Teaching A Vintage Line Printer To Make Music, All Over Again

Sit next to any piece of machinery long enough and you get to know it by the sounds it makes. Think about the sounds coming from any 3D-printer or CNC machine; it’s easy to know without looking when the G code is working through the sines and cosines needed to trace out a circle, for instance.

It was the same back in the day, when bored and bright software engineers heard note-like sounds coming from their gear and wrote programs to turn them into crude music machines. And now, [Ken Shirriff] details his efforts to revive a vintage IBM 1403 line printer’s musical abilities. The massive 1960s-era beast is an irreplaceable museum piece now, but when [Ken] and his friends at the Computer History Museum unearthed stacks of punch cards labeled with song titles like “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “The Blue Danube Waltz,” they decided to give it a go.

The 1403 line printer has a unique chain-drive print head, the inner workings of which [Ken] details aptly in his post. Notes are played by figuring out which character sequences are needed to get a particular frequency given the fixed and precisely controlled speed of the rotating chain. The technique is quite similar to that used by musical instruments such as the Floppotron, or when coercing music from everyday items including electric toothbrushes.

Lacking the source code for the music program, [Ken] had to reverse engineer the compiled program to understand how it works and to see if playing music would damage the chain drive. The video below shows the printer safely going through a little [Debussy]; audio clips of songs originally recorded back in 1970 are available too.

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Joining The RISC-V Ranks: IBM’s Power ISA To Become Free

IBM’s Power processor architecture is probably best known today as those humongous chips that power everything from massive mainframes and supercomputers to slightly less massive mainframes and servers. Originally developed in the 1980s, Power CPUs have been a reliable presence in the market for decades, forming the backbone of systems like IBM’s RS/6000 and AS/400 and later line of Power series.

Now IBM is making the Power ISA free to use after first opening up access to the ISA with the OpenPower Foundation. Amidst the fully free and open RISC-V ISA making headway into the computing market, and ARM feeling pressured to loosen up its licensing, it seems they figured that it’s best to join the party early. Without much of a threat to its existing business customers who are unlikely to whip up their own Power CPUs in a back office and not get IBM’s support that’s part of the business deal, it seems mostly aimed at increasing Power’s and with it IBM’s foothold in the overall market.

The Power ISA started out as the POWER ISA, before it evolved into the PowerPC ISA, co-developed with Motorola¬† and Apple and made famous by Apple’s use of the G3 through G5 series of PowerPC CPUs. The PowerPC ISA eventually got turned into today’s Power ISA. As a result it shares many commonalities with both POWER and PowerPC, being its de facto successor.

In addition, IBM is also opening its OpenCAPI accelerator and OpenCAPI Memory Interface variant that will be part of the upcoming Power9′ CPU. These technologies are aimed at reducing the number of interconnections required to link CPUs together, ranging from NVLink, to Infinity Fabric and countless more, not to mention memory, where OMI memory could offer interesting possibilities.

Would you use Power in your projects? Let us know in the comments.

Warshipping: A Free Raspberry Pi In The Mail Is Not Always A Welcome Gift

Leading edge computer security is veiled in secrecy — a world where novel attacks are sprung on those who do not yet know what they need to protect against. Once certain tactics have played out within cool kids’ circles, they are introduced to the rest of the world. An IBM red team presented what they’re calling “warshipping”: sending an adversarial network to you in a box.

Companies concerned about security have learned to protect their internet-accessible points of entry. Patrolling guards know to look for potential wardrivers parked near or repeatedly circling the grounds. But some are comparatively lax about their shipping & receiving, and they are the ideal targets for warshipping.

Bypassing internet firewalls and security perimeters, attack hardware is embedded inside a shipping box and delivered by any of the common carriers. Security guards may hassle a van bristling with antennas, but they’ll wave a FedEx truck right through! The hardware can be programmed to stay dormant through screening, waiting to probe once inside the walls.

The presentation described several ways to implement such an attack. There is nothing novel about the raw hardware – Raspberry Pi, GPS receiver, cellular modems, and such are standard fare for various projects on these pages. The creative part is the software and in how they are hidden: in packing material and in innocuous looking plush toys. Or for persistence, they can be hidden in a wall mounted plaque alongside some discreet photovoltaic panels. (Editor’s note: What? No Great Seals?)

With this particular technique out in the open, we’re sure others are already in use and will be disclosed some years down the line. In the meantime, we can focus our efforts on more benign applications of similar technology, whether it is spying on our cat or finding the nearest fast food joint. The hardware is evolving as well: a Raspberry Pi actually seems rather heavyweight for this, how about a compact PCB with both an ESP32 and a cellular modem?

Via Ars Technica.

Wimbledon 2019: IBM’s Slammtracker AI Technology Heralds The Demise Of The Human Player

Whilst we patiently wait for the day that Womble-shaped robots replace human tennis players at Wimbledon, we can admire the IBM powered AI technology that the organisers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament use to enhance the experience for TV and phone viewers.

As can be expected, the technology tracks the ball, analyses player gestures, crowd cheers/booing but can’t yet discern the more subtle player behaviour such as serving an ace or the classic John McEnroe ‘smash your racket on the ground’ stunt. Currently a large number of expert human side kicks are required for recording these facets and manually uploading them into the huge Watson driven analytics system.

