A few days ago I needed a program. It was included in a compilation book ‘Numerical Recipes’, and the disk the program was on is ‘Numerical Recipes in C’. (C as in the programming language – other languages were available). I had purchased the disk, needed for the company I was working for at the time, over 20 years ago. Anyway, the disk I used from time to time was unreadable. I soon confirmed it was not the computer’s fault.

This was not the original disk, which was a 5.25″ 360k floppy disk – when floppy disks were Real Floppy Disks, and 5.25″ a minaturisation of the 8″ (and no doubt larger before that) but a copy made on a 3.5″ 1.44MB floppy disk – those in the hard plastic covers.

I am pretty damning about those hard cased 3.5″ floppy disks, especially the later ones. I refer to them as ‘write-only’ media. As that joke so often needs explaining, even to computer experts, I sometimes wonder why I bother…and in case… ‘Read only’ means that, the data can be read, but not edited or altered, whereas Read-Write means both reading and editing/altering. Write only is, of course, useless, the point of my joke, but all too often in the past I’d save data to floppy disk, then when I come to need it again (to ‘Read’ it) I find the disk corrupted or otherwise unreadable.

33MHz, oh, 120MB Hard Disk, I forget, state of the art PC {computer} circa 1992, with a 1980s monitor.

So I dug out this really old computer, as it had a working 5.25″ drive. As I got it going after years of somblescence, I thought, ‘Gosh, I remember when this was the new, latest thing, that you didn’t have time to make a cup of tea while it compiled the firmware’; it was that fast…and how slow it felt now. Mind you, the computer I am writing this entry on is 15 years old, and on its third reincarnation. Still the original Hard Disk as well, although there is a second one with rather more storage space.

After various interface sorting out, the display shown here proved to be dead so another one was lashed into service (the one shown has five BNC connectors as the video input, that was outdated when we got it, over 20 years ago), got it all running. Most importantly, I found the original ‘Numerical Recipes in C’ 5.25″ disk – kept in the inside jacket cover of the book. And it was readable (defying my predictions – but then it is a Real Floppy Disk). And it’s now copied and a copy on this hard disk as well. But I have the original, given how precious the authors of ‘Numerical Rec….’ are about copying even ye-olde versions.

The Book, the Disk, and the copy on Write-only media.

However, this is a near-miss example of what is happening every day. Information is being lost. In the good-old days, there would be paper brochures, manuals or whatever, so usually a copy would be at the originator, and if not, one lying around somewhere. All the time (if you are looking for such things), you hear of paper documents turning up – just consider the Radio 4 programme ‘Document’. But these days, information is all electronic, much easier to generate, and just as easily lost. I can think of many internet sites that have disappeared, and as likely as not, there is no copy left. The project to archive the internet seems to have ground to a halt – I’m not surprised, but there are times I really could do with an old copy of a website.

I could no doubt go on for a long time giving examples, and, of course, I cannot provide links because it is exactly my point – these random examples were on the internet, but no more:

The US Antarctic Survey used ‘A frame’ huts for many years. At the end of their life, they were put onto an iceberg to fall into the sea; but the New Zealand Antarctic Survey rescued one and used it for many years as a recreation hut. It eventually burnt down. Pictures that I didn’t copy showed the interior, and it looked really a rather nice place. So much so, given the fact I need another shed on limited space and one that I don’t hit my head on the door as I go in, I’m thinking of designing and making one in homage!

Only 'A frame' hut image I have left... saved from some website years ago...

I have a small length of solder, which is very special (even by this hoarder of solder’s standards); the emf [thermally generated voltage] of the solder is matched to copper, so that there are no thermal emfs generated at solder joints. Essential, or at least used to be, in some applications. Is there any reference to this solder on the internet? Rhetorical question. Certainly not on the website of Multicore Solders, the manufacturer, whose website I refer to as ‘fact-free’.(c.f. the phrase ‘Fat-free’ for diet foods)

To be continued.

Modern technology failing

February 5, 2012

I know I’m not a regular blogger, but was hampered by one of the two events of the week that has caused me a lot of trouble. My computer kept crashing.

This is my ‘new’ computer, which has been in use for less than a year, although I have had it for somewhat longer. This was because due to the computer’s own firmware, I was unable to install linux on it for some time (until a later version of linux had code to overcome the issue).

