Author Archives: ianjs

In which I get teary over an archive of Byte magazine covers


I came across this archive of all the Byte magazine covers which some energetic soul has scanned. They go all the way back to the first issue in January 1977.

Major flashback!

Here’s the first one I bought at McGills Technical Books in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne:

I’m pretty sure it cost me $AU4.50; about $18 or more in current dollars. I was a poor student and I agonized over spending that much.

In a world where computers are everywhere, it’s hard to imagine how exciting it was to get your hands on a real computer in 1977.

480px-Apple_I_ComputerThere was a thriving market in development boards for the different microprocessors, but you had to assemble them from scratch by soldering components to a board. If you were really cashed up you could get a fully assembled board like this one from an obscure company in California with a cute name:

I pored over the ads in Byte, vacuumed up the articles on assembly language, threaded interpretive languages and wire wrapping and eventually conned Janine to divert much-needed funds from our house savings for a Z80 Starter System from SD Systems.

1024 bytes of RAM (expandable to 2048 bytes!), a 2K EPROM programmer, a cassette interface to store programs and the all-important S100 bus expansion so I would never have to buy another computer again. Doesn’t sound like much but it eventually had:

  • Sargon chess
  • Space Invaders
  • A 3D graphical maze
  • A voice synthesiser using the Votrax SSI-263AP
  • An AY-3-8910 as a 3-voice programmable sound generator
  • A floppy disk interface for a 720K 3.5″ drive

If it wasn’t for the fact that I still have the S100 cards pinned to my wall for nostalgia I wouldn’t believe I ever had the time (or the nous) to do all that.

Here is the wire wrap board with all the specialty chips crammed up one end to maximise the board usage:


… and here’s the rat’s nest of wire-wrap on the back:



I need to go off for a quiet sob now, or maybe get inspired to get off my arse and build something.

Mount Buffalo Chalet – 1952

My Dad asked me to scan some photos taken when he was working as a maintenance carpenter at Mount Buffalo Chalet in 1952. He was employed by the Victorian Railways, but in those days they owned and ran the Chalet. I guess that explains the holiday posters I used to see on the Red Rattlers.

He was 21 and had just hooked up with a hot waitress who also worked there. That turned out to be an important event in my life because he married her a few years later and they produced some amazing offspring and, equally importantly, an amazing marriage which is going to clock over sixty years soon.

There’s something magical about peering into this monochromatic time portal at a bunch of kids just starting out in their adult life – they are younger than any of my biological kids in these photos. Even more spooky is Mum and Dad popping out of the photos and realising that the glint in Dad’s eye is my own genesis.

These are scans from sepia prints, some of which are quite small. If you click on the picture you’ll get a full size version which brings up some detail which is hard to see even in the original prints.

The captions are Dad’s.

Scan 1

Opening the roof over the Chalet Kitchen for new bain-maries and stoves. June 1952

Scan 6

Back Row: Myself (Edgar (Ted) Slinger, Shirley Rudland, Les Merton, Yvonne ?, painter ?, Gordon Day. Front Row: Painter ?, Ray Castles, Flora Struthers, Peggy Finnigan.

Scan 4

Shirley Rudland, who I married 60 years ago, beside the “new” Commer bus.


Outside the stables. From left: Yvonne (?), Flora Struthers, Shirley Rudland

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High Court Challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program (again)

Ok, this Chaplaincy Program in schools has been a nagging irritation to me for years. 

It’s a nasty bit of pork barrelling from both sides of politics and I’ve always found the underlying rationalisation that you need religion to have “values” particularly offensive.

The worst of it is that the government is pumping millions… no wait, tens of millions,…. no hold on… hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of wacko fundamentalist Christian groups who are lapping up the opportunity to proselytize to helpless kids at the taxpayer’s expense.

But wait there’s more.

There’s obviously no place in a decent secular society for this kind of Government endorsement of one brand of religion. It turns out our beloved Constitution agrees. And the High Court has ruled it so. Twice.

