Single-board computers from the early microcomputing era have always fascinated me. Oft-unhoused machines resembling motherboards with calculator-esque keypads and a handful of seven-segment LEDs for a display, their purpose was to train prospective engineers on the operations of new microprocessors like the Intel 8080 and MOS 6502. Some, like MOS’s KIM-1 were quite affordable, and gave hobbyists a platform to learn on, experiment with, and build up into something bigger.
The KIM-1 is, to me, the archetypal single-board. Initially released by MOS and kept in production by Commodore, it had a six-digit display, 23-key input pad, 6502 processor, and a pair of 6530 RIOT chips. MOS pioneered manufacturing technology that allowed for a far higher yield of chips than competitors, making the KIM-1 a device that hobbyists could actually afford. I would love to acquire one, but unfortunately they are not nearly as affordable these days, often fetching around $1,000 at auction. Humorously, clones like the SYM-1 that were far more expensive when they were released are not nearly as collectable and sell at more reasonable rates. Even these are a bit pricy, however, and you never know if they’ll arrive operable. If they do, it’s a crapshoot how long that will remain true.
Other notable single-boards like the Science of Cambridge (Sinclair) MK14 and the Ferguson Big Board rarely even show up on eBay. The MK14 is another unit that I would absolutely love to own – I have a soft spot for Clive Sinclair’s wild cost-cut creations. This seems extremely unlikely, however, leaving me to resort to emulation. Likewise for the KIM-1, a good emulator humorously exists for the Commodore 64.
History has a way of repeating itself, I suppose, and I think a lot of that retro hobbyist experience lives on in tiny modern single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino. I’m glad these exist, I’d be happy to use one if I had a specific need, but they don’t particularly interest me from a recreational computing perspective. Given that these modern descendants don’t scratch that itch, and the rarity and uncertainty of vintage units, I was very excited to recently stumble across Thai engineer Wichit Sirichote’s various single-board kits for classic microprocessors. Built examples are available on eBay. The usual suspects are there: 8080, 8088, 8086, Z80, 68008, 6502; some odd ducks as well like the CDP1802.
I have ordered, and plan to write about the cheapest offering: the 8051 which sells in built form for $85, shipped from Thailand. The 8051 was an Intel creation for embedded/industrial systems, and is an unfamiliar architecture for me. If it all works out how I hope it will, I wouldn’t mind acquiring the 6502, Z80, CDP1802 and/or one of the 808xs. I’d love to see a version using the SC/MP (as used in the Cambridge MK14), but I’m not sure there are any modern clones available. For now, I will do some recreational experiments with the 8051, perhaps hitting a code golf challenge or two. While this can’t be quite the same as unboxing a KIM-1, I love that somebody is making these machines. And not just one or two, but like… a bunch. Recreational computing lives.
Charming read on how one might construct their own dial-up internet connection in this age of egregious Xfinity bills. On the surface, it sounds like a goofy lark, but if you dive into retrocomputing enough, you find plenty of systems with readily available modems and few (if any) other means of networking. I always wondered how complex one would need to get to set up a system like this. If you could trick the modems on either end into not caring about hook/dialing/&c., could you just go over an audio connection and skip telephony? I don’t know the answer to that, but the linked article accomplishes it with a virtual PBX and analog VOIP adaptors – a purpose-built private telephony system in the middle. It’s an interesting read, and a good link to hold on to for future reference.
I’ve been restoring a Milton Bradley Microvision and am now happily at the point where I have a fully functional unit. Introduced in 1979, it’s known as the first portable game console with interchangeable cartridges. Anyone who has scoured eBay and yard sales for Game Boys knows that the monochrome LCDs of yore were fairly sensitive to heat and even just age. For a system ten years older than the Game Boy (and one that sold far fewer numbers), functional units are fairly hard to come by. But for a while, I’ve been invested in patching one together, and I plan to enjoy it until it, too, gives up the ghost.
I never thought I’d link to one of those terrible sites that forces you to scroll through an entire page worth of image before you can even begin reading, but here we are. If you haven’t visited Wired recently, be warned: it is very user-antagonistic. But this article, despite its brevity and reading like an ad for Cloudflare, is pretty interesting. The gist is that one of Cloudflare’s hardware random number generation techniques involves photographing an array of lava lamps.
