Author Archive for Andrew Danson

01
Oct
19

Old Tech: The AccessGrid

Today I’d like to talk about an old technology that has mostly died off and I used to use rather extensively in my job. The AccessGrid as it was known was an advanced teleconferencing system used world-wide for remote teaching and academic collaboration. Rather than being one single technology such as Skype, it was a collection of open source software that worked together, the main client simply being the glue that co-ordinated the meeting system. The main software was initially created in 1998 by Argonne National Laboratory and maintained by them until it was later made open source and supported by the community.

I was involved in running one of the AccessGrid nodes for my local university, mostly for the purposes of remote teaching. The rooms (also known as nodes) were set up with the ideal that the technology should be as transparent as possible for students and teachers. Most sites had a technician (usually referred to as the operator) that ran the equipment so that participants in a session didn’t have to manage the technology on top of their normal activity. The operator also usually participated with the AG community at large, helping each other with technical issues and testing the software and hardware configuration of nodes. I was the operator for our node, and am still involved in supporting remote teaching today.

A Typical AccessGrid node at University of Newcastle Australia

The room was equipped similarly to a class room, but with extra equipment to capture as much as possible. The front of the room had smart boards for writing notes and displaying lecture slides. For tutorial sessions students both remote and local could present solutions on the smart boards, although the exact technical solution used to provide this varied depending on the participating nodes. We had a number of cameras so all the local participants could be seen, and ceiling and lapel mics so students and teachers could be heard. These would usually be adjusted to some degree to suite each session, although sensible defaults would usually work fairly well.

Audio and Video was sent between clients using RTP (Real-time Transport Protocol) using Multicast UDP packets to transport the data. Because support for Multicast traffic isn’t universal and had been blocked at some institutions Unicast bridges were set up. These bridges allowed people with out Multicast support on their local network to connect to meetings, these bridges were run by nodes which had working Multicast support. Users could manually select which bridge to use to avoid high latency or traffic load.

Rat (robust audio tool) was the program that sent and received audio. It had options for many different bit rates and audio encodings and worked quite well on most platforms and audio equipment. It did have some basic echo canceling capability, but that usually wasn’t used as most nodes opted for hardware based echo canceling with devices such as the ClearOne XAP800 which generally did a better job. A notable feature of the software was the ability to tune the audio volume of each participant individually, which made it much easier to cope with audio issues as it could be adjusted on the fly. This unfortunately seems to be an unusual feature on modern communication software which often doesn’t allow this to be easily done.

Vic (Video conferencing tool) did the video portion of the session, by using multiple instances of this program it was possible for each node to transmit and receive video from multiple sources, usually cameras but also live screen captures from another program. This allowed a Node to send a video of the teacher, any local audience members, and multiple screen captures. Large sessions with many participants could have a large number of video streams, I remember seeing 15-20 streams for the bigger events. Generally it scaled fairly well, but you needed a decent internet connection.

The AccessGrid for Australian universities died rather unceremoniously and suddenly when the server was switched off most of the way through semester 2 in 2014. The person who was maintaining the server had left the institution where it was hosted, so when their server room was renovated it was decommissioned without any plans to reinstate the service. This happened with no announcements or notice, just one day it was suddenly dead. This left the still significant number of people using it for remote teaching scrambling to find alternative solutions as quickly as possible, thankfully most people managed, but it wasn’t fun.

Had the server not died, would the AccessGrid still be in use today? The answer is probably not, but maybe. As a technology it was harder to use and required significant technical knowledge. Modern software has largely taken that complexity and difficulty away, unfortunately taking some of the flexibility away with it. Commercial software often requires a license fee for the server at least, but in some cases also for the client software. This extra cost was off-putting to smaller institutions who don’t have the larger resources others do, so that may have motivated some to stick with it.

So why wax all nostalgic about it? Partly because no-one else has and the foot print the AccessGrid has on the internet is gradually fading. Also it was an interesting and formative technology in the electronic teaching space. It achieved results that at the time were not possible with other technologies enabling students access to courses they otherwise couldn’t reach, and Lecturers access to a wider audience. For me personally it was memorable being a part of the community and making the technology work. Whilst it had its problems it was interesting, functional, and flexible.

