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Retrochallenge Winter Warmup 2011

Greetings! The content normally found at this URL has been pre-empted for the annual Retrochallenge Winter Warmup 2011. Beginning on January 1, 2011, this page will host my blog detailing how I’m making use of relatively ancient technology in place of the “modern” crap I typically use in my daily life. This will be the second Winter Warmup I’ve participated in and, having set somewhat ambitious goals last year (and failing miserably), I intend to kick back and do whatever seems appropriate.

As far as this year’s challenge is concerned, I want to go ahead and do as much old-school stuff as possible. That includes the media on this website. Once the challenge is underway, this blog (currently being typed on a recent Dell PC using Microsoft Word ) will be maintained using a text-editor on a pre-1990 machine. Photographs will be created using a period 35mm SLR Camera. Audio recordings will be created and played on traditional magnetic tape. Video will be handled using something other than the typical solid-state machines of the 21st Century. Specifics details and machines will have to wait until we get started on Saturday. For now, “Welcome Aboard!” and thanks for viewing this website!

For More Information on the Retrochallenge Winter Warmup:

January 1, 2011 01:33

Barely an hour and a half into the new year, and I have yet to figure out what exactly I'm doing. A media project was the first thing to come to mind, so I cheated a little bit and loaded the old 35mm SLR last night to photograph the New Year festivities. I'm a bit rusty using a "real" camera, since I've been firmly in the digital domain since 2001 (or thereabouts.) The camera is a Nikon FM2 that was purchased by an Uncle in 1983, so I suppose it qualifies as "vintage" by our standards. It's thoroughly mechanical, using a battery only for the light meter. I did lower myself to using a Vivitar electronic camera flash instead of the truly vintage flash bulb (you recall, the disposable single-use kind.) I've got 24 exposures "in the can", so tomorrow I'll see about getting these developed and (hopefully) find some way to get them into an equally vintage computer!

January 1, 2011 19:52

Well, the drugstore that I normally take my film to for processing was closed today on account of the holiday -- or perhaps I should say they were closed on account of the potential hangovers from yesterdays holiday. Whatever the reason, I have no pictures to post (yet!) so I decided to play with some of the neglected antiques that are knocking about the house. The first one I encountered was the Apple II+, untouched since late summer. After playing with some BASIC programs to draw geometric figures and such, I decided to see if it was possible to put some of my pictures on the Apple, just for fun.

Did anybody ever make an image scanner specifically for the Apple II series?

I've seen ads for the Apple Graphics Tablet and some high-end frame grabbers and digitizers that would probably talk with the Apple via RS-232 or similar connections, but I've never seen the equivalent to a "modern" flatbed scanner on an Apple II. The first scanners I remember seeing that would handle reflective media were the terribly expensive "drum" scanners that worked like the old-style facsimile machines. I never had the money to play with one of those.

Speaking of which, I wonder if a slightly more modern (say, 1988) vintage of fax machine would talk with the Apple. This might be an interesting direction for the challenge...

January 2, 2011 07:00

Found the bitstream signal in the fax machine, and I'm working to understand the RLL encoding and compression. The handshaking is also a bit of a puzzle. Right now, the biggest problem would seem to be a case of data overload. I've got a grand total of about 30k bytes of free RAM on the Apple II and just under 100k of disk storage available. If we're looking at a basic fax, the resolution looks like its about 204 x 98 bpi. That translates out to about 1.9 megabytes for a "letter" size page with no compression. Obviously, we need to use the compression and scan only a portion of the page in order to fit into the available storage.

A single high-resolution screen on the Apple is 280 bits x 192 bits (hgr2) and occupies 8k in memory (including a few "holes" that don't translate out to bits on the screen. Unfortunately, both hi-res pages are in the middle of free RAM and take a big chunk out of your BASIC workspace. I can use BLOAD and BSAVE to load and save images respectively, but it looks like the software to receive a bitstream, decode it, create the image file, and store it on disk will be separate from the program to display an image. Since the picture is going to be a "pure" black and white image (as opposed to any gray-scale), it looks like it might be necessary to half-tone the image as well.

