Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

I wish I could say it was an academic exercise, but the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull Volcanic eruption and subsequent dust clouds are standing in the way of an important flight that Agata and I need to take.

With other members of our overall family already trapped in Australia it reminds us that on demand air travel is something that we are now accustomed to. With that said all I can do is keep looking at the Geneva Departures website and go thru the packing and rail planning ritual anyway.

I would sadly comment that Iceland used to have a thriving Fishing Industry. Today its two principal exports are Financial Debt and Ash !

Here are some nice photos and links to distract me anyway:

I'm quite sure the above statistic is questionable. I thought that Volcanic ash was predominantly Silicon Dioxide (SiO2). Please read this paper
from which the following table is shown thus:

Monday, April 19, 2010

4K sector sizing

The next time you scootle down into Oracle 11g's logfile information you might notice the Oracle BLOCKSIZE parameter has magically appeared with supported sizes of 512 bytes or 4096 bytes.

So what exactly is going on?

  • Excluding IBM's crazy (sorry I mean traditional) mainframe Count Key Data (CKD) disk format, floppy disks and hard disks use a Fixed Block Architecture

  • Since about 1980 a disk track is divided into a set of 512 byte sectors (Before that 128 bytes was also a popular option since overal track capacities were smaller)
  • Each Sector includes the main DATA field, some ID fields and of course a Cyclic Redundancy Check (CRC) fields.

  • For over 10 years Hardware designers have proposed moving to 4K byte sectors for hard disks.

  • With an eight fold increase in sector size you need less sectors per track. And therefore fewer CRC fields and inter sector gaps meaning about a 10% increase in usable capacity too.

  • But, what about software, both at the OS and application level that is expecting to write out information in 512 Byte sizes ...
The key thing is that Disk Partitions using 4K should be aligned such that the first block of each OS 512 byte Partition maps to the first block of the underlying 4K Byte Hard drive sector.

Good Alignment

Bad Alignment

  • Here is an example Advanced Format (4K sector) drive
So the first consideration is that the OS aligns the underlying disk partitions correctly. Applications rarely need to know about the underlying 4K sectors, however Databases like Oracle could benefit so they have already made the changes.

SNIA Developer conference report 2008 on 4K sectors
2005 Industry report on move to 4K sectors
Hitachi paper 4K sectors
Toms Hardware 4K sectors
Linux and 4K sectors

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sim Shitty

Uncle Steve knew that them there Europeans might need some more time to consider our iPad purchases. So to help us he has thoughtfully delayed European iPad shipments till June 2010.

But that is surely not the only surprise. For those of you who wanted to wait even longer for the 3G model please be aware that the SIM card slot is not the Universally standard mini SIM slot. In order to save space, and definitely not to piss off users, competitive SIM and telecoms providers, the iPad uses the micro SIM standard.

Regular mini SIM size 15mm x 25mm
AT&T micro SIM size 13.5mm x 16.5mm
microSIM size 12mm x 15mm

In fact I'm not sure if it's going to be the 12 mm or 13.5mm sized standard so hold off with those scissors just yet!

In Europe in order to avoid preposterous roaming costs it is usual to change to a native country SIM. For example with a Swisscom SIM the standard charge is shown in this table. 10CHF (about 10 USD) will buy you 1MB of data, let's call it 2, 500KByte web pages. Can you now appreciate why changing to a local SIM is essential?

The iPad's choice of a micro SIM slot will be problematic because finding a micro SIM format data provider in a foreign European country you roam into will be tres difficile.

A far more flexible solution is just to purchase the 16GB iPad (I'd recommend the base model, because you know the 2nd Generation model with the enhancements will ship pre 2011) and also a portable 3G mifi modem. This post explains how

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Let there be (Intel) Light

The USB 3.0 Specification was released in November 2008 an agonizing 8 years after USB 2.0 .

USB 3.0 promises speeds of up to 572MB/second (4.8G bits per second) compared to the theoretical USB 2.0 maximum of 57MB per second (480M bits per second).

