a cell phone or tablet just to use the thing. It turns out that apparently you can activate it from a computer by going to a website. But Amazon never said that anywhere that I could see in the product description either. I didn’t find out about that until I was searching for answers to problems I was having.

I installed the app on my iPad, but not without some misgivings because the app has one of the worst reviewer ratings I’ve ever seen and the first five reviews on the app store claimed that the app either didn’t work at all or had major problems. This did not bode well, as they say.

Still, it did work, and setting it up wasn’t that difficult. The instructions in the app were fairly simple to follow, and after typing in passwords, linking it to my home WiFi network and all that fun stuff, it was up and running.

Now I’ve never had much luck with speech recognition systems in the past. Siri, for example, can’t seem to understand a word I say. I thought it was just me, but apparently she can’t figure out with my wife or sons say either.

The Echo, though, was an entirely different story. The default code word to get the Echo’s attention is Alexa. You say Alexa first, followed by what you want it to do. So I said “Alexa what’s the weather for tomorrow”. And a pleasant feminine voice told me what the weather was going to be.

Damn, this thing actually works?

I tried other requests, using my normal voice, normal pronunciation, at various levels of loudness, and… Well, damn, it just — just worked. The voice recognition on this thing is, for me anyway, amazingly good. And it worked even when the ambient noise levels were fairly high. I run air filters, fans, various equipment back here in the office, and it never seemed to have a problem understanding what I said, even when I was talking quietly.

What I bought it for, though, was easy access to music. I have Amazon’s unlimited music service (extra cost option for Prime members which claims to be able to stream “tens of millions of songs” for just eight bucks a month) and I’d never really used it for very much. So I started messing with the Echo and seeing what I could dig up.

So for giggles I said “Alexa play The Laughing Policeman”. And it did. Okay… Play songs by Al Jolson… And it did. Play the latest Katy Perry album. And it did. Play Court of the Crimson King, and it did. Apparently there really are tens of millions of songs in there.

But back to the Echo, because that’s what this is supposed to be about.

It can answer some questions, not all, but there is a significant amount of information linked into the system.

It’s linked into TuneIn, so it can live stream a large number of radio stations. It has the current weather and weather predictions for every place I’ve asked about. Can read me the news. It’s even linked to my Kindle library and can read my Kindle books that have the audio enabled.

It has other capabilities as well. It can set alarms, links to Google Calendar, and has other “skills” (i.e. capabilities you can add to the Echo via the Alexa app that are usually associated with spending more money, like buying stuff by voice)

This thing is impressive.

Problems? Well, sure, there are always problems.

The Alexa app gave me some problems. After I used it to initialize and set up the Echo, the app refused to re-connect to my Echo. Every time I started the App it would try to go through the entire setup procedure again.

After spending a significant amount of time trying to find answers to that problem, I resorted to the old standby, unplugging the Echo and plugging it back in. Bang, now the app worked fine.  once I got that sorted, the Alexa app has caused me no problems at all. If you bring it up it shows a list of voice commands the Echo received, what music you’ve used it to listen to, you can control the volume of the Echo with it, pause the Echo’s playback, other goodies like that.

The only other real issue I have is audio output. The built in speaker isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the speakers in a good stereo system. My big 1980s era Pioneer speakers are much, much better. Even my Bose system’s speakers are better. The Echo has 2 inch speakers, for pete’s sake. I don’t care how good the technology is, trying to get high fidelity sound out of a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer… well, sorry.

But the Echo has no external audio output unless you resort to buying extra cost options from Amazon. None. Can’t even link bluetooth speakers to it. You’re stuck with the Echo’s built in speakers. If you want to hook up external speakers, the only option is to get something like the Tap or a Dot from Amazon.

The Tap is a battery operated speaker/microphone to listen to/control the Echo. But that will set you back $130, for crying out loud. You might as well spend the extra money and get another Echo for $180.

The other option is to get a Dot, a hockey puck sized gadget which will set you back $50. It seems to be a downsized version of the Tap. It is also battery operated and requires an external charger. The Dot will connect to an external bluetooth speaker or via a standard audio cable. And at $50 it’s a lot less than the Tap, but come on, really?

According to the Echo’s specifications, it has bluetooth capabilities built into it. It can link via bluetooth to receive audio from your phone or tablet, but it can’t send audio to an external speaker without you having to spend at least $50 for the Dot? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute.

I should point out that the Echo’s speakers aren’t bad, even at high volume levels. Considering how small they are, they are pretty good. But even a mediocre external speaker system would do better.

