A Retrocomputing Wishlist

Inspired by Ron’s post over at Odds ‘n’ Entities on his Top 5 Retrocomputing desiderata, here are some of my personal lusts.

  1. A Symbolics Lisp Machine.  Lately, I’ve been working a lot with Clojure, a modern Lisp dialect based on some tendentious design choices that raise the hackles of hoary purists…not the least of which is that its primary implemention runs on top of the JVM.  Even if the Lisp Machines weren’t quite Lisp all the way down to the bare metal, they came really close to achieving that dream. Genera, its operating system, is widely regarded as a brilliant programming environment. While an XL1200 might be nice from a theoretical perspective (or even a 36xx!) the noise, power, and cabling considerations require a bit more living-space committment than I’m interested in making. One of the MacIvory coprocessor boards, though, is a seriously tempting option.  I’ve got a Mac IIfx sitting in the basement, so step number one has been achieved!
  2. A replacement Peripheral Expansion Box for my TI-99/4A.  This one is pure nostalgia. I was deeply dismayed the day I discovered that my father had given away the TI that I cut my teeth on, including a now annoying-to-find Peripheral Expansion Box (with floppy drive) and speech synthesizer for the side expansion slot.  All the software went, too, including the TI Assembler and TI Logo cartridges and great games like Munch Man (the best period Pac Man rip-off) and Parsec.  I’m sure that Tunnels of Doom won’t be a great modern gaming experience for any one not wearing retrogoggles, but I’d like to hunt for king and  orb again on original hardware, for old time’s sake. I have a TI (in canonical silver and black, none of this taupe plastic nonsense) that I picked up a few years back, but a PEB is definitely needed to complete the ensemble.
  3. A really good slide rule.  While these clever devices were once central to practical mathematics, they are now as little-used as buggy whips. An online simulation just doesn’t have the same effect.  Any recommendations for a good model I should be trying to hunt down?
  4. An Apple IIgs. I’m well-equipped on the Commodore front, but not so well on the Apple side of the house.  The GS was the pinnacle of the Apple II series, keeping full compatibility with the huge quantity of Apple II software (through built-in 6502 emulation) and massively upgraded graphics and sound capabilities for native programs.  Sadly, even as the GS was released, Apple was busily killing it off in favor of its new darling, the Macintosh.  While by no means a match for the Amiga, the GS had some impressive specs.
  5. An Amiga 1200.  My original A1000 (with 256K of expansion RAM and second external floppy!) is still in its original box in the basement, but I’d like a unit that is capable of taking advantage of the many extensions devised and engineered by the devoted Amiga community.  In particular, I’d like hard-drive capability and AGA graphics, and the A1200 seems to have the best reputation as a platform for “practical” retro-computing.  While not perfectly compatible with all software, it looks like it’ll be able to run the things I’m most interested in, and then some.

A Quaggery of Quotted Queme

A thread on reddit (the original post has been deleted by its author) spawned a number of reworkings of V’s alliterative introductory monologue from V for Vendetta.  Recall:


In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition!

[carves a ‘V’ into the sign]

The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.


Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me “V.”

Variants include A, B, (and another B from 4Chan’s /b/), C, D, M, O, P, S, and even a doubly abecedarian version.  By the time I made it in with Q, general attention had flittered elsewhere, so I reproduce it here for posterity.  While not perfectly capturing every nuance of the original (and with a few soleicisms and, dare I say, arguable malaprops), it does a manage to exhaust a good chunk of the relevant sections of Chambers and OED.  Should your Scrabble ruleset allow you to use a proper dictionary, you may find it of some actual use.

Please note that, unlike the original, it was declaimed between sessions at an archaeology conference (the reader is left to determine where), and the speaker is sporting an unusual hairstyle rather than a Guy Fawkes mask.


