Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Love and Microprocessors

It was early in my career, both professional and marriage. I was teaching at Electronics Technical Institute in Denver, Colorado and running my own business, RC Electronics, out of my home. I did stereo equipment repairs and built guitar amplifier and speaker systems as well as servicing electronic organs and guitar amps. Linda supported my home business, and we had borrowed money from the bank to buy the electronic test equipment and parts I needed. To save money, I bought all Heathkit test equipment and built it myself. I had a great little shop in the extra bedroom in the basement, contracts with Oden Sound and Music for all their repairs, and things were going very well.

I had subscribed to Popular Electronics since I was about 9 years old, and Radio-Electronics since I got out of the Navy. I also received monthly copies of Byte magazine and Dr. Dobb's Journal. I had a bookcase full of back issues, and eagerly awaited the arrival of new articles about the exciting world of electronics. So I was right on top of the new personal computer fad. I had read with great interest about the Altair MITS 8800 computer in the January, 1975 edition of PE. (Which I still have — wonder what that is worth to a collector?) Since I was an electronics engineer, I had some experience with computers, first at college in Montana where I had written a program to calculate the date of Easter for the next 100 years using FORTRAN on an IBM 1440. (The 1440 had 16 K of memory — but still supported both COBOL and FORTRAN compilers! They really knew how to get the most out of designs in those days.) Later, in the Navy, I hung out a bit with the D.P. (Data Processing) guys on board our ship. I worked in the Electronics Calibration Lab, and they worked in Ships Stores. I would loan them our good Tektronix Oscilloscope to calibrate the magnetic heads on the ship's IBM Tape Drives. I practiced my FORTRAN skills on the program that did our job estimating after I discovered my first bug in the program. (I’ll save that story of my first bug for another time — I worked for 12 years in IBM as a software tester, and I trace it all back to this experience.)

In the late 70’s microprocessors had moved past the first primitive versions that were based on calculator chips and there were several manufactures. Intel produced the 8080, an 8-bit microprocessor that ran at 2 MHz clock speed. That was the processor in the Altair MITS 8800.

Motorola had what I considered a superior chip in its 6800. It was among the first processors to have an index register, which I think put it in the league of an IBM mainframe — although admittedly in a much lower class. It is the Index register that allows array processing, which leads to indirect memory references, dynamic memory, and all the powerful features of today's top languages like C++, Java, and Ruby.

The MOS 6502 was out. It was a fascinating, low cost design that was picked up by a couple of young guys in California, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, to use in their new computer, the Apple 1. Also the Zilog Z80, a derivative of the Intel processor design was available. Zilog was started by the former Intel engineer Federico Faggin. This Italian emigrant and naturalized citizen of the U.S. is the father of microprocessors in my opinion. So the microprocessor industry was ready to support the embryonic personal computer trend.

A little side note about Micro Instrument and Telemetry Systems (MITS). This Albuquerque based company was started by Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims in 1969 to manufacture miniaturized telemetry systems for model rockets. They branched out into programmable calculator kits popularized in Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics. Radio-Electronics had a smaller circulation than Popular Electronics, but led the way with innovative construction projects between 1972 and 1975. When MITS produced the Altair 8800 (Ed asked his teenage daughter what they called the computer on the TV show Star Trek. She answered “computer.” So they named it after the Enterprise’s destination that week, the star Altair.), they attracted the interest of Paul Allen and Bill Gates, two Harvard students, who then dropped out of school and moved to Albuquerque to work with MITS on software. In 1975 they formed a little company called Microsoft which sold a popular BASIC interpreter program. I think, to this day, Bill Gates thinks BASIC is the best programming language there is — never mind about C# (pronounced C-sharp).

I was watching all this happen with an engineer’s eye and a newly weds pocket book. My bank loan to purchase equipment for my small business had some money left, and I spent a lot of time at the Heathkit store on 38th in Denver, near the Lakeside Amusement Park. So after a Saturday visit to said store, I came home the proud owner of a Heathkit ET-3400. This little trainer had a hex keyboard and 6 - 7 segment displays. It had 256 bytes of RAM, and you programmed it directly in machine language. You had to hand assemble machine language instructions in hex and type them into the keyboard. It had a K byte of ROM which ran a simple monitor program, and it was great fun learning how to use registers and program counters, but you couldn’t do much with it, and I chafed at its limitations as I read about all the neat things going on in the industry.