I recently purchased a Sangean HDR-14 compact HD Radio receiver after the local station that broadcasts baseball decided to move their AM/MW station (and most of their FM stations) exclusively to digital HD Radio broadcasts. In their announcement, they established that the time was right now that 20% of their audience was equipped to listen. That’s… an astonishingly low percentage, especially given that the technology was approved as the U.S. digital radio broadcast format over fifteen years ago. I, myself, was able to find one acquaintance capable of receiving HD Radio (in their car), and this receiver only handled FM.
Adoption has seemingly been low in the other direction as well. Though the airwaves near me seem flooded with broadcasts, the only HD Radio content is coming from the aforementioned station. Part of this is almost certainly because the standard itself is patent-encumbered bullshit from iBiquity instead of an open standard. Transmitting requires not only the encoder, but licensing fees directly to iBiquity. The public-facing language is very vague on the HD Radio website, but receivers also need to license the tech and I imagine if this was free they’d make a point of it (and there’d be more than three portable HD Radio receivers on the market).
When my Mac Pro recently slipped into a coma, I began thinking about what my next primary computer will be. Until this past week, Apple hadn’t updated any Macs in quite a while, and the direction they’ve taken the Mac line continues to puzzle me. It all started (in my mind) with ubiquitous glossy screens, and has worked its way down to touchbars and near-zero travel keyboards. Last week’s update to (some) Macbook Pros is welcome, but underwhelming. Six cores and DDR4 is great, but that’s only in the large model. Meanwhile, if I wanted to suffer through a 15″ machine, HP’s ZBook 15 has either hexacore Xeons or Cores, inbuilt color calibration, a trackpoint, a keyboard that I feel safe assuming is superior to the MBP’s, and a user-upgradable design.
I remain consistently confused by what professionals Apple is targeting. As a creative user, I’d whole-heartedly prefer the aforementioned HP. Most illustrators I know rely on Surfaces or other Windows machines with inbuilt digitizers. I know plenty of professional coders on MBPs (and Apple seems to push this stance hard), but I don’t know why – that funky keyboard and lack of trackpoint don’t make for a good typist’s machine. The audio world makes sense, Logic is still a big deal and plenty of audio hardware targets the platform. But honestly, when I see people like John Gruber saying the updated MBP’s “are indisputably aimed at genuine ‘pro’ users”, I’m a bit baffled, as I simply can’t think of many professional use-cases for their hardware decisions as of late. They’re still extremely impressive machines, but they increasingly feel like high-end consumer devices rather than professional ones.
Great little article from nearly a decade ago about Robert Moog’s filter that shaped the sound of synthesizer music. Oddly enough, while the article mentions some of the Moog module’s prices, it doesn’t actually mention the price of the ladder filter. Having been researching lately exactly what Tangerine Dream would have been working with at any given moment on Phaedra, I happen to have the 1969 Moog price list (PDF) in front of me – $730 for the full-fledged 904 Voltage-Controlled Filter. That’s about $4,900 dollars today, nearly ten times as much as Moog’s current ladder filter. Bonus link: Robert Moog’s patent number 3,475,623: Electronic High-pass and Low-pass filters employing the base to emitter diode resistance of bi-polar transistors (PDF).
Field recording of found sounds is a rather crucial aspect of the sort of sound design that interests me. Diving deep enough into this area, one will inevitably wish to experiment with contact microphones. Contact microphones are unlike ‘normal’ microphones in that they don’t really respond to air vibrations. But they are quite good at picking up the vibrations of solids (or, in the case of sealed hydrophones, liquids) that they’re attached to. This is a lot of fun, but there’s one problem – due to an impedance mismatch, they aren’t going to sound very good when connected to a normal microphone input. Compare this matched recording with this recording from a standard mic input.
