Sunday, August 18, 2013

One moon passing another

NASA's Curiosity Rover on Mars, has photographed the two Martian moons passing one another. In the video made of the photos the larger moon Phobos can be seen passing in front of Deimos. I wonder what differences to Terran history and culture there might have been if Earth had two satellites and such a sight was known to humans.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Neptune gains a moon

The Hubble telescope has found a new moon of Neptune, it's 14th (i must update my books on astronomy which lists Neptune as only having 2 moons!) Neptune's latest discovered moon is very small however, being just 12 miles in diameter. The new moon is currently called S/2004 N 1, which does not compare very well to the name of Neptune's largest moon Triton!

A proper name will be chosen for the moon however and will likely be drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. The moon is so dim that Voyager 2 did not see it when it made its flypast of the planet in 1989. This is due to it having a very dark surface like some of its fellow Neptunian moons.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The blue exo-planet

For the first time the colour of a planet outside of our solar system has been measured, and its blue! HD 189733 b is a planet 63 light years away, orbiting the star HD 189733. The planet is Jupiter sized and similarly is a giant ball of gas. The colour of the planet was discerned using a spectrograph onboard the Hubble space telescope. During an eclipse of the planet light reflected off the atmosphere was found to be blue however as the planet is a gas giant that blue colour is unlikely to be due water.

It is thought the blue colour may come from silicon clouds in the atmosphere. Another possibility is light scattering caused by hydrogen in the atmosphere.


Blue planet HD 189733b around its host star (artist’s impression) from HubbleESA on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

RIP Doug Englebart

Doug Englebart died yesterday in his sleep. Now he may not be as famous as some other major figures in computing but his impact on computing and the way we live now was profound. Basically if you are looking at this or most computer screens these days you are looking at interfaces and concepts he first devised.

Basically the WYSIWYG concept of computing, use of the mouse and multi-windowed user interfaces,  hyperlinks, video conferencing, multimedia documents, instant messaging, keyword searches... Why not just see the demo he made in 1968 of these concepts, it really did change everything.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Altair 8800 Clone

If you want to try out the very start of home computing then a clone of the iconic Altair 8800 is now available! The Altair 8800 emerged in 1975 powered by the Intel 8080 microprocessor (the clone emulates the 8080 which is no longer in production) and sold in the thousands (surprising everyone including the inventors!) Microsoft's first ever product was BASIC for the Altair. I don't think that is included with the clone though you can probably get it from somewhere.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

In search of Valentina Tereshkova

The BBC have an interesting article and audio slideshow on the first female cosmonaut (and first civilian in space) Valentina Tereshkova. She is apparently reluctant to say much about her pioneering mission aboard Vostok 6 herself so the BBC reporter goes to her hometown and try and find out more about her.

Vostok 6 was the final mission in the programme, the first manned (or womanned) spacecraft. Tereshkova made 48 orbits of the Earth, staying in space for 3 days.
Photo from RIA Novosti archive

Friday, May 24, 2013

Working Apple 1 demo

Only 6 Apple 1s are thought to be still be working and 1 of those is going to be auctioned for what is expected to be a heap of cash! Last year another working Apple 1 also went up for auction and this video was made of it in action. Update : it sold for $671,000!

Another satellite hit by space debris?

It is feared the nano-satellite Pegaso (NEE-01 Pegaso), the first satellite owned by Ecuador, could have been damaged by space debris. It passed very close to the remains of a Soviet rocket still in orbit but it will take up to 48 hours to find out if the satellite has been damaged by the collision, any collision may have been a glancing blow.

The debris was from the upper stage of a Tsyklon-3 rocket.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The changes to Flickr

Flickr is my favourite social media site (though i think it firstly as a photo archiving and sharing site) so obviously the major redesign as unveiled yesterday was of interest. The changes have not gone down with long-time users of the site with thousands registering their dismay of the changes on the official forum (the news media didn't bother checking this on the whole, they just regurgitated the Yahoo press release about it being "awesome").

I don't like the changes that much but will adapt, hopefully feedback will be listened to and the changes can be tweaked though i do not expect there to be too much in the way of change. The main thing would be a bit more white space restored, the overall feel of the site is a bit oppressive and heavy now. I suspect the vision Yahoo have for Flickr differs somewhat from that of long-time users and pro users (the pro accounts are being phased out in any event).