By 1979 a lot had changed for me. I had a new job working at IBM in Boulder in copier manufacturing, and I had a second child on the way. At that time there were several very popular personal computers out there. There was the original Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore PET, and the Apple II. Unfortunately, those were beyond my budget. I was going to graduate school at night, working during the day, and spending weekends with my family and repairing stereos. A busy schedule, and there was not a lot of extra money. Still I kept searching.

Finally I found just what I was looking for, the Sinclair ZX80. This Zilog Z80 based computer had one K of RAM and a 4K ROM running Sinclair BASIC, an actual high level programming language. It had a funky little pressure sensitive keyboard and could display on a TV following the designs from Don Lancaster’s articles in Radio Electronics for the “TV Typewriter.” The ZX80 supported a cassette tape system for program storage. Wow, this was big time. It cost a little less than $200, and I talked Linda into letting me buy it. When it came in the box and she saw it was only about the size of a paperback book, she said, “Is that all you get for $200?” But she didn’t realize that this was a real computer, and I dove into BASIC programming with a vengeance.

(A historical footnote: the Sinclair ZX-80 was later sold as the Timex Sinclair 1000. This is a little ironic, since MITS got its start in the early 70’s selling, among other things, programmable calculator kits that used the same little LEDs found in the early digital watches. It all ties together.)

I bought a lot of books intended for the Radio Shack computer and started writing games. I became an expert at BASIC, and even helped Linda's dad, Bob Lincoln, with a BASIC program he was working on at Coors. The Sinclair was very limited, but I wrote several games for it including my “Nuclear Meltdown” game in which you were in charge of a nuclear power plant and had to keep the reactor stable and prevent the “China Syndrome.” In those days you sold programs in zip lock bags at the local hobby store. This was the era of the early computer stores such as the Byte Shop and Computer City. Unfortunately, the more sophisticated the graphics, the less room for programs since the Sinclair shared program and video memory. I learned early on many tricks to get the most from the hardware, but the Sinclair just wasn’t up to the task, not to mention the difficulty of typing on the one finger at a time Sinclair keyboard.

Then I found the computer of my dreams. It was the new Radio Shack Color Computer or as I affectionately called it, the CoCo. This state of the art computer borrowed a lot from the Apple II. It had the latest version of my favorite microprocessor, the Motorola 6809 and a REAL KEYBOARD. The 6809 costs twice what the Apple’s choice, 6502 cost, and we engineers knew that extra money bought some real advanced hardware. It had Microsoft BASIC in ROM with color graphics extensions from Microware. This was a computer an embryonic gamester could really sink his teeth into. The model I wanted had 32 K of memory and you could even get a floppy disk drive, although my budget did not allow such a luxury. In fact, the computer, at nearly $500, was more than our budget could handle. But, as an engineer, I realized that this computer was one of the most powerful available at that time. It did not have the graphic capability of either the Apple or the current Commodore computers, but it had great potential and COLOR!!

(Later models of CoCo could even be had with OS-9 operating system, a very advanced OS for this primitive time in computing history. I never got OS-9, but read lots about it in the literature.)

So, how to talk my sweet bride into letting me purchase this computer? After all, we don’t really have to make the car payment! Well, I started by talking about the computer at the dinner table. “But what would you use it for?” she asked. “Oh, many things darling, and it would be so educational and career enhancing for me.” “Yeah, sure,” she said with a sneer. Still I wasn’t discouraged. I kept up the chatter until one week I told her, “this Saturday let’s go to Boulder and check out the CoCo.” (Our little Radio Shack in Longmont didn’t have a computer department.) So come Saturday we all hopped in the car, Linda, Mike, the new baby, and off we went down the diagonal hiway to Boulder. There I showed her the CoCo on display and explained all its wonders. She said, “Do you really want this THING?” “Of course I do honey.” Then the sales clerk explained that he didn’t think he had any in stock right now, and would have to order it.

Linda then said, “When I called yesterday, you said you had five in stock.” WHEN YOU CALLED YESTERDAY!!! “Honey, why did you call yesterday?” I asked in astonishment. “Oh, I knew how much you wanted this THING, and I wanted to make sure they had them for you.” Now folks, let me tell you something: that is love. She could care less about the THINGS I had in my little shop in the basement, but she didn’t want me to be disappointed. It turned out the dealer did have some in stock, and by evening I was happily programming “Nuclear Meltdown II” in the basement on my new CoCo. The love of my life was upstairs doing the dishes or reading a book, and the happiest husband in the world was downstairs playing with his latest toy.

