Tag Archives: Jef Raskin

Canon Cat

Clip from Canon Cat Advertising Materials

I’m not sure why there has been a spate of tech news artcles about the Canon Cat recently, but it’s really refreshing to see. I assume it started because someone spotted this nice document dump, and the tech news world is an echo chamber.

Many of the articles note that the manuals and such come with (mostly) complete circuit designs, but they miss the other interesting bit of technical openness – Cats were running a totally introspective user accessible software stack written in a dialect of Forth. In addition to having a UI that is still a popular example for application specific computing devices, it was also user programmable/modifiable almost down to the hardware. I’m not a fan of Forth, but it demonstrates that 1. It is possible to make an embedded computer programmable without interfering with its UI model, and 2. It is possible to design introspective systems which are usable, which are right in line with what I want to be doing with myself next, and totally out of line with current trends in computing. It brings to mind Alan Kay‘s work, or a more reasonable LISP machine.
The other reason I’m fascinated by the Cat is that it manages to make a completely modeless text editing system, and its development spawned several papers (in the linked documents) on the topic. I despise implicit modality in user interfaces (this is why, despite having all kinds of wonderful features, the traditional progammer’s editors just end up making me furious), and good through theoretical and case studies supporting that stance are a beautiful thing.

That dump is slightly different collection of Canon Cat materials that I put together when I was curious after reading The Humane Interface a couple years back. I’m still integrating the collections, but there seems to be some different stuff in each – piles of arbitrary format documents are hard to diff, especially when there is no name correspondence and some are binary formats. I think there may be enough material in the various available sources that, given access to an operable CAT and a reasonable digital lab, it would only be a large 10s/small 100s of man hours of work to emulate or even hardware simulate one.
I’ve never (actually, I think I ran into one as a kid but did’t know what it was at the time) had a chance to play with a real Canon Cat, and owning one would be a mixture of all the standard problems in owning vintage computing stuff – they’re expensive and collectible, and like most computers of the era, bulky and fragile, and they require problematic media… but I would still probably get one if I had the chance for a reasonable price, because they did so many interesting things right. More and more I think CS/EE programs should include (probably just as an elective) proper History of Computing courses – if my intended life pattern continues, I may even get to teach one for a while. I think it would be a blast for all involved.

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The Raskins

I always enjoy reading things by the Raskins, both Jef, and his son Aza.  The latest article making the rounds is The Mac Inventor’s Gift Before Dying: An Immortal Design Lesson for His Son, which is a charming story about the mindset that makes them both so interesting.  There is an ever present bit of pretentiousness and excess verbosity to both of their writing, but between their overt self-awareness of the behavior, and my own writing having many of the same properties, it rarely bothers me.
The really interesting thing in stories about Jef, and his own writing is hearing what the prime mover for the direction of computer interfaces for the last thirty thinks went wrong, especially with regard to things he was directly responsible for – it helps remind me that the currently dominant interface paradigms are the result of a long evolutionary process with lots of missteps, not some sort of manifest destiny.

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