Saturday, March 29, 2008

Creating a website

I've put together a small website that provides more details about the projects I have going. I have a geocities website but it waste a lot of space to their ads which draw attention away from the primary content. I'll try to Google site and see how it works. Looks good at this point though.

The website covers a variety of topics from saltwater fish to landscaping projects. It's probably a fairly good representation of my life in that it jumps from here to there with a thread linking it all together.

There aren't too many pictures up yet but I've arranged to borrow a digital camera from a friend of mine. I'll try taking some pictures in the upcoming week to add some meat and potatoes to the content.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Data General Eclipse S/130 minicomputer as a portable heater


Thinking back about some of the different hardware I've had and let go over the years is interesting. One of the more unique machines I had was a Data General Eclipse S/130 minicomputer.

I obtained the machine back in the mid 80's when I was working at a tech school as a teaching assistant for the CS department. On occasion, the electronics department would borrow me from the CS department so that I could teach BASIC to the EE students. At one point, I overheard an EE instructor lamenting the fact that a local meat packing plant had some Data General equipment to donate but wouldn't transport it to the school. To make matters worse, the meat packer was having a strike at the time. The strikers were notorious for violence, especially against people entering the plant who they suspected were non-union workers bypassing the strike. Only a few of the students in the CS department indicated they would help move the gear. Most everyone else was unwilling to be involved.

The temptation of free hardware was too much for me. I talked with the EE department and worked out a deal where one of the machines would end up in my hands if I did the hauling. I borrowed a pickup truck from my dad, recruited a couple helpers from the CS department, and we head for the plant. We were a bit nervous when we pulled up to the entrance as we didn't know how the strikers would react. Luck would have it, no one was on hand at the gate we used. We slipped in, loaded up a few S/130 systems, a MicroNova system, and hit the road as quickly as possible. We were in and out without being seen by anyone other than a manager and a few IT employees.

After taking the gear to the tech school, I was off to my place to drop off the S/130. I was in heaven since I had new hardware to tinker with. Let me tell ya, I feel sorry for my ex-wife. She tolerated a lot of stuff like that from me. I was always hauling in junk to tinker with. It was an unending process of acquiring toys to tinker with. And I still exhibit many of the same obsessive tinkering behaviors today. Nothing like having obsessive behaviorism. I'll blame it on the fact that there are hints of autism from one side of the family tree. Works for me!

If I recall, it was a 19 inch rack storage system that took up half of a rack. I also had a Kennedy 9 track vacuum tape drive was about a half bay in size. The removable hard disk drives were the old pancake style platter systems that held about 15 megabytes. I think I still have one of the removable platters back at the farm house in SD.

Seems like I had an OS and a COBOL compiler for software. I spent a few weeks tinkering with the system trying to figure out how to do something funky with it. Considering it had front panel switches for bootstrapping, I might have been able to do some assembly coding but that would have been very painful. I never really made much progress with the system other than tinkering about a bit. The system put out a wee bit of heat too. In the winter, the extra heat was a nice side effect. Summers in Sioux City on the other hand weren't exactly cool, especially when you were too poor to afford an air conditioner. Adding a few degrees of heat to a house in the summer when it can reach over 100 degrees with high humidity is quite uncomfortable!

The S/130 worked pretty well until one day I was doing a high speed rewind of a magnetic tape and hit the stop button. Something malfunctioned and the tape drive no longer responded. I talked to a cousin of mine who worked for DG as a field engineer to see if he could help out. He thought the job might be a bit too time intensive so I gave up on the system.

As for the final fate of the system, it was probably hauled for scrap. After the tape drive failed, I ended up storing it at my ex-wifes parents house. They were renting at the time in a little town called LeMars and eventually ended up moving to Sioux City. Since I was in Columbus when they moved, I couldn't really do much to save the machine. In 20/20 hindsight, I would have had someone move it to my parents farm, but I was still young at the time and didn't realize I might have a rekindled interest in such things later in life.

The S/130 wasn't the only minicomputer I had. I also snagged a NCR minicomputer that was about the size of a refrigerator. I don't remember the model number but it was another one of those 19 inch rack units. I was living in a little 50 foot trailerhouse at the time. Gack! I'll never live in a trailerhouse again but that's a totally different story! As for the NCR machine, it would fire up but I didn't have any software for it. I scrapped that machine quite quickly as space was a premium and that machine consumed too much of it.

Now that I think of it, I also helped my buddy Jerry Johnson snag an IBM System/32 minicomputer. It was like one of the IBM floppy disk data entry machines, sort of looked like an industrial strength table. We drove down to some city in Iowa and picked it up. That was one of my first experiences with learning to communicate clearly. Taught me a bit but took a while for the lesson to sink in to my brain. Both Jerry and I thought we were snagging the machine for ourselves. Once we returned, it kind of turned into a bit of a sticky point. I got a bit grumpy about it and did my old disappearing act for a while. Jerry was a pretty good character about the whole thing though and eventually got me talking again though. Looking back at it, I have to chuckle. It almost felt like the Simpsons episode where they buy the comic book and end up fighting over who gets to keep it. Took about 20 years to learn from it but I eventually got the point. Hmm, I wonder if Jerry still has the machine? I think I'll track Jerry down and find out. Last time I visited Jerry, he had it stored in a garage area. I wonder if he recalls the IPL process and the funky little rollout DOS it had? Rollout DOS seem like it was the primordial ancestor to the now ancient NEWDOS/80 minidos. Anyone remember minidos and the three key combo of "DFG"?

Thinking of old friends, I need to say hi to my ol' buddy Nap! He's a good friend that I spent time with in the trenches at The Limited. We both worked there in the IT department for a number years. Nap was one of the people who was able to tolerate the younger me. Let me tell ya, that was no simple challenge as I was a bit high energy/high strung in those days. Still am in ways. Hey Nap, if you read my blog, leave a comment if you still have the Stern pinball machine, Sea Witch, and the TRS-80 Model I. Both those are pieces of history if you ask me. I'd love to have a picture of both to post on the blog. Especially the old TRS-80 to show how the paint was worn off below the keyboard from so much usage!

