23 Feb 2024

This blog has had a variety of structures since it started, but for many years it’s been whittled down to the very basics: a reverse-chronological list of posts, with an archive. However, as I pick up the amount I’m posting here (both frequency and volume), I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be useful to start adding long-lived summary pages to bring together pages on particular themes.

To that end, I’ve added a page summarising my various keyboard projects. This gives an overview of each project, and links to the relevant posts and external resources.

Behind the curtain, I’m trying out Jeykyll’s data files as an easier way to produce structured pages. The page itself is a Liquid template that iterates over a separate YAML file which looks like this:

yaml - title: Full Keyboards keyboards: - key: corne name: Corne thumbnail: images/keyboard_thumbnails/corne.jpg hero_image: /2021/12/corne_full.jpg firmware: description: | This is the first proper keyboard I made, and is still in daily ...

This turns out to be a good fit for how I think about these things, so I can see myself using the technique more in the future.

I anticipate adding these kind of topic pages as other themes emerge, but sparingly. The reverse-chronological list of posts is the heart of blogging, and this blog is no exception.

Cheap and Cheerful

11 Feb 2024

In my post recent about the dawn of the Mac, I alluded to the fact that I didn’t have a Mac at all until much later, but instead grew up on other platforms. I’d like to expand on this a little.

For much of the late eighties and early nineties, the computer market was bifurcated, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Powerful, and correspondingly expensive, PCs and Macs were increasingly prevalent in the workplace. In homes, however, there was a completely separate ecosystem. Amigas (and Ataris) weren’t generally as powerful as their business rivals, peripherals like displays were rougher around the edges (more often than not, it was just a regular TV), and advances like hard drives were slower to arrive.

Nevertheless, the fundamentals of what was then the leading edge of computing — graphical user interfaces, applications such as word processing and desktop publishing, and so on — were all present and correct. These platforms allowed people a gateway into this world at a price that was literally an order of magnitude cheaper. You could get a complete system for a for a few hundred pounds, rather than a few thousand.

Back in the present day, I’m typing this on a wall-size display in my Meta Quest 2. Yes, the resolution could be better, the hand tracking keeps kicking in as I type, and the passthrough looks like 16mm film that’s been left in an Argentinian basement for fifty years, but it’s easily good enough to give a taste of the possibilities, and might even be useful. The games are pretty good, too.

Pixel-art image of Tutankhamun's blue and gold death mask wearing a Meta Quest 2

Image based on Avril Harrison’s iconic King Tut, which adorned the box of Deluxe Paint III.

First Contacts

30 Jan 2024

Today I hit a switch that I’ve been putting off for a while; I ended my decade-long refusal to give access to my address book to WhatsApp. When the service first came to prominence, I decided I wasn’t happy giving other people’s information to FaceBook, despite the limitations it placed on my use of the service. However, I’ve been re-evaluting this for a while, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, statistics. The service is very widely used here in the UK, and has been for many years, and almost everyone will follow the default path and allow it to scan their address book. The chances of my providing any information that the company don’t have already are basically nil. As such, my demurring is at this point purely symbolic.

Secondly, and more importantly, the landscape has changed. Since the rise of WhatsApp, tech in general and the handling of personal data specifically has a lot more regulatory and legislative attention. In particular, the GDPR1 provides targeted and toothy oversight in this case. While I don’t really trust FaceBookMeta any more than I did in 2014, I trust that they’re under close scrutiny, backed by serious regulation. Their public description of how they handle contact data seems fine, and I now have a reasonable amount of confidence that they’ll stick to it.

With those two points, I was on the fence. The thing that finally pushed me into action was this story, which quotes Apple as being willing to “withdraw critical security features from the UK market” if amendments to the Investigatory Powers Act current under consideration make it into law.

I am far from a privacy absolutist, and recognise that there are circumstances that justify law enforcement, with due process and safeguards, gaining access to private communications. I also bristle whenever gigantic transnational corporations seek to place themselves above elected governments. However, the legislation in question, as is the case more often than not, does not engage with the nuances of the technology it seeks to regulate, and in my opinion fails to balance individual and societal rights.

My hope is that the government listen to the arguments put forth, and refine or drop the changes. However, this is by no means certain (or, I fear, likely). Moreover, Apple has, on multiple recent occasions, shown its willingness to comply in the more minimal and spiteful way possible with legal constraints it doesn’t agree with, and so I have little doubt it would be good to its word. If that comes to pass, iMessage would be the most likely casualty for UK users.

