Thursday 27 September 2018

Recent sci-fi reads and re-reads

Out of the blue, some sci-fi books I've read during the past year or so. It turns out I've missed quite a many classic works.

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot: A is for Andromeda (1962)

An adaptation of a now-extinct TV-series. Aliens send a coded message on how to build a supercomputer, which in turn helps build a biological entity, which in turn helps build a more complex, human-looking entity. Possibly an early example of this concept. No crossing the light speed barrier here!

Written at a time when sci-fi writers could fantasize about telepathic powers, transhumanist themes and super alien beings, but didn't know what it would mean to have a really powerful computer. Still, Hoyle is quite clever in proposing a vast 3D-matrix of connections that begins to resemble the neural activity of a brain.

There's also TV-like suspense and silly gender roles. The idea of a beautiful woman as an alien emissary does not quite scan the same way in a book as it does in a visual medium, it's an old-fashioned trope too.

Orson Scott Card: Ender's Game (1985)

After Dune, this was perhaps the most major and widely known sci-fi I still hadn't read. (Currently, this distinction is perhaps held by Larry Niven's Ringworld or Frederik Pohl's Gateway)

Children are reared and conscripted for a hypothetical war fought somewhere in faraway space, against an alien race that has only ever appeared once before. Most of the book-time is occupied with the kids' training, as they engage with zero-gravity sports with ever intensifying and more unfair rules, with some computer hacking and VR-like video games on the side.

As the novel was written in the 1980s the tech is fairly well projected. The turf wars and underlying brutality (and humanity) of children let loose at each other is rather nicely written. The twist ending was a bit guessable, which by no means takes away the impact of it.

Orson Scott Card: The Speaker for the Dead (1986)

The sequel to the Ender's Game continues with pacifist themes. Although a good read, somehow it's not quite as satisfying. The mystery of the ever-so-alien aliens serves as an allegory for the engagement with "other" cultures, a common theme in more anthropological sci-fi.

Joanna Russ: Picnic on Paradise (1968)

One of my re-reads, a short novel I recall I didn't particularly like when I read it as a teenager. Due to an outbreak of war, the tourist planet of Paradise suddenly becomes a very dangerous place. A time-agent is tasked with escorting a traveling rag-tag group to safety, a diverse bunch of tourists mostly unsuited for roughing it.

Here the main story is in the discord between the time-agent, who originates from ancient Earth times, and the people with future social mores, an extrapolation of our own times. Although surely a step forward for feminist sci-fi/fantasy, the heroine is perhaps no longer so unconventional. Yet what remains is still a sense of real physicality of the journey and the "dread from above".

Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man (1952)

Alfred Bester was quite unknown to me, despite being one of sci-fi cornerstones. All the ESP/Psi-themes ever written owe something to Bester (The TV Series Babylon 5 named a character after him). Notably Philip K. Dick's scenario of a future ESP squad in UBIK is very close to Bester's world.

Here the plot revolves around whether and how one could get away with murder in a telepathically equipped society. Turns out you need at least an earworm.

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1957)

Humankind finds out teleportation is a possibility through willpower alone, but not everyone can do it and not everyone can do it extremely well. The repercussions of this for society are explored in somewhat same vein as the telepathy in the Demolished Man. The gap between haves and not-haves has risen, and corporations run rampant. Nascent cyberpunk themes. Also, drug and body implant-induced bullet time, anyone?

Although I perhaps liked the telepath-society of the Demolished Man better, the narrative drive is stronger here. I'm not a fan of "experimental writing" in sci-fi, it feels like an experiment on experiment, but I'll give it a pass here.

John Brunner: The Shockwave Rider (1975)

Supposedly a proto-cyberpunk novel that influenced Gibson and the like. Phone-hacking and the word "worm" for a computer virus is famously found here.

Some of the themes were interesting and indeed before their time, but the writing quality was not that appealing to me, filled with puns and telegraphed short chapters. There's a lot of pondering about an ideal society, voiced by the main characters, handily with no one around to critique them. At the end we meet a kind of hippie community which further dates the views presented in the book. There's a trace of the hacker ethos here too.

This book is hugely influenced by Alvin Toffler's almost-fiction The Future Shock (1970). One of Toffler's scenarios was that as the pace of life increases, we might go through various "lives" inside one lifetime. Here the main character goes through various different personas and identities given flesh and bone, by the telephone. Lift up the receiver and I'll make you a believer.

John Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)

Comparable to Ender's Game, but perhaps less grand scale sci-fi. The grunts are taken to faraway planets to fight twitch-and-die battles, but time dilation is no joke so the vets will find their home changed a bit after a campaign. Maybe better re-enlist. Before you even get to say "Vietnam-allegory!", I'd say the story works as a stand-in for any war, and this if anything helps make the book enduring.

