Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee & the Albrae Street–Taiwan Connection”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

Here’s a bit of history: Intel introduced the 16-bit 8086 CPU in 1978. It was a tad expensive, and soon followed by the cheaper 8-bit 8088. These little gadgets put mainframe logic in a tiny, affordable package. And soon garage wizards figured out how to build full computers.

IBM jumped on it and did the world a big favor: they invented “Open Architecture” with the release of the first IBM Personal PC. A simple design, freely publicized, it opened the door to anyone who could assemble: a motherboard with BIOS, expansion slots, and controller chips; an 8088 CPU; some memory; keyboard; monitor; and floppy disks for storing data. No big deal.

The floodgates opened. Everyone who assembled electronics brought out “IBM compatible” PCs: Zeos, Tandy, Compaq, Packard Bell, AMD, Gateway, H-P, Wang, TI, Sanyo, and – of course – Dell.

For the first time, there was a “free market” for computers. Good? Well, almost. Everyone wants to make money, and the industry had a “price point” of about $1000. You could save a few bucks by buying from Dell or Zeos – but only a few. So “IBM clones” were cheaper, but not that much.

This tidal wave rolled over The Valley, and entrepreneurs started “White Boxing”: building clones from parts at discount prices. The heart of the White Boxing “industry” was Albrae Street, a small street of storefront-warehouses combos, like mini strip malls, right near the mud flats of San Francisco Bay.

DiskDriveThe local “computer press” (like “Computer Currents”, free at the 7-11) ran huge ads, offering PCs for $700 or so. Still too much for the true geeks who thought “If they can assemble one, then I can, too.” So they descended on the White Boxers, not for PCs – but for parts.   I know – I was one of them.

We haunted the warehouses, hunting bargains. And found that even parts could be “cloned”. (Whether or not this was legal is not a priority with geeks.) For example, when you wanted a 5-inch floppy drive, you could buy a Shugart or Memorex (the same as IBM used), OR – – – – you could buy a “knock-off” with no label and manufactured in Taiwan for much less. But, hey, it still worked.

Enter Mr. Yee – who soon became The King of the Bay Area parts empire. Mr. Yee sold full-size clones, with name brand parts, at good prices, and clones with no-name parts at even better prices. His whole extended family worked back in his warehouse, and could assemble a PC in minutes, “burn it in” that night, and you pick it up tomorrow. (I suspect that they all lived back there, too, but parts were cheap, so Immigration can mind its own business.)

Parts – that’s where Mr. Yee shined. Whatever you needed – Mr. Yee had one cheap. No name, no label, but it always worked just fine. Truth be known, this was the beginning of the end for “Made in America”.

I saved up, bought parts for my first PC, and Mr. Yee threw in a copy of DOS and an x86 assembler. A few hours with tools, and it ran. I got a copy of Lotus 123, some utilities, and started on the road to expertise.

A few months later, my son Ken returned from a summer internship at the Oak Ridge National Labs where he had worked on Cray supercomputers, wanted his own computer (not a Cray), and had been saving up. Not impressed that his old man had actually built a PC, Ken preferred one “professionally assembled”, so off to Mr. Yee. Ken went first-class on his order: a full 640K of memory and, as I recall, it was a turbo-chip 8086 which could shift up from its usual 4.7 Hz cycle to a screaming 8.0. The frosting on the cake: a 1200 baud modem.

Those days are gone. Today few users can change a battery. No one has any tools, and help and advice comes by phone from someone in a different country. We used to grow our own food, fix our own cars, sew on our own buttons, and build – and “burn in” – our own computers. Have we evolved? I’m not sure.

 


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Frys.com Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

 

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Frys.com Sold Pork Chops”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

If you’ve been to California you’ve seen one of the Fry’s Super Stores. They’re fun to shop, with a huge selection of electronics. Or maybe you bought from their web site?

PorkChopsHere’s a little story. When I moved my family to The Valley, there was a Fry’s Supermarket less than a mile away – walking distance. Smaller than Safeway or Alpha Beta, with good prices and open 24 hours a day, so groceries were close to home.