But due to the prolonged wait other technologies have been secretly developed and word is that USB 3 will not become the all conquering standard for next gen hardware.

In the Land of Intel where no Shadows lie.
One Cable to rule them all, One Cable to find them,
One Cable to bring them all and in the Lightness bind them
In the Land of Intel where no Shadows lie
(with sincere apologies to Tolkien)

Intel suggests that Light Peak will ship in 2011

  • 10 Gb/sec speed over optical cable (upto to 100Gb /sec architecture )
  • 100 metres plus distance using optical cabling
  • Implements Quality of Service, Hot Pluggable, multiple Protocols, Small Form Factor plugs
  • Possible one stop connector and cable for all peripherals including Disk, Display, accessories
  • As yet there is no published specification or draft specification

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Apologies for the mediocre camerawork but pictured above are my old (on the left) and new (on the right) PowerBalls.

A Powerball
is essentially a portable exercise device that will increase the strength in your fingers, hands and forearm. Why might this be attractive?

Suppose you had an innocent fall and for over 12 months sustained partial paralysis in both hands. That is my story. Or perhaps your hands and fingers were always a bit weak and needed strengthening.

Actually, before my fall of January 2009 I had owned a basic NSD Powerball for some years. Then it was just a curiosity. You see the Powerball is basically a gyroscope and us Engineers just love Gyroscopes.

One of the classic references is Eric Laithwaite's lectures on Gyroscopes which I remember watching live, back in the day. Lecture 5, minute 6 plus shows you some very large gyroscopes. But please take the time and start watching from Lecture 1 (Note: Eric's gyroscopic obsession lead to his subsequent rebuttal by the Royal Society sic)

But back to the Power Ball. Which one should you choose.? My thoughts:

  • Get an original NSD Powerball not an imitiation. The imitations often have imprecise mechanism leading to excessive vibration and noise. They "feel" cheap.
  • Some models have flashing lights powered from the Gyroscopic motion and are quite interesting
  • You start the Ball rotation by wrapping a supplied thin cord around a diameter and pulling. I tried other methods. Rolling along a table: starts the Powerball and puts dust into the mechanism, so you'll need to buy a new one when it all clogs up. I bought a battery powered Powerball starter from eBay. Expensive and crap, and the rubber rollers put particles inside the Powerball meaning the bearings clogged and I had to buy another PowerBall. Just use the cord, or if exceptionally strong a flick with your hand.
  • After graduating from the flashing lights models (which can cause alarm if spun say inside a moving car as a passenger), I think the ultimate Power Ball is the 350Hz Metal Pro model. This is extremely heavy and so provides the best workout.
  • It is the quietest model I have ever used. This is important if you use if whilst watching TV or in any situation where you don't want to disturb your immediate neighbours
  • The precision of the metal ball seems to be higher than other plastic models although this could be my wishful thinking.
  • Most Power Balls come with an LCD display indicating maximum RPM and time used etc. It's not useful to me but great if you are a fanatical stats person.
Currently I try to use this Metal PowerBall for at least an hour across both my hands daily. Strength in all fingers has increased dramatically, and the partially paralysed right thumb is now strong enough to be usable to say hold a Rotring Pen or Soldering Iron. Marvellous!

Citroen SM

Jalopnik just published a concise summary article on the Citroen SM. Please take time to read the article and also to discover Jalopnik

Citroen SM article on Jalopnik
Jalopnik RSS feed

Monday, April 12, 2010

Serial Killer

I was educated to believe that a good story has a Beginning, a Middle and an End. With that said even though we are in the last series of the award winning Lost with less than 5 episodes to air nobody is totally clear what the resolution will be.

But at last things are coming to a close. In contrast I've been succored into watching some series and I'll name FlashForward and Prison Break as two where it is evident that it is fast turning into a never ending story. To elaborate, any series which grabs our attention with a fantastical plot device (e.g. Lost, FlashForward) should do us the courtesy of ending in a timely manner. For Prison Break, no sooner did they escape from one Prison, well they went back into a different one. In FlashForward, as the time to predicted future nears, the progress slows proportionately.

