The Houston Astrolite – a Marvel of Early Technology

I’ve started a list of things that should be in the Smithsonian Institution but aren’t. So far I’ve got one thing: the original scoreboard in the Houston Astrodome.

The Astrodome was the very first domed stadium anywhere in the world. I remember well when it opened and the formerly-named Houston Colts moved there. Houston was at the centre of the space age and “Astro” was a fitting name for the team and their futuristic dome.

The grand opening featured Judy Garland, whose act was opened by the Supremes, and an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle hit the very first ever home run indoors, and the Yankees went on to win 2-1.

In the early Astrodome days, the field had real grass, a special variety that grew well indoors. Then they discovered that the glare of the sun was causing problems for the outfielders, so they painted the glass, which caused the grass to die. So the first-ever artificial grass, Astroturf, was installed. Astroturf was so expensive they decided to only install a bit at a time, and ended up painting the dead grass around it green!

In other things Astro, the scoreboard—a gargantuan assembly four stories high and a football field wide—was installed, and they called it the Astrolite. It is hard to find any information on this piece of circuitry, but I was able to discover where it contained thousands of light bulbs of several different colours, forming a huge display driven by a control panel that took 6 people to operate. A Fitbit likely contains more electronics than it did, but for 1965 it was very advanced. It produced amazing pre-programmed animations, including a 40-second sequence than ran whenever the Astros hit a home run. It could also be programmed on the fly to mock opposing teams, with Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher a favoured target. (Durocher later turned the tables by becoming Astros manager and started using the scoreboard for his own messaging.)

I managed to find a few pictures of the control panel, so I then went searching for images of similar panels on computers of the day—IBM 360s, Digital Equipment 1130s and the like. None of their pictures looked anything like the Astrolite control. Then finally, I found out it was a custom job by Fair-Play, a manufacturer of scoreboards from Des Moines Iowa. No IBM or DEC computer, just their own custom console.

To my knowledge, only one Astrolite was ever manufactured, a truly unique computer. Then in 1988, it was taken down to make room for more seats. (It was so huge that it vacated enough space for 15,000 seats.) Alas, it will never make it to the Smithsonian, as it was simply hauled away to the scrap heap. Not that it would fit anyway, but it’s a shame that it wasn’t kept somewhere. I have no knowledge where the control panel went; it too likely suffered the same fate.

Which may in fact be the fate of the Astrodome itself. No longer used and condemned by the fire marshal, it’s a building the people of Houston are debating whether or not is worth fixing.

Click on the links below for videos of the Astrodome, filmed when it opened, and showing an interesting account of a building that was truly remarkable in its day, with glimpses of the Astrolite and its control panel. YouTube also has links showing the animations, which were very impressive in a day so long ago that the Supremes were still an opening act.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mu8IXKd46g

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLY83kvIBDA

(Special thanks to my brother, Alban d’Entremont, Professor Emeritus at the University of Navarra, Spain and the biggest baseball fan in Europe, for his help in researching this topic.)

Introducing Visual Studio Code

Given the buzz in the air around this year’s Build conference, you may have missed their announcement on releasing a brand new code editor called Visual Studio Code or VS Code for short.

Why should you care? Simply put, this is an editor designed and optimized specifically for working with code.

I am a bit of an editor junkie and have used many (an actual screenshot of my task bar below):
my-editors

From left to right, that’s Brackets (from Adobe), Visual Studio, VS Code, Atom (from GitHub), Sublime Text and Notepad2.

I tend to switch between them choosing the right tool for the job. Lately, that has been VS Code. I really like what Microsoft has delivered. Not only is it cross platform (Winnows, Mac and Linux), but it’s finely tuned specifically for working with code.

This is only a beta release, but I would not let that stop you from installing it and taking a look at it. In the last 3 weeks, they’ve delivered two major updates as the team works towards their 1.0 release.

To find out more or download a copy (it’s completely free and open source), visit code.visualstudio.com.

Microsoft Cloud has Familiar Look-and-Feel

Kudos to Charles and Orin in our Technical Support team for having done a seamless in-house migration to Office 365. The event was carefully planned, the instructions very well communicated, and the execution flawless. Now Nicom doesn’t just install clients on cloud computing – we actually use it ourselves! (Always good to eat your own cooking, but with a server room and techs on hand, we didn’t really push too hard on getting this done.)

When we start getting into Office 365’s features for communications and file storage and sharing, we will start enjoying the benefits of cloud-based computing. We have a roomful of servers because that’s what we do, but many small businesses don’t, and can now have many benefits that once only businesses with servers could enjoy. And no need to worry about hard drive failures and power outages, or backups and software updates.

With its browser-based interface, Office 365 users are able to create and edit Word documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, etc. from anywhere in the world, and share them with other people. All they need is a computer with Internet connectivity.

Many vendors have cloud offerings. The advantage Microsoft enjoys is that billions of people worldwide already know their products, and their cloud offerings have a familiar look and feel, as well as common features. Their integration between cloud-based products and on premise software is also very natural and seamless.

 

Being Productive in Spite of the Weather

In the middle of our last winter storm, one of our customers called in a panic that they could not get in the office and wanted to know if we could do an important update for them. Which of course we did. But here’s the interesting part: our office was also empty on account of the storm. Their call was redirected to Leanne’s cell phone, and she got online and emailed Ryan, also stranded at his home, who logged into the server remotely and did the required update. At Nicom, we have a policy of providing free high-speed home Internet to our employees, but the trade-off is we expect them to still be productive in a storm. All it takes is a little preparation (and for the power to stay on).

 

Phones “Smart” Except for Making Calls

My smartphone is smarter than me, and it was rubbing it my face over the weekend. Firstly, in Nova Scotia I now have to use 10-digit dialing even for local calls, 11 digits (including “1”) for long distance calls, and 12-digits (including “9 to get out”) when I am calling from the office, except of course only 11 digits from the office for local calls (including the “9” but not the “1”) or when I’m calling from the office using my smartphone, which used to be able to figure it all out from 7 digits but now needs 10 or 11 but never 12.

But I’m not stupid, I usually get it right after three tries. All I have to remember is “where am I?”, “what phone am I using?”, and “where is the person I am calling?”. I’m working on a flowchart to make it easier.

So I did finally get the call out and left my smartphone phone number with their voice mail. Except I had left my phone on the charger and stepped out when they called back . When I returned, my smartphone cheerily let me know I had voice mail, so I went to the phone app to retrieve it.

Only my “Voice Mail” icon had disappeared.

It was as gone as the Hamilton Tigercats. There was an icon for me to call home, one to call my wife on her cell, and one to call my daughter, all with a single tap. (Except the last time I tried any of those, the call didn’t go through because I had the wrong number of digits. Sheesh!) But the spot for retrieving voice mail with a single tap was empty. I tried restarting the phone app. Nothing. I tried restarting the phone. No joy there either. I finally appealed to our office administrator who told me how to retrieve voice mail from an ordinary phone. (For you youngins, “ordinary” means one that is attached to a wall via a wire, and does nothing other than phone calls.)

After three tries, I finally reached the voice mail system and was able to retrieve my message, and after three tries was able to respond to it.

Who knew using the phone could be so hard? I finally did find out how to reinstate my voice-mail icon. It was buried deep in my “options”, which I could swear I never touched. But who would believe me. I probably did get rid of it inadvertently one day trying to tap 10 or 11 or 12 digits correctly and hopping all over the place with my fingers and thumbs.

These devices are great for texting and getting football scores, but they could make phone calling a bit easier. After all, they are called “phones”.