Rekindled FORTH

The repairs on the head gasket have been proceeding nicely. The engine is ready to go back together at this point. It looks like today is out for doing any additional work though as it's snowing outside and there isn't enough room to pull the truck into the garage. Besides, I don't feel like working outside when the temperature is in the mid 30's.

I tried playing around with the Mac Classic again this morning. The intent was to see if I could get a Forth compiler installed and running. I was trying to install the Yerk Forth package. Unfortunately, it looks like I may need to downgrade the OS to 7.0.1 as 7.5.5 couldn't open the .sea file due to a memory shortage. I've got 4 meg installed in the machine so there isn't much more I can do to help in performance improvements. I'll try another version of Forth and see if I have any luck.

The reason I'm interested in FORTH is mainly due to the fact that it was the first hardcore software I worked on. Back in the mid 80's I read an article in the infamous Byte magazine issue that focused solely on FORTH. The article presented an implementation of FORTH for the 8080 in assembly. I ended up porting the core parts of the interpreter to Z80 for the TRS-80 Model 1 Level II system I had at the time. I ended up customizing the FORTH kernel into a full blown interpreter/compiler that was intended for disk I/O tinkering. I mainly wanted to see if I could defeat some of the copy protection routines on several TRS-80 diskettes I had. Sort of an exercise in educating myself.

Since it was so easy to implement a bootstrap version of FORTH back then, I'd like to try it again on a different platform. Maybe the Dreamcast, even though it only has external writable storage in the format of the VMU devices. On the most part, if I did implement a FORTH system on the DC, it would primarily be for spelunking about with the hardware versus writing actual programs. I'm still just blue skying the idea and don't know if the Dreamcast hardware provides a workable solution. At least I have a keyboard for data entry. I found the keyboard in at the Lynnwood Goodwill a few months ago while browsing about for techie gadgets.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Restarting the 80 gallon salt water aquarium

Two tasks moved forward fairly well today. First, the process of repairing the head gasket for the truck made some decent progress. My brother and I pulled the head off the engine and have it inside the garage at this point. It doesn't look like the head suffered any cracking damage. Pressure tests and visual inspections indicate that the gasket around the number three cylinder was the only place that ruptured. Tomorrow, it's off to the parts store to get a new head gasket. There are two smaller issues to handle though as a bolt sheared off today but it's fairly easy to work on as it was for a bracket on a hot air ducting tube. The other problem is that the heater core hose started leaking where the hose wraps around the water inlet. Hopefully, the heater core hose leak can be repaired without too much grief as replacing the core is a hideous task.

The second task was with the salt water fish tank. I managed to restart the tank without too much grief. The restart consisted of changing about 30 gallons of water and cleaning the pump systems. All the pumps managed to restart quickly and the water is once again flowing. The tank will have to cycle for a while as it's been sitting idle for several years now so the ecosystem is long since shutdown. I also pulled off the old VHO lighting and will install a smaller PC lighting system as I'm not looking to raise any light intensive corals at this point. It's more like I can't afford to since running a Metal Halide is so expensive. Once the tank has cycled, I'll probably add a few Gobies. Most likely a Firefish and some Redhead Gobies will be the first few tank inhabitants.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dead water heater and a TI-99/4A computer

What does a dead water heater have to do with a TI-99/4A computer? Nothing other than the fact that I was involved with both in the same day.

Yesterday, I discovered that my hot water heater had given up the ghost as nothing but cool water greeted me from the pipes. It was time to check out the heater and see what the problem might be. After stepping into the garage and opening up the access plate, I found that the pilot light was out. I gave the pilot light a try with a few matches. Sadly, it went out as soon as I released the switch from the light pilot position. So it was back inside to do some research on the Internet. Seems there are only a few things that can cause this and the most likely culprit is the thermocouple. Especially since I could get the pilot to light while holding down the switch that temporarily allows gas regardless of whether the thermocouple is hot or not.

Pulling the thermocouple wasn't that bad but they sure didn't make the access panel very large. Reaching inside was a bit of a challenge, even with my smaller hands. After it was removed, I called a couple places to find a replacement. Surprisingly, places like Home Depot and Lowes don't carry thermocouples. I ended getting the part at a place called Aurora Plumbing.

After installing the part, I light the pilot and held the switch for about 60 seconds to keep the gas flowing while the thermocouple heated. I held my breath as I released the pilot switch, hoping the pilot would stay light. Seems luck was on my side as it did the trick. I'm back in business with hot water for showers once again!

Okay, so after futzing around with that, I decided to go on a short jaunt to several of the thrift shops. Eventually, I stopped at the Lynnwood Goodwill. To my surprise, while I was poking around in one the kitchen utensil section, I spotted something totally out of place. A TI-99/4A computer with the power supply and RF adapter taped to it. A quick check of the price tag yielded a very satisfactory $7.99 value. Into the cart it went! I never thought I'd find a computer while looking for cooking utensils.

Looks like I'll have to keep my eyes open for a PEB and the disk drive so I can try my hand at the gnarly assembly code for this machine. I have an original programmers guide for the TMS9900 CPU but it's back in South Dakota in the old family farm house. I rarely get back there so I'll have to find other sources of documentation. Even if I did get back to SD, the old house was in such bad shape that the manual probably has been exposed to the elements. The roof on the old house had severe leaks last time I was back there. We moved some of the most important stuff out of the old house into a safer location but didn't have room or time to move everything. That meant some things were left in place. Mostly old tech books and the likes. There were a few odds and ends that I'd still like to move next time I get back there if they aren't ruined. I vaguely recall an old Xerox 820 single board computer was sitting in a box and never got moved. Probably a few other odds and ends like that too. My dad had been keeping them in storage in case anyone ever wanted to tinker with them... pretty smart on his part! Ah, someday, I'll see if there's anything left to be salvaged from the elements.

