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February, 2014:

The WhisperCup


Ok. Yesterday I told you what the problem was. Today I’ll show you what I think will solve it. I looked around online and didn’t see anything like this, not that that proves or disproves anything. If the idea wasn’t out there before, well, it’s out there now.

I call it the WhisperCup. It consists of a specially equipped USB thumb drive, and a cylindrical well that matches the thumb drive’s special equipment. The cup provides power to the thumb drive via induction. At the rounded end of the thumb drive is a wireless connection of some sort. I don’t know precisely what; such things may exist already, and if so, all the better. I call it “ultra-short range” because all it needs to do is link data into the thumb drive from the bottom of the cup. Its range could be as little as a half an inch. Certainly it should quit before the wireless end of the thumb drive clears the top of the cup. It doesn’t have to shout microwaves; hence the name WhisperCup.

The drive itself adheres to the Universal Flash Storage standard, which incorporates an interface that might as well be SATA-on-a-chip. I’ve never much likes USB as a storage interface. UFS is faster and supposedly more reliable. Adding USB to the tang end isn’t difficult; all this stuff is jelly-bean logic now. Toss it in the cup and the volume mounts. If you don’t have a cup to toss the drive in, plug it into a USB port.

The proper place for the cup is built into the top panel of a tower case. If you don’t have such a case, there’s nothing wrong with an external WhisperDock with eSATA and a wall wart. (eSATA doesn’t provide power to its devices–big mistake, but we have to live with it.) I have a Thermaltake VB9 BlacX, and there are two toaster-dock style SATA slots in the top panel. Damned handy, though I mainly use them to do my monthly offsite backups onto naked drives. I’d gladly trade one slot for a pair of WhisperCups.

The thumb drive has no internal power source. If it’s in the cup, it gets power from the cup. If it’s in a USB port, it gets power from the USB port. I don’t want the damned thing whispering while it’s in my pocket. I want to emphasize that this isn’t anything like AirStash, which is a portable wireless Web server for file sharing. That certainly has its uses, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

That’s the basics. If you’re nervous about just dropping the thumb drive into a cup, you could line the cup with plastic bristles, which would both center the thumb drive and keep it in the cup until a firm tug yanks it out.

That would do it. No plugging into a fragile port. Put the drive in the cup, and you’re ready to go. If you take the drive somewhere that doesn’t have a cup, well, the wear is on their USB port, not yours.

What’s not to like?

USB Connectors Are Lousy

I finished Chapter 6 yesterday, and have only one more chapter to write. When I was exporting my Visio drawing files to .png for submission, I discovered that a figure I drew two weeks ago had gone bad. It went bad in a way I’ve seen before: It was smaller than similar figures…and it crashed Visio. That happened to another Visio drawing file of mine a couple of years ago, when the front-panel USB port on my Antec 900 case went intermittent. I’m guessing that the data connection opened up while the file was being written, and not everything made it from the Windows filesystem to the Cruzer Micro Skin on which the file was stored. This happened to another couple of files, most of them Word documents. In those cases, I found out before I did my weekly backups. This time I didn’t, and the bad file had already propagated to my backups and overwritten the intact copy of the file. I have a hardcopy and can probably redraw it in an hour or so. Mercifully, it’s not anywhere near as complex as some of the 79 other figures I’ve drawn for the book in Visio so far. But man, I don’t want to go this way again. The Thermaltake V9 BlacX case has worked very well for me since I first described it in this space. I don’t think it’s the case’s fault, nor the fault of the Antec 900 before it.

It’s the USB ports. And I don’t know quite what to do about it.

I’ve had a personal computer since 1979, and have trudged my way through generations of removable storage since then. Here’s the list:

1979: 8″ floppies

1982: 5 1/4″ floppies

1985: Original “cafeteria tray” Bernoulli box. (Tick…tick…tick…)

1991: Original Syquest 44MB cartridge hard drive

1995: SyQuest EZ-Drive cartridge hard drive.

1996: Zip 100

1997: Zip 250

1997: Jaz. Got rid of it almost immediately, went back to Zip 100s and 250s.

2004: Thumb drives

Trouble is, I don’t know what, if anything, comes next. The problem isn’t with thumb drives themselves, nor with the Flash technology inside them. Granted, MLC makes me nervous, and I’d pay extra for SLC thumb drives if they still exist. (I don’t think they do.) The problem is entirely with the crappy connectors on the front panels of modern PCs, and with how badly we’ve abused them.

The USB interface wasn’t designed with removable storage in mind. USB was intended for interfacing to things like printers and scanners, for which you plug a cable into the port on the PC and leave it there. IBM invented the USB thumb drive in 2000, and I bought my first one in 2001. They work beautifully, but plugging and unplugging thumb drives all day can’t be good for the thin shim stock from which the port’s electrical interface is formed. It may also put stress on the copper traces on the circuit board behind the port socket. However it happens, the damned things die, and when they die, they take files (and cases) with them.

