The Fitting Room
Mike Jewison, AC Staff Columnist
I wonder if the headshrinkers have ever done a study on how external events in your life can affect your biological clock. I mean, here we are approaching the Summer Solstice, and I'm thinking about Christmas! I love Christmas. Can't really explain why. Maybe it's the joy in our kids' faces as they rip open a new gift (which I then play with as they're more often fascinated by the box in which it came), or it might be the joy in my face as I unwrap a new little trinket for my family of computers. Truth is, I've always loved Christmas, even as a little kid. Of course, growing up on the Canadian prairies may have had something to do with that. When the temperature gets down to -30, you look for anything to take your mind off the weather!
The month or so leading up to Christmas was always a time of unbridled anticipation around our house. My sister and I would put in our requests for presents and then wait. And wait. And wait. We always had a sixth sense about when Mum and Dad would go out shopping for our things, and we also knew all their favorite hiding places. (At least we like to think we did!) Once we were sure the booty was safely in the house we would switch into our Sherlock Holmes personae and search the premises until the goods were located (making sure, of course, that Mum and Dad never suspected a thing). There is nothing worse for a nine-yearold than to find, in your house, the toy that has been the center of your world for months, knowing that you can't play with it, can't touch it, can't even acknowledge its existence for another three weeks until Christmas.
It was pure torture, but I continued to do it year after year after year. Once I hit adulthood (assuming I'm there now, that is) I was determined never to place myself in that sort of situation again. It would seem I was only kidding myself.
Ghost of Christmas Past
It is said that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. In my case, it's not so much a question of size as price. When you're nine, it seems to take forever to save up the $20 to buy the toy of your dreams; the same holds true when you're 33 except that the cost of the "toy" in question has risen to $200. But if you scrimp and save (and if your parents give you money for your birthday) you can finally go out and buy that prized trinket, just as I have. I finally did it. I bought a Black Box.
To my mind, the Black Box (which I'll refer to as the BB) is the Cadillac of Atari 8-bit peripherals. The board plugs into the PBI/ECI port on the XL/XE computers and gives you a SCSI port which can support virtually any SCSI hard drive, an RS-232 serial port, and a Centronics parallel port. With the addition of the Floppy Board, you can add up to four industry-standard floppy drives capable of operating at parallel bus speeds. The BB also boasts UltraSpeed disk I/O which can increase disk access for the XF-551 and modified 1050 and 810 drives, as well as a built-in machine language monitor which can be used to examine and manipulate any program in memory. It truly is a remarkable piece of hardware.
The first thing I did upon receipt of the package, needless to say, was tear it apart, plug the BB into the computer and power everything up. The BB has two LEDs, a power indicator and a busy light. The power LED should illuminate whenever the BB is plugged into the line AC. Mine didn't. Thinking that the transformer for the BB wasn't properly inserted into the outlet, I fiddled with it for a few seconds at which point the LED flickered to life - and promptly died as soon as I removed my hand from the transformer. I grabbed a nearby multimeter and checked the voltages coming from the BB power supply. The +5V line was putting out a shade over +3V and the +12V line was registering in the +8.5V vicinity. I sat staring in disbelief at the readings on the multimeter display. I had a defective power supply; my Black Box wouldn't work.
I quickly placed a phone call to Computer Software Services. Unfortunately Bob Puff, the owner of CSS (and AC's Technical Consultant), wasn't in, but he did return my call later that same day. After describing the problem to Bob, he agreed with my diagnosis and promised to ship off a new power supply right away.
Since the BB had originally arrived about a week and a half after I had ordered it, I assumed the replacement power supply would take the same amount of time. By the end of the second week after I'd talked to Bob I still had no new power supply; I figured it was time to check and see what was happening. Much to my dismay, it turned out CSS had no record my ever requesting a replacement for the defective power supply. They promised to ship one immediately; it arrived about a week and a half later.
You often hear stories about drug addicts who, years after they've kicked their habit, have flashbacks brought about by their drug abuse years before. A form of that had just happened to me: for three weeks I was nine years old again. In my hands I had this peripheral (I'll refrain from calling it a "toy") which had been the center of my world for months, and I couldn't play with it, couldn't touch it, and didn't dare even acknowledge its existence; the depression would have been too great. I decided then, at least until I received the new power supply, I needed a diversion.
