Battery-powered trains

Forgive me linking to a press release, but this is so cool. From Alstom:

Starting on 24 January, the Battery Electric Multiple Unit (BEMU) will begin revenue service with passengers in Baden-Württemberg and in Bavaria from 5 February. DB will operate the low-emission vehicle with its regional transport subsidiary DB Regio.

Since 2016, Alstom has been developing the battery-electric train together with the Technical University of Berlin and with support from the National Organisation for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW) and funding from the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport. The project is intended to be a sustainable solution for Germany’s rail network where a total of 450 lines are operated exclusively with diesel trains.

If these trains are recharged from renewable or low-carbon electrical sources, it’s a win-win. Even using dirty power now can be easily swapped out, unlike a fleet of internal combustion engines.

Diesel trains are a mainstay of rural and regional train lines that weren’t justified being electrified. Which sucks; diesel trains are louder, smellier, and generate localised pollution within residential areas. The more we learn about the hazardous effects of this pollution, especially in the development of young children, the more we should want to rid ourselves of them.

Rechargable trains necessarily require a mechanism to recharge, so you’re getting a train that can run in rural areas, and from external power sources when available. It’s the best of both worlds.

I’ve always been surprised something like this wasn’t taken more seriously with diesel electric propulsion. You’d think you could use the diesel engines on non-electrified sections of track, then kick the traction motors across to overhead wires or third rails when available. Instead you see plenty of diesel trains smoking up inner-city areas, often within eyeshot of a catenary! I suppose the cost of having a hybrid drive train like that was just deemed too expensive.

If these trials go well, I hope we start seeing this tech roll out in more places.


Playing with CD-RWs on FreeBSD

I didn’t realise until just now that Jörg Schilling, the principle maintainer of cdrtools, died last year. I’ve been writing about his software for ages, yet never got around to sending him a thank you. I consider this a wakeup call to appreciate people who make my life better.

But I digress. I’ve been throwing away tons of old crap, some of which were ancient CD-Rs which I imaged and saved as ISOs. My plan is to use a few CD-RWs to boot and ferry data to my retrocomputers and for data centre trips, and only burn stuff as I need it. It saves space and money, and reduces the amount of one-time use plastic waste I’m generating.

The FreeBSD Handbook already includes excellent CD-burning instructions, so instead I’m going to explore how rewriteable media works. As a quick refresher, you find out which device ID your burner is, then provide it an ISO:

# cdrecord -scanbus
==> ...
==> scsibus7:
==> 7,0,0 700) 'PLDS' 'DVD-RW DU8A6SH' 'DL62' Removable CD-ROM
==> ...
 
# echo "CHECK THIS IS THE ID OF YOUR DRIVE BEFORE COPY/PASTA"
# cdrecord dev=7,0,0 image.iso

My first attempt to burn an ISO onto an old CD-RW failed:

cdrecord: Cannot get next writable address for 'invisible' track.
cdrecord: This means that we are checking recorded media.
cdrecord: This media cannot be written in streaming mode anymore.
cdrecord: If you like to write to 'preformatted' RW media, try to blank the media first.
cdrecord: Disk capacity is unknown.

The hint was on line four. This disc was already full of data, so I have to blank it first. I hadn’t had coffee all morning, so my mind was doing this already.

For those who don’t remember the joys of optical media, there are many ways to blank, wipe, clear, or reformat a disc prior to writing new data. The quickest and most common is fast, which only overwrites the table of contents (TOC) and program memory area (PMA) at the start of the disc, indicating the rest of the disc can be overwritten, not unlike a quick format of a hard drive. My anecdotal experience is you can do this a few times before the error rate and failed burns become more common.

# cdrecord dev=$DEVICE blank=fast

It’s probably overkill, but I’ve got into the habit of always blanking all the disc each time. It takes the equivalent of writing an entire disc worth of data, because that’s what it’s doing! But the end result is a nice, clean disc for new data.