January 2, 2011 11:40

Well, I've got lots of data streaming from the fax machine over to the Apple but now I need some kind of software to interpret and display it (assuming I can decode it.) Now I need to try and remember how graphics actually worked on the Apple II+. It's also been a very long time since I tried to write any software in either Applesoft BASIC or 6502 machine language, so please bear with me as I try and remember how to program the damned thing. I think it's best to start simple and just remember how to draw some pretty pictures...


 100  HGR2 
 110  HCOLOR= 3
 130  LET R1 = 90
 140  LET R9 = (22 / 7) / 180
 160  HPLOT 0,0 TO 279,0
 170  HPLOT 279,0 TO 279,191
 180  HPLOT 279,191 TO 0,191
 190  HPLOT 0,191 TO 0,0
 275  FOR T = 0 TO 135 STEP 45
 300  LET RX = 10:RY = 90: GOSUB 2000
 320  NEXT T
 999  END 
 2001  LET F = 0
 2010  REM 
 2020  FOR I = 0 TO 360 STEP 10
 2040  LET X2 = RX *  COS (I * R9)
 2050  LET Y2 = RY *  SIN (I * R9)
 2060 X9 = X2 *  COS (T * R9) + Y2 *  SIN (T * R9)
 2070 Y9 = Y2 *  COS (T * R9) - X2 *  SIN (T * R9)
 2071  IF F1 = 0 THEN 2080
 2072  HPLOT X5,Y5 TO 140 + X9,96 + Y9
 2073  GOTO 2081
 2080  HPLOT 140 + X9,96 + Y9
 2081 F1 = 255
 2082  LET X5 = 140 + X9
 2083  LET Y5 = 96 + Y9
 2090  NEXT I
 2100  RETURN 


Well, that's not too bad for a start... Maybe I'll spend the rest of the day working my way up to something useful!

January 2, 2011 15:09

Well, the code looks like crap and the picture does too. I definately need to work on this stuff a bit more before posting anything code-wise. I still haven't figured out the compression, but I've managed to slowly and methodically plot a single fax picture 1-bit at a time. There's gotta be a better way to do this!!!

January 3, 2011 18:52

Finally back home! Looking at all the crap from the last two days makes me realize I haven't accomplished anything just yet...

  1. I don't have the handshaking working right and most scan attempts die when the Apple isn't ready to accept new data.
  2. All the software eats memory and doesn't manage to clean up after itself. Half the time, the receiver program runs off the end of the world and kills DOS before crashing itself.
  3. Since the HGR pages are smack dab in the middle of memory, it cuts down on the contiguous available memory for the display program. There's still a good-sized chunk above the display pages, but it isn't accessible to BASIC.
  4. My assembly language skills are so rusty they might as well be non-existent.
  5. The hacked-up version of the cassette I/O routines that I'm using to recieve the fax data-stream is, shall we say, less than optimal!
  6. I'm getting some flaky behavior in the Apple II+ when it's been running for a while. So much for the "system saver" fan!

January 3, 2010 19:20

Given the number of problems I listed above, I'm going to step back from the practical and obvious step of working on those issues and think instead about something more esoteric. Namely, why the scans look like crap even when nominally successful.

It occurs to me that the purely monochrome image of my daughter posted above looks like crap because I've taken no time to process the image before attempting to render it. The monochrome images you see printed in the newspaper or in books are generally "half-toned" before printing, allowing the a varying density of monochrome dots of ink to simulate a gray-scale image. In this case, I'm taking direct binary data from the scanner and effectively inverting it to give me a "positive" image when displayed on the Apple II. Any reasonably good scanner (or monitor for that matter) does things a bit differently and looks at the brightness of a pixel, rather than a simple on/off relationship. Since the Apple II has a rather limited palatte of colors and no provision for changing the relatively intensity of a single pixel, I need to process the image and produce a "half tone" before displaying it. Since the fax machine is giving me only a true b/w image, I neeed to go elsewhere to get reasonable images for the display. Even a simple grayscale scan will have to be half-toned before putting it up on the monitor.