The typical solution will be to go through a DI box or dedicated preamp. For a portable, minimal setup, this is far from ideal. I figured at some point, someone would have had to have come up with a portable recorder designed with sound design in mind, and containing inputs suitable for a range of microphones. I came up empty-handed. Then it occurred to me, this is really the same problem that guitar pickups have – they need a high impedance (Hi-Z) input for proper frequency range reproduction. Perhaps a portable recorder for guitarists exists. It does, and let me just say that the Tascam GT-R1 makes an awesome little field recorder.
Hopefully we all know by now that computers are not good at coming up with random numbers. They can do a bunch of tricky math and come up with numbers that are random enough for dealing your hand of solitaire, but some outside random force is necessary for tasks where patterns, repetition simply cannot occur. One such method involves counting radioactive decay events, and it occurred to me that Americium-241 is readily and affordably accessible – it’s in any good smoke detector. Now, I don’t have a need for this, nor do I intend to go dismantling smoke detectors, but I was curious if anyone else had proof-of-concepted such a thing before, and lo – here we have one such example. Neat.
Yesterday, Apple announced the iMac Pro, an all-in-one machine purchasable with up to an 18-core Xeon processor. I can’t tell if this is a machine for me or not (I love Xeon Macs but not iMacs so much), but I also have no real reason to think about that beyond fantasy – I’m only on my 2nd Xeon Mac, and I expect to get a few more years out of it. They age well. The current, oft-maligned Mac Pro smashed an impressive amount of tech into a rather small, highly optimized space. It may lack the expansion necessary for typical Pro users, but it is a technological masterpiece. The new iMac, however, seems like an impossible feat.
What truly excites me is the reinforcement that Apple is committed to its Xeon machines. The iMac Pro is not the mysterious upcoming Mac Pro. So while tech pundits have lamented the inevitable death of the Mac Pro in recent years, Apple has instead doubled down and will be offering two Xeon Macs rather than zero.
One final thought that is more dream than anything – Apple prides itself on its displays, and on its Pencil/digitizer in the iPad Pro. A lot of artists use pro software on iMacs with Cintiq digitizers. Cintiqs are top-of-the-line, but that doesn’t make them great. The digitizers are decent, the displays themselves are alright, but they aren’t spectacular devices – they’re just the best thing out there. I don’t expect Apple to move to a touch-friendly macOS, their deliberate UI choices show that this is a clear delineation between macOS and iOS. But I think working the iPad Pro’s Pencil/digitizer into an iMac could very well prove to be a Cintiq killer for illustrators, photographers, and other visual artists.
The Lenovo Yoga Book is a bizarre little machine. It’s unbelievably thin, and hosts a wee 10” display, netbookish almost. Unfold it, like a laptop, to reveal the secret to its thinness – a blank slate where the keyboard should be. Powering the device on, the ‘halo keyboard’, as it is known, glows. It is what it sounds like – a glowing, flat, touch-sensitive keyboard. It is the price paid for a 9.6mm thick, 1.5lb device that still manages a laptop form factor.
Now, I value a good keyboard. My primary keyboard uses Alps switches, my primary laptop is a Lenovo X220 that types rather well. This is neither of those. This is not a good keyboard, it’s a flat slab. But I’ve spent enough time typing on tablets that, a strategy of muscle memory combined with occasional glances down to reorient my fingers means I can type reasonably quick and with reasonable accuracy.
My use case is pretty simple – I spend nearly four hours every day on a train, but I still don’t like carrying a lot with me. I had been taking a Microsoft keyboard which I could sort of, kind of rig up with my iPhone and type nicely into Buffer Editor with. It works well when seated at a desk, but the unadjustable angle and possibility of the phone just flopping out made it suboptimal for the train. Physical keyboards take up space – the Yoga Book manages to be thinner than just that Microsoft keyboard, though obviously larger in the other two dimensions. But it opens like a compact, it can unfold to any angle (including all the way back to just be a really thick tablet), and just has a much more lappable presence. Also, since it’s running Windows 10, I get a real operating system and filesystem (by this I mean WSL or cygwin), I get real USB (OTG), and a solid software selection. An Android version is also available (for $50 less), but even if I didn’t hate Android, that just seems like a bad plan for as much as they have customized it. It does have an autocorrect feature, however, which the Windows version lacks.