# cdrecord dev=$DEVICE blank=all

Now we can record our ISO image again. I’m always interested to see the capabilities of drives I use, even if at best I understand half the features here. This is a simple SATA slimline unit in my primary FreeBSD tower:

Copyright (C) 1995-2019 Joerg Schilling
scsidev: '7,0,0'
scsibus: 7 target: 0 lun: 0
Using libscg version 'schily-0.9'.
Device type    : Removable CD-ROM
Version        : 0
Response Format: 2
Capabilities   :
Vendor_info    : 'PLDS    '
Identifikation : 'DVD-RW DU8A6SH  '
Revision       : 'DL62'
Device seems to be: Generic mmc2 DVD-R/DVD-RW/DVD-RAM.
Using generic SCSI-3/mmc   CD-R/CD-RW driver (mmc_cdr).
Driver flags   : MMC-3 SWABAUDIO BURNFREE FORCESPEED
Supported modes: TAO PACKET SAO SAO/R96P SAO/R96R RAW/R16 RAW/R96P RAW/R96R

It’s worth mentioning as well that CD-RWs do typically take longer to burn that a CD-R, even discounting the time taken to blank them. It’s more than an acceptable compromise for me, but don’t be surprised if the drive reports 4 for the drive speed. I did briefly have a CD burner and CD-RW media as a kid that worked at 8×, but both those are long gone.

This was a fun experiment! Now I have a reliable way to generate these disc images with a few CD-RWs.


Finding a cute 386 or 486 desktop

The irony isn’t lost on me that I spent a post on the weekend talking about getting rid of junk and committing to not buying more. The fact I labour over any decision to buy things thesedays means I’ve internalised it… right? Is that how it works?

Our first family i486SX ran DOS, then various versions of Windows 3.x. My parents insisted on recycling it when it kicked the bucket in the early 2000s, much to my chagrin. Fortunately I was able to salvage an old Sound Blaster 32 ISA card and a Panasonic 5.25-inch floppy drive from it back then, which both run in my Pentium 1 tower to this day.

That tower now multi-boots everything I care about from the time period, from MS-DOS 3.3 and 6.0, Windows 95, NT, BeOS, Red Hat Linux 6.3, and NetBSD, all behind a pretty PowerQuest BootMagic prompt. It’s amazing how far you can stretch two 32 GiB CompactFlash cards acting as IDE hard drives.

It works surprisingly well with that spread of systems. Being one of the last-generation AT motherboards, it still supports APM instead of ACPI, which DOS and Windows 3.x recognise and support, yet it can still run those newer OSs from the beginning of the 32-bit era with decent UDMA support and faster SDRAM.

But I’m starting to run into a few issues using DOS:

  • I want to put more memory in for those newer OSs, but DOS runs into issues with more than 64 MiB.

  • There isn’t a decent GPU with support stretching across all those systems. I want to play a few nostalgic 3D games in Windows 95, but good cards for that don’t support 3.x (a post about that is pending). I could piggyback an old Voodoo card, and leave 3.x and DOS using the 2D one, but have you seen the prices for those cards!? And just when I find a card that might be a candidate, I realise it doesn’t like Commander Keen 4+, a series infamous for being touchy with certain cards.

  • We scoff at 200 MHz in 2022 (we did in 2012 as well), but it’s simply too fast for some DOS games and applications. Without a classic turbo switch on this box, the best I can do is use software hacks to effectively lower the clock speed. The results are mixed at best.

  • Certain older utilities also don’t like the larger CF cards, even if the DOS partition size is tiny, and I’ve hidden other ones with BootMagic.

I’m starting to see a gap in my lineup of vintage tech that a dedicated machine would serve better. A 386 or 486 would free my P1 tower to be a better W95 and later machine, and would let me pick parts specific for DOS.

I love the idea of eschewing (gesundheit) conveniences like a CD-ROM, TCP/IP NICs, and Jaz drives to ferry data, much as I use my Commodore hardware. Maybe I’d cheat and get one of those USB or SD-card 3.5-inch floppy drive emulators, but it’d still be a disk-based system. I think it’d be fun.

Which leads to what computer I should refurbish or build. Ideally I’d want as small a machine as possible that I could stash under my existing monitor and connect to the VGA KVM my P1 and Commodore 128 use. Dell, Gateway 2000, and Siemens made a few slim “pizza box” machines that are closer in size to a PCjr or even a SPARCstation, but still accept ISA cards with a riser. But then, they’re getting up there in price too.

Why do I gravitate towards expensive hobbies?


Paying with cash, old school

There’s a coffee shop down the street that has a big outdoor seating area, so I feel safe sitting there for a morning brew and to prepare for WFH that day. This morning I overheard the owner shout out “old school”! in response to a customer paying with cash which made me smile.

We’ve become accustomed to not paying with cash, but the pandemic may have finally sounded the death knell for it. Cash requires physical contact, which we were all as keen to avoid as the germaphobes were before. Or those of us who don’t want cocaine on our hands.