The ‘new’ computer had started to crash with frequency but irregularity, for no obvious reason, other than possibly the use of a lot of memory at that moment. But nothing obvious I could use as a clue.

The result of this – the forth commissioning of the ‘old’ computer. The first recommissioning (the second commissioning) was done to this, already old and second-hand computer in 2002, when it became the ‘remote’ company computer at parents house when I was looking after my late Father while my Mother was in hospital. My Father had early-stage Alzheimer’s at the time, which is why someone had to be with him all the time, and it fell to me as the unmarried child.

The next commissioning was when the main SCSI computer’s main hard disk died, in about 2008. By that time, SCSI technology and been and gone, so there was nothing available to replace the dud disk, so the by this time already aged computer had another commissioning. It was supposely retired for the third time in March last year.

But it’s been brought back into service due to the failure of the ‘new’ computer (also referred to as the atomic doorstop, which is effectively what it has been for much of its life), and while no data has been lost, the age of this venerable computer means that installing all the relivent back-ups has taken a lot of time (and is still continuing – not ‘on-going’).

The next thing to go was my ‘new’ mobile phone – 15 months old. It has a touch screen, which I found useful for one purpose only – the qwerty keyboard it could produce for writing text messages. Without the working touch-screen, as I found out, the only thing that one could do with the phone was receive a call – and not even pick up voicemail.

So, can you guess, I recommissioned my ‘old’ – previous – mobile phone. This one had died once, prompting the emergency purchase of the ‘new’ one, but with a subsequent firmware upgrade via the internet, it sprang back into life, and was kept mainly as a camera, as its camera had flash. I have discovered that flash is rather a rarity on mobile phones, yet the things I want the camera on the phone for all so often require flash.

I even have an older mobile phone than that – the one I refer to must be at least ten years old now, which I keep in the car. Its great virtue is that it can be operated from standard ‘AA’ batteries, so I keep those in the car as
well. It’s just a pain that a brilliant (in more than on sense of the word) LED torch, that is worn on the forehead, and has already been used for one car repair in the dark – what a godsend it proved – uses ‘AAA’ batteries!

I’ve tagged this entry with ‘dumbing-down’ really on the basis of things not being made now as good as they used to be. This, more generally, has been a major bug-bear of late, but will be the topic of another entry – as will the consequences of this year’s snowbound South of England, which will also be tagged similarly!

The news of the Eastman Kodak ‘filing for bankrupcy’ to use the American phrase, is being played out as the death of film photography – at least for the everyday user. I’ve not put a link in here on that at present, as most of them listed on Google seem ephemeral. It is certain that most people now have digital cameras. Even I haven’t taken a film photo for at least three years, and I’ve taken far more photos since I had a camera in a mobile phone than I did before. (Sadly, that camera seems to be beginning to fail).

Before all of this, I had decided to digitise my entire photo collection. I purchased a device that takes the negatives, converts them and stores the image on a memory stick with 9MB resolution – the highest I could find (as of the time of writing). I grabbed a set of old negatives, which were of the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) engine Mallard when it ran through my home town in the mid 1980s. Of course I have family ties with the LNER, so it was a special occasion for me. It stopped at the station, I had obtained a platform ticket (remember those?), and took some photos.

Anyway, I lined up the first strip of negatives, pushed it into this image device and had a shock. The small screen showed a familiar shot – that of the plate on the side of the engine about it’s record breaking run, as shown here:

However, in viewfinder, something I’d never seen on the print; reflected in the engine’s paintwork was the face of my late father. I’m unable at present to enhance the picture sufficiently, the best I can on this computer is the following image, which at least looks like a head and open-necked shirt.

Of course, looking back at the first image shown here, there is a shadow that, knowing what I know now, I recognise, but until that moment, I had not a clue. Believe me, in the viewfinder, the reflected image is unambiguous!

So far as I know, the boiler certificate for Mallard has expired, and she currently resides in the National Railway museum at York as a static exhibit. For those who want to see the detail, I’ve separated out that plate:

This engine, with an official speed measuring truck in tow, managed to reach 126mph for just long enough to count as the world record holder. A record that still stands to this day.