January 3, 2011 21:20

How retro should we go? It may be unrelated, but drinking Kahlua in your coffee with a copy of Microsoft Visio open on the desktop results in some truly ugly flowcharts... Especially when you are trying to do systems-type work for somebody else and get the impulse to diagram the crappy software you're working on for the Retrochallenge...

January 4, 2011 12:07

Okay, I think the fax machine photographs are as good as they are going to get. Without the capability to scan a gray-scale image (this is an older fax machine without the flexibility of the later "all-in-one" machines), I'm not going to get any better images unless I half-tone the pictures before I scan them, which kinda defeats the purpose. I think that that level of pre-processing kinda defeats the purpose of the retrochallenge. So, I've gone looking for a better off-the-shelf solution. Sure enough, the Apple II Archive at Asimov has a utility that coverts .GIF format images to Apple II bitmaps. The utility only works on machines that run PRODOS and that leaves out my II+, since I don't have the 16k Language Card. Fortunately, there are emulators. The one I decided to use is the Apple IIe Card running on the Macintosh LC. Using GraphicConverter to half-tone the following images, I copied them to the PRODOS partition on the Macintosh then wrote them to floppy disk for transport to the Apple II+. With this accomplished, I've gotten the following photos to display on the Apple II+:

January 5, 2011 11:00

An infamous T-Shirt proclaims that good programming is 1% inspiration and 99% not-being-distracted by the Internet. Today, I'm lacking both inspiration and the focus required to avoid the distraction of YouTube. Thus, I'm looking around at a collection of videos, both new and old, that are pretty impressive from the standpoint of old computers. List to follow.

January 5, 2011 13:38

Actually, this first video doesn't have a computer (per se), but does feature some classic analog recording gear and a vintage Yamaha polyphonic keyboard. The end product is also of historic note and represents some of the best entertainment to come out of the British Isles since Shakespeare! Of course, the REAL Doctor was portrayed by Tom Baker (1974-1981.)

January 5, 2011 14:24

Of course, the best part of having Tom Baker as The Doctor was the fact that BBC was willing to let him advertise computers in character and produce these wonderful clips for PR1ME...

January 5, 2011 14:34

He's not Tom Baker, but he does have a sexy Australian accent and a wonderful collection of old iron that I envy. Take a look at this clip from the ABC regarding Max Burnet and his collection of classic machines -- including the PDP-9 seen in The Dish that controlled the radiotelescope at Parkes Observatory and brought us the live telecast of Apollo 11.

January 6, 2011 19:57

Spending the bulk of this day at work, far removed from anything more retro than our local emergency communications system, so this has been a bit of a planning day. Photography has been handled thus far by the Nikon FM2 35mm SLR, a modified fax machine, and the assistance of a Macintosh LC to provide image pre-processing and upload assistance. Video is next on the list of media to accomplish and, given both the slow clock-speed of the Apple II+ and the limited memory, will obviously involve additional outboard hardware.

Some of the earliest military and medical training applications for the Apple II used the computer to control a Laserdisk player that played recorded video images over the same monitor used for computer operations. Since the Apple II generated plain-old composite video, interfacing the Apple II with this equipment was rather straightforward. I recall taking a CPR class in 1983 that used an Apple II+ connected to a Pioneer Laserdisk to present training scenarios. This particular class was presented by the American Red Cross and the same equipment was used for Advanced First-Aid and Basic Rescue classes. My brother, who was a U.S. Marine, reported that similar equipment was used in several of his advanced training courses (particularly the BGM-71 TOW Missile class.)

