The Clever Monkey

Oh no. Beta.

Well, the Retrocomputing StackExchange site I talked about earlier is now in open beta. So far, lots of chatter about old Apple and Commodore equipment, but nothing (yet) about truly old-school things like Altairs or KIM-1s.

I hope to remedy this in the near future.

Anyway, like many beta SE sites we are sorting out the scope of the subject we are going on about, which should be hours of popcorn fun.

It’s interesting to see how people define “retro”. There has been discussion about whether emulators, gaming consoles, or even coding (at all!) is on-topic. I’ve been surprised by some assumptions, because I cannot imagine retro-computing without emulators, coding emulators, and coding on actual retro systems.

Ironically, because of this sort of thing, it may turn out that my questions around emulating a KIM-1 with full RRIOT support may be deemed off-topic there. Which highlights both the great strengths and the great weaknesses of SE sites, in general.

Relentless Coding for 6-year Olds

There is a good chance that the Cubetto Kickstarter I backed will also mature sometime around the kid’s 6th birthday this year.

As ecogrrl says, who cares if this is the right thing to do vis–à–vis female STEM and engineering and all that. The girl loves robots with exposed parts that she can command. I mean, the other day she called me up after bedtime to tell me she wants to design a digging robot for the backyard. She already had an idea of the actions such a robot would require, and how to go about telling a robot how to do these actions. (And, of course, my brain went right to how I could retro-fit a Tonka digger with servos and motors to solve this problem. I swear, if I had a budget I could make the best toys.)

Again, this is likely to go over well. Or we are raising an evil genius.

The Cubetto stuff has less hacking potential for me, but is definitely more kid accessible, and game and story oriented. It will be interesting to see if any of this stuff actually scratches the itch she has expressed.

Because, as we all know, scratching itches is what drives the hacker ethos.


So, I got my daughter a dancing robot for her birthday.


I think this is going to go over well.

Born for it

Over on Martin Fowler’s site, Birgitta Böckeler provides a nice introduction into the gendered nature of early computing, and the historical fall-out we live with today, that is a very compelling read.

The stereotype of the socially-awkward, white, male programmer has been around for a long time. Although “diversity in tech” is a much discussed topic, the numbers have not been getting any better. On the contrary, a lot of people inside and outside of the IT industry still take it for granted that this stereotype is the natural norm, and this perception is one of the things that is standing in our way to make the profession more inclusive and inviting. So where does this image come from? Did the demographics of the world’s programmer population really evolve naturally, because “boys just like computers more”? What shaped our perception of programmers? This text is about some possible explanations I found when reading about the history of computing.

This is a very interesting synopsis and overview of scholarly looks at the history of computer programming from a gender perspective.

Everything I know about electronics I learned from Mims

Stop reading this right now and go throw money at the Circuit Classics crowd-funding effort. Throw all your money at them.

Still reading? Ok. Let’s try again:

Someone had the awesome idea of creating a set of electronic kits that perfectly capture the design and aesthetic of “Getting Started in Electronics” by Forrest M. Mims III, down to the beautiful hand-written notes that accompanied each circuit design.

They are a joy to behold.

Paranoid Android

The only constant is change.

So, the wheels have turned ever so slowly, and now it looks like I am to be an Android application developer, at least for the next few months.

This new position I took recently has, so far, been the usual tour through Java and C++ with the expected diversions into Ant and Jenkins. However, I’ve found out this week that I’ll have to get up to speed fast on Android on a set of embedded devices (i.e., not strictly a phone of some type). So, not only will I have to sort out Android app development using the Android APIs, but also how that fits into a highly custom runtime we’re targeting.

Maybe Harder is Better?

The Internet of Things. It is all around you. It is there when you pay your taxes. It is there when you take out your neighbour’s trash. It is made up of cloud-based web apps and Node.js powered interfaces.

I have a few colleagues that are honest-to-goodness embedded systems developers, and they all without fail absolutely hate these newer embedded toolchains. Most embedded developers I’ve known may have played with IDEs over the years, but eventually go back to plain old POSIX command line development. Maybe they choose a fancy text editor that can run Make or Bitbake for them, but that’s about it. Other than commercial ICE products (sometimes a necessary evil) most of these folks prefer to never see a GUI. For many pros a web-based or Javascript based toolchain is an anathema.

But for weekend warriors and hobbyists, setting up various toolchains for cross-compiling can be a real problem. To be fair, it’s a problem that’s often measured in hours as you sort out all the steps and read blog postings (yay for the internet, because in the old days you had to figure this stuff out seriously out-of-band) as long as you are reasonably good at hacking away on computers and figuring problems out in a step-wise manner.

The problem I have is keeping these toolchains up-to-date and working over time. I’ll get things working so I can, for example, hack on my EZ430 Chronos, and then put that down for a few months. When I come back to it often some unrelated system change has broken some key step, or I need to update part of the toolchain which causes a ripple effect of connected failures. So, we are back to a few hours of busy work putting things back together, which often burns up the time I’ve blocked out for the project, or my interest (or both.)

