Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Searching For Miranda And Caliban

That’s a picture of an old computer called a Rockwell AIM-65. That image comes from an interesting place called The Obsolete Technology Website. They have section about the AIM-65 there.

Today’s post is going to be a kind of sequel to my post Revisiting The Cosmac Elf—The Number “1802”!

And I’ve got one or two other old topics to revisit, in the context of this remarkable old machine, this piece of “obsolete technology.”


I’ve been very lucky in my technology life to have worked at one time or another with some famous computers. There were three machines, however, that I always wanted to work with that I never got a chance to even touch. One was the RCA 1802-based machine the Cosmac Elf. Another was a dedicated workstation called a Lisp Machine. And the third was the Rockwell AIM-65 pictured above.

Those three machines don’t really have a pivotal place in the pop history of computers the way some machines I’ve been lucky enough to work with do. For instance, the Data General Eclipse was featured in Tracy Kidder’s great non-fiction book, “The Soul of a New Machine.” And the Xerox Star has become well known among tech types as the first commercial version of the graphic user interface later made famous by the Apple Macintosh. And DEC minicomputers in general became some of the first very powerful systems that were inexpensive enough for small businesses and even some individuals to experiment with on their own without giant data processing departments. At various times in my corporate career I’ve had the chance to work with those systems.

But the RCA 1802 was just a very well-designed chip that I think I would have enjoyed writing programs for. And Lisp Machines were amazingly cool devices—custom hardware designed by software fanatics who loved the Lisp programming language and devised ways to afford custom CPU chips with instruction sets tailored to list processing functions and the programming environment around Lisp code writing. Nowadays it’s not uncommon at all for companies to design custom chips for many different reasons. But Lisp Machines were the first instance I’m aware of when hardware was custom designed for specific software, and it was driven not directly by corporate needs, but by the passions of committed individuals. It was good stuff and I’m sorry I never got to work or play with it.

(We live in interesting times—I use Mathematica, from Wolfram Research, every day and on a standard PC, Mathematica is probably more powerful than any Lisp Machine ever was. Similarly, Common Lisp from Franz, Inc., on a standard PC, is probably more powerful than any Lisp Machine ever was. But that whole context of a dedicated machine combining software and hardware designed by individuals for individuals just seems—to me—to be, I don’t know, I guess, more romantic or something like that. It’s just different than the wonderful and very powerful resources we have now.)

And that brings me to the Rockwell AIM-65. I'm going to start a new section for that, after an asterisk and everything.


In some posts, I’ve talked about how certain gadgets can seem special to me in a good way, for instance Secret Gadgets And Gadget Secrets, but, also, I’ve talked about how even advanced technology can seem dubious to me, for instance the second part of Not A Comet Tale (And Two Quotes).

The Rockwell AIM-65 might be the single best instance of a piece of technology—to my eyes—getting everything right and providing a resource so powerful that even today I’m not aware of anything quite like it.

The machine itself was built around the very common CPU called the 6502. That’s the same chip that was in the Apple II, and many, many other popular computers. So one point that stands out right away is that most of the knowledge anyone acquired working on the AIM-65 (programming software or interfacing hardware) would be helpful in many, many other computing environments.

That's something that gets a little lost nowadays. Apple computers generally are programmed using an Apple tool called Xcode. Windows-based computers are typically programmed using Microsoft's Visual Studio tools. Android systems have their own software development environments. It's certainly true that algorithms are algorithms and general design skills can work throughout the programming world. But my understanding is that nowadays corporations hire different teams—or different people—to develop for different systems because the specific, concrete skills necessary for one are different from the specific, concrete skills used in the others.

A second thing that comes to mind is that the although the AIM-65 was a single-board computer, it had a full ASCII keyboard, a reasonably good (single-line) display, and a thermal printer was standard attached to the system board. The little machine could do it all!

Then there were these two books, both by Caxton Foster, who was an engineer, a physicist and a teaching professor (he was a guy who could do it all!):

Programming a Microcomputer: 6502

Real Time Programming: Neglected Topics

Those books were—and remain!—unique. They introduce in interesting and practical ways, just about (not really, but just about) every general software and general hardware topic a person will encounter in a lifetime of computer work. And the author includes specific code fragments and complete programs demonstrating everything he talks about, algorithms and implementations.

And everything is written in general 6502 assembly language. Everything runs, for instance, on an AIM-65.

I’m not familiar with, or even aware of, anything remotely similar to this situation today.

With an AIM-65 and those two books, a person could learn, and do, amazing things. Very cool things, involving very deep skills and fun, deep knowledge.

(In my post Limits Of A Gadget: A Love Story I point out that the small 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope called the Meade ETX, along with a good pair of wide-angle binoculars and the book “Binocular Highlights,” by Gary Seronik, all used together as a kind of set, make a wonderful environment for learning astronomy. That situation comes close to what I’m talking about here.)

When I did the post I link to above, about the Polaroid SX-70, Not A Comet Tale (And Two Quotes), I wrote about the SX-70 camera saying: It did its thing, but it didn’t help anybody really learn anything, get better at anything, develop skills that would be transferable to other technologies.

This is the modern world.

Today there are endless cool gadgets. There are endless cool tools. But with the single exception of that astronomy set-up, there is nothing I can think of that really helps a person learn worthwhile stuff—worthwhile skills, worthwhile ways of thinking, worthwhile ways of interacting with the real universe around us.

This doesn’t seem like a good thing.

And how could things have gotten this way? Why have they gotten this way?

Is this an example of something real, like the light pollution I posted about in Thinking About Real And Fake Villains, where it seems to be a completely random and accidental aspect of the modern world that is—amazingly—kind of exactly what a supervillain might work toward if he wanted to attack the whole human race?

I don't know. But I find this kind of stuff to be, possibly, the most interesting thing about the modern world I can think of.

How did things get this way? Why did things get this way?

I don't know. I don't even know if this is something we can know. Maybe it is something that can’t even be figured out.

I don't know.

But this is stuff I will return to in future posts.

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Miranda’s Words And Caliban’s Music

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