If you haven't been following my upgrade adventures since the beginning (and why not???), let me refresh your memory. My main hacking computer is an 800XL motherboard which resides in an old, trashy PC case I scrounged from the junk pile at my place of employment. To that motherboard, I've added a PC-style keyboard and TransKey adapter (from DataQue software), the UltraSpeed+, a replacement operating system for the XL/XE computers (from CSS), and a 256K memory upgrade from Best Electronics. All of this sits inside the PC case, powered by a PC power supply. My intention was to mount the BB inside the PC case with the XL board and hopefully have some room left over for other goodies down the road, like some floppy drives or a hard disk.
The case I had, however, was poorly suited for my purposes. The drive cage was welded into place; I needed something removable. The power supply was rated at a paltry 65W, I figured I needed at least 100W. And, worst of all, the BB wouldn't fit inside the case without major use of a hacksaw (to the case, not the BB! Sheesh.) In short, I needed a new case.
One would think that finding a suitable computer case would be a simple matter. Not so! I spent the better part of two weeks searching most of the shops in Toronto looking for that "perfect fit". My mistake was checking places that sold new IBM-clone equipment; I finally found the case I was after (it's an AT-style case with room for four drives) in a surplus store for the miserly sum of $10. At the same time, I picked up a new 150W AT-style power supply for $35.
When I got home, I gutted the old PC case and set it and the old power supply aside. I then placed my XL motherboard on the bottom of the new case, marked the location of about seven of its mounting holes, removed the board, and drilled the holes through the bottom of the case. I then used a number of circuit board spacers to fix the XL board into position inside the case.
Of course, when the case is closed there is no access to any of the ports on the XL. If I wanted to use the monitor port, joysticks, RF output, or even my TransKey board I needed to somehow bring all these ports outside the PC case.
The joysticks were easy. I got one of those joystick extension cables from Radio Shack, cut it in half, and soldered chassis mount, 9-pin connectors to the cable ends. I was able to borrow a DB-9 chassis punch from work to knock out two holes for these connectors in the lower front corner of the PC case (just below the drive bays). I screwed the connectors into place, plugged the other ends into the joyports on the XL board and- voila! Now I can plug in the joysticks without having to fumble around inside the case.
I used much the same principle for the composite video; I built a short extension cable which plugs into the appropriate jack on the XL board and terminates with a jack I mounted on the rear of the PC case. I punched out a second hole in the back of the case for the TransKey jack which, like the monitor output, is a 5-pin DIN connector. I still needed to bring out the cartridge and SIO ports, but by this time the replacement power supply for the BB had arrived and I was somewhat anxious to try it out.
The new PS performed flawlessly. It was a lot of fun to get into the BB's menu and poke around in memory with the 6502 monitor which, unfortunately, was all I had time to do.
Woe Is Me...
Part of the problem when you have a small family (our kids are 4 and 2 years old) is that there is very little opportunity for you to get some quality time to yourself. (Jeff McWilliams alluded to that way back in our first issue.) I'm no different. By the time I had punched and drilled all the holes in my new PC case and finally set everything up, I had run out of personal time.
I didn't have any opportunity to check out the various functions of the BB. I don't have a spare SCSI hard disk lying around, nor am I likely to be able to afford one in the next little while. I do have a modem and printer, but had no opportunity to experiment with them and the BB, particularly since my Atari equipment is on a different floor from the rest of my stuff. Some day I'll have to make the time to play with all this nifty hardware I've accumulated. If I'm real lucky it'll happen before the kids are in university.
I therefore decided my next project in this continuing saga will have to be something which is neither expensive (like a hard disk) nor time-consuming (like moving most of my computer peripherals down two floors). While poking around in my junk pile, looking for ideas, I happened across a bare 360k floppy drive which I forgot I had. Hmmm. Black Box. Floppy drive. Black Box. Floppy drive. Hmmmmm....
Guess what I'm gonna get next?
Computer Software Services
PO Box 17660
Rochester, New York 14617
About the author. Mike Jewlson is an astronomer by training and a computer hacker by accident.