After several months as a dial-up only BBS I recently opened up access to Nostromo via telnet. Still running reliably from a SanDisk CompactFlash card installed within a Wyse Terminal the discrete unit sits quietly in the corner of my office happily doing its own thing, the only reminder of its existence the occasional screech of the modem responding to a user connecting via dial-up.
Nostromo runs on the simply superb Synchronet BBS software created by Rob Swindell. Not only is Synchronet a fantastic piece of software but the available documentation makes using it child’s play, even for an eejit like me. Rob even helpfully provides a free easy-to-use dynamic hostname service which I have taken advantage of. You can therefore now reach Nostromo via telnet at nostromo.synchro.net.
Enabling telnet access has unsurprisingly led to more visitors both welcome and unwelcome. It’s been a pleasure to welcome some new users and somewhat less welcome though admittedly interesting to witness various attempts by spammers to relay mail through the mail server. None of these attempts have been successful and nor will the be, but they are persistent and I may be naive but I am amazed at the speed with which they descended upon the newly Internet facing box.
It is now also possible to FTP into the file area of Nostromo. You can do so, if your browser supports it by FTP’ing to nostromo.synchro.net. I have been and will continue to add an eclectic mix of files that I’ve found useful over the last couple of years whilst tinkering with retro gear. Thus far I have concentrated on stuff related to the Epson PX-8 and whenever a few spare minutes present themselves I shall continue to add files.
A recent Google search for Epson PX-8 software led me to this page, an archive of a 1997 post to the comp.os.cpm usenet group. Without much hope (assuming the contact details to be out of date) I fired off an e-mail to its referenced author, Bill Esposito, to enquire if he was still in possession of the files from the PX8 dedicated BBS, PX Dock.
Much to my surprise and delight Bill responded quickly and generously sent me an archive of all the files he had. I shall therefore be sorting through these and adding them to Nostromo in due course.
Anyway, if like me you get a strange buzz out of the thought of being remotely served files from a CompactFlash card you’re more than welcome to FTP in to Nostromo.
An illness in the family has rather curtailed my retro activities this year. Any grand projects are unlikely to reach fruition, however I’m still tinkering with odds and sods.
I finally got around to Telnet enabling my Nostromo BBS, which was previously dial-up only. Trouble is I may now therefore actually get some visitors and that in turns means I ought to add some content.
I hadn’t realised, but my Broadband supplier at work, Demon, actually furnishes me with a static IP address so the process was very simple. I had previously assumed it was a dynamically allocated address. I also still have my original ‘tenner a month’ dial-up account with Demon, purely to retain the associated e-mail address. Next year will mark twenty years since I first signed up for this account and it occurred to me it would appropriate to create a suitably retro-style website on the included web space.
So you can now visit the hand coded Nostromo BBS Website replete with snazzy background, marquee, page counter and other early 90′s Internet goodies. Twenty years, I can’t believe it!
Since contracting this retro computing bug, after prolonged exposure to Urbancamo, I’ve had a yearning to try to recreate one of my earliest and fondest computing memories. That memory, when recalled, still has the ability to send a little shiver of excitement down my spine. Picture the scene if you will, a musty old office in the maths block of my local upper school. Two spotty teenage boys, myself and the aforementioned Urbancamo. In one dingy corner of the room an ASR 33 Teletype, on the window sill an acoustic coupler and telephone and on a piece of paper, a phone number.
Thinking we were Matthew Broderick from WarGames we eagerly dialled the number inserted the handset into the coupler and waited excitedly for the Teletype to burst into life. Sure enough the ASR 33 started clanking away and we were in! Not NASA or anything like that you understand, but a nearby college upon which we were able to play a game called Shark Attack! A momentous moment in my computing history and the first and last time that I ever used an acoustic coupler.
I have for some time therefore been on the lookout for a working acoustic coupler that I could use to try to recreate some of that experience. After failing to bring back to life a very old Anderson Jacobson ADC 212 model, I was recently lucky enough to sport an Epson CX-21 on Ebay.
It’s in lovely condition, and the original NiCad battery even appears to hold a reasonable charge. It came with an Epson HX-20 in a custom-made case which no doubt accounts for its excellent condition. There was a little blooming on the rubber cups but I cleaned this off with a mild detergent solution and the whole unit looks almost new.
I will of course also need an old telephone with suitable handset and fortunately we still have a couple of 1970′s models at work that thankfully were never thrown out. These old BT models were built to last and the one I chose cleaned up really nicely, in fact it looks so cool I may use it in place of our current home set.