02
Sep
19

Skunny: Wild West for DOS

Having already looked at three of the Skunny games you’d think I would have learned my lesson and avoided today’s game Wild West, featuring our not so favourite Skunny Hardnut. This entry in the Skunny series of games came out in 1994 and was made and published by Copysoft. With the previous games not being terribly good and expectations low for Wild West you’d be forgiven for thinking I am some kind of weird retro gaming masochist.

The story for Wild West isn’t as nutty as some of the others, Skunny is simply diverted to the Wild West on his way home from Rome to help his parents retrieve their missing sheep.  I am actually kind of disappointed as the nutty stories from previous games were quite amusing. No sticky nut pudding to be found anywhere, and who doesn’t like a sticky nut?

The VGA graphics are very much like previous games, they’re decent in their own way but not great either. It’s very much like Save our Pizza’s in style. I suspect it uses the same engine and has had new artwork made to fit the Wild West theme. I did notice one funny inconsistency, Skunny’s hat disappears when he bends down to pick up a crate, perhaps it falls off his head.

Audio is again like previous games, reusing many of the sound effects where they could. In general the digitised effects and PC speaker bloops are ok. There is only one track of music that loops constantly, so that gets a bit maddening after a while, although it’s better than the last game you’ll want to turn it off.

The keyboard controls are basically the same as they were in Save our Pizzas, although there are less issues getting around the levels and dealing with enemies. I still found that the game would completely miss pressing jump when using the keyboard.

Because the keyboard controls aren’t great I thought I’d try out using a game pad with the built-in joystick support. Back in the day this would have been uncommon, as most people had either an analog joystick (which isn’t appropriate for a platformer) or only a keyboard and mouse for input. It turns out using a gamepad solves the issue where it misses input for the jump button. I’d imagine that this may also help Save our Pizzas play better as well. Although the movement mechanics are still a bit janky, so it still doesn’t control well.

The game play is better than Save our Pizza’s for a few notable reasons. Firstly Skunny has a water pistol as his main attack, which means you’re much less likely to touch the enemies in the process of taking them out. When you are hit you don’t bounce backwards unless you touch an enemy. This significantly reduces how often you’ll be knocked into a hazard that kills you instantly, although it still happens. There are quite a number of health and ammunition pickups in the space that I played, so you generally can recharge.

Although the game play is improved I still found it to be frustrating to play. The enemy projectiles are generally impossible to dodge, just because they are fired so frequently.  Resulting in losing some health at every encounter with no way to avoid the damage.

The levels are set in a magical part of the wild west where everything is suspended on platforms in the sky, even the lakes and trains. Perhaps they mastered levitation and didn’t tell anyone. So basically most jumps are over a pitfall of some kind and any mistake at all is pretty much insta-death. So it’s better in the sense that you’ll get further into the game before you lose your mind.

I got far enough into the first level to discover that there are check points if you can make it far enough, mostly because using a gamepad made things a little easier. However after numerous attempts I couldn’t get any further just like the other games. I took some screen shots from the demo as I didn’t want to keep playing, and it shows some areas I couldn’t reach.

Like the other Skunny games there isn’t a terrible lot to recommend it, although I concede you may enjoy it if you have some nostalgia for Skunny. I downloaded the shareware version from the usual place, until recently you could still buy the registered version from the Copysoft website, but that seems to no longer be available.

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07
Aug
19

Teac USB Floppy drive FD 05PUB

Recently I bought a new Ryzen based PC, which has a distinct lack of legacy support and even lacks optical drives. This is hardly surprising as this is the logical conclusion of what has been an increasing trend of storing and transferring data with flash drives, on the “cloud” or other network enabled means.

It does however pose a problem for someone like myself who collects and uses a number of older machines of various vintages and architectures. Many older machines don’t have network support and don’t accept USB flash drives natively. So without the ability to use older mediums such as floppy or optical discs it can be quite difficult to transfer data to and from vintage hardware.

