Posts in category technology - page 2
Moving house means making possessions count, so my collection of vintage computers has shrunk over the years, and the bar keeps getting higher. Right now:
- It works – Test it, repair it or part with it. A wealth of online technical information makes this easier than ever.
- A small footprint – Eject unusable peripherals and accessories. Keep the essentials.
- Make it usable – Forget slow-loading tapes and corrupt disks. Fast loading is essential.
- Something special – It should be a collectable or one I have a connection to.
Recent casualties were my Apple ][e (no disks), Acorn ARM (wouldn’t boot) and Commodore VIC 20 (poor state). Next up is my Acorn BBC Micro B:
My ‘Beeb’ is in good condition and works well, but the case screws have long since disappeared (a common theme in my collection), and it needed a good clean. These older mechanical keyboards attract dust and dirt.
Schools were filled with BBCs in the 80s and I’ve written about the origins of this love affair before. I learned first BBC BASIC and then some 6502 assembly (mixing it with Basic) while at school. I later picked this machine up around 91 after seeing a local paper advertisement.
A giant twin 5.25″ drive housing system (shown above) contained my one still-functional floppy drive. I want to read physical disks but keep the minimal footprint so, I transplanted the floppy drive into a 5.25″ externally powered CD-ROM enclosure. Big reduction.
The BBC Micro has a few video output options – UHF, composite over BNC and RGB over 6-pin DIN connector. By a staggering coincidence, the pin-out is identical to the Amstrad CPC. This means it works directly with my Amstrad monitor and no adapter cable is required this time!
Replacement media, SD cards via GoSDC
SD cards are my replacement storage of choice for vintage systems. I chose John Kortink’s GoSDC for the following reasons:
- Supports MMC, SD, SDHC up to 32GB
- Internally fits into a spare ROM socket
- Adds operating system commands for great integration
- Supports disc images, tape images and ROM images
Retro Isle comprehensively reviewed GoSDC in February (2015) and have a bunch of usage tips and tricks too.
Getting started with GoSDC
The device plugs into a ROM slot but to make life easy, you can give it access to a second one so it can patch the filing system. The docs are complex as they describe the many possibilities available. Here’s my setup that works well on a BBC Micro Model B (known as Option B in the docs):
- Remove Acorn DFS ROM
- Fit GoSDC in slot third from right
- Fit cable from GoSDC jumper (middle-left) to pin 6 up from bottom right
- You should be left with the Acorn OS ROMs in the ROM sockets to the left of GoSDC
Once fitted, slide in an SD card and power up your BBC, and you should see the usual welcome screen. Then type
*SDCINFO and see the results:
BBC Computer 32K Acorn DFS BASIC >*SDCINFO GoSDC (mbe) 1.05 (01 Sep 2014) ROM slots : main 15, free 13 Flash ROM : S25FL007, 1024 KiB Flash card : SDHC, 7580 MiB Available areas --------------- X : 416256 bytes 1 : 4294966784 bytes 2 : 3653238784 bytes >
If you see ROM slots
free with numbers your device is controlling two slots correctly and can patch the DFS for you. If not, check the adapter and cable.
If you see “GoSDC : No flash card inserted” check the card is securely in and power cycle the machine. If it still doesn’t recognize the card try another. Note: When switching card you will need to press CtrlBreak for the machine to recognize it.
The first time you use a card, you’ll need to format it. The command and subsequent output should look like this:
>*SDCTOOL SDCFO Formatting area ... done Verifying format ... ok Please hard-reset your machine now >
A card greater than 4GB will use 4GB areas created that are switchable with
*SDCAREA number. I’d recommend switching to the additional areas, formatting and CtrlBreak after each before you put any software on it as this command wipes it out again.
Finally, you’ll need to tell GoSDC to provide a patched filing system like this:
*SDCCONFIG FSNR 1 *SDCCONFIG FSRM 13 *SDCRESET
- 1 sets Acorn DFS on my machine, although the docs say it should be 2
- 13 should match the free ROM slot shown in
If you mess up your ROM selection and are unable to type because of ‘No drive’ do not fear! Press caps-lock and break twice to get the prompt back and choose another.
