Primer #56

In general the ground rule for this blog is that I only write about items I bought used.  They don’t necessarily have to come from a thrift store, just that I did not buy them new.  I’m going to bend that rule a bit on this occasion because another aspect of this blog is that basically all of these items are frivolous.  That is to say I enjoy finding them because I like looking at them and learning about them but they are basically useless.

I’m a big fan of Brady Haran’s YouTube empire of science and technology channels: Periodic Videos, Numberphile, Sixty Signals, Deep Sky, and Computerphile.  On a Sunday last September I got up at a leisurely time and happened to check Numberphile.  He had just published this video about an enigmatic tabletop device that mechanically displayed prime numbers.  I was transfixed.

It turned out that this thing was called a Primer, an electronic kinetic sculpture by the LA artist Karl Lautman who was selling them to the public through a Kickstarter.  There is a big red button and when you push the button the counter clicks off to the next prime number.  It only displays prime numbers.  That’s all it does.

At first, this seems rather pointless, and that’s part of the fun.

However, the Numberphile video brought up an excellent point.  The loud clicking noise the Primer’s mechanical display makes when it’s incremented gives you an audio cue to gaps between primes.  Most discussions of mathematics look like Greek to me but from what I’ve gathered from Numberphile and other descriptions of mathematical topics for the layman is that there’s no formula that will spit out a list of all of the prime numbers (though, there are formulas that spit out some of them).  As a result, there’s quite a bit of mathematics devoted to the distribution of prime numbers.  We can know about how many primes there are less than a given number, but not exactly what they are without checking each number.

It’s possible to visualize the distribution of prime numbers but the Primer gives you a way to hear it by listening to how many counter clicks you get per button press.  Sometimes it goes just a few clicks.  Sometimes it goes just two clicks and you’ve heard a twin prime.  Other times it seems to go on-and-on before hitting the next prime.

As a result, the idea of owning a desktop art installation that spits out prime numbers was just astonishingly cool.  There were two big catches: First, a Primer cost $120.  I think for say, $50, it would have been an instant buy for me but $120 required much more thought.

Second, there were only going to be 60 Primers made through this Kickstarter and on that Sunday last September nearly all of them had already sold.  I think when I saw the Numberphile video there were less than six left…And Numberphile is followed by hundreds of thousands of people who at that very moment were probably having the same series of thoughts I was.

Knowing that potentially the last remaining Primers in the Kickstarter could be taken at any moment I decided to take a shower and mull it over.

What I decided was:

1) I want to own geeky toys, but not obvious ones.  In principle that’s the whole point of this blog.  A toy that combines the mysterious mathematical aura of prime numbers with a mischievous Red Button is the epitome of geek toys.  At the same time it’s not a Doctor Who action figure, or a pewter Enterprise, or something else obvious.

2) I like the idea of owning a piece of art.  I think until very recently I didn’t understand art.  I thought of art in terms of something you look at and move on to the next thing.  I think this changed a few years ago when I was looking at a quarter and realized that I really liked the way this looked.  I was deriving pleasure from the aesthetics of the thing.  Art is about making you feel something by looking at an object.  The quarter is supposed to make you feel authority and confidence.  Something like the Primer exudes mystery and playfulness.

3) While spending $120 on something like this is clearly frivolous, so is basically everything I collect.  I bought a copy of Windows/386 just to look at it…How is this any different?  In fact, this is better because it has a button.

So, I became a backer for $120 and bought a Primer.

Karl, the artist, posted a number of very cool videos about how he was putting together the Primers.  He explained that while he’s done a lot of this type of sculpture he was not very experienced with building 60 of them at once.  Even before the Kickstarter had ended he showed how he cut and painted each of the bases.  The most interesting part for me was how he showed that the aluminum bodies of the Primers were actually cut sections of long tubes.

On December 3rd, my Primer came in the mail.

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I eagerly unpacked it and set it up on top of the upturned cardboard box that in came in.

And I set about clicking.

The best thing about the Primer is that sound.  Every time I hear it the sound and see the action of the numbers changing it reminds me of the CRM-114 from Dr. Strangelove and I get a big smile on my face.

The letter that comes with the Primer explains that the little Amtel microcontroller inside does not know what the value of the display is.  Instead, it has a list of how many times it needs to click the counter forward to reach each prime number.

The bottom of the Primer is where mine is numbered with #56 and signed by the artist.  There’s also a label where people who wanted to contribute to the Kickstarter but did not want to buy a Primer could get a silly message:

The counter itself is an Eaton “mechanical totalizer“.  The artist says that he finds them in batches on eBay.  You can tell the counter’s condition that it came from another life somewhere.

In case you’re wondering.  After this Primer gets to the last prime number before 999999 the next button press will reset the counter to 000002, since 2 is the first prime number.

The power plugs into the back.  I assume those are the screws that hold the counter to the aluminum body.

I love the Primer’s color scheme: Smooth aluminum with black plastic and that seductive red button.  It reminds me of HAL 9000.  It also reminds me of the shape of a water faucet.  It’s like a faucet for prime numbers.  Drip…drip…drip…

If this sort of thing excites you, you can buy a new Primer of a slightly modified design from the artist for $160 (which gives me some smug satisfaction for buying early at $120).

 

Cuyahoga Falls Friends of the Library Spring 2014 Book Sale Haul

The Cuyahoga Falls Friends of the Library Sale was this past Friday and Saturday and like last year I made sure I stopped by.

It’s funny, when I got home for some reason I was a bit disappointed.  Unlike previous years I didn’t bag a ton of science fiction story collections and I didn’t find a really singular, amazing book like The Codebreakers, or one of Asimov’s Opus books, or the Robotech novel set I’ve found in previous years.

However, tonight I was unpacking the books I bought and I realized I was totally wrong: This was a fantastic haul!

