Friday, July 20, 2012

Ace of Aces Game Reprint on Kickstarter

Ace of Aces game covers from the late 70s
My Ace of Aces Book Sets from Back in the Day...
Today Could Be "The Day" All Over Again!

Ace of Aces Rotary Edition Kickstarter

One of my favorite games of all time has been out of print for over 25 years. Ace of Aces is a game that uses pairs of books to show different locations of two dogfighting WWI aircraft. You look at where your opponent is, try to anticipate their maneuver, then pick your own maneuver. Once once you decide what you're going to do, you call off the page number under your maneuver to your opponent. They call off a number to you. You then go to the page number they called, and look up your own maneuver. They do the same. You both get a final page number, and turn to that page (they'll both be the same, so you can cross-check to avoid errors.)

There you have your new position relative to each other.

Inside the Ace of Aces books. You see your plane, and your enemy out there somewhere.

On the pages above, you can see two different positions. The page on the left has your opponent out past your left wingtip, approaching at an angle. Aha! Time to simple pitch into a stall maneuver and let him come right in line with your guns! (Unless you think they're going to stall and wing-over to put you in line with theirs.)

On the right hand page, we're being fired on! Dangit! Score one for the other guy.

Fortunately, all those little squares you see below the big pictures are your choices of manuever. There are a lot of them, so if you find yourself in the position of the page on the right you have a lot of crafty things you can do to get out of the line of fire and save the day.

This game is quick and easy to learn, and can be expanded as much as you care to expand it. It has optional rules for different models of aircraft, hit locations, etc. Plus, I and some friends turned it into a campaign-level RPG in high school. We added rules for pilot recruitment and skill levels, organizing squadrons, procuring and repairing aircraft, and so on.

But I have to say I've played it as a casual pick-up five minute game with a lot more people. It takes less than 5 minutes to learn the basic game, and you can play the games up to number of hits, first blood, or whatever you wish to make it quick and light.

Ace of Aces Kickstarter
Now there's a Kickstarter Project to reprint the first set of books from the game. It's very nearly funded as I write this (about $500 away), and you want to get in on it!

This project is for the "Handy Rotary" books, which recreate the aircraft with rotary engines and high torque and maneuverability. These were the first original books, and they're a lot of fun. I have this set and the Powerhouse set. If this Kickstarter goes well, we'll be seeing the other book sets coming in future Kickstarters.

There are also some really neat Ace of Aces T-Shirts as swag. Read the updates, you'll see.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

8085 Monitor Code and Other Distractions

I've been working on an 8085 microprocessor project for about 3 years now. It started with a simple circuit on a breadboard, moved to my HP Logic Lab, where it became a real computer, then got built into a permanent version on a prototyping PC board.

I've been documenting the thing since it moved to the Logic Lab on my web site, posting how-to articles on building both versions (the hardware is identical, only the construction method is different), as well as software to control the hardware.

Where I've come up short is putting together a sort of unified OS for the system online that allows software to be developed right on the system itself, as well as any high level languages. I've been writing lots of software for my own use with the system, mostly hand-coded using my assembly coding forms and my 8085 Pocket Reference Card. But I keep either getting distracted from or otherwise dodging the job of integrating all the software bits I've already got into a simple "monitor" program (sort of a mini-OS for machine language) for the system.

Part of it is the usual life distractions. I've been sitting next to a wild fire this past week, for example. And then I've got lots of other electronic toys I like to spend some time with. Each one has its own appeal.

Before the fire, and a bit during (when I was taking a break from cutting ever more brush around my property) I've gotten back to work on putting it together. The biggest part is the part that reads the keyboard, determines the current system state, and dispatches keystrokes and execution to the right place. All the hardware interfaces are already in place, most of the basic system routines are in place (timing/delays/string handling), etc. So the "glue" is pretty much all that's needed. And I got it about halfway done before the fire started, I'm writing the code that actually takes actions for each mode, or simply hands over the necessary info to user apps running on the system.