There are fortunately some options for adding some legacy support to modern machines, such as USB optical and floppy drives. There are also some options for adding modern device support to old machines such as a floppy emulator that accepts USB flash drives as input. For me, rather than getting numerous floppy emulators, I thought it would be better to add floppy support to my new modern machine.

So off to ebay I went and got a generic USB floppy drive for about $12 AUD. It turned out to be a Teac FD 05PUB (also known as UF000x). This model turns up everywhere as it has been made for a while and re-badged as IBM, HP and DELL drives all at some point or another. Looking around I found this was basically the only model of USB floppy drive currently available, which could be a problem as some people have had trouble getting these to work on windows 7 and 10 due to driver issues.

I was unluckly because my particular unit appeared to be faulty, not being able to read disks created by known good drives and not even being able to read data it has itself written. I suspect it had suffered some damage in shipping as the seller had not packaged it well, using a cardboard envelope with no padding for shipping. Although it could also be the build quality as the unit feels extremely cheap, which frankly it is. Either way I’ve returned my unit for refund (hence the reason there’s no photo of it).

It’s now several months later and I’ve finally decided on and received a new solution. This nifty little doo-daa is basically a USB to 40 pin floppy adapter. This allows me to use any standard 1.44Mb 3.5 inch floppy drive I have laying around as a USB device. This has the advantage that I can use known good drives that are in alignment and have clean heads, and if something mechanical fails I can simply swap the drive. Here’s a photo of it with a Sony 3.5 inch floppy drive, one of the younger drives in my collection.

The USB adapter and a Sony 3.5″ drive.

It does have some downsides, such as not having a case and requiring a power supply for the drive itself. This is hardly surprising as it’s really designed for adding internal floppy drives to modern machines that lack the legacy controller. It also supports only one type of drive, so you won’t be using any 5.25 inch floppies with this. Interestingly it is reported by the OS as being the same device as the first drive I bought, confirming to me that the first drive was indeed faulty as it uses the same device driver.

At least I now have a very basic solution for data transfer, although it’s not ideal. I’m yet to investigate using serial ports on my new PC, which luckily the motherboard has a header for. This is mainly for larger data transfers, with the initial software loaded on the target machine likely by floppy.

13
Jul
19

Epson EX 1000 Dot Matrix Printer

As is usual for this time of year I’ve come to my parents place for a visit. Some of our old computer hardware is still in storage here, some of which I’ve already documented. Today we’re going to take a quick look at our old printer, an Epson EX 1000.

We got this particular example with our first computer early in 1990, at the time I remember there being many dot matrix printers in service, but technologies such as inkjet and laser were emerging as better alternatives.

It was quite noisy when printing, and shook the computer desk which it sat on. We had the tractor feed option which allowed the use of continuous paper, which was handy when printing a large amount of text such as program code. It could print graphics, which we occasionally used, but with only the black and white ribbon the images weren’t of a high quality. I remember having a colour ribbon for ours, but never actually using it.

Looking inside we can see the print head, and the wire that is used to move it back and forth. Many other printers used rubber belts that would eventually perish, this arrangement lasts significantly longer and would continue to work even now. Although looking at the guide rails they would need polishing and lubricating before it could be used.

The printer has a small control panel to set the font and print quality manually. This could be controlled by software, I remember MS works would change these settings and allow for different fonts in the same document.

There is this curious slot with a connector which isn’t described in the manual. I assume it’s for additional buffer memory or perhaps for adding other type faces. There is an internal slot for connecting other types of interfaces such as IEEE-488, but on our printer this isn’t populated as we just used the standard parallel interface.

The tractor feed mechanism can be seen here, with some teeth that engaged with holes in the paper. Setting this up initially was a bit tricky, but saved constantly feeding in paper manually and gave you a wider printing area. You could feed in standard A4 sheets as well.

