Category: Geekerama

Nerd Heaven

Yesterday, Harry and I visited the National Museum of Computing, in Bletchley Park.

I was in nerd heaven, I tell you!

Firstly, we saw the Bombe: developed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman during WW2.  I did my best to explain to Harry, the principle behind its workings. I don’t think my explanation (with my limited knowledge) was much good, but he seemed to get the idea.

Then we saw Colossus: the world’s first programmable computer.  Built to decode messages from the Lorenz machine that was used to encode German High Command messages (named Tunny by the British codebreakers).

 

In the Mainframe room we were astonished at the size of the machines. Hard drives the size of refridgerators filled the room, each with a capacity smaller than today’s memory sticks! That big circular disk bottom right… I think that was 8K or something stupid like that.

A lot of it was made by ICL – International Computers Limited – a British computer company from way back, that I’d completely forgotten about.

 

This is a piece of memory – core memory, as it was known. Look at the size of it! And this wasn’t a prototype or anything, this was actually in use back in the day, plugged into mainframe computers.

Consisting of just 20K of memory: about 400,000 times less than the memory in a modern, cheap mobile phone. And each tiny little core was threaded onto the wires by hand. Jeez.

But then, as we wandered around, I started to see stuff that I recognised, like the Sinclair ZX81 – my very first computer; programmable calculators from the likes of Olivetti and Sharp and Texas Instruments; and the once ubiquitous BBC Micro, where I showed Harry what used to be everybody’s first attempt at programming in BASIC:

10 PRINT “Hello World”

20 GOTO 10

RUN

We then played the original version of Mario Kart on an old Atari. With it’s blocky 8-bit graphics and unusual controller, I thought I might be able to beat him. But, he thrashed me. As usual.

It was a great way to spend a few hours though and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Well, I know Harry enjoyed it, but for me, well, I was in nostalgic nirvana.

Radio Ga Ga

This is my fancy wireless set.

I never have it on.

Instead, it is programmed to record various comedy programmes, from Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, onto an SD memory card.

Then, once a month, I download them onto my computer, convert from MP2 to MP3 and then put them onto a CD-RW to listen to in the car.

It’s a bloody Godsend!

Watch this!

This is my wristwatch.

Well, it’s one of my wristwatches. I have three.

This is my day-to-day work watch. It’s solar powered, so doesn’t need winding.

I also have a weekend watch. Same make, but slightly more expensive, waterproof and powered by kinetic energy.

The third is my dress watch, the one I wear to weddings and funerals. It too is solar powered, waterproof and it is synced via radio to DSF77, the time signal broadcast from Germany.

I don’t wear jewelry of any kind… apart from a wristwatch… which I wear all the time (pun not intended, but unavoidable).

Without one, I feel naked.

You get what you pay for

This is the calculator that I use at work.  I took it out of my desk drawer specifically for this photo. And I wrote SHELLOIL on it, because it would have been infantile to have written BOOBS… and – contrary to popular opinion – I am a grown up.

I bought this calculator… actually, I didn’t – my parents bought me this calculator to do my college exams with.  I remember going into Dixon’s with my mum, and I remember her wincing at the price when I picked out the one that I wanted.

But, I’ve always been one to look after things and so this calculator – though it’s somewhere around 38 years old – still works perfectly. And it even still has the original instruction manual, tucked into its imitation leather, plastic wallet.

It got me through my electronics exams.

It got me through my Radio Amateur’s exam.

It even got me through the mathematical questions they suddenly threw at me, at my job interview for the GPO/British Telecom.

OK, yes, I’ve had to change the batteries and clean up the PCB, but on the whole, mum, I think I got your money’s worth.

ShackBox

I’ve been busy over the weekend.

Doing the usual weekendy stuff: cutting the grass; cleaning the bathroom; fixing the stupidly-expensive cordless hoover… that sort of thing.

And also, building this little project from April’s Practical Wireless.

G0PJO’s wonderfully simple design was a joy to build… and cheap too!

I think total cost was about 22 quid and that gives me a highly accurate clock, along with Latitude and Longitude coordinates; temperature and air pressure readings and a Maidenhead Locator too! It will even show WAB squares… if I wanted it to, but I didn’t, so a quick tinker with the very well-documented code switched off that particular function.

If you are looking for a quick and simple – but worthwhile – project to get the soldering iron going, then I can heartily recommend this.

 

Ring Ring

Talking of mobile phones, it’s always fun to change your ringtone to something different to what came installed on the phone. 

Of late, the original Nokia tune has become a fashionable ringtone again… in an ironic sort of way.

Many people choose a popular tune or a comedic catchphrase, and I myself have added several to my phone.

All are TV theme tunes from the 1970’s and when my phone rings, someone of a similar age to myself will pop their head up and say “Ooh, that sounds familiar…  what is it?”

So, here are the theme tunes for you to have a guess at.

