Wednesday, December 7, 2011

TI-8x Calculators

I wasn't sure about putting these up. How obselete are they, exactly? I keep changing my mind. I mean, these particular ones are obviously not the newest models. The TI-85 came out in 1993. It's brain is the Zilog Z80 microprocessor, which was released in 1976! (A stripped-down version of the same chip powers the original game boy.) Certainly they're pretty pathetic in terms of computing horsepower compared to, say, an ipod touch.

But almost every calculator TI made up until 2007 looked and behaved nearly identical to these. Most students aren't aware of the newer, graphics-capable calculators. Many teachers and proctors won't allow anything other than a TI-8x series calculator to be used for math testing. Many student's phones are dozens of times more powerful than these machines. Of course, their limited capability can be seen as a strength - it's hard to use them for cheating. But the newer calculators certainly take such considerations into account - why haven't they displaced the likes of the TI-83 in the classroom?

Maybe we reached the peak of calculator technology lo those 20 years ago. They may not be powerful, but if they do the job, does it matter? Math problems probably aren't going to get more difficult - at least not the ones we use to test students.

What do you think - why are we still using these things?

Armada 1700 laptop

This was my first laptop. I must have gotten it sometime in the early 2000's. It was a hand-me-down from family, I think - I haven't thought about where I got it in years. I do know I actually purchased another one of the same model sometime around 2004-2005. I had left the laptop sitting outside under the deck. (I was using it to connect to my neighbor's wifi(he didn't mind) and piping it back to my room via an ethernet cord.) After several days of running nonstop in northwest fall weather, it finally crashed. When I rebooted, I soon found that the expansion memory was no longer recognized. I installed a new memory stick, but it wasn't recognized either - the memory controller had suffered moisture damage. Even Windows 2000 ran painfully slow on the 64mb of onboard memory that remained usable.

I paid about 50 dollars on ebay for another 1700, with a bad hard drive. I swapped over my hard drive and everything else salvageable from the crippled computer. It was actually a bit of an upgrade - I went from a 233 to a 300mhz Pentium II, and got a 14" inch screen in place of the 12" on the old one!

I included the pencil in the photos to try and show the size of this thing - it's easily three times as thick as a modern notebook pc. Compared to the armada, a macbook air is basically two-dimensional. What I can't really convey here is the heft, the sheer bulk of it - it would make a handy bludgeon in a pinch, and probably wouldn't be the worse for wear. (Thankfully, I've never had occasion to use it in that manner.)

Checkmate 66 Guitar Amp

Okay, I'll admit - this one's not exactly obselete. It's just old. It's a pretty good example of a mature technology: once all the right elements are in place, change doesn't take very rapidly.

Take automobiles. They were incredibly varied in, say, 1905. Fuel source, drive train, controls - there were different examples of each. By 1930, things had settled - the steam and electric cars were gone, and the wheel and pedals generally worked the same in most cars. The changes between 1930 and 1950 were slight by comparison - for the most part, cars got cheaper, faster, and more reliable. With the possible exception of the emerging electric car, we haven't seen a great deal of change since then. If you know how to drive a modern car, with a bit of effort you can operate a 50's car just fine - you put gas in the tank, air in the tires. You turn the wheel to steer, and press the pedal to go. The fundamentals are pretty solidly in place.

I think the same thing applies to this amp. I got it a few years ago at the value village for seven dollars. As far as I've been able to dig up, it was made sometime in the late 60's or early 70's, making it about 40 years old. Despite its age, aside from few stylistic cues, it's basically the same as a typical modern guitar amp, physically, functionally, and in appearance. I could plug practically any guitar made in the last 70 years into it and play with no issues. It has the same knobs in the same places as the cheaper amps in any guitar store. The only really dated element of it's design is the power cord - like the GE radio I wrote about earlier, it has a permanently attached two-pronged power cord stowed away in a hole in the back of the case. It sounds great too - it distorts nicely when you crank it up, and you can turn the volume knob all the way to the end without pissing off your neighbors since it's only 10 watts.

Possibly the best seven dollars I ever spent!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

TI-99/4A Home Computer

Ahh, the Texas Instruments Home Computer. A humble little silver box that’s near and dear to my nerdy little heart. It was my first computer. It was, of course, grossly out of date by the time I laid my tiny hands on it in, oh, 1991 or so, the original model having been first released in 1979.

JVC Newvicon Video Camera

The first thing you probably notice about this camera(besides its bigness) is it’s...squareness. This could be some sort of design statement; More likely the engineers at JVC decided this was a convenient shape to build and knocked off to go play pachinko. In the early 80’s, the design of consumer products was more of an afterthought. People bought something because they wanted to use it, not because it had a great design. 

Apple 9" monitor

This monitor is the last remaining piece of an Apple IIc system my mom bought for me at the Parkland Goodwill sometime in the early-to-mid nineties. I wish I still had the rest of it, but hey - c’est la vie. I don’t remember if I ever got it to work anyway.

In today’s days of widescreen LCD’s and HD tablets, it’s easy to look at this monochrome CRT with a screen size smaller than most netbooks and ask, what was the point? Back in the mid-80’s, though, dedicated computer monitors of any kind were still relatively expensive.  A smaller screen could get the job done for less money. Almost all programs (other than games) ran entirely in text-mode - as long you could get a reasonable page of text on the screen, it was usable. You would only be using one program at a time anyway - even psuedo-multitasking was reserved for more expensive computers like the Macintosh.

I’ve somehow neglected to check recently whether or not it still works. Oddly enough, it only takes a composite input(the yellow RCA jack on VCRs, etc.) I guess it’s for compatibility with the Apple IIc, which was supposed to be “portable.” I know it output component - maybe so you could hook it up to a tv wherever you were? I did hook up a vcr to this monitor long, long ago. I remember it being really weird to watch video in green and black. I’ll post a video here if I get it working.

GE Transistor Radio

This old GE radio is a great example of 60’s electronic design.A big shiny metal grille dominates the front face. At the time it was probably to still cheaper to stamp some steel than mold some plastic. The frequency display is, of course, entirely mechanical. The LCD displays we are used to nowadays on the cheapest of devices were an expensive bit of tech when this radio was made. With a gear here, a spring there, the same knob can control the frequency tuner and move a little marker past a scale that shows your approximate tuning.

Notice the charming leather strap and rugged outer casing. This was mobile entertainment, the ipod of it’s day. You could use it in the garage, on the boat, at work, hell on the moon(probably.)