Does Not Compute

March 29, 2013


Welcome to a boring trip down computer memory lane. You might want to skip to the last two paragraphs if compuspeak puts your to sleep.

I’ve been nostalgic lately for the pre-PC era of computing. I discovered a site that has scanned issues of Family Computing Magazine from 1982 to 1989 and skimmed through almost all of those. After that I discovered and read even more about those older machines. I’ve also been reading retroGamer magazine and learned more about the machines that were popular in the UK during that time.

The 8-bit era of computers was remarkable in its variety. Each model differed in speed (back then CPUs had clock speeds in the single digit Mhz, roughly a thousand times slower than today’s computers) and RAM (64K was a lot back then) and storage was on floppy disks (if you ponied up the bucks, otherwise it was cassette). The processors also varied by model and were simple enough to understand their architecture. The MOS 6502 was very popular due to its low cost and found itself into the Apple ][, Atari 800, Commodore 64, and later in the NES game console. The Zilog Z80 was big in “business” machines that ran CP/M (and in the Spectrum in England), but the best 8-bit processor was in the machine the I owned, the Tandy Color Computer. While it was a bit weak in the graphics and sound chips compared to some of its competitors, the Motorola 6809 at its heart was an elegant and powerful design.

The 16-bit era followed with the Macintosh, the Amiga and the Atari ST. At this point IBM’s PC started gaining traction, but when the flood of PC clones started spawning left and right the competition between models quickly led to a price and feature war that droves PCs to the forefront of computing. When Microsoft finally released a version of Windows (3.1) that could compete with the graphical operating systems of the 68000-based systems it was game, set, and match.

I miss that era quite a bit. While people played games and wrote in world processing programs back then, a good percentage of people who used computers in those days actually learned to program. Software was hard to come by at times, so writing your own was often the best way to make a computer useful. But they were so limited in speed and memory that creativity was needed to make programs work properly. Magazines and the occasional book on programming (Radio Shack stocked a couple) were the only sources of information. The massive amount of info about these computers on Wikipedia today would have been a godsend back then.

Recently I’ve sensed a bit of that spirit in a hobbyist device that is inspiring people do do more with computes than stalk people on Facebook and watch YouTube videos. It’s called the Raspberry Pi and it consists of the little circuit board I’m holding above. It has HDMI video out (connected to my TV in the photo), 512MB of RAM, an ARM processor (like your phone), a couple of USB ports and an SD card slot (for storage). The best part is that its only $35. I’ve already tried a couple of operating systems and it runs well, if a bit pokey compared to my trusty Macbook Air.

I’m not sure what kind of project I’m going to use my Pi for yet, but I’m sure something will come to me. I bought a second one and gave it to an exceptionally bright student of mine. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with his as well.

94C16AB2-0B1B-4071-AC81-83F9C2DEAEBAMy music kick has subsided a bit and I’m listening to podcasts again when I have longer drives. In the last couple of days I’ve listened to a good one about zombies by Josh & Chuck (Stuff You Should Know) and an equally gross one about the Great Stink.

Th zombie podcast dealt with real life zombies in Haiti first and then the enormously popular fictional zombie. The real zombies are a product of the cultural belief in zombies and some interesting “medicine” that creates a paralyzed state in the victim. Being “zombified” in Haiti is usually the result of angering your family (refusing to marry someone they picked for you or refusing to agree to sell jointly owned land were given as examples). A bokor (sorcerer) would then apply a powder to your skin. This powder contains toxins that irritate the skin an allow access to the bloodstream, where another toxin (from the pufferfish) induces paralysis. You are then buried alive and though you appear to be dead you are fully conscious of what is happening. After a few hours you are dug up and “resurrected.” Through the use of hallucinogens combined with the trauma of the experience you are kept in a trancelike state, sometimes for years. Fortunately, doing this is now against the law (yes, there’s actually a law that states that you cannot make someone a zombie).

The podcast then discussed George Romero’s popularization of zombies, which has led us to excellent television like The Walking Dead. Incidentally, if a zombie epidemic actually happened it’s unlikely we’d be able to stop it according to scientists.