On the flip side, I'm a bit stressed out and need to find a way to decompress. All this stuff breaking down like the truck with the head gasket issue and the water heater are contributing to the stress. For the outside, I'm thinking about tinkering with my very loose interpretation of a Japanese garden in my backyard. A bit of rock here, some water there, and maybe I can come up with something to allow a bit of relaxation. For the inside, I'm thinking about restarting my 80 gallon saltwater aquarium. A couple of mild mannered fish like a firefish goby would really add a bit to the relaxation factor of the livingroom. Hmm, the firefish might be a bit expensive though. I'll have percolate on the idea for a while and see if I can come up with a way to do it on the cheap since I'm unemployed.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Propagating roses.

It's about that time of year to think about pruning my roses. Last year, I attempted to propagate some of the cuttings but had no success. The cuttings died almost immediately last year so I'm going to try two different techniques this year. I've already done a half assed try at the first method with four cuttings. On one of the cuttings, I scrapped off about an inch of the outer layer near the cut edge and then simply placed it in the soil. The three remaining cuttings were scrapped down to white wood and then placed in a patato. I then buried the patato in the soil. I made sure the soil was not the compost I previously planted the roses in as I suspect the micro organisms might have caused infections that killed to cuttings. It will probably be about week or two before I can tell if they live or die.

For the second method, I'll take more cuttings but this time I'll bring them in the house. I think I'll plant them in a 50/50 peat/perlite mix and place them under a compact flourescent light. Hopefully the somewhat sterile planting mix will keep them from contracting a disease and dying.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cool toys like Wizzer tops and SSPs.

Okay, several memories of other childhood toys surfaced today. One was the Wizzer top. You'd think a top would be pretty ho-hum but you'd be wrong. Wizzer tops were made before all the regulations got slapped in place to protect us kiddy types from hurting ourselves. These cool little gadgets had a basic flywheel system where you could really rev the damn things up and they'd spin for quite a while. One certainly had to watch that they didn't hook up on something, like hair. I vaguely recall several people talking about the hair issue. Putting the spinning point near someones hair must be one of those stupid stunts kids just can't resist try. The picture shows the same two tops one of my brothers and I had. My brother had the green and white top while I had the yellow and orange top. I think the white part on his top was glow in the dark so it was especially cool! The top I had was called the Mach-1 had some checkered flag style stickers you could apply too. I'm not really sure what finally happened to the tops we had but they're probably long since gone. I may have to hunt around on ebay to find one just for nostalgia sake. Recently, one of the green and white style tops sold for about $40 on ebay so they aren't exactly cheap. Guess I may have to save up some more pennies.

One of the other toys that came to mind was the really cool SSP. SSPs were these really bitchin cars made by Kenner that had a flywheel. There was a plastic T-Strip handle that had meshed gears on one side of a strip of plastic that you used to rev up the flywheel. Man, these cars would really tear it up good! Some of the cars had some kind of zinc strip in the axle assembly that would throw sparks to boot! Try to find that in a kids toy now... I dare ya... I double dare ya! My next oldest brother and I both got SSPs for Christmas one year in the early 70's so it was drag race city around the Christmas tree that year. My brother Lyle had the dragster that looked like the one in the picture but it seems like it was purple in color instead of oragne. I had the Skorpion which was orange but I can't find a picture of it anywhere on the net unfortunately. The dragster was always faster and would kick my Skorpions butt. The Skorpion was pretty rock solid though. The fact it was so tough was probably a good thing considering I had the ability to smash anything up. I still retain that smash-em up trait even today.

One other toy I want to look into finding is some of the old Cox .049 racing cars. I've heard tale of the Cox Eliminator dragster and a Vega which had a tether string they ran along. Supposedly, they popped a chute when they hit a knot near the end of the tether string. Man, I'd love to tinker with one of those in the backyard.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Head gasket problems

There hasn't been much time for posting recently due to a variety of problems. One of the larger problems is that my good ol' truck might have developed a head gasket leak. I went to start it the other day it and was not firing on one of the cylinders. After about a minute it started firing properly. Performing a pressure test later this afternoon should provide an indication whether the gasket is leaking.

Okay, I just spent the afternoon troubleshooting the truck and know what the issue was. Initially, it looked like a head gasket leak because the truck started losing coolant about a week ago. It would lose about a quart of fluid after each trip. Then yesterday, another problem surfaced, it was misfiring on one cylinder when it was cold. After about a minute it would begin firing on all cylinders. That made me suspect a head gasket leak. But there wasn't any oil in the radiator, nor were there any bubbles which seemed odd. Pulling the plugs and checking the pressure on each cylinder also yielded good news. All four cylinders were fairly close in pressure, showing about 120 pounds each. The rearmost piston seemed a little lower but nothing dramatic. This seems to indicate the head gasket is still good.

Checking spark on each plug turned up one aspect of the problem. Two of the plugs were arcing which indicated there is a crack in the ceramic somewhere. The new plugs were installed after a quick trip to the autoparts store along a few minutes of effort. That took care of the misfire issue. Still, the reason for the leak hasn't been answered. A bit more investigation helped out. While running the engine, a tiny bit of fluid appeared on the ground, only a couple drops though and it would have been difficult to spot them if one hadn't been looking in the right place at the right time. Turns out that a bolt had vibrated out of a plate that sits under the intake manifold. The plate was still held in place by the remaining bolts but apparently would start leaking more after the engine heated and built pressure in the radiator. Basically, it was losing most of the coolant when I was driving. When I was sitting idle somewhere, it typically wasn't drippping. It was hard to spot because it typically dripped on the road and not on part of the engine.

So two problems were manifesting simultaneously, two spark plugs were arcing when cold and a single bolt had vibrated lose on a water plate. I'll be happy as a clam if that's all the problems. Thirteen dollars for plugs and an afternoon of diagnostics/repairs isn't too bad.