Finding old software
One option is to image all your floppy discs to SDcard, but you may find those discs are corrupt. Thirty-year-old floppy disks are not reliable.
Another option is to download software online. This redistribution is a grey area when the software is copyrighted but no longer sold. Many authors allow it (e.g. Ian Bell and David Braben of Elite fame). A comprehensive site to check out is Stairway to Hell, which honours copyright holders requests.
The author of GoSDC supplies Windows scripts to download, unpack and write the files to disc which I took the liberty of porting to Bash so they could be used on Mac OS X and Linux.
Recommended old games
Purely based on subjective childhood experiences…
- Elite a 3D space trading game so good they recently Kickstarted Elite 4
- Citadel one hundred screens of arcade adventure madness
- Chuckie Egg quick platform dash with birds, ducks, eggs and platforms
- Repton Boulderdash to the next level, try 1 or 3, Repton 2 is insanely hard
- Granny’s Garden educational fun alas distribution is denied as they sell an iPad version
Once the card is loaded with software, the actual commands are simple:
Will list the contents. You’ll likely want to put a wildcard after it to limit the results. Remember CtrlShift pauses the screen on the BBC!
Then, to mount a disc, you use
*SDCDISC and provide the name to mount. You can also use wildcards here, and it picks up the first match. e.g.
Once mounted hold down Shift and tap Break to boot the game (or educational title, right?)
A few other useful commands are:
||List contents of a disc|
||What ShiftBreak actually does|
||To LOAD and RUN a BASIC program from disc|
||To execute machine code programs from disc|
I put some BBC Micro tips and tricks together, or you can grab PDFs of pretty much every book created for the BBC Micro.
You can also see which discs are currently selected using
*SDCDISC with no arguments. You’ll note you can mount a second disc, and the command to do that is
*SDCEXTRA with usage otherwise exactly like
GoSDC can do much more, including imaging your real floppy discs and writing them back out. Be sure to check out the comprehensive documentation, which includes how to upgrade the firmware (use another memory card as that process uses FAT no the GoSDC file system)
Out for Pi Day!
Pi Day (3/14/15 = 3.1415) was last weekend, and my work put on a session for kids about how to program the Raspberry Pi using Scratch and a breadboard (using CanaKits so we had a breadboard, LEDs, switches, wires, resistors, and such).
The original goal of the Raspberry Pi was inspired by the BBC Micro. The name “Model B” is a nod to the original! Few people seem to realize that the manufacturer of the BBC Micro – Acorn – went on to create a processor for its follow-up machine the Acorn RISC Machine - or ARM for short. That’s right, the Pi is powered by an Acorn processor design (like most smartphones) so, it made sense to bring it in.
It was a hectic event with little time to show the machine. While sitting there, it popped a capacitor in a puff of smoke!
Power supply repair
Despite the noise and smoke the dying capacitor didn’t stop the machine from working. These troublesome electromagnetic interference suppression capacitors are not involved in the power circuitry. Still, it should be repaired, and I may as well replace the other X2 film capacitor as they have expired over the last 30 years.
I picked up a couple of RIFA PME 271 M capacitors – 100nf and 10nf – (with a matching pitch so they would fit correctly) from Mouser for less than $2 each plus shipping. Five minutes of de-soldering and soldering later, and it was good as new!
Virtual machines are called Droplets at Digital Ocean so hit Create then:
1. Give it a name
Give your server a name. This has no bearing on the name your customers see and is only for initially connecting to it/in the Digital Ocean dashboard.
2. Select size
A popular blog should have no problem with the $10 a month 1GB/30GB/2TB option but I run a few sites so went for the next one up with more CPU and RAM.
You can scale up later although you won’t get the extra disk space as it can’t resize the disk. Given static storage like Amazon S3 is cheap and integrates with their CloudFront CDN this isn’t a problem.
3. Select region
Is your audience focused in a specific area?