Fry’s, a family-owned company, had about 10 of these stores in The Valley, and several brothers and sisters ran it. Back in the 70’s, one of the siblings was also a computer fan, and decided to test out a new section in one Fry’s market, down on the Lawrence Expressway. And this section was to be stocked with stuff for true computer aficionados, in between the grocery aisles. It soon became a favorite destination for all computer nerds.

I heard about this, had to see it, and one Sunday, since we needed stuff for dinner anyway, I loaded the family into the Jeep and headed for the Lawrence Expressway.

ChipsArriving at the “new” Fry’s was pure heaven for a computer nerd. Oh, it was still a true supermarket, but there were aisles full of “stuff”. (Bear in mind there were no ready-made PCs. Whatever you needed, you made.) And Fry’s had bread boards, wiring, chips, power supplies, connectors, memory, resistors, CPUs, and tools. Anything you needed to build your vision. (I never ran into Steve Wozniak, but I have no doubts that he was a frequent visitor.)

The family went separate ways. My wife had a grocery list, my youngest son found the aisle with comic books, while my oldest son started perusing the electronic stuff. (This should have given me a clue that he would soon be drawn to computers.) I marveled at a Zilog Z80 – although I wasn’t quite sure how or what I would do with one. But I did find a memory chip that I needed, and put it in the cart.

We left for the day with enough stuff for an evening barbecue: ground sirloin, buns, salad stuff, gallon of milk, 2 comic books, and a 2 mb memory chip. And then went back to search for my oldest son, still perusing the logic section.

So it was a fun stop.   But also a go-to late-evening stop for Valley denizens who were inventing the next generation of electronics. Because it was open 24 hours, at 2 to 3am it was haunted by garage inventors who needed a power supply, bread board, or a handful of connectors. Why wait until the next day? And to fuel these up-all-night pioneers, Fry’s had the junk foods needed to keep them going. Stuff like high-caffeine sodas and Slim Jims. Remember Jolt Cola?

Many years later, I walked into a spanking new Fry’s store near my home. Boring! Just another big PC store.    And a boring crowd debating which mouse was better and asking for the free Windows T-shirt.

Much time has passed, and Fry’s has 2 kinds of stores now: food markets and computer bazaars. But I often wonder. What ideas were born in that one old Fry’s on the Lawrence Expressway? The Altair, the Adam, or the PET computers? Did Steve W. come by for solder and a Jolt Cola? Did some guy tired of floppies come up with the Quantum, Maxtor, or WD hard drive? Or the Hayes or 3Com modems? Did Adam Osborne stop by during a long night of development? But like the apricot orchards, it’s long gone.

 

 


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Frys.com Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

We think we know what “geek” means. Wrong! We believe anyone who downloads “apps” to a pad or tab is a geek. Or kids who download free “hacks” (posted by genuine hackers) are hackers. Wrong again.

Geek-dom is an evolution. When I traveled and wrote about The Valley – and when I moved there with my family – I met the real thing: folks who invented geek-dom. Here are some of them. (Yes, I have changed names and identities.)

geekThe Ice Cream Man: I noticed this at a software development facility – every day at 2 o’clock, an ice cream truck rolled into the parking lot and a mob of programmers met it like a “Star Wars” opening. Curious after he left, I strolled through the coding department – and discovered the engine that drove operating system development.   Windows were open and the air was fogged and pungent. In a minute, I was pretty high myself. “Okay”, I thought, “now I know why I have trouble reading code.”   Argue if you will, but the OS always worked just fine. When I visited similar spots, guess what — an Ice Cream Man.

Today, we have a DEA. Because of that, I think OS’s don’t work as well (Microsoft sends hundreds of patches a week). That’s because the Ice Cream men are gone.

Beatrice the Micro-coder: not many of us micro-code. Yes, we write programs, high or low level, forgetting that control chips are also programmed. Chips and controllers have tiny programs supplying logic. Compact stuff, this is written in languages close to pure binary. Even X-86 hotshots are stumped.

Beatrice was the star. She thought in binary. I can’t verify this, but it must be so because she rarely conversed with her fellow beings, except for one-word answers. But all of her controllers worked.

Being a star, she could be odd. She never wore shoes – summer or winter, only seemed to have one outfit and – this is a guess – only bathed in months without an “R” in them. (A good reason for limiting conversations.) She also brought pets to work – sometimes cats or strange creatures.