What you see here cost me a total of $11.20.  $5.20 for the books and $6 for the DVDs.  I think two of these books might have also come from a trip to Goodwill later that day, but I can’t remember for sure which ones.  I think it was two of the hardbacks.

At the book sale the science section is close to the entrance so the first thing I found was Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a classic book about the development of science that I’ve heard a lot about but never actually read.

From there I cruised to the science fiction section and spotted a some good Asimov stuff.  When I was there, near the end of the second day there was what I think was an entire set of the Foundation series (the books from the 50s and the books we wrote later).  I’ve recently gotten into finding older versions of books I already own so I picked up the first three books.  The two Asimov short story collections are two that I don’t think I’ve seen before.

Nearby was the graphic novel/comics section, which by that part of the day was almost empty.  However, I found the Doonesbury Twenty-Five Years collection which will go nicely next to my Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes collections.  I’m not a great fan of Doonesbury today but looking through the collection it had a great biting vitality in the 70s and 80s.

The room at Cuyahoga Falls Library where the sale is held is very cramped on sale day.  The low ceiling, poor lighting, narrow aisles, and close quarters have in previous years made me want to leave as soon as I looked over the SF section.  This year though, we came at about 2:00PM which is before the mad dash for the bag sale begins and the crowds were somewhat more manageable.  This left me free to look over other sections at my leisure so I spent some serious time at the Art section, which is where I found A History of Graphic Design, American Architecture 1860-1976, and Seven Days in the Art World.  I’m most excited about A History of Graphic Design which is apparently an authoritative overview of graphic design.  Graphic design is one of those subjects I don’t know much about, but it appeals to me on aesthetic grounds.  That book is just fantastic to look at.

The real treat though, was in the room where they sell more “expensive” (i.e. greater or equal to $1) items where I found almost all of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister which as a classic piece of 1980s British TV comedy, is dear to my heart.  Disc one of Yes, Minister is missing but I’m still immensely pleased.  It was astonishing to find such great British TV sitting there for $1 per disc.

The appeal of the Library Sale is the possibility that you can pick up things for cheap that ordinarily would be very expensive.  The graphic design book and the Yes, Minister sets certainly fulfilled that promise for me.

I think this was my fourth or fifth Friends of the Library Sale and this go-round has convinced me even more that the people who contribute books have fantastic taste.  The sale is a jewel and I’m looking forward to the Fall sale in November.

Epson PhotoPC

Previously on Electric Thrift I mentioned that I passed on buying a Sony Mavica at Goodwill because it was missing the power supply and proprietary batteries.  I’m very glad I didn’t buy that camera because shortly after that I found an even older digital camera!

The oldest digital camera I can remember seeing was the Apple QuickTake 100 my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Bennett used in about 1995.  The second oldest digital camera I’ve ever seen is this Epson PhotoPC I recently found at Village Thrift.

Village Thrift has a “showcase” which is a section of supposedly more expensive items positioned on shelves behind a counter so that you have to ask the cashier to take a closer look.  This creates a dilemma because often times it can take awhile to get the attention of the cashier.  You have to really want to see an item in the showcase to justify waiting but the items are kept too far away to get a good enough look to really get interested in them.

I had seen the PhotoPC box back there for several weeks and never grasped the age of the thing.  Luckily there’s this place where the showcase’s counter ends and sometimes items spill over from the showcases’s rear shelves onto the normal, more accessible shelves.  That’s when I finally go a close look at the box and realized this was a digital camera box with screenshots from Windows 3.1! “Copyright 1995 Epson America, Inc.”  This is a survivor from the digital camera Jurassic period.

We tend to think of digital cameras as springing into existence as luxury objects in the late 90s, hitting their prime in the 2000s as people realized the utility of getting photos online and becoming ubiquitous after 2007 as the cheap ones were integrated into smartphones and tablets and the more expensive DSLRs overtook their film counterparts.

According to digicamhistory.com this was among the first digital cameras under $500.  You can see how they needed to make the camera extremely simple to meet that price.  Even though other contemporary digital cameras like the QuickTake 100 had LCD screens, the Epson PhotoPC has none.  There’s just a conventional viewfinder.  As a result, you can’t review photos you’ve taken on the camera itself, you have to connect to a PC.  There is however, a button that deletes the last photo taken.  Additionally, because there’s no screen you have just a tiny LCD display to tell you how the battery is doing, if the flash is on, how many shots you’ve taken, and how many shots you have left.

This is an esoteric analogy but the Epson PhotoPC reminds me of the Ryan Fireball:  That was a bizarre Navy fighter aircraft with both a piston engine and a jet; the PhotoPC is a cheap 90s auto focus point-and-shoot camera that just happens to be digital.  They’re both weird artifacts of a transitional time.

When you do connect the PhotoPC to a PC to look at the photos, you’re connecting with a serial cable because this camera predates USB.  For that matter, it also predates Compact Flash.  There’s 1MB flash memory built into the camera and an slot to add an additional 4MB of flash on a proprietary “PhotoSpan” memory module.  My camera has an empty expansion slot so the built-in 1MB of flash holds a mere sixteen 640×480 photos.

My parents old Dell Pentium III (which you may recall from the Voodoo 2 post) runs Windows 98 so I installed the EasyPhoto software, hooked up the serial cable and pulled some pictures off of the PhotoPC.  I can tell you that pulling photos off of this thing via serial cable is a lot like watching paint dry.  I watched the progress bar snail it’s way across the screen and was pleased when it got to 100%…when I realized that was just for one photo.  One 640×480 photo.  If you’ve got a full camera with 16 photos to transfer you might as well go make yourself a sandwich and catch an inning of the ballgame while that transfers.

However, when you think about the PhotoPC in context even this molasses pace would have seemed Earth-shattering in 1996.  Imagine you were one of the  people venturing out onto the Internet back then.  If you wanted to post a digital photo to a website or attach it to an email you would have to either:

  1. Take a roll of photos on a film camera, have them developed, then scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.
  2. Take photos with a Polaroid camera, scan them, and then presumably crop the photo and resize it for the Internet.