You know, it really did help my career. Later, when IBM came out with its new Personal Computer, I was one of only a few engineers in Boulder familiar with Microsoft BASIC, and I went right to work on the IBM PC programming disk drive routines to test our new 3” drives. How that job led me to IBM Technical Education and to a graduate degree in Computer Engineering and to where I am today sitting in front of another IBM PC typing these words is a story for another time.

But let me just tell you right now how important the support of your wife and lover is and how much the sacrifices of a loved one build credit in your heart. I love that wife of mine and, as Ralph Kramdon always said, “Honey, you’re the greatest.”

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Louie Tails

It was some time in 1998 (not certain of the year, but we think Louie is about 12 years old) that I was in the back yard when our oldest son, Mike, showed up. He was feeling down about something, most likely related to a girl friend. He said he had just bought a puppy to be a loyal friend and faithful companion. It was a pure bred Dalmatian with liver spot coloring. That is, the spots were brown rather than the usual Dalmatian black. That made the dog rare and very valuable. He had just purchased her from a pet store. The fact that Mike wasn’t working at the time and had no savings led me to one of those fatherly thoughts about kids and money. But thanks to Master Card, Mike was able to buy a dog that he didn’t really need and definitely could not afford.

Louie is a most beautiful dog. She is white with those brown spots, a short haired and wiry dog. Dogs come in all sizes and shapes, but I think Dalmatians are about perfect in their dogness. They have a most dog-like head, with a nuzzle that is long, but not sharply pointed. She has floppy ears and the big brown eyes common to most dogs. She is short haired and prone to sun burn if you aren’t careful, and has beautiful big paws and muscular haunches. She is terminated at the back end by a medium length, pointy, almost rat-like tail. And that tail is always a-waggin’. Tails are how dogs smile. And Louie has an ear-to-ear grin.

Back then, Mike lived in a beautiful new house out in Johnstown, Colorado. We constructed a fence in the back yard, and by adding a short stretch of fence from the back corner of the house to the fence line, a large dog run was created. Grandpa Bob had built a giant dog house at one point for his dog. It was about five feet tall and had R16 insulation in the walls and R30 in the roof. Somehow Mike and his friends wrestled the dog house onto a truck, and then lifted it up and over the fence (it was way too wide for the gate) and got it into the dog run. The dog run was all dirt, and when it rained or snowed it turned to mud. Louie spent most of her time outside, since she was usually too dirty to come in the house.

In addition, Mike had the habit of leaving the house for several days. He would stay with friends and not come home. So that left Louie alone in the dog run. My wife, Linda, and I would go over to his house to care for the animals, and Louie would cry out plaintively from the dog run. She just wanted to have company. We would get the leash and rope her up for a walk. You had to hold on with two hands since she was so excited to get out. I remember many walks around the back of the neighborhood Mike lived in, following the paved trail to the next neighborhood and back. We would walk her down to the little store / restaurant / gas station and get a cup of water for her to drink. She was so happy on those walks, and her tail would wag like a buggy whip. Once Alyssa, who was only four or five at the time, was holding Louie’s leash when she took off after something. Poor Alyssa, our granddaughter, hung on for her dear life as the dog sprinted through the neighborhood, Alyssa flapping behind like a flag in the wind.

Eventually Mike lost the house and moved to an apartment in Longmont. He could not have pets so the animals were distributed to family. The cat, Tiger, went to our house where she lived for several years before moving in with our younger son, Mark. Tiger is older than Alyssa, which would make her over fifteen years old. She is quite a character and deserves her own “tail.” The dog went to Linda’s mom and dad’s. It was truly wonderful to see Louie out there. Bob and Bea had two acres in the country and Louie had the run of the place. More important, she was allowed inside. She finally got the company she so earnestly desired. You would always find her at Bea’s side or laying at her feet, and she would visit with everyone who came and demand petting and affection from family, friend, and stranger alike.

Although she could go outside when she wished, she never strayed off the property even though the fence was only three feet high and no impediment to her escape. She was a home dog. Bob would take her out for regular walks each morning and evening. Bob would walk her around the block, sometimes clockwise and sometimes counter-clockwise. Because it was the country, the block was quite large. He kept track of her natural functions and reported the count of how often she peed or pooped on these walks. Of course the walks were good for dog and master.

Louie belongs to every member of our family. When Bob and Bea would go on trips, our son Mark would take in Louie and care for her, including walks to the parks near his home. And she remembers Mike and is always most glad when he visits. You can see the special joy in her eyes and, of course, her tail. Bob said once when he was taking Louie for a ride in his truck, Louie would start wagging her tail when they got near Mike’s neighborhood. And what a "tail wag" she has. It is usually back and forth, but when she gets real happy, it starts to spin in a circle like an airplane propeller. It is as if she is going to break her earthly bonds due to extreme happiness.