Gregory the CPU Genius: multi-degreed from Cal Tech, he was a true logic genius. He designed internal CPU logic and, like Beatrice, seemed to think in binary. I say “seemed” because he rarely, if ever, spoke. (There being no verbal equivalent for “XOR”.) In engineering meetings he scribbled notes, and silently passed them to the engineering director. If he scribbled a lot when you spoke, you were probably wrong.

His daily dress was in Hong-Kong casual style, with black smock and cloth slippers. I never saw the slippers wet, so he didn’t go out on rainy days. He might have lived in his office.

That said, here’s how to recognize a genuine geek:

  • They don’t brag – having no interest in talking with ordinary mortals who can’t understand.
  • They don’t wear T-shirts with funny slogans. Those mark pseudo-geeks.
  • They can think in binary or assembler. Anything else loses something in translation.
  • They often smell bad. Not to be offensive, mind you. Hygiene is just low on their task list.
  • They rarely “hack”. Everyone else’s code is child-like – they prefer their own.
  • They ignore your new iPad as it’s too damned inefficient and retarded.
  • They don’t wear Birkenstocks, leaving them to tree-huggers. Having no logic, trees are boring.

 


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Frys.com Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

 

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “The First Wave of Characters”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

TV gigs like “60 Minutes” show life in The Valley today. Everyone chuckles at bearded Google programmers with bicycles by their desks, environmentally correct sandals, and the engineering gang drinking macrobiotic smoothies.

But these are kids! Newcomers! Freshmen! Squatters writing game code for adolescents in an arena whose history they don’t comprehend. The Valley is an arena, an arena built on blood and grit, by a bunch of tough, smart, future-seeing characters, not afraid to get their hands dirty. They took apricot orchards and turned them into the electronics industry.

Valley_machineThe 70s: I was a mainframe systems engineer turned journalist, covering the computer industry for a publishing house. New companies sprung up: DEC, General Automation, Microdata, Qantel, Basic Four, Four/Phase, Nixdorf, Lockheed, NCR – and more. I wrote about them, and I was welcomed in their offices. And most were in The Valley.

I had a great opportunity to meet some of these characters who shaped the industry. Were they my pals? A couple of them became that. But mostly I’m just pleased to say I met them.

Regis McKenna – You never heard of him? But you know Apple, Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, Intel, and Lotus. Regis is a marketing and advertising genius. Neat inventions need a market. Regis made Apple and Microsoft household words. (Bill G and the 2 Steves had ideas – Regis sold them.) I met him at his office in Palo Alto, trying to sell ads in our magazines. We didn’t. But I had a chance to interview the man who knew where the computer industry could go and HOW to get it there. He was generous about sharing his vision. I doubt he remembers me – but it I’ll remember him.

Gary Kildall – he never bought an ad from us. But Dr. Kildall did two critical things that made the whole industry possible: he invented the BIOS – Basic Input Output System. (It boots up your PC.) Then, he invented the Operating System.   The first was CP/M, the forerunner of DOS. Companies as big as IBM used CP/M. And Dr. Kildall invented it in his garage.

Dick Pick – CP/M and DOS were ground-breakers, but only geeks like me understood them. Dick created a full operating system called PICK (still in use today) that looked like – well, English. No weird codes, and programmers could use: add, subtract, write, compare, input, and print. We never did sell an ad to Microdata, but I’ll remember Dick Pick.

Jim Fensel – Jim knew everyone in The Valley. He ran a small marketing firm, but put together big deals. Software guy needs a hardware guy? Jim made the intro. Someone had a good idea, but couldn’t afford Regis McKenna? Jim knew who to see and get it done. A great find for a writer, and any time I needed a story, Jim knew of one. I came to rely on his tips and we became pals. In fact, every few years, we’d get together on something. We even put together a product deal about 20 years after I had met him. Sadly, I’ve lost touch. Life works like that. But somewhere in The Valley, Jim is putting together a deal.