** Update ** Looks like the gasket issue is back. The truck worked fine for two days. Then yesterday, it blew the gasket out quite dramatically. Guess I'll be spending the next week pulling the head to see if it is cracked or repairable. I feel sorry for the cars that were right behind me as this gigantic cloud of steam and smoke came flying out the tail pipe. You could barely see anything in the huge mist cloud. I was able to see the lady right behind me swerving both left and right trying to escape the cloud as she probably thought it was mostly smoke from oil. Funky thing was that no one wanted to let me pull over to the side lane as they all wanted to "get around that menace".

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pipe dreams, Sisyphus, and Motorola 68000 processors

Once again, I will abandon the latest attempt to get my Mac Classic up and running an assembler. After spending close to a week futzing about with the machine, I still can't get either of the two assemblers I found up and running. MPW was a wash out even though I was finally able to install it. MPW declared that it required a 68020 or higher processor to run. What's more, I found at least one other person talking about the same issue of trying to get assembly going for the 68000 instead of the later 680x0 variants. The results seemed to indicate MPW simply was a no go for anything lower than a 68020. That kind of leaves me up the creek as my classic only has a 68000. As for Fantasm, well, I never seemed to be able to decompress the HQX files such that they contained a usable application. Everything appeared as document files. I guess somethings just weren't meant to be.

I'm back to square one again looking for a new angle to get a 68K based machine up and running so I can tinker with an assembler. Probably the best route will be to wait until I'm back working with a cash flow and buy a used Amiga. An Amiga would satisfy the two conditions I set for a 68K based machine. One is that it can run a debugger locally. The other is that it allows direct access to the screen memory.

I might look into finding a Mac II, Quadra, or Centris. Seems like the Centris can still be found occasionally for a reasonable price. It's an option considering it is still using a 680x0 architecture. The only problem is that I always see CPU boxes without a monitor generally. I don't really want to buy a partial system and find that "one last component" is difficult to locate or costly. Not to mention that I might be in a similar boat trying to get an assembler up and running on the machine.

An Atari ST or a Sharp X68000 would also be alternatives but they appear to be more expensive, especially the latter. The X68000 might prove more challenging in the fact that I'm uncertain if I could find an OS that is English based for it. Most documentation for the X68000 would also be a challenge as it would most likely be in Japanese. The ST would work fine but they run a bit more than I can afford with my current unemployed state. I used to have a 1040 ST back in the late 80's, wish I hadn't let it go.

Like a lot of things a person had when they're younger, one doesn't realize how much you'll miss something when you get older. Nostalgia is strange that way. For me, I think I recall unrealistic memories that are jaded towards the warmer side in an attempt to regain the lost feeling of youth. Not that I'm over the hill, but being in the mid 40's with painful back problems isn't exactly what I call conducive for creating a rip roaring good time. Still, it's not that bad, just a bit of a challenge at times.

EFG80 NAS unit

A buddy of mine stopped by yesterday and dropped off a jigsaw he had borrowed earlier to do some construction with. He also brought along a LinkSys EFG80 NAS box that was malfunctioning. I was quite pleased as I figured it could probably be repaired without too much effort. Wrong!

The unit didn't have any hard drives so I had to find something to install. Unfortunately, the only spare drives were two older drives, one was a 10 gig drive and the other a 15 gig drive. I installed one of the drives and powered up the unit. The device initially powered up, beeped once, but never reset the error light. The network link light flashes indicating it did seem to detect some network packets though so it has some signs of life. The unit wasn't detectable by the LinkSys wizard software so it doesn't appear to respond to any network traffic. Installing the other drive didn't make any difference so it appears to be borked quite badly.

After reading a few online articles, I came to the conclusion the issue I was having is a fairly common problem. There were a number of forum posts that described the same problems I was having. No one really provided an answer about whether the units could be repaired so I'm assuming it's either difficult or not possible to repair.

Okay, so normally, doing a hard reset provides some kind of feedback about the state of the hardware union. I dug out a paperclip and held the recessed button in for 5 seconds. No beep, no nothing. Okay, let's try holding in longer. Still nothing. Looks like the unit won't reset. Okay, so I tore it apart, yanked out most everything that was socketed to reseat them and tried again. No change.

It appears to have a CompactFlash 16 meg card that it has an OS flashed into. Problem is that I don't have a CF reader for the PC so I can't even try to reflash the darn thing with a new OS image. I'll keep an eye out at the local thrift stores to see if I can find a reader.

Sounds like one more item for the growing stack of failing objects. Guess I'll place it next to the malfunctioning 98 Note laptop that is piled on top of the malfunctioning Aiwa AV-D56 5 channel receiver which is sitting next to the malfunctioning... ah, well, you get the picture. Looks like free or cheap stuff can sometimes be more expensive than it's worth. Still, I can't resist. Recycling some old tech gadget somebody ditched and getting it to work is just too cool when it works! I'll never learn.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spider Infestation


Ever had problems with spiders? Well, I have. I've got one nasty spider infestation in my Network Attached Storage unit. They built a nest right inside the NAS box. Damn things are impossible to get rid of. Everywhere I look, the freakin things are crawling about.

Tough thing about phase spiders is that you just can't catch 'em between transitions long enough to eradicate the little pests. There's even RAID in the NAS box but it hasn't seemed to help. I wonder if creepy gnomes eat this type of spider? Need to import a couple of 'em from South America and give it a try. Even if they did eat the spiders, I'd then have to find something to eat gnomes, probably Chupa Cabras. I'm not quite sure the neighbors would like the gnomes or Chupa Cabras any better than the phase spiders though. Guess I'm stuck with 'em for a while.

At least phase spiders are better than the quantum light bulb I've got in my fridge. Whenever I close the door, I think it goes into both the off and on state at the time. How troublesome!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Post-o-rama day

Okay, here's another post for the day. I finally finished watching an anime called "Song of the Sheep" today. I watched the first episode of the four episode series about three years ago and just never got around to checking it out again until a few days ago.

SPOILERS ALERT: Spoilers follow so don't read any further if you want to go into the series cold.