- Yes (e.g. a real estate site) then choose the closest server to them
- No – choose the US East Coast like New York for good global coverage
4. Select Image
Here you select which distribution of Linux, which version and which CPU architecture you want to use.
For this guide I’m using Ubuntu 14.04 x64. In theory you could use alternative distributions or versions but you’re on your own.
Do not select x32 as HipHopVM is only supported on 64-bit architectures.
5. Add optional SSH keys
SSH keys let you automatically sign in without a password – the security being a key file on your computer instead. It’s worth learning how to use this but is outside the scope of this article so just use the normal password for now.
Leave the defaults on unless you want to pay extra for their backup service. Personally I like to use a WordPress plugin that backs up to S3 called UdraftPlus.
7. Hit Create Droplet
Within 60 seconds you should have a fresh virtual machine ready to go.
8. Connect to your Ubuntu virtual machine/droplet
You will need ssh (pre-installed on a Mac, Windows users should check out Putty) Check the IP address shown on your droplet’s page then:
You should confirm the fingerprint the first time by typing yes then be rewarded with a Welcome message and a cursor to type new commands into!
9. Update your Ubuntu virtual machine
Even though the version of Ubuntu you chose is quite up to date there will be a few updates to apply, thankfully this is very easy.
sudo apt-get update
Tells the package manager (known as “apt”) to go find out about all the updates. It doesn’t yet install them though, to do that we need to wait until it’s finished then type:
sudo apt-get upgrade
You’ll need to confirm this with Y and wait a little bit. This upgrades a lot of the packages and applications. Once complete then:
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
This tells apt to upgrade the core operating system as well. Again confirm with Y and wait a little bit. Once this one is complete you’ll need to reboot your machine with:
sudo reboot now
You’re now ready to reconnect and starting installing packages to make your virtual machine do something useful!
Ahmet Alp Balkan on the Microsoft Azure team reflected on his experiences at Microsoft. His experiences do not exactly match mine (initially on LINQ to SQL, then Entity Framework and finally xbox.com) but I recognize some of his points.
Here is some further discussion along with some other thoughts that have come up over the years. A lot of these don’t apply just to Microsoft and some are useful for people new to the industry to think about.
People think of Microsoft as a single entity with a sole focus and one opinion.
That’s about the worst mistake you can make.
Microsoft is like hundreds of small companies that often work together but sometimes against each other. They have different processes, dynamics, attitudes and goals not only within the same division but also within the same building or floor.
Thinking your experience with one team is a reflection of the whole company is short sighted. Microsoft employs almost 100,000 people including over 40,000 in the Redmond area alone.
It’s like a small country.
“Expect no documentation”
Documentation can sometimes be found checked in with source code, in wikis, buried in Sharepoint sites or OneNote. Wherever it may exist it will be out of date by the time you find it.
Documentation can only be up to date if the code never changes or you have a team of incredibly rare developers who like to read and write documentation more than code. Don’t fret unless nobody has the source code.
It might appear that people are critical and dropping dead will kill the project because everything gets funneled through one or two people but that’s not the case. Many people know more than they let on but don’t want to be involved on a day-to-day basis because they have moved onto something better. When a dire situation arises these people step up.
“Not everyone is passionate for engineering”
It’s true not everyone you meet will be interested in quality software engineering. Some people just want to get the job done and go home. That happens across and all walks of life. It’s a personal choice.
Ask yourself how many engineers you meet are passionate about delivering great experiences to users. Do they prioritize their own wants and desires such as a high test coverage in a rarely-regressed area over a simple useful feature many users are asking for.
Software engineering is a means to an end.
Your customers aren’t interested in software engineering. They want a useful tool or something entertaining.
What you want is to be able to sustain happy paying customers.
“2-3 hours of coding a day is great”
When you’re coding for yourself you are the user. You can make the decisions quickly and know what you’re asking of yourself. There is no communication overhead.
When you work with customers that slows things down especially if they’re not easy to get hold of. Most of the time you work with a project or program manager (PM in Microsoft speak) who advocates for the user. This speeds up the simpler decisions but complex or difficult decisions will still require time.