Perhaps it was the series Twin Peaks that broke the Beginning, Middle and End mould and worked past the initial death of Laura Palmer into a series of 30 episodes.

A series should not be a vehicle for promoting a fanzine magazine, mens clothing or accessories like Cisco teleconferencing. Of course some series have sincere longevity built into them. Doctor Who expires now and then, regenerating the lead Actor and assistant into a new pair to face new adventures. 24 features Jack Baeur fighting terrorism in independent adventures set in that most dangerous city Los Angeles and recently New York.

In Conclusion
So, let's hear it series that are self aware and acknowledge that when their time is done, and their story told, they can finish gracefully and continue to rest with a warm glow in our memories.

Paddington invades Switzerland

Would you believe it. Paddington Bear is becoming a common sight in Switzerland!

As a child I fell in love with Michael Bond's stories about a polite bear originating from "Darkest Peru". Paddington is initially found at Paddington railway station (hence his name) and is taken to live with the Brown family. This comprises Henry Brown and wife Mary Brown and their children Johnathon and Judy.

Besides being (retrospectively) a famous UK children's author Michel Bond worked as a BBC TV cameraman.

Paddington's adventures were always a delightful surprise when read to us as children. His clear and simple responses to real life situations cut thru the adults world baloney, often with insightful and hilarious results.

In Switzerland the Coop supermarket is treating us to Paddington bears, themed children's rucksacks, mugs and shopping bags. As usual to buy these items at sensible prices you collect stickers based on shopping purchases and attach them to the above pictured card. 30 stamps per card and reminiscent of the British 1960's Green Shield Stamp campaign. Bizarrely appropriate since Paddington is also from this time period in history.

Whilst this merchandise brings back great memories I'd encourage adults and children alike to additionally investigate the original stories. See the links below:

Please take care of this bear (video)
Paddington Bear Books in German
Paddington Bear Books from amazon UK
A bear called Paddington Audio CD

Saturday, April 10, 2010

That'll do Marcus, That'll do

It is with a sense of pride, relief and also a tinge of sadness that I can proclaim my Cromemco disk conversion project is now complete.

The aim of this project was to convert the almost 1000, 5.25 and 8 inch floppy disks containing software that I used to either work with and develop in the 1970's and 1980's into an Internet friendly format. Predominantly for posterity, but also because several collectors and enthusiasts still experiment with this software.

Looking back at the image timestamps I can see that I first started my Digitisation project on Monday 14th May 2007. Since then I have spend a few hours per week making the conversion. Here are the highlights!

2005: Old Cromemco computers are freighted from storage in England

2006: Computers are renovated in the cold basement of our cave in Lausanne.

2007: IBM PC XT286 is renovated and using a modified ISA IDE disk controller and Dave Dunfields Image Disk program can try to make diskette images

2008: Some of the most powerful Cromemco 68020 computers are purchased from USA and freighted (at frightening cost) to further crowd our basement cave.

2009: Figure out how to make particular 3.5" diskette drives precisely emulate their grandfather 8" diskette ancestors. Start to copy then test all 8" diskettes into 3.5" format.

2010: Imaging is completed. All Cromemco CDOS and Cromix Operating system software is published to the Internet in the following forms

The results of several thousand hours of painstaking work is here

Social Comment
I think this undertaking forms a microcosm of a typical IT project :-)

Design and Planning: For the plan to come together I needed the support, help and patience of Agata. She has put up with me working in the basement during winter and summer evenings for over a year, before I got the green light to bring "all that crap" into the study (which required redesign to hold several of these 50Kg plus machines). Other planning including shipping computers from UK and US, scouring eBay for replacement MFM hard drives, and obtaining sources for 3.5, 5.25 HD and 8" diskette drives and media.

Attention to Detail: Determination, doing a little each day, working carefully and methodologically have all helped get there slowly but surely.

Took Longer than Expected: There have only been rare moments when I could devote more than 2 hours per day to this project. Items like the offline world, and a full time job have constantly been conflicting. Still, 5 years was longer than I expected.

