Yet Another Awesome Stupid Idea

Fathers and sons should engage in hobbies together, am I right? It’s no secret that Teen Bot loves his video games. When he’s current with his school work and chores, we’ll set aside a little time in the evenings or over the weekend and play for an hour or so. Not only do we play games on the Wii, but we also play games on the Xbox (original), NES, and Atari 2600. That is correct. We play video games on 35-year-old equipment.

At some point in time, he expressed to me that he wanted to play some vintage video games. Well, I did a little attic diving and managed to find my old 2600 console. I don’t know what happened to many of my games or controllers, but we have the console. We also collected Jennifer’s gaming stuff from her childhood. That girl was video game rich! Not only did she have the 2600 console and multiple controllers, she also had a Supercharger (I’ll explain in a minute), and around 60 games!

Since we don’t really have a TV, we don’t have an antenna input that we can tie into from a vintage system. I got my brother to do a little modifying on my old 2600 though. We bypassed the internal RF modulator, tied into the board and installed AV jacks on the back of the case. That may sound fancy, but it’s all pretty straight forward and there are tutorials all over the internet. Modding an old video game console got my brain to cranking though.

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This is an Atari 2600, the machine that brought home video gaming to the mainstream.

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This is a Supercharger and some of its games. Jennifer’s copy is one of the earlier ones, branded Arcadia, before they had to change their name to Starpath due to litigation or something. It inserts into the cartridge slot on the 2600 and boosts the processing power and memory significantly. The games shipped on cassette, and were played as audio files through a headphone jack. The sound file itself sounds like a fax machine. Somehow that sound encoding loads up the ram so you can play the game.

One of the neat things about vintage gaming is that it’s pretty easy to find the game ROMs as downloads all over the internet. You don’t actually have to have an Atari to play Atari games, as you can play the ROMs through an emulator on your computer. Or, you can use this application to convert the ROM into a sound file that you can then play through the Supercharger. You can burn the files to a CD and play them through a CD player, or convert them to MP3, or even record them to a tape and play them the way the Supercharger was originally intended. The device isn’t too picky, and as long as the sound reproduction is decent enough, it should play just fine. We loaded a few MP3s on Jennifer’s tablet and played some games that way. In fact, you could use just about any sound player you could imagine. See where I’m going with this?

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One could conceivably play Atari 2600 games through a Supercharger from a vinyl record, if one had the game files in such a format. You know, as in if I could get my hands on something like this:

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And use it to cut the game sound files to these:

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And then, it hit me. I have a deep, burning desire to build a custom cased 2600, with the Supercharger internally. It would run a small pre-amp and have a turntable built into the top of the box. All the guts in the Atari are pretty compact, so the total package could be built pretty slim. I’d likely try to find a dedicated 45 player to save a little space as well. And, the controller ports would move to the front of the box, as they are on more modern consoles.

Now granted, I don’t have a record cutter, and I’m not likely to be able to purchase one anytime soon. But just imagine it! If I were to embark on this insanity, I’d even go so far as to download original cover art and print it onto record labels. Remember in the ’90s when the game manufacturers were trying to hork those newfangled ‘CD’ systems on us? Sega CD? Ppppsh. I’m playing Atari Record. So, if any of you lovely readers has a record cutter laying around, collecting dust, that you’d give up for the cause, I would certainly do some further testing to see about making this happen. And, it would be magnificent.

“Smart” Guns

My lovely wife points this out.

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The pistol itself is pretty. It has lovely lines and is pleasing to the eye. Although I’d like to get on board with the whole idea of techy guns, I live in real life. Jennifer brings up the question of batteries, which is a good one. When you need to charge or replace the batteries in your watch or gun, does that mean that the gun isn’t available for defensive use? Damn, someone is breaking down the door, but my gun is on the charger with my phone and e-cig! The question of batteries only scratches the surface of the fail here.

The concept of my gun only working for me is a lovely one I guess, but I know that two out of three printer drivers won’t work on my laptop’s OS to send print jobs to the laser printer. The one driver that does work doesn’t like certain image files or font sets.

