Fixing up a Commodore Plus/4

Recently I bid on a very good looking Commodore Plus/4 on eBay. I’ve never had one and have only heard the stories about this little guy: mismanaged marketing, the failed successor of the C64, the computer nobody wanted. A sad story – especially considering that it’s a really good machine that paved the way for the C128.

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With almost the same powerful BASIC commands as its successor, the Plus/4 is much smaller than the C128, a little over half its size I’d say. It takes up much less desk space and can use the 1541 floppy drive. Other peripherals were not compatible (joysticks, datasette drive, etc), neither was existing C64 software – which was widespread and popular at the time. The Plus/4 did have more colours but no sprites (which made computer games amazing in those days), and its sound qualities were less sophisticated than those of its predecessor.

The major downfall of the Plus/4 was undoubtedly its marketing and strategic decisions within Commodore: Jack Tramiel wanted a $99 machine that would sell alongside the expensive $500 C64 in 1984/85 and wipe out the fragmented home computer competition. Design of the 264 family began thanks to him – this included the C16/C116 and Plus/4 – even a 364 with speech module (only legends know about, like the CBM Museum).

Before the launch of the new machine however Tramiel left the company in 1984 – and with Commodore’s visionary gone, the rest of the clueless board of directors turned the Plus/4 family into a C64 replacement. Well, it flopped. Badly.

Since it was never meant to be what it became, and because it wasn’t compatible with existing popular software, less than 1 million units were produced worldwide and the Plus/4 was discontinued within a year of its launch.

Nevertheless, learning from their galactic mistakes, Commodore quickly developed the C128 and added everything to it that was missing on the Plus/4.

 

My Plus/4 Story

I bought mine for $49 including shipping from California, boxed with both manuals and dedicated 1531 Datasette. A complete bargain! Other than being a bit dusty, it was in great condition – some minor ageing issues aside.

One of the tragic things about shipping 30yr old computers several thousand miles, even with the best packaging, is that components can break, old solder joints can snap, and things may not survive the journey. It’s the nature of shipping retrotech.

Then there are those abysmal power supplies Commodore built back in the day: they’re usually potted and can’t be opened and are no repairable. Voltages over time may increase which leads to the death of many a chip in the best working machines. Another tragic story.

I was delighted to see that my new Plus/4 WORKED out of the box! The power supply measured the correct voltages, cursor blinks with a glint in his eye. The packaging was not only adequate, it was fantastic! I was really lucky with this purchase:

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The only thing I noticed was that several of the keys did not respond well unless I hammered them or pressed them repeatedly. Time for a thorough examination and a quick fix!

Join me if you will on a journey under the hood of the Commodore Plus/4.

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White Collar Sketches

Every one in a while I get grabbed by a major TV show – either because of stunning visuals and/or good storytelling. A few years ago we started watching White Collar, and even though it took a bit of getting used to, Julia and I are hooked.

The other day we’ve finished watching Season 5 on iTunes, and if you believe the internet there’s a final 6th Season being shot in New York right now – with only 6 episodes. In the UK we’d call that a “full length season” and drag it out over the course of two years – but in the US television landscape six episodes is rather unheard of.

I haven’t done much drawing over the last few weeks in favour of iOS hacking and exploring vintage computers – so I thought the timing is perfect to turn the inspiration from all those stunning visuals and riveting storytelling in White Collar into a project:

The White Collar Sketches

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Me and The Machine, Part 1: The 8-Bit-Age, ca. 1985

While most iOS Developers around the globe are busy learning Apple’s new programming language Swift or playing with early versions of iOS8 and Yosemite, I’m deeply involved in something much less cutting edge. In fact it’s from over 30 years ago, and it’s courtesy of Microsoft:

I’m having fun getting back into BASIC 2.0 as featured on the legendary Commodore 64 (or C64 or CBM 64).

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This was my first computer, and I’ll never forget it. German computer magazine “64er” dubbed it the VC-64, or “Volks Computer” (because Commodore’s previous machine was called the VC-20 or VIC-20). It was huge everywhere, but particularly in Germany it was just THE machine to have.

Sure, there was the Amstrad CPC664 and 464 (which were re-branded as Schneider) or the ZX-81 and Spectrum, but they were somewhere in that 5% category of “other home computers”. We never had the BBC Micro – for obvious reasons, and none of my friends could afford anApple II.

I no longer own the hardware, but some of that early day knowledge is still in me, together with many burning questions that have never been answered. There’s so much I always wanted to know about the C64, and so much I wanted to do with it: write programmes, learn machine language, and generally use it for development. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Programmer’s Reference or developer tools. Time to get back into it!

Today we have wonderful emulators such as VICE (the Versatile Commodore Emulator) and it’s just like sitting down with my old computer again, on modern day hardware. I’m even doing it on a plastic Windows laptop for a touch of antiqueness (if I don’t get too annoyed with that).

Don’t ask me why this piece of computer history has become such an obsession with me over the last couple of weeks. I feel that for some reason it fits in with all this high-end cutting edge development I’m doing and rekindles me with how all this super technology started: with cheap plastic that was to change all our lives forever.