So, if I can get time away from deck repairs on my house this weekend (now that it looks like it's unlikely to burn down or that I get evacuated), I'll be trying to wrap up and test that code.

Small Thing, Big Obstacle

The other thing I'm looking forward to is replacing some of the switches I put on the MAG-85. I put in switches for various interrupts about two years ago, and the switches themselves turned out to bounce and make so much noise that I've given up on them. No amount of debouncing, hardware or software, within reason has made them reliable. I'd hate to have someone else construct a MAG-85 and have to deal with this. It's been a thorn in my side ever since I added them, and took a lot of the fun out of the permanent hardware project for me (on the breadboard version, I used some old keyswitches out of a knackered Mac Plus keyboard, they worked great with only the most minimal hardware debounce. But I figured I could hardly specify 25 year old keyswitches in a project that others might want to build.

I'm expecting a shipment of a bunch of different switches tomorrow that I can test and select from to replace the awful switches I have now. So I can put that behind me (and probably re-simplify the circuit to take out a bunch of the extra parts I put in to try to deal with the noise on these switches.)

Frankly, the old switches are something I'd about hesitate to use in a doorbell circuit, never mind real electronics.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Robbers Fire Day 6

My home is southeast of the town of Colfax, near the current Robber's Fire. Since the fire started last Thursday (we saw the plume within a few minutes of its start.) Needless to say, I think, is that the fire and its progress have been an object of intense personal interest ever since.

We Want Infomation...Information...Information.
Getting specific, up to date information was the first concern. The twice a day updates from CalFire's PIO is nice, but when you're nearby not knowing if you're going to be called on to evacuate, you want something with a bit more granularity. Looking out the window and watching plumes helps, but without a direct view into the canyons it's hard to interpret for yourself.

The local radio stations have mostly been repeating the CalFire announcements, so no help there.

We don't have any TV reception from the Sacramento stations in our location. The TV antenna in a tree over the house has never worked, and I haven't been in a position to spend the money on it to pay for someone to go 150 feet up there and help me test the cable, replace it if necessary, etc. We've had satellite TV at times, but overall it isn't valuable enough for the monthly fees required, and a few years ago they made it a lot harder to just start and stop the service as we want it, so we've not had that for several years now.

That left us with internet. Fortunately I was able to use Twitter to good effect once I figured out the hashtag I wanted was #RobbersFire. Also, the Wild Land Fire Hotlist and YubaNet have been valuable sources of information. On Friday, KCRA TV put up a live feed from their helicopter that I was able to catch much of, which let me see the landscape and the fire directly.

Roller Coaster Ride

On Wednesday the fire spread rapidly after it started at about 3:30pm. I saw it about 15 minutes after it started while headed out for errands. By the time we came home just over an hour later, the road to our house was closed. There were barriers and a highway patrolman directing traffic away. We'd seen plenty of activity while out, several firefighter units and a trailer with a dozer on the highway between Colfax and Auburn.

One of my daughters was with me, we'd cut our errand run short so that she could get to a youth activity on time. So I just took her there (fortunately we'd brought her swimsuit and all with us), then tried to figure out what to do with myself. I picked up some strawberries and chocolate milk for dinner from the local market, then parked at our church and tried to find some news on the radio.

After a while I decided to see if I could get home through an indirect route. It worked, and I called my other daughter at college to let her know how to get home that evening. Finally, at 7:30 that evening there was a sense of relief once we had all the members of the family home together.

The fire had spread rapidly, sending up several smoke headers. As night set in, we hoped that the fire fighters would be able to make a lot of progress on the fire during the relatively cool night hours. But the terrain was practically impassable in the area of the fire, so we pretty well knew they wouldn't get it completely contained.

We spent that first evening in immediate evacuation preparations. By the time I was able to find a way back to our house, my wife got together pet carriers, medicine, and immediate necessities and had them ready to go by the door.