I’ve done enough scanning to know that that would be immensely time consuming.  Once you had a digital camera, even a barebones one such as the PhotoPC you could almost go straight from taking a photo to getting it on the Internet.

Not only that but you could take 16 photos, spend 15-20 minutes transferring them to the PC, wipe the camera and take another 16 photos, over and over.  Sure, this would be no good on your trip to the Grand Canyon but if you were having a family reunion at your house or another scenario where you’re close to a PC this would have seemed miraculous.

So, what do photos taken with the Epson PhotoPC look like?  A lot like the photos I remember seeing on the Internet in the late 90s:  A bit fuzzy.  Strange color artifacts.  Not great focus.

EPC_Photo_Sky EPC_Photo_Pioneer2 EPC_Photo_Pioneer1 EPC_Photo_Mac EPC_Photo_Lego EPC_Photo_Box EPC_Photo_Trees

Keep in mind that in 1996 you’d be lucky to have been running 800×600 at 32bit color on your monitor.  Back then, 640×480 images were serious business.

The wonderful thing about finding this camera is how it is so utterly an artifact of the past but also totally tied to today.  The PhotoPC was one of rat-like mammals that scurried amongst the film dinosaurs.  A film camera and my iPad are of two totally different eras, but the PhotoPC and my iPad are clearly distant but related ancestors.

 

Stuff I Didn’t Buy #1

As you may have gathered already from reading this blog, I buy a lot of things at thrift stores.  But, conversely, I also don’t buy a lot of things at thrift stores.  My Dad and I usually do a thrift store run three or four times a week and it’s rare that I buy something interesting enough to write about on the blog.  Many times I just come back with a book or two.  Stumbling across something interesting enough to write about on the blog is an uncommon and happy occasion.

Other times though, I’ll see something that was interesting but that I decided for various reasons not to buy,  Recently I decided to start documenting these things with my iPhone.  Keep in mind that taking photos of items in thrift stores is not easy.  I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself and often the lighting is very bad.  These are not pictures that are up to normal Electric Thrift levels of clarity and composition.

This Bang & Olufsen Beogram 2400 turntable was a real surprise to find nestled within the serpentine labyrinth that is the Abbey Ann’s off of Tallmadge Circle.  You can often find stereo equipment at that Abbey Ann’s but this was a cut above their usual offerings.

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What this had going for it was that is a striking European early-1970s design.  It was in the original box, including the cartridge, the Styrofoam packing material and the instructions.  I adore the look of European electronics so this sort of thing is right up my alley.

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There were two problems here.  First, I think the price was a bit steep, though Abbey Ann’s is known to negotiate quite a bit.  The second problem was that all of the glue on this thing had decided to dry up and much of the trim was coming off.  It’s a bit hard to see in this photo but the wood-grain on the front was just hanging off.  The little metal plate on the top of the end of the tone arm was coming off as well.  The dust cover was getting stuck on something and would not close correctly.

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I think if this has been one of B&O’s linear tracking Beograms I would have bought it in this condition.  However, I’m already backed up on conventional turntables and this B&O looked like it was going to be trouble so I took these photos and moved on.

A few weeks later this 1980s JVC boombox showed up at that same Abbey Ann’s

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This tugged at my heartstrings a bit because my Dad had a similar (probably slightly more recent, because it was black) JVC boombox in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  I fondly remember making recordings with my brother using the built in microphone and tape recorder.  My Dad had originally bought that JVC boombox because it got shortwave, like this one.

Despite all of the 80s electronics I buy, I haven’t yet gotten into boomboxes.  I think I’m mainly waiting for one that’s in nice condition and fully functional.

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Any time I’m looking at something with a tape player I’m worried about the condition of the mechanism.  There are so many mechanical parts, including belts, that can deteriorate.  I remembered that eventually the tape mechanism in my Dad’s 80s JVC boombox broke and I wasn’t really in the mood to spend even $10-$15 to find out if this boombox had any of the myriad of problems that tape decks can develop.

Those tape issues were also the first thing I thought of when I saw this Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck that showed up at the State Road Goodwill in Cuyahoga Falls.

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I’ve wanted a reel-to-reel for a while now and this one is gorgeous in a mid-1970s silver and wood-grain way.

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There were three problems here.  The first is that reel-to-reels are notoriously troublesome.  I believe one of the more notable moments of my Dad’s thrift store shopping career was when a reel-to-reel he purchased started smoking when he brought it home and turned it on.

The second problem was that while this is a great looking item it lacks two features I want to see in a reel-to-reel: Four channel output and some sort of exotic noise reduction like Dolby A or DBX.  To me, the appeal of a reel-to-reel should be it’s exoticism compared to the common cassette deck and having fancy noise reduction should be part of the fun.

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The third problem was that Goodwill wanted $50 for this thing.  Sometimes I really question the pricing of some of this stuff I’ve seen at thrift stores lately.  Asking $50 for something that’s for all intents not tested and sold “as-is” is not cool.

Coin collectors have a pricing theory that works like this: The price of a coin starts with the worth of the metal (copper, silver, gold, etc) and then you add a “numismatic premium” for the rarity of the coin and the condition of the coin.

I like to think that electronics at thrift stores should work in the opposite way.  You start with what a sort of idea of what the thing should be worth and then subtract a “broken-ness risk premium” for the possibility that the thing is incomplete or broken.

$50 is a fair price to pay for a fully operational, totally complete (minus instructions and packaging) reel-to-reel.  But it fails to take into account my risk in buying a potentially broken item.

This Memorex S-VHS deck from the same State Road Goodwill was the first S-VHS deck I has ever seen at a thrift store.

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It was in pretty bad shape and my same concern with the tape mechanisms on the boombox and the reel-too-reel applied here as well.

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There was also a front panel door missing.  This looked like a lot more trouble than it was worth, whatever price they had on it.