I know that there are movies that won’t play on our Blu Ray player unless we have the latest firmware, and it’s difficult to predict when it will happen. What happens when your pistol needs a firmware update? Cleaning guns is one thing, but how would you like the routine of clean and download/install firmware?

Sometimes our router crashes and our network fails to network. I know how often I have to restart the router because the network has crashed. Better not have a gunfight during an update.

Remember sliding a cartridge into your Nintendo only to have the game not boot properly, and trying it all over again? Ever blow into the end of a game cartridge to dislodge offending dust particles? Kids, ask your parents. It would be a crap ton of bad luck if you feared for your life and had to reboot your gun. That’s just a smidge more than rack-tap-bang. Try blowing into your gun to see if that will fix it. There are people out there that only carry DA revolvers because the reboot process consists of simply pulling the trigger once more.

There are many of us who can’t wear a quartz* watch without it going dead. Does the control watch itself have EM shielding? Are the electronics in the watch and pistol water/shock/freeze proof? A gun that shorts out and won’t work in the rain is as useless as a paperweight.

As a kid, I remember playing with remote controlled cars and planes with my friends. You couldn’t run more than two at a time, because of RF interference. It would be embarrassing at the range and deadly in a struggle if such interference locked up the gun. I need to defend my life against this bad guy, but I can’t get too close to wireless device because my gun won’t work there.

With any device that has complications that may cause failure, users must be diligent in confirming function. Does owning one of these guns necessitate a home range with a backstop so you can fire one off before you holster it for the day? You know, just to make sure you don’t have to reboot it or reestablish the link to the watch so you know that it will actually go bang instead of locking up like a blue screen of death.

Just as many people carry revolvers as opposed to semiautomatic pistols, the more than century-old semiautomatic shotgun has not eclipsed the pump-action or break action for home defense, sporting purposes, or range time. This is because in the case of a defensive weapon, or any life tool for that matter, simplicity is king. We pull the lock flags out of our S&W revolvers so the mechanism won’t lock up and brick our guns when we’re at the range, in competition, in the field, or defending ourselves. If we hack a pistol such as this so it’s functional without its activation watch, we risk giving ammo to a prosecutor. Remove and/or bypass the electronics in this beauty like we mod an Xbox for better function, and a jury of your peers will hang you. I don’t even particularly like electronic sights, because as useful as they may be, the fear that they may fail jaundices them to my eye, and the likelihood is far less than the failure of the can of worms that this pistol system is.

I fear that legislators are pushing for technology such as this. If we were ever put under such onerous encoding, what would become of legacy guns? Would they be grandfathered or would we be required to retrofit or simply ordered to turn in our dumb guns? I shudder to think of the sight of my S&W M29 with some retrofit device bolted to it. And, many of us have guns that represent historical significance or family heritage and it would be many levels of natural crime to deprive us of them, even if these pieces never fired another bullet downrange for the rest of their future existence. This is the essence of the danger of people who don’t have any knowledge of gun culture or gun function getting into gun design or legislation. They outlaw the shoulder thing that goes up or mandate fictional technology that optimistically is dodgy in its execution.

No thanks. I carry a polymer frame pistol. It has a flashlight on it. That’s about as high-tech as I’m going to get with it. Whenever something like this comes up, we must be diligent to stomp it out like stray embers from a camp fire. Because, just like so many stray embers can burn down the forest, high-hope technology like this threatens our culture and our literal survival.

*edited for spelling

Overheard… In Email?

Me:

After pulling my hair out last week, unsuccessfully trying to get Windows 7 set up as a dual boot with Win 8.1 on my laptop (it turns out the hardware isn’t supported by the old OS), I simply followed the example of Star Trek. I bombarded my computer with tachyon particles and downloaded Windows 10.2 from the future. This OS rocks! It seems that in the future both MS and Apple have been taken over by Google, who has cherry-picked the best features of each OS’s heritage. Downloads are nearly instantaneous, there’s no bloatware, and the thing is absolutely impenetrable to worms or malware. It doesn’t ask if I really want to download a file, delete a file, or allow a program access; it simply reads my mind and follows my will. And the speed! I always thought that this computer should run a whole lot faster, given its impressive hardware stats. With Win 10.2, it’s finally running like you would expect an i7 with 8gb of ram. The visuals are gorgeous and it only has a 5gb footprint on the hard drive. I haven’t found a program or application that won’t run on it, and there have been zero driver or stability issues. The library of free apps and programs for download is really astounding. I highly recommend that everyone employ an admittedly impossible, science-fiction method of upgrading their computers.

