Monday, March 19, 2007

A Personal History of Computers

A chronological list of the computers I've worked with:

IBM 370/135 (1975)

A huge great thing taking up a large air-conditioned room, protected by an air-lock and copious tac-mats. Made a hell of a racket, but had flashing lights and everything. A proper computer, not the mamby-pamby stuff we have now.

Main memory was 240k. Yes. The huge disk drives with removable multi-disk platters that weighed a ton held about 30Mb each. The console was not a screen, it was a teletype thing, producing reams of paper with gibberish on it. Programs were loaded from Hollerith punch cards, see here.

more info on the IBM 370 here.
NCR 8500 Criterion (1981)

I can't recall any of the spec of this thing, neither was there a lady in white included with the one I worked on. At the time I was totally into the thing, I was a systems programmer, tuning the beast and writing apps too. It had less flashing lights than the IBM, but it did at least have a screen for a console.

The disk drives were large heavy things that spun very fast. To change a volume you pressed a button and waited for it to slow down and stop, then open the lid, screw on a big plastic lid thing and wrench it off. Once, I opened it up and put on the lid, only to find it was still spinning at full speed... I was lucky not to break an arm or worse. The engineer told me this was impossible, due to an 'interlock' that stopped the lid opening while the drive was spinning. I've never trusted 'impossibilities' since!
Commodore Vic 20 (1981)

My then boss bought one of these for games, but asked me to write an accounting system for him, so he could claim it as a business expense. It survived a serious car accident and eventually I did program a simple accounts app for him, which I seriously doubt he ever really used.
Sinclair ZX81 (1983)

I bought mine from a mate for 15 quid, with the 16k ram pack as seen here... which was a total pain... any movement and the thing would crash the machine. I did once type in a huge program only to be unable to save it to cassette. The flickering caused by typing (it couldn't take input and do output at the same time!) was horrible.

Eventually I swapped it for a flash gun for my camera, a good deal!
NCR Decision Mate V (1985)

A lovely bit of kit, I wish I had one now. Built like a tank. I wrote a game of Breakout on it in Basic.

See my other blog entry on this here.
Apricot Xi (1986)

I used this as portable machine, the keyboard clipped to the back of the main unit, which had an extendable carry handle. The screen was quite light and easy to lug around too. It had a small hard disk, and a neat feature, the keyboard had a little LCD display above some keys, so you could program your own functions for them.

Small, but perfectly formed, I used it to telework, writing Accounting software in UCSD Pascal.

Amiga 1500 (1991)

I won one of these in a competition in the magazine "Air Forces Monthly". It was worth around a grand at that time. It was just an ordinary Amiga 500 in a PC sized case, its only advantage being that it was expandable, not that I ever did add to it.

I amassed a huge amount of software for this thing, games and serious stuff. It was fun to program, using a Basic like language called, um, Amos I think.

Hard disks and their controllers were pricey back then, so I never did go beyond running everything on two floppies. The drives were maddening, slow and they used to click annoyingly when empty, trying to detect if a disk had been inserted, bonkers.

I still have it, it just about works, though it's packed away in the loft these days. Not that I'm a huge gamer, but the Amiga did run my favourite game of all time, F/A-18 Interceptor. Looks awful now, but at the time this was the most fun I'd had in clothing.
Compaq Deskpro 4/33i (1993)

At the time I got my hands on this, it seemed like the dog's whatsits. It had an 'overdrive' chip fitted to it eventually, making it go a tad faster. A simple, compact and sturdy design, it lasted for years, and still works to this day, the last time I tried it anyway.
Compaq Contura 3/20 (1994)

I got my hands on about four broken models of this, and from them built one working machine. They had variously been dropped, run over (!), and caught fire. But there were just enough components to make one fully working laptop.

Though the battery has long since dies, this mongrel still works. It runs DOS and Windows 3.1 quite happily, and it's tiny hard disk has 'Stacker' running on it to double (maybe) the space. Now hard disks are so cheap and so huge it's funny to think such software was once de rigeur.
Various dull PCs, Reseda, Pionex, Premier. Bring on the clones. Many anonymous (for which read 'cheap') IBM PC clones followed, with ever increasing speed and memory as various Windows versions attempted to eat the hardware advances.