Completeness is also a common reason I don’t buy some things.

This strange thing was at the Village Thrift on State Road a few months ago.  I didn’t know what it was at first.  Maybe some sort of TV?

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When I turned it around and read the label things became clear.

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This was some sort of pen-based tablet PC input device, like a poor man’s Wacom Cintiq.

I have learned from an experience with a Wacom Intuos (which I someday may write about) that you should never buy a pen-based tablet of any type without the pen because finding a suitable pen can be very expensive.

Completeness was also the reason I didn’t buy this Sony Mavica camera.

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Comparatively early digital cameras are an area I’ve wanted to start collecting, so I was happy to see this Mavica show up at the Midway Plaza Goodwill.  Unfortunately, the very proprietary looking battery (Sony, natch) was missing.  I looked for a place where I could at least plug in an AC adapter.  Then, I realized that there was this notch cut out of the area around the battery door with a little spring loaded door.  it seems like rather than having an AC adapter this model had a thing that went into the battery compartment with a cord coming out of it (hence the little spring-loaded door) that acted as the AC adapter.  Another piece of proprietary crap I would have to pay shipping for on eBay.  Not worth it.

Pioneer PL-L70

The Cuyahoga County Hamfest was on September 22nd and I went not knowing what to expect.  Last year was somewhat of a disappointment.  Partly that was because it rained and a lot of the outdoor vendors didn’t seem to mind how wet a lot of neat looking electronics were getting and partly it was because I didn’t come back with an impressive doodad (though I did buy an old copy of Lotus 1-2-3 you may have spotted in the Windows/386 entry).

This year the weather was more agreeable and the items for sale were more exciting.  There was a table of what seem to be radios and radio components from the 1920s and 1930s.

There was this Yamaha M-60 power amp.

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There was this pair of exotic looking Acoustic Research M2 speakers, which are the big brothers of the M1s that my Dad bought in the 1990s. Today the M1s grace my living room.

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There was this Pioneer CLD-D504 Laserdisc player from the heyday of LaserDisc player technology in the mid-1990s.

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But, I didn’t buy any of those things.  Hamfests are strange places to go shopping because you have to make split-second decisions.  There really isn’t time to do research.  There’s usually not AC power available for testing (as there would be in even the most spartan thrift store).  There are multitudes of other people with nerdy interests walking by who at only moment could buy the thing you’re thinking about.  If you see something you like you have to very quickly weigh all of the variables and decide if you want to buy it.

Sometimes I’m in the mood to drop $60 on a LaserDisc player.  That day I was not.  If I was going to buy a substantial piece of audio or video equipment, I wanted it to be dirt cheap.

My Dad and I rounded a corner in the indoor portion of the Hamfest and sitting on a crowded table amongst a lot of serious ham gear was a Pioneer PL-L70 linear tracking turntable.  I inquired about the price and they wanted $10.  Bingo.  It took about 30 seconds for me to decide to buy it.

I’ve wanted an linear tracking turntable for awhile because of their association with the 1980s.  While they weren’t invented in the 80s there was a sudden proliferation of them in the the 80s when designers saw them as a way they could make a record player look high tech.

There was a moment in the early 1980s when the minimalist, silver look that European manufacturers like Wega and Bang and Olufsen had pursued in the 70s was combined with the burgeoning Japanese penchant for electronic wizardry and created the “80s look”.  I like to describe the look as “if the Delorean DMC-12 was a stereo”.

Manufacturers decided that the 1970s look of wood paneling and numerous knobs needed to go in favor of a look that emphasized sharp angles, push-buttons, and computer/microcontroller driven gimmicks.  Linear tracking turntables satisfied those urges.

In a linear tracking turntable the tonearm is straight and is mounted on a mechanism that moves it in a straight line across the radius of the record rather than in an arc, as on a traditional turntable.  Hence, linear tracking.

Because the tonearm on a linear tracker is shorter and is located further back than on a traditional record player designers could slope the front of the dust cover which gives many of these turntables a sleek, aerodynamic look.

If I had my pick I would choose a Technics SL-10, the king of Japanese manufactured 80s linear tracking tables, but those are difficult to find and they go for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  This Pioneer was $10 and said LINEAR TRACKING in large, geometric sans-serif type on the lid (is that Eurostile?).  What’s not to love? Sold.

The most surprising thing about this PL-L70 is that despite being almost 30 years old and having a complicated mechanism that’s necessary to drive the tonearm everything about this thing seems to work.  I had totally expected this turntable to have been priced at a mere $10 because it had numerous faults but I can’t find anything wrong with it other than a few scuffs on the dust cover.  Either this record player has had more than $10 worth of maintenance over the years or its lived a very lucky life.  Maybe this was one of those situations where the seller’s wife told him he couldn’t bring it home from the sale?

According to this Audiokarma post about Pioneer’s date codes a serial number starting with FA means that this PL-L70 was made in January 1985.

The PL-L70’s two biggest 80s selling points are two microcontroller-based gimmicks:  The tonearm is controlled by servos and has an optical sensor that reads the gaps between tracks on the record so that you can do things like press a button to skip to track 4.

You should be able to see the sensor there at the end of the tonearm.  There’s a little label on the head shell that says “OMS” for Optical Music Sensor.  I have tried it and shockingly, this actually works.

On the front of the turntable you have the standard Start/Stop button that’s required on automatic turntables as well as a button to lower the or raise the tonearm.  There’s also the buttons that are necessary on a linear tracker to manually move the tonearm left or right.

Inside on the plinth you have the standard speed selector control and a selector for the sensitivity of the optical sensor.

When you press Start/Stop the player uses the sensor to sense the size of the record and then find the beginning of the groove.  It moves back and forth once to make sure it’s found the position and then lowers the tonearm.

To the left of the buttons to manually position the tonearm are the buttons that let you select a track, or program a series of tracks via the optical sensor.