After that, we collected and packed irreplaceable stuff like family photos and such. Through the evening, my wife worked on that while I prepared the house for evacuation and tried to get current information on exactly where the fire was when taking breaks.

Finally at the end of the evening I was able to determine how far it was to the fire, as well as the fact that it was still on the far side of the American river. Prior to that all we had was the smoke to go by, but couldn't tell if it had jumped the river, and whether it was 3-4 miles away or just a mile or so. Learning that it was about 3 to 3.5 miles away and still on the far side of the river was relieving enough we were able to get some sleep that night. But we still had all the evacuation stuff stacked in the hall by the front door.

The next day it was still burning, but didn't seem to be taking off rapidly. Until about 3:30 or 4pm. Then, as on the prior day, the fire spread rapidly in the late, dry afternoon heat. I had been trying to concentrate on some programming while trying to stay up to date on the fire conditions. I also took breaks to continue preparing the house for evacuation. As it happened, I was making another trip out of the house about the time it took off and the sky started looking ugly.

Fortunately our slightly roundabout route to and from the house remained open.

As the sun set we had S-2s going over the house at a prodigious rate and the fire looked like it had settled down a lot by the time nightfall came.

That night we went through more of our personal possessions and did more evacuation preparation. We were thankful that we had more time to do so. I had spent the afternoon outside doing some pick up and clean up and trying to get the property in better shape.

If I Were a Fire, Where Would I Go?

We keep our property in pretty good shape with respect to fire safety as a matter of course. We were at the edge of the Cleveland Fire at our prior home, and we've been evacuated twice before from this property for fires. One started in the River valley near us, and it threatened not only us, but many of our friends in the Weimar area.

But even though we try to maintain our defensible space, when you go outside and think of that tree burning like a torch, or fire approaching from that direction, you inevitably see more work that can be done.

So piecemeal over Thursday and Friday, then, as a full day activity on Saturday, we went outside and extended and cleaned up the defensible space around our property. On Sunday we attended an hour of church, then came home and got back to work on the property.

Further preparations to assist firefighters were made during that time. I filled a couple of barrels with water, and got buckets ready to position near them. I moved and cleared flammable items within the house to get them away from the windows.

Today my daughter and I rounded up everything that had been set aside for a dump run during the other cleanup and took it down there. A bunch of things we decided we didn't need any more, but which was still in good shape, went to the thrift store.

Tonight some friends are coming over, I've got a fallen tree and some other cleanup to do at the outer edge of our current cleared zone, so that will get a bit wider on one side of the house.

Last Friday, and Saturday, the fire got much worse at this end (the northern end) each night between 6 and 7pm. It was very frightening to see the increased activity each night. The fire got closer each time.

Last night (Sunday) was encouraging, however. The fire threatened to flare up again, but the work of the firefighters kept it from another major round of activity like we'd had the prior two nights. We had a regular airshow over our heads. Not only did we have the usual S-2s over our heads (both S-2A and S-2T models) but a P-2 Neptune tanker had joined the party during the day, and as we were winding down and coming inside to collapse we had a DC-10 tanker come over!

The aerial firefighting is easiest for us to see, but certainly both the airborne and ground-based fire fighting contributed to make things a lot less scary. The weather reports, however, were filled with the fact that the next day would be windy, possibly driving the fire into new areas.


Today the day was cooler and more humid. When we went to the dump there were clouds over the fire, with virga falling from them. The smoke was limited to light drift smoke.

We're all beat, physically, and hoping that these signs show that things are going better with the fire. Wednesday is the predicted day for containment of the fire if all goes well. We certainly hope it does. One home has been lost, and as bad as that is we were glad to hear it was a vacation home rather than a primary residence. Still, our hearts go out to those who lost it, and to those who've lost their outbuildings. Better than your main home, but still painful.

And thanks to the firefighters, whatever happens from here on out. They are working miracles considering the conditions they have for fighting the fire. Hopefully the cooler weather is making their lives easier.