It's all a con, isn't it? The better the kit gets, the more resources the O/S requires, just in case you thought you could sit back and enjoy a PC for a few years. Not a hope - read 'The Subliminal Man' by JG Ballard.
Compaq Presario SR1539UK (2005)

And here we are with my current PC. As of now, March 2007, (update - now replaced, see below) it's just over a year old and as usual that initial rapture of a new super fast machine with acres of disk space has faded... I guess I need to weed out the rubbish and re-install XP to get back the performance, but what a performance to do so, can I be bothered?

Bought for 800 quid from PC World, I see now that better spec'd versions these days are a lot less, but it has been ever thus. It has an AMD Athlon 64 processor, but such is my addled state and to be honest boredom with the hardware side of IT, this means little to me.

It works, it's quiet, it does the job. If you'd shown it to me when I was working on and IBM 370/135, I would never have believed such a device was possible, let alone that I'd own one.

(awwooooga, awooooga, 'old man' alert... enough already.
Fujitsu Siemens Pi2515 (2008)

I treated myself to a laptop. Well... I'd finally got wireless internet sorted out, and I thought, why not... they're cheap now.

And it was... just 400 quid from Dabs. It's got a whopping 250gig hard disk, 2gig of RAM, and the nicest screen you could ask for.

Naturally Vista renders it as slow as can be, though not unacceptably so. I suppose.

I'm trying hard not to load it up with all the usual rubbish that eventually causes Windows to grind to a halt, so far so good.

Hate the touchpad thing, but then hate them on every laptop. Battery life is 2 hours, which seems par for the course, but never, of course, quite long enough.
Packard Bell iXtreme X5620uk (2010)

So, the old Presario (see above) started to feel a bit slow, and my little boy needed a PC for homework, so I looked around for a new desktop. Did hours of research on t'internet and came up with a couple of options from Dell and somewhere else I can't recall.

Just happened to be passing a PC World, so dropped in and said to the salesman, "you won't be able to, but can you match this spec and price?", and handed him my wish list. Off he went. Came back with this thing, and he beat the price by 20 quid.

Hmmm... Packard Bell... didn't know if I liked the sound of that... But what the heck, so I bought it and it's been perfectly fine ever since. Quad core, 4 gig memory, 500gig drive, it's quiet, so far reliable - does everything I want. Has Windows 7 64-bit on it, which is a slight pain as quite a few programs don't now work, and I can't get drivers for a few of my older peripherals, notably from HP, see article moaning here.
Acer Aspire One D255E (2011)

All this talk of tablets, Kindles, iPads etc etc got me thinking that I needed something to sit next  to me on the settee of an evening, waiting for the inevitable everyday questions to come up that you can look up the answers to on Wikipedia. I.e. cheating during Eggheads.

But my fingers just don't seem to work touch screens. My son has a touch phone, I can't get the bloomin' thing to do anything.

So I looked at unfashionable Netbooks, and, having consulted recommendations in PC Pro magazine, plumped for this one. And, showing commendable patience I decided to wait until I could get it for £200, which eventually I did, from Okobe.

It's the dual-core version, and is cute as a button. It's not fast, but the battery life is fantastic, screen vibrant and I love it. And it's red. Somewhere else in this blog you'll find a full review - see here.
Advent DT2410 Desktop
with an AOC e2343F LCD Monitor (2012)

Not strictly mine, as I bought this for my son's Christmas present, and actually I've hardly used it, as he is on it the whole time! Cost 700 quid from PC World (now 650!), worked well out of the box, and has been trouble free now for many months. Came with Windows 8, was not overly burdened with crapware, and has come up to all my expectations performance wise. Runs all his games faultlessly. I am quite jealous of it. Maybe one day he will hand it down to me...
  • Intel® Core™ i5-3330 processor
  • Windows 8
  • Memory: 8 GB
  • Hard drive: 2 TB
Lenovo G580 Laptop (2013)

Purchased from PC World for a not unreasonable £400 early in 2013 after many weeks of on-line and in-shop research. With two small exceptions it has been a successful purchase, and I'm using it now to author this piece.

It's quiet, it runs cool, the display is excellent, performance (i3) is acceptable, all in all, so far, it's looking like a good buy.

The two exceptions are, one of the pieces of crapware that it came with caused Windows update to fail, and fixing that was quite hard. And it also (out of the box) loses it's WiFi connection for a couple of minutes after Sleeping. Took me ages to figure out how to cure that, and I'm not alone... see the many forum questions about this!