I remember the questions from members of my family who had not jumped on the computer bandwagon: “So what do you actually DO with a computer?” – and I guess today as much as back then you would answer, “What am I NOT doing with a computer anymore?”

The 8 bit “home computer” revolution started all that, including the stuff we use every day and half-heartedly take for granted – like downloading a PDF on the beach at 100Mbps, while sending videos to loved ones across the globe in half a second.

Before I get too old to remember, let me see if I can piece the story of “Me and The Machine” together (before my brain inevitably turns into that of a retired old gentleman yelling at the neighbour’s dog in a foreign accent).

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Dear Microsoft, is everything OK in Redmond?

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Hello Microsoft, I hear you have announced that on the 20th of June 2014 you’ll release a new version of your tablet device, the Surface Pro 3.

At first I thought those auto-completed search results were generated by fanboys looking ahead into 2015. It couldn’t be true, and it didn’t make sense I thought. Because the last Surface just came out a few months ago. But then I searched myself and found it was true. Press Release and everything. Microsoft are serious about it.

Confused I read a “preview review”: Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter (both in weight and colour), it’s faster and it’s even cheaper than the previous model. It also no longer features Wacom digitizer technology. Instead it has some other non-brand thing built in that makes touch input less accurate, but makes for more natural handwriting from what I understand. You probably know this better than I do.

What I couldn’t quite understand is why? Why replace a solid device so soon after it’s been released?

By my count that gives the Surface Pro an 8 month release cycle!

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Turning my iOS Dev Diary into a Membership Site

iOS-Podcast-Icon-2014I find it extremely important to document the things I learn on my coding journey. It has saved my (coding) life many times before. I do such documentations in form of websites which allows me to refer to my notes from any device in the world.

One of those sites is my iOS Dev Diary.

It’s on a spare domain I had lying around that wasn’t doing anything, and when I started adding notes to to the site in 2011 I hadn’t intended it to be a public facing project: I would usually add links to my other sites, add social widgets and make sure the site looks nice so that it makes for a pleasant reading experience.

I dispensed with all that for my iOS notes. I didn’t event pay attention to the traffic it was getting – because seriously: who would read scattered notes and ultra geeky code snippets without a context?

Turns out I was in for a surprise.

The site really isn't anything special to look at - but it's functional, human readable, and people seem to like it.
The site really isn’t anything special to look at – but it’s functional, human readable, and people seem to like it.

One day I tried some CSS tweaks and installed Jetpack so that I could easily apply additional CSS styles without the need for a Child Theme. Jetpack also counts the daily visitor traffic which was about 20 users per day when I installed it in March 2013, not including my own visits.

You can imagine my surprise when I saw that the traffic was steadily increasing to a point that impacted the server the site was hosted on. Today I’m getting nearly 700 hits per day on that site (!), a little less less at weekends, accounting for a whopping 15k visitors per month.

Stats at the end of March 2014

 

Luckily I’m in charge of the server that’s hosting my iOS Dev Diary, so I could use it as a test case for high traffic, and to see how different servers would cope with the load: I tried moving the site to a small Amazon AWS instance running Plesk on CentOS – which promptly crumbled under the load. I increased the power of that instance gradually and found that only a C3 Extra Large instance would hold out – not really an option considering its $300 per month price tag.

Other dedicated servers are more cost efficient, and currently the site is hosted on a dedicated machine at Strato which copes very well. The test provided me with valuable insights on many levels, but at the same time it poses a problem: I still need a place for my notes, and I’m happy for others to use them too. But without locking the site down to “private” I’m still stuck with a lot of traffic and therefore quite a bit of hungry infrastructure overhead.

Unless I find a way to subsidise the cost – which leads me to another exciting adventure: turning my iOS Dev Diary into a paid Membership Site.

Thanks to a couple of WordPress plugins I can partially protect content and ask visitors to join the site for a small fee.

Access is granted instantly after the system processes the payment. The membership protection is live since the beginning of the month and meant quite a bit of work and restructuring for Julia and me. Let me tell you more about the project.

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Play From Your F***ing Heart

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 15.58.44I’ve finished a new website last week for my friend Jerry Hyde. We go back at least 15 years, and I’m excited to tell you that Jerry has written a new book that will be released on July 25th.

I’m not swearing when I tell you it’s title: Play From Your Fucking Heart.

It’s a self-help book with a spin: the author acknowledges that there is no “new wisdom” to be told – instead every piece of philosophy is recycled and indeed old news.

Jerry doesn’t say that this makes it invalid or untrue – quite the opposite: fact is that we as readers already know all these wisdoms, and merely recognise them as significant when we see them presented in yet another package.

It’s Genius! You can find out more about the book here – and don’t forget to put your pre-order in on Amazon!

 

The Website

I’m extremely pleased to have been involved with this project, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out. It makes such a difference when you work on something that you believe in – something I have the luxury to do exclusively these days. Let’s face it: it’s the number one reason that I live where I live today.

Naturally the site is build on WordPress and went live just as version 3.9 came out.

Jerry wanted something “dark” and likes unusual designs. Because the calendar says it’s 2014 we also needed a template that looks equally nice on a phone, a tablet and a laptop. After looking through several options I showed him AppifyWP Single – a theme that’s meant to be used as an App Website.