It's certainly still possible for things to go poorly from this point. We're not able to relax yet. I'll be back out this evening (hopefully I can get a brief nap in the next hour or so), doing what I can to make things even better in case the fire breaks out this way.

But we're hoping that things will go methodically from here to full containment then to full control of the fire. And that the firefighters stay safe, and those injured so far reach full recovery soon if that's at all possible (I haven't had any info on the injuries yet except for a brief mention of heat prostration or something like in one case.)

And best wishes to our neighbors who are living the nightmare we're preparing for still--having to leave your home and just wait and hope that you'll be able to return without knowing if that will be the case.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Propeller: Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm...

Propeller quickstart board and a telephone rotary I feel a project coming on?

P8X32A Propeller Quickstart Board...Telephone Rotary Dial....Hmmmmmmmm.

Robbers Fire Day 3

We've got a wildfire going near our home right now. It started day before yesterday at about 3:30 in the afternoon. On day 1, it was about 3 to 3.5 miles from us, and not spreading in our direction. Even though it was in some really rough territory, it looked like we were close enough to monitor the situation but far enough that it wouldn't threaten us.

Yesterday started out well. I spent time in the yard and around the house with my daughter doing some additional clean-up. Things were in pretty good shape, I've been improving the property with an eye to fire safety for years now, since our prior run-in with a fire that came close. Plus I'd already done the hard work for this year back in April. But there's always more you can do.

When the heat of the day grew to within spitting range of 100 degrees, though, we could see the fire plumes suddenly spread and go vertical with lots of heat. Prior to that, there'd just been white drifts of smoke. The new plumes were coming our way.

From Mildly Concerned to Biting Nails

The fire spread rapidly, and got very hot. Reports are that it jumped two fire control lines. It spread up several fingers of the canyon complex near us, it wasn't confined to a single area any more. And it was a lot closer, and in an area where it could reach us far more readily.

Now, there are a lot of houses between us and it. We're in a location that we'rre not likely to be right on the line without things getting really bad for a lot of people. We're not one of the houses with a fire engine parked in front and firefighters on the roof. My heart goes out to those that are.

But we are close enough that we're keeping right on top of the evacuation situation. On day 1, I wasn't able to get home from errands for a couple of hours because our street was closed to all traffic. Finally, they moved the roadblock down two streets and I was able to get home. We had to get there through a roundabout way, the direct route was still closed off--we have a California Department of Forestry station that needs the space for marshalling vehicles--but we could get home. I was able to contact my two daughters, who were also out and about, and let them know how to get home.

Finally at about 8:30pm we were all together at home again.

We've had prior experience with fires here, as I mentioned, and we've lived in the Sierra Foothills prior to moving here about 15 years ago. We've been evacuated from this house once before--the fire got within 1/2 a mile--and been on alert for evacuation several times. The past two years have actually been a bit unusual in being relatively calm and fire-free. We were hoping this year would be, too.

Keeping Up

Fortunately we've got uninterrupted internet service and electricity to this point. We were warned by the power company last night that we may lose power in the night, with no known time for it being cut off or of restoration. One line in the area has been de-energized for the sake of the firefighting. There's a 100KVA line in the area that's threatened.

But so far I've been able to keep in touch.

The internet has been a huge boon. The reporting through ordinary media outlets hasn't been of much value. They finally got excited about the event yesterday after the fire went wild and tripled the number of houses threatened. Prior to that, even the most local outlets couldn't be bothered to tell me more than I could learn by looking out my back window--less, in fact.

Fortunately Twitter (#RobbersFire) and, as well as a number of other places, have had more info for me. Sacramento's KCRA TV station brought their helicopter into the area yesterday afternoon, I was able to watch the feed on the internet and get a look at the fire from a viewpoint I don't have at home for the first time.