A Glitch in the Matrix

If you like retro-computing (and I know you do) maybe you might like to see a Retrocomputing StackExchange site?

Such a site is being proposed right now.

Learning Astable Multivibrators Like a 5-year Old

My daughter finds my basement shack fascinating, mostly because it’s full of interesting junk she can wade through. The other day she saw my collection of electronics parts and couldn’t get them out of her mind. Which is to be expected. I mean, have you seen electronics parts? They look like robot jewelry, which (now that I think about it) is like catnip to a 5-year old.

So, I promised I’d show her a few things that you can do with the parts. I know she had visions of robots wandering around answering to her commands. But, I figured it would be an education in bottom-up design to just, you know, flash an LED. So, I collected a 555 timer, an LED, and a solderless bread-board and showed her how boring it is to debug a circuit. It had been awhile since I made a multivibrator circuit, so I grabbed the first 555 datasheet I found on the internet and went for it (thanks, TI!)

Update Roundup Clip Show

I authored an entry on my new camera, but ated it. Anyway, I recently got a sweet deal on a Pentax Q-S1, so I went for it. I’ll probably talk about this more in the future, once I’ve had a chance to play with it more.

It feels like years ago, but I pre-orderd a Tessel 2 when it was announced. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to do with it, but now I can’t remember what that was. For now, I’ll add it to the list of embedded devices. I’m sure I’ll talk more about that in the future.

I’m also pretty sure I’m about to get an oscilloscope so I can finish trying to fix the TRS-80 Model 100 basketcase I have. No sense in letting the beautiful pleather slip-case go to waste. I even have a perfectly capable cassette player ready to CLOAD some BASIC goodness into it once it’s running again.

All this and more, I promise. Thought, right now I’m immersed in some for-pay C++ hacking. Because, for some reason, I keep getting hired as a Java or Lua coder and end up hacking on C++. All I’ve learned to date is that header files are weird, structs are weirder, and new is evil.

clvrmnky, out.

National Girls Learning Code Day

There was a local Twitter call-out for “mentors” to assist with teaching girls, age 8-13, in learning HTML and CSS for National Girls Learning Code Day. So, I thought, “why not”, and volunteered my time; now it looks like I’m showing up at 10AM tomorrow to act as a sort of web coding expert.

There was a brief moment when I panicked about my spotty HTML and CSS experience, and started to plan a crash course review of HTML 5 and CSS selectors and…

Ruby Tuesday

On Monday I had a meeting, and today (Tuesday) I blew the space-dust off of my copy off of the Pick-axe Book and, Crom save me, re-re-reinstalled Ruby On Rails on my lappy.

These two things are tangentially related, of course, and this will be discussed in a follow-up. But, since I’m in a mood to Learn All The Languages, I may as well refresh my L33t Ruby Skillz while I’m at it.

Wherein the Author Attempts to not Learn Python

I recently ran across an article discussing strategies for learning a new computer language (while still having a life) that was both inspiring and a little depressing. I agree that success at something as mushy and large as “learn a new computer language” is best approached as a “series of little wins”.

Inspiring, because I recognized many of the techniques the authors uses to bootstrap learning a new language: we both have a similar approach, where we grok enough of the docs and READMES to get a purchase, and build from there. This can be a very good way of iteratively building up a new skill while side-stepping information overload. Experience has taught me that I do not do well trying to sip from a firehose, and I’m at my best taking the smallest sips.

In Cupertino, Laptop Replaces You

It occurs to me that this 2007 MacBook Pro I’m using is on its second motherboard, its third battery, its third hard drive, its second charger, and its second set of memory sticks.

Now I want to keep it alive long enough to replace all the fans and reseat the heatsinks. I’ll be tempted to replace the capacitors as they start to dry out and fail, too.

A Nice Piece of Kit

So, apparently Heathkit lives again, which creates such a feeling of must-have nostalgia for me, it’s hard to convince myself not to buy this TRF AM radio right now.

Yes, an AM radio. Using tuned radio-frequency circuits instead of PLLs or microprocessors. I imagine for many people, the notion that one could spend US$150 on an AM radio is simply insane. Which, of course, it totally is. But this is as much a statement of art as much as it is a piece of technology. Well, for some definitions of art.

Once I get my Amateur Radio license I’ll be equally tempted if they re-release their famous classic QRP transceiver (or I can find a vintage kit in good repair). Ditto, if they re-release any of the equally famous valve radio kits.

But the thing that really got my attention is a little gem of an air variable capacitor. Good grief, an air variable cap with reduction gears and bearings like it’s 1963? Given how rare such things are, I’m not at all surprised that Heathkit is selling them separately. I’m only a little confused why they don’t share the range of values this capacitor covers, though for US$20 I suppose one would simply adjust they rest of the circuit to match.

It’ll be interesting to see if Heathkit can make a go of it selling objects of nostalgic desire in this manner.

Via Hackaday.