The PL-L70’s optical sensor gimmick instantly reminded me of another Pioneer turntable I once knew, and one of the main reasons why I’m so infatuated with 80s electronics.

Sometime in the mid-1990s (probably 1995) my grandparents in the Cleveland area downsized from their suburban house to a condo in a high rise.  They got rid of a lot of stuff and gave my family the stereo system my grandfather had bought around 1983.  I had fond memories of the day years before when my other grandfather had shipped us his Apple IIe so an occurrence like this where a family member gave us cool hand-me-downs was a Red Letter day in my childhood.

My grandpa’s stereo system consisted of an Akai AA-R22 receiver (which was pictured in the Realistic TV-100 entry), an Akai cassette deck, and a Pioneer PL-88F turntable and two EPI speakers.  The speakers were sadly rotted but everything else worked.  The cassette deck was fairly mundane but the receiver and turntable were silver-era 80s beauties.

TV100_Akai_AA-R22_Front

The AA-R22 has done yeoman’s work in various rooms of my parents’ house and today is attached to my mother’s desktop PC.  But at the end of the day a stereo receiver with enchanting display is still pretty much like every other stereo receiver.

The PL-88F turntable, on the other hand, was something else.  A record player with a drawer?  What sorcery was this?

The PL-88F was born into an era that craved novelty in mass-market hifi equipment.  It was designed to solve one of the classic usability problems of turntables: where do you put the thing?  The vast majority of audio components like receivers, cassette decks, CD players, VCRs, LaserDisc players, and even an equalizer (if you want to see blinking lights and feel important) can be stacked neatly on shelves.  You may want to do some thinking about heat dissipation and weight when you figure out which order to stack them in, but for the most part you just stack them.  They’re all shaped like boxes and they fit nicely in a small amount of space, like under the TV or in one of those oh-so-80s multiple shelved A/V racks.

Your turntable, on the other hand, has a lid that needs to open.  You can’t put anything on top of it and you need a large amount of clearance above the turntable to open the lid.  Most turntables take up the same amount of space as a CRT television of the same width because of the lid.

That is, unless you have a Pioneer PL-88F, or another turntable that puts the platter on a sliding drawer that moves in and out of an enclosure that you are free to stack things on.  Somewhere, an audiophile just got the shivers because they want their platters to be heavy and well sprung from a solid plinth and a sliding drawer probably compromises that.  But darn it, the PL-88F is just incredibly cool looking.

The designers of the PL-88F wanted you to be able to play records while the drawer was enclosed inside of the player so they gave the tonearm an optical sensor that (in theory) was supposed to read the gaps between tracks.  That way you could press a button an skip to say, track 3 or even program a series of tracks you wanted to hear (assuming they were all on the same side of the record), much like a CD player.  The PL-88F was not a linear tracker but tonearm did have a motor that would move it to the correct track.  Unlike the PL-L70 (which had the benefit of being a model year or two after the PL-88F), the optical sensor on the PL-88F never really worked for us.

The AA-R22 and the PL-88F left an indelible mark on me regarding 80s aesthetics.  I love the silver, push-button, “computer-ized” look of these things.

Sadly, the mechanism that moved the drawer in the PL-88F began malfunctioning in the early 2000s and my Dad trashed it.  But, before that the PL-88F taught me an important lesson about vinyl.

One day in about 1999 or 2000 we had bought a CED player at the (now sadly late) Fifth Avenue Flea Market and I watched Rocky off of what was effectively a record.  My interest piqued about the CED’s audio counterpart, the vinyl record because I had always thought of the record as an obsolete anachronism.

Most of my childhood memories about playing music (especially Paul Simon’s Graceland and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science) are about cassettes.  I think this might be because my Dad’s Realistic cassette deck was located on a lower shelf that I could reach as a child and the record player (needing a lot of space for opening the dust cover) was located much higher.  The turntable also seemed delicate and easy to break, so I stayed away from it.

That evening after watching Rocky we setup the Pioneer PL-88F in my bedroom and I listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1982 Concert in Central Park on a pair of Sennheiser headphones.  That was my first important vinyl experience.

It was at that point that I understood that vinyl was something I needed to pay attention to.  The PL-88F was soon followed by a succession of thrift store turntable finds (at the tail end of when good turntables were showing up at thrift stores) that included a Micro Seiki DD-20 and a Thorens TD-160.  I also started accumulating vinyl and I listened to great music like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Since then my interest in vinyl has waxed and waned.  Simultaneously, vinyl is fun and vinyl is a pain in the ass.  There are a myriad of ways that a record can become deranged.  I have a copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland where the second half of The Boy in the Bubble is marred by sizzling highs.  That stuff will drive you insane.  Every time you play a record you are damaging it in some small way and that seems perverse.  And, if you forgot to clean the stylus or you for got to clean the record or the stylus has become excessively worn you could be doing even greater damage to the record.

Honestly, the experience of using the PL-L70 made me appreciate even more it’s mid-1980s contemporary the Realistic CD-1000.  The Compact  Disc put an end to all so much of vinyl’s obtuse nonsense.

On the other hand, vinyl is the only music format you can watch and that gives it a great air of wonder.  If you ever really want to deeply consider the nature of sensory experience, watch as a tiny stylus drags through a microscopic groove at 33 1/3rd RPM while rich sound booms out of your speakers.  That sound is in there, somewhere hidden in those grooves.  Suddenly the nature of scale starts to have meaning.

I once had the experience of watching the video output of a Sony PCM adapter do it’s magic of recording digital sound as an analog video signal on a videotape and while that was similar, it wasn’t physical, right in front of your eyes like a record player is.  There are some recordings, like Genesis’s Invisible Touch, that seem to just make more sense when you can watch the record spinning around.  That seems silly to me, but that’s how I feel.

