J. Peterson's Writing About Electronics, Reviews, 3D Modeling, etc.

Delete – A Design History of Computer Vaporware

Even if “history is written by the victors”, that doesn’t mean the losers don’t have interesting stories to tell. Delete – a Design History of Computer Vaporware is the story of various computer systems that either never saw the light of day, or saw relatively little of it. This is one of the most unique computer history books I’ve run across.

The book introduces the concept of vaporware – systems promised but never delivered. It starts off with the grandfather of all computer vaporware, Babbage’s difference engine. Conceived in the early 1800s as a way to accurately print mathematical tables, Babbage kept tweaking and improving the design, instead of finishing it. The device became a moving engineering target that was never hit, with only a small section actually fabricated in his lifetime. Undaunted, Babbage went on to conceive the Analytical Engine, a full programmable computer made of shafts and gears. It was never fabricated.

From there the book moves on to the evolution of computers post WWII. The book covers the developments in Europe, in particular several early computer projects in Scandinavia I’d never heard of before. As the early mainframes transitioned to minicomputers in the 60s and 70s, the book covers machines like Honeywell’s “kitchen computer”. Featured in the 1969 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog as an absurd home accessory, the vaporware product nevertheless generated a welcome shot of publicity for both Honeywell and the retailer.

The IBM “Yellow Bird” and “Aquarius” prototypes.

Some of Atkinson’s best revelations surround the development of the personal computer in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 70s, IBM created a bright yellow plastic PC prototype called the “Yellow Bird” and another colorful red machine, the Aquarius. These were designed in response to the success of early computers by Apple and Atari. They were much more charming than the bland white IBM PC of 1981, and featured (then) exotic technologies such as bubble memory for mass storage. Alas, neither made it out of IBM’s labs.

The book reviews the influence of Xerox PARC’s research in the 1970s. Their creation of the Alto prototype with bitmapped displays displaying overlapping windows is well known. Atkinson, however, also reveals the “Notetaker”, another Alan Kay design for a luggable computer with a keyboard fastening over the display screen on the top. This design was successfully commercialized by other companies, including Osborn, Kaypro and Compaq. From there, the book moves through PCs to pen computing in the 1990s, the precursor to today’s touchscreen phones and tablets.

Atkinson’s primary focus for much of the book is industrial design; what the devices looked and felt like. Often, the work of the same designer reverberated across multiple product concepts, even if it only rarely made it to store shelves. The book is beautifully illustrated, filled color photographs of ingenious computer designs. I did find a few minor quibbles with his history (Berkeley Unix fans won’t appreciate Sun co-founder William Joy described as a “fellow Stanford graduate”), but on the whole, he sheds welcome light on a fascinating swath of the history of computer design.

Published in 2013, Delete isn’t a new book. However, the evolution of physical computer design seems to have plateaued since then anyway. Phones – everybody’s primary computer these days – have devolved into featureless glass slabs. And one of my favorite computer designs, the Macbook Air, is over a decade old now. The vaporware covered in Delete had significant influence on today’s computer products, even if they never made it to the store shelves themselves.

The Three Piece Burr Puzzle

Somewhere around middle-school, I came across a diagram of the classic three-piece burr puzzle.

It looked fun, so I endeavored to make one. Unfortunately, the materials available to me then (a scrap of plywood and a janky power scroll saw) didn’t produce very good results. It worked, but was crude and wobbly. Spray painting it black didn’t help.

A couple years ago, I revisited the project, this time with 3D printing.

Printed at Shapeways in dyed plastic, it works great. It’s kind of pricey though, running just over $90 for the three solid pieces. Similar puzzles retail for less than $5. I tried making hollow versions to lower the price, but it reduced it less than 20%, and required annoying holes to drain the trapped material.

Yes, I could just have bought one. But there’s something fun about precisely realizing something you envisioned decades ago.

The Raspberry Cup and Saucer

My mom collects teacups, and I liked the idea of creating one using 3D tech. She also grows raspberries in her garden – eating them off the vines is always a treat when we visit in the summer. I was mulling over ideas for a raspberry teacup design when the idea struck of using a raspberry leaf as the saucer. Then I started in earnest. This is perhaps an afternoon project for an experienced ceramics artist. But I’m more fond of CAD then wet clay, so I designed it in Fusion 360, and had it fabricated with Shapeway’s porcelain process. read more »

Backup Software

I started working with computers when they were much less reliable than they are now.  Old operating and file systems frequently lost or corrupted your data, teaching you the importance of a backup copy.  Then the fire at our house reinforced the importance of offsite backups.  The $50-150 a year cost is cheap insurance against losing all your creative work, financial and (ahem) insurance records.