When Linda and I would go out to see her mom and dad, Louie would hear us at the back door and come running. Her tail would beat out syncopated rhythms on the sides of the washer and dryer as she waited for us to open the back door. She will nudge her head up against your legs and, if you pet her, she will roll onto her back offering her belly for that very special rub. She would visit with each person who came to the house and she sought out affection to replace the lonely feelings of her youth. She would come up to you as you sat in a chair talking and stick her nose onto your lap begging for some rubs behind the ears. Only after visiting all the visitors would she bed down in the middle of the conversation.

She is not a barking dog — only when the door bell rings — then she will run to the door shouting greetings to welcome the caller. Her bark is literally worse than her bite, as she is not threatening to strangers, just so glad to see them — to see anyone! To this day if there is a knock on the door on the TV show we’re watching, Louie will start barking.

Bob always kept himself in good health, and the daily walks were just what the doctor ordered for a 70 + year old. Unfortunately Bob’s ankle began failing; just worn out in old age. So he started having difficulties walking long distances. He began just taking Louie out until she “did her business,” and then he would turn around and head for home. The walks got shorter and shorter. After Bea died, Bob started preparing to sell the house. When the house was sold, he moved in with Linda and me. And, of course, Louie came too.

She is a very mellow and well behaved dog now, under the firm discipline of Bob. She is as regular as a clock and used to her timely walks. She is always ready to go and responds to the word “walk.” Just the soft repeating of the word will raise her from the soundest sleep. Once Bob got established in our household, he began taking Louie down to the lake to sit on a bench and visit with the people and dogs that go by. I was pleasantly surprised Bob would go clear to the lake. It is a half mile or more, and I didn’t think he would walk that far. He enjoys sitting on the bench looking out at the lake, and his walks with Louie take quite a while. The rest in the middle of the walk helps, I think, and Bob commented how he enjoyed our neighborhood because it is “so green.” (The ten PM walk, on the other hand, is just to the next door neighbor’s yard for a quick squat by Louie, then back into the house.)

Bob is always saying that Louie is getting old, and will not be with us much longer. He says she can’t go on long walks any more, and if we’re not careful we will have to carry her home. I dismiss such talk as the negative musing of a curmudgeon. Bob is often right, but let’s hope this time he is not. So when he went up north to Alaska to visit family, Linda and I immediately began taking Louie on long excursions. On Friday and Saturday mornings we would take her all the way to the coffee shop, which is about a mile or so away, and she was full of spunk and spirit the whole way (although a little slow on the return trip). She is especially full of energy in the morning. So we try to make that our long walk together.

I don’t know much about Dalmatians other than they are often seen with fire trucks. I think they must be a hunting breed as Louie walks with her nose to the ground like some southern ‘coon hound, and she enjoys sniffing all the wonderful odors (at least wonderful to a dog) she finds along the way. In the snow, Louie will poke her nose deep into the tracks she finds, and go all the way down to the bottom. That must be where the good stuff is. We have lots of wild life in our neighborhood from squirrels to foxes to beaver, and — of course — dogs. I think she is enjoying the olfactory richness in the way we humans enjoy a beautiful mountain view or sunset.

Scents are just a way that dogs communicate with each other. I call it p-mail. Sometimes Louie will read a message and then add her own “reply to all.” So all trees, bushes, and light poles (and of course, fire hydrants) along the path must be examined. It is a real joy to see this dog romping and enjoying herself. She is sniffing, wheezing, and sneezing as she experiences the “smell-scape.” She greets the other dogs we meet with sniffs at both ends, and she is very well behaved and not a snapper or growler at all, although we have to take care around little dogs. She is not as well behaved with them.

Although Bob had raised Louie with good obedience and steady habits, she was not well trained at the table. She was a beggar who worked her trade from the food preparation into the dinner and dessert. Bea like to feed her from the table, and it was not above Bob to provide some “here Louie” from his plate too. They would even give her the leftovers to lick off their dishes in a manner reminiscent of the joke about “as clean as cold water can get it.” If anything, after Bea died, Bob became even more generous with the dog. Linda and I kept up the tradition when she moved in with us since she seemed to enjoy it so much. Linda would even cook special scraps just for Louie. It is hard, after all, to share a plate of spaghetti with a dog used to catching morsels in mid air. So Linda would cook up some chicken parts to serve along with the noodles, and we would test out Louie’s mid air refueling techniques. Bob even gave her the remnants of his cereal bowl. And you thought only cats liked milk!