Overall I’m surprisingly pleased with the Echo. The voice recognition system is amazingly good. The sound quality, while not outstanding, is acceptable for casual listening. It’s great for doing metric conversions like how many feet are in a meter and things like that. It can answer some questions. It does pretty good at math, too. It can give you the news, weather and sports. Ask it sports scores.

Mostly I use it for music and radio. It’s been able to play just about any radio station I want to hear.

Note: Some of the music services require you to have the Amazon unlimited music service. Other music is restricted to Amazon Prime accounts. So what you have access to via the Echo is going to vary depending on whether or not you’re in the Prime program, etc.

Computers that should have been great but weren’t

The item I wrote about the Epson HX-20 the other day reminded me about one of the other items I was supposed to try to sell for that business supply company, the Epson QX-10. This beastie:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-7-46-32-am

This particular example is, judging from the color of the case, an elderly one. The plastics used for computer cases rather rapidly turned an unappealing shade of dirty yellow. In its prime, though, it was a rather handsome creature, and it was both one of the most advanced, and the most useless computers I’d ever worked with.

At the time the QX came out the computer market was going through a shakeup and even more importantly, a shakeout. There were dozens of different computer makers back then, offering an astonishing variety of systems that ranged from the silly to the sublime. But at the time, IBM with its PC and the MS-DOS operating system was well on its way to becoming the standard for small business and, eventually, home computers. By the time Epson brought the QX-10 to market, its underlying hardware was already pretty much obsolete, and it’s sophisticated software and graphics weren’t enough to make up for it’s lack of horsepower.

Before IBM jumped into the market with the PC, the ‘standard’ for small business computers was the 8080 or Z80 CPU based microcomputers running the CP/M operating system. These computers were based on an 8-bit CPU and limited to 64K of RAM. Then IBM came along with it’s PC, which used the 16-bit Intel 8088 which could handle up to 640K of RAM, at around the same price as the 8-bit CP/M machines, and the rest is, as they say, history.

How did Epson hope to compete in a market that was already crowded with other 8-bit, Z80 based computers, or to compete against IBM and MS-DOS?

By coming out with a operating system of their own which was combined with a hardware package that made the QX-10 the most sophisticated system ever produced. Or so they claimed.

The QX-10 was admittedly pretty sophisticated. It had a high-resolution monochrome graphics system with up to 128K of dedicated video memory that blew away anything except dedicated CAD systems. It’s Valdocs operating system was incredibly advanced for it’s day with a built in Help system, 128 character long file names when everyone else struggled along with 8 characters. And it had 265K of RAM.

And it had what was possibly the first WYSIWYG ‘what you see is what you get’ word processor to become widely available at a (somewhat) reasonable cost. Boldface a word? It showed up in bold on your screen. Same with italics, underlining, etc. Virtually every word processor on the market at the time showed not bold face, but codes embedded in the text to turn on or off control functions, if they allowed things like bold face or italics at all.

They gave me one of these things and I had it at home for a few weeks while I learned it inside and out because I was supposed to support the thing. It was definitely sophisticated. The graphics capabilities were outstanding. It was undeniably an amazing computer when combined with the Valdocs system.

The problem was that it just didn’t work very well. Valdocs and TPM, the underlying operating system, were full of bugs. It seemed every other day I was getting updates and bug fixes. And since this is the pre-internet, that meant either dialing the company’s BBS system with a 300 baud modem and paying long distance phone bills, or waiting until they shipped me a floppy disk with the updates.

The biggest problem though was it was slow. Oh dear lord it was slow! Any kind of competent typist could easily outdistance the Valdocs word processor, getting forty, sixty characters ahead of the display update. So far ahead that you could easily overload the buffers and lose characters and words. And since we were supposed to push this as a word processing system because of the WYSIWYG display system, well, it’s pretty hard to sell a word processor that made you work slower.

The other problem was that there was no software for the Valdocs system except what was supplied by Epson. The word processor, calculator and drawing program and, I think, a rather brain dead database. There was a spreadsheet but it was so abysmally slow you could go get a cup of coffee while it was recalculating.

If you wanted to use it for actual work, that meant you had to reboot the system with the old CP/M operating system to actually do anything useful. And, of course, once you booted into CP/M, all of the fancy features Epson was pushing were lost and all you had was a generic and overpriced CP/M computer.

Then there was the competition. At the same time Epson was pushing the QX-10, the IBM-PC was becoming the standard for small business computers. There was lots of genuinely useful business software available for it. So basically there was absolutely no reason to buy the QX-10 with it’s outdated hardware, useless Valdocs system or the increasingly obsolete CP/M system.