Because of all the various annoyances of weight, size, and other inconveniences I don’t think that vinyl will ever (or can ever) be my primary method of listening to music, but it’s a great thing to have on the side (much like my interest in LaserDisc).

Beginning in 2004 or so, while I was at college I got very seriously interested in indie music.  After I graduated I suddenly had the time and money to go to a lot of indie rock concerts and record stores.  No concert is complete without a trip to the merch table and I would often buy an LP because I already owned all of the CDs of the bands I was interested enough in seeing.

As a result, I have I accumulated a small collection of treasured favorites from the indie rock era.

That copy of St. Vincent’s Marry Me on the top of the pile is actually one of my most treasured possessions.  I bought it at the merch table after the St. Vincent show at the Wexner Center in Columbus in February, 2008 and Annie Clark was kind enough to sign it for me.

You may have noticed that some of the albums in that pile are still unopened.  At the time I was very interested in buying mementos from shows but less interested in the hassle of playing the actual records.  However, it presently seems a waste for all of this lovely vinyl to go unplayed, and that’s why I was interested in another turntable.  I think it’s fair to say that the PL-L70 has reintroduced me to vinyl.  I just bought that vinyl copy of Zonoscope from Amazon.  I might even invest in a decent preamp.

Apple Macintosh Quadra 700 and AppleColor High-Resolution RGB Monitor (Part I)

Sometime between 2003 and 2006 I found this Apple Macintosh Quadra 700 at the old State Road Goodwill in Cuyahoga Falls.  According to this Macintosh serial decoding site my Quadra (serial # F114628QC82) was the 7012th Mac built in the 14th week of 1991 in Apple’s Fremont, California factory.

It looks like I paid $15 for the Quadra and the massive Apple Multiple Scan 17 CRT monitor that came with it.

In fact, the Multiple Scan 17 is so large and hulking that I don’t feel like dragging it out of the closet to take a better photo.

After I started this blog I dragged over most of the vintage Mac stuff out of my parents’ attic to my apartment.   I decided that the Quadra 700 should get a semi-permanent place on my vintage computing desk.   The desk (which you’ve probably seen in the Macintosh SE and PowerBook G3 entries) has a credenza that limits how deep of a monitor I can use.   The Multiple Scan 17 doesn’t leave enough space for the keyboard and really restricts what else I can have on the desk.

Originally my plan was to use the Quadra with an HP 1740 LCD monitor I picked up at the Kent-Ravena Goodwill so I bought a DB-15 to HD-15 (VGA) converter.

However, while digging through the Mac stuff in my parents’ attic I made an interesting discovery.  Unbeknownst to me I owned AppleColor High-Resolution RGB 13″ monitor.

When I was still living with my parents there wasn’t really a lot of room in my bedroom for all of the vintage computing stuff I had accumulated.  Often, I would lose interest in something and it would go into the attic.

At some point my Dad must have brought home this monitor from a thrift store.  Unlike most CRT monitors where the monitor cable is attached to the monitor this one has a detachable cable which was lost when he bought it (I have since purchased a replacement on eBay).  With all of the Mac stuff put away and no monitor cable to test it with, it joined everything else in the attic and I forgot about it.

Years later when I stumbled upon it deep in the shadows of a poorly lit part of the room, I thought it was the cheaper Macintosh 12″ RGB monitor that went with the LC series.  But then, I saw the name plate on the back.

This was an amazing stroke of luck because that’s a damn fine monitor.  Back in the late 80s this was one of Apple’s high end Trinitron monitors.  Remember those Apple brochures my mother got in West Akron in 1989 from the Macintosh SE entry?

MacSE_Brochure_Right_Crop

I’m fairly sure that the monitor sitting on the IIx in that picture is the AppleColor Hi-Res 13″.  In fact, if you flip over that brochure, there it is, listed as the AppleColor RGB Monitor.

For reasons that will become obvious in a moment, the AppleColor RGB fits very nicely on the top of the Quadra 700 when it’s positioned as a desktop rather than a mini-tower.

There’s some scratches and scuffs on the monitor but for the most part it works and looks spectacular.

This monitor is a classic piece of Snow White era Apple design.  My favorite thing about this monitor are the large brightness and contrast dials it has on it’s side.

Apple also sold a rather attractive optional base for the AppleColor RGB monitor with great Snow White detailing, as seen in this drawing from Technical Introduction to the Macintosh Family: Second Edition.

Unfortunately I’ve never seen that base come up on eBay.

Oddly enough, when I ventured further into my parent’s attic I found a box of Macintosh stuff that a college roommate had recovered from being trashed at a college graphics lab that contained, among other things, the manual for this model of monitor.

The Quadra 700 is one of my all-time favorite thrift store finds.  It was the first extremely serious Macintosh I have owned from the expandable 680X0 era (roughly from 1987 to 1994 when Apple moved to PowerPC CPUs). Previously the most powerful Mac I had found was a Macintosh LC III with a color monitor. That machine introduced me to what the experience of using a color Macintosh had been like in the early 1990s but the Quadra was on another level entirely.

To put this in perspective: Macintosh LC III was a lower-end machine from 1993 that gave you something like the performance of a high-end Macintosh from 1989. The Quadra 700 (along with the Quadra 900 which was basically the same guts in a larger, more expandable case) was Apple’s late 1991 high-end machine. When it was new, the Quadra 700 cost a staggering $5700, without a monitor. The monitor could easily add another $1500.

In order to talk about the importance of the Quadra I have to go back to the Macintosh II series, which I also discussed in the Macintosh SE entry.

Apple created a lot of machines in the Macintosh II series and it’s a bit difficult to keep track of them.  As you can see in the brochure, the original machine was the Macintosh II, built around Motorola’s 68020 processor and for the first time in the Macintosh, a fully 32-bit bus.  That machine was succeeded the following year by the Macintosh IIx, which, like all following Macintosh II models used the 68030 processor.  The II and the IIx both had six NuBus expansion slots, which is why their cases are so wide.