The Friday after Thanksgiving became the peak of the behavior. We had the grand kids for the night, and all walked down to the coffee shop in the morning. First Alyssa shared half of her poppy seed muffin. Then Gabe gave Louie half of his Breggo (cheese, egg, bacon, potato, roll — what’s not to like). Then Alyssa got a Breggo, and shared that too. Later in the day, when I was home alone with Louie, she had a very bad accident on one of our rugs. The well house trained dog fell victim to a serious case of diarrhea. I took the rug outside and hosed it off. (Thank God for throw rugs, or Louie’s good upbringing.) Later Louie threw up several times. We now realized that the people food, especially all the Thanksgiving table scraps, were just not good for her. So we stopped feeding her from the table. Our friend Sandi pointed out her dog food was not appropriate for a mature dog, and that she should not be allowed to eat all she wanted. So we purchased a new kind of dog food more appropriate for senior citizen dogs, and put her on a diet of dog food measured out by cup, and no table scraps.

What a difference the increased exercise and good diet have made. She still is a bit stiff in her joints and gets a slight hitch in her get-along, especially after rising from a nap. But she has more energy than I recall in the last many years. She is now bounding and running on her walks, all of which are an hour in length and miles long. Bob won’t recognize her when he gets back. She now has twice the energy as before and I think her health is much improved. The new formula of dog food even has some medications in it for her old joints. I might just try some of it myself.

I don’t know what we’ll do when Bob does return since he is not up to the long walks that Louie has now made her daily routine. Plus we will have to talk Bob out of letting Louie lick his plate after a meal. And we’ve already been told via telephone to keep her food dish full!! There’s going to be some adjusting when he gets back. Don’t know for sure who will have to adjust. We’ll see.

The bitter cold weather the last week kept our walks shorter, and we even bought Louie a coat to wear outside, but she didn’t like that at all. We bought her booties before Bob left, but they don’t stay on her feet and Louie seemed to prefer barefoot in the snow to the neoprene objects hanging off her paws. Today was in the forties (49 right now), and so she is back to running. What a dog. (By the way, Linda can keep up with her when she runs. I plan to just drop the leash.)

I’m told Dalmatians age quickly and twelve is pretty old for any dog. I hope and pray she will be with us for a while longer. Her indiscriminate love of anyone who will pet her is infectious, and there is no better way to start the day than take her for a long walk. The joy of God’s creation, the brisk early morning air, Louie’s exuberance, all make a great start to the day. The exercise is good for all of us, and it is great fun seeing her greet people and the joy shown by the whipping, wagging tail. She is a joy and blessing, and Linda and I are lucky to have her in our lives as a reminder of our heavenly Father’s love, and also of the love of Linda’s mother. Louie is a truly loyal companion and God bless her little wagging tail.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Getting Started

I've been posting some long notes on Facebook in the last few months. A new friend of mine (thanks Facebook) recently started a blog. So, being the big copy-cat that I am, I decided to follow suit. What I've been writing on Facebook has been somewhat personal since it was only visible to "Friends." I will have to be a little more reserved on this blog. However, I've always been a big mouth, so I will probably just let it all hang out here too.

I don't know if what I have to say will be of any interest to anyone but my wife, and I can see her yawning now, so that may not even be true. Still it is fun to write it even if no-one ever reads it.

I have a particular perspective on life. You may agree or disagree with what I write. I read in the local paper today, in a letter to the editor, a Tom Waits quote, "If both us us think exactly the same thing, then one of us is unnecessary." That's good. I like that. So welcome to my opinions, and feel free to disagree and call me a jerk. I won't take it personally. (Oh yeah, want to step outside?)

I love music and science and technology and family and nature. So I expect to write about all of those topics and more. I've spent a lot of years in education teaching at a private technical school, a state college, and as an IBM instructor. So some of my posts may be tutorials. They won't be on the exam, and everyone gets an 'A,' so hang in there.

I don't know if I'm talking to anyone, or just myself. But enjoy what I write if that is possible and add your comments. I love questions and talking, so keep those cards and letters coming.

By the way, I'm 62 going on 63 and I like Jimmy Buffett, so the title seemed appropriate. Besides, I couldn't think of any other theme for all these posts, so it will have to do. I don't think I qualify as a Pirate since I'm a chronic rule follower, but it is fun to pretend.

This should be a good start. Let me see how this looks. Oh yes, I'm starting this blog on December, 25, so Merry Christmas everyone.