It’s been a boon for me, and a big part of the reason why I’m able to reconcile as accurately and regularly as I do against our budget spreadsheets. Cash was always a bit of a crapshoot; I tried to keep a text file record on my phone about what I’d spend, but I’d always forget something. I’d forget to ask for receipts, or I’d lose them in a shopping bag.

It also made travel easier, back when that was a viable activity! Clara’s and my first trip to Japan and the US were full of embarrassment as we held up lines counting change in coin denominations we weren’t used to. With a specific bank account that didn’t charge FOREX fees, we could tap and go everywhere, then reconcile in the evening before we overspent.

But it’s not all roses. I remember reading a few years ago that people are more reckless with money when it’s a digit on a computer screen. We feel the weight of our decisions when we’re physically handing over cash, especially for larger transactions. I’m sure credit card companies have the research to back this up.

This “detachment” from money, coupled with the instant gratification of online shopping, and I worry that we have a societal recipe for buying even more junk and getting deeper into debt. These new pay later schemes (or as I call them, credit cards in a cheap suit) leverage this even further.

Using a virtual envelope budget system has helped me to put meaning back into these numbers. When I see accumulated money in a specific envelope as each month goes by, I’m more wary about blowing it all on something.


Are video games addictive? I don’t know

The Economist ran a story about video game addiction in one of their recent issues, which made three points:

  • It compared the moral panic around video games to ones that surrounded other mass media like music, comic books, and crosswords, and that the definition of addiction is “too loose” to be useful in these contexts.

  • Companies have the technology and business motivation to make addictive products, much as social media companies do.

  • Companies are basing these business decisions on research data that they should be open about, lest you end up with government censorship and overreach as a result.

As I’m fond of saying thesesdays, I’m on the fence.

My own brief experience with moralising people made me sympathetic to the idea that this is just another example. Shouting “addiction!” is but one part of a wider trend toward censorship by Silicon Valley companies. I’ve briefly mentioned the danger of these few companies making moral decisions for billions of people without oversight.

But it’s also not that simple. If we define addiction as an activity in which people regularly engage despite negative impact, there are people who have that with games. This is fact. The question is how widespread this is, what its effects are, and how it compares to clinically diagnosed addictions. Put another way, would similar treatments be effective?

Ask me a year ago, and I’ve had said it’s all nonsense. I still probably lean towards this. But consider there is now sworn testimony in houses of government that large social media companies engage in deliberate manipulation to make their products more addictive, and to hell with the societal consequences. There’s no reason to believe large game houses aren’t doing the exact same thing, with the same consequences. It’s no coincidence that terms and behaviour from gambling have seeped into gaming lexicon.

One thing the Economist article didn’t mention was the effect the pandemic has had. Pushing people back indoors and not allowing them to travel has lead a generation of people to live out their lives through games. I can tell you now that it’s been a godsend for people like me! But how many people will come out the other side with an unhealthy relationship or dependency?

Games are like any other media, with the same detractors and business motivations. We’re deluding ourselves if we don’t think producers of other mass media don’t research and tune their offerings for maximum impact, or that panic around games isn’t a convenient excuse for overzealous lawmakers. The only reason I’m given slight pause is the fact these companies have far more data, and better tech to leverage it.

The Economist hit the nail on the head: the only way forward should be the release of this data so we can make better decisions.


Wouter Groeneveld digresses

Wouter recently wrote of his OPML blogroll adventures over on Brain Baking.

So much yet so little has changed! It’s a bit embarrassing. Or should I be proud? I’m not sure. I feel a bit conflicted when looking back at it. Like Brit Butler wrote in “Deliberate Action”:

A tremendous amount has happened, but I feel like I’ve lost the boy I remember from college a little. He was excited about things: video games, music, common lisp, poetry.

Anyway. As Ruben would write: I digress.

What a great quote. I wonder if much of my interest in retrocomputers from my childhood is to do with chasing that optimism and joy I had back then?

And secondly: touché! I don’t this Ruben character, but he sounds a bit dodgy. The last thing he baked was a RAID controller with a loose heatsink.


Our January 2022 apartment cleanout

Clara and I are in the midst of another huge apartment cleanout this weekend, and it feels good.

We have the conflicting desire to live in tiny apartments close to amenities (and to make our eventual move back to Singapore easier), alongside my need for retrocomputers and her need for soft toys and manga. The only way the delicate balancing act works is with regular junk cleanouts, which admittedly neither of us have had much enthusiasm for over the last few months.