Doug Baker – a Canadian hockey player who moved South, Doug was a true visionary. He knew computers were useless without programs, and that business programs needed to be so generic that any company could use one. He worked as CEO of a little company called Basic/Four (now the giant MAI Basic Four) in Orange County, took small Z80-based systems, added an OS, and directed development of a set of universal business functions, written in BASIC, that most companies need. And – Wow! – up to 4 users could work simultaneously. Result: the “turnkey” system. A rush of competitors started doing it too – and this was the way the industry went. I was fortunate to work for Doug in later years and I learned this – if Douglas K. Baker said “here’s where it’s going”, that IS where it went.

There were so many more: engineers, programmers, marketing guys, promo guys – all builders. Guys like: Al Cosentino at MAI, Harry LeClair at Tab Products, Adam Osborne, Don Schnitter, Gene Sylvester, Jerry Cullen, Bo Frederickson, Noel Kyle, Mike Dakis, Dallas Talley, Jim LeBuff, – my memory is over-flowing. I’m the richer for having met them. They built the foundation, they made it happen, they were the first. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other kids – they owe these pioneers a debt they can never pay.

 


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Frys.com Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part I: “The Way it Was”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

Few people know this: Silicon Valley wasn’t always its name. Nope. It used to be: “The Valley of The Heart’s Delight”. Nothing to do with printed circuits, web pages, iMacs, Google, or the Cloud. No – it was the apricot capital of the world.

I moved there in the 70’s, with my family, just when it was slowly acquiring that new appendage – Silicon Valley.

SV_ApricotsUntil Hewlett and Packard started doing electrical things in their garage in Palo Alto, the Valley was a giant apricot orchard. You see, the Valley is a bowl, surrounded by the Santa Clara Mountains on south and east, and the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west. While San Francisco, 50 miles north, is cold and foggy, the Valley, protected all year long by the hills, is 20 degrees warmer than SFO, and sunny – in short, the perfect apricot climate.

Ringed around downtown San Jose, the Valley’s hub, companies like Dole, Libby, and Heart’s Delight had huge canneries. Empty 6 months of the year, during the summer and fall when the ‘cots were ripening, they came alive. With the harvest, thousands of migrant workers came in for the picking. The canning and packing was done by mostly local help who worked part time for those months of the year. And the factories spewed out train loads of canned, dried, preserved and juiced apricots.

In the spring, the Valley was beautiful. The trees started blooming, and everywhere you looked there were gorgeous blossoms. Places were named after them: Blossom Hill Road, Old Orchard Drive, and even a town: Blossom Hill. It was odd driving the roads and even the expressways. Here would be a tract of houses, and there a huge apricot orchard. Even the streets in the housing developments were often lined with apricot trees, making for a slippery walk when they were falling.

But – Wow – what a wonderful place to be in the spring. We lived at the far north end of the Valley, but close enough to enjoy it all.

How many apricots? I have no clue. But I do know that a few miles from my home, on the mud flats of San Francisco Bay, there was a charcoal factory. I couldn’t figure that out. Why build a charcoal factory where there aren’t any forests? Well, next time you eat an apricot, notice that half of it is in the seed. Little fruit, great big seed.

So, if you ship out 100 tons of canned apricots today, what do you also have? 100 tons of apricot seeds. You can’t eat them. Can’t throw them out, else the Valley would be awash in pits 3 feet deep. So – since they’re fiber – you dry them out, roast them, burn them in a kiln, and press them into charcoal briquettes.   And, you need a giant factory down on the mud flats to do it. Here’s a fact: for every pound of apricots, half a pound of charcoal. But then no one really wanted it known as “Charcoal Valley”. (Sound like a bluegrass song title?) So the factory sat a few miles north on the mud flats in Alameda County, and garden of beauty remained beautiful.

But like the Eden of the Book of Genesis, big changes were afoot. Man was coming. Binary man, AC/DC man, silicon man, logical man, and program man. They were on the way and nothing could halt the tide.

 


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Frys.com Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

 

A Texas Safari

A guest blog, by Charles Ritley

South Texas, East of San Antonio, is a giant cattle ranch: grassland chock full of quail and deer—and those who hunt them. While Californians discuss ways to save endangered species, Texans swap recipes for cooking them.

