May 29th, 2006

The Good Old Days--load"blog",8,1

I was reading some stuff on-line about computers and was reminded how far the computer industry has advanced since I got my first computer.

The same as many folks my age, my first computer was a Commodore 64. At $200 in 1983 it was a hell of a buy; the Atari computers averaged about twice that, and the Apple ][+ was never less than about a thousand dollars.

When the C-64 first came out, it cost $600. Well, in January of 1983 that was already a bargain, especially for a computer which came with 64k (that's kilobytes for the younger readers) of RAM and a full-color display. It could use a television as a monitor, or you could buy a composite monitor from just about anyone. But the real attention-getter was the floppy drive.

In 1983, floppy drive mechanisms were not cheap. The floppy drive for the Apple ][+ cost $600, and the computer was virtually unusuable without one--99.997% of all Apple ][+ software came on floppy, at least in the US. The drives for the Atari computers ran around $400 or so, as I recall.

Commodore had already been making a floppy drive, the C-1540, for their earlier computers (including their Vic-20--more on that in a moment) so they didn't have to do much to make a floppy drive available for the C-64. They made a few minor changes to the firmware, changed the color of the case, and incremented the model number to C-1541. The drive debuted selling around $400, as I recall.

The Vic-20 donated its case and keyboard to the C-64, although--again--the colors were changed; and because of these similarities, a lot of the other tooling could be reset without major changes for production of the C-64. Prices on the C-64 and C-1541 dropped precipitously. I got my C-64 in the summer of 1983; and at that time, both computer and floppy drive could be had for $200 each.

In 1983 that was simply unprecedented: a fully-functional color computer with 64k of RAM and a floppy drive, for $400. There were other computers out there which were cheaper; but they skimped on RAM, typically only displayed black-and-white, and you used a cantankerous cassette tape deck to load and save programs and data.

The C-64 was a fairly powerful machine. First, the machine actually had a full 64k of RAM. The processor was a Motorola 6510, a version of their 6502 processor--which both the Atari computers, and the Apple ][+ used--and like the other 6502-based computers, its CPU ran at the blistering clock speed of 500 kilohertz (half a megahertz). It could only address 64k of memory, total, including RAM and ROM. The C-64 had 64k of physical RAM in it, and it had something like 24k of ROM; so the C-64 had the ability to bank-switch its memory. If you didn't need the C-64's ROM routines, the entire 64K of memory space was wide open for you.

Contrast that with the Apple ][, which came with 32k, was typically configured with 48k, and which lost some of that memory to AppleDOS.

The C-64 had a bunch of video game features, too--movable graphic blocks called sprites, which were easily programmable. Once you defined a sprite, you could put it anywhere on the screen you wanted to, and the hardware would worry about drawing the actual image. And of course the C-64 had the SID chip.

SID was a three-voice sound synthesizer. It was highly programmable, and it could even be used to modulate sounds from an external source; at a time when you had to buy a special sound card for your IBM PC or Apple ][, the C-64 came with one already installed, from the factory.

The C-64 had several different ports and slots that were of varying utility; there was a 300-baud modem available; the computer had ports for standard Atari-type game controllers. The Commodore serial port was used to interface the computer with its floppy drive (more on THAT in a moment) and other devices, like printers. The computer had a cartridge slot which could also be used for external expansion.

The Commodore serial port was versatile. By 1985 I had an Epson RX-80 printer connected to my C-64 using a "Centronics Adapter". The parallel port which has come to be known by an IEEE designation originated with a company called Centronics, and it was adopted by IBM (which renamed it the "IBM port" of course). The Centronics parallel port was extremely versatile. Rather than send data serially--one bit at a time--it sent an entire byte in one go, using eight data lines rather than one. But it also had a direction select line which allowed the thing to act as a bidirectional port. In other words, the thing could be used to interface all sorts of devices, not just printers!

But since the C-64's port was serial, a special adapter had to be used to convert the serial data stream into something the parallel printer could understand...and that "Centronics adapter" was it. It plugged into the back of the disk drive, and had another wire which plugged into the modem port--for power--and otherwise it was nearly invisible to me.

The C-1541 disk drive, however, was SLOW.

It wasn't the serial port's fault. It could handle the data. It was the drive firmware that was the problem. The C-1541 was just a slow floppy drive.

Most computers in the day had "dumb" floppy drives--the floppy controller was inside the computer, on an expansion card, and a ribbon cable carried instructions and data to and from the CPU. The C-1541, however, was a "smart" peripheral: it had its own CPU and memory...and it was possible to program that on-board computer with different software if one was technically savvy enough.

So, a couple of different companies came out with software which would speed up the floppy drive for the C-64, making it faster. As I recall you could even buy a PROM chip with the faster software already on them, so it would be faster from the moment you switched it on.

So, by June of 1983, you could buy a fully-featured and useful computer for $400, plus tax. The $200 price point resulted in an explosion of C-64 sales. Plenty of people bought the things. (But a lot of those computers ended up in closets; and for a while in the 1990s you could expect to find one if you went to a few garage sales.)

Commodore seriously underestimated demand for the floppy drives. There was a waiting list for them. As I recall, I ended up waiting a month for mine...and at that, I was lucky, as the shortage extended well past Christmas of that year.

These days, now, I look back and smile. The C-64 was a great computer for its time. But now I can run a program on this computer which emulates a C-64 in real time, right down to the sounds.

