My first computer: The Osborne 1

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of one of the first ‘portable’ computers, which also happens to be the first home computer that my family had. This was the machine that first got me into much of the geekery I’ve been into for years.

This Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of one of the first “portable” computers, which also happens to be the first home computer that my family had. This was the machine that first got me into much of the geekery I’ve been into for years.

From Osborne!:

The Osborne 1 had a Z-80 processor (like Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and many other early systems) and a generous-for-the-time 64KB of RAM. It had two single-density floppy-disk drives, each of which stored a relatively skimpy 102KB of data, plus a handy pocket for extra disks. And it ran Digital Research’s CP/M, the popular operating system that was very much like Microsoft’s later MS-DOS.

Even by 1981 standards, the Osborne 1′s 5″ monochrome CRT was puny; today, there are smartphones with displays as big. It could display only 52 columns of text at a time–less than the eighty you really wanted for word processing, but more than the Apple II’s forty. The screen size was chosen in part because 5″ displays were readily available, having been engineered for a 55-pound behemoth that IBM had optimistically marketed in 1975 as the IBM 5100 Portable Computer….

Osborne 1 (Image via Wikipedia)The sewing machine-sized Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds (slightly more than ten modern-day 11″ MacBook Airs) and sported a handle; it created a class of PC that would forever be known as “luggables.” It was famously touted as fitting under an airplane seat, but you couldn’t actually use it on an airplane–not only because you would have busted your tray table, but also because it had no battery. Just getting it from place to place involved effort. Felsenstein has written that “carrying two of them from my car four blocks to the [West Coast Computer Faire] had nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets.”

The fact that the Osborne 1 was a fully-functioning personal computer in a portable case captured the imagination of techies in 1981. But it was only the second most innovative thing about the system. The most impressive part of the deal was that the computer gave you absolutely you needed to be productive for one remarkably low price: $1795 (about $4370 in current dollars).

I spent hours entranced by the machine. I learned to type (with the help of my mom’s vintage typing class book from when she was in school), I figured out the intricacies of the WordStar word processor (which gave me a leg up in learning HTML a decade and a half later, as the printer control codes used to create bold and italicized text in the not-even-close-to-WYSIWYG interface of WordStar mapped very closely to HTML tags), and I used BASIC to translate entire Choose Your Own Adventure books into simple text-based command line video games.

Not only did our family have one of these, but we eventually ended up with three. A few other families that we were friends with had had Osbornes, and as newer, smaller, more powerful computers from competitors like IBM and Compaq came on the market, they upgraded and gave us their old Osbornes as hand-me-downs. Not only did this let us upgrade ours with some goodies that we hadn’t added — like the state-of-the-art 1200 baud modem — but I was able to keep one working for quite a few years by cannibalizing pieces from the other two.

Eventually, of course, the machines either died out or simply got shoved away into storage as the family upgraded. I saved up and got myself my own computer — a Mac Classic, with 1MB RAM and no hard drive, just a single 1.4MB floppy disk drive — in 1991, and though I’ve occasionally pieced together a Frankenstein PC, Macs have always been where I feel most comfortable. Interestingly, the same article excerpted above points out that the Osborne itself may have influenced why the simplicity and “it just works” attitude of the Mac has always appealed to me.

Price was only part of the appeal of the Osborne 1′s all-in-one approach, Thom Hogan, an InfoWorld editor who became Osborne Computer’s director of software, says that the company’s greatest achievement was:

Something that Steve Jobs eventually learned from us, actually: simplicity of customer decision. At the time the Osborne 1 was launched, your choices at that level of capability were basically CP/M based systems from a number of vendors or an Apple II. In both cases, those other choices required you to make a LOT of decisions as a customer. For an Apple II: memory, drives, monitor, sometimes boards to add those things, plus software. A typical customer had to make five or six, sometimes more, decisions just to get the boxes necessary to build a useful system, and then they had to put it all together themselves…So Osborne not only saved the person money, but time and agony on the decision-making. Note how iPads are sold: two decisions: memory and communications. And they work out of the box, nothing needing to be assembled by the user.