Over Budget: Flying to England to inspect my Cromemco computers, in storage for over 15 years and checking they powered on was expensive. But then repacking them and freighting to Switzerland was galactically expensive. A Z2's linear dimension once boxed makes any Freighter smile all the way to the bank. The same is true for the Cromemco 250's retrieved from America. In that case shipping and import duty, well it was intergalactically expensive.

Luck: Without the software from Malcolm McLaren and some encouragement from people like Mike Stein and kind words from many Internet colleagues my resolve to complete the project could have been challenged. Agata's support has never failed. Thanks everybody.

A better way (Back to the Drawing Board): The initial plan was first to recopy all media onto fresh 8" diskettes and I found a seller of NOS (New Old Stock) only 10Km from the family mansion in England. Unbelievable, since these diskettes have not been commonly available for over 15 years now. I started the copying ... Then, in discussions with Mike Stein it became clear that I could trivially modify the 64FDC disk controller and use more available, smaller and more reliable 5.25" HD diskette drives. I restarted the copying to 5.25" media .... Then whilst browsing some Amiga and Commodore forums I found out that it might be possible to further modify a Mode 3 (Japanese format) 1.44 MB floppy drive to emulate the ancient 8" drive. Some experimentation and soldering later ... success. So now there was a way to use 3.5" converted drives and readily available and cheap 3.5" DS DD diskettes. So I started recopying to 3.5" ... Third time lucky?

KISS: A few design decisions were made but simplicity is normally the key. I wanted a sure fire way of bootstrapping a system then restoring futher parts of the Cromix Operating System and utilities. The answer is:
  • You need a Cromemco System capable of running Z80 or 68000 Cromix meaning at least 128KB memory, 2 floppy drives. A best configuration might be at least 1MB memory, 4 floppy drives (5.25 and 8 inch), and a MFM hard disk and STDC controller
  • You need a preconfigured Cromix Boot disk including the important PCCOM driver
  • You get the diskette by writing a .IMD image disk format image or requesting one from me in the post
  • You then boot Cromix and can then send from PC to Cromix via the PCCOM driver and client PC program . TA or .TAR files as required.
  • Use ftar (with -xuv for the UNIX format tar or just -xv for the .ta files). .ta files were created when the source diskette contains /dev entries because ftar with UNIX options does not save these device entries, yet (of course) your system won't work without them.
Another format .IMD for Dunfield Image disk was also made or all not just a few critical Cromemco diskettes. This is a single file which can be used to directly generate a diskette image. But this adds the complexity and dependency of a working Image Disk creation, 16 bit IBM PC, and one using a NEC 765 diskette controller. Further, to create 3.5" physical, 8" logical diskettes you would have had to modify and install a mode 3 1.44 MB diskette drive and make it simulate a 5.25 HD diskette drive. This in turn would be used by Image Disk as a 8" drive.

Testing makes Good: At the two principle stages (copying and imaging) it was important to test that all was really made correctly. This made an already slow process, agonizingly slow. As an indication, to copy,image and test a non bootable diskette took about 1 hour (best case). For bootable diskettes where track0.sector1 is written in a different density and format to the other tracks, it could take up to 3 hours for one diskette. Some diskettes could not be imaged but only copied even after repeated attempts.

So like I say, it has certainly been a lot of work, and I'm rather please that it is all done now. Unless of course you have some more Cromemco Software to send me ... Anybody?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Translation on Captain

Most Swiss are able to speak upto 4 Languages: French, Swiss-German, Italian and Romansh. Well it should of course be 5 if you include the really important one ... English monsieur!

For me, navigating Swiss websites that use Frames (where the displayed URL does not change) or that change language as you click thru links can present a major problem since English is my mainstay.

But the Google Chrome browser has now come to the rescue. It not only recognises non native languages but offers to translate them on the fly, and automatically. I can well undertand the French webpages from Steg Computers but on clicking a detail link above if often changes to German. Now using Chrome it is automatically translated to English.

It is not quite the Babelfish or Google's Animal Translate but we are getting there.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Should we have a kid?

