How I built my first computer

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Assembled FIGnition (right) shortly after boot (left, my Android tablet displaying documentation)

I just finished building a computer — a FIGnition single-board, 8-bit microcomputer kit. You can think of it as like the Heathkits of old, only about the size of a credit card and much resembling a Raspberry Pi.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The Raspberry Pi costs about the same as a FIGnition — US $35 — and is meant for education. Yet it comes preassembled because it is literally about 10,000 times more complex than a FIGnition (five orders of magnitude). On the third hand that grows out of the center of my forehead, I love the Pi and have two of them. They are modern computers and the FIGnition is not — at least, it doesn’t feel like one.

Why did I buy a FIGnition, then? I wanted something I could build myself that was simple enough to understand thoroughly. The fact it boots into Forth also attracted me strongly — a FIGnition is probably the closest thing I can afford to a Jupiter Ace any time soon.

It took me, a complete newbie at through-hole printed circuit board soldering, six hours over two days to assemble the board with the expert advice and troubleshooting of my friend Tim Schutz. Half an hour was then devoted to a break, per the instructions, and an hour to testing by eye and with a multimeter. (Tim advised skipping the hundreds of complicated meter tests in the instructions and focusing on the basics — it’s only a $35 kit computer, after all.) Total build/rest/test time was 7.5 hours. If you’re already an electronics person, it will take much less for you.

After testing the unit, we plugged it into an old CRT TV and powered it on. The FIGnition welcome screen flashed by too fast to capture with a camera, then the Forth prompt. (See the photo above.)

We plinked around with the built-in chord keyboard for a minute and then, after Tim left, I ran most of the diagnostics — everything was OK. I didn’t take the last step, upgrading the firmware, because there hasn’t been a new firmware version since 2012, and I didn’t want to risk pointlessly bricking something I had just spent almost eight hours building.

I plan to keep working with this device and learning about it. The website has a great little knot of pages called “Understand It” that explains many of the hardware and software details. I also plan to extend my Forth skills — most of which come from cursory work with Jupiter Ace emulators, Wikireader, and Open Firmware — just because Forth is an interesting language, not because I ever expect to get a job programming in it. I’ll also blog about it in whatever time I have left over…

Rubberducking with Benjamin Franklin

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As an early birthday present, my wife Marty got me a Benjamin Franklin action figure, which I have been using for rubber duck debugging my writing.

Turns out ol’ Ben is a good listener. Has a lot of good advice too. “Wise sayings,” he calls ’em. Just complaining and explaining to Ben that I don’t have a complete top-down structure for my book yet focused my wobbly gray matter to the point that I was able to generate two pages of notes on the topic.

I prefer Ben Franklin to a rubber duck for such exercises. My reasons are manifold. I have fond childhood memories of the episodes of Bewitched where they brought Ben into the Twentieth Century. In fact, during his life he said he wanted to be kept in a cask and awoken every hundred years or so after his death to be shown all the new stuff that had happened. Thus, I feel that as a magical time traveling proto-transhumanist, he would appreciate some of the games I’m writing about.

I need to find the time to create a page for this hack on the Mentat Wiki. Or you go ahead.