Part of it comes from the worry that the only reason some of this stuff exists is because we’ve given it value, and that it’ll only end up in landfill otherwise. Parting with something is easier when you know someone else will appreciate it instead. To that end we’ve been trying these approaches:

  • Sydney has a bunch of little street libraries scattered around the place, which have been fun getting exercise to find, and for donating books (and remembering that Bill Bryson wrote about the Appalachian Trail… better add to the Kobo).

  • Apartment notice boards are great; you don’t even need to leave the building to sell or give away stuff.

  • As much as I detest Zuckface Book, Clara has been able to shift a ton of anime figures and associated merchandise on their Marketplace. A colleague also told me my surplus Hi-Fi gear could also find a place there more easily than something like eBay.

  • Gumtree and eBay are more work, but I’ve set things at low prices with the caveat that only local pickups are accepted.

  • Scanners and shredders! I tell myself that digital copies are superior because they don’t degrade, can be stored in multiple places, can be OCR’d, and take up less physical space. I’d never throw away any of my late mum’s calligraphy, but all my personal stuff has gone through this. Shelves of space free!

The only frustrating thing now is being reminded that possessions are a gas, not a liquid. We’ve shifted dozens of boxes and bags of junk, and the apartment looks… exactly the same. I guess it’s a process… and a constant reminder not to buy more junk in the first place.

Hmm, I could really use a 386 tower specifically for DOS stuff. Damn it.


Why are people falling for NFTs?

Twitter recently introduced the misguided feature of NFT avatars. The move has been championed by scammers and the duped, and met with howls of derision by everyone else. Twitter didn’t jump the shark, they launched it into space.

Given NFTs consist only of a hashed URL to an image that can be arbitrarily changed, are backed by technology that’s easily and regularly manipulated, aren’t a legal contract, nor confer any ownership, their popularity is bizarre. But then, if people were informed, no blockchain-backed technology would be taken seriously.

This lead me to think why people are being suckered into this. I think comparisons between Tulip Mania and Beanie Babies are on the right track, but miss a few points that make this bubble especially pernicious.

Hype is probably the most transparent reason for their popularity, a fire Twitter just threw hexagonal petrol cans onto. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a well established and easily exploited phenomena in financial markets that leads people to make all manner of irresponsible decisions, from real estate to ugly apes. Nothing exploits this better than casinos, which I argue blockchain tech is. You can’t beat the house, especially when that house is in the concentrated hands of a few miners and speculators.

NFTs, and their festering cousin Bitcoin, play the disenfranchised like violins. There are legitimate injustices in the world which this tech purports to mitigate or solve, but NFT spruikers have the gall to suggest it help struggling artists. It doesn’t matter if these claims are completely baseless, or have done more harm to artists than any tech in recent memory, emotional manipulation is a powerful tool.

You know that saying that if a business seems to act against its own interests, there must be another force at play? NFTs, and their recent ejaculation on Twitter, represent a community. As sad as it is to contemplate, there are people so desperate for validation that they’ll buy into a Ponzi scheme to get it. This is why sarcasm and appeals to logic don’t stick. When your identity is inextricably tied to something, as destructive as that relationship might be, you internalise any attack against it. People don’t bask in the glow of logic and reason when they feel threatened, they do the opposite.

Like all bubbles, it’s hard to understand by those standing outside it. I still struggle. But if everyone you know and admire is throwing money at it, it suddenly feels entirely reasonable to trade your savings for a JPEG link to one. This is where people like Elon Musk and that bellend podcaster (I can never remember his name) share culpability in people’s losses.

I don’t know what the answer is; whether its compassion, interventions, ostracism, or something else. But I know ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.


Microfibre cloths

I almost mistyped the heading for this post as microfibre clothes. I’d be picking up everyone with a set of those. I lived with someone at uni (of course) who thought of himself as a bit of a pick-up artist, which I can only assume meant he never put anything down.

I kid, but one of his “escapades” seemed so dejected and blue after the deed that I took her for coffee and a chat down the road. Definitely one of the more surreal experiences of my life, and only cemented my reputation for being a “beta”, which I can only assume means I wasn’t VHS or Video 2000. I hope you’re doing okay Katie, if you’re reading this!

Wow, that was a decade-old memory I completely forgot about until just then. That’s wild. What else is wild is microfibre cloths. They’re one of those things you know exist, but only appreciate their majesty upon using them. Clara and I got a few sets, and they lift dust and fingerprints so effortlessly, it feels like magic.

The following items have been cleaned with them over the last day:

  • Our Technics quartz locked, direct drive, linear tracking, track selecting turntable cover.

