"Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."

Apple ][ Forever... and ever

07:52 Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Apple IIe I bought on ebay arrived yesterday. Kudos to the seller for a superb packing job, everything arrived intact.

Once I freed the computer and the monitor from copious quantities of bubblewrap swaddling them, I set them up on the dining room table. (It's not really a "room," it's more like just a place to put a table. But anyway…) The damn thing is beautiful. It's like it just came home form the store. It's got some store logo badge glued on it, but other than that, it's perfect! I've seen a lot of Apple IIs on ebay that just look awful. Schools engraved (badly) property numbers in large figures on them, they're discolored from the fire retardant leaching from the plastic and reacting with sunlight, many are missing keys.

This one is cherry. It's an early model IIe, the same as my first IIe, from 1983. It has the gray keys with the large white lettering, and the case is less susceptible to yellowing, purportedly painted, though it doesn't look that way to me.

The bottom of the computer was equally pristine. All the screws were present, and none showed signs of having been removed. All the rubber feet were still in place.

I removed the lid from the computer and peered inside. Everything looked great. No swollen capacitors on the motherboard, though who knows what's going on in the sealed power supply? Everything was coated with a very thin layer of dust. You'd hardly notice it was there if you didn't disturb it.

And, yes! It is a Rev B motherboard. That means it'll display "double-hires graphics" with a 64K RAM card stuffed in the Aux slot.

I had to find a power cable for the computer, so I pulled the one from my PowerMac G4 MDD (soon to be sold by some means).

I plugged everything up and prepared to perform the smoke test. I flipped the switch and got the familiar, cheerful "beep!" of an Apple II, and no smoke!

Encouraged, I plugged in the Monitor II, connected it to the composite video port of the IIe and powered it up. It came right up and looked great.

I performed the built-in system test and it passed.

Looks like I got a winner!

I didn't get a disk drive for it, but we have the internet these days. So I got a 3.5mm audio patch cable (stereo, but it doesn't matter), plugged one end into the cassette input on the IIe and plugged the other into my iPad. I pointed Safari to the web site asciiexpress.net and typed "LOAD" on the IIe, hit Return and then returned to Safari and pressed play on an audio file of Night Mission Pinball, and in less than a minute I was playing an old favorite!

So cool.

Now I'm kind of wondering what I want to do with it. At first I was thinking it was just going to be fun hacking around with it, burning my own //e (enhanced) ROMs and buying a 65c02 and upgrading it to an "enhanced" IIe. That was a later modification offered by Apple to support something called "Mouse Text" for a text-based mouse interface, and fixing some bugs in the firmware. There's a mod you can make that can intercept the reset vector so you can basically halt the machine and look at or move memory, which was an important thing for the guys "cracking" copy protection, but now is just kind of cool to play with. All of that involves removing chips on the motherboard, and replacing them with non-OEM chips, which isn't exceedingly risky, but it does alter the character of the machine.

So, do I keep this as a very clean "stock" machine that I just sort of build an altar around and take to retro-computing shows? I could get a "beater" IIe on ebay and use that to hack on. Or do I sort of honor Woz's intention and just start playing with it? The IIe isn't as "iconic" a machine as an Apple I or an original Apple II, but I have no idea how many there are that are as clean and completely stock as this. And does that matter?

I did kind of guess that it'd be a Rev B motherboard, there were relatively few Rev A's manufactured and Apple offered to upgrade all of them to Rev B, so it seems the number of pure Rev A's out there is pretty damn small. Based on that, I went ahead and bought an extended 80-col card for it, which will, when installed, enable double hires graphics. It's a period-corrected version too, complete with the manuals which were still in the shrink wrap. (Not any more.) I was worried about whether or not it would have the molex-pin connector installed on the card that enabled DHR graphics. On a Rev A machine, you'd leave that jumper off or the machine wouldn't work.

Surprise! Damn thing came with all the paperwork, including the little sheet with the molex-pin connector taped to it, explaining what it was for! Wow! Twice lucky with ebay!