This is item one of this topic. One should not be surprised that I take some time to compose some blog entries, for they require a fair bit of research, for all their lack of references. One of the entries that I will make on this topic is already in a fair state of preparation, but I have to scan in images, work on them (sic) to highlight the issues I want to discuss. Another topic will be the lifetime of digital imagery, as opposed to those of negatives.

Link to the BBC Micro

February 26, 2010

BBC Micro

A reference today reminded me of my passing acquantance with the BBC Micro. Data from the experiment I was using was collected using a Hewlett -Packard Calculator [!]. The program, and data, was held on bespoke tapes. For transferring to the University’s Mainframe, the calculator was connected to a tape machine – yes – paper tape punched with holes. While I was there, the facility to read such punched paper tape was removed. Disaster loomed.

I discovered that the BBC Micros used as dumb terminals to the University’s mainframe had an auxiliary input; and that input could take the output of the HP Calculator (at least as voltages etc were concerned).

So I wrestled with the BBC Micro, and got it to read its auxiliary input, connected to the ticker-tape output of the HP Calculator, and store it on 8″ floppy disk ready to send to the University Mainframe. Data ran at the bizarre speed of something around 700 baud (working with Modems in my past, that was how I measured the speed), certainly a non-standard speed. One tape took 3/4 hour to transfer.

I don’t know how much data was actuallly transferred this way. That which was not is now lost, including much significant data from the late 1970’s early 1980s. Paper graphs remain, no doubt, but the chance to re-analyse the data is lost, and perhaps significant finds lost with it.

An unwelcome puddle…

October 28, 2009

..around the bottom of a kilner jar today alerted me to something wrong. I quickly emptied the jar – at least I had another spare one to hand for the contents. But while it had been dripping, it took ages for me to find the crack:


barely visible - a crack along the glass seam.

These Ravenhead kilner jars have two seams running down the edges, and for about 10mm at the bottom of one the seam looks much brighter in certain lights – very hard to photo, but if you look at any cracked glass item and move it around the light, you will know what I mean.

So somehow or other, this jar developed a very small crack, which then dripped the liqueur inside out. Oh well.

At one point I had far more of these jars than lids. In clearing out a cupboard at parents last year, I came across an old ice-cream container, which had half a dozen lids, and a bag of white seals – still flexible, but probably too old to use.

This post has one factor that will not be apparent, but is a first – I downloaded the picture from the phone to the computer, edited it and posted it without having to reboot the computer into another system to do the download from the phone camera.

Slackware 13

October 19, 2009

I have an old computer, and a new computer that has proved troublesome (not faulty). Anyhow, it has been getting more and more difficult to access web sites (including the BBC, and some other people’s WordPress sites) due to flash and other more recent updates.

Although installed for some time, it was only today I got the computer to boot from a LILO disk. I hate the default window manager, but cannot yet find how to change it.

One worry was that the email program, xcmail, I use would no longer work, as I had heard that parts would not compile. Indeed, I could not compile part, (a needed library). So I copied across the old ones, just to see. Well, the mail program at least starts and looks as if it will work. That, and my update of the program mlist both running is good news. The dialer to get onto the internet is a new one I had to download, again due to the existing one not compiling for mysterous reasons, and that does give rise to some conflicts with mlist. But it’s early days, and at least I’m learning this while able to copy across files as and when from the old system. Thus when I set up on the new computer. it should all be a lot quicker…

20 October update

I’ve made a lot of progress on this today, although not everything is running. More was copied across from the old system as it would not compile on the new. I can now access the DOS partition and run those programs; elog, an electronic log book I cannot praise highly enough is running; I can collect and send email; and much more, although I’m still in the process of setting it up.


July 19, 2008

For some time, booting this computer with my MEPIS Linux disk has got slower and slower, and this week it would not at all.

I have a second hand computer I was given, and so I tried that. Well, it did not boot the window manager, but I was able to get it in console mode. And with that, I was able to get the pics off my mobile phone for the previous blog entry.

It has been lack of pics why I did not blog more recently, and that because of the difficulty of getting them off the phone, but at least I have another route (and it booted far faster!).

But I will have to sort out a new main computer soon, this one’s hard disc whines badly first thing in the morning. I do make back ups!