The Stuff You Missed in History Podcast was almost as gross as zombies. The Great Stink of 1858 in London was caused by the river Thames being overloaded with human waste due to the widespread adoption of the flushable toilet. Before the use of toilets people emptied their chamberpots into cesspits, but that only worked with (relatively) dry waste. The rapid population grown of London from 1800-1860 (the population went from less than a million to more than three in that time) also made this system untenable. The summer of 1858 was particularly hot and for a couple of weeks anyone near the river dealt with an unbearable smell. This, of course, led to the creation of a proper sewer system that is mostly still in use today.

My annual F1 Post

March 13, 2013

mp4-28F1 returns this weekend! As usual the season starts down under which means that the first race will be shown live on NBC Sports Network here in the US at 2:00 a.m. early Sunday morning. It promises to be another exciting, closely fought season since the rules haven’t changed much since last year. This tends to let the slower cars catch up a bit since they can make bigger gains than the already better optimized cars. Fortunately, the ugly duckling look to the cars has been banished by a rule allowing a vanity panel to smooth out the nose. Next year there are big rule changes including a new engine (1.6L Turbo V6 with ERS). The biggest change this year is on the driver front – Lewis Hamilton has moved from McLaren to MercedesGP, replacing the retiring Michael Schumacher. Mexican Sergio Perez has slotted into the plum McLaren seat vacated by Hamilton and alongside my favorite driver, Jenson Button (shown above).

I’ve been thinking recently about why I love F1 so much when my interest in other professional sports has waned to the point where I hardly watch football or basketball on TV at all. The spectacle is certainly there – the start of an F1 race is a 22-car drag race to the first corner, where they usually (and miraculously) find a way to funnel into formation without crashing. Exciting stuff. But it’s way more than that. F1 isn’t really a driving competition, it’s an engineering competition. All 11 teams (two cars each) design and build a new car every year, and update that car throughout the season (new front and rear wings, bodywork, and more). It’s a relentless battle of minds that is manifested in an auto race every two weeks. Between those races teams are working flat out using CFD (computational fluid dynamics) systems, wind tunnels, simulators (similar to this one), and hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a pure meritocracy that would make even Ayn Rand smile.

I will, of course, be watching the race live in the middle of the night. Any F1 fans  (or “normal” insomniacs) who are reading this are free to join me.

seI’ve recently seen two movies with a focus on psychology. The first was the new Steven Soderbergh release, Side Effects. Rooney Mara is amazing as a young woman who takes an experimental antidepressant (the fictional Ablixa, which has its own website). The first half of the story exposes psychiatry for the pseudoscience that it really is at this point, as well as the influence of pharmaceutical companies over doctors and a bit of the ridiculousness of our pill-popping culture. They movie takes a twist in a more conventional direction from there but is still enjoyable. I also admired the cinematography; there are some interesting focus effects that enhance the mood. ★★★½ out of 4.

admA Dangerous Method I saw at home on my own theater. This David Cronenberg picture is a semi-historical take on the early days of psychoanalysis. The film focuses on the relationship between Carl Jung, his patient (and later colleague) Sabina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud (well played by Viggo Mortensen in an atypical role). The screenwriter didn’t have to embellish too much since Jung actually did have an affair with Spielrein in real life (though I have no idea if the kinky sex was part of the real life relationship). They highlights to me were the discussions between Jung and Freud about the nature of emotional issues. The influence of Otto Gross on Jung was also quite interesting, as it made clear that the psychologist has to figure himself out as he evolves while trying to do the same for the patient. ★★★ out of 4.


Update: Last night (3/9) I saw Silver Linings Playbook and absolutely loved it. This movie has it all: bipolar disorder, romantic obsession, OCD, dysfunction families, Halloween, football and dancing. The acting is terrific across the board, but Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Tiffany is especially compelling. Her character has a habit of calling people out with remarkable insight, defying social convention by speaking hard truths. Bradley Cooper’s Pat is less constructive with his social issues, and is solely motivated by trying to win back his wife (which under the circumstances isn’t realistic). The chemistry between the two is palpable and makes the movie sing. My only criticism is that Pat’s mental issues seem to magically resolve themselves late in the movie, but that doesn’t stop this from being a totally charming, intelligent movie. I can’t wait to see it again.  ★★★★ out of 4.