A few months after the fire I set up our computers with CrashPlan. We used it at work, and it worked very well at home. But this summer CrashPlan announced they were pulling the plug on home usage, and their commercial offerings weren’t very economic for few home PCs.

CrashPlan gave plenty of warning their home service is discontinued, but watching smoke roll in to Silicon Valley from the 2017 North Bay fires was a grim reminder. To my surprise, it took a few tries to get find a reliable replacement. Here’s my experience.

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Book Review: The Neptune File

The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting

You might expect planet Neptune’s discovery to be worthy of a footnote, or a magazine article at most. Yet Tom Standage manages to bring alive a fascinating story with an entertaining cast of characters from the 19th century around this discovery.

Man has known about the first six planets since ancient times. They’re bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, and their movements across the sky clearly distinguish them from the stars.

Searching the sky with his advanced (for the time) telescope, amateur astronomer William Hershel discovers a seventh planet, Uranus, in 1781. This created a sensation among astronomers, and opened up the possibility of more planets in the sky.

While trying to compute the precise orbit of Uranus, astronomers noted something wasn’t quite right. It was speeding up and slowing down from where it was expected to be. Two astronomers, the brash Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier and the quiet Englishman John Adams begin undertaking the complex calculations to try and predict where the new planet should appear.

With the calculations underway, the race is on to actually find the new planet, an amazing achievement with 19th century technology. The acrimony and infighting resulting from the discovery also makes for a great story.

Tingbot Review

chumby_pandora

One of my more prized positions is was a Chumby prototype, right off the desk of it’s hardware designer.  I won it in one of the designer’s monthly Name That Ware contests. The idea behind the Chumby was to have a box on your desk or nightstand running casual applications to tell the time, weather, photos, or other entertaining data. A back-end service made it easy to download new apps, which were written in Flash (this was in the late 2000’s, Flash was still a thing then). It was beautifully designed, featuring graphics by Susan Kare and a classy soft leather case.

But Chumby, Inc. died. A combination of bad timing (missing Christmas in 2007, followed by the global economic meltdown in 2008) and the introduction of the iPhone – the gadget to end all gadgets – made it tough for Chumby to find a market. Kudos to Duane Maxwell for keeping the remaining Chumbys on life support.

Recently Tingbot introduced a Raspberry Pi based computer with a small LCD display in a nice desktop case.  It immediately reminded me of the Chumby.

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Why? (Fire, Part 3)

Everybody asks that.  Figuring out what happened wasn’t easy.

Suspect #1 – The Intercom

Immediately after the fire, the firemen pulled out this item from where the fire took place, and casually suspected it as the cause:

It’s a home intercom unit. It’s designed to use the house’s power wiring to communicate. They’d never worked all that well, and several months before we threw out two of the three units. I had an idea for an improved design, so I kept the remaining unit thinking I could re-use the plastic case and put my own workings in it.

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Reality Check (Fire, Part 2)

Siren chasers

Before heading to the hotel, we’d gone into the house briefly to retrieve a few items – some clothes, phone chargers, etc. It was well past 1am by the time we settled in hotel. I couldn’t sleep at all; anxious to figure what was going on, I got up early. My cell phone rang, I instinctively answered.

Caller: Hi, I understand you need a clean up crew at your residence for a fire…

Me: Uh, I contacted the insurance company, I think they’re taking care of that.

Caller: Oh no, you don’t want to use them, insurance just uses the cheapest people. We’ve got a crew of pros that can get right out there and…

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Fire (Part 1)

We’d run an errand, then gone out to dinner. We were out for maybe three hours, returning a little after 10pm. Our teen-age twins, eager to get home, ran up the steps from the driveway to our front door. “Fire! The house is on fire!” they called out. I ran up to see what was going on. Smoke was pouring out the front door.

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3D: Replacement Stove Knobs

knobsonstove

We have an aging Thermador gas range.  One of the original plastic knobs broke. Surprisingly, it was hard to find replacements.  Thermador no longer supplied them, and the 6mm D-shaft was an unusual size for generic replacements.  The closest I could come was some generic knobs off ebay.  But these didn’t have the proper stop inside the sleeve, so you couldn’t push the shaft in before turning it (a safety feature of the Thermador knobs). I kludged some stops with chopstick pieces, but it was clumsy.  Time to roll our own. read more »