The term "laser squad" comes up, and indeed while reading I felt this might have influenced the Rebelstar Raiders, Laser Squad and UFO/X-Com games.

Another book influenced by The Future Shock, Toffler even gets a name-drop. The sequence where the soldiers get back to Earth to see how everything has changed, has maybe not aged that well, but it's a necessary part of the story and the point gets across. The military sequences and the grand scale of time dilation become far more inspiring.

Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

One of the books I read when much younger. The neat thing about sci-fi was I could be entertained with fantastic concepts while introduced to themes like philosophy, alternative social mores, gender equality and political systems, something that I might not have done otherwise. I guess LeGuin's grand achievement was in being able to smuggle in feminist themes to a genre read by young men :)

Two planets, Anarres and Urras, two clearly different political systems and cultures. The other is highly propertarian and capital-oriented, whereas the other has abolished property. Gee, what could it be an allegory of? LeGuin fleshes out the problems of the systems, although also siding with the more gender-equal, socialist Anarres.

For the younger me this was quite a difficult book. I'd like to now say it is a masterpiece, which it kind of is, but it isn't as light entertainment. Which is to say I admit I'm currently looking for sci-fi that has both high concept ideas but also works as stress relief and escapist literature. Or, to put it in another way, I'm currently not too keen to read about a scientist facing problems with publishing papers.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Pizza Box C64

I became curious about what would be the best way to put the Commodore 64 inside a pizza box shape, to save a bit of table room and to have some fun.

Board orientations

Common sense says the circuit board should be tucked away at the backside of the box, but I wanted to explore other logical possibilities too, and bloat the blog post for what is essentially a very simple case project.

1. Board at front, backside to front

The cartridge port and devices would be very accessible, but the front would look messy. I'd have to take a lot of care to make the openings neat and still it would likely look quite bad.

Joysticks and power would be quite accessible at left side. Different connectors and the cables would  eat up table space which is not very desirable.

2. Board at front, backside inwards

Clean front, but the cartridge port would be hidden and unaccessible. Joysticks and power would be highly accessible at right side, near the computer front. Not that bad really, if I am sure I rarely remove the cart. Perhaps the cart buttons could be wired to the side or front.

In a situation like this the SD2IEC could be pulled to the front panel.

3. Board at back, backside inwards

Seems clean all round, but the wires would have to come out somewhere, most likely the back, which would somewhat defeat the purpose of this position.

Pulling some of the cables & connectors to the front would be neat & easy. The cables could compromise the creative uses for the empty space, though.

Again, the cartridge would be quite unaccessible.

4. Board at back, backside outwards

Like the normal Commodore 64 setup, the joysticks and power are at the right. Unlike the C64 they are quite far away from the computer front.

This is perhaps the most preferable orientation, cables are tucked away at the back like they should be, and the cartridge can be accessed even if a bit far away.


I also considered some sideways orientations, although I did not expect them to be useful they are in fact not all that bad:

5. Right side, backside inwards

Again, less accessible cartridge port, joystick ports would be awkward at the back. The cables could be pulled out from the backside, which is a plus of this position. 

Also, there would be nothing at the front of the computer, perhaps SD2IEC access.

6. Right side, backside out

Would give the joysticks and power to the front, and extra access to the cart. The cables would fall out from the side which would take room on the table. Depending on the position on the table this would not be that bad, but the power cord and joystick obviously are a bit bluntly at the front.

7. Left side, backside out

The same problems as with 6, but almost none of the advantages. Cables would pour out from the side and yet the cartridge and joysticks would be quite far.

8. Left side, backside in

How about no? Well, ok the cables can again be pulled out from the back but the power cord would come out from a fairly ridiculous point, something that was about bearable in 6.

So, the verdict is there's not that much to improve on the initial idea, represented by the orientation 4. But positions 2 and to some extent 6, did give some food for thought so it's not the only viable solution.

Although 4 gives the idea that the port configuration resembles the c64 mostly, actually 2 has the joystick/power positioning closer to the breadbox original in relation to the front side of the computer.

Did not explore: Upside down circuit board. Diagonal circuit board. Circuit board at the centre of the box (and all 4 variants)

I'm also not considering a tower now although I was a bit attracted by the upright position as inspired by Sinclair Janus(Pandora?)/Atari Microbox/Sony PlayStation2.

Going for size

By the way, what are real Pizza Box sizes? Google says 16" is for extra-large which translates to 40.64cm. This would be enough to house the 390 x 136 board.

I figured dimensions 410 x 350 x 50 would be a good starting point, it's the real C64 width, the monitor (1084) base depth, about the height of the C64C at the highest point.