The CX-21 only has two options to select, half or full-duplex and answer or originate mode. It has a standard DB25 port and I have the appropriate cable to hook it up to my PX-8, an Epson 724 cable. This is a modem cable with DB25 at one end and an 8 pin Mini DIN connector at the other. I have two options for terminal software on the PX-8, both previously downloaded, Kermit and Mex. The PX-8 does have a rudimentary terminal application on the built-in ROM but I’ve never had much success with it.
After charging the CX-21 and PX-8 I hooked up the TF-20 FDD and copied over all the software I’d need to the PX-8′s RAM disk so I had the minimal amount of stuff to take home from where I would be calling back to the box running my BBS.
I then spent rather too long trying to get my head around whether I was originating or answering the call, clearly I was originating it and the BBS box was answering but for some unknown reason I’d convinced myself that the coupler would have to ‘answer’ the handshaking attempts of the remote modem.
Nevertheless once sanity had been restored I set the coupler to ‘originate’ mode at full-duplex and dialled the BBS with the telephone. After several attempts the ready light finally illuminated on the coupler and it seemed a connection had been established. However once I’d connected via the terminal software all I received was a screen full of garbage.
I checked all my settings, made sure background noise was minimal and continued to make many more attempts to create a good connection. Eventually I discovered that contrary to my instinct to push the handset more deeply and securely into the coupler, lifting the mouthpiece end slightly out of the cup resulted in a much better connection! Whether the proximity of the transducers was causing some sort of distortion I don’t know but whatever the reason I now had a working connection and was reliably able to re-create it. There are still a few erroneous characters coming through but I can live with that.
I shot a quick video showing the process below, all I need now are a couple of ASR 33′s.
This year’s Retrochallenge will soon be upon us, running for the entire month of July there’s still time to sign up and participate. Head over to the Retrochallenge Website and register your interest.
This year I’m hoping to hook up my recently acquired Epson acoustic coupler to my PX-8 and with the aid of an old telephone dial in to one of the few remaining dial up services out there, and no doubt my own BBS.
In my previous blog entry I posted some scans of some promotional literature for the PX-8 and it occurred to me that I’m now in possession of the all the hardware shown in the image opposite. I thought therefore it might be interesting to try to recreate the shot.
Other options are to create another instalment for my Silent Running text adventure created with Inform.
I’ve been trying out the expansion units that came with the 5140 and clip on to the back of the main machine. One provides parallel and serial ports and the other is for connecting a monitor. Unfortunately I had a ‘magic smoke’ incident with the later unit after powering up the machine. It was a bit of an ‘oh shit’ moment as initially I didn’t notice it but caught a whiff of the tell tale stench before spotting the smoke rising from the unit and shutting it down. I haven’t opened it up yet to see what the damage is but hopefully it’s repairable.
The expansion bus on the 5140 uses 8-bit ISA architecture. At the rear of the unit is a single 72 pin edge connector which is repeated on the back of each expansion unit. Once attached the expansion units give the machine a very odd look, especially if you also attach the printer unit which results in the 5140 almost doubling in length.
Theoretically you could create some kind of hack with an old unit and hook up an HDD but that’s well beyond my level of tinkering.
The serial port on the interface expansion unit is working. I downloaded the ever dependable Kermit and after stripping it somewhat to fit onto a 720k floppy loaded it up and dialled out to my BBS and sent off a couple of emails. It’s been interesting running a machine with no fixed disk. The second drive by the way has started working, maybe whatever was preventing it from reading disks before has been dislodged. I made a quick video of the 5140 below:-
I also found the following advert for the 5140 on Youtube, in it you can see the machine hooked up to a monitor, I lust after that monitor, I want one, a lot:-
I’ve decided to take advantage of the few days of holiday I have left to get well and truly stuck into this year’s Winter Warmup as once back at work progress will no doubt slow considerably. My first task has been to find a way to transfer software onto the PenMaster, there are a number of ports on the device but nothing I can easily use. The FDD port is of a design I’ve not encountered before. Initially I thought an old Fujitsu FDD I had might fit, however although the connector looks the same it is on a much smaller scale. It then occurred to me I could use the parallel port Zip Drive that I’d recently connected to my Atari Portfolio. I’d still need drivers of course but if I could find them I thought I would at least be able to add them to my BBS (Nostromo) and then dial in and download them onto the Samsung.