  • The computer monitor I’m looking through to see these words right now.

  • My $16 analogue Casio watch from Akihabara, with which I tell the time when I’m outside.

  • An IBM WorkPad 20X, a rebranded Palm III.

However, they’re no panacea. Wiping with a microfibre clock [sic] made no difference to the following items:

  • My receding hairline.

  • Uni memories.

  • Both bruised and unripe bananas.

  • Another microfibre cloth.

Have I misspelled cloth as clothes and clock now? Well then.

Well well well, water we have here? Oh wait, it’s a microfibre cloth.


My “new” IBM WorkPad 20X Palm PDA!

My affection for classic PalmOS kit has become a recurring theme here, almost as though I have a thing for childhood tech nostalgia. Now I can add another device from eBay to my growing collection of pointlessness.

The Palm PDA family was a mainstay of 1990s professional life. My dad used one for work, as did my GP, and my bosses from part-time jobs I had in high school. The MRT was always full of commuters looking at them in Singapore. Books and advertisements depicted Palm users carrying briefcases as they sauntered down the street to hail a cab.

Despite this buttoned-up image, I was obsessed with PalmPilots. Which self-respecting nerd wouldn’t want a handheld, touch-screen computer you could sync with your desktop? My parents ended up buying me a Palm IIIx for Christmas one year, no doubt after tiring of me raving about them for so long!

I didn’t need to track appointments or expenses, nor did I have an exhaustive list of contacts or to-do list items. But I loaded it up with games, books, and later the AvantGo suite for reading news. The battery lasted days, the screen was clear and bright, and its rigid plastic shell took a beating without the kid gloves and cases modern smartphones demand. I loved it.

Eventually I inherited my dad’s Palm V when his company moved to Windows Mobile (despite howls of consternation), but the other device I really wanted was an IBM WorkPad. After more than a year of specific eBay saved searches, I managed to track the exact model down! Here she is next to her Palm IIIx cousin, having just been delivered:

My Palm IIIx (left) next to an IBM WorkPad (right).

Yes, she’s a German model! I may need to reflash her at some point, or use her for studying when I finally pick up German. That might actually be cool! But I digress.

IBM had an arrangement to rebrand Palms in the late 1990s, which they bundled with their own desktop middleware. I was always intrigued how they’d differ from regular Palms, in the same way I wanted to know what made an HP-branded iPod different in the early 2000s. White-labelling wasn’t anything new, but to my childhood self it seemed so weird. Now I work at a company that does the same thing for infrastructure, go figure.

I don’t think I ever saw a WorkPad in the wild. Magazines gave them but a passing mention, and stores generally didn’t sell them unless you made a request. EDPOL Systems in the late Funan Centre had a few display boxes, but the owner told me they barely shifted any, even with discounts that made them cheaper than their Palm-equivalents. It seems IBMers and those who needed IBM-specific software were the only people who snapped them up.

eBay has plenty of the svelte Palm V-cloned WorkPad C3s, but I was specifically after an earlier 20X, which was a rebadged Palm III. My IIIx used a new backlight system, and I was always interested in comparing it. Why get a Palm III and a WorkPad when I could satisfy both nostalgic cravings in one package?

Photo showing the inverted backlight on the Palm IIIx (left) next to the IBM WorkPad's traditional backlight (right).

Here’s that backlight in action, with the devices in reverse order to the first photo to confuse us all. Note that the newer IIIx (left) inverts the pixels, whereas the WorkPad (right) and original III illuminates the background. The photo makes the WorkPad look fuzzy, but in person they’re just as sharp as each other.

I remember this backlight change polarised (HAH!) Palm fans and tech journalists, but I loved the effect. I used to keep a detailed journal before I started blogging, which I’d scribble out in the dark before going to sleep. I came to really appreciate how legible it was in low light.

Otherwise, the devices look basically the same. The distinctive Palm teal power button was made grey instead of green, and the shell was black to match IBMs other business tech, but that’s about it. It uses the same stylus, AAA batteries, battery cover, and you can swap the screen lid with a regular Palm which I did for giggles. The label on the back of the device says it was “manufactured for IBM”, but still retains the “Palm Computing Platform” logo.

It also works the same as a regular Palm. I can dock it in the same serial cradle as my Palm IIIx, and it HotSync’d with the same Palm Desktop software on my Pentium 1 tower. The system reports its running PalmOS, and the standard Palm applications look and behave the same… albeit in German right now!

I’m so glad I was able to snag this and finally answer some childhood questions, as pointless as they were.