So I'll pop that card in and then apart from not having a disk controller card and two Disk II drives, it'll be the same machine that I bought in October or November of 1983. I later upgraded that machine with the enhanced ROMs and the 65c02, and I had a RAMWorks III memory card in the AUX slot with about a meg of memory as I recall. Had a 2400 baud modem in it, which I used on bulletin boards and GEnie (the General Electric network for information exchange), a Mockingboard sound card, and a mouse card. Oh yeah, I also put a Zip Chip in it, which was a cpu replacement that ran a 65c02 at 8MHz (stock was 1MHz) with some cache memory in the package to keep up with the processor. Also had a Grappler-clone printer card in slot 1.

In other, "semi-retro" computing news, I bought a 1.33GHz G4 Mac mini for $70.00. I've got my PowerMac G4MDD (dual 867MHz G4 processors) set up in the other bedroom, but I seldom use it because it's noisy. It was disparagingly referred to as the "wind tunnel" machine. I've got some old MacOS PowerPC software that I want to retain access to, chiefly HyperCard and WebArranger, and it won't run on Intel machines. The PowerMac is nearly fully loaded. I'm 256MB shy of it's 2GB max memory, and there may be a HD bay open (it'll take 4). It has two DVD-burners in it, and I added a USB 2.0 PCI card, and the RADEON 9800 AGP graphics card with, what?, 64MB of vram? Can't remember. The damn thing weighs a ton!

I'm going to get rid of it and then tether the Mac mini to the Apple II and use ADT Pro as a server to load programs for now.

Anyway, with Bodhi gone, I seem to have some spare time on my hands. This seems like a happy way to fill a few idle moments.

Here's a quick pic:

Photo of my new old Apple IIe.

Apple ][ Forever

09:58 Tuesday, 16 August 2016

I've been following a lot of retro-computing folks on Twitter for some time now, and I've enjoyed their accounts of how they're cracking (defeating the copy-protection) old disks and preserving them online. A few of those copy-protection schemes were remarkably sophisticated in terms of how they exploited quirks in the hardware, and also using encryption and deception.

I bought my first computer, an Apple ][+ in December of 1981, I believe. It had 48K of RAM and one 143K 5.25" disk drive, didn't come with a display (that's why God made 13" color TVs!), and cost over $2K, which I don't want to think about in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars. Wait, let's see if Siri knows… Of course, she doesn't, but she sent me to a calculator site that says it's just over $5K in today's money. Wow.

I won't bore you with the whole stable, but I owned a lot of Apple IIs, and Apple II equipment, even a few clones, between 1982 and 1996, when I think I bought my first Mac.

The one I used the most, for the longest period of time, was my second one, an early Apple IIe, before they became the //e. It turns out that that was the last model that used a painted case, so they don't yellow like the plastic ones do. We've since learned you can remove that yellowing with a bit of household chemistry, some sunshine and elbow grease. It's the fire retardant leaching from the plastic and reacting with sunlight that apparently causes the yellowing, but don't quote me on that.

Anyway, I've kind of been on the lookout for an old Apple IIe, like the one I had, on eBay. You used to almost have to give those things away, but now they're somewhat collectible I guess. I went back and forth, thinking I didn't need another box cluttering up whatever horizontal work surface I have left around here, figuring I could satisfy my retro-computing nostalgic yearnings with a good emulator on my black MacBook. And that's where things have stood for several months now.

Until this weekend.

Mitzi was on the couch, perusing Swip-Swap, a Facebook group for selling crap you no longer want to people who think they do. I signed up to see if they had any interesting camera gear, or old electronics, or whatever. But you have to be approved, and that didn't happen immediately. So, having created an itch, I satisfied it by logging into eBay which I had successfully avoided since buying a number of slide rules several months ago.

I decided to look for Apple IIs, and there it was. An old Apple IIe, with the Apple Monitor //, just like I had. No disk drive. Buy It Now priced at $150.00. A bargain! (Shipping: $65.00. Groan.) It looked very clean, I mean, very clean. No peripheral cards, just the bare 80-col card in the Aux slot. This gives the computer the ability to display 80 columns of text on the monitor. An Extended 80-col card would have an additional 64K of RAM onboard, which also affords something called double hi-res (high resolution) graphics.