So rather than taking the opportunity to restore sanity (“Sorry guys, we’d love to keep bankrolling your little scam, but, you know… The Constitution. Party’s over.”) our piss weak politicians proceed to “fix” the problem with further unconstitutional legislation.

If you find it unacceptable too, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and back this guy with a few dollars. At least someone’s trying to avoid us drifting into a [shudder] American style theocracy.


High Court Challenge to the constitutional legality of federal funding directed toward the National School Chaplaincy Program – NSCP am returning to the High Court of Australia on the 6th,7th and 8th of May 2014. A substantial amount to meet my legal costs and disbursements is yet to be raised. Any…

PBX In A Flash (PIAF) on Amazon EC2


If you have a small business (in our case, eight to ten people) you can run your phones through a private branch exchange (PBX) on Amazon Web Service’s EC2 and make some serious cost savings. At the same time you get a huge increase in flexibility over proprietary analogue PBXs or a typical hosted IP PBX.


We’ve run a hosted PBX for at mVoice for several years. They offer a good basic service, but as the business has grown we’ve been searching for a more flexible solution. FreePBX_Logo

The underlying technology of almost every hosted PBX is Asterisk – an open source implementation of a software PBX. The PBX in A Flash (PIAF) distribution combines Asterisk with the excellent FreePBX interface in a simple turnkey package. I’ve fired it up on a few out-of-date PCs and even a Raspberry Pi but I really like the idea of having the PBX outside the office firewall so staff can work from home if they need to. Moving offices is a snap too; just pick up the phones and plug them in at the new premises.

We already have about twelve servers running on EC2 so it was a logical step to see if the PBX could live there too. If it worked out there would be huge advantages in commissioning, running, scaling and backing up the server if it is running in EC2.

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Docker: It’s Virtual Containers All the Way Down


Just when you thought virtualization was old news, Docker has stormed on to the scene and looks like changing everything.

Docker didn’t come out of nowhere. The Linux kernel has gradually been accumulating a suite of really useful features for providing virtual environments without the overhead of full-on virtual machines:

  • cgroups provide isolation of resource usage (CPU, memory, disk I/O, etc.) of process groups.
  • Linux Containers (LXC) builds on cgroups to create a virtual environment that has its own process and network space.

Neither of these is new. Cgroups appeared in Linux kernel 2.6.24 back in 2008, but Docker packages these and creates a “chroot on steroids” by building fully isolated software containers running in user space inside a machine, either virtual or hardware.

I followed the Quick Tutorial and with three commands had a virtual Linux box running inside OS X (thanks to Vagrant). Two more commands and I was facing a Docker shell prompt inside a container inside the virtual box inside my MacBook. Hell, I could have kept going and created a Docker container in the Docker container.

I stared at that for a few minutes. My head was buzzing with the possibilities.

The containers are super lightweight – they spin up in a second – but they are a completely isolated environment with their own filesystems, networking and processes. You can install packages, edit files, do whatever you like in the container and the changes are recorded in the read-write layer mounted over the underlying file system.

What really blew me away was the possibilities for a standard way of installing an application stack. I’ve always hated the messiness of installing and configuring multiple packages to get them to work together. Docker pretty much guarantees you can create a black box with all the dependencies and configuration working on any platform you drop it into.

There is already a nice ecosystem of pre-built containers blossoming at the Docker Index and the community is pulling together conventions for containers to talk to each other. These things are going to be the Lego blocks we’ve always wanted.

Docker is not the first project to use containers like this (commercial vendors such as DotCloud and Heroku already use them for PaaS environments) but the explosion of interest in Docker shows how open sourcing can fire up a community.

All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of virtualisation.
– Apologies to David Wheeler

Review: Avantree Bluetooth Music Adapter BTTC-200X

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Bluetooth.

photo 2

When it first came out in the nineties it looked like it would end the tangle of cables on my desktop, but the reality has fallen short.

Apple have embraced Bluetooth for keyboards and mice, but the PC world is dominated by proprietary 2.4GHz dongles for wireless communication which gobble up a USB port before eventually getting lost. Unfortunately adoption has been slow so Bluetooth is often at a premium price compared to similar devices.