No Flickr is not aimed at the pro anymore but will become yet another social photography sharing site. That is a shame as many users (including myself) have invested a lot of time and effort cataloging and curating our photography collections, sorting them into sets and collections, geotagging and labelling them. The new user interface either hides or does away with much of this organisation.

I guess this could be another step in the dumbing down of the internet and life in general. Organisation and choice lost and replaced by something glitzy you can't customise. Care and effort lost to be replaced by passive consumption. What i will probably do is make greater use of blogs to organise images and use Flickr more a repository. Of course that means one is relying on one's blog platform not disappearing, but maybe its time to explore a few other platforms to hedge one's bets...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Astronauts plug ISS leak

Two astronauts on the International Space Station have completed a 5 hour spacewalk in order to fix an ammonia leak which was detected on Thursday. The leak, in part of the station's cooling system to one of its solar arrays, was detected on Thursday when the crew saw white flakes floating away from the station and was fixed by replacing a pump controller with a spare unit. Although the station and crew were not in danger power supply from the array was affected and electricity had to be rerouted from elsewhere to keep all systems operating.
Photo from NASA

London in colour... in 1927

Pioneering British film maker Claude Frisse-Greene made a number of silent films showing life in the UK in the 1920s, one of which in London was filmed using the colour film he and his father William developed called the Friese-Greene Natural Colour process. Claude hoped the film could help publicise the process to Hollywood though in the end Technicolor won that battle. The British Film Institute have now released this film online, after performing computer enhancement to reduce flickering.

The Friese-Greene Natural Colour process grew out of William Frisse-Green's Biocolour. This was an additive colour film process. The subject was filmed using black and white film, the illusion of colour was created by exposing alternate frames of film through two colour filters. Each alternate frame is then stained red or green. Although this did give a passable illusion of true colour the films suffered from flickering and colour fringing especially if there was rapid motion. Additive colour films died out by the Second World War with subtractive colour processes like Kodachrome and Technicolor eventually becoming the norm.

The film shows a fascinating insight into normal everyday life in the capital. Buses, boats and lots of men in hats! The skyline of London is very different to today though at times the scene hardly seems to have changed that much at all.

London in 1927 from Tim Sparke on Vimeo.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Weapon Fail : Project 685 "Mike" submarine

The Soviet Project 685, known as "Mike" to NATO, was a singleton class of submarine which sank 5 years after commissioning and is now a radioactive time bomb under one of the richest fishing areas in the world off the coast of Norway...

The order to design the 685 was made in 1966 but it took nearly 20 years before K-278 (as the boat was numbered) entered service in 1984. The 685 was an experimental submarine designed to test a number of new technologies and design features including a double hull and stronger internal bulkheads. The inner hull being titanium. The 685 could dive notably deeper than any NATO submarine, down to 1250m. The 685 included a personal escape sphere built into the sail to allow the crew to escape if anything happened in the deep sea.

Despite all that 685 came a cropper in relatively shallow waters. On the 7th of April 1989 while at a depth of no more than 335m south west of Bear Island a fire broke out on board. Despite the watertight doors being closed the fire was able to spread via cables. The reactor was shut down and the submarine surfaced and most of the crew abandoned ship though many died of exposure. Several hours later the submarine sunk. In total 42 men died in the accident.

And 685 became a radiological hazard. As well as the reactor the 685 carried 2 torpedos armed with nuclear warheads. If there is a serious radioactive leak then rich fishing grounds off the coast of Norway could be ruined for centuries. Surveys of the wreck have indicated cracks along the hull but as yet no serious radioactive leak. The wreck has a large hole in it's torpedo compartment however. Sea water is said to be corroding the casings of the warheads and the submarine's hull. Some plutonium was detected to have leaked from one of the warheads in 1994.

As raising the wreck would likely be too risky the strategy instead has been to seal cracks in the hull. The hull is now said to be safe for 20 to 30 years. So thats ok then...

Friday, May 3, 2013

The return of Vectrex

Vectrex was one of a multitude of competing consoles in the early days of home video gaming. I vaguely remember the name but not a lot else (i didn't even get a 2600 until the early 21st century, thats how slow i am sometimes!) but Vectrex stood out for a number of reasons. For one it had its own built in screen, not relying on a TV (which means you could keep playing even if Mum wanted to watch her soaps). Vectrex was also vector based though a much simpler level than today's. Simple graphics were augmented by colour screen overlays. In 1984 after the disaster of the video game crash Vectrex disappeared...

