Links We Like: Restoring a Xerox Alto, Reconsidering Cyberpunk, & Investigating the Sony PYXIS 360

Xerox Alto Photo by  Michael Hicks

Xerox Alto Photo by Michael Hicks

This week’s Links We Like follow Ken Shirriff restore a Xerox Alto, reconsider the future as told by cyberpunk fiction with Darran Anderson, and teardown the SONY PYXIS 360 portable GPS unit with Dave Jones.

If you’ve found any interesting links this week, make sure to share them in the comments below, or in our forum. We’re always on the hunt for new links to get lost in. Have a great weekend!

Restoring the Xerox Alto

In the 1970s, a computer never sold as a consumer product influenced everything that would come after. From Steve Jobs to the engineers at SUN, the Xerox Alto inspired an industry with its innovative design, features, and vision for how we could use a computer in daily life. Yet, only 2,000 of these machines were ever created!

Though rare, there are still a few Alto machines around, though not many that are operational. Recently, Ken Shirriff, a prolific blogger who covers everything electronic –from Arduino projects to tearing open and analyzing the innards of an Apple laptop power supply– was asked to restore one of the extant machines and document the process.

The startup incubator Ycombinator (YC) had received the Alto as a gift from one of the machines creators, Alan Kay. Though Alto’s were never sold, Kay happened to still have his and knew that YC was interested in obtaining one.

Developed by a research team at Xerox’s famous PARC laboratory, the Alto was the first computer designed from the start to have a graphical user interface. Not only that, it had a mouse, removable storage, was outfitted with networking, and had WYSIWYG word processing. There are 13 separate circuit boards that make up the Alto, 3 of which are dedicated to it’s central processing. These boards and the power supplies are housed in the cabinet below the monitor.

Here’s a quick table of contents for all of the blog posts Shirriff has published about the Alto restoration.

If you’d like to actually try using the Alto, there is a nifty simulator called SALTO that’s pretty easy to setup and run. Just follow the installation instructions here. And, if you’ve ever gotten to use the Alto, please share your story in the comments below!


What Cyberpunk was and What it Will Be

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When you hear the word cyberpunk, most people immediately think of the rainy streets of a dystopian city. Crime is rife, large companies have taken over every part of daily life, and uber high tech proliferates. Everyone in these worlds has advanced technology. And yet the most advanced tech, the tech that not everyone has access to askews morality in favor of tech for tech sake.

Contextualizing cyberpunk, Darran Anderson nails it, “Cyberpunk was, and remains, noir brought into the digital age; the black and white reinvented in neon and then LED.”* He sees the crime genre of the 1940s and 50s upcycled with technology. But despite the new duds, the moral ambiguity and fatalism of noir persist.

In What Cyberpunk was and What it Will Be, Anderson exhaustively looks at the cultural influences of the cyberpunk vision of the future. The article begins with Anderson’s own first brush with the genre, Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher for the SEGA CD.

As he sees it, the game borders on a complete ripoff of Blade Runner. Snatchers is a story of a trench coat wearing detective trying to stop bioroids from killing people. Basically Blade Runner on a console. But there’s something more than just sloppy acts of plagiarism going on here.

As Anderson continues to investigate the genre, he becomes increasingly aware that a key component of the cyberpunk aesthetic is reappropriating cultural artifacts. From the grit and drizzle of the noir genre to the infusion of technology and suffusion of pink. Cyberpunk recasts the old as the future. A conjuror’s sleight of hand.

Mondo 2000 Cyberpunk Checklist

Mondo 2000 Cyberpunk Checklist

Consider the image above from Mondo 2000, an edgier predicesor of WIRED magazine. Oozing with cool, the cyberpunk taxonomy is laid bare with a checklist for aspiring cyberpunks.

But look closely. Not only is there a checklist in Mondo 2000 to test your cyberpunk merits, the very magazine where the checklist is published is an item on the checklist. The inclusion is in once sense a joke, but it also blares another cyberpunk tenet and one that William Gibson, author of Neuromancer famously observed in The Economist, December 4, 2003: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”


Retro GPS Fit for the Future

Sony Pyxis via vcfed.org

Sony Pyxis via vcfed.org


This week while looking up cyberpunk images to include in the post, I stumbled on the Mondo 2000 cyberpunk checklist above. Looking closely at the page, mostly to gawk at the fun old technology, I spotted a Sony product that simply looked wild: the Sony PYXIS IPS-360.

The PYXIS IPS-300 is an early portable GPS unit sold in the 1990s primarily for use in small watercraft. What details you can still find of it are mostly in boating community forums asking for tips on obtaining replacement parts.

But there’s just something about the design of the PYXIS that seems to interest people. It’s most likely the crazy flipout circular receiver and SONY Walkman-like appearance.

In his most recent Mailbag installment, Dave Jones, who runs the EEVblog, a great website and video blog that covers all sorts of interesting electronics topics with a vibrant communit, received a PYXIS from a fan hoping he’d tear it open and explain the parts. (What a coincidence!)

In the teardown, Jones finds that the PYXIS uses the Zilog Z80, an enormously popular integrated circuit (IC). You can find these chips in everything from the Game Boy to a Texas Instrument graphing calculators. Apart from a few other specialized chips, Jones also found that some of the ICs were hand soldered!

In addition to Jones’ video, the VCFED community and Retro-GPS.info have nice teardowns too, though only still images.

While you can’t find the PYXIS at your local electronics shop, you can find a couple floating around online for a couple hundred dollars.


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Have you ever used a Xerox Alto or found a underappreciated cyberpunk novel? Do you own a SONY PYXIS? Share your story in the forums or comments below. And if you’ve got a cool Linux tip or are working on any C.H.I.P. or PocketC.H.I.P. projects, make sure to tweet about them. Have a great weekend!

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