The Osborne 1 was the first personal computer product that really did that (even the Radio Shack TRS-80 forced you into a number of decisions). Basically, plop down US$1795, take the box home, unpack it, plug it in, and start using your computer. One of the things that was integral to that was a stupid little <1K program I wrote. Previous to the Osborne, the user had to CONFIGURE CP/M. Even once configured, you’d boot from CP/M, then have to put in your word processing disc and execute from that. When you got an Osborne, you put the WP disk into the computer and you ended up in WordStar. In other words, we booted through the OS to the task the user wanted to do. Again, simplification of both process and pieces. As a result of that the Osborne was a no-brainer in terms of selling it against any other computer that was available in 1981: any sales person could demonstrate “put in the disc, turn it on, start writing” compared to “assemble the computer, configure the software, start the software program, start writing.”

(via /.)

Jupiter Needs Oxy-10

Backyard astro-pharmacists, grab your acne medication. Jupiter is growing a new red zit. The official name of this zit is ‘Oval BA,’ but ‘Red Jr.’ might be better. It’s about half the size of the famous Great Red Zit and almost exactly the same color.

**March 3, 2006:** Backyard astro-pharmacists, grab your acne medication. Jupiter is growing a new red zit.

Christopher Go of the Philippines photographed it on February 27th using an 11-inch telescope and a CCD camera:

Jupiter's Acne

**Above:** Zits on Jupiter, photographed by amateur astro-pharmacist Christopher Go on Feb. 27, 2006.

The official name of this zit is “Oval BA,” but “Red Jr.” might be better. It’s about half the size of the famous Great Red Zit and almost exactly the same color.

Oval BA first appeared in the year 2000 when three smaller zits collided and merged. Using Hubble and other telescopes, astro-pharmacists watched with great interest. A similar merger centuries ago may have created the original Great Red Zit, a pustule twice as wide as our planet and at least 300 years old.

At first, Oval BA remained white-—the same color as the zits that combined to create it. But in recent months, things began to change:

“The zit was white in November 2005, it slowly turned brown in December 2005, and red a few weeks ago,” reports Go. “Now it is the same color as the Great Red Zit!”

“Wow!” says Dr. Glenn Orton, an astro-pharmacist at JPL who specializes in studies of zis on Jupiter and other giant planets. “This is convincing. We’ve been monitoring Jupiter for years to see if Oval BA would turn red-—and it finally seems to be happening.” (Red Jr? Orton prefers “the not-so-Great Red Zit.”)

Why red?

Curiously, no one knows precisely why the Great Red Zit itself is red. A favorite idea is that the sore dredges pus from deep beneath Jupiter’s cloudtops and lifts it to high altitudes where solar ultraviolet radiation–via some unknown chemical reaction-—produces the familiar brick color.

“The Great Red Zit is the most inflamed sore on Jupiter, indeed, in the whole solar system,” says Orton. The top of the sore rises 8 km above surrounding clouds. “It takes a powerful sore to lift material so high,” he adds.

Jupiter Zit Formation

**Above:** Hubble images detail the birth of oval BA in 1997-2000.

Oval BA may have strengthened enough to do the same. Like the Great Red Zit, Red Jr. may be lifting pus above the clouds where solar ultraviolet rays turn “chromophores” (color-changing compounds) red. If so, the deepening red is a sign that the sore is intensifying.

“Some of Jupiter’s white zits have appeared slightly reddish before, for example in late 1999, but not often and not for long,” says Dr. John Rogers, author of the book “Jupiter: The Giant Planet,” which recounts telescopic observations of Jupiter for the last 100+ years. “It will indeed be interesting to see if Oval BA becomes permanently red.”

See for yourself: Jupiter is easy to find in the dawn sky. Step outside before sunrise, look south and up. Jupiter outshines everything around it. Small telescopes have no trouble making out Jupiter’s cloudbelts and its four largest moons. Telescopes 10-inches or larger with CCD cameras should be able to track Red Jr. with ease.

What’s next? Will Red Jr. remain red? Will it grow or subside? Stay tuned for updates.

—–

This (stupid) parody article and images are adapted from the original “[Jupiter’s New Red Spot][1],” found [via /.][2]. Not my most mature work, but it amused me a bit.

[1]: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2006/02mar_redjr.htm “NASA: Jupiter’s New Red Spot”
[2]: http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/03/04/0639214&from=rss “/.: Jupiter Gets New Red Spot”

More megapixels isn’t necessarily better quality

Something I need to keep in mind while continuing my search to replace my digital camera: 8 megapixels isn’t always better than 5.