During my research I read many, many laptop reviews, and in a huge number of cases folk say, For: Great Screen (or something), Against: Windows 8 - over and over again. Having used this device for a few weeks, if asked, I would say exactly the same.. Windows 8 really is an annoying thing... Microsoft should be ashamed. And fix it. Quickly.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Just what is Number One?

The other night the Missus went to sleep, leaning against me, on our settee. (Ahhhh.) Anyway, the TV programme that had sent her off finally ground its way to some sort of conclusion, and I was left with the remote to hand, but unable to move without disturbing her.

So, I started flicking channels like you do. And like you do these days with the remarkable number of channels to choose from, I found nothing whatsoever of interest. And, just to give an indication of how desperate the choices were, I ended up on Ceefax.

Now I know that Ceefax is a sort of free lunch, in that it's a miracle you can get data to flow alongside your TV picture... but it really is awful, isn't it? In these broadband days, it's just beyond the pale. Anyway.
Looking through the menu options I picked out Music. And then the Charts. And it struck me, not for the first time, that I had absolutely no idea whatsoever of what was in the charts. And that I haven't known what the number one song is for... well... months... in fact, to be precise, since they stopped showing Top of the Pops.

Now, the day they cancelled that show there was much rejoicing from the other members of my household. Because, for them, it signalled the end of a sustained period of great grumpiness on my part.
No longer would they have to sit through half an hour of moaning every week as I gave my (almost always) caustic comments on the quality of the acts they paraded before us on the show. Bloody awful, 99% of it. You know I'm right.

But, blimey I miss it. Not because it was any good. No. But because it's part of life. Since I was a nipper, I've always watched it. When I was at school I'd record the charts in my diary. I'd know what the top five songs were, every week. When I was a teenager, Pan's People were just about the best thing on TV. You look back now and wonder why, but back then they were, and that's that.

And over the years (okay, increasingly rarely) there have been great TOTP moments. I've bought loads of CDs on the strength of a performance seen on the show. But key to the whole thing was that countdown. Just what was the most popular song of that day? It didn't matter that complete garbage managed the feat... bloody irritating frogs, talentless boy bands, Cliff Richard... the thing was you did know. Like the weather. You watch the weather forecast, it's not always nice weather, but you knew what to expect.

And now... I'm not prepared to go hunting around trying to find out who is number one... I just want someone to tell me at the end of half an hour of dross. I don't know why, I just do. Is it too much to ask?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song

This book is a hugely enjoyable read for anyone, like myself, with an interest in the Beatles and their oeuvre. Though it could be argued that close examination of their lyrics may detract slightly from the pure enjoyment of listening to the songs, I think after all this time to have new insights into their work is highly rewarding.
The author has tracked down at least an interpretation of pretty much all their songs here. Through interviews with people around at the time, and bringing together things said by the group during this period, there are quite a few revelations on what exactly they were banging on about.

He even manages to track down some of the subjects of their lyrics, for example the Lucy of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

The book is well written, well researched, and has some great pictures of the group.
It's not all gushing praise either, the author does tell it like it is about some of their less wonderful work. And it's interesting to read how often Lennon was dismissive of his own work on many occasions.

Highly recommended, 9/10, you could buy it here.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Kate Rusby - 10

Kate Rusby is simply a joy to listen to. If you'd said to me a few months ago that I'd be happily listening to olde English folke music, lyrics about cows and men conscripted to serve before the mast, and general old-world unhappiness, I would have thought you mad. But I am. And it's all down to Kate's voice and guitar.
I haven't looked, but I fully expect that other reviews of Kate say 'voice of an angel' somewhere along the way... because it's true. Made all the more appealing by the Northern edge to her singing. It's perfect for the songs she sings.

"10" is a compilation of moments from the first 10 years of Kate's career. The songs are all folk, and the production, singing and playing are beyond reproach.

I went to see Kate play live recently, and she can knock this stuff off live just as well as here on record, she is an extraordinary talent.
I can't praise this album highly enough. If you want to hear someone on top of their game and you like the folk vibe, buy this album, you will not regret it.

Highly recommended, 9/10, you could buy it here.