The very earliest Apple IIe's couldn't accommodate double hi-res, and Apple allowed buyers to swap their motherboards for the "Rev B" boards that could. It remains to be seen if this is a Rev B board, but I believe it likely should be.

So, I'm kind of excited (Truthfully: Very excited.) to get my hands on an old Apple IIe. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do with it yet, but there are still some very interesting hardware mods being made to the devices, and some new peripherals that allow interfacing with modern devices.

It doesn't have a Disk II interface card, which is required for some of the modern data storage solutions. I'm not really interested in getting back into managing large collections of floppy disks, or noisy hard drives. There is a compact flash/USB flash storage device that sits on a card that doesn't require the Disk II interface and purportedly uses direct memory access to load and save, making it much faster than a floppy or even a hard drive. But they're only produced in batches of 500, and the next batch won't be made until next year.

Right now, I'm thinking of just playing with the cassette interface connected to an iPod Touch like an old cassette tape recorder. Anyway, if the thing's working (seller says he didn't have the cords), should be fun. If it's not working… Should be fun.

Computers used to be fun. Not so much anymore.

Except maybe the old ones never stopped being fun.

A couple of weeks ago, Mitzi gave me her old 13" color TV. I had planned to connect it to one of those retro-gaming boxes, but I think I know what I'm going to be using it for now.

Every Picture Tells a Story

09:31 Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Great Uploading continues.

There are now 38,025 images up in iCloud, most of them around 3MP. Uses about 80GB of space, and I still have over 100GB remaining in my 200GB iCloud account.

I've been deleting a few images here and there using my iPad or iPhone, but I haven't begun The Great Winnowing in any meaningful way yet.

A couple of things that seemed to stand out to me were that a lot of the images that I hadn't seen for a long time and really grabbed me were shot on the E-M5, a camera I sold to KEH.COM. I still have basically the same sensor and processor engine in my E-PM2, and that was the second device that stood out to me in images that made me pause. But the other thing that surprised me was how many of those shots were made with the mZuiko 14-150mm f4-f5.6 superzoom. It's not a premiere lens, but damn if it doesn't deliver the goods.

Now, mind you, I'm not pixel-peeping. I've gotten over that, for the most part. Still do it from time to time, just to see what's going on; but it doesn't play into what makes an image work for me. And if you're a pixel-peeper, well, good luck with that.

I thought perhaps it may have been that I simply took far more images on the E-M5 than any other camera, but I just checked and while it had been my most used body for some time, the E-M1 has since surpassed it by over a thousand images. 15K on the E-M5, and a little over 16K on the E-M1.

So, hunh, maybe I should have held onto that E-M5.

I'll know more after The Great Winnowing, I think.

Slide Show Test...

13:01 Friday, 5 August 2016

Just trying out a feature of SmugMug that I don't think I've ever tried before…

This may not work.

A Few Thoughts for Siracusa

10:40 Friday, 5 August 2016

I'm a fan of Accidental Tech Podcast. I don't listen to every show, but it's probably the one podcast I listen to the most often. I like all the guys, but John Siracusa is my favorite. I've even bought two ATP t-shirts, last year's and this year's.

This week's show started out with a large segment on John's vacation and the camera and lenses he rented to record it, because his wife didn't feel his Panasonic super-zoom was up to the task of taking "good" pictures.

Marco Arment, another member of the podcast, is a smart, opinionated guy. Sometimes his opinions are a little hard to take. They're not often technically wrong, it's just that they sometimes seem to miss the point. He's a gear head, and so was I for many years, have to have the best of whatever it is you want to have, within your budget of course, and sometimes even outside it.

I believe Marco's wife is a photographer, and Marco's been into cameras for some time now. So, he knows quite a bit about cameras.

Notice, I didn't say "photography." He's into cameras. The gear. The sensor, the lenses, the number of megapixels, the lines of resolution, the signal to noise ratio, all that stuff. Because, as gear-heads, that's what's important. That's what makes one camera "better" than another. And, of course, we all want the "best" camera.

John is a guy who has some strong opinions as well, but, in my opinion, his are often on point. Which is why I like to listen to his opinions.