I searched for a while before finding some drivers for Windows 3.1 on Epson’s site here. I have to say I really like Epson as a company and the way it continues to support its old products. I downloaded them onto the Windows XP box that hosts Nostromo and added them to the file section. When I got home I dialled in with the PenMaster using Terminal and the built in modem and managed to connect. However the internal modem refused to connect at anything greater than 1200 baud which may be its limit but seems a bit poor. I made several attempts to download the Zip software but it kept failing.
So out came the trusty US Robotics Sportster which once connected to the solitary COM port on the PenMaster successfully connected at 19200 Baud and downloaded the Zip software in relatively quick fashion. I had to modify the config.sys slightly, changing the ‘Lastdrive=’ entry to free up a drive letter for the Zip drive. After digging through my Zip Disks I was able to find the original Zip Tools disk which allowed me to complete a full install of the Zip drivers and software.
Combined with my USB Zip drive I now have a pretty quick and painless way of downloading software on to one of my Mac’s, putting it onto Zip Disk and then loading it via the parallel port Zip onto the Samsung, first major hurdle hurdled.
I’ve also been trying to get acquainted with the pen input of the PenMaster, learning the gestures for space, return, delete etc. It’s not bad, I can imagine with some practice you could probably get proficient at entering stuff fairly quickly. Just to show how lacking in proficiency I currently am I thought I’d challenge myself to log on again to Nostromo and send a Tweet using just the stylus. I recorded the process and include the video below for those who are very patient. I have however also attached a keyboard and even managed to dig out serial mouse which still works which should offer more rapid progress. I rather like the fact that the Tweet was not perfect, speaks volumes for handwriting recognition.
The BBS that I set up during this year’s Retrochallenge has been running on an old Athlon based Shuttle system that I built several years ago, it’s a nice little unit but its constant fan noise whirring in the corner of my office has started to irritate. I therefore dug into my collection of old hardware looking for something that might offer a less intrusive solution. A couple of Wyse WT9455XL Winterm units caught my eye. These units are completely silent, based on VIA Epia Mini-ITX MB’s and utilising Via C3 (Samuel 2 core) passively cooled processors.
These particular units had Windows XPe installed on 256MB DOM’s and the installations were heavily locked down to prevent users doing anything other than the task they’d been specified for. The first thing I needed to do was get into the password protected BIOS. This was pretty straightforward, I found the password ‘Fireport’ quickly via Google. I pulled out the DOM and attached a Startech IDE to CF adapter holding a SanDisk 8GB Extreme III card to the primary IDE channel and an old CD drive to the secondary and made the necessary changes in the BIOS.
Booting from the XP installation CD I converted the already partitioned and formatted compact flash card (via one of my Canon DSLR’s) from FAT32 to NTFS and started the XP installation process. It took a fair while but was mostly successful. Upon booting the new installation the system would sit at the ‘Welcome Screen’ for several minutes before continuing to boot successfully, and then other times it would stop at the same point and display the following dialogue box:-
Windows created a temporary paging file on your computer because of a problem that occurred with your paging file configuration when you started your computer. The total paging file size for all disk drives may be somewhat larger than the size you specified.
The related Microsoft support article gives the following information:-
This error message may occur if Windows tries to create a paging file on an NTFS volume, but the System and Administrators accounts do not have the correct NTFS permissions on the volume.
Initially I couldn’t figure out what was causing this problem and I also ran into problems using Windows Update which gave the following warning:-
To install items from Windows Update, you must be logged on as an administrator or a member of the Administrators group. If your computer is connected to a network, network policy settings may also prevent you from completing this procedure.
I was of course logged in as Administrator so again turned to Google hoping to find a solution. In the course of trying several remedies with no luck I noticed via Windows Explorer that XP was recognising the system drive as a removable unit. I’d forgotten that I needed to update the CF card so it would be recognised as a fixed disk.
SanDisk used to supply some software that would allow you to update their CF cards to either identify themselves as fixed or removable, it’s called ATCFWCHG.COM and can still be found in various places for download, I got a copy from RapidShare and found the instructions on how to use it here. It needs to be run from DOS so I attached a USB FDD to the Wyse unit, copied the file onto an old Windows 98 boot floppy and booted the system from it. I ran ATCFWCHG.COM using ATCFWCHG.COM /P /F from the command line and the word PASS was displayed.
Upon rebooting from the CF card the hang at the ‘Welcome Screen’ was resolved and Windows Update worked correctly, clearly the problem lay in the fact that XP will not allow you to create its page file on a removable drive, it was now recognising the drive as a fixed disk.