Epson’s solution to the competition from IBM was to find someone to supply them with a plug in card that was basically an IBM-PC clone on card, while they scrambled to get the QX-16 system on the market. This ‘solution’ was literally a PC clone on a card that plugged into the computer’s internal bus, with an 8088 CPU, it’s own memory, everything. It worked, sort of. But it didn’t actually run MS-DOS, it ran PC-DOS which was an MS-DOS clone. It would run some MS-DOS based software. Sometimes. Maybe.

It also cost in the neighborhood of $1,500 if I remember right.

So you have a computer with a base price of around $2,500, already far more than comparable CP/M machines. And now you have to drop another $1,500 for a card to make it use MS-DOS software, and there’s no guarantee it will actually run the software you need…

Oh, brother…

Could it have been a great computer? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it could have. The QX was, on the surface at least, one of the most sophisticated systems to hit the market at the time. It had a lot of features that eventually became standard on later generations of computers; long file names, WYSIWYG word processor, high resolution graphics, etc.

Unfortunately, design decisions crippled it. The decision to go with the Z80 processor meant it would never have enough raw horsepower to live up to the hype. The graphics system’s hardware was woefully slow. The Valdocs system, while very nice, was bogged down by the obsolete hardware and inefficient programming techniques. Even worse, Epson never brought out any software that ran under Valdocs except that which was included with the computer. That meant that in order to run the popular business software of the day, the computer had to be rebooted into CP/M, and that turned it into nothing but a vastly overpriced, generic business computer.

Valdocs itself acquired a reputation of being buggy. I never really ran into serious problems with it except it’s woefully slow speed, but I wasn’t using the computer under actual business conditions.

There were rumors flying around that over at Rising Star, the company that made Valdocs and its underlying OS, TPM, programmers were routinely fired as soon as they finished work on their assigned modules, leaving people who were unfamiliar with the code to try to support and debug problems.

I was told that large parts of Valdocs and even TPM had been written in Forth, of all things. Forth is not exactly what I’d call user friendly. It was never designed for large projects. It was originally designed as a hardware control language used to control telescopes. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but oh brother… I’ve programmed in Forth and I wouldn’t want to use it for any kind of complex system.

Epson went on to bring out the QX-16, an interesting machine that was intended to compete head to head against the IBM PC. It had both a Z80 and 8088, and would run either Valdocs, CP/M or PC-DOS. Alas, it wasn’t very good either.

The upgraded hardware didn’t cure the system’s speed issues. The word processor was faster, but screen updates were still unacceptably slow. The spreadsheet was terrible. Reviews at the time claimed that a spreadsheet that would recalculate in just five or six seconds in MS-DOS or CP/M spreadsheets, would take minutes to recalculate under Valdocs. And while it could run some MS-DOS software, a lot of it wouldn’t run at all.

 

Computer Memories

I ran into this little item in a nostalgia piece in a UK magazine called Gadget, and it brought back a lot of memories. I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years, some better than others, and one of them involved trying to sell these things–

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I’ve been involved with the personal computer industry in one way or another since 1979, and in 1983/1984 while I was back in college studying business, computer science and electronics, I was also working a part time job for a business supply company that sold, among other things, this — this thing.

Epson’s claim to fame was making relatively inexpensive, relatively well made, dot matrix printers. Not computers. And when the company decided to move into the lucrative personal computer market, things didn’t go all that well for them, largely due to things like this, and the famous, (or infamous if you had to try to sell the damned things) QX-10 computer.

The HX-20 was, to put it bluntly, utterly useless. The 4 line, 20 character long display was was too small for any kind of serious work. And while the built in thermal printer was a nice feature, well, it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have any software that actually does something useful, and the HX-20 had pretty much no software support at all. As the blurb above points out, the rechargeable battery usually didn’t. Recharge, I mean. And it certainly didn’t last 50 hours, especially if you used the printer or the tape.

The Epson factory rep took me out to dinner and dumped one of these things on me in the hopes I’d help him get my boss to buy them. I fiddled with it for an hour, the battery went dead, the printer only worked when it felt like it, and the tape deck immediately ate the one cassette tape I tried using. With the wonky battery, the dodgy tape deck, the ridiculously tiny display, and total lack of any kind of useful software, I refused to have anything to do with it.

Somehow he managed to talk our boss into ordering a dozen of the damned things, and now it was my job to try to sell them.

Meanwhile Radio Shack was coming out with the TRS-80 Model 100, which was the same size, had a 40 character by 10 line display that was actually useful, all kinds of goodies like a built in modem, built in bar code reader, real standardized I/O ports for RS-232, a ROM port for speciality software, and, better still, you could buy actual, real and useful software for it. And it cost less.

The things are probably still sitting in a box in storage somewhere. We certainly never sold any. They’re probably with the dozen or so QX-10 computers he was talked into stocking that we never sold, either.