Fire Crews Doing Excellent Job

After the outbreak yesterday, as the day began to come off its high point of temperature, the air crews did an excellent job of suppressing the fires here at the north end. There were several hot plumes when they started, by the time they had to close up air operations for lack of light, it was white drifts with no apparent hot spots.

Crews have come in from all over the state. This morning, so far as I can tell, things are hugely improved. There are still a lot of structures threatened, and a lot of operations that have been waiting on daylight. The briefings this morning were at the other end of the fire area (Forest Hill) and apparently in Auburn at the Fair Grounds, too, but not close enough for me to be able to attend. So I'm relying on what comes in over the wire.

Today promises to stay a bit cooler than yesterday, in the low 90s, temperature-wise. Hopefully we won't have any more breakouts like yesterday. The numbber of firefighters has grown by at least 3x since yesterday. There's no telling what's going to happen, but things always look cautiously optimistic at this time of day.

Fingers crossed.

Update at 1pm local time:
We're into the nail-biting time of the day. The winds are picking up a bit, and there's been increased activity on the side of the fire that's away from us. The winds are blowing northeast, from the fire toward the town of Iowa Hill. We're only getting light smoke here so far. It's nowhere near as close or frightening as yesterday.

There are a =lot= more firefighting resources on the fire today than yesterday. It looks like they're really doing a great job. Their work is very much appreciated by everyone in the area.

Of course, we're still earlier in the day than when most of the trouble has come over the past two days. Yesterday's flareup came at about 3 or 3:30.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gadget Gangster QuickVGA+ for Parallax Propellor

Gadget Gangster QuickVGA+ board for the Parallax Propeller Quickstart Board
Propeller Quickstart Add-Ons Galore

I mentioned that I picked up a Parallax Propeller Quickstart Board a while ago, and finally got around to playing with it.

Well, I've played with it a lot more now, in part thanks to a cool add-on board from an outfit called Gadget Gangster. I bought a Quickstart VGA+ board from them. It adds a nice VGA port (duh) as well a a PS/2 keyboard port (that's PS/2 as in the old IBM "Personal System/2", not Playstation 2), a stereo audio output, and a Wii Nunchuck port (or the classic controller can go here.) All on one little business card sized board, that fits right on top of the Parallax Quickstart board.

It's a nice combination of features. It's also got places for adding an SD card connector (which I've done), an IR port, and a composite video port.

There's a Pocket Mini Computer project built around this board, that's sort of a C-64 retro-clone kind of system. I look forward to trying that out some time when I get tired of playing with the Wii nunchuck as a raw sensor in software.

One note about that...

The nunchuck software that Gadget Gangster recommended didn't work right out of the box. I've posted na updated version of the nunchuck demo software at the Parallax Propeller Object Exchange, the place where Propeller users post their software for others to modify and use. I modified the demo to use the correct I/O lines for the QuickVGA+ board, and I added a bit of code to make it more clear what's going on with the accelerometers in the nunchuck.

Next, I'll be building up my Gadget Gangster QuickProto board, which came in a bundle deal with a QuickStart board (so, yes, I now have two Quickstart boards. And I ordered one for my daughter, too.

Pennies from Heaven
That's not all the Propellers running around the house, as it happens. While we were at the Parallax Robot Expo, my daughter and I picked up some stuff off the Free table. Among those items were a pair of slightly used Propeller Proto USB boards and one one-off PCB Propeller board that appears to mainly for servos. My daughter has one of the Proto boards and I have the other, as well as the one-off PCB.

I've already added PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports to my Prop Proto board, as well as a composite audio/video adapter. I have plans for this board...

I also found an early rev of the Parallax QuickStart Proto board in my bag of goodies, which I'm planning to use to put a sort of Elf II I/O interface on a Quickstart board. A hex keyboard, a pair of hex displays, some control switches, and hey-ho it's 1977 all over again. :)

Bottom line on the Propeller: It's heaps of fun to play with. Quick and easy. I keep thinking I ought to stop and read the documentation, but it hasn't been necessary, yet.