On that note I had to make a decision about how I was going to manage the page file given that the constant reading and writing from the disk that virtual memory requires is not good news for CF cards with their limited read\write lives. The choices were, no page file and the possible problems that can cause, a standard page file that might destroy the CF card pretty quickly or move the page file to another drive.
Given that this machine is essentially going to be doing nothing most of the time and only serving up the BBS on the odd occasion someone dials in I decided to insert the original DOM in the second IDE socket, format it and use it for the page file. Although it only offers 239MB formatted space I’m sure it will cope with the low load the system will be experiencing.
After a successful installation of the Diamond Supra Express modem in the solitary PCI slot provided I copied over all the BBS related files and fired it up. Everything is working nicely and the box is completely silent.
I’m still enjoying messing about with the Atari Portfolio and I’ve now finally got my hands on a serial interface. Much the same in appearance as the parallel interface the unit plugs into the Portfolio’s expansion bus and carries a male DB9 connector with fortunately, unlike some other retro machines, a standard pin layout.
The RS232 parameters, baud rate, parity and so on can be set via the Atari’s Setup menu with a maximum baud rate of 9600. After plugging the interface in and initialising it I had a look through the library of Portfolio software that I have downloaded from various sources and selected a terminal emulation program called ‘Acom’ from Roudley Associates.
I connected up my trusty US Robotics modem and loaded Acom. Taking a gamble I simply entered ‘atdt’ and the phone number of my BBS, the modem duly dialed the number and I was soon logging into Nostromo without problem (apart from the screen size limitations.)
Thrilled with my success I fired off the obligatory Tweet using the same method as I’d used with my PX-8 and downloaded a couple of files before successfully connecting via Telnet to another Synchronet board.
I’m also thrilled to have acquired what I believe is a pretty rare 1Mb expansion module. From what I understand these units were available from DIP, the original creators of the Portfolio and retailed in the UK for the best part of £400, a considerable outlay. I opened the unit up and replaced the CR2032 battery before connecting it to the Portfolio. It formatted without problem and I transferred a good selection of software onto it from the Zip drive, thus far it has been working without fault.
I have seen some Portfolio’s for sale that have been converted to allow the use of standard compact flash cards in the memory card slot, this would be very cool, although battling with the restriction of the original hardware is for me part of the fun. Another possible upgrade is a backlight for the display, there’s a company selling a kit specifically for the Portfolio, however the existing screen has very good contrast, certainly in comparison to the Epson PX8 so this would have to be a luxury addition.
I took some video of the Portfolio connecting to my BBS and Tweeting via Tweety Mail, completely pointless of course but somehow very satisfying.
I’ve decided it’s time to upgrade to my own super cool domain to reflect the fact that my blog has pretty much become almost solely retro-computing based.
Traffic seems to be building consistently and more visitors are leaving comments which is fantastic. So I’m going to try and document more of my tinkering with retro gear as it seems to be a hobby that is gaining popularity right now.
I have a couple of projects on the go at the moment, both involving the Atari Portfolio. Firstly I’m trying to hook up a parallel Zip Drive to it for storage and easy file transfer. I also want to get hold of a serial interface and try and get it talking to a modem and hopefully my BBS – Nostromo.
I shall therefore document my success/failures in these endeavours in due course.
Today was spent fiddling with the configuration of Nostromo, the BBS I’m setting up for testing retro machines. After a considerable amount of time (much of which was spent trying to remember my mail server passwords) I managed to get the mail forwarding working so I could send e-mail from the BBS.
It then occurred to me it must be possible to Tweet via e-mail. A quick internet search later and I found Tweety Mail and duly signed up. At this stage I was only able to get mail out into the wild from the BBS by sending it to another user who had their account set to forward internal mail. I therefore set up a user account with firstname.lastname@example.org as their e-mail address and logged on with the PX-8.
I’m still experiencing some problems with errant text even when connecting at 300 baud but I can still navigate around and I soon managed to send an e-mail to the tweetymail user account. Much to my surprise and excitement it duly popped up on Twitter almost immediately.
I decided to shoot some video of the process. I apologise in advance for the shoddy standards, particularly the bit at the end where I hadn’t planned for moving the camera from the PX-8 to the Mac display and helpfully the camera decided to go on strike when it came to finding focus. Still it does rather sum up my Retrochallenge, unfocussed but with a clear result in the end.