Despite the facility with which the Apple could control video equipment, the actual video output generated by the stock machine was difficult to record (without timebase correction), since the NTSC Composite Video did not precisely meet the RS-170A specifications. Much later (circa 1989), after the release of the Apple IIgs, the Apple II Video Overlay Card made broadcast-quality video output a reality for the Apply II community. Even today, these cards are actively sought by enthusiasts. Although I've attempted to bid on several, the eBay prices quickly exceed what I'm willing to pay for unproven equipment with no warranty.

So, in order to produce video using my Apple II+, I need to come up with outboard video gear of comparable age that is both compatible with the Apple II and capable of dealing with the "slightly out of spec" video signal from the II+. Finding a legitimate Video Overlay Card is probably impractical. Even if found, it required an enhanced Apple IIe with a minimum of 128k, so it wouldn't play nice with the II+, anyhow. I've got some ancient cameras that will (probably) work, but getting a VCR to work properly will be the real challenge. I also suspect that a TBC and blackburst generator will also be required to get a clean-enough signal to serve as a video source. Hmmm.

January 7, 2011 19:53

Spent a few hours looking at the Apple II+ video output in a variety of ways. After hooking up the Apple to a consumer-grade video cassette recorder, my first impression was that the signal was both too low-level and too inconsistent for the VCR to record. After finding the 200 ohm Pot on the motherboad, I was able to dial up the signal level to appx. 1 volt P-P and the recorded image improved greatly. The color is decidedly "off" and the VCR loses synch rather frequently, so some sort of time-base correction is an absolute necessity. Although I've looked at the signal using a general-purpose oscilloscope, I don't currently have access to a vector-scope or other diagnostic gear optimized for video troubleshooting.

While poking about "under the hood", I also noticed the much maligned and frequently abused game I/O connector. In particular, I believe I can use the announciator outputs to allow the Apple to control a video-source switch in order to select "native" video output, VCR / Laserdisk output, or an external video source.

As far as control issues are concerned, I've located a used VCR (Panasonic AG-7500) with RS-232 / RS-422 control. The tape transport needs to be repaired since it currently "eats" tape, but should be salvageable. If I can use the super-serial card to control the tape deck and select the video source using the above mentioned announciator outputs, all will be well with Apple II video.

January 8, 2010 15:42

Naturally, it appears that the AG-7500 actually expects to see true RS-422/RS-485 balanced signals on it's strange and wonderful serial port. Not sure If I'm going to need to come up with a different kind of interface that will allow the Apple to talk to the VCR. At least the control protocol itself isn't too bad, the control sequences appear to be pretty straightforward and were fortunately easy to locate on the web. The VCR speaks a variation on the Sony 9-Pin Remote Control Protocol and I can get away with keeping my implementation of the control interface fairly simple. So simple, in fact, that I can probably code this in Applesoft BASIC without too much trouble.

January 9, 2011 15:30

Okay, the control program is sending the correct commands to the VCR, but the VCR continues to have some issues with the transport itself. For some reason, the carriage that actually holds the tape cassette doesn't always seat itself properly and the "lower" edge of the tape gets crinkled as the tape spools back into the cassette. Unfortunately, that's exactly where the control track is located and the tape ends up being a form of "write only" storage. The interface issue turned out to not be all that critical, since it appears that an electrical "high" is read as the space condition and any transition to "low" is interpreted as a mark. As to the timing issues, I was only able to acquire a single time-base corrector (instead of the two in my diagram). Thus, I'm planning on putting a select switch ahead of the TBC to select either the "input" VCR or the Apple II. I won't be able to superimpose the Apple II display over existing video, but I should be able to record titles and graphics generated by the Apple II+.

January 10, 2011 21:18

I forgot to post yesterday's update until this evening, so please forgive the apparent lack of progress on this project. Today was largely lost due to family obligations, so there has been very little progress. I did connect a tone and bar generator to provide a color reference as well as blackburst to get everything synced up. The TBC is working well with the Apple II and I'm getting rock-steady syncronization when I swapped in a somewhat more modern DVD recorder for the balky VCR. If I can't get the AG-7500 working tomorrow, I'll try and find an equally "retro" video recorder to add into the mix. Here's a picture of the Apple II+ with the Monitor ///. The greenscreen will be replaced with an Apple Color Composite monitor tomorrow so I can watch everything in glorious NTSC color.