If you’re more familiar with the history of Intel processors don’t let the similar numbering schemes lead you into thinking the 68020 was equivalent to a 286 and the 68030 was equivalent to a 386.  In reality the original Macintosh’s 68000 CPU would be more comparable to the 286 while the 68020 and 68030 were comparable to the 386.  In the numbering scheme that Motorola was using at the time processors with even numbered digits in their second to last number like the 68000, 68020 and 68040 were new designs and processors with odd numbers like 68010 and 68030 were enhancements to the previous model.  The 68030 gained a memory mapping unit (MMU) which enabled virtual memory.  The jump from the 286 to the 386 was much greater than the jump from the 68020 to the 68030.

The next machine in the series was the Macintosh IIcx in 1989, which basically took the guts of the IIx and put them in a smaller case with only three expansion slots (hence, it’s a II-compact-x).  Like the II and the IIx, the IIcx had no on-board video and required a video card to be in one of the expansion slots.

Later that year Apple reused the same case for the Macintosh IIci, which added on-board video.

The case used in the Macintosh IIcx and IIci was designed to match in color, styling, and size the AppleColor High Resolution RGB monitor I have, as seen in this illustration from Technical Introduction to the Macintosh Family: Second Edition.

As you probably caught onto by now the Quadra 700 uses the same case as the Macintosh IIci but with the Snow White detail lines and the Apple badge turned 90 degrees, turning it into a mini-tower.  That’s why the monitor matches the Quadra so well.

The last Macintosh to use the full-sized six-slot Macintosh II case was the uber-expensive Macintosh IIfx in 1990.  It used a blistering 40MHz 68030 and started at $8970.

However, if you bought a IIfx, you may have felt very silly the next year when the Quadra series based on the new 68040 processor came out and succeeded the Macintosh II series.

The 68040, especially the full version of the chip with the FPU (floating point unit) that the Quadra 700 used, was a huge jump in processing power.

According to these benchmarks at Low End Mac, the 25MHz 68040 in the Quadra 700 scores 33% higher than the Macintosh IIfx’s 40MHz 68030 on an integer benchmark and five times as fast on a math benchmark.  Plus, it was just over half the price of the IIfx.

The interior of the Quadra 700 is extremely tidy. The question the hardware designers at Apple were clearly working with was: what is the most efficient case layout if you need to pack a power supply, a hard disk, 3.5″ floppy drive, and 2 full-length expansion slots in a case? In the Quadra 700 the two drives are at the front of the right side of the case, the PSU is at the back of the right side, and the two expansion slots take up the left side of the case.

You can tell how the arrival of CD-ROM drives threw a wrench in all of this serene order.  You’re never going to shoe-horn a 5.25″ optical drive in this case.  And when you do get a CD drive in the case you’re going to have an ugly looking gap for the drive door rather than just the understated slot for the floppy.  I think Apple’s designs lost a lot of their minimalist beauty when they started putting CD drives in Macintoshes soon after the Quadra 700.

Inside the case, the way everything is attached without screws is very impressive.  The sides of the case and the cage that hold the drives forms a channel that the PSU slides into. Assuming nothing is stuck you should be able to pull out the PSU, detach the drive cables, and then pull out the drive cage in a few short minutes without using a screwdriver (actually, there’s supposed to be a screw securing the drive cage to the logic board but it was missing in mine with no ill effects).

We tend to think of plastic in the pejorative.  But, plastic is only cheap and flimsy when it’s badly done.  This Quadra’s case is plastic done really, really well.  It doesn’t flex or bend.  It’s rock solid.  But, when you pick the machine up it’s much lighter than you expect it to be.

Recently, I needed to replace the Quadra 700’s PRAM battery, which apparently dated from 1991.

The battery is located under the drive cage so this was a nice opportunity to remove the power supply and drive cage to see the whole board.

The new battery is white, located in the bottom right hand corner.

Looking at the whole board there are two really interesting things to note here.

First the logic board itself is attached to the rest of the plastic case using plastic slats and hold-downs.  Had I wanted to remove the logic board and I knew what I was doing, I could probably do that in a few minutes.

Second, notice the six empty RAM slots.  Curiously enough, on the Quadra 700 the shorter memory slots just above the battery are the main RAM.  I believe this machine has four 4MB SIMMs in addition to 4MB RAM soldered onto the logic board (the neat horizontal row of chips labeled DRAM to the left of the SIMMs on the bottom of the picture)   The larger white empty slots are for VRAM expansion.

You can tell from this series of articles (that I assume were posted on newsgroups back in 1991) written by one of the Quadra 700’s designers how proud they were about the video capabilities of the Quadra 700 and 900.

He makes three major points:

  1. The way the video hardware talks to the CPU makes it really, really fast compared to previous Macintoshes with built-in video and even expensive video cards for the Macintosh II series.
  2. The Quadra’s video hardware supports a wide variety of common resolutions and refresh rates including VGA’s 640×480 and SVGA’s 800×600.  That’s why I can use the Quadra with that VGA adapter pictured above.  This was neat stuff in an era when Macintoshes tended to be very proprietary.
  3. If you fully populate the VRAM slots (which gives you a total of 2MB VRAM) you can use 32 bit color at 800×600.

Point 3 just blows me away.  To put that in perspective, the Matrox Mystique card that my family bought in 1997 or so had 2MB VRAM and did 800x600x32-bit color.  There’s a good reason the Quadra 700 was so outrageously expensive.  If you were a graphics professional and you needed true color graphics, Apple would gladly make that happen for the right price.

There is a person on eBay selling the VRAM SIMMs that the Quadra uses.  It would probably cost me about $50 to populate those RAM slots.  It’s very tempting.

I’m planning on doing another entry on the Quadra 700 sometime in the future to talk about what actually using this machine is like.

Sony TR-730

This is my Sony TR-730 transistor radio.