Quidam, a quaint and quondam quipster, queased to the quomodo of quarry and quisling by the queerness of kismet. This quirled quiff, no mere quixotic quodlibetary, is a quantum of the quisquose quorum, now quiesced and quieted. However, this quercine quintessence of a queasomed querimony quinches quickened, and has quested to quelch these quæstuary, quisquilious, and quinsied quabs quapping with quedhead and quething the quatting quassation and quackling quodding of querulation.

[quinses a ‘Q’ into the podium’s quadra]

The quale of the quest is quietus for the qued; held as a quæsitum, not quiddling, for the quality and quiddity of such shall one day queme the querist and the quiddle.

[quacks with laughter]

Quand même, this quarring quagmire of quethery quirks most quotted, so let me quickly qualify that it quite quiches me to meet you, mon capitaine, and you may call me ‘Q’.

Should you not have your copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to hand (for shame!), here’s a rough extraction of the meaning (as also posted here):

Original De-Q-ified
Quære! (An exhortation to inquiry)
Quidam, a quaint and quondam quipster, Someone, an old-fashioned and peculiar person who was once a jester,
queased to the quomodo of quarry and quisling pressed into behaving in the manner of one who is hunted and one who is a collaborating traitor
by the queerness of kismet. by the oddness of inescapable destiny.
This quirled quiff, This twisted and curled forelock,
no mere quixotic quodlibetary, more than an impractically romantic, academic flight of fancy
is a quantum of the quisquose quorum, is an infinitesimal part of the troublesome polity, (quorum is here used fig. to refer to the participants in a democracy)
now quiesced and quieted. now made inactive and suppressed.
However, this quercine quintessence However, this oaken embodiment of the essence
of a queasomed querimony of a smothered complaint (fig., the disquiet of the populace)
quinches quickened, stirs into life,
and has quested to quelch and has engaged in a mission to crush
these quæstuary, quisquilious and quinsied quabs these money-grubbing, rubbishy, diseased sea-slugs
quapping with quedhead and quething throbbing with wickedness and proclaiming
the quatting quassation and quackling quodding of querulation. the pressing beating-down and choking imprisionment of complaint.
[quinses a ‘Q’ into the quadra] [cuts a ‘Q’ into the podium’s plinth]
The quale of the quest The essence of the mission
is quietus for the qued; is death for the evil;
held as a quæsitum, held as the goal that is sought,
not quiddling, not trifling,
for the quality and quiddity of such for the excellence and essential nature of such
shall one day queme the querist and the quiddle. shall one day please the seeker and the fastidious. (This sense of ‘quiddle’ is a bit more pejorative than I’d like, but perhaps it fits the speaker’s general attitude of condescension.)
[quacks with laughter] [brays with harsh laughter]
Quand même, Nevertheless,
this quarring quagmire of quethery this coagulating morass of blather
quirks most quotted, veers to the cloying,
so let me quickly qualify let me briefly state
that it quite quiches me to meet you, that I am much moved by meeting you,
mon capitaine, and you may call me “Q”. my captain, and you may call me ‘Q’.

CC-licensed image of an incised letter ‘Q’ by flickr user chrisinplymouth.

Campaign for Real Pi Day

Yes, it’s that time of the year again, the time for mathematically inclined curmudgeons to gripe about the inadequacies of March 14 as a date for Pi Day.  I’ve expounded on this in the past.  To give the proposal of an alternate date some permanence, I’ve created a site to promote Real Pi Day.  This year, the Chrono-Solsticial Pi Point will be at Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 12:02 AM Coordinated Universal Time.

Visit the website at www.realpiday.org for more details.

Trying out MPH #12: Overcome the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect

Now that Zenoli is getting spun back up, it’s time to reopen the project of trying out all the hacks in Mind Performance Hacks.  I have a number of experiences to report with these, so let’s pick up with another memory technique:

Hack #12: Overcome the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect

Unlike the mnemonic methods discussed earlier in the book, this hack suggests some techniques for shaking something loose from your memory, something that you can almost remember, but can quite get to float to the surface of your brain.