To return now as an iOS app. TUAW have the following review and video. The app looks really nice, adding a lot of value to a simple emulator, even including vintage TV ads!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The voice of Alexander Graham Bell

Despite the fact his inventions like the telephone have helped billions of people hear others voices (and record voices) no one knew what Alexander Graham Bell's own voice sounded like (apart from people who knew him of course).

Now one of the earliest wax disc recordings from 1885 which comes complete with a written transcript by Bell has been scanned using a non-invasive optical sound recovery process and audio extracted by calculating how a stylus would move through the grooves of the disc. More details of the optical scanning can be seen here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

My Micro Life (5) : Amstrad PPC512DD

We have now reached 1990 in the story of my microcomputers growing up and by now i was a student at Birmingham Polytechnic. More importantly I now had money (you see back in the past we actually got paid to be students and got all of our course fees paid!) and of course i wanted my own computer after using and abusing my Dad's computers up until now. I saw an advert for Morgan Computers where they were selling Amstrad PPC512DD portable computers with a free external monitor. I fancied the idea of having a laptop as a rich guy on my course had one. So i went along and bought it...

If you are not familiar with the PPC512 then it was an unusual portable computer. It had a full-size proper keyboard (so was fairly big) though it had a small black & white (and non-backlit) LCD screen. This was rather hard to see anything on though so i tended to use the Sinclair black & white monitor instead (until it overheated which was usually by the time the PPC had booted). It had twin 3.5" floppy disc drives and not a great deal else. It was not what you would call a laptop though to be fair it was not a heavy computer. It ran reasonably well, with an NEC V30 chip (a clone of the 8086) and 512K of RAM.

I can't remember a great deal about the PPC to be honest because i sold it within a couple of months. I only lost about 20 quid on it, selling it to a fellow student, he didn't come back to me for a refund so i assume he got some good use out of it! I wanted a proper laptop and that is where i thought i was going next...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

10 years of the iTunes Music Store

The i-devices helped restore Apple's fortunes and eventually made them the juggernaut they are today (even if they have dipped a bit lately). After the iMac steadied the ship it was the divergence into the iPod music player and later the iPhone and iPad that set Apple's fortunes soaring. The Apple strategy was to produce the devices for people to be able to live a digital media lifestyle and the iTunes Store, which is 10 years old today, is a key cornerstone of that strategy.

There had been music stores before but Apple packaged it all up with a price-per-song ($0.99) that broke such things out of the geek niche and into the mainstream. The iTunes Store has become a huge success, making billions of dollars for Apple, diversifying into movies and books, and is now the biggest music retailer in the world.

Personally i don't buy many songs from it, i prefer to buy CDs and rip to iTunes that way but for the odd song and digital only release it works very well. Part of the success of the store has been to help encourage and tie many customers to Apple's hardware too and with over 25 billion songs sold to date there are a lot of people now tied into the system. 

Ancient computers in use today

Technology and computing in particular has a rapid cycle of innovation and obsolescence. However in some cases old computing equipment remains in use decades after it went obsolete. PC World covers a few systems still in use including a warehouse inventory system still running on an Apple IIe, PDPs still in use by defence establishments and most amazingly an IBM 402 accounting machine from 1948 which is apparently still in use by a Texan chemical filter company. The IBM 1401 Restoration Project have more photos of the system in use, which is the last one in service in the world, and are trying to get it into a museum.

Many older computers are perfectly fine for certain tasks, though a 402 is probably pushing it a bit. However as one of the commenters in the PC World article says, at least the operators don't have to worry about malware and endless software updates.

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Micro Life (4) : Amstrad PC1640DD

After the BBC Micro expired, due to mysterious circumstances, we were in search of a new computer. It was by now the late 1980s and Amstrad had recently launched the PC revolution in the UK with IBM PC compatibles within the price range of mere mortals. Thus it was decided it was time to jump on that bandwagon and get a proper grown-up computer so we could do proper stuff like word processing and spreadsheets (yawn).