The things I can do with this computer would have boggled my mind in 1983. For one thing, the Internet had not yet been invented by Al Gore. snicker That is, the Internet was still the domain of the universities, the military, and the defense industry. The number of average computer users who even bothered with going on-line used bulletin board systems (BBSes) like Compuserve, BIX, and others, including a myriad of private BBSes. (AOL didn't exist yet.) Compuserve charged by the hour, and it wasn't cheap; the notion of unlimited access to an entire network of computers with free content was just unheard of.

In 1983 the standard for the audio CD was just being finalized, so of course the ability to produce an optical disk, made to order, whenever I want, would have seemed like black say nothing of the fact that I can also burn DVDs with this thing. (I knew recordable video disks of some kind were coming, some day, though.)

In an age when 1200-baud modems were fast and expensive, my broadband connection--downloading at an incredible 1.5 Mbps--would have made my head spin. It used to take hours just to download a 30k bitmap; the Web, as we know it now, would simply be impossible without fast modems and/or broadband.

But 23 years is about 12-18 "Moore generations". I don't really have a hard time accepting the notion that this computer is 4,000 times more powerful than my C-64 was. My old C-1541 floppy drive could store about 150k worth of programs and data. The floppy drive in this computer can store ten times that, and I don't use it because the capacity is too small. I use CD-Rs which store 650 MB, or DVD-Rs which store 4.7 GB.

This computer has 1,000 times the memory of my old C-64 on its video card, and at that it's obsolete. This computer has about fifteen thousand times the RAM that the C-64 had; and my on-line storage is about 160 GB at the moment. The clock speed of this computer is 2,000 times higher than it was in the C-64, and the CPU swallows data four bytes at a time rather than one, for an effective throughput some 8,000 times greater than the C-64 was capable of. These are numbers which would have staggered me back then.

And this computer is five years old. For about what my C-64 cost in 1983--in terms of the number of dollars, not the actual "adjusted-for-inflation" cost!--I can buy a computer which is much faster than this one is. Adjusted for inflation, though, that computer becomes ludicrously cheap: that $500 computer is, in 1983 dollars, $263. ($400 in 1983 dollars is $758 these days.)


Stupid Power Lines

A few hours ago I was waiting for the rain to stop so I could do some more work on my Fiero.

The Fiero has been needing an oil change, and tire rotation, and some other miscellanious work, for a couple months now. This weekend was to be the weekend I got it done. So this afternoon I went out and put the car up on jack stands and got to work.

I put the rear end up first, so I could change the oil; with a Fiero, if you want to change the oil filter, you have to either get it up on a lift or jack up the rear so you can reach it. It's rather inconveniently located. The rear end of the Fiero is based on the front end of the GM X-body (Chevrolet Citation). In the X-body, the oil filter is up front, fairly accessible; but on the Fiero, that filter is by the firewall. You have to lay in front of the right rear wheel in order to get at it.

Once that was done, I put the front end up on jack stands...and then it started to rain. And O, did it rain. It was a real gullywasher.

Today is Memorial Day, but it has been a lot more like the 4th of July. *sigh*

And so I went inside to wait it out. I was surfing the internet when the lights and the AC and the fan all went off; and I heard the distinctive sound of a very high-current AC circuit opening abruptly--that 60-cycle FZZZZZZZZZZHHHT sound.

"Oh, that didn't sound good," I said to myself.

I closed the programs I was in and shut the computer down (anyone who has a computer should have it plugged into a UPS. No exceptions) and then looked around for a light source....

When the rain stopped I went outside and had a look, and saw flashing lights 'way down at the south end of the street. I went as far as the main street and had a gander, then went back to the house and continued my work on the Fiero. I had to drop each end off the jack stands to get the wheels off.

I had been intending to use the impact wrench with the air compressor, but--surprise!--the compressor requires electricity. So I had to get the tires on the ground in order to break the lug nuts free.

I swapped the tires around, and then decided to go have a look at the south end of the street. So off I went; I closed up shop and walked down to the other end of the street to see what was up.

Well, what was "down", actually: all three power lines. You see, AC is generated in three phases. Each phase is 60 Hz and 120 volts, and they are 120° out of phase with each other. This makes it easy to provide 240 to a house; any two of these lines can be run to a home. If you have an electric dryer and/or an electric stove, you probably have at least one 240 line in your home. You can tell by looking at the circuit breaker; it'll be a ganged pair of breakers.

All three of these lines were laying on the pavement and over someone's minivan. It looked to me as if this rather large pine tree had knocked them loose, and that would have made the ultra-loud FZZZZZZTTHh sound. Current wants to keep flowing, and when you break a power line, the current will actually ionize the air in the gap--and it will continue to flow through the ionized air, even as the gap gets larger. But since it's alternating current, it drops to zero sixty times per second, and that's what makes that characteristic buzzing noise.

Naturally that kind of event sets up all kinds of ruckus in the power lines. This is why I always recommend a UPS to everyone. They're not that damn expensive and they could save you a ton of headaches in the future; they are cheap insurance.

Anyway, with the power lines laying on the street, we weren't getting any power, naturally. So the sump pump wasn't working...and the emergency backup sump pump, the "Ace in the Hole", was not working either, even though it's supposed to have a battery backup.

I got the battery out of my Escort and hooked it up, and the pump started running, but it didn't actually seem to pump out much water. Argh etc. Well, the thing is at least a decade old, after all. So I scrambled to make sure that the really valuable stuff in the basement was up off the floor....

So Mom and I were going to go to Burger King (or somewhere) for dinner, and as I was in the van waiting for Mom to come out, the power went back on.

So here is the moral of my story: if you are me, don't ever plan on getting ANYTHING done in one day. Even relatively simple car maintenance.