Dot matrix printers such as this one have many draw backs, such as being noisy and having lower quality print. However they stuck around partly because they were generally quite reliable and were very cheap on consumables. I remember a printer much like this one at my fathers old workplace hidden away under a sound proof hood continuously printing almost every day. This printer remained in service until we upgraded to a new PC and printer some seven years later.

 

27
Jun
19

Silly Knight for DOS

Today I’m looking at a small home brew game named Silly Knight made by Petr “AfBu” Kratina in 2017. It was made for a DOS game creation competition hosted at high-voltage.cz. It uses a special CGA text mode for drawing at 160×100 resolution with 16 colours by using code developed by Jason M. Knight originally for Paku Paku. The story and game are fairly simple: you’re a silly knight trying to make your way to the throne to become king, killing anything that gets in your way.

Whilst the graphics are blocky due to the low resolution they are quite well drawn and animated. The animations in particular are quite impressive as they move quite fluidly despite the large pixels. Sound support is PC speaker with some bleeps and bloops for player actions like jumping and picking up power ups. I’d say it would probably work on 286 class machines quite well, and perhaps be playable on 8Mhz 808x systems, but wouldn’t perform well on a 4.77Mhz machine.

The game controls are fairly simple, left and right for basic movement, space for attack and up to jump. The knight is fairly easy to control and goes where you expect him to. I’ve heard some people are critical of using up for jump, but I didn’t have any problem with it on this particular game.

Now what do those boots do?

The level design is good in much the same way the graphics are. It is limited by the technicalities of the game engine, but designed very well given those limitations. Basically there are a number of screens which you travel between by using doors. Each screen has some obstacles to overcome, such as bad guys or pitfalls. Generally the bad guys can be overcome with patience and your sword, but in sections that are more difficult you’ll probably die multiple times. Death just sends you back to the last check point with no other penalty, the check points are fairly common so you usually don’t have to travel far to try again.

One issue I did have was working out what the boots power-up gave me. It enables double jumping, which is necessary to escape where you pick them up. I looked up someones play-through on youtube to find out how to escape that area. I did feel pretty silly for not working it out on my own, but some kind of documentation or notification of what it was in game would have helped.

Other than me being a bit silly with the power-up, the only real criticism I have is the game is a bit short, I easily completed it in around half an hour. Granted it would need more features such as more bad guys if it were to be larger, and being short isn’t really necessarily a bad thing. It’s just I liked it enough I wanted to play more. This is totally worth a download, whilst I couldn’t find an official website for it, you can find it at the doshaven home brew website.

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17
Jun
19

My Old PC

Quite recently I bought myself a new Ryzen based PC as my main desktop rig. The machine it replaced is around 10 years old, whilst it’s definitely not vintage in any way it’s interesting to look back at the hardware. For some context I was working for a local IT company when I built this machine, and we were just starting to build the first i7 based machines. We were having issues with getting compatible RAM working with them, and we had to sink a significant amount of time getting the first ones to run well. This influenced my decision to go with an AMD based system at the time. Here’s a photo of the system.

It is built in an Antec Sonata Proto chassis as it came with a nice 500W power supply that we had experience with having reasonably good reliability. I removed the door as it was an annoyance when using the optical/floppy drives. I have two Pioneer DVD drives and a floppy drive which is unfortunately the wrong colour for my case. Lets take a look inside.

The CPU is an AMD Phenom II x4 955 which runs @ 3.2 Ghz. It’s not as fast as many of the early core i7 chips, but compared quite favourably in terms of performance per cost at the time. Surprisingly it actually continued to perform quite well for basically everything except newer games, it did manage to play World of Warships and Minecraft right up to its retirement. It’s installed in a Gigabyte MA490FX-UD5P which is a high durability design featuring solid capacitors, more copper and decent heat sinks for the VRM and chipset. These measures seem to have been effective given the longevity of this machine.

4Gb of Corsair 1333Mhz DDR3 memory was quite good when I first built this machine, but started to look a bit limiting later in its life. Upgrading this would have been a nice performance boost, but wasn’t really possible for me during it’s working life.