With more developers, testers and partners the communication overhead increases. You make educated guesses and perform iterative steps and keep everyone involved. If those guesses are wrong they should show up quickly. You can address those wrong guesses before too many features, code or documentation rely upon them being implemented wrongly.
If a decision can’t be easily reversed in the short term the it needs discussion. That takes time.
Two hours of coding a day can be fine. If it takes the product in the right direction.
“Not giving back to the public domain is a norm”
Whether you contribute code back to the outside world is defined by your personal goals and the team around you.
Some teams like the ones on ASP.NET MVC and Entity Framework have completely opened their stacks. Other teams have contributed back to existing projects. Your might not be able to do either… yet. Things are changing at Microsoft as these projects show and it can take patience and perseverance to make it happen.
It can be painful for a developer to break through the resistance of his own team and legal. There are reasons not to:
- It takes time and effort to put something out for public consumption
- It can take ongoing time and effort to maintain that code publicly
- If your code is innovative to your business area you might be giving the competition a boost
- Legal may perceive code contributions as a patent minefield
If your code doesn’t give you an edge then why are you writing it? Intellectual challenge? Do that on your own time. If something open source already provides important functionality you need to get permission to use that instead. Don’t give your competitors your edge while it counts.
“It’s about getting it done”
Shipping good products leads to success. Waiting for perfection leads to failure.
Shipping is everything. True, it’s not always first-to-market that wins but being late won’t help unless you have something that’s radically different. A lower bug rate or a slightly more polished experience won’t be enough.
It’s incredibly easy to ship updates today. Concentrate on getting the features usable and ensure it doesn’t harm the user. That means no corrupting data or major security issues.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. – Gandalf ;-)
Your product will ship with bugs. If you have a good test team you’ll know what some of them are. Fix the critical, the blockers and the high-priority as best you can. Your competition isn’t going to wait, nor are your users.
The more easily discovered or hard to work around a bug is the quicker it will be found. A hard-to-reproduce bug that’s easy to work around isn’t worth the time you already spent thinking about.
“Copy-pasting code can be okay”
Starting a shared library between teams requires an intentional co-ordinated effort.
- When a team modifies a shared library do they know how it affects other teams? No.
- Will the other teams be carefully monitoring the shared library? No.
Copy and pasting is fine for odd classes. You get code re-use without having to set-up merging, policies and ownership.
Fixing a critical bug in shared code always requires co-ordination between teams whether they copy and pasted the code or whether they take a shared dependency.
Bugs can hide bugs. Fixes can reveal more bugs.
“Code reviews can be skipped”
There are a few things people want to get out of a code review and how well it goes depends on the people interested in reviewing the code.
How well did I implement this feature?
We’d all love to know this but it’s the hardest thing for somebody to critique in a code review. They probably don’t know the requirements well and unless they’ve been in that area of code lately they probably don’t know what the alternatives are and why you went with this approach. To know as much as you do about implementing this feature they would likely have needed to have spent as much time on it as you.
Code reviews rarely provide good feedback in this area unless you’re new to the team – in which case you should probably have pair-programmed instead and had a better experience.
Are there any glaring bugs?
If you’re a professional you should have read your code back and forth several times and probably refactored it until it looked good. If regular bugs or code reviews point out issues then you need reviews for this. Some people are much better than this than others – it’s one of personal discipline.
You should spend far more time reading your code than you did writing it.
Did I regress performance, security or reliability
This is about the best thing you can get out of a code review. People know arcane little bits about the system that are probably not well known and tricky to document. If you’re working in code that is called all over the place go for the code review especially.
“So… can code reviews be skipped?”
I’d be lying if I said I had a code review for everything I did. Sometimes you know the code base like the back of your hand and there are plenty of checkpoints further in the process as well as other eyes constantly on the code-base. A lot of open source projects work well this way.
Never skip a code review when:
- You’re in a rush. That’s exactly when you need it most. Send it to multiple people and wait for 1 or 2 responses – it parallizes well.
- The code is used everywhere. The more callers, the more places to fail.