This series is a tale about a pair of siblings who are vampires and mostly delves into the troubles they encounter while attempting to survive.

Surprisingly, I rather enjoyed the series. Usually darker depressing series are seldom on my watch list. I really didn't know what to expect since I hadn't read any reviews so I proceeded to watch all the way through even though it was evident it wouldn't be uplifting. I have to admit, I really liked the facial drawings as they were expressive of the proper tone. The storyline wasn't anything deep but was sufficient to hold my attention. As for the characters, the two supporting characters to the leads really didn't feel like they were as invovled as they could have been. It would have been better if their characters had been developed more. As for subject matter, I wonder if more conservative westerners might find the series a tad uncomfortable due to the implications about the close relationship between the brother and sister? I'm tone def and I'm also symbolism challenged so sue me if I'm wrong but it seems there were many a hint about the beauty of his sister along with the fact that they feed off each other so to speak.

The music seemed as if it had potential but it always seemed to lose steam quickly. For example, the ending song quickly built to a riff or two that sounded pretty nice but it quickly degraded into something I didn't care for.

All in all, I'd give it passing marks. Since my memory retention for films is pretty short, I'll probably forget the bulk of it in about a year. I would be willing to rewatch in the future.

My Two Cents about Heterogeneous Processors

Okay, so recently I was reading an article on Slash Dot about people like Chuck Moore indicating the industry is in a bit of an uproar over programming multiple heterogeneous processors. Some of the counterpoints seemed to indicate that people felt parallel programming is commonly used and isn't really a problem. I think core of the issue is more about handling heterogeneous processors as opposed to homogeneous processors though.

I'll start off saying that I not the sharpest tool in the shed but I'm not an idjiot either! I tend to meander and take unrelated detours at times. Don't expect anything more than a stream of consciousness dump. So, with that in mind, read on to see my basic opinion about the subject at hand.

At least one argument I read delved into multicore desktop systems and how they are fairly common and straight forward to code for. I'm not really going to try to differentiate between multiple processor versus multiple thread here. To me the issue is simply about keeping multiple execution units happily feed with the variety of work that typically needs to be completed. If my execution units are all symmetric in nature, the task is mainly about breaking the work up such that it can be queued and processed without execution order related errors or deadlocks and so on. If some of my execution units excel at one type of work over another, then I need to think about how to choose the execution unit most suitable for the task.

I've never really had much of an opportunity to program a machine with several different types of processors. Sure, I've worked with IO devices like DMA coprocessors, but those are fairly well defined situations. The DMA was primarily used for moving blocks of memory, not really for processing data into some other form. My knowledge in this area needs a bit of work which I'm currently looking into ways to remedy.

I don't know anyone working at Intel or AMD so I don't really know what direction the industry is going for certain. What I do know is that I recently saw an ad from AMD looking for a processor specialist, among other things, one who could understand and help architect issues related to heterogeneous processors. One ad certainly doesn't tip the scale one way or another but it seems the industry is certainly exploring different avenues for multiprocessor configurations. Past experience has led me to believe that several general purpose cores will be less likely to be as useful as several specialized cores. Again, no revelation here. The GPUs on video cards seem like a good example of heterogeneous processors, at they can run in parallel with the main CPU. My knowledge is limited about video GPUs and the APIs used to control them, but if they have an instruction set, then one would certainly need to deal keeping the hungry little beast(s) satisfied with a buffet of all the vectors they can consume while making sure the CPU can still gorge itself at the trough too.

I think a good example of a heterogenous system is the old Sega Saturn. It has numerous processors, eight to be exact: (2) SH2 processors, (1) SH1 processor, (2) VDP processors, (1) System Control Unit, (1) 68EC000 processor, and (1) FH1 processor. Now I've never programmed the Saturn at this point, but from everything I've read, it sounds like it's a bearcat to master properly. Makes sense considering the fact that you would need indepth understanding of each processor and how it interacts with the system. Issues such as learning how to prevent cache stalls and keeping various processors fairly loaded isn't something I could simply do from day one of programming the beastie. I'm sure there are some folks sharp enough to run and gun programming something like this from day one, but I doubt they are the typical Joe Blow you work with everyday. I know and work with a lot of really smart people but most are not hardware-centric gurus. Programming something like this would require spelunking through lots of hardware programming reference manuals, not something everyone wants to do.

That said, the point here is, learn from history. The Saturn was difficult for programmers to initially master due to the complexities of the hardware. Emerging heterogeneous systems will likely provide the same challenges intially as programmers learn to exploit the systems. Just my two cents though!

The Classic Mac is now running OS 7.5.5.

Upgrading the Mac Classic to OS 7.5.5 proved to be a bit of a challenge. I encountered another one-off strange problem that took a while to identify and resolve. The Mac would reboot whenever I'd attempt to do anything with the compressed Zip file for the OS upgrade. After some futzing about, I finally was able to get an error message from Stuffit indicating a type "-37" error. Such a user friendly message! A quick scan of the Internet eventually turned up a writeup about some apps crashing when filenames were longer than 32 characters. I shortened the filename up and it worked like a champ. The install itself went fairly effortless after that.

The install of Fantasm itself is still problematic at this point. The stinkin compressed sit file simply won't open. Stuffit asks where to decompress it but never produces any results. I'll try downloading it one last time before I either give up. If that doesn't work, I'm almost out of options at this point and may need to look at using other hardware.

One other route I could have taken to obtain a physical device that had a 68000 processor would have been to hunt down a TI-89 or TI-92 calculator. It would probably be fairly easy to write the assembly program up on the PC and transfer it to the calculator. One problem with that solution is not having access to a live debugger on the target device. That's a definite plus for a 68K based Mac, Amiga, or Atari ST. The second problem is the cost. I've only seen TI-82 and TI-83 calculators in the thrift stores, never the TI-89 or TI-92 models.