The technique suggested is “priming”; that is, you try to think of as many things as possible that are (however tangentially) related to the thing that you are attempting to recall.  Think of, for example, the context in which you were when you originally experienced whatever is that you are trying to remember, words that mean similar things (or even just sound similar), concepts that are similar, and so on.

One technique along these lines that often works for me as a starting point is to go through the letters of the alphabet, starting to say the sounds aloud, but the above method is broader: you’re attempt to activate as many concepts as possible that are, in some sense, “near” the memory that you’re trying to recall.

Unfortunately, I have a failure to report with this hack.  While I’ve had some successes, an examination of limitations can also be instructive.

Memory is curious.  When I gave my first organ recital in college (playing a toccata by Marius Monnikendam) I sat at the keyboard and began to play, just as I had practiced.  As the music swept along, though, my mind went blank.  I could not recall the score, could not picture what came next…but my hands kept on playing.  I hoped, in desperate terror, that they would continue to do so, as I didn’t have any helpful suggestions for them.  Fortunately, I made it to the end without choking, but I was left strongly impressed with the power of motor memory.

Why this anecdote?  On a two-week trip to Michigan last year, I found that I was completely unable to remember the password to get into my email account.  I tried dozens of possibilities.  I ran through every phrase and combination that I thought I could have used.  I tried to recall details where I had been, what I had been feeling when I set up the password, or any of the times that I typed in.

And that, it seemed, was the problem: for the most part, it seems as if when I typed the password it was with a part of my brain that was isolated from other thought processes that might have been going on.  The password was living in my motor memory, and had retreated from everywhere else.  I was completely stumped.

Finally, two days before the end of vacation, I sat down at the keyboard and just typed it.  There was no conscious recall, my fingers just went through the action.  Extremely worried that I might lose it, I typed it into an editor window to find out what it was.  I could remember the password, then, but it was a dry sort of memory, without much mental affect.

I now try to put a bit of emotion into my passwords, to make them, at some level meaningful (however much they may be obfuscated, the obfuscation is usually using some one-off algorithm that can itself be remembered).

The lesson?  Put some work in on the front end for things that you think you might need to remember.  By all means, try out the priming techniques…I’ve had good results with them.  Sometimes, though?  You’re just stuck.  Enjoy your practice of the ars oblivionalis.

The MentatWiki provides a link to the full text of this Hack.

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis

cover of Harrius Potter et Philosophi LapisI finally got around to picking up Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, translated by Peter Needham.  First, though, a brief digression:

The Sorcerer’s Stone!?  This has incensed me for years (and I’m sure I’m hardly the only one).  Britain had no problem selling hundreds of thousands of copies of a book with (O horrors) the word ‘Philosopher’ in the title.  Renaming the book to the “Sorcerer’s” Stone is nothing less than crass, vicious condescension, a deliberate stupidification enacted by mealy-brained, cowardly editors and executives at Scholastic.  Sure, Rowling is playing fast and loose with her sources, but the Philosopher’s Stone has a cultural history, and discarding that damages both the book and its readers.

On to Latin.  I’d previously mentioned Philosophi Lapis, and was pleased to have an opportunity, finally, to crack its pages:

Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationis Ligustrotum numero quattuor signatis, non sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis.  in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.

While not as lyrical as Winnie Ille Pu, it is nonetheless quite servicable, and I’m enjoying it.  It is definitely stretching my vocabulary, and is a slow slog with frequent recourse to Whittaker’s Words and my ongoing notes.

rattus ille Scabbers de digito eius pendebant, dentibus parvis et acutis in Goylis condylo immersis – Crabbe et Malfoy pedem rettulerent, Goyle Scabberum magno cum ululatu circumagente, et cum tandem Scabbers avolavisset et fenestrae incursavisset, tres illi statim evanuerunt.  fortasse putabant rattos plures inter bellariola latere, fortasse sonum pedum audiverant quod post secundum, ingresa est Hermione Granger.

