Sunday, January 28, 2007

retrobloggage of the second kind

pc8201a

So this is the latest advance in the little-known field of retroblogging, in which one somehow makes use of something from the distant pre-blog past while creating a blog post. Simply writing about the past is not retroblogging; that's just nostalgia. Real retroblogging is an extension of retrocomputing: Posting something you wrote a long, long time ago counts as retroblogging, and I've done that a few times before. It's best if you rescue stuff off of obsolete media, say, 5.25" floppies, and it's even better if it's in an obscure, obsolete document format and you need to figure out how to get it converted. If you don't have anything in obsolete electronic form, in a pinch I suppose you could transcribe something from dead-tree format. It just isn't very geeky that way, is all, and is therefore much less interesting. (Well, unless the content itself is interesting, I guess.)

Retroblogging of the second kind involves using the technology of a distant, bygone era. That's what I'm doing right now. This post is being composed on an ancient NEC PC-8201a, a portable laptop-like gadget from 1983. I found this baby at a surplus store recently for $25, and it's turned out to be surprisingly useful. It's got a full-size(ish) keyboard, albeit a rather nonstandard one, and a couple of apps in ROM: A genuine M$ BASIC interpreter, a terminal program, and the bare-bones text editor I'm using now. Small LCD screen, takes either 4 AA batteries or wall power. It may not be quite as portable as the Blackberry, but it's easier to type on. Sure, the apostrophe is Shift-7, but I can adjust to that, I guess.

Getting text out of this beastie involves a null modem cable and a second machine with a free serial port. A serial port you can throttle down to 300 bps, or 600 if you're lucky. No disk drives, no HD. Just some sort of nonvolatile ram for internal storage, and the serial port. There's also a parallel port, and a few other connectors I'm not familiar with.

Another fun thing you can do with an 8201 is use it as a serial terminal for your friendly neighborhood Unix box. This involves 3rd party hardware if you're on a Mac, since Steve thinks serial ports are terribly passé (ok, except for Xserves), but a Sun has all kinds of ports for you to play with. This came in handy when I was getting my new Sun box up and running, so I could get to the boot PROM prompt without tying up the Mac. Somewhere out there there's a "trs100" terminfo entry, but I haven't needed it just yet.

Since this thing takes batteries, I may need to take it out and do the retromoblog thing once the weather improves. I can just imagine taking it in to some fancy coffee joint where everyone else is sporting the latest MacBook Pro, and see what sort of reaction it gets. That is, if I cared about the sort of reactions I'd get from coffee shop patrons in this town, which I don't. And if I craved attention from total strangers, which I don't.

It's quite odd working with this thing, given the usual assumptions you have coming frm more modern hardware. You're done editing a file, you turn the machine off. You want to do something else, just press the reset button in the back. On a modern machine, all your precious work would be gone, and you might corrupt your hd or something, if you're unlucky. On the Sun, you tell the machine to shut itself off by doing a "shutdown -i 5 -y -g 0". Which is to say, switch to runlevel 5 (the off state), answer yes automatically to the inevitable "are you sure?" prompt, and initiate the shutdown after a zero second delay. On the 8201, you just turn the thing off. You can even pull the plug, and your files are still there when you plug it back in. I'm still not quite sure what sort of memory it's using such that it doesn't lose everything when the power's removed. Flash hadn't been invented yet in 1983.
The text editor on here is bare bones but useful enough. No spell check, obviously, and no mouse, but most of what I need to do I can do with the arrow keys anyway.

I understand there are a few games for this thing too. I tried downloading a Frogger clone for it, but I haven't gotten it working. Something about the BASIC text getting mangled somehow on the trip from Google cache to Mac text file to bits over a serial cable to here. And my BASIC is really rusty, and I'm not sure it would be healthy to unrustify it.

2 comments :

Mark said...

That thing reminds me of the TRS I used as a reporter back in the day. Can you imagine posting from somewhere with an acoutic coupler?

atul666 said...

I think the 8201a is basically the same machine as the old TRS-80 Model 100. Back in the day a lot of people used to swear by the Model 100. I can sort of see why, after playing with mine for a while.

I would love, truly love, to post from somewhere using the 8201 and an acoustic coupler modem. Of course, this would require an acoustic coupler modem, a phone that fits an acoustic coupler modem, and probably an ISP that offers dialup shell access. It might be tough to swing that these days.

Right now I'm trying to figure out if there's any way to get the 8201 to talk to my Blackberry. You can use the BB as a modem for a modern laptop, of course, but things probably get a bit more complicated for a device of this vintage.