I’ll continue using this thing on the train and finding out its compromises. It is obviously compromised. It’s doing strange new things, and it’s really positioned more for people who want to use the digitizer. Which, yeah, the whole keyboard area can be dimmed and turned into a pressure-sensitive digitizer, either with a typical stylus nib or with an actual ballpoint pen on a paper tablet set atop the surface. I guess I should mess with that more. But for my use-case, so far so good. It’s no Matias Alps keyboard, but it’s very typable, it’s very light, and very compact. I wrote this entire post on the Yoga Book, and didn’t feel like I was suffering. It’s like a tablet where I can type without obstructing half of my screen.
Assuming the leaked images of the new MacBook Pro are to be believed (and there seems to be no reason to think otherwise), tomorrow will bring MacBook Pros with a tiny touch strip display above the number row instead of a set of physical keys. It looks like a more practical version of the much-maligned Lenovo Carbon X1 concept. Yet, like the X1, it’s part of a bigger change that makes for an overall worse keyboard experience – in the case of the leaked MBP images, the physical keys themselves are moving to the slim-but-unloved keys from the MacBook.
As is to be expected whenever Apple announces something new, a lot of shit is being flung around in the tech sphere over the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. One particularly fun nugget is that the secondary camera lens on the 7 Plus’s dual-camera system is not, despite what Apple says, a telephoto lens. This is based on a few mixed-up notions from people who know just enough about photography to think they know a lot: namely that ‘telephoto’ is synonymous with ‘long’, and that 56mm (135 equivalence, when will this die) is ‘normal’ (and therefore not
‘long’ ‘telephoto’). 50mm was standardized on the 135 format because Oskar Barnack said so, essentially. Different versions of the story say that the 50 was based on a known cine lens design, or that glass to make the 50 was readily available, or that it was necessary to fill the new large image circle, but whatever the original motivating factor was – the original Leica I set a new standard with the 135 film format, and a new standard somewhat-longer-than-normal focal length with its Elmar 50/3.5. The idea behind normalcy is matching our eyesight. This, conveniently, tends to match up with the length of the diagonal of the imaging plane; √(24²+36²)≅43mm. 50 is already noticeably longer than this, and 56 even more so. There’s a reason 55-60mm lenses were popular as more portrait-capable ‘normals’.
I previously discussed my overall dissatisfaction with mice these days. I bit the $150 bullet, and decided to try the Swiftpoint GT. A lot of people love this mouse. It has 4.2 stars on Amazon. It nearly octupled its Kickstarter funding goal. It’s natural, it’s ergonomic, it’s gestural. In theory. In practice, it feels to me like it’s been built of outmoded tech and interaction paradigms in order to fabricate a simulacrum of a hypermodern interaction experience. In practice, it’s still a clicky, line-at-a-time scroll wheel. Sure, you can sort-of-kind-of mimic touchpad scrolling by rolling it on your table, but doing so won’t feel any less clicky nor awkward. In practice, the gestural ‘stylus’ is just a tiny upside-down joystick that only works when you find just the right place to tilt it to, that you have to maintain just the right pressure to hold, and that you ultimately still fail to get a smooth navigation experience out of. Neither of these interactions were comfortable, and they both proved better at marring my (admittedly delicately finished) table than anything else.
August 21, 2016, I tweet: “why are there no good mice.” It’s a reality I’ve been battling for months now: seemingly nobody else wants the same things out of a mouse that I do. And as I’ve tried to replace my beloved Magic Mouse with something just a little more, I’ve come up with a pretty clear list of what these things are:
- Inertial scrolling (by touch or wheel, I do not care)
- Biaxial scrolling
- AA or AAA batteries
- Functional middle click
The original Magic Mouse hits all of these points, and perhaps I should just stock up on a few of these before they disappear, without searching for something more.
I’m writing this from Tuckahoe State Park, the first leg of a multinight car camping trip which I (for practice, I suppose) opted to treat like a backpacking trip. My goal was to fit everything, aside from food (handled as a group), that I needed in or on a 30L pack for the one evening here followed by three in the sand at Assateague Island. Good way to try out a few things for when I ordinarily need to pack food but fewer clothes. So, why am I wasting precious pack space on a writing device?