This is, by no means, an easy read, but once one has the basics under one’s belt (say, having worked through Wheelock’s) it’s more than surmountable and has the engaging charm of the original.  I’d recommend it to anyone classically inclined who is fond of fantasies and doesn’t take himself or herself too seriously.

Skulking toward normalcy

I suppose it’s about time for an update, as my frayed nerves are beginning to return to normal.  Sleep may knit up the raveled sleave of care, but don’t underestimate the healing power of a good lay-off.

Indeed, almost exactly two years after the last adventure, the hammer came ’round again, and in November I found my at liberty.  This time, however, I volunteered to step into harm’s way: the timing was serendipitious, as I was rapidly moving toward my Ph.D. candidacy exam.  On November 1st, I found myself at ends, out of the office but still officially on the books through the end of the year, on “gardening leave,” as they call it in the UK.

snowy bushesI barely noticed that I was no longer working, as the exigencies of research and writing pressed hard, and November passed quickly.  In mid-December, happily, I passed into the exalted status of Ph.D. candidate: classes complete, and now on to the dissertation.  (At my department, achieving candidacy also greatly reduces tuition, in another bit of cheerful timing.)

It was well into January, however, before my mind began to feel a bit less like suet.  It’s quite possible to pursue a Ph.D. while working, but I will observe that it’s extremely painful, much harder than working on a Master’s.  The relatively well-defined demands of classwork can be contained much better than the open-ended, all-consuming requirements of research.

I’m now starting to settle into the new rhythm of the days; the recent heavy snows that have been assaulting Philadelphia have not inconvenienced me at all, as I happily had chanced to refit my home office before finding out about my impending free agency.

With that in mind, I’ve begun to fire up zenoli.net again,  To those patient readers who have kept this site in their RSS readers: huzzah to you, friends.


I was sorry (though not, alas, surprised) that IBM’s “personal area network” never took off.  This was a research project, demonstrated in the mid-90s, to transfer data through the body.  The skin, more or less, can act as a conductor, allowing a low-power signal to travel between different devices being worn, or to an other person or device with which you are in physical contact.  The sexy demo was exchanging business cards by shaking hands.

This was shortly before Bluetooth press appropriated ‘PAN’ to describe short-range wireless network (though much leakier and higher-powered), and this technology seems to have stayed in the labs.

I always perk up when a new input device is demonstrated, and this one made me think of IBM’s quondam project. Called ‘skinput’, it’s an interesting twist on human-computer interfaces: bio-acoustical sensing combined with a pico-projector to turn the skin of your arm into an input device.  At the moment, the researchers (the project is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft) have a prototype that distinguishes between five input points with a slick dynamic interface.  Looks like they have a paper that will be presented at the upcoming CHI 2010.

(Via Engadget.)

Administrative: zenoli.net RSS/FeedBurner Problems

Here’s a bit of a technical aside, I’m afraid.

It looks like zenoli.net may have been experiencing a few problems with the RSS feed, related to the backend configuration changes required by Google for the FeedBurner service.  I’ve been using FeedBurner for feed hosting and management for quite a long time, since before they were acquired by Google in 2007.

Google finally got around to making some changes to the MyBrand feature, which lets you use your own domain name FeedBurner: convenient for preventing lock-in if you ever want to take your feeds somewhere else.  This requires having a CNAME set up in your DNS to point to the FeedBurner/Google servers.

I’ve had two such CNAMES set up: feed.zenoli.net and feeds.zenoli.net, but something related to Google’s back-end changes caused the former (which was also the default configured in my WordPress FeedSmith plugin) to stop working: any requests for the feed URL were met with not-found errors (you may or may not have experienced this, depending on which URL your feedreader is using).