J.G. Ballard - The Complete Short Stories: v. 1

I don't normally take on books with nearly 800 pages. I know... I'm an amateur. But the truth is I find it really hard to keep my enthusiasm for a book up if it, um, overstays its welcome.

I'm currently reading all the Harry Potter books to my little boy, as a bedtime story. First book, if anything, too short. Second, about right, third - okayish, fourth - bit of a struggle, and now I find myself with number 5, ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") is way to long... again, over 700 pages. It's good... but it's getting to be a trial.
So, I was concerned about this book, but it turns out I shouldn't have been. I've sped through it, barely a dull moment, and immediately ordered the second volume.

J.G Ballard did write one of my favourite all-time books, the autobiographical "Empire of the Sun". And he's written a whole raft of interesting novels over the years. Here we have dozens of short stories, all written in the early sixties.
They are, in the main, not science fiction as such. But nearly all contain an 'other-worldliness' which I find quite remarkable. They take place in, perhaps, parallel universes, where things are very like the world we know... but not quite the same.

Several stories take place in "Vermilion Sands", a haunting and mysterious place. in fact, sand is a common theme in this collection. There are an alarming number of stories involving sand dunes stretching into the distance, the sea long gone, a theme thoroughly explored by Ballard in the 1966 novel "The Drought".

Ballard's stories all seem to be hot and dry. They are inhabited by men, mostly disturbed by something, seeking something, escaping something. They are superbly imaginative, beautifully told stories. Just occasionally they just stop inconclusively in that irritating 60's way, but the majority come to a satisfactory conclusion.

They are wordy. In fact, and I'm not kidding, I've ordered a little dictionary to have by my side while read the second volume, because some of his vocabulary is way over my head.

Ballard is a treasure. Here we have bite-sized morsels of his genius.

Highly recommended, 8/10, you could buy it here.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

How To Run The Country?

I think there's enough evidence now to show that democracy doesn't really work that well. I mean it's not awful, but it's far from perfect. There's been a lot of death and destruction to get us to democracy, which has been a jolly good thing to achieve, but is there any reason to rest on our laurels and not try to go one better?
In principle, democracy is absolutely fine. No arguing with that. However, there is one obvious flaw, and that is the people who do the voting. They keep getting it wrong.

Bush. Two terms in office. One term was carelessness. Two just shows the voters don't know what they're doing. Similarly with Blair, he seemed a reasonable cove to start off with (well, not to me, I never liked him) but it soon became apparent he was as bad as the rest, indeed possibly worse. When you're that dangerously self deluded, you really shouldn't be allowed near the reins of power.
So, how to make it better. You can see democracy in action these days most clearly in the ubiquitous TV phone in vote. All too often (but not always... there's always a fluke correct result now and then) the wrong person wins things like Big Brother or the endless dancing competitions.

And again on TV you can get to see the general public at their worst. The Jeremy Kyle Show is a good example. As a piece of entertainment it's hard to beat. I have to actively stop myself watching it, because once you've started you can't take your eyes off the screen. The participants are SO awful... basically it's a modern day freak show. But there's an endless supply of these people, and they've all got the vote you know.

In life, at every turn, you're asked to prove yourself before you're allowed to do tricky things. 'O' levels. 'A' levels, a degree before you can apply for a job. Interviews. Driving Tests. Applying for a loan.

How is it, therefore, that you can be allowed to vote without having to prove in anyway that your knuckles are not scraping the ground, and that there is at least a minimum number of brain cells buzzing around your noggin with which to make this important decision.

Okay, I don't know exactly how to test if someone is fit to vote, but I'm sure we could come up with something. Maybe we don't completely disallow the stupid from voting, just weigh their vote less. And I'm not talking about educational achievement here... no, we need to test someone ability to think it through. Some very 'clever' people may well fail the test.

Last night I caught a snippet of a program on Blair. Apparently president Chirac said to him that if he (Blair) continued to support the Americans and went to war on Iraq without the support of the UN, then little Leo Blair would grow up not thanking him for it. This stopped Blair in his tracks... but only momentarily. Maybe he should have thought about that bit of wisdom a little longer.

I realise hindsight is 20-20, but it seemed obvious that war on Iraq would end in tears. Maybe Blair, therefore, would fail my democracy test. Maybe I would. But if we thought the process out really well, we'd end up with a better government, I'm sure of it.

Democracy is great, but MORE THINKING is required. Don't you think?