The GPU is an ATI Radeon 4850 HD made by Gigabyte. Again this was alright when everything was new, but it doesn’t perform well on newer software. I suspect it held the machine back the most when it came to running newer games, although it has proven to be quite reliable, something many other graphics cards can’t claim. Oddly the board seems to have drooped or bent during its life perhaps from the weight of the power cabling, that can’t be good for it, but it hasn’t failed.

Three 1TB hard disks make up the storage. The black WD1002FAEX stores the operating system and software installation as well as some of my data. Bulk data such as disk images and media are stored on the first of the two green WD10EADS drives, the second drive acts as a backup of the other two. Surprisingly I’ve never run out of space on these drives. The only reason to replace them is really the extremely high power-on hours count. In my chassis the drives are mounted using silicon vibration damping grommets.

Initially I had Windows XP installed on this machine, mostly as I wasn’t all that enamoured with Windows Vista and Windows 7 was a couple of months out. I used it in this software configuration for quite a long time, way past the end of XP’s life. As software like Firefox (and others) gradually dropped updates and support it became harder to use, so about half way through its life I installed Debian Linux on it. I was able to get most games and software I needed to work running. I retained the old win XP install (dual boot) so I could use anything that didn’t work, although in practice that was very infrequent.

This old PC certainly lived longer than most desktops, and I’m kinda sad to retire it despite my newer machine performing better in every measurable way. With a memory and graphic card update it would still make quite a usable machine today, but with my newer system I enjoy energy savings and higher performance that made the upgrade very worth while.

12
May
19

Paganitzu: Romancing the Rose for DOS

Whilst Apogee were better known for publishing action games they also had some puzzle games in their catalog. Todays game, Paganitzu is one of those puzzles games, having some features in common with Sokoban. I’m just playing the shareware episode, but you can still buy Paganitzu on steam or through the 3drealms website. It was originally released late 1991 and made by Keith Schuler.

The story of the game is fairly simple, it’s a continuation from the first game. Alabama Smith (totally not a rip-off of Indiana Jones) had gotten famous from his exploits in Chagunitzu. Now his fame is fading and he is busily researching a new pyramid to raid, that is Paganitzu. The game starts having just entered the pyramid.

The game is like Sokoban in that it is played on a grid of tiles with items you can push around to solve problems. Unlike Sokoban there are hazards in each level that will kill you if you’re not careful. Spiders move quickly, usually hugging either the left or right wall and snakes spit fire at you if they catch sight of you. Your task is to collect all the keys so you can move through the pyramid to accomplish the greater goal of the story. In some parts of the levels you will find hints, parts of the story, or little jokes that add a bit extra to the experience.

CGA and EGA graphics are supported, with EGA looking reasonably nice but CGA not looking so hot for some of the more detailed graphics. Animations are pretty good in general with the exception of the player or enemies moving. Each entity sort of jerks a whole tile at a time, some with no animation at all. I suspect this is because it’s a tile based game. PC speaker is the only sound device supported, with only a few bleeps and bloops for various events, it’s not annoying but is totally optional.

The controls use the normal cursor arrow keys on the keyboard, so the control layout is generally fine. However I’ve found that the game doesn’t buffer key presses and doesn’t always accept input when you’d hope. This left me sometimes mashing the keyboard trying to move as fast as I could, but actually moving significantly slower instead. This made some puzzles harder to finish than they needed to be.

The levels and progression are generally well done, although there are a few levels that are out of place because they are easier or harder than they should be for that point in the game. The shareware episode I played today is 20 levels long, although I wasn’t able to complete that set in the time frame I had to play. The two registered episodes each have slightly different mechanics and hazards, so are refreshingly different from the shareware portion.

Despite the control issues I managed to almost complete the shareware episode in roughly 2 hours, getting stuck on level 19. Only because I couldn’t move fast enough to escape the spider and block it in. I did for the most part enjoy playing Paganitzu, and I recommend it to people who enjoy puzzle games.

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