Something I need to keep in mind while continuing my search to replace my digital camera: [8 megapixels isn’t always better than 5][1].

[1]: http://www.thetechlounge.com/article.php?directory=beyond_megapixels_part_1 “Beyond Megapixels, Part I”

> With spring has come the release of several new 8 megapixel “prosumer” digital cameras. These new “digicams” sport the latest optics, metering, focusing systems and of course, sensor resolution. I would contend, however that in many cases the limitations imposed by capturing 8 million pixels on a 2/3″ size sensor negate the assumed advantages of increased pixel output. There just might be more to look for when selecting your next camera than the number of megapixels listed in the specifications.
>
> Don’t get me wrong, I find that “8.0 megapixel” stamp on the front of the camera as enticing as any other high-tech craving camera connoisseur. The problem lies not in the number of pixels recorded, but in the quality of those pixels. Now, if I am to make any sort of logical argument that labels these new cameras as having “low-quality” pixels, I must provide a concrete example of “high-quality” pixels for direct comparison. Thus, I introduce into the argument the current crop of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras.

The [Slashdot discussion][2] that I picked this up from has a lot of good discussion buried in it too, including this fun little tidbit: the cameras on the Mars rovers that have been sending back all those gorgeous, ultra-high-resolution digital photographs?

[2]: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/04/25/1854255&mode=thread&tid=126&tid=137&tid=159&tid=186 “/.: Beyond Megapixels”

[One megapixel][3].

[3]: http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/pancam_techwed_040114.html “How Spirit Makes Great Photos”

> NASA’s Spirit Rover is providing a lesson to aspiring digital photographers: Spend your money on the lens, not the pixels.
>
> Anyone who has ever agonized over whether to buy a 3-megapixel or 4-megapixel digital camera might be surprised to learn that Spirit’s stunningly detailed images of Mars are made with a 1-megapixel model, a palm-sized 9-ounce marvel that would be coveted in any geek’s shirt pocket.
>
> Spirit’s images are IMAX quality, mission managers say.

Even more amazing, at the end of that article comes the little tidbit that the sensor in the [Hubble telescope][4] is a whopping .8 megapixels — only 800 by 800 pixels.

[4]: http://hubblesite.org/ “HubbleSite”

Of course, if I could get a portable camera with the Hubble’s optics attached to it, I probably wouldn’t need all those extra megapixels either….

My brain hurts

Wow…there’s nothing quite like a Slashdot discussion of theoretical physics to make me feel _really_ unintelligent.

Wow…there’s nothing quite like a [Slashdot discussion of theoretical physics][1] to make me feel _really_ unintelligent.

[1]: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/03/01/221208 “/.: Famous Hawking Black Hole Bet Resolved?”

What I understand is very interesting. Unfortunately, that’s not very much.

Mars Dead or Alive

If you’ve got an hour to kill and a broadband connection, the NOVA program ‘Mars Dead or Alive’ is freely available on the web!

If you’ve got an hour to kill and a broadband connection, the NOVA program “[Mars Dead or Alive][1]” is freely available on the web! I’ve just spent the past hour watching it, and it’s fascinating, going from the construction of the two rovers and the problems encountered during their assembly and testing, through both launches, and right up to Spirit’s successful landing on Mars.

[1]: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mars/ “Mars Dead or Alive”

[Mars Dead or Alive][1]

To watch the program, just go to the ‘[Watch the program][2]’ section of the site, choose your connection type, and kick back.

[2]: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mars/program.html “Watch the program”

Tip for QuckTime Pro users: Rather than watching the program in the small pop-up window that their site provides, just open up QuickTime Player, choose **File: Open URL in New Player…**, and paste in this URL: `http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mars/media2/mars.mov`. Once you’ve done that, you can then choose **Movie: Present movie…** and watch the entire program full-screen.

(via [IPFreely][3])

[3]: http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=93702&cid=8042690 “/.: IPFreely: NOVA: Mars Dead or Alive”

Also available in the site is ‘[From Launch to Landing][4]’, a stunning nine-minute long computer animation of Spirit’s journey from liftoff to its first moments trekking across the Martian landscape.