With that in mind, making sure I have WhatsApp as a fallback seems prudent. It is, of course, possibly that WhatsApp will find themselves in a similar position as Apple, but given the degree to which it’s used for off-the-books Westminster discussions this seems like one thing that might actually get the politicians to sit up and take notice. It’ll be interesting to see when the penny drops.

  1. Despite Brexit, the UK still has equivalent protections in the form of the Data Protection Act 2018, at least for the moment. [back]

The 41st Anniversary of the Information Purification Directives

24 Jan 2024
Welcome to Macintosh

Forty years ago, on January 24th, Apple introduced Macintosh, and showed the world how 1984 wasn’t like “1984”. Over the intervening decades, both the company and the platform have had ups and downs, but today the Mac is not only here, but in very good shape. Whatever you think of the computers themselves, or the company that makes them, it’s undeniable that this launch was one of the formative events of the modern tech landscape. To mark the occasion, I decided to embark on a little project — resurrecting the Mac SE that has been sat on my shelf for far too long.

It’s worth noting at this point that I have no personal experience of the dawn of the Mac. For the first few years of its life, I was resolutely in the land of eight bits — the Acorn Electron and Commodore 64. A couple of years after the Mac SE came out, we got an Amiga 500 that shared its Motorola 68000 processor1, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Mac until I got to university in 1996, and didn’t buy one myself until 2002, at the start of the OS X era. However, the classic Macs, and in particular the compact Macs like the SE and the very first 128k model, have long been an object of historical fascination for me, and so I was keen to properly try one out.

The specific SE in question was picked up at a hardware giveaway at the Computer Lab around the turn of the millennium; an internal label suggests it originally dates from 1988. It’s the FDHD version, with a double density floppy drive and an internal SCSI hard drive with a whopping 20MB capacity. I’ve had it up and running on previous occasions, but the last time I tried to get it going (when my daughters expressed curiosity about it) it hit the dreaded question-mark-floppy error, meaning that enormous hard drive was kaput. I resolved to fix that, and do it properly, so that we could actually use and explore the computer as it would have been in its heyday.

A Microscribe SCSI hard drive and a BlueSCSI board

After a bit of research, I landed on the BlueSCSI as the best way to do this. This is a small board that hosts a Raspberry Pi Pico, and emulates a SCSI hard drive (or several), using an SD card for storage. You can get these ready assembled, but I opted for the kit form. I also upgraded to the Pico W, which with appropriate software allows the 80s OS and hardware to connect to 2020s WiFi. A little through-hole soldering later, and some tips from the very helpful Discord group, and I was greeted by the Welcome to Macintosh banner.

In order to get as close to the original experience as possible, I’ve gone for System 6. Coming at this from a modern context, one of the first things that strikes you is something that isn’t there: multitasking. I’m not talking about some underlying technical capability (though that’s not there either), but at the user level. By default, you can only run one application at once. This includes the Finder (the desktop and file manager); when you start an application, the Finder exits, and only returns when you quit the application.

System 6 introduced an optional alternative, MultiFinder, which keeps the Finder and multiple other applications running concurrently. This would have been completely infeasible on the original Mac with its paltry 128k of RAM, but the SE’s relatively generous 4MB makes it a useful option. It became the only mode of operation in System 7, and of course is now the way that all desktop OSs work.

The original, single-tasking Finder does, however, strongly echo another, more modern OS that’s still going strong: iOS. On iPhones (and, for the most part, iPads), launching an application takes over the entire device until you exit it and start another. Of course, those devices are constantly multitasking in the technical sense, running loads of stuff behind the scenes and keeping recently used applications running in the background, but from the user perspective there’s a definite echo of the first Mac.

Another distinctive things is the hardware. The all-in-one form factor is iconic, and the Mac SE hews closely to the template established by the first Mac. Coming at it cold, I expected the 9” screen to be an impediment, but I found that in actual use it isn’t. While it’s a far cry from the 27” screen I use at my desk with a modern Mac, the difference between it and a laptop screen is far less pronounced. More tellingly, it’s almost exactly the same size as my iPad Mini. On both iPad OS and System 6, software expects to be running within such constraints, and adapts accordingly, meaning that it doesn’t offer a barrier in practice.

More than the size, the compact Mac display is marked out by the colour, or rather the lack of it. While pretty much all of the other computers of the era (PCs, Commodores, and even Apple’s own Apple ][ ) spent their increased graphics grunt on adding colour, the Mac spent it on resolution, giving a single-bit display (black and white, no greyscale) with a relatively high density of truly square pixels. If your target is serious work, rather than games, even a brief acquaintance suggests that this was the right call. The display on the SE is crisp and bright, and remains very usable even after 36 years.