Phone apps are possibly the best places to see the results of the IBM Slammtracker system and are perfect for the casual tennis train spotter. It would be interesting to see the intrinsic AI bias at work – whether it can compensate for the greater intensity of the cheer for the more popular celebrities rather than the skill, or fluke shot, of the rank outsider. We also wonder if it will be misogynistic – will it focus on men rather than women in the mixed doubles or the other way round? Will it be racist? Also, when will the umpires be replaced with 100% AI?

Finally, whilst we at Hackaday appreciate the value of sport and exercise and the technology behind the apps, many of us have no time to mindlessly watch a ball go backwards and forwards across our screens, even if it is accompanied by satisfying grunts and the occasional racket-to-ground smash. We’d much rather entertain ourselves with the idea of building the robots that will surely one day make watching human tennis players a thing of the past.

The OS/2 Operating System Didn’t Die… It Went Underground

One problem with building things using state-of-the-art techniques is that sometimes those that look like they will be “the next big thing” turn out to be dead ends. Next thing you know, that hot new part or piece of software is hard to get or unmaintained. This is especially true if you are building something with a long life span. A case in point is the New York City subway system. Back in the 1990s the transit authority decided to adopt IBM’s new OS/2 operating system. Why not? It was robust and we used to always say “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

There was one problem. OS/2 was completely eclipsed by other operating systems, notably Windows and — mostly — has sunk from the public view. [Andrew Egan’s] post covers just how the conversion to a card-based system pushed OS/2 underground all over the Big Apple, and it is an interesting read.

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So, You Want To Buy A Mainframe

The computers we are used to working with are more likely to be at the smaller end of the computational spectrum. Sometimes they are very small indeed, such as tiny microcontrollers with only a few GPIOs. Others are single board machines such as a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino, and often a desktop or laptop PC. Of course, while these can be very capable machines, they don’t cut the mustard in the upper echelons of corporate computing. There the mainframe still rules, sitting in air-conditioned machine rooms and providing some of the glue that cements our economy together.

Most of us will never own a mainframe, even if sometimes we marvel at people who rescue ancient ones for museums. But it’s not impossible to run one yourself even if it isn’t cheap, and¬† [Christian Svensson] has written a guide for the potential purchaser of a more recent IBM model.

This is a fascinating piece as an uninformed spectator because it reveals something about the marketing of these machines. A fridge-sized rack may contain much more hardware than expected because all machines ship with high specifications installed but not enabled by licensing software. In some IBM machines this software comes on an attached laptop which goes missing when the mainframe is decommissioned, we’re told without this essential component the machine is junk. The practicalities are also considered, such things as whether the appropriate interface modules are present, or how to assess how much RAM has been installed. Powering the beast is less of a problem than you might expect as they ship with PSUs able to take a wide variety of DC or AC sources.

Once upon a time the chance to own one of the earlier DEC VAX minicomputers came the way of your scribe, the passing up on which has ever since been the source of alternate regret and thankfulness at a lucky escape. The ownership of second-hand Big Iron is not for everyone, but it’s nevertheless interesting to learn about it from those who have taken the plunge. There’s a tale unfolding about the ownership of a much older IBM room-sized computer at the moment.

IBM mainframes header image: Agiorgio [CC BY-SA 4.0]

How Hard Can It Be To Buy A Computer In Germany And Get It Back Home To The UK?

Some of the best adventures in the world of hardware hacking start in the pub. For three volunteers at the National Museum Of Computing in the UK, [Adam Bradley], [Chris Blackburn], and [Peter Vaughan], theirs started over a pint with an eBay listing for an old computer in Germany. No problem you might think, we’re well used to international parcel shipping. This computer wasn’t a crusty old Commodore 64 though, instead it was a room-sized IBM System/360 Model 20 from the 1960s, complete with the full array of peripherals and what seemed to be a lot of documentation and software media. It would need a Mercedes Sprinter, a large van, to shift it, but that seemed feasible. With a bit of frantic bidding they secured the auction, and set off for Germany to view their purchase.

Arriving at the machine’s location they found a little bit more than they had expected. In an abandoned building on a side street in Nuremburg there was an intact machine room full of the IBM computer cabinets over a false floor with all the machine cabling in place, and the only usable access was through a street door which hadn’t been opened in decades and which was obstructed by the false floor itself. To cap it all they found they’d bought not one but two System/360s, and also unexpectedly a 1970s System/370 Model 125. Clearly this was more than a job for a quick in-and-out with a Sprinter.

What followed became a lengthy saga of repeated trips, van hire, constructing ramps, and moving heavy computer parts to a hastily rented storage unit. Decabling a computer of this size is no easy task at the best of times, and these cables had spent many decades in a neglected machine room. It’s a fascinating read, and a very well-documented one with plenty of photos. The machines now sit in their storage units awaiting a return to the UK, and the trio are soliciting any help they can find to make that happen. So if you happen to own a European haulage company with spare capacity on your Germany — UK route or if you can help them in any way, donate or get in touch with them. We think this project has much more to offer, so we’ll be following their progress with interest.

These three intrepid computer hunters were brought together at The National Museum Of Computing at Bletchley, UK. If you find yourself within range it is an essential place to visit, we did so in 2016.