Anyone who gets all five will win a speedboat.*

Number 1

 

Number 2

 

Number 3

 

Number 4

 

Number 5

 

*Not really.

Ringing in the changes

It’s that time again.

It has been two years since I got my current mobile phone and the contract runs out next month.

Now, I am on the Three network which, whilst it has been quite reliable, just hasn’t quite offered the coverage that I get with Vodafone on my company mobile.

And so, I am thinking about jumping ship to another provider, despite having been with Three for a number of years.

And my Sony Xperia phone has been as solid as a rock for the past two years. I’m still very happy with it and would happily stick with it, really.

Except.

Except it is two years old and the battery is knackered. And you can’t just change the battery, because the phone is sealed, because it’s waterproof.

And besides. It’s two years old and I suppose I fancy a change.

But, this is the bit I don’t like, because now I have to choose a new phone and there are just so many out there now to choose from (not including Apple, of course, because… it’s Apple).

And once I have chosen my replacement – which should be easy in theory, considering my minimum requirements – I then have the rubbish task of choosing a network to go with.

Again, that should be easy, because they are all the same.

Well, nearly.

Finally though, it’s the confusing and time-consuming task of choosing a package to suit my needs, without it costing the earth each month.

I think I want unlimited minutes, 4GB of data and 12 texts.

Or maybe I want unlimited minutes, unlimited data and 14 texts.

But, y’know, looking at my current usage, I can probably save money and get away with just 200 mins, 500MB of data and 10 texts.

I just don’t know.

What I do know though, is that hours of surfing the net and scouring mobile phone websites, lies ahead of me, before I lose the will to live and eventually just walk into Carphone Whorehouse and let Johnny No Stars talk me into a package I’ll inevitably regret later on.

I Really Need One Of These…

…for my Monday morning commute.

<Clicky>  (Video updated to a longer but better version)

 

I Was First!

In readiness for the Christmas Quiz – which we have every year at the big family get-together – I wanted some Quiz Buzzers, to stop the arguments over who shouted first.

The ones I used last year – which I built many years ago, from a circuit in one of the electronics magazines – worked well, but there were too many wires spread across the tables and chairs,  between the push buttons and the control unit.  A Health & Safety nightmare!

And so this year, I looked around for a wireless version. They are bloody expensive to buy (300 quid and up, from what I could see), so a homebrew version would have to be the order of the day.

After a bit of searching on the internets, I found a wonderfully simple Arduino design from a German chap called Felix. I say ‘simple’ but of course, all the cleverness is in the software. 

His design only allowed for two buttons though and I wanted four.  I thought that I would be able to figure out how to add more, from his code, but my coding skills are rubbish and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it… it might as well have been in Greek!  So, I dropped him a line asking if he would be so kind as to amend his code to allow for more buzzers. 24 hours later, he’d done so. Splendid fellow!

I then added a little bit of simple code of my own, to allow the Master control unit to give an audio alert when any button had been pressed, as I found in testing that it was quite easy for a player to lock the other players out, by pressing his button and then just keeping it covered with his hand, so no-one could see (Harry, you little cheat!).

I won’t go into the circuit here, or the code, as that can all be downloaded from Felix’s GitHub Repository.  But, if you plan on building one, I’m happy to supply my extra bit of code for the audio alert – which I feel is a definite requirement.

The Arduino Nano boards were sourced from ebay, along with the NRF24L01 radio modules for a very reasonable price. The big buttons are 60mm ones from Arcade World and are very good quality. The Tupperware came from Sainsbury’s.  🙂

I’m pleased to say it all works wonderfully.

I just need to put a quiz together now!

Ch… ch… ch… changes

Well, I think I made that a lot harder than it should have been!

To be fair, there was a hosting problem – which young Mr Jones discovered (thanks for your help, Bren) – and once that was resolved, it put things back on the right track.

But then I had an issue with a corrupted mySQL database which, in hindsight, I think is probably not actually corrupted at all.

And then there was the theme. I had problems getting the site to look how it used to and just couldn’t figure out why. Turns out, the theme that I use,  got a major upgrade whilst my site was down and in the new version, things were quite different.

And buggy.

A couple of conversations with the developer, resulted in a further minor upgrade being rolled out, which fixed the issues I was having.

So, things are now up and running again, and I can go back to writing the usual drivel, for your delight and delectation.

But I have made some slight changes.  The problem with the database, led me to believe I would be better off starting afresh and archiving all my old posts. But, as I say, it turns out that there might not actually be a problem with the database, and so I could try to resurrect it within this blog.  But I really can’t be arsed. And so, I shall make all the old posts available as an archive site, which I’ll put a link to… when I get round to it.

I’ve also decided to drop my old Radio blog. I found running two blogs, too much work – it’s hard enough just doing one! And so, anytime I feel inclined to write something about radio or electronics it will appear here… much to your delight, I’m sure.

 

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