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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Hacker Abroad: Visiting Espressif And Surprising Subway Ads

Thursday was my final day in Shanghai. After spending all of Wednesday at Electronica Asia, I headed over to the Espressif Headquarters which is just one subway stop away. This is of course the company behind the well-known ESP8266 and its younger sibling, the ESP32. My host was Ivan Grotkothov, Director of Software Platforms. The backstory on how he found his way to the company is truly interesting, as are the stories he shared on some of the legend and lore surrounding the WiFi capable chips the company makes — and the new one whose existence just leaked out this week.

Join me below for that and few other fun things from my last day in this city of 26 million people.

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Low Tech High Safety And The NYC Subway System

The year is 1894. You are designing a train system for a large city. Your boss informs you that the mayor’s office wants assurances that trains can’t have wrecks. The system will start small, but it is going to get big and complex over time with tracks crossing and switching. Remember, it is 1894, so computing and wireless tech are barely science fiction at this point. The answer — at least for the New York City subway system — is a clever system of signals and interlocks that make great use of the technology of the day. Bernard S. Greenberg does a great job of describing the system in great detail.

The subway began operation in 1904, well over 30 years since the above-ground trains began running. A clever system of signals and the tracks themselves worked together with some mechanical devices to make the subway very safe. Even if you tried to run two trains together, the safety systems would prevent it.

On the face of it, the system is very simple. There are lights that show red, yellow, and green. If you drive, you know what these mean. But what’s really interesting is the scheme used at the time to make them light.

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DARPA Goes Underground For Next Challenge

We all love reading about creative problem-solving work done by competitors in past DARPA robotic challenges. Some of us even have ambition to join the fray and compete first-hand instead of just reading about them after the fact. If this describes you, step on up to the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.

Following up on past challenges to build autonomous vehicles and humanoid robots, DARPA now wants to focus collective brainpower solving problems encountered by robots working underground. There will be two competition tracks: the Systems Track is what we’ve come to expect, where teams build both the hardware and software of robots tackling the competition course. But there will also be a Virtual Track, opening up the challenge to those without resources to build big expensive physical robots. Competitors on the virtual track will run their competition course in theĀ Gazebo robot simulation environment. This is similar to the NASA Space Robotics Challenge, where algorithms competed to run a virtual robot through tasks in a simulated Mars base. The virtual environment makes the competition accessible for people without machine shops or big budgets. The winner of NASA SRC was, in fact, a one-person team.

Back on the topic of the upcoming DARPA challenge: each track will involve three sub-domains. Each of these have civilian applications in exploration, infrastructure maintenance, and disaster relief as well as the obvious military applications.

  • Man-made tunnel systems
  • Urban underground
  • Natural cave networks

There will be a preliminary circuit competition for each, spaced roughly six months apart, to help teams get warmed up one environment at a time. But for the final event in Fall of 2021, the challenge course will integrate all three types.

More details will be released on Competitor’s Day, taking place September 27th 2018. Registration for the event just opened on August 15th. Best of luck to all the teams! And just like we did for past challenges, we will excitedly follow progress. (And have a good-natured laugh at fails.)

Social Engineering By Railways

Where do you travel every day? Are there any subtle ploys to manipulate your behavior? Would you recognize them or are they just part of the location? Social engineering sometimes gets a bad rap (or is it rep?) in the mainstream, but the public-facing edge of that sword can keep order as it does in Japanese train stations. They employ a whirlwind of psychological methods to make the stations run like clockwork.

The scope of strategies ranges from the diabolical placement of speakers emitting high-frequency tones to discourage youthful loitering to the considerate installation of blue lights to deter suicides. Not every tactic is as enlightened as suicide prevention, sometimes, just changing the grating departure buzzer to a unique tune for each station goes a long way to relieving anxiety. Who wants to stand next to an anxious traveler who is just getting more and more sweaty? Listen below the break to hear what Tokyo subway tunes sound like.

Maybe you can spot some of these tricks where you live or something similar can ease your own commute. Perhaps the nearest subway has a piano for stairs or a 3D printing cyborg.

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Retrotechtacular: New York City’s Secret Computer

Over 750,000 people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal each day. Located in the heart of the city, it’s one of the largest train stations in the world. Its historic significance dates back to 1913, when it opened its doors to the public. At the time, few were aware of the secret computer that sat deep in a sub basement below the hustle and bustle of the city’s busy travelers. Its existence was kept secret all the way into the 1980’s.

Westinghouse had designed a system that would allow authorities to locate a stuck train in a tunnel. There were cords stretched the length of the tunnels. If a train stalled, the operator could reach out and yank on the cord. This would set off an alarm that would alert everyone of the stuck train. The problem being thatĀ even though they knew a train was down, they did not know exactly where. And that’s where the computer come in. Westinghouse designed it to calculate where the train was, and write its location on some ticker tape.

So this is the part of the post where we tell you how the computer established where exactly the train breakdown occurred. Although the storyteller in the video is admirably enthusiastic about telling the story, our depth of detail on the engineering that went into this seems nowhere to be found. Let us know in the comments below if you have a source of more information. Or just post your own conjecture on how you would have done it with the early 20th century tech.

The invention of the two way radio made the whole thing obsolete not long after is was built. Never-the-less, it remains intact to this day.

Thanks to [Greg] for the tip!

LEDs Strips Tell You The Trains Aren’t Running

[James] is a frequent user of the London Underground, a subway system that is not immune to breakdowns and delays. He wanted a way to easily tell if any of the trains were being disrupted, and thanks to some LEDs, he now has that information available at a glance without having to check a webpage first.

Inspired by the Blinky Tape project at FT Engineering, [James] thought he could use the same strip of addressable LEDs to display information about the tube. A Raspberry Pi B+ gathers data from the London Underground’s TfL API and does a few calculations on the data. If there is a delay, the LEDs in the corresponding section of the strip will pulse, alerting the user to a problem with just a passing glance.

The project is one of many that displays data about the conditions you’ll find when you step outside the house, without having to look at a computer or smartphone. We recently featured an artistic lamp which displays weather forecasts for 12 hours into the future, and there was an umbrella stand which did the same thing. A lot is possible with LEDs and a good API!

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