Archive for January, 2018

Keyboard latency

January 29th, 2018 10:15 AM
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Having just started working at Automattic, I'm anticipating a future where I'll spend even more time than ever sitting at a keyboard. Computers have been where I've spent most of my career, but they've always been interrupted by presentations, meetings, and the like. With even those now being done at a keyboard, I'm investigating ways to improve efficiency, such as switching to a DVORAK or Colemak layout.

Blogger and programmer Dan Luu recently identified another potential area of keyboard efficiency: latency. Regardless of the keyboard's layout, the actual time between keypress and result can also vary among brands and models — and even eras.

Turns out keyboard latency is one area in which our Apple II computer excels. Writes Luu: "… computers from the 70s and 80s commonly have keypress-to-screen-update latencies in the 30ms to 50ms range out of the box, whereas modern computers are often in the 100ms to 200ms range when you press a key in a terminal."

The author elaborates that modern keyboards themselves often have more, faster circuitry than an entire computer from the 1977 — yet, perhaps due to that simplicity, older keyboards are still faster:

consider that an Apple 2 has 3500 transistors running at 1MHz and an Atmel employee estimates that the core used in a number of high-end keyboards today has 80k transistors running at 16MHz. That’s 20x the transistors running at 16x the clock speed – keyboards are often more powerful than entire computers from the 70s and 80s! And yet, the median keyboard today adds as much latency as the entire end-to-end pipeline as a fast machine from the 70s.

Naturally, that led me to thinking that the best way to reduce my latency would be to replace my laptop's inbuilt keyboard, or even its external USB or Bluetooth keyboard, with an Apple II keyboard — a connection made possible by Charles Mangin of Retroconnector's keyboard shield. But, suspecting more steps between the keyboard and the computer would negate any improvement, I reached out to Charles for additional insight. He confirmed:

It would definitely add to the latency. The processor in the Arduino is running at 16mhz, and takes several cycles to register each switch state change. That is translated to the proper keypress, then it has to send that result as a USB signal, which takes more time. At best, it would be equivalent to a normal USB keyboard, but likely slower due to the Arduino overhead.

Alas, while the Apple II remains king of keyboard latency, that benefit is firmly tied to its classic architecture.

… The answer: replace my entire Automattic machine with an Apple II!

(Hat tip to mmphosis!)

iMac Pro memory comparison

January 22nd, 2018 2:26 PM
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Last week was the beginning of the semester at Emerson College, where I teach a graduate course on electronic publishing. To give my students context, I start each semester with a history of computers, the Internet, and data storage. That last aspect includes a brief mathematics lesson about binary, bits, and bytes, as well as how they scale to kilo, mega, giga, tera, and beyond.

Sometimes, even I need a reminder of just how massive the difference is in the scale between the Apple II and modern computers. The latest model of iMac Pro debuted last month, and with 11 times more memory than an Apple II, said one Twitter user. That's not surprising: early models of Apple II shipped with 48K of RAM, so 11 times that would be only 528K, or a bit more than half a megabyte.

But what Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, Apple employee #66, was referring to wasn't a comparison of a single Apple II to a single iMac Pro — but every Apple II ever, combined:

It's an impressive comparison — but is it true? Let's check the math. Six million Apple II computers at 48K each is 288,000,000 kilobytes of RAM, or 281,250 megabytes, or 274 gigabytes. Hmm… that's not quite right. Let's work backwards: 64 gigabytes is 67,108,864 kilobytes, divided by six million is 11 kilobytes each.

I don't have a precise number for the average amount of stock memory shipped over the lifespan of the Apple II and its various models, but I would guess it was more than 11K. Perhaps Tog is taking into account other factors, like SSD storage… but it still doesn't seem an Apples-to-Apples comparison.

But I appreciate Tog's intent, which may be more applicable to that hard drive. 4TB of storage is equal to 15,339,168 double-sided, 5.25;" 140K floppy disks. That's a lot of disks! I wonder how many floppy disks were ever made?

I'd love to get an unusual yet mathematically sound comparison of these two platforms' attributes that would help my students understand how far we've come. Please leave a comment with your suggestions!

(Hat tip to Luke Dormehl; featured image courtesy ReActiveMicro)

What Remains of Edith Finch

January 15th, 2018 10:29 AM
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After investing hundreds of hours playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I needed something smaller and more narrative-driven to cleanse the palate. A game I'd long had on my to-play list was What Remains of Edith Finch, an indie game that takes only 2–3 hours to complete. My friend Susan had called it one of her favorite games of 2017, so I booted my PlayStation 4 and played it through.

The game is a series of vignettes told from the first-person perspective of various ancestors in the Finch family across the last century. As such, it is set in different eras, and their house is redecorated each time to match the period. Naturally, this put me on the lookout for an Apple II computer, which can be an obvious visual signifier of one's setting. And although I did find a desktop computer, it was an unidentifiable, generic machine.

I finished the game sad for this missed opportunity and watched the credits crawl.

But wait — what was that?!