The PC1640DD was an early IBM XT compatible though it did have a few strange foibles such as the power supply unit being in the monitor and a non-standard mouse. Ours had the full 640K of RAM, it came with twin 5.25" floppy drives and... a GUI! That GUI was GEM Desktop and it wasn't very useful on that PC to be honest, especially as we only had CGA graphics, and we had no GUI applications so it had limited use to us, so we mostly stuck to DOS. The most useful software that came with the Amstrad was a business software pack of WordStar, Supercalc and a database i can't remember the name of now mostly because it was rubbish.

For the next few years that PC was our workhorse and my Dad was keen to upgrade it as much as possible. Over the years we got a 32MB hard drive (though because of the idiosyncratic Amstrad PC architecture the hard drive came on an extension card... thus a hard card) and an external 3.5" floppy drive. I also bought MS-DOS 4.01 for it just because i could.

I even installed MS Windows 3.0 on it as that did support CGA mode though it was as useless as GEM but intriguing.

The PC coincided with my arrival at Birmingham Polytechnic so some of the software i used during my HND on the Poly's PCs i also used on the Amstrad including a shareware clone of dBase III which i used for my final year project and Turbo Pascal (v4 which i bought myself as the poly was still on v3) to learn how to program.

However by the early 1990s the PC1640 was starting to look tired and had reached its limits, more or less, in terms of expandability. Besides which i now had a grant cheque and decided it was time to buy my own computer at last, though for some reason i bought for my first computer a cut-down portable version of the Amstrad PC, but that is a story for next time...

Friday, April 19, 2013

British Airships 1905-30 (Book Review)

The end of the 19th century saw a great spark of interest in the airship in countries like Germany and France, the British lagged behind somewhat though quickly caught up in the early 20th century. R101 apart not much is often written about British airship developments compared to the likes of the zeppelins which makes Ian Castle's book British Airships 1905-30 in the Osprey New Vanguard series most welcome.

As with all NV books it is a fairly slim tome but packed full of information and well illustrated. The book tells the story of British airships from the first non-rigid ships through to the disaster of the R101 which pretty much ended British interest in the airship (for the time being anyway).

The book describes each Army and Navy airship series in turn and describes their wartime exploits. The book concentrates on the military role of Britain's airships so does not go into great detail about the R101 but that has been amply covered in other books. What is particularly interesting is the coverage of early British non-rigid airships such as the rather lovely looking flying sausage Nulli Secundus.
Nulli Secundus II (Library of Congress photo)
The only flaw in the book is that it is rather short (only 48 pages) but that is a common problem with the Osprey NV series. The structure is also a little illogical, the airships are described first and then the book goes back to cover the war service. It may have flowed better to do this at the same time. These are only minor niggles though, it is a lovely book that is highly recommended.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Transatlantic Airships - An Illustrated History (Book Review)

Airships are one of my obsessions and books on them i hungrily consume. Transatlantic Airships is not a general history of airships though does cover a great deal of their heyday and more recent developments. It concentrates on airships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, seen as the great barrier in early aviation. Transatlantic passenger flights were seen in the 1920s as the great commercial opportunity for airships like the famous zeppelin, able to take passengers in comfort long distances. This was something the fixed wing aircraft of the time was far beyond being able to match.

In his well written and brilliantly illustrated book John Christopher describes the early history of the airship, both rigid and non-rigid and the advances in technology sparked by the First World War with the German zeppelins gaining longer and longer legs. The first airship to cross the Atlantic non-stop though was British, R34 which crossed from East to West in July 1919. Although the fixed wing aircraft beat it across with Alcock and Brown crossing in the other direction in their former Vimy bomber just 2 weeks beforehand, R34 did make the first return crossing by an aircraft. R34's epic journey is covered in great detail as are a number of other crossings, the book throughout is well illustrated with excellent photographs and period graphics and maps.

Despite the British lead (whose interest in airships was finally destroyed in the R101 crash) it was the German zeppelins who made passenger flights across the Atlantic their own with airships of increasing size and complexity culminating in the Hindenberg. The airship was holding its own in its special niche in the 1930s despite increasing competition by aeroplanes. The level of comfort that could be offered unmatched until the wide-bodied jet airliners of the 1970s (albeit for the rich only). Of course the airship was a lot slower but when you are rich maybe the time to travel  does not matter too much as a smoking room and a grand piano, as the Hindenberg had, does. The Hindenberg disaster killed off the commercial airship business though by then it was largely restricted to the zeppelin Atlantic trade.

