Articles in the toys category

Inside the Machine - Jon Stokes

I've enjoyed Ars Technica for a long time, even from the pre-history before RSS when you had to remember what sites you liked to visit. Having an interest in computer architecture, I thus grabbed (a signed copy of) Jon Stokes' Inside the Machine quickly when it came out.

Having learnt what I know about architecture the "traditional" way (e.g. textbooks and courses) I was interested in the "beginners guide" approach. The early parts of the book, explaining the basics of microprocessors, rely quite heavily on analogies (the "file clerk", the "document storage room", the "SUV factory" etc). Personally, I'm not sure how much this aids the understanding of the material — for mine the length of time spent describing the analogies gets in the way of the material. I understand, however, that I am not the target market for the early part of the book. The introduction to instruction encoding with the "DLW" architecture serves as a good illustration; it is the type of stuff I think should be in every introductory CS course. The diagrams throughout are very clear, and it really lives up to its billing as an "illustrated guide".

For mine, what is most impressive is the later chapters, which are an unrivalled review of x86 and PowerPC architecture. They are clearly well researched, and step you through the architecture and its history logically and clearly. The level of detail is perfect, giving you more than enough depth to understand what is happening but not bothering to delve into irrelevant esoteric implementation details which would simply make the book fatter (c.f. H&P). If you've studied architecture before you can skip to Chapter 5 and dive into this bit straight away.

If you have more than a passing interest, I still think investing in a copy of Hennessy and Patterson and plowing through the first few chapters (and appendixes) is an unrivalled introduction. But this book is about 1/3rd as thick, much easier reading and, more importantly, is the only current compendium on modern (i.e. still in production/development) architectures. I shudder to think how long was spent pouring over architecture manuals, whitepapers and old HOTCHIPS papers to distill the useful information it contains. Computer architecture is a fascinating art, and this book may well be the best passport to the otherwise inaccessible city of transistors just below your fingertips.

LCD Scroller

I received for Christmas a cool little LCD scrolling panel. Of course the first thing I did was sniff the crappy Windows control program to figure out how to program it.

It doesn't have a particular brand name that I can see, but it comes up as a Prolific USB to Serial converter when plugged in. It looks like the photos below.


The protocol to program it, if you could call it that, consists of sending at 9600 baud, N81, a leading byte 0xAA followed by a one byte number between 1 and 5 for the scroll speed, your message of up to 73 characters (more makes it crash) and a trailing byte of 0xCC.

I have written lcd-scroller program to control it. QA seems to be pretty poor on this thing; send too many characters and it locks up or resets, and occasionally it shows PLEASE WRITE AGAIN! for no apparent reason. However, it's still fun to stream an RSS feed of the cricket scores or similar!

Commodore 64 and BASIC

I just came across an article on Salon lamenting the death of BASIC called "Why Johnny can't code". It reminded me of the the following photo, which clearly shows why I can code.

ian and a commodore 64

I don't know the exact date, but the fluro shoelaces gives a pretty good time-frame. Thanks to my Dad for firstly buying the Commodore 64, and then scanning in a bunch of old photos 15 years later!

Making the Philips DVDR77 Region Free

The Philips DVDR77 is a DVD+RW recorder with an inbuilt PCMICA media reader, which due to apparent obsolence can be found quite cheap. To make it region free the easiest way is to use a Palm Pilot

  1. Download OmniRemote (the download version is a 15 day free trial).
  2. You need to send code RC6 (Codeset 4, Key 235) to the DVD. OmniPhilips955.pdb is an OmniRemote database with a big button to send this code.
  3. From the system menu of the DVD, select the 5th item and change the remote control type to DVD Player.
  4. Use OmniRemote to send the code to the DVD. It should now be showing dashes (- - - - - -). I had to press the button a few times before it seemed to register.
  5. has the procedure to enter the region free code from here. Enter 121212005255 and then PLAY.
  6. Reset the DVD remote type.

