Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ubuntu


I've been running Ubuntu on my laptop for several months. I've found very little that can't be done in the Ubuntu environment that I could do under Windows.
We've offered the option for Ubuntu installed systems from Orrtech, however to date no one has taken it as an option. It's funny that people are so afraid to leave Microsoft for something new. I consider myself a typical computer user looking for many of the same things that everyone else does when using a computer.

Here's a list of the things that I do on a daily basis that work perfectly in Ubuntu.

Surfing the web: I use a version of Firefox packaged with Ubuntu.
Works exactly like the one for Windows. All online videos at MTV,HULU, and Weatherchannel work perfectly. The Adblock plug-in also works nicely, blocking about 90% of the banner ads and flash ads. My email needs are met with Gmail.

Watching Videos and Music: I have Movieplayer, Mplayer, and Rhythmbox. These three programs seem to support every filetype which are common. AVI,WMV,MPeg,MP3, standard audio CD's and DVD movies. I've had nothing fail for lack of being unsupported.

Viewing PDFs: PDF's work just as they would in Windows. Difference is that I didn't have to install Adobe to make it work.

Viewing PowerPoints: Ubuntu comes with OpenOffice which supports Word, Excel, and Powerpoint formats with ease. Open Office is a high quality alternative to Microsoft Office which is ready to use once the program is installed.

Backup of DVDs: I don't let my young daughter have my original DVD movies, instead I make her copies which I don't worry about her losing or scratching. Under Windows, this required two expensive programs to accomplish this. In Unbuntu, I was able to install "Acidrip" from the Ubuntu library for free.

CD/DVD Burning:In Windows I would have to install Nero for a good CD/DVD burner. Ubuntu comes with two easy to use burning tools.

Microsoft Office: Open Office is a very nice alternative. However, like most others, I'm used to Microsoft programs for my publishing needs. I was able to use Codeweavers "Crossover" ($69) allowing me to run many Windows programs, including my Office2003, MSpaint, and Calc. Silly, but I can't live without my MSpaint.

Games: The Ubuntu add/remove library contains thousands of programs ready to install freely over the Internet, including hundreds of great games. Everything from card games to 3d shoot'ems. Neither of these interest me, but I enjoy playing games from older game systems. I've been able to install emulators which allow me to run SNES, NES, and Atari 2600 games perfectly on my computer. (Hey, I'm old school.)

I don't miss giving up 40MB+ memory and system resources for virus/spyware protection. (No longer required as most of them only work in Windows)

I've been able to run an entire Windows XP enviroment in a window using a product called VMbox. (free download) It does put a little strain on my dual-core laptop, but does work perfectly when there is something I can't do under Ubuntu, but honestly I haven't loaded that program in over a month.

My flash drive and USB devices all work perfectly. The OS itself is easy to navigate and a Windows user could understand it within 30 mins.

Come on in, the water is fine... Second thought.. Most of my business is cleaning and tuning up crashing Windows boxes.. Stay right where you are.. :)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Retro Challenge Prize Arrived.

Got a package in the mail from CAFEPRESS today. My Retro Challenge mousepad arrived, and will take it's position with my laptop stuff. I haven't managed the skateboard setup that I was shooting for, but apparently the judge thought that my Baseball bat for the C=64 was the hardware winner. I'm looking forward to participating in the 2009 Challenge as this was a good excuse to spend some time tinkering with the old hardware again.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happenings

I've been so busy the last month or so since the Propeller Expo, that I haven't had a chance to update the blog. This entry will share a little of what I'm into these days.

The Unofficial Propeller Expo 2008 was a huge success! I had a great time giving away tons of Propeller related goodies. The complete after expo report is posted on the Parallax homepage, and of course there are pictures as well. I'm planning to start putting together the 2009 Expo sometime in January.

Most of my Propeller hardware projects have been placed on hold while I work on a hardcopy edition of The Propeller Cookbook. Sadly I'm only able to commit four or five hours a week to this project, so it's slow going, but I've already got around 20 projects already entered with a projected release date of January 2009. Parallax has been extremely supportive of the project and I suspect they may even stock the book when it is released.

I finally got my laptop up and running and decided to take the plunge into Ubuntu Linux. After running this for the last couple months I'm extremely impressed with it for home use and offer it now as an option for my residential customers. It has all the software that most home users want and even includes some very impressive games.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pre:Unofficial Propeller Expo 2008


I haven't added to my blog in quite a while. I've been busy with work. (http://www.orrtech.net) It has been a very busy summer for spyware and I've removed my share of it this year. I've also spent the last six months preparing The Unofficial Propeller Expo 2008.

If you think I'm might be talking about aeronautics or deep sea fishing, read the other posts in this blog. In short, the Propeller is one of the most advanced microcontrollers on the market.

Around the end of last year I started to daydream about what it might be like to get 20-30 Propeller enthusiasts together in one place and spend a day comparing notes, eating pizza, and in general meeting one another in the flesh. Many Propeller users from around the world talk daily on the Parallax forums, so why not get together? Living in Ohio, I figured that we could pull a few people from some of the surrounding states and make a day of it.