- The code accesses sensitive data. Patching after a breach is too late.
At the end of the day ask yourself “Could this code damage the reputation of the company and therefore my career?”. If the answer is YES you need a review.
Competition and stagnation
When new markets and opportunities appear it often doesn’t belong to one team and many teams can find themselves in the same space as executives go for the land-grab. This behavior is actually encouraged at all levels in the annual reviews … “expand your influence”.
Unfortunately this often results in customer confusion, especially as products expand and subsequently overlap. LINQ to SQL and Entity Framework are my own personal experience this but I’m sure you think of plenty more.
Conversely once a market is owned by a team it can stagnate quite quickly. Microsoft Billing and the MVP/MCP portals spring to mind. The latter requires Internet Explorer only to function. In compatibility mode no less. There are more than a few Microsoft web sites looking very dated.
Be aware of what other teams are doing and how it impacts yours. Treat teams in similar spaces as potential competitors but remember that their public failures reflect on the whole company including you.
Bring solutions, not problems
The article reminded me of one from a year or two back where somebody left Microsoft after a promising start that turned into a series of bad reviews after he started trying to change things by pointing out to people what’s wrong.
People know what’s wrong.
Microsoft like other big tech companies has a lot of smart people working for it. Smart people are busy.
Going around telling people that they’re doing things wrong or that things need to change without a plan is never going to make you friends or cause change. Guess what. Career progression is part popularity contest.
Worried the new site has so many hands it’s going to be a mess?
Don’t complain, do something. Figure out a solution that also solves pain for others so they’ll buy in. Work with the designers on a grid based PSD template, codify it into CSS, check it in and get it included on every page. Sacrifice a few lunchtimes to train the team on it. Get it done.
Think the approach you’re taking for security isn’t enough?
Liaise with experts, find the issues, develop or adopt libraries, tools and techniques to make the problem go away.
Get to the root of a problem and make sure the solution fits both sides
If you interface with customers directly through one of the many partner or support programs or indirectly through forums and Twitter you’ll see upset customers. It’s hard, but it applies to all products. Upset people forget there are real people working hard on the product they use. That if they scream and shout they’ll get what they want. It doesn’t work that way.
You will come across good ideas, suggestions and feature requests internally and externally. Take the time to distill them down into small useful bite-sized pieces. Take from the critic’s what you can use for a better product and forget the rest.
People develop for themselves and what makes a great solution for them might not be for other people using your product.
Teams can be resistant to fully-baked solutions being handed to them. Come with bite-sized pieces and a few ideas on how they could interact. Let the solution flow out of discussion and debate. The result will be better than what you could come up with anyway.
This is even more important when dealing with other teams. They know their internals, other customers and future road-map better than you do.
Expert means something different on the inside
Whether you’re an MVP or wrote a best-selling book joining the team behind it means you’re about to become a different type of expert.
You’re an expert on using the product. On the features that shipped. On the way it’s used.
You are about to learn is why the product is shaped that way. The hard decisions, the cut features, the implementation and constraints.
Brace your ego for impact. It doesn’t matter that you can write any kind of LINQ query off the top of your head and have used it in several apps. When you join the team behind it you’re in for a crash course in expression trees, compilers and query reduction. How far down does the rabbit hole go?
All those great ideas and suggestions you had as a user? Be prepared to find out 99% of them aren’t original. There are reasons why they’re not there. Ideas are cheap.
It’s now your job to figure out how to make them happen. Execution matters.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved working at Microsoft. It’s an exciting place to be with so many cool things going on. Leaving was a hard decision motivated by factors not on this list.
Like any job there will be challenges. Some unique to Microsoft, some big-company specific and some near-universal that you may be experiencing for the first time if you’re new to the industry.
Learn, adapt, thrive.
There’s something entrancing about the pixel. Square and elegant and when pushed by the right people they can form beautiful art, stunning animations and gorgeously crisp text.
But as resolution and pixel density increase these building blocks of the screen become smaller and individually insignificant especially as the dpi of displays hits 220+ppi. What once was a building block of art and design becomes nothing more than a indistinct element in a photo-realistic image or a glint in a faux-texture supporting a skeuomorphism.