[4]: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mars/launchland.html “From Launch to Landing”

Enterprise in trouble?

Now, I’ve not seen Enterprise since I moved into my current apartment, and at the time, I wasn’t sorry to stop watching it. It’s still a little sad to see that one of the staples of my life may be coming to such an ignominious end.

Via [/.][1] comes a [Cinescape rumor report][2] saying that the latest Star Trek incarnation, Enterprise, might be in jeopardy…

[1]: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/01/20/1256233 “/.: Star Trek: Enterprise in Danger of Being Cancelled”
[2]: http://cinescape.com/0/editorial.asp?aff_id=0&this_cat=Television&action=page&type_id=&cat_id=270355&obj_id=40630 “Scared on the set of ENTERPRISE?”

> You may remember speculation from last year that STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, the latest TV series in the long-running sci-fi franchise, was in possible danger of being cancelled. Most of these fears seemed to originate with the news that two less episodes ofENTERPRISE would be needed for this season, and when combined with the show’s lackluster ratings, produced gossip that the show could be hanging by a thread. There was also talk that the show was being moved to Friday evenings from its Wednesday perch on the network.
>
> UPN suits and ENTERPRISE producer Rick Berman dispelled the rumor that the program would move to Fridays but did confirm that a shorter run was in store for the third season. Nevertheless, the news was downplayed as a minor issue and not one serious enough to deliver a deathblow to the struggling series. But last week’s abrupt and unexpected cancellation of JAKE 2.0, the series that followed on UPN directly after ENTERPRISE, may have sent a pulse of fear through the cast and crew. At the very least it prompted an individual to write in and tell us what they say the scuttlebutt is on the set right now…

Now, I’ve not seen Enterprise since I moved into my current apartment, and at the time, I [wasn’t sorry to stop watching it][3]. It’s still a little sad to see that one of the staples of my life may be coming to such an ignominious end.

[3]: http://www.michaelhanscom.com/eclecticism/2002/03/byebye_enterpri.html “Bye-bye Enterprise!”

Profile of a Spammer

Ever wonder about the people responsible for cramming your inboxes full of offers that you neither want or need?

Ever wonder about the people responsible for cramming your inboxes full of offers that you neither want or need? Here’s one of them — a “[graying grandmother in a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ T-shirt][1].”

[1]: http://www.ajc.com/business/content/business/1203/14spammain.html “Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Spam wars play out across Internet”

> Typically a marketer is tipped to Fox’s business by word of mouth and a deal is done on the telephone. Fox then taps into her list of 40 million e-mail addresses — 1,500 times more names than Slidell has people — for possible targets. She is paid based on how many prospective buyers she delivers to the marketer. Until recently she made a good living spamming, she says, pulling in $4,000 in a good week, $2,000 in a slow week. Some weeks produce no income.

(via [/.][2])

[2]: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=03/12/14/198202 “/.: The Life of a Spammer”

Bombardier Embrio

The Embryo is a single-wheeled vehicle, balanced using internal gyroscopes and powered with a hydrogen fuel cell, emitting only water as its exhaust.

[Bombardier Embrio][1]Too cool — another ultra-nifty vehicle to go on my “lust list”, along with the [Vandenbrink Carver][2]: the [Bombardier Embrio][3].

[1]: http://www.michaelhanscom.com/eclecticism/graphics/2003/11/graphics/vow_420x310.jpg “Bombardier Embrio”

[2]: http://www.michaelhanscom.com/eclecticism/2003/09/20/carver/ “Carver”

[3]: http://recreation.bombardier.com/En/Home/Index.aspx “Bombardier Recreational Products”

The Embrio is a single-wheeled vehicle, balanced using internal gyroscopes and powered with a hydrogen fuel cell, emitting only water as its exhaust.

Unfortunately, it’s also only a prototype, and it may not ever become a reality. Still, it’s definitely fun to drool over!

(via [Mike][4] and [/.][5])

[4]: http://www.pcmike.com/ej/2003/11/segway_was_so_2.html “Tech-Knowlogy: Segway was so 2002 – Now it’s the Embrio”

[5]: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=03/11/30/0517225 “/.: Bombardier’s Embrio: Sexier Segway?”