There is also a firmware upgrade (direct link).

goodbye to an old friend


morrison, my old AlphaPC 164 has finally had it's last shutdown -h. Rescued on a mercy mission to Canberra it has served me well for many years. Sure, it had it's quirks; the ATX power supply modified with a paper clip, no off switch, noise and heat to rival a coal mine and an infuriating ability to not detect a keyboard and thus default to the serial port, rather than the VGA card (that one had me going for hours).

Ultimately it's 266MHz Alpha has been replaced by a processor almost 10 times its clock speed and half its word size, but not appreciably faster handling the mail and file serving tasks it did so well. It's tough to survive in a world when you can be replaced by a processor, all-in-one motherboard and RAM for just over $200.

Now I have to double check all the security alerts to make sure I'm not vulnerable to the latest stupid buffer overflow. But I do have a nice big RAID5 array to hold MP3's.

If anyone is interested in a slightly used Alpha with a few extras it could be exchanged for some form of alcohol.

It's always nice to get a new toy ...

Especially when that toy comes from SGI

Our new Altix 350 ... there's a really big box here for you ...

The box New Altix 350, $lots. Shipping it to UNSW, $lots. Watching them play with the box ... priceless

Ubunutu IA64? Hopefully we can get this to boot so we can be super-cool like everyone else :)

Great Service

I've recently got great service from two companies online, so credit where credit is due.

  • : I ordered a Canon IXUS 30 camera and it arrived at about 9:00am the next morning. They were also the cheapest price I could find!
  • I ordered some business cards from Salt Media in Western Australia. The first batch were wrong because of some stupid overprint thing that only shows up when you print, the guys kindly offered a half price reprint even though it was really my fault. Tip: ask for a proof, always. Great price, too.

Yamaha TSS-15W

I recently picked up the Yamaha TSS-15W from Dick Smith.

I had previously invested in a Joytech Switch Box which is a great product at $100 (I've seen them Electronics Boutique and some Harvey Normans, where they were slightly cheaper) which switches 4 SCART, S-Video, Composite Video and, most impressivley Optical Audio.

Seeing as my digitial set top box and DVD had optical output, my primary requirement was that the speaker system have optical inputs -- the TSS-15 fits this perfectly with two optical inputs and one coaxial digital input (plus one normal stero input).

Then an Xbox advanced av pack, a few optical and s-video cables later and I'm really happy with the results. If you are buying optical cables, the cheapest ones I could find were at JB Hi-Fi and were labeled as minidisk cables ($12), but as long as it has the TOS-link end you should be right. I saw some that had gold plated ends -- on an optical cable! People will pay extra for anything.

The TSS-15 does everything you could want -- it does all the usual Dolby this and that, including the Pro Logic modes that turn 2 channel input into 5.1 channel output (by default it automatically switches around). The speakers are really small but surprisingly loud; for normal living room use they are great and go up louder than I can bear to listen to them. The subwoofer is also fine, though it's not separately powered (passive subwoofer?) it has some special design that makes it good, apparently.

The remote is quite functional, giving you control over the current input, Dobly modes and a special "night mode" which seems to just cut the bass and up the treble.

For me, the upgrade to S-Video everywhere and surround sound has been fantasitic. The separate switch box with optical switching has allowed me to upgrade really easily -- for example many of the cheaper dvd all in one systems (~$800) only come with one or two digial inputs -- not enough if you want the x-box or other extras.

Yamaha TSS-15W

The only problems with the system are minor -- the ends of the speakers all have an RCA connector, which means you have to have a very wide speaker stand if you are to run the wire down the middle of it; else you have to cut and re-solder the ends (as I did). I picked up some very cheap stands also from Dick Smith, really designed for another model. With a bit of double sided tape they stick on, but don't look perfect. If Yamaha had created stands for the speakers I'm sure we would have bought them.

One thing I have noticed is that when Digital TV advertises the separate "Dolby" audio channel, it always seems to be only 2 channel output. This means that the Yamaha correctly detects the input as 5.1 channel input, but only two of the speakers are working. I'm not sure if this is the TV broadcasting or the Opentel box.