And so the art style of the visible pixel is doomed… or is it?
Minecraft brought 3D pixel art to the mainstream with its wild success across PCs, iOS and even the Xbox. Some people say it’s despite the graphics but I think they’re part of the charm.
Skrillex Quest is a 3D Flash game with textures made up of large pixels and all manner of 8 and 16-bit style graphic corruption that lends to the retro feel while music from the man himself ensures your ears stays as overwhelmed as your eyes.
Sword & Sorcery: EP is a recent discovery for me but its gorgeous 2D landscape, fun story and great sound make for awesome atmosphere. It’s currently available on Steam for the PC or Mac and available from the iOS store too.
LucasArts Adventure Pack on Steam gives you a bunch of point and click adventures including two installments of Indy, Loom and The Dig. They also have a Secret of Monkey Island 1 & 2 Bundle that has updated graphics but your can toggle back to the pixelated 256-color VGA version at any time.
Home from Benjamin Rivers is a creepy whodunit horror mystery where the story unfolds and changes based on your own actions. Who knew pixels could be so creepy.
eBoy is a three-man team that has been creating isometric pixel art for years sometimes for magazines and adverts but primarily available as posters and wallpapers and now puzzles too.
Color Cycling revisits the technique of animating hand-illustrated Amiga artwork that achieved the effect of animation simply by cycling parts of the color palette. This effective technique was incredibly space efficient and was something every Deluxe Paint user tried (and likely failed) at some point.
Iotacons by Andy Rash are very low-resolution icons of various celebrities and well known pop-culture figures lovingly adorned in digital format and, on occasion, as a real-world cross-stitch.
DeviantArt have an entire category dedicated to pixel art many of which are lovingly animated. If the cuteness of these pixels doesn’t make you miss them then nothing will.
F David Thorpe produced some great loading screens for computers in the 80s despite their crazy technical limitations. Binary Zone has a great page that highlights some of his best.
Animated backgrounds from various fighting games look beautiful.
Fonts & icons
FontStruct is an online tool that lets you build fonts from blocks and so lends itself well to people wanting to reproduce bitmap fonts. They have almost 500 fonts in their gallery already tagged with ‘pixel’
Semplice Pixelfonts has some beautiful proportional pixel fonts in TrueType format.
WeLoveFine also have a great selection of 8-bit wears just flowing over with pixels.
Red Bubble have a Mac Cursor Icons T-shirt that the original Apple fans can appreciate.
In the real word
Cube Craft Pixel Pages consists of a bunch of icons you can print out, cut and fold to create a pixel-deep real-world rendering when placed against a solid surface.
My Desk is 8-bit happened when Alex Varanese wondered what a video-game would look like rendered on his desk. It’s a labor of love 1:18 long video with great chip music too.
Swedish Subway shows that the small square tiles that adorn the walls of subways can be put to creative use when you think of them as pixels such as this homage to video-games.
Playing Cards featuring pixel art including some from video games such as space invaders.
8-bit pop-up cards are a fun way to make a gift card with more pixel goodness.
A love of pixels can however go too far.
Wikipedia has an excellent article on the screen resolutions and color capabilities of 8-bit and 16-bit computers. With such few colors available it was necessary to blend colors together to achieve the effect of more colors or shades. This tutorial at Deviantart is a good start although there are a few different algorithms available including the most famous Floyd-Steinberg and the ordered dithering of Windows older users may be familiar with.
Further exploration for those still with me…
Teletext (aka Videotex, Ceefax) was a low-resolution graphics system long before the Internet. It was available in some countries such as the UK via television and some early computer systems (Prestel, Micronet) used it over incredibly slow (1200/75bps) modems although it had a certain charm.
Creating graphics and pages in it was quite a challenge and I actually have a Cambridge University IT Certificate for doing so while at school where we also used a special adapter with our BBC Micro to let them download programs by holding a TV aerial up and waiting a lot. The French also had a system based on this called Minitel which was shut down earlier this year :(