Tag Archives: computers

Banish the Blue LED

Someone has discovered another reason to ban the blue LED:

In a study involving hamsters, researchers found that blue light had the worst effects on mood-related measures, followed closely by white light. (Via.)

I’m glad the blue LED was finally invented, and I’m sure my life is better for it in countless ways. But that doesn’t mean it has to be slapped onto every gadget in my house. I’ve got a USB charger that I have to keep in the basement, because it has the brightest single LED (blue of course) I’ve ever seen, and if I use it in the bedroom, or even in the hallway, it affects my sleep.

Blast From the Past

I found this program called Cathode that does an incredible job of recreating the experience of writing code on a CRT display, ca. 1980–83. Many was the hour I logged on the Lear-Sigler ADM-3A — in those days time was logged, so you could pay for it. That was incredibly unfair since the I/O (for l’users) was throttled down to 4800 baud.

CRT Recreation

Check it out. Then give it up, before the ergonomics make you blind.

As a sort of colophon, the code I’m editing here is genuine K&R C, from the Old Testament. There are two anachronisms:

  1. I’m using vi to edit it, but in the day I was busy getting all carpal with emacs. I had no choice here: there might be an Emacs on my system, but if there is, I can’t remember how to get out.
  2. I wrote this code in 1992, by which time we used terminal emulators like Kermit on PCs, instead of real terminals. However, it was a recreation of something I wrote in about 1983 to translate English into “Klingonese.” (Not the stuff used by Star Trek fans. That came later. I’m talking STA KANG, PUSHJ JRST.)

To be fair, I don’t think I ever wrote C on the ADM-3A, or even a VT-100. I don’t think the DECSystem-20 even had a C compiler. All my C was on the VAX, which had HP-2621A terminals.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

This was my first computer:

Vintage 1985 "Fat Mac"

The 512 kB “Fat Mac.” With an ImageWriter, Microsoft Word and Multiplan (the predecessor of Excel), and MacPascal, it set me back about $2,500. That was 1985 money, so it would be somewhere around $5,000 today.)

I was living in Albuquerque and my roommate, who drank deep of the Kool-ade, had been so affected by Ridley Scott’s 1984 “Big Brother” commercial that he ran out and bought one of the original 128 kB Macs. (If I recall, he bought some Apple stock too. I wish I’d done that when I bought my second Mac, an iBook, in 2003.)

Anyway, a couple of years later, I was working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and Steve Jobs wasn’t working at Apple any more. He came to Murray Hill to give a presentation of the NeXT computer. I didn’t work at Murray Hill — that was the real Bell Labs, where they got Nobel Prizes in Astrophysics and worked on slug brains. I just worked for AT&T’s R&D unit. But I got to see the presentation way down in South Jersey via the magic of teleconferencing.

By today’s standards, NeXT mail wasn’t all that hot: it was basically email with MIME attachments. But I don’t think he was trying to sell Unix workstations to Bell Labs. (Who would be stupid enough to give up a 3B2 with a BLT running Plan 9 for a mere NeXT box? Ahem. Although, to this day, I’m not personally convinced that email improved when it grew to include anything beyond ASCII text.)

What Steve was doing, I think, was giving AT&T some (desperately-needed) business advice. I admire his chutzpah: a kid in his 30’s, who’d just been sacked by his board, telling AT&T how to do business. But that’s what he was doing.

He was telling them that AT&T Mail was a disaster, particularly compared to what he was selling. But more than that, he was telling them to stick to their core competency. Instead of chasing him (or ignoring him and Inventing-It-Here, as Bell Labs was, ahem, wont to do), he said that AT&T should sell him connectivity. Just give him pipes to move his bits around, that’s what he wanted.

People talk about Steve’s “reality distortion field.” But that day, nobody was buying what he was selling.

That’s a hard message to sell to companies like AT&T. There’s some weird virus that infects marketing people at telecoms that makes them think it’s possible to add value to every bit that passes through their network. Indeed, that it’s not only possible, but their company is also capable of doing it!

Yes, yes, it’s a preposterous notion, but nevertheless, telecom marketers are all infected with it. Twenty-five years later, they still have it. They just can’t stand the idea of simply doing their core business well. They’re terrified of becoming a commodity.

Steve Jobs wasn’t worried about becoming commoditized. None of the businesses he built into category killers are commodities. Pixar is head and shoulders above everyone else in the business. The Mac stands out and commands a price premium in a world of commodity computers. Ditto the iPod, the iPhone, and lately the iPad.

Business is infected with the opposite approach. One of my managers at Bell Labs told me to quit improving a piece of software this way: “You’re polishing a turd.” Steve Jobs knew that you couldn’t make a great company by shipping turds, so he kept polishing products until there wasn’t anything turdlike about them.

Good for him. It will be interesting to see if anyone learns the lesson.