Jennifer:

Always go with odd numbered Windows. You might want to try again with 11

Me:

Although generally true, I found Windows 11 to be buggy as all heck. It kept popping up a picture of the love child between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and then the machine would just lock up with a blue screen and start smoking.

Life without HDMI

Well, almost.

For many years, Jennifer and I had an “entertainment system” that was cobbled together with a ~19-inch TV complete with knobs on the front, a VCR, and an old Radio shack AV receiver. We had a passive subwoofer hooked up through an old PA amp, and a quartet of speakers, an off-the-shelf pair, and a pair of homebrew towers in the front. When the VCR died, we replaced it with a DVD player. We didn’t have a lot of tapes, and the machines were similarly priced at the time, so we took the opportunity to upgrade. One year, we got a healthy tax return, a.k.a. white trash savings account, and upgraded from the tube to a multimedia projector. We painted a 91-inch screen on the wall with a special paint. We’re still using and enjoying our Optoma HD72. It’s only 720p, but it suits our needs for the time being. Around the same time, we picked up a Marantz SR4600. It was deeply discounted because the HDMI models had just come out. We didn’t feel like we needed the new hotness, but we still wanted excellent sound quality. The Marantz is one of the cleaner sounding solid-states that I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, but it became clear that we needed a good center channel speaker, which I sourced on the internet.

When the Playstation won The Great HD Format War, we picked up a Samsung BD-UP5000 that was on clearance at the local electronics money pit. We were able to pick up a few HD DVDs at the time, for little to nothing for the same reasons. For full disclosure in reference to the title of this post, we do have an HDMI cable running from this player to the projector, for video only. Even though the Marantz didn’t have HDMI ports, nor decoders for HD audio formats, it did have 8-channel discrete inputs to plug in analog auto, and the Samsung had 8-channel discrete output. So far, so good! My friend, Beej even gave me a pair of Marantz towers that she picked up at an estate sale so we could have true 7.1 surround.

Some time in there, we picked up a pretty nice laserdisc player at a garage sale, bundled with a small collection of discs. Well to be fair, we went through a few players before we wound up with our Pioneer CLD-D406, but for the sake of brevity, let’s say we picked up a laserdisc player. It’s an A/B side player that even has AC3 output for Dolby Digital. I wound up sourcing a Marantz DP870 to descramble the digital audio. This sound processor does a great job at that, but it has discrete 5.1-channel output. This is where we started running against a wall. We now had two units with multi-channel output, and only one set of inputs on the receiver. We don’t watch laserdiscs very often, and the only title we have that is in true Dolby Digital is Showgirls, which we rarely have a driving urge to watch. So, although this was a problem, it was not a huge one.

When Avatar came out, many of our friends, whom we respect, reported that it was a really good movie. Conversely, many of our other friends, whom we also respect, regarded this film as a giant, steaming pile of thinly veiled white guilt cliches. Naturally, we had to check it out. We rented the Blu Ray from the local store and settled in for the evening. Our Samsung wouldn’t play it. So, I went off to Samsung’s website to find that they had just rushed out a firmware update for our player, specifically to tackle the Avatar issue. With the update installed, we were able to *ahem* enjoy this film. And, by “enjoy” I mean facepalm, exclaim “WTF?!?!” and generally hate it, joining in the latter mentioned camp of our friends.