If the Hindenberg had not blown up on that dreadful day in May 1937 its interesting to consider for how much longer the zeppelins would have crossed the Atlantic. It is likely they could have continued for a few more years though the disaster and the Second World War killed off the dream. That is not the end of the story the book recounts however as the wartime exploits of the US Navy's blimp squadrons (or blimprons) which on occasion crossed the Atlantic to get to their assignments in Europe are also included. The book ends with a look at recent airship developments including the Zeppelin NT though airships crossing the Atlantic carrying passengers in decadent comfort is probably a dream that will never live again.

Dreams are something the book covers well. Many futuristic (and outlandish) designs for airships were made in both sides of the war, even nuclear powered airships being considered at one stage but all of these dreams came to nothing. But it is good to dream after all, even if the dream is ultimately doomed.

Weapon Fail : Rocket fighters

In the 1930s and 40s along with the jet engine the rocket engine was another alternative method of propulsion that promised unrivalled performance gains over piston-engined fighters which, by the 1940s, were reaching the limit of their performance. However while the jet engine went on to dominate military (and civil) aviation in the postwar period the rocket engine has not and to this day there has only ever been one operational rocket powered fighter (not including jet powered aircraft which also used rockets for short-term boost) and that was the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet. Why? Because of range.

The Komet, which was one of the advanced fighters designed by the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt the daily Allied bomber attacks, had amazing performance. It could reach around 700mp/h, far in advance of anything on the Allied side at the time and easily out-climb any fighters being able to shoot up to 39,000ft in 3 minutes. That performance came at a heavy price though and the Komet had only enough fuel for a few minutes of powered flight. After that it was simply a futuristic looking glider and had to try and return to it's base unpowered.

One other problem with the great performance was that the targets (the bombers) were much slower than the Komet and thus were difficult to hit. The Komet pilot only having a couple of brief opportunities for firing on it's target before having to disengage. Only a small number of successful kills were made by Komets. Allied pilots quickly learnt the Komet had very short legs and waited for the fuel to run out before attacking the now unpowered and vulnerable Komet.

After the war rocket power continued to be explored by the various participants in the Cold War but the pure rocket powered fighter died a quick death. Rocket power was explored to boost the performance of jet powered aircraft but as jet engines gained in power rocket power has been relegated to research aircraft only.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Soviet Mars 3 lander may have been detected

In 1971 the Soviet Union launched a number of missions to land a probe on Mars. Mars 3 managed to land on the planet and transmit back to home... but then a few seconds later it went quiet. It still managed to become the first probe to land on Mars in a working condition... at least momentarily. It is a shame the probe failed as it was intended to be able to analyse the Martian soil, monitor the Martian magnetic field and even deploy a small "rover" Prop-M. Unfortunately apart from 70 lines from a partial image (that showed nothing identifiable) no useful data was sent back.

Nowadays Mars has been visited by a number of successful probes and rovers, some missions still ongoing, though what happened to Mars 3 remains a mystery and probably will remain so until some future astronaut on Mars investigates the probe. However at least the probe has been spotted on the surface or that is what Russian amateur space enthusiasts believe they have found in publicly available imagery from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. They believe they have found the lander as well as its parachute and other debris.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Friday, April 12, 2013

50 years since Sketchpad demonstration

TUAW notes the 50th anniversary of the first demonstration of Sketchpad, the first computer program with a GUI. Long before the rise of the Xerox and Apple's GUI in the 1970s this was a drawing program developed by Ivan Sutherland for his PhD and is considered the direct ancestor of Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems. Sketchpad is also considered to have pioneered the Graphical User Interface, object orientated programming and human computer interaction (HCI).

In the video below Alan Kay discusses Sketchpad and shows a demonstration.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A pop-up Apple museum

No its not a self-parody, there is indeed a pop-up Apple museum even though you would have thought such an entity would have created a hipster singularity and destroyed the universe by now. The museum is in the USA alas but the 512 Pixels blog has a great preview of some of the amazing Apple exhibits on show. All the usual suspects are there, Apple II, Macintoshes, a lovely looking Lisa and also the intriguing MacColby portable.

If you are in the US, especially around