I do have a Palm Visor PDA with one of the Dragonball processors laying around here. Since the Dragonball is basically a 68K derivative, it would work as a learning tool but it suffers from the lack of a good target device debugger issue too. Plus, I still intend to use the PDA as a universal remote. I had it setup and working in that manner a while back but the system ended up locking up such that it required a hard reset using the old paper clip method. Bye bye remote control software setup. I'll reload the PDA once I snag some additional rechargeable batteries. That cursed PDA is really power hungry and eats batteries for lunch. The main problem it suffers from as a remote is the fact that the IR emitter is on the side and not the front. It requires a bit of arm wrangling to get it pointed properly. If the equipment to be remotely controlled is off to the left side, everything is groovy. But if the equipment is in front or even worse, on the right side, expect to do some serious contortionist moves while you sit and try to aim.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mostly successful OS 7.5.3 installation.

After a bit of investigation, it turned out the reason the 7.5.3 img files were corrupted was due to the bad Zip disk I had been using. I knew there were flaws on the disk after Stuffit started spewing out error messages. I decided to ash can the cursed disk and grab my only other disk and give it a try.

I backed up the existing archival data on the Zip disk and proceeded to load the 19 images for the 7.5.3 OS install. But before I could even start the install process, I had to use Disk Copy to load the image initially, copy the newly built Disk Copy image to the Zip disk, send the 19 zipped images to the trash can, and reboot so i could delete the unzipped images from the trash can. Most of this hassle was due to not having sufficient hard drive space. It took about four hours just to complete the first install. For some reason, QuickTime failed to install but I'll have to live with that. I still need to add the 7.5.5 upgrade before I proceed any further.

Very soon I should be to the point where I can try to install Fantasm in order to obtain an assembly IDE. Fantasm is meant for color based machines but I'll still going to give it a try. And to think all this work was done just to allow writing a few small assembly programs. This task is similar to the problems I had with attempting to repair the PC-98 laptop as one problem seems to lead to another. I feel like Sisyphus. Okay, that's it, the blog name is now officially changing to match the nature of things at hand.

The never ending quest to write a simple hello world 68K assembly program

Man, my friggin head hurts. I've spent a few more hours trying different approaches to get an assembler up and running on the Mac Classic to no avail. Every angle I take has been thwarted due to some strange problem.

First off, MPW didn't work for me. I grabbed a file name MPW-GM.img off the Apple ftp site. Initially, there were problems with unpacking the files on the Mac. MPW takes about 64 meg while the hard drive is only 40 meg. The net result is I didn't have enough space to unpack it on the HD. That's okay, we can fallback to using the Zip disk as it has roughly 100 meg. The cursed Zip disk had bad sectors and I only have two Zip disks, one of which is already full and needs to be retained for archival purposes. I decided to go ahead and let the copy operation continue after encountering the sector errors just to try out the application. The unpack successfully pulled out the workbench files and I was able to start the workbench only to be greeted with a dialog that indicated this version of MPW required a 68020 processor. The Mac Classic only has a 68000 so that put a stop to using that MPW specific image. If only I had an 020!

Next I tried downloading a different copy of MPW called Shell-3.6b2. It appears to be double compressed, a sit file inside a hqx file. I was able to unpack the hqx file using stuffit expander so things were looking good. Wait, the sit file just doesn't want to unpack. Stuffit accepts it from drag and drop, asks where to unpack it, but does nothing with it from what I can tell. This seems to be a dead end trail too.

Finally, I took a look at Fantasm. The Fantasm website says it "might" work on a 6x0x0 processor. I don't like the sound of that. Finally, I see a requirement that the OS should be 7.1 or greater. Sadly, I have only been able to install 7.0.1. When I try installing 7.5.3, I always end up receiving messages indicating the img file is corrupt.

This whole process is turning into the stub your shin/whack your head routine. In other words, you hit your shin on something and instinctly lean over to rub the pain point and end up whacking your head causing you to pull upright to rub your head only to whack your shin and so on...crikey!

It would be far easier to install an emulator, but something about real hardware just makes me a bit happier to work with. Not that I don't trust emulators, but the damn things are never quite spot on for implementations. There's always some little ghoulie gotcha that rises up and bites you in the backside. Of course I'd be up and coding now if I'd gone the emulator route. If I do get this whole mess up and running smoothly, I'll feel some small sense of satisfaction that I didn't let some bumps in the road shut me down.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Wrestling with software installs on an old Mac Classic

Talk about spinning wheels and getting nowhere! I just spent most of the afternoon/evening trying to get an older Mac up and running an assembler with no success. I've tackled this project multiple times and have failed at each attempt.

Basically, I'm trying to get a machine with a 68K processor up and running so I can do a bit of assembly language hacking. I speak of hacking in the old school sense, not the black hat style.

Several years ago I saw an ad from a guy on Craigs List who was giving away an older Mac to anyone who would write up a short email explaining what they might use it for. I replied and said I wanted to use it to learn to do some 68K assembly programming so I could hack at several game consoles. He thought that was a decent usage and ended up giving me two Mac Classic style computers. That was exceptionally cool if you ask me!

I've tried to install Fantasm and MPW several times and have hit a variety of snags. The first problem I had to solve was to find a way to transport the images from the PC to the Mac. I ended up tracking down several Zip drives and attaching one to the PC and the other to the Mac. With the appropriate software, I was able to exchange images using a 100 Meg Zip cart.

The main problem I keep hitting at this point is not being able to find an image that will unpack properly on the Mac. Most images either indicate they are corrupt or simply don't have any application in them that I can run. I'm currently trying MPW again to see if I can successfully install it. I have to install the Disk Copy utility before I can proceed at this point. Once again, I'm receiving the cursed "This file is invalid and should be replaced (-8819)" error for the Disk Copy smi file I'm trying to unpack. Sigh!