The above image collects some of the initial ideas about how the box would be sized in relation to the monitor and the things inside. Top image is front and the bottom image is a sort of "section" from the side.

Based on this image I already found some reason to position the board a bit further away from the backside, the legs might get in way of the board.

Building the box

At first, I placed the circuit board over the bottom, to have an idea what of the real size. Then I drew the screw positions with a pencil, drilled the holes and put the board into place.

There are a couple of bolts on each screw so the circuit board doesn't touch the chipboard, and a few of the screws are capped with bolts so the board won't fall out if upside down.

The legs had so short screws I could not fasten them, I'm just hoping they stay put in the drill-holes.

Then I'm just adding the junk chip board all around, using wood glue although it won't have the proper effect as the boards are already painted.

The four-player adapter fits rather nicely here although I did not think about it at the beginning. The board is kept slightly inwards, not because of the rubber feet I was talking about previously. (The feet were much tinier than I remembered)

The SD2IEC is taken out of its previous cover. I would have rather ordered a new SD2IEC, but I was impatient so the cover will have to find later use.

There's a lot of room inside the box, which is one benefit of moving the computer to a larger case. I'm toying around with the idea of housing a Raspberry there, with no connection to the C64 whatsoever.

I'm not going to lie, the material looks awful ugly at the moment:

Some prettification is in order, but it'll have to wait until next time. This was already one session's worth of work for me.

The size ended up as 405 x 300 x 55, so all around slightly different than what I envisioned. It turns out the 1084S base is really less than 300, and not 350 at all. I could still use a less thick top get to the 50 height though. The SD2IEC went to the left side instead of right.

Oh, where's the keyboard? I have already an idea or two, but again, some other day. The SD2IEC interface and Final Cartridge menus can be operated with a joystick, so for the time being this is a limited C64 "game console".

-> Story continues here

Monday 3 September 2018

Lenovo Thinkpad x220i

Some time ago, I switched over from Dell Latitude 4310 to a used Lenovo Thinkpad x220i.

The Dell charger started to give trouble, so I changed the charger and eventually that one gave trouble too. It turns out there's a signal transmitted from the charger, and if the computer does not find the signal it throttles the processor speed and prevents the battery from charging.

There's a grub fix that prevents the throttling from happening, but it doesn't help with the charging problem. The fix might even prevent the processor from boosting. I also found there is a hack around the one-wire protocol used in the charger, but it seems a bit beyond my time/equipment/skills to be honest.

In addition, one of the USB ports started to show contact problems so I was quite motivated to move on. The Dell was by no means a bad computer for a Linux Mint install, it served me for quite many years.

I had the opportunity to buy a comparable laptop for less than 100€.  Moving over to another, similarly specced laptop, now that some time has passed I felt it would be nice to try to list the tradeoffs:

Lenovo on the plus side:

-I could move the SSD directly to the drive bay of the Lenovo, the Linux Mint boots fine from it. To be honest I might not have bothered installing yet another Mint and building my environment.

-I had 2 x 4GB laptop memory lying around that did not work properly on the Dell, these work on the Lenovo, a very nice bonus!

-The graphics hardware is somewhat better than with the Dell, it can be noticed for example in webGL applications. This doesn't make it a gaming lappy by any means, but at least web banner ads don't slow it down :O

-It's lighter and has smaller dimensions than the Dell. (I count the smaller screen a plus in this case)

-The Lenovo (probably) does not have that silly vendor locked charger thingy

-One more USB, and a USB port that supplies power even when the laptop is off.

-Slightly better/louder audio from the laptop speakers.

-A tiny detail, but like the positioning of the SD card reader better. It's on the right side, almost as if it were a floppy drive.


Lenovo glitches/downgrades:

-The processor (Intel® Core™ i3-2310M CPU @ 2.10GHz) is a tiny bit less capable.

-No webcam. In theory one could be fitted I suppose.

-Although apparently SATA3, the SDD demonstrated only SATA2 speeds so no improvement on that. This might not be the computer's fault, though.

-No CD/DVD drive. Not often used anyway, and an external drive works just as well so I'm not sure how big a "minus" this really is, it's dead weight most of the time.

-The keyboard is maybe not quite as good, it travels a bit more and is more susceptible to small particles. After a few months I've become used to it though.

-Something worries me about the touchpad. The scroll function ceases to work at times, although only at specific Chromium tabs! I've not yet got to the bottom of this, but it only came up after the laptop change so I'm listing it here.


So, all in all a quite good exchange. The pluses are quite noticeable, whereas many of the negatives are not such a big deal or can be worked around. The Lenovo runs the same Linux Mint 18 Sarah 64-bit install as before. Both have VGA, RJ45 ethernet, SD card reader and headphone jack.