The first thing I did look for a location. Sandusky, OH is about an hour or so from me and has a reputation for being a hot tourist area. They have several water parks, and of course Cedar Point. My evil plan was to provide the geeks a good way to convince wives and family members that making a trip to Ohio the weekend before school started was a good idea. The other side of my evil plan was the name of the Expo. Since Parallax is one of my favorite companies, I didn't want to upset them by creating something that appeared Parallax sanctioned without their permission. Many times I use the concept of "do something" and apologize later", instead of begging for permission. (This once got me into some interesting hot water with the school system in Florida, but that's another good story for later.) So with best of intention I dubbed this the "Unofficial Propeller Expo North East" or UPENE for short. Hey, if I could get 15 guys together for a good Saturday of soldering and Propellers why not??

One of the first things you need to understand about putting together any formal get together, outside of a barbecue in your back yard is the amount of work and energy required to get everything together. I'm writing this the day before the Expo, and I'll tell you that this has been a huge learning curve for me. Not to say it is not worth it! But be ready for about a dozen unexpected expenses as well as mental exhaustion.

Did I mention that this is the day before? Let me bring you up to speed on just where we stand for our little 15 person get together. First of all, Ken Gracey of Parallax found my post about this idea on his forums and announced that everyone who attends will receive around $100 in door prizes just for showing up! That doesn't include the big prizes for ticket drawings. A few days later he added an official guest from Parallax, as well as springing for lunch! Did I also mention that we now have around 75 people signed up for this little get together?

In addition to several very interesting demos lined up, it looks like we'll have a live video/audio feed from the Expo. (http://www.Ustream.tv) as well as a dozen other prizes to be given away as well. Oh, and there's another surprise, but I'm sworn to secrecy on that one.

So, it's around 20 hours until showtime in Norwalk, OH. My nerves are a mess, (in a good way) but it looks like it's going to be a serious geek party in Norwalk, OH.

See you at the Expo!
Jeff

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The C=Bat

Everyones heard of the WiiMote, but I've taken the next step with my Parallax Propeller interface for the C64 and added an Accelerometer. I've attached the Accelerometer to the end of a $2.00 wiffle bat, and programmed the Propeller to trigger the fire button of the 64 based on the G-Force reading. (See the monitor on the top of the TV in the video where I'm monitoring the Accelerometer input.)
My son and I are playing "Street Sports Baseball" a great game for the Commodore 64.
yes, I know I misspelled Commodore in the end of the video..
Moviemaker crashed twice while putting it together.


video

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Nintendo Controller on a 64

I've been preaching the gospel of Propeller the last two years at the Cinn. Commodore Expo and while the expo itself sort of crept on me before I could get this project done, I've put my "money where my mouth is" and got a project using the Propeller Microcontroller as an accessory to the Commodore 64. Pictured is a Propeller Protoboard with a couple interfaces. The interface to the right is a simple NES controller connection tied directly to the IO lines of the Propeller chip. The interface to the left is a simple NPN transistor circuit connected to an additional 5 pins, and has a Atari joystick plug on the output. Currently the Propeller is programmed with program to accept NES controls and pass them to the Atari port as joystick inputs. It works perfectly.

The Propeller has a reasonably large library of code which can be incorporated easily with this interface. NES, SNES, GAMECUBE, PSX, MOUSE, and N64 controllers. Want a Wiimote for your 64? There is even accelerometer code I plan to implement next! My entry for retrochallenge is to build a skateboard interface, allowing me to play "Skate or Die" on a real skateboard. Step one is complete.. It's a matter of mechanics and software now.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Robotics, first attempt:


(Find the part of a Gateway computer in the pic.)
My servos arrived for my Hero1 project, but since I didn't have all of the parts yet, I thought I'd dive in and build a "BoeBot." Having never built anything mechanical that actually worked, I'm very pleased with the end result. It uses a Propeller Protboard, two continuous rotation servos, an SD card, and a PING sensor mounted on the front servo. It's runs a version of BASIC for programming from it's serial connection. I have to re-order more parts for my HERO project, as I can't bring myself to pull apart my first bot.
(Didn't find it? The plastic base and PING bracket were cut from the top of an old Gateway tower.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Learning something new: Robotics

It's time for another personal challenge, Robotics. I've never proclaimed myself to be a mechanical engineer, (or even play one on TV) Generally, if it has gears and mechanics, I tend to run for cover. It's time to stretch out again. I'm going to take a shot a the creation of a HERO 1 replica. The HERO was originally an expensive robot kit produced by Heathkit.
Like the portable Propeller, I set a target budget of $150.00. I'll be using a Propeller Protoboard to control all of the movement, take commands from a keypad, as well as the robot voice. It will be approx 1/4 scale of an actual HERO. I'm waiting for parts, but here's where the budget is right now.