January 12, 2011 20:08

Spent much of the last couple days relocating stuff for the next phase of my project. The countertop that I had the Apple II+ set-up upon was too small for the other gizmos that I'm trying to interface with. The obvious solution was to trash my living room.

During the move, I found an aftermarket 16k language card that I added to the Apple II so that I could at least claim one successful hardware project for the month. I'm not sure that Integer BASIC will add much to the project, but at least I can say the system is complete!

I also managed to get the first time-base corrector and the videotape recorder spotted on the table with the Apple. I'm somewhat concerned about the table, since I estimate the weight of the VTR at about 250 lbs and the TBC at around 50 lbs. With the Apple II and Monitor ///, that brings the total weight on the table to around 320 lbs. Should this collapse onto my lap, we might have the first recorded retrocomputing fatality!

The plan is to play around with all the interface wiring tomorrow and (hopefully) get video moving to-and-fro across the various components before work tomorrow night. I still need to get the video switching accomplished; this implies the construction of a device that can be controlled by the announciator outputs on the Apple II motherboard. I also need to calibrate all the video levels, align the videotape recorders, get the Panasonic to quit eating tapes, and get a vintage camera setup to film everything in operation. At the present time, I guess we can finally title this project: Control of an Analog Videotape Production System Using the Apple II Plus

Finally, I need to find another serial card for the Apple in order to control the second videotape machine!

January 13, 2011

Things went somewhat better than expected today. The CBG, VTR, TBC, and Apple were all cooperating quite nicely so I decided to record a few of the images already stored on the Apple. Although control of the VTR is still a manual operation, I managed to remember how both assembly editing and simple video insert editing was accomplished.

After laying down a "sync track" (equivalent to "formatting a tape") with the blackburst generator, the audio track was recorded and video stills were "inserted" without over-writing the sync track or the audio. This allowed me to record my previously digitized "high-res" graphics onto video tape. The time-base corrector kept everything synchronized so I didn't have any "roll" (resulting from loss of sync) between the cuts.

So, for your edification and amusement, I present the creatively titled "Retrochallenge Winter Warmup 2011 -- Film #1!"

January 15, 2011 12:23

As requested by UrbanCamo, here is part #1 of the "Making of Video #1:"

Part #2 is on the way. Gainful employment keeps interfering with retro-play!

Finally, (at least for today), here is the _ORIGINAL_ rough-cut version of the Film #1 slideshow that lacked the soundtrack and pacing of the final cut.

January 15, 2011 18:40

Jesus! Why must they fuck up all the classics?

January 17, 2011 19:57

Sadly, most of the weekend was spent on the work that pays the bills. Today was a holiday, but I only managed to begin organizing my stuff for school; classes resume tomorrow morning for the "spring" semester and I'll be back into the routine where I work nights while attending classes during the day. Thus, I fear my participation in further retro fun will be rather limited. Looking forward to reading about all the good stuff the rest of you can manage. Good luck from the Old Iron Lizard!

January 23, 2011 08:12

BRRR! The temperature here is -8 deg F with a rather nasty wind-chill... I hate to even think what the Celcius equivalent might be. As expected, school has effectively prevented any meaningful participation in the retrochallenge for the past week. Yesterday, however, an associate of my mother's found some home movies he shot back in the middle 1950's. After seeing the content, I had to manage a quick-and-dirty transfer and get this stuff up on the web. No retrocomputing content to speak of, this will be far more interesting to my rail-buff friends. It turned out that he filmed the last run of our local passenger rail service on March 5, 1955.

So, without further bull, here is the "Last Run of the Bessemer Bullet!"

This page last updated on January 23, 2011 by Micheal H. McCabe.