Of course, joking aside, it is ultimately one of the planets most serious questions. Just thinking and knowing that there is a choice is all I ask you to consider.

That makes me... well... not accepted


So it looks like I've been asked to participate in the 2010 New York Marathon. Fantastic, probably the first time I entered a competition and won anything. Perhaps a great incentive to start some serious training.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Sunday Swim and Walking Monday

In contrast to Easter Sunday, Easter Monday is not a religiously significant day. Since we have dedicated this Easter to the start of our Triathlon training we thought Monday could be spent walking to our breakfast appointment.

Over Easter we have been Cycling, then Running and finally Swimming on Sunday. In effect a slow motion triathlon taken over the course of 3 days. I'd like to publicise the Montreux Piscine de la Maladaire today. On Sunday we had the delight of a few Km of un-interrupted swimming there, with Agata and I having a motorway sized swim lane all to ourselves in the brand new refurbished Piscine.

This is the Official Website Address:
La Maladaire CH-1815 Clarens. Tél. +41 21 964 57 03

Although the pool is 50 metres in length it has dividers, and on most days (except Monday evening) it it split into 3 pools the largest of which is 25 metres long. You get charged extra if you don't live in Montreux so it is 7.3 CHF each for us foreigners from Vaud.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

8 Bit resurrection

In memory of earlier noble architectures:

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon arranged for NES by Brad Smith. Created using Famitracker, sound rendered with NSFplug.

Preparation for the Preparation

Okay pop quiz, which of the above three recovery fluids did we start imbibing this late Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, it was not the delicious Japanese Plum Wine or the French Champagne. Instead we dutifully brewed up an extra large helping of SIS REGO recovery This is a protein-carbohydrate complex to be taken after hard physical exercise and we really recommend it.

Today we decided to begin our training for our forthcoming Triathlon season. Now the weather has got freakishly hot we set off on a strategic run.

Some 25Km later we found out that it was indeed quite difficult to run down the mountain, meet lake Geneva, run past a few quaint towns like Lutry and Cully and then face the prospect of running back up some 500 metres to home.

We are now both quite exhausted so a large dinner in front of the Eleventh Hour is really just what the Doctor ordered

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Good Friday

It has been a pretty Good Friday so far and the night is still young as they say. Obviously we have not done any resurrecting or church entering, though during the course of our 7 hour cycle ride we passed a lot of churches (at least 15 and then I stopped counting).

Seen smiling Agata the chief travel advisor plans a route. We are aiming for Gstaad
but in retrospect this was hopelessly optimistic given that we did not leave Lausanne at the crack of dawn as was our wish.

Leaving home Marcus is seen with a full complement of paranoid cycle clothing including thermal overshoes and a rucksack containing extra clothes and waterproofs. Check out the destickered (now plain black) Shimao Dura Ace wheels!

As we cycle higher it becomes apparent that the freak wintry conditions of Thursday have left their mark. Snow remnants are everywhere.

Small Swiss towns are quite keen on homemade sculptures. This one is ski oriented.

Agata and I stop for our first break. We have a variety of SIS fluids and apricot and ginger snacks.

Sometime later Marcus realises the effect of eating many dried apricots. Emergency toilet stop is called for!

Great mountain views as we climb and descend frequently

We did not get to Gstaad but we certainly did get into Canton Friborg. Here is the point at which we are homeward bound cycling back into our home Canton Vaud.

On our excursion we saw even more kitties than churches. Something of great joy to us as cat connoisseurs. Country cats it seems like their human counterparts seems less stressed and more at ease than their city cousins.

This way home says Marcus, a large dinner awaits us.

The sun seems to be disappearing but we are nearly home.

So overall another great time was had, good times, good exercise, no injuries and the chance to come back to a large and deserved dinner.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Aprils Cool

Well this is indeed already a day of surprises. From a temperature of 2 degrees in the morning as I ran though the snow/sleet down to Lausanne lake to the now 14 degrees as I survey the mountains at noon.

But that was as nothing to the exciting breakthroughs that I see that Google is now pioneering