It seems that, under the current regime, FeedBurner does not like having two MyBrand entries for the same domain; if there’s something else going on, I haven’t been able to divine what it might be.  I have, however, found a workaround, setting the feed up to use a single canonical URL:

  1. My web host, Nearly Free Speech, makes it easy and cheap to create new sites.  I created a new website that would simply act as a redirect.  (This could also have been done using the main website, but since I’m actually maintaining a number of different websites, it seems to be convenient to host all the redirects in one place.)
  2. I changed the DNS CNAME for feed.zenoli.net from the link to Google’s servers to point to this new site.
  3. I added an Apache .htaccess file to redirect requests for feed.zenoli.net to feeds.zenoli.net with a 301 response:
    RewriteEngine On
    RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^(feed.zenoli.net) [NC]
    RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://feeds.zenoli.net/$1 [R=301,L]
  4. I ensured that FeedBurner had just one MyBrand entry for zenoli.net (feeds.zenoli.net), and that the FeedBurner feed for zenoli.net was configured to point to the WordPress feed.
  5. I pointed the FeedSmith plugin (which I updated to 2.3.1), to the now-canonical MyBrand URL for the FeedBurner-hosted feed: ‘http://feeds.zenoli.net/zenoli‘.

And that seems to have done it.  Hopefully any requests for the feed, whether at the default WordPress URL, feed.zenoli.net, or feeds.zenoli.net will work seamlessly.  We now return you to our regularly scheduled miscellanea.

Paying the Paper

Sunday has been laundry day for the past decade, but I still haven’t managed to develop the habit thoroughly checking every single pocket as each load goes in.  Due to this, I’ve been able to observe the decreasing quality of Kleenex over the years.  Whereas they used to demonstrate much integrity, coming out of the wash intact (if a bit thinned), they now invariably reduce themselves to clingy shreds.

I’m still quite fond of my Hipster PDA, but I haven’t been quite as good about ‘backup’, shall we say, as I might have been.  Some time ago, @MindPerfHacks twittered:

Writing in longhand is useful and fun, but it must eventually be transcribed, a production phase known as “time to pay the paper”.

This, dear readers, is the wages of laziness:

Shreds of Memory

The picture above portrays every single piece of text I could salvage after failing to check my jeans pocket before tossing them in the laundry.  From these shards, I was able to reconstruct notes on:

  • A roguelike MMO based on a combination of Dwarf Fortress and Pokethulhu
  • Speculations on what an ornithopter-like vehicle that mimics the flight characteristics of bats might be called (a ‘chiropteropter’? a ‘desmodontopter’?  a ‘noctiliopter’?)
  • Ideas for a mental “hash function” to remember website passwords

I’ll never knows what else was lost, alas.

Note to self: regularly upload everything from the Hipster into org-mode.

Second note: do not record the above note only in the Hipster!

Don't do this with your conlang

I am periodically stunned by the insipidity of much of the Star Wars “Expanded Universe”, and the way that incidental references are inflated through mechanical cross-referencing into something of tediously world-shattering importance.  For example: did you know that IG-88 (a bounty hunter ‘droid seen en passant on the Death Star in The Empire Strikes Back) was actually one of four assassin droids in its series, and these four planned a “‘droid revolution” that would annihilate all biological lifeforms?  And that one of these ‘droids uploaded its consciousness into the second Death Star, and was destroyed just before it could take over ALL THE ‘DROIDS IN THE GALAXY?!

Ay gevalt.

I thought I’d grown calluses over the part of my brain that could be harmed by further violence to the Star Wars saga, but I am newly aghast at this article on the Jawa language.  Here’s how you count in Jawaese:

  • 1 Po
  • 2 Ko
  • 3 Kyo
  • 4 Yo
  • 5 Dyo
  • 6 Lyo
  • 7 Does not exist in Jawa arithmetic
  • 8 Ho
  • 9 To

We’ll skip past the lameness of having a merchant race use words for numbers that can barely be distinguished when spoken. The number seven doesn’t exist?  This sort of “novelty” is the work of an inane intellect.

(The best extension to the Star Wars universe, I think, was the early trio of Han Solo books by Brian Daley. These didn’t reference anything in the original trilogy except for Han and Chewie, reinforcing the immensity of the setting rather than turning it into something claustrophobic and inbred.  Also, I prefer to regard episodes 1-3 as regrettable fanfic.)