Inside the SE (a place with which I’m now far more familiar) is a Motorola 68000, running at 8MHz, just like the original Mac. For comparison, my work laptop has an Apple Silicon M1 Pro, which has ten cores, running at up to 3320MHz. The two are so different that it doesn’t make sense to do a quantitative comparison, but the modern device clearly has orders of magnitude more processing power at its disposal. So, the SE will feel slow, right? Actually, not so much. In general, it feels snappy and responsive, in some cases faster than its younger cousin, and it’s interesting to think about the reasons why.

One reason is the aforementioned lack of multitasking. I’m typing these words into TeachText, the extremely basic text editor bundled with System 6, and (as I’m not using MultiFinder), that’s the only user level code that’s running. While modern OSs and multicore processors are generally pretty good at keeping background tasks in the background, you still get the occasional judder when one suddenly demands more power, or contends for a common resource such as mass storage.

More important, though, is that the software being run is doing far less. If I somehow managed to run System 6 and TeachText on Apple Silicon, it would run like the blazes. However, modern applications have grown in complexity, both inherent and useful (constantly checking the code you’re typing for errors, for example), and… less useful. Software can gain needless complexity for a variety of reasons — the need to market showy new features, the lack of the time, will or skill to make things simple, or misaligned incentives between the user, the customer (often someone else) and the software provider. However it arises, it sucks up the phenomenal gains that have been made in hardware over last forty years and makes your brand new computer feel no faster than a decades-old antique.

With all that in mind, one last question remains; what becomes of the SE? Now that I’ve resurrected it, I don’t want to just put it back on the shelf to resume gathering dust. There will certainly be a history lessons or two with my daughters, and I can see myself playing around with quite a few bits of period software to see how they compare to their modern equivalents. Beyond that, Hypercard might be an interesting medium for the girls to explore digital and interactive art. Finally, I can see its appeal as a distraction-free writing tool. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Overall, I’m glad I decided to embark on this slightly weird endeavour. Not only was it fun to get working, but it’s given me a far better insight into a branch of computing history I didn’t experience at the time, and through that an interesting perspective on the present day.

If you don’t happen to have a Mac SE sitting on the shelf, you can still explore the classic Mac experience in the comfort of your browser at Infinite Mac. If you want to read more about the creation of the Mac, a great place to start is, full of stories from and of the people who were there.

  1. By way of an Acorn A3000, but that’s another story. [back]

Read Something Wonderful

8 Jan 2024

I’ve just started on Make Something Wonderful, from the Steve Jobs Archive:

A curated collection of Steve’s speeches, interviews, and correspondence, Make Something Wonderful offers a window into how one of the world’s most creative entrepreneurs approached his life and work.

Beyond a very limited print run, this is available both online and as a standard ebook. When it first came out, there was a lot of talk amongst the Apple cognoscenti (for example, on Daring Fireball) about how the web version was the superior way to read it.

So far, I’m pretty sure I disagree. The web version is aesthetically nicer in many ways, in particular the typography. However, in terms of the actually reading experience, I think it falls short.

With the ebook, I can load it onto an eInk device (even a Kindle) and read it in comfort. My position is kept consistent across devices, if I want to snatch a few moments to read on my phone. I can make highlights and notes, and these will easily and automatically flow to Readwise and thence Obsidian. It’s a robust and mature ecosystem, and the web version offers only a much reduced, ersatz version of it1.

I’m not suggesting that aesthetics aren’t important, and the flexibility of the modern web allows creators to go beyond what’s possible with the constraints of ePub and similar formats. However, the trade-off is utility.

There’s a similar trade-off between ebooks and physical ones. I very much appreciate a well produced, thoughtfully designed paper book, with gorgeous illustrations and typography, such as Dave Addey’s Typeset in the Future. I have physical copies of my favourite novels to return to again and again. If I’m after the text, rather than the artefact, though, an eBook is usually superior.

There is one ray of light for the web version of Make Something Wonderful, though. Behind its JavaScript and web fonts and scroll hijacking is a standard, reasonably well structured web page. That means you can import the whole thing into a read later service such as Readwise Reader, and reproduce a lot of the practical advantages of the ebook version, at the cost of those aesthetics.

In fact, the foundation have given us the best of both worlds. A casual reader benefits from the lush experience, while those of us who want or need more flexibility can get it. In a world of increasing restrictions and platform tying, that is indeed something wonderful.

  1. It’s not a stretch to see similarities with the much-derided practice of trying to ape a native app in a web view. [back]

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