We have to be able to do better than this. The obvious solution is to recess the ports behind a channel that aligns the USB plug and keeps it from putting angular force on the port–i.e., a wiggle suppressor. Alas, there’s no standard for the bodies of USB plugs, whether for printers or thumb drives. A recessed port would keep all those rubber duckie-shaped thumb drives from plugging in, and who knows what Federal intervention that would trigger.

There have actually been eSATA thumb drives for several years now, but because eSATA ports don’t provide power (big mistake!) you have to run a cable from the thumb drive into a nearby USB port. Furthermore, even if there were eSATA ports on the front panels of tower cases (I have yet to see one) I’m not sure that the physical port would fare much better than a USB port with constant plugging and unplugging over a period of years. The eSATA spec didn’t anticipate that either. Both USB and eSATA ports seem to be made of the same flimsy stuff.

Carol made a suggestion that is functional but not elegant: Find a short USB adapter cable with a male Type A on one end and a female Type A on the other end. Leave the male plugged into the desktop, and swap out thumb drives on the female end of the cable. I actually found a 40″ specimen in the bottom of my cable snake pit, and it works. Shorter cables of that species may be available. Needless to say, it looks like hell. Cables are cheaper than cases, though.

Now, a clever hardware hacker could build the female end of the cable into some sort of base that sits beside the tower and plugs into the back. I could see that. Can see that. Will see that.

When I do, you’ll see it here.

Odd Lots

The Weather Channel as Weak King

Back in mid-January, the Weather Channel went dark on DirecTV. There’s been a great deal of drama since then. Losing 20M viewers is one helluva kick in the crotch when you have, at best, 100M viewers and are struggling to keep the ones you have. If online comments can be believed, they’re bleeding eyeballs bigtime.

Carol and I are two of them.

I’m not a big fan of TV, which eventually turns everything it touches to crap. Carol and I never even had cable until we moved to Colorado ten years ago. The Weather Channel was a pleasant surprise. It was founded by John Coleman (of “thunderboomers” fame in Chicago) and Frank Batten in 1981. We appreciated having a detailed forecast with radar every ten minutes, and some of their people were inexplicably likeable, especially Mark Mancuso, Mike Bettes and Stephanie Abrams. We’d put it on during breakfast or anytime it looked like things were getting ugly outside.

In 2008, NBC bought TWC. That was the beginning of the end. They fired about 10% of their on-air staff, started airing content-free MSNBC news, began pushing weather/climate hysteria of every species every chance they got, and then…the coup de gras…went to the Reality TV Model. They weren’t the first; Discovery Channel and others had pounded that unmistakable path in the grass long before TWC ever found it. One lame series after another began airing anytime there wasn’t a storm that they could get breathless about. I almost understand “Storm Stories,” which at least had photos of things you’d just as soon not see every day, or maybe ever. After that, each season got weirder and weirder. “Turbine Cowboys” croaked early, because there are only so many shots you can get of daredevils repairing 100-foot-tall wind turbines. But…”Prospectors”? It’s “Duck Dynasty” with pickaxes. Now their big deal is “Highways Through Hell,” which is about roughneck Canadian tow-truck operators pulling semis out of ditches in the Canadian Rockies and getting in arguments. There’s no Local on the 8’s during any of these increasingly irrelevant reality shows. Nor, I’ll tell you with fair confidence, is there a great deal of reality.

That’s my big gripe. There are others. People online seem peculiarly agitated by TWC’s recent gimmick of naming winter storms. After Creon and Dion I was expecting Eon, Freon, Leon, Neon and Peon, and perhaps Xenon before this long, cold, ugly winter peters out. No luck so far. (After all the high-end mythological characters, the “W” storm is named “Wiley.” The hell?) Naming winter storms may be dumb. Getting upset about it is dumber.

The business model puzzles me a little. Is it cheaper to buy episodes about trash-talking Canadian truck drivers than just present the weather? Perhaps it is, once you lay out major cash for irritating New York celebrities like Al Roker. However, the people are on staff, the studios are paid for…where’s the win in reality TV? TWC seems to think that people turn on their TVs and sit down to watch The Weather Channel as a species of entertainment. For the most part, they don’t.

Anyway. DirecTV replaced TWC with WeatherNation, which resembles what TWC was when they first started out. The formula is simple: all weather, all the time. The cameras are on tripods rather than dollies, the studio is small, and there are no expensive celebrities. The computer graphics are good, and if I could get it on cable I’d wave bye-bye to TWC. I’ve begun to experiment with streaming video, now that our local Blockbuster has closed down. Said experiments have shown that I can stream WeatherNation, and once the new technology is all in place (more on which in an upcoming entry) I will.