What Remains of Edith Finch

Each developer is represented in the credits by an actual photo from their childhood… and lead artist Brandon Martynowicz is featured with his Apple II! I thought it might be a IIe, which would've been era-appropriate: looking at Martynowicz's LinkedIn résumé, I'd estimate him to have been born around 1982, and he appears 2–2½ years old in this photo, putting it at 1985, two years after the IIe's debut. But Steve Weyhrich clarified: "The badge should be on the left if it was a IIe. They keyboard is much more Apple II/II Plus-ish, particularly the power light by itself on the left. My guess would be either a II/II Plus with some other sticker to the left of the regular badge, or a clone with a different badge."

Martynowicz left Edith Finch developer Giant Sparrow in February 2017, two months before the game's debut. He now works at Riot Games, developer of the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game League of Legends, inspired by Warcraft III. It's unlikely we'll see his Apple II in that fantasy setting… but I'm glad he worked it into as fitting a game as Edith Finch!

Lisa operating system source code

January 8th, 2018 8:52 AM
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Last week, I wrote about Robert Taylor and Charles Thacker, whose work at Xerox PARC inspired such Apple innovations as the graphic-user interface (GUI) and the mouse. Soon, we'll get to see under the hood of how Apple introduced those technologies with the Apple Lisa.

Just as the Computer History Museum did five years ago when it released the source code for Apple DOS, the CHM will now be distributing the source code for the Apple Lisa's operating system. Museum curator Al Kossow made the announcement on Google Groups, writing, "the sources to the OS and applications were recovered… and they are with Apple for review. After that's done, CHM will do an @CHM blog post about the historical significance of the software and the code that is cleared for release by Apple will be made available in 2018."

Apple Lisa

I'm curious where the source code was "recovered" from. Did the CHM collaborate with Apple to retrieve the code from an archaic floppy disk, much as Tony Diaz and Jason Scott helped Jordan Mechner recover the Prince of Persia source code? Or did some third party, perhaps a former Apple employee, bequeath the code to the CHM?

Regardless of the source, the importance of this release cannot be understated. Rhett Jones at Gizmodo reported, "Lisa was a cutting-edge machine and one of the first to offer consumers a GUI, mouse, and file system, but it was prohibitively expensive and didn’t catch on." To see the origin of these features is to look back at the ancestors of computing staples that are still with us today.

Further, such releases are extremely rare, as Apple is known to be possessive of their intellectual property. In this case Apple has little incentive to make such a release, whether or not there is historical value or modern applications for the Lisa operating system.

Whatever the origin or motivation of both this release and that of Apple DOS before it, the precedents continue to be set, with many implications for the Apple II community. Who knows what other classic software we'll see released from Apple Inc. next?

(Hat tip to Christopher Baugh via Paul Wilson)

Tech luminaries we lost in 2017

January 1st, 2018 10:32 AM
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Five years ago this month, my tenure as an editor at Computerworld ended. But that wasn't the end of the story: the many colleagues I'd worked with extended an invitation to continue freelancing for the publication — an invitation I gladly accepted.

While Computerworld was happy to publish Apple II articles when it came for free from a staff writer, it's harder to justify paying a freelancer by the word to cover a 40-year-old computer. So my articles in the last five years explored other topics, including an annual tradition that I inadvertently began: a slideshow of tech luminaries we lost.

It was October 2011, and Steve Jobs had just passed away. I was on the features team — a group of editors who met biweekly to discuss big ideas for stories. Compared to the daily news grind, a feature could take at least a month to write and was almost always farmed out to a freelancer. Several websites were disgruntled that Steve Jobs' passing had gotten more publicity than that of Dennis Ritchie, who created the C programming language and co-created Unix. I thought this a good opportunity to shine the spotlight on other overlooked industry veterans, so I suggested we publish a feature in time for Halloween that asked the question: "Who's next?!" What other aging founders were we likely to soon lose?

The features team leader politely said, "Ken, that's a really terrible idea… but there may be a good idea we can get out of it."

Thus was born the annual end-of-year slideshow that looked back on tech luminaries we lost in that calendar year. For the next several years, including during my transition from editor to freelancer, I watched other writers assemble the slideshow. In 2014, I was honored to assigned the story, finally being given the opportunity to execute the concept I'd proposed years ago.

That first year, I included Bob Bishop, whom I'd had the pleasure to meet and photograph at KansasFest. I skipped 2015 but wrote the slideshow in 2016 and again just last week for 2017. This latest lineup was the first time I got to choose which luminaries to honor, instead of having them assigned to me. It made it much easier to ensure a diverse cast when that virtue was baked in from the beginning. It also allowed me to include luminaries who might not otherwise have made the cut at Computerworld, such as Keith Robinson of Intellivision fame.

Tech luminaries we lost in 2017

While there were no Apple II legends in this year's roundup, Apple Computer Inc. was doubtless influenced by the heroes we lost in 2017. It was Robert W. Taylor who conceived of the ARPAnet, which became the Internet — but he also worked at Xerox PARC, from which Steve Jobs got the ideas for GUI, mouse input devices, and more. Charles Thacker was another PARC alumnus who helped develop the Xerox Alto, the early computer that embodied these concepts.

Writing this slideshow is a morose way to lead up to the holiday season — but I take heart in my ability to carry the legacies of these early innovators and ensure their stories are known. For everything they did for the Apple II and its users, I salute them.