And, that firmware update was the beginning of a pretty crumby experience with our player. It had difficulty with almost all new releases from Disney and Fox. Subsequent firmware updates did nothing. I chatted with Samsung support, got nothing in return, and told them that I was tempted to avoid Samsung products from then on because of the experience. By this point, it was getting difficult to find a Blu Ray player that had alternatives to HDMI, and I was not about to buy a new AV receiver. I decided that I would work towards replacing the player with the next HTPC, which we started on last year for Christmas. My research indicated that playing Blu Ray discs on a computer was not without its caveats, and we still haven’t accomplished the task.

I knew that I was going to eventually have 8-channel sound coming from the HTPC. So, that makes three devices with discrete output going to a receiver that has one input. It was now time to get creative. I needed an 8-channel analog sound switcher. Somewhere I found such a device online, but it cost as much as a new receiver. I put my head together with my brother’s, and formed a plan. I took a dead Pioneer SL-PG440 single CD player and gutted it for the project. I drilled out the back of the box to mount 40 RCA jacks that I sourced on the internet.

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And, I even printed out an overlay to stick on the back of the unit to label the connections.

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I shaved the front off the faceplate with my router table and rebuilt it with a sheet of dark colored plastic where a selector knob could be mounted.

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I sourced some heavy-duty, Japanese-made, four-pole relays. These are discontinued new old stock, and are built like little tanks.

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I discussed circuit options with my brother, and let him put it together, as he has done a lot more of this kind of work than I have, and he’s got a good soldering station.

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When powered up, the relays make an authoritative “clack” between input sources. The switch has six positions, with the outer two wired as off, and the inner four switch between four input sources. I have not personally listened to sound through it yet, as I lack the cabling to wire it into the system yet. My brother has wired it for sound and reports that it is extremely quiet as far as noise is concerned, that it transmits the sound signal as if it is not even in line. This is exactly what I was after.

So in short, in avoiding purchasing a new AV receiver, my brother and I built a home theater electrical component from scratch. Now, we should be able to wire the discrete sound from the laserdisc sound processor, the HD DVD/Blu Ray player, and the HTPC without having to swap a handful of cables. And, I’ll have an extra input just in case we happen to pick up some other device that we have not yet thought of. Whenever I can manage to get it plugged into the system, I’ll let you know how it runs for me.

Oh, and back to the Samsung firmware issues… Jennifer’s parents gave us the new Die Hard movie for Christmas. When we threw it in the player, it did its annoying trick of sticking on the splash screen. After fiddling with it a bit and threatening to throw the player in the street, I checked the internet for a new firmware version. I didn’t expect to find anything as it had been several years since the last update. But lo and behold, Samsung released a new firmware version in October! I got that installed and we were watching Die Hard in no time flat. I’ve since been able to test the machine playing Tron Classic and Tron Legacy, two titles that have never worked on this player, much to my despair. So, the Samsung has a new lease on life and I’m not feeling quite as pressured to get the Blu Ray drive installed and configured in the HTPC.

Of Operating Systems

For weeks now, those of us who are lazy unfortunate enough to have been using Windows 8 have been looking forward to the first update, Windows 8.1. The upgrade was free, and the yes-men reviewers on the interwebtron have been crowing about how wwwwuuuuunnnnndddeeerrrrffffuuuuullll it is. And, hoo-boy! Let me tell you what! When I went to my laptop yesterday morning, it notified me that it had installed updates. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I thought maybe the OS fairy had updated my computer. But no. So, after pawing around the ‘net, trying to figure out how to install this thing, and after a couple hours futzing with it to convince it to download and install, I booted up into Microsoft’s latest creation. It was at least two hours, and seemed significantly longer, but regardless seems entirely too long for the download and install of some 3.5-ish gb of an OS upgrade. I seem to remember that I used to download and install a far more full-featured Debian system in a fraction of the time back in the day. Regardless, I started poking around at the new features. Perhaps this is worth a review.

Windows 8.1 gets a good solid ‘meh’ rating from me. Apparently the ‘.1’ means ‘NOW WITH START BUTTON! AGAIN!!!’ in Microsoft-speak. At one of my day jobs, I had a supervisor who had me log into one of their brand new laptops to complete some kind of work training program. He asked eagerly if I had yet used a Windows 7 machine, which I told him that I had not. He told me an overview of what my task was and to his surprise, I performed the action as he started to explain the steps, despite the fact that my M$ experience was only as recent as XP.