Most of this wouldn’t even be worth mentioning at length if The Weather Channel had not begun to throw increasingly desperate tantrums, slandering DirecTV by name in house ads and claiming to be some sort of essential disaster management information service; i.e., if we don’t have a monopoly on weathercasting, people will die.


This is typical behavior of the Coastal Elite: We know what’s good for you, and if you don’t like it you’re an evil something-or-other funded by the infinitely rich Koch Brothers, or maybe the Illuminati. NBC has long had that sort of internal culture. I smell the presence of one or more Right Men–and maybe a few Right Women, though women are generally too smart for that sort of BS. Leaders earn our respect by acting with calm confidence. Calm confidence is what wins. Leaders who throw tantrums are the archetype of The Weak King. Once the tantrums start, those wooden-wheeled gallows carts can’t be far away.

What broke it all open for me was this video, which shows some guy acting like a Jack Nicholson-class psycho, tearing his DirecTV dish out by the roots and beating it with a baseball bat, until the neighbor kids run screaming and local mothers start to cover their toddlers’ eyes. C’mon. I’m supposed to flee back to The Weather Channel after seeing a revenge fantasy like this? Not fracking likely.

Being a strong king means taking your lumps, learning from your mistakes, and turning the situation around by setting ego aside and just making things work–all with calm confidence. In TWC’s case, this means dumping the unreality shows, firing Al Roker and Sam Champion, and just presenting the damned weather.

Sheesh. How hard could that be?

The Original Hard Disk

I know I have an original Bernoulli Box 10 MB cartridge somewhere. I saved one because I was sure that nobody would believe me when I waved this huge slab of plastic at them and said, “This holds 10 MB.” I think I was right. I won’t know until I find it. So I looked…

…and I found something else instead. See the photo above. Anybody recognize it? It’s part of one of the earliest hard drives in computer history. It’s such an old hard drive that it wasn’t even a hard drive. No. It was main memory.

I honestly don’t remember who manufactured it, though Sperry-Univac sounds familiar. (I threw out the case when we left Rochester in 1985.) I bought it at a hamfest for a couple of bucks just for curiosity’s sake; the old guy I bought it from said it was a hard disk, and I was skeptical. He was right, and it was probably fifteen years until Google allowed me to look for an explanation. I took the case apart and found a motor, a fairly heavy aluminum disk coated on one face with red iron oxide, and the assembly above, which has 160 magnetic heads in eight spiral groups. Roughly half the heads look like gray ferrite, and the other half like white ceramic. I’m guessing that the gray heads are write heads, and the white heads are read heads. (It could be the other way around.) The whole assembly is 9″ in diameter; the magnetic disk is 8″ with the outer 2 1/4″ coated with oxide.

So what we have here is a device that imposes 80 tracks on 2 1/4″ of oxide. The number of bits on each track remains a mystery. 1000? 2000? Somewhere in there, which suggests a total of 100,000 or perhaps 120,000 bits, which would provide about 16KB. This was RAM, not mass storage. The principle is basically the same as the magnetic drum memory systems that IBM sold with its vacuum tube machines like the 650. There were no moving parts other than the disk itself, and you can spin a disk faster than you can spin a drum. I’m guessing that the magnetic disk units like mine filled the (narrow) gap between magnetic drums and core memory. I’ve seen writeups indicating that magnetic disk storage was used for swap storage as late as the PDP 11/45 in 1972. The unit I have seemed a lot older than that.

One of the problems in researching a unit like this is that “hard disk” and “magnetic disk” have other, more modern meanings. So what needles may be are lost in the titanic haypile of newer technologies. If any of you know anything more about the technology send me a quick description or links, and I’ll post them in a future entry.

I had 8″ floppies in my first CP/M machine, and 5″ floppies in all my PCs until the 90s. I used SyQuest cartridge hard drives for years after my 1986-1992 romance with Bernoulli Box drives, which drove me nuts with their constant indexing of heads across the medium. (Tick…tick…tick…) The SyQuest cartridges spun fast and died young. There followed three generations of Zip drives, culminating in the monumentally awful Jaz. It was only in 2004 that I set aside moving parts in my removable storage, and began using thumb drives. I’ve had an SSD on my main system for eighteen months, and will be putting them in most of my lab machines as well, spurred by the need to get XP out of daily use here.

It’s sobering to remember: We’ve been spinning magnetic disks for what may well be sixty years now. We’re still spinning them, and we will be for another ten years or so at least. What other computer technology has been in wide use for that many years? Tape–maybe. That’s the end of my list.

Damn. That’s a lot of angular momentum. Will I miss spinning disks when they’re gona entirely?

Hah. Guess.