Bluetooth devices are also far from “plug and play”. The pairing process is often hit and miss, and I defy you to set up a Bluetooth headset without reading the manual – “Hold down button B for five seconds until the light flashed red then enter the code 8888 (maybe…. if you’re asked for it)“.

On top of that, after nearly twenty years there is still no guarantee that the headset you use with your mobile phone will connect to any other device, say a laptop. It’s almost as though the vendors want to lock you into using their headsets exclusively with their phones… No, stop. That’s crazy talk.

That said, once it works it (mostly) works, but the audio quality has never been a high point. The Avantree Bluetooth Music Adapter attempts to fill some of the gaps in wireless connectivity, at least for streaming audio. It allows you to:

  1. Transmit audio to a Bluetooth device from an analog audio source (such as a CD player).
  2. Receive audio from a Bluetooth device and pass it to an analog destination (such as a stereo receiver).

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Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why… Consumer Electronics Sucks

I was pointed to an article today called Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You and it bugged me so much I had to respond at more length than was available in a FaceBook post.Datamation Cover June 15th 1985

The article covers a few topics, some of which I agree with, but the general theme is “you don’t understand  the inner workings of computers and I do, so you’re stupid”. There are (currently) 800 or more comments and growing so I assume it has gained some traction.

It’s written by a Computing teacher who is frustrated by people who come to him for help. I thought it was a teacher’s job to help people learn, but hey, maybe he’s just having a bad day. Unfortunately this guy seems to believe that the reason people don’t understand is, not because the consumer electronics industry generally sucks at User Experience, but because these lazy sods simply refuse to devote their lives to understanding the internal workings of their computers and phones.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a geek in IT for thirty years or more.  I love technology and I love tinkering with the internals of computers, but I’m frankly embarrassed to be associated with the industry sometimes.

I can usually hack my way through a problem because I’m used to the nuances of software and hardware, but if some bewildered soul comes to me and says “The computer is saying Error Code: 0x32C8. What does that mean?”, I’m much more likely to look sheepish on behalf of the whole industry and say “Yeah, it’s not your fault. There’s no possible way you could know that. Let me do some arcane magic now and fix that and let’s pretend you never saw it”. I really feel for people when their computer makes them feel stupid and I need them to realise it’s not their fault.

So here are a few of the points that made me mutter “Bullshit!” under my breath as I flicked through the article this afternoon. Continue reading

Watching TV Fries Kid's Brains

I was accidentally exposed to more than a minute of commercial TV the other day and I'm still recovering, so it's no surprise that toddler's malleable minds are mangled by TV.

It seems to be an accelerating spiral to the bottom. As broadcast TV becomes irrelevant, the networks have to pump out cheaper and cheaper dross peppered with ads just to survive.

We now have at least two or three "shopping" channels where they stopped pretending it wasn't about the ads and spew a barrage of hucksters, quacks and loud, fast talking hawkers selling stuff you don't need.

[…shudder…] Quick! Where's the remote….?

Whew! That was close. Got away with only a faint waft of smoke from a few scorched brain cells, and a slight sense of despair for the future of humanity.

#rant #internet #tv

One Extra Hour of TV Reduces Toddlers’ Kindergarten Chances
Each extra hour of TV damages toddlers’ vocab, math and class engagement 3 years later.

"Science – it works, bitch." #213

I feel a lot better about my indiscriminate wine palate after reading this.

You’d think it would be a bad idea to make grand claims about your skills if a simple blind experiment could show you up. Looks like these guys make a living at it, but no one has applied the simple science to see if they are just wankers or not.

Will the wine industry be thrown into turmoil by this? Will there be soul searching and a new approach to rating wine?

Don’t bet on it. Nobody wants to hear this so it will be quietly ignored and the “experts” will continue pontificating without even a hiccup.

Well, maybe a hiccup or two.


Wine-tasting: it’s junk science
Experiments have shown that people can’t tell plonk from grand cru. Now one US winemaker claims that even experts can’t judge wine accurately. What’s the science behind the taste?