“I thought you said you hadn’t used 7 yet,” he noted incredulously.

“I haven’t,” I shrugged, “it’s just more Windows.”

Seriously. They didn’t label the ‘start’ button as such and the interface was slicker. It ran the same anyway. When I got my last laptop, it shipped with Vista. XP to Vista? Yawn. Vista was bloated and buggy, but otherwise basically a slicked-up XP. Vista to 7? The latter works better, but it’s mostly just an ironed out version of the former. The transition from 7 to 8, I was nervous about. For no good reason, I might add. I found that since I only run 8 in ‘desktop mode,’ it’s basically the same but without that button and a start screen instead of a start menu. I’m not sure what I expected from ‘.1,’ but I guess significantly more than the return of THE BUTTON. And, since this isn’t really long enough to be a stand-alone review of 8.1 (which looks like ‘B.J.’ at a glance), I may as well just rant on about the common operating systems in general.

Windows is like your basic white bread. Virtually nobody really likes it, and it’s not really worth what you pay for it, but it will make a sandwich for like 99% of the people and institutions out there. It’s relatively cheap and easy enough. Mac OS, on the other hand, is like the mass-produced baguette-bread you might get at some hipster coffee shop chain. It tastes marginally better than the M$ white bread, but it’s stupidly overpriced, and the people who habitually eat it think their farts don’t stink. If you use Mac OS, it doesn’t make you look nearly as cool and interesting as you think it does. So sorry. Linux is like all the ingredients you can buy at the grocery store to go home and bake your own bread. You stand there at the check out counter with your flour and eggs and whatever else goes into the recipe, stupidly grinning at the cashier with the anticipation of how delicious and healthy your bread will be when you get done with it. If you have acquired the knowledge and skills, and if you put in the time and effort, that’s going to be some dang fine bread for sure, made to your specifications. Most of us have neither the time nor patience for that nonsense. Even Ubuntu, arguably the easiest Linux distro is like getting the packet of ingredients that you mix up and throw in your breadmaker. I haven’t found it to be worth the effort for the returns.

So, I’ve been using M$ Windon’t variants. For a while, I did dilly dally with Linux, and still admire it as an OS, but it just takes far too much work to get to where I want it to be. My KDE desktop environment (meta redundancy deliberate) was prettier and faster than anything M$ or Mac available, on half the hardware. And then, I’d go and edit some config file, crash the thing, and wasn’t smart enough to fix it. Weeks of work down the drain and out a computer to boot. Pun much intended. There are even a couple of iThings in the house that we spent some time playing with in the past. We begrudgingly use Windows because the OS market kind of sucks. Either you’re a serious DIYer, or you buy from the box whichever of the big boy is the lesser of two evils.

Why isn’t there a basic, affordable organic market bread OS out there? It would be totally great if there was one that was as configurable as Linux, as robust as the more obscure ‘nixes, as easy as Windon’t or Mac OS, that would run basic programs, and would behave with whatever hardware combination out of the box. If Android was developed into something that most people would want to use on a desktop system, then maybe it might fill such a hole in the market. My guess is that it would be far more likely to just turn out like a clone of Mac OS or Ubuntu instead.

I guess the major take away from this rant is that operating systems pretty much suck in general. Hardware is gaining speed at an alarming rate, but the software isn’t reflecting that progress. We can look around and marvel at how sophisticated technology is, but without the software to back up the hardware, we’re spinning our wheels in the long run. A friend of mine was a programmer in the old days. His school classes taught him that the computers only had so many resources, so you had to program lean to stay usable. Then one day, this guy Bill Gates came by and said that all these computers had to be faster to run this new whiz-bang thing that he came up with. And, here we are.