I’ve discussed before how there’s this mish-mash section at Village Thrift where you have the possibility of finding anything and everything.  It’s so packed with items of all types that you have to make several passes before you’re sure you’ve seen everything.  One day recently I had made several passes of these shelves and had decided there was nothing I particularly wanted to buy.  But then, just as I was about to give up, I spotted what I thought at first was an electric razor in a leather pouch.

Upon closer inspection I was surprised to find that it was actually a very small, very old Sony transistor radio, the TR-730.

After we brought it home I was eager to hear it working…And this is when we discovered, via this note we found in the battery compartment, that it needed an odd 4.5v battery.

Fortunately, equivalent batteries are still made (apparently they were used in cameras) and after a trip to Battery Bob’s site I had a PX21 in hand and the TR-730 fired right up.

I’m not sure what this thing sounded like in it’s heyday but it certainly works now.

That’s 1350AM WARF, a sports station that basically saturates this part of Northeast Ohio with it’s signal.  I can tell you that the tuning wheel on this TR-730 is a bit sticky so it’s not great for fine tuning.  I think I would prefer a larger wheel like the TR-1 has.

But all things considered, I’m very amused that this 50 year-old radio still works.

Most of what I know about the TR-730 I found on James Butter’s Transistor Radio Design site.  He quotes an advertisement in a Pittsburgh newspaper for the TR-730 dated November 1961, which places this radio squarely in the Kennedy Administration.  Depending on how old you are you may not think of transistor radios as particularly antique devices but consider that this radio has most likely celebrated it’s 50th birthday.  The $39.95 price for the radio in 1961 translates to about $312 in 2013 dollars.  Buying one of these radios would have been very much like buying a smartphone today.  I suspect that if you bought one of these in 1961 it would have been the most technologically advanced device you owned.

What you got for your $39.95 in 1961 was a tiny AM radio with a tuning wheel, a volume wheel, and a headphone jack.  That’s it.  No FM.  No “bass boost”.  No back-light.  No station memories.

But what you did get was extreme portability at a time when such a thing seemed miraculous.

In the first entry on this blog, about the Casio TV-1000 micro TV, I noted how the micro TVs of the 1980s in some ways foreshadowed today’s smartphones.  If you want to go further though, you have to look back at the first handheld transistor radios of the 1950s and 1960s.

If the smartphone revolution has taught us anything it’s that any technology with mass-market appeal will be shrunk until you can carry it in your pocket.  The smartphone exists because there is tremendous appeal in having The Internet with you and accessible at all times.  The games and camera and phone aspects of the device just come along for the ride.  What you really want is the Internet with you at all times.

The Game Boy existed because of the appeal of having a videogame with you at all times.

The iPod (and the other portable music players like the Archos and the Nomad and others) existed because of the appeal of carrying thousands of songs (if not your entire music library) with you at all times.

Before that, the Walkman existed because of the appeal of carrying one album with you at all times.

In order for something to be with you at all times it has to fit into your pocket.

I may be mistaken but I believe the first time this “fit it in your pocket” phenomenon occurred was the transistor radio revolution from the introduction of the Regency TR-1 in 1954 into the 1960s.  Now, there had been portable radios for decades by this point, like Zenith’s Trans-Oceanic series, but these are large, heavy things that you might put on the ground next to you when you were having a picnic.  There’s a difference between making something battery powered and giving it a handle and putting it in your pocket.

Outside of say, a flashlight, the transistor radio was the first piece of electronics that the average person might keep on their person.  In my mind that’s a tremendously important point in the history of technology.  As someone who grew up surrounded by tape players, radios, TVs, later personal computers, and now smartphones and tablets the idea of a world before ubiquitous consumer electronics seems fascinatingly distant and alien.  In that respect, something like the TR-730 represents the first dim moments of the era I recognize as my own.

Of course the reason why we are surrounded by consumer electronics today is because of the triumph of the semiconductor and the transistor and again the TR-730 represents the opening moments of that era as well.

The TR-730 also represents the early moments of Sony’s entry into the American consumer electronics market.

When I was gathering the materials for this entry I was thinking about how much Sony stuff I own.

For a long time I’ve felt some ambivalence towards Sony.  There was a time when the Dreamcast was being crushed by the Playstation 2 that I really hated Sony, but today I have this general feeling that they’re a company that despite their intense drive to innovate has a tendency to drop the ball halfway to greatness.

If the MiniDisc had had a way to quickly and effortlessly copy music from a CD to a MiniDisc, like the iPod did years later, it might have been a tremendous success rather than the middling semi-failure that it became.

The PSP debuted in 2005 and coupled a fast CPU (for a portable device of the day) with WiFi and (once you bought a mandatory memory card) mass storage.  Sony had all of the ingredients in front of them to have invented the App Store two years before Apple, but they dropped the ball and had to rush to create something similar after Apple did.  Before that point, the process of putting demos, music, pictures, and videos on the PSP involved putting files in bizarrely named folders on the memory card.  It seemed like no one at Sony had considered the consumer’s perspective in this at all.

The PS Vita is basically the best portable game hardware ever created…and Sony can’t quite figure out what to do with it.  Does it exist for miniaturized versions of console games?  Does it exist for $10 indie games?  Does it have a chance competing with tablets and smartphones?

It’s as if this company loves to build stuff but can’t figure out how to make it really usable or delightful for the consumer in the same way that say, Apple can.

The world of consumer electronics is changing.  Whole classes of electronics like digital cameras, video cameras, eReaders, digital audio players, radios, and other devices are being subsumed into the smartphone and the tablet.

The era where you could simply bring out another new model of say, a TV or a DVD player, or a camera and people would buy it simply because it was new and it contained one new feature are quickly coming to an end as people just want one new device that does all of these things.

The world that Sony thrived in where they could have tendrils into every consumer electronics market is dying.  The TR-730 also represents the birth of this era as well.  Does something like the PS Vita represent the terminal end; the end of the Sony era?