But hunting, like golf, is a socio-drinking experience. Guys form clubs that sub-lease tracts on the large ranches—-and build fancy clubhouses, with overnight accommodations, air conditioning, and satellite dishes. They co-exist well with the cattle, it’s extra income for the rancher, and the basic ground rules are: OK to shoot quail, OK to shoot deer, not OK to shoot cow. (But after you pay the rancher, you may keep the cow.)

Now, I don’t hunt. I did hunt when I was a kid, because everyone did. I was a trap shooter for many years and president of a trap club —- but in my later years I chose not to kill things.

But I had a client who wanted to go hunting. I knew a local business who had part of a game lease, and asked them to help. They set up a quail hunt on a big ranch, and I went along as my client’s bodyguard.

QuailThis hunt was a circus. They had a large 4-wheel drive truck with two chairs bolted to the front, where hunters sat, and two bolted to the sides. In the bed of the truck: extra passengers, the dogs, and their handler. Plus, it held 4 people in the cab. Periodically, when they passed a likely spot, the truck stopped, everyone dismounted, and the dogs were set loose to sniff out and flush quail.

(Now this whole thing made no sense to me. I grew up hunting birds. They have a very sharp sense of hearing. A quail can hear a truck this size when it’s two miles away. But, I withheld my advice. I was just another outsider.)

Eventually, the dogs would flush something, birds would scatter through the sky in all directions, and everyone would start blasting away. (Like London in 1940, but without the sirens and searchlights.)

GinThen everyone would pile back into the truck, where they had: 2 liters of gin, a large bag of limes, and a couple of jugs of tonic water, and proceed to make a round of Gin and Tonics. (One part gin, two parts tonic, one slice of lime.)

After several stops, about a hundred rounds were fired, no birds were harmed, and everyone had consumed at least one G-and-T per stop. At this point, my client—-a nice guy and a close friend—-said he wanted to come because he once sold shotguns but had never been hunting. But now he had enough. In fact, he was scared – really scared. So, I had a conversation with our hosts, but their engines were running, and they weren’t about to stop. So, the client and I just stayed close to the truck and out of what we believed to be the line of fire.

But then another problem arose: when the guys climbed back into the truck, some were full of gin and didn’t bother unloading their shotguns. Now, trust me, you do not want to be bouncing along a pot-holed trail in a 4-wheel drive truck in compound low, crammed into a cab with 4 guys full of gin and 4 loaded shotguns. You really, really, really don’t. So the client and I—-claiming we wanted a better view, jumped up into the bed of the truck with the dogs. The dogs, at least, were stone sober. And unarmed.

Shells

They got a few quail that day, and as I recall they were thrown away. Quail are good to eat, if you pick out the shot, and no one would do that. Eventually, the gin ran out and we headed home. The client and I fired a few rounds into the air, just to act like good ole boys, but I managed to do no harm to anything or anyone. The client, however, did manage to hit–quite by accident–some kind of little wild canary. It kind of exploded in this yellow poof. He felt rather bad about it.

 


 

This guest blog was submitted by Charles Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.

 

The Zen of Polished Chrome

A guest blog, by Arlene Ritley

We all want to be rich.  Being rich means living the good life.  Being rich gives us the freedom to go where we want to go and buy what we want to buy.  Being rich can and often does create a feeling of happiness or euphoria.

Sooner or later, however, we come to realize, whether consciously or subconsciously, that happiness and contentment is fleeting.  Happiness doesn’t last long.  We want this feeling to last a life-time but it truly is short lived.

Pearl S. Buck once said, “Many people lose the small joys in the hope for big happiness”.  How true.

I have found the small joy in my life that brings me continual happiness.

You are probably sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting to read what this small joy is.

I will gladly share it with you now.

New Faucets

IMG_0604[2]

You laugh.  You think I am a crazy old woman.  How can you find happiness in a new faucet?  But I do!

Keep in mind the last thing I see before going to bed is my new faucet.  I stand there admiring the newness, the shine and the sleek sensual look.  My spirits soar, joy bubbles up, and my outlook for tomorrow becomes positive.  I go to bed knowing that in the morning my friend the faucet will still be there shining light on a new day.

Day after day, night after night, for a short period of time I’ll feel rich and, yes, happy.


 

This guest blog was submitted by Arlene Ritley, an editor with the Island Moon Newspaper – one of South Texas’s largest community newspapers.