Somebody out there, someone smarter than me, get off your butt and get to coding already.

p.s. – This morning, I had to restart the network card in order to connect under 8.1 this morning, just as I have routinely had to do under 8 point nothing. So many dazzling improvements…

An Open Letter to Grandma

Grandpa was so angry at my parents and aunt when they took his keys away. As you have recently said, he loved his little truck. Jennifer and I got it started on Saturday, and it has quickly become a part of our family. There was a wire coming from the starter relay that had a little over an inch missing. There were rodent droppings near the location, and I suspect something ate that piece of wire. I had my brother solder in a piece of wire to replace it, and it starts again. The engine was a quart or so low on oil, and I topped it up. The tires were running at 10 psi, and I aired them up to 35.

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As much as I love Grandpa’s truck, I think that Jennifer might love it even more. She drove it to her chiropractor appointment yesterday, and then she drove it to work this morning. When we borrowed the truck for a week last year when I rebuilt our Sentra, she wasn’t strong enough to man-handle the manual steering. She’s come a long way since then. Since Saturday, the little truck has been out to the farm already, and we’ve knocked the carbon off the valves.

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We are planning to replace the bent body panels and missing driver’s side door handle. I’m not done wrenching on it and hope to get that odd starter issue ironed out. I’ve been looking for a used camper shell. I’d really like to build a platform that will stand 12 to 14 inches off the floor of the bed, that we can store stuff under and put an air mattress on top of it for when we camp. Once we have straight sheet metal and a bed cover on it, I’m thinking of painting the whole thing in bedliner. I don’t have a problem with the classic red, but the paint is quite worn, and I don’t presume that I’ll be able to color match the replacement body panels. I got a copy of the key, and Jennifer put the key on a miniature Bible keychain. That seems fitting.

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I did a major cleaning on the interiors of both the car and truck yesterday. I chuckled at the various tools, gloves and rope that were scattered about the cab, so indicative of Grandpa. A couple lengths of rope were uselessly short, so they went to the garbage. I lovingly coiled up the rest of them and placed them behind the seat. There were a lot of candy wrappers in the cab. I had no idea that Grandpa had a sweet tooth. In the ash tray I found some folded papers. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be three used targets, evidently shot with .22 caliber lead. Did Grandpa have some range sessions in his twilight years? If so, I wish he had invited me to join in.

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We will cherish Grandpa’s pickup. I didn’t realize how badly I miss him until organizing his truck. He did love his little truck, and it was worthy of his affections. It is proving to be a real blessing to us in its utility, but it’s also wonderful to have it around as a reminder of the man who owned it before.

A Queer Mix of Tech

When we pick up these new smart devices, i.e. smartphones and tablets, one thing often missing is they keyboard.  When I upgraded from my Epic 4G to my S III, I sorely missed the keyboard at first.  I have since learned to adjust to the difference, but at first, I vowed to find a solution to have a physical keyboard for the phone.  Curious. 

I am currently typing this entry on an IBM M keyboard that I acquired at a junk store some time back.  I have it attached to my Samsung Galaxy S III phone by way or a PS3 to USB adapter plugged into a USB to Micro USB adapter.  I had my doubts that this would work, but I had to give it a whirl.  These are arguably the finest keyboards ever made, and they do make a very satisfying ‘click’ with each keystroke.  This is one of the later units in the production, being a 1996 model.  Despite it being nearly twenty years old, it seems to be doing quite well at its job, even on the Android phone.  This particular model even has the little pencil eraser mouse like laptops did in the ’90s. 

Obviously, this is not a ‘solution’ to the keyboard issue, as this is hardly a portable device, and would do far better as a bludgeoning weapon.  If I’m going to sit down with this much hardware to plunk out a blog entry, I will more than likely use my laptop.  Incidentally, my laptop doesn’t weigh much more than the M.  Anyway, this was just too funny not to share.  I’ll likely edit the video and add it to the text later. 

And, with the magic of editing…

I hope you enjoyed the video too. Please remind me to get some kilted pics posted tomorrow. I need to start announcing some of the fabulous prizes we’re giving away from the Evyl Robot Empyre. And, if you haven’t yet, please do donate to the cause here.