Not many changes were necessary, however I do make it a habit of creating child themes for my projects in case the original codebase ever gets updated.

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The few things I did change were references to the fact that we’re selling an app: Jerry didn’t want like his book cover hovering on an iPhone so I’ve replaced it with a grubby old book cover – courtesy of Graphicstock.com. I also removed the “Download on the App Store” logo and replaced it with the release date.

One thing I did not want to change about the theme was its App Icon – but because books don’t have App Icons I had a look at the cover image and got creative with the blanked out swearing bit. In case we ever write an App with “Jerry’s Wisdoms” we’re covered already. Imagine a Magic Eight-Ball type app.

 

Site Functionality

The theme is special in that all “tabs” on the left are WordPress pages, but all of them are presented as one long block of text, and each tab is merely an anchor point to a new position. It’s like a bookmark system – thanks to the ingenuity of its designer Cory Show who developed AppifyWP.

Therefore the order of those tabs was important – the pages need to flow, like the book itself: we start with a quick introduction, tell you about the author, give you endorsements, the foreword and a reading sample. The reader doesn’t need to know the techie bits in the background, but s/he can certainly tell when they’re not right.

We also invite readers to have a look at Jerry’s other projects, like his website as well as his previous two books (and where to buy them). While scrolling through all this content, both the menu bar with navigational tabs and the sidebar with Social widgets sticks in one place so there’s always something new to discover.

Jerry also writes a monthly column for Seymour Magazine – so it’s easy to pull in his feed via the wonderful FeedWordPress plugin by “RadGeek” Charles Johnson: every time a new article in Jerry’s category is published by on Seymour Magazine, we syndicate it with teaser content and link back to it on the originating site. Automagically.

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That Bike App

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Remember that bike app I’ve told you I wanted to write? I wanted to track all the miles we’re doing on our new bikes.

The app store has plenty of such apps already, but some of them are so complicated that it takes years to figure out how they work. I wanted to create something simple instead and went to work immediately.

I have to tell you it took a couple of weeks of tinkering and learning some new skills. In the end it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be, but I’m proud to say that yesterday I’ve submitted Bike Tour Diary to Apple. Let’s see if they like it!

It’s been four months since I’ve submitted an app (which was TALK! – the speech synthesiser). Funny how quickly the brain forgets important steps and leaves you clueless. Let me tell you all about the writing process, what the app does and what features I’m working on next.

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Key Biscayne by Bike

key-biscayne-mapA couple of weeks ago we went on a 32mile (52km) round trip from Miami Beach to Key Biscayne. This whole area is ideal for cycling due to its flatness and reminds me of the North Germany or Holland: no hills, only the occasional bridge to climb.

If you go by boat it’s only 5 miles tops, but due to the man-made island setup we have here you can’t always go in one straight line.

The way to Key Biscayne has a lot of sights to offer and only mild to medium traffic along the way. Incidentally this is where “Tennis from Miami” comes from: Crandon Park is located there, and at the very south tip at Mile Marker Zero is Bill Bagg’s Cape Florida State Park. It’s so quiet there it almost hurts your ears!

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Child Theme Wizard – now available at WordPress.org

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Today my fifth WordPress plugin went live on WordPress.org: Child Theme Wizard.

It lets you create child themes in a single click without ever having to leave the WordPress admin interface.

I found the previous process bait cumbersome using external programmes to create child themes. My little tool has already proved very helpful for my own theme tweaks, and I hope it can help many others in the community.

You can read more about it on my release post including a video demonstration, or head over and download the plugin from the WordPress repository. It’s also on GitHub if you’re interested.

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Over-the-air beta updates are not working on my iPad 2

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Dear Apple,

I must have a very special version iPad 2: mine simply refuses to install beta releases of iOS over the air. More specifically, it refuses to activate properly after the installation is complete.

My iPod Touch does this without a hitch: under Settings – General – Software Update I just click on “Update Now”, and after the installation I put in my password, and everything is as it should be, just like with a “standard” new iOS release installed over the air.

My trusty old iPad 2 however (64GB 3G Version) hangs on the activation screen for two minutes, and then gives me the message that it could not be activated. End of story.

What I then have to do is

  1. download the latest beta for my device from the iOS Dev Center manually
  2. shut down my iPad
  3. start up iTunes and make sure I have a USB cable attached to my computer
  4. while holding down the home button, insert the USB cable into my iPad (it’s called DFU Mode)
  5. iTunes will offer to restore my device
  6. select “restore” while holding down CMD (or ALT on PC I believe)
  7. a dialogue window lets me browse to that .ipsw file I’ve downloaded in step 1

This will work, however it will wipe my iPad and I need to restore it from an iCloud backup – which can take an hour or more depending on the amount of stuff I have installed.

My point is: it’s tedious, and clearly doesn’t have to be like this. I’ve read reports from other developers who are experiencing the same problem – mainly on 64GB iPad 2′s with 3G. Is it because those devices are no longer for sale? Have the activation servers been switched off for our devices?

Outraged,

Disgruntled from Haringey