About the only thing I managed to complete today was to flash an older Pioneer A07 DVD writer to a newer firmware. Oddly enough, the writer is going into a "certain" game console that has a dead DVD-ROM drive. The old DVD-ROM no longer ejects due to the cogs on a small gear being warn out. I opened the case and installed another temporary drive as a workaround but the drive is unreliable and rarely reads discs properly. I'll give the writer a try later tonight and see if it works any better. Kind of a waste to put a writer in it but the drive was only three dollars so it's no big loss either way.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

How I cook chicken noodle soup.

Once in a while, working on perfecting a cooking recipe to my own preferences is a bit fun. I'm going to write just a bit about how I make homemade chicken noodle soup. I've spent a small amount of time reading recipes trying to find one that matched my tastes but hadn't quite hit the mark until recently. I've made small changes to this recipe over the last couple years and finally have it to a point where it really suites my taste.

After making chicken and dumplings the other day, I found another one of the missing qualities I was working to perfect, the thicker gravy like quality of the soup stock that I recall from the soups I ate when I was younger. For me, the trick was to add a bit of extra flour slowly as the soup cooks. I periodically sprinkle in a bit of flour, stir it in, and let it cook before repeating several more times. The soup comes out with a thicker base when I do that.

Here's what I usually do to cook the soup, keep in mind that I treat recipes as rough guidelines and believe they should be adjusted through trial and error to meet individual taste preferences:

1) Add about one and one half quarts water to a crockpot.
2) Toss in three or four pieces of chicken.
3) Add some chicken flavored boulion, three or so tablespoons of the seasoning usually works fine.

Let that cook for about an one to two hours to soften the chicken and season the broth initially.

Meanwhile, make some egg noodles in a mixing bowl. I usually add about one and one half cups flour, two eggs, and about 1/4 cup milk initially and mix by hand. This will be really stick at this point so I slowly add a bit of flour as I mix until it reaches a point where I can knead it without it sticking to everything. Then I let the dough stand for an hour or so before I roll it and cut it into noodles. I've use a simple pasta roller that I crank the dough through three or four times to get it into the required flat state for cutting. After cutting the noodles, you can set aside and add to the soup stock with the vegetables.

Okay, so the soup stock has been cooking for a couple hours so it's time to add the other ingredients.

4) Add one or two sliced carrets.
5) Add half a diced onion.
6) Add one or two stalks diced celery.
7) Add black pepper based on your individual preference, I use about a teaspoon.
8) Add some chicken seasoning salt, 1/2 teaspoon maybe.
9) Add a bay leaf or two.
10) Add several dashes of garlic powder.
11) Add some crushed basil leaves, 1/4 teaspoon maybe. I think this spice really adds to the flavor.
12) Add a few dashes of oregano.
13) Add the egg flour noodles one at a time to the soup stock.

Cook this for another two hours slowly in the crockpot, periodically add small amounts of flower to the broth and stir in to help the stock thicken. Chow down when it's done!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Days of youth

For some strange reason, I recalled something from when I was just a kid. Seems like it was the early part of the 70's, my Dad had bought this really bitchin control line airplane for me as a Christmas present. It was a Cox P51D Mustang control-line plane with a .049 nitro powered engine. That was one of the most kick-ass presents I ever got (right next to the TRS-80 Model 1 computer).


The picture to the left shows the exact same model I had.

My brother and I used to fly the hell out of that plane. Since it ran off nitro, it was a screaming demon for speed. By the time it ran out of fuel, you were so dizzy you'd practically fall over. Man, that was fun! One of our neighbors ended up getting the Cox P40 Warhawk control-line plane and all three of us would take turns flying. Those little planes were fantastic and very forgiving. My P51D had a two part construction. The wings were separate from the body and were attached via rubberbands. That way, when you crashed, the plane would simply break loose near the rubberbands and you could reassemble it with no damage in most cases.

My sweet little P51 finally gave up the ghost after I tried to fly it when I was not feeling so good. If I recall, my brother had made an adjustment to the control line linkage to provide quicker responses and wanted me to give it a try. I wasn't feeling well at all due to a flu that was about to take me down in a big sort of way. Being a kid, I figured, what the heck, I'll try to fly it anyway. Bad idea! I was so sick, that once I started spinning, I became completely disoriented and end up ramming the plane full speed into the dirt almost at a 90 degree angle. The poor little plane didn't stand a chance with that kind of impact and finally died a horrible death. Not only did the plane crash, but so did I. I was so sick I was barely able to stagger into the house and crash on the couch. I recovered, but the plane never did. I wish I had that plane back again! It was too cool!

On a deeper note, I guess I understand why I like WWII airplanes so much. I suspect I indirectly tied the style of those old planes with recollections of my old man and some of the most excellent Christmas memories a kid could ever have.

Cool anime

Ever heard of an anime called "Ghost Talkers Daydream"? It's a nice little four episode series that has a bit of humor mixed with a slightly dark atmosphere. I decided to rewatch this series recently and was quite happy with the results.

Plain and simple, I like a nice mix of humor, especially when it highlights things about general human nature. Ghost Talkers Daydream did this with some flare that really left me with a good feeling. It had a wonderful balance of light moments mixed with some heavier themes. The last episode specifically dealt with a serial killer and had a uniquie twist in my opinion.

I think what really makes this series stand out above others is the fact it doesn't draw clear lines about good vs evil. In other words, the villians weren't simple black clad cowboys of old wild west movies. Several of the characters were fairly vile, but at least one appeared driven by something, something that drives many situations. The fact that a driving force was implied is what made me like this so much.

I won't write about any spoilers but I really did like the series. For one thing, the characters are all likable in some manner. The animation was fairly decent too. I think Gainax was involved with this one so that would probably explain part of the reason I liked it so much.

With four short episodes, I kind of wished there had been a follow on, but no such luck. That may be part of this series charm though. It doesn't get caught up in complicated drawn out plots. With four episodes, one isn't dragged down with the a customary recap episode. In the least, it's well worth the time to watch if you don't mind a bit of light hearted sexual humor and ghost themes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

PC-98 based laptop

With a bit more tinkering, the 98 Note laptop is at least showing some signs of life. At one point, after poking around trying different things, I saw a faint change in the video. I started adjusting the brightness and contrast and was able to see a copyright notice being displayed.