Casey Liss is another member of the show, and he's entertaining, kind of the comic relief. He also had, at one point, an Oly E-M10, which is a very good camera. He's a bit of a gear-head, but not as much as Marco I think.

Anyway, I'm listening to this show, and Marco is spouting off all of his technically "correct" opinions about the relative merits of sensor size and lens design, but, as usual, he's missing the point.

So, John, if you're reading, this is just kind of a corrective to Marco's correct, but misleading, recommendations.

First, and this is something of a repetition of some posts I've made recently, megapixels don't really matter. Where they matter the most, is in the matter of cropping an image, which may be important to you.

You're concerned about the reach of the affordable zooms for interchangeable lens cameras, that they don't match the reach of your super-zoom compact Panasonic. Well, if you have a 20MP sensor, and a 300mm effective focal length lens (35mm equivalent), you can crop that 20MP image to 5MP and the resulting image is effectively a 600mm 5MP image. So, having the ability to crop a high mega-pixel image effectively extends the reach of your more modest zoom lens.

But is 5MP enough for a "good" photograph?

Yes, it is. Unless you print images larger than 11"x14", 5MP is plenty. Here's a chart at B&H Photo, that some may disagree with, I'm sure Marco will, but I think it's a pretty fair assessment of print quality versus megapixels.

Regarding the quality of "kit" lenses. Marco is talking about something all gear-heads like to do, and that's "pixel-peep." They display the image at 1:1 resolution on their monitors and look for sharpness, acuteness, micro-contrast, etc. Perfectly valid thing to do, but utterly irrelevant for assessing whether or not something is a good photograph.

Any kit lens shipping with any camera today, barring some defect off the assembly line, is going to be "adequately sharp." That is to say, at normal viewing sizes on your monitor or at reasonable print sizes, say up to 11x14, any properly focused image is going to appear sharp, which is to say, not soft.

Long zooms can be a bit softer, but they're also usually adequately sharp. The biggest challenge with long zooms is motion blur from holding the camera. That's where image stabilization helps out. The affordable ones also tend to be somewhat "slow," inasmuch as they don't offer very large apertures, and the sweet spot for sharpness tends to be one or two stops up from wide open. So the ability to hold the camera still is important.

Where inexpensive zooms fall down because of slow apertures is in capturing action, the high shutter speeds required to freeze a bird in flight, or an athlete in motion; and speed of focus. The higher-end zooms are often brighter, which aids focusing, and have better focusing motors and achieve focus faster. So if you're interested in shooting action shots, there's some value in higher-end glass. That's not to say "kit" quality glass can't capture action. These images were shot with an Olympus mZuiko 14-150 (28-300 efl) consumer-grade super-zoom mounted on my E-M1. That's about a $500.00 lens. It's my most used lens.

Regarding jpeg versus RAW. RAW is costly. It costs in storage and time. Nearly all camera manufacturers' jpeg engines are excellent. Unless you're in an extremely demanding, high-contrast environment, or a very important event where you wish to ensure you preserve all your options for obtaining the technically "best" image, just shoot jpeg. If you like to shoot sequential shots, jpegs won't fill the camera's buffer as fast, and clear the buffer faster than RAW images. Furthermore, if you don't think you're going to need to effectively double your focal length, set your camera to shoot at reduced resolution, 5MP or 8MP. If you're just printing 4x6, 5x7 or 8.5x11, you don't need any more. If you're sharing on Facebook or Flickr, 3MP is plenty. If your friends want to pixel-peep to assess your gear, they'll be disappointed; but is that why you're taking pictures?

You don't have to invest a lot of money into a high-end camera to get better images in low light than your Panasonic super-zoom currently affords. You can buy the Sony A6000 for a lot less money than the 6300, and have just as good pictures.

Finally, spend some time on Flickr or SmugMug and study the images captured by the cameras you're interested in, and lower-end cameras you might consider. You may be surprised what can be achieved for relatively little money. It's important to keep the "big picture" in mind, and don't get bogged down in a lot of technical minutia that clouds your brain and keeps you from focusing on the real objective: seeing what is before you that you wish to capture.