Parallax Protoboard $20.00
Ping Sensor $29.00
2 Continuous Rotation Servos with wheels $34.00
1 Servo $freebie

I expect to be learning about plastic forming. More about that later.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Recycling Electronics with a heat gun

[rant]One of the most distressing things to me about our society is the fact that we buy things expecting to throw them away. I'm talking about typical consumer electronics items; TV's, microwaves, computers, etc. My grandfather owned his television for years. If it broke down, a repairman was called. It would be fixed and put back into use. Thanks to Chinese manufacturing, we buy products, expecting two to three years at most. Rapid technology advances have made the problem worse and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that we've got a real problem with electronics disposal.[/rant]

That "rant" being said, I've found several good ways to be "green" in my electronics hobby, one of which is the Recycling of electronics components from broken/obsolete boards from everyday consumer electronics. Modern manufacturing uses "though-hole" or "surface mount" design, meaning that the parts are placed by robot, then the entire board goes through a solder bath to fix them in place. Heating the backside of the board will cause the reverse effect, parts falling easily into reusable condition.

I came across this article about this about six months ago. The procedure involves heating the board upside-down. Once the solder melts, the parts literally fall out of the board. The author of this article points out that "using a heat gun to de-solder parts is dangerous!" and mentions to make sure to do this in a well ventilated area. He appears to be doing this inside, which raises some concerns about fumes. Solder is around 40% lead, and a quick Wiki search on the effects of lead poisoning is scary. Heating boards like this will cause some dangerous fumes.

My own success with this has two added safety precautions, doing this outside, (sunny, breezy day) and the purchase of a respirator designed specifically to filter (among other things) lead dust and lead fumes. This safety item was an investment, (around $50) but you've got to ask yourself, "how much are your lungs worth?" Between the purchase of the respirator, and the heatgun, I'm up to around $75, and that would have bought a decent box of electronics, but also being in the PC repair business, I wind up with many dead motherboards, modems, video cards, which I have subjected to the process to collect connectors, relays, crystals, caps, and various SMD parts, so it hasn't taken me long to fill my parts cabinet with plenty of pieces for experiments. In fact I've created a website just for purpose of trading parts with others. Anyone need a few 3300uf caps or 14.318mhz crystals... I've got tons of them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Modern Homebrew Computing

As a youngster I read the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy and have always longed to understand what it was like to be present at the moment of creation of machines like the Apple I, or the KIM. Sadly, being a "next-genner" I was born too late, and too far from places like Silicone Valley. I grew up with machines like the Commodore 64, and the Apple IIe, and certainly experienced the heyday of the 8bit computer, but wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Woz lit up his first microcomputer. The early home machines hold a very special place in my heart, and I have a reasonable collection of Commodore, Atari, Apple, and Sinclair machines stashed around my home and office. I still enjoy the simple days of computing, before spam, spyware, and viruses.

In the last year I've been playing with an incredible new device called the Propeller. The Propeller is an innovative micro controller, which is capable of eight simultaneous operations (8 cpu cores), and operates at speeds between 80-114mhz. With very little coaxing it can communicate with VGA and TV screens, PS2 keyboard/mouse, even save data on a piece of SD media. It has 32 I/O connections which have been interfaced with hundreds of devices. Several games, miniOS, and basic have been written for this chip.

It doesn't take an EE qualification to work with the minimal amount of electronics required to play with the Propeller. In fact, anyone with causal experience with a soldering iron can now realize the joy of building their own microcomputer. The technology has taken many leaps in the last year I've been involved with it, but there is so much more that it can do, and plenty of room for others to become addicted to the experience of seeing a microcomputer, designed with your own hands come to life.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Windows XP for the minimalist.

Some of my retrocomputer use requires partnership with a more modern winboxen to facilitate internet access for internet BBS use, or software access for storage of multiple disk images. These "partner" machines are commonly castoff 400+ mhz boxes which are retro by their own right, heading for curbside service. I've stumbled across an XP install called "MicroXP". Unfortunately, due to it's questionable legal status, it has to be obtained via bit torrent, but consists of a minimal version of XP that installs very quickly and initally uses 36mb of ram at boot. While it's ability to be updated has been disabled, it is current with both Service Pack 2 as well as security updates to mid-2007. It is light weight and perfect for rescue and repurposing old machines heading for the landfill. Google "MicroXP v0.6b" for more details.

On a related exporation, I've been very impressed with Microsoft's Virtual PC software, but it seems that an Open Source project has stepped forward to do it one better with a product called VirtualBox. They both have the ability to load various operating systems within a VirtualPC window on your desktop, but comparing VirtualBox to Virtual PC, VirtualBox wins with both faster install (almost twice as fast) and does not max my Pentium 4 processor when the guest operating system is idle. My next test will be moving my Virtualbox drive image into Linux and seeing how well it performs there. Interestingly enough, basic XP usage was faster inside Virtualbox that it was in the host environment. That is until I started playing Youtube videos. :)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

PETSCII

Being so busy with real life, running a small computer business, raising three children, and maintaining an interest in both retro computing and microprocessor technology leaves very little time for maintaining/updating a website. With that in mind, I've decided to incorporate some blog technology into this homepage at petscii.com. This should free me up to quickly post new information, projects, etc.

That being said, here's some links that you may find interesting..

Orrtech Computer Repair (my day job)
Petscii Forums (Retrocomputing forums)
Warranty Void (My electronics/microcontroller hobby site)