The problem I've encountering now is that there is some kind of post error. I hear two long beeps and one short beep a few seconds after I hit the power button. Searching the Internet didn't provide any useful information. I'm not sure what the heck the post test is indicating. My current guess is that there is something wrong with the floppy drive as it doesn't sound like it is spinning properly. I'll tear the machine apart again and see if I can provide a temporary substitue floppy drive for test purposes.

If I'm lucky, maybe I can get this little bugger up and running. If I can, I'll try firing up a cool game like Policenauts. Emulator-schmemulator, I'd rather have the real hardware up and running and if I'm lucky I may just get my wish.

PC-98 laptops and cooking

About 6 months ago, I found a Japanese laptop in one of the thrift shops. It was a PC-98 style notebook, the 98 Note. Unfortunately, it didn't have power supply so I couldn't test it. I decided to go ahead and snag it since it was only $15. After poking around on the Internet, I was able to hack together a power supply from the minimal documentation I could find. The power jack from the wall wart uses a slightly different configuration than I'm used to, positive is on the outside with negative on the inside. A quick power up test indicated several problems likely exist. The floppy only spins part of the time and eventually won't spin at all after it's been powered off and on a few times. The screen is always a solid blue color which seems odd. I was hoping there might have something easy to identify that was wrong with it so I opened it up. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case as the only thing I could find was a corroded internal battery. It hadn't spread the corrision into the mobo yet so I was able to extract it safely and bag it in case I need to find an alternate someday. The lappy is built very nice though and is quite easy to take apart. Too bad I wasn't able to repair the little fella as it would be a bitchin setup for playing old school PC98 anime games on. Having a PC-98 system would have been the highlight of my systems... just too cool! Maybe I'll stumble across another one someday if I'm lucky.

I decided to try my hand at several recipes that I tried in the past and didn't quite get right.

Last night, it was chicken with homemade dumplings. Previously, I tried using pre-made biscuits from the old rollup style tubes that you split open. I'd read on an Internet site that these types of biscuits worked fairly decent for dumpling dough. I wasn't too impressed with the results myself and decided homemade was the way to go. Last nights attempt was fairly decent with a few exceptions. First, I several of the dumplings were either too large or something as they didn't completely cook properly and were too doughy. Some of the dumplings turned out spot on and were quite tasty. The other problem I had was with initially determining how "sticky" the dough should be. The site I obtained the recipe from indicated the dough mix was about two cups flour to one cup and two tablespoons milk. The resulting mix felt to sticky to roll out properly so I added some additional flour. That may have been part of the problem with the dumplings that didn't cook properly. Next time, I'll use the same ratio and simply roll them on a thicker bed of flour.

Today, I'm trying my hand at Cajun red beans and rice again. Previously, the red beans didn't cook properly in the fact that they were still a bit crunchy after 12 hours of soaking and a couple hours of cooking. This time, I soaked them at a low temperature in a crock pot for 12 hours and then let them cook at a higher temperature for about 8 hours in the pot. They seem to be the right texture at this point. I'm making brown rice to go with them currently and will sample the results in about an hour.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dreamcast games, ramblings, and more back problems

On the game front, I've been tinkering with the Dreamcast lately. There's some pretty funky titles to be had. For example, Rez is a pretty cool game with a most excellent trance/techno style of music and funky vector generated atmospheric feel. I also tried Heavy Metal GeoMatrix. The game was panned in the review I read but I think it's fun to play when I'm looking for a quick break from other daily grind stuff.

The more I tinker with some of the games out there, the more challenging it becomes to initially start churning out a game. My impression from reading a lot of different game related forum posts is that quality really needs to be so much more now than it a few years ago. People have high expectations even if something is free. I sometimes think folks have higher expectations from free stuff. If I were t venture a guess, it's because people have tried so much free stuff that has turned out to be a total waste of their time. As for myself, I'm still stuck at the early stage of developing a game knowning how much work is involved to get to a working prototype. Mind you, I've got some extremely basic ideas, but I still need an initial kick to get started. Gotta start somewhere though.

My main problem is that the ideas I have are only basic and need fleshing out substantially. One concept I've been toying with is some kind of game centered around a bird, say a crow, that can fly about annoying the crap out of people. The more you annoy folks, the better you do in the game. Plus, I really like the idea of injecting large amounts of humor into a game. If I could spin this in such a manner as to make folks laugh while playing, then it's on target of where I want the idea to be. But the concept is way too simple at this point. I need to add some objectives and goals. Back to the whiteboard for a while to think some more I guess.

I think finding the right platform to develop on is still my biggest challenge. While I have the minimum amount of gear required to program for the GBA, it wouldn't be my first choice. I've tinkered with the GBA, but I don't really like the small screen size. The Saturn or the Dreamcast look interesting but provide a bit of challenge getting code to them without buying extra hardware. And since I'm unemployed once again, buying programming hardware is a bit of a problem. The Dreamcast probably is the better of the two options though. The Xbox360 would be a good choice if I already owned the console but I've been a cheapskate up until this point and just didn't want to drop $300 to $400 dollars for a single console. I may be saddled with working on the PC for the time being even though I really love the bit twiddling that you get to do with consoles. Probably time to take a look at some DirectX tutorials.

Once again, I need to exercise extreme care getting around due to a physical injury. Nothing like having a bad disc in the ol' spinal column. On Sunday, I installed an outlet on the side of the house. I had to pull my dryer out to cut a hole in the wall to snake the wiring through. Seems that my back didn't like that as it started aching immediately. The disc ultimately slipped just as I was getting ready to crash for the evening. It was painful enough to cause me to break into a cold sweat even though the heat had been off for a while in the house (it was about 54 degrees or so at that point). Fortunately, by applying a bit of pressure around the injured area, I was able to recover enough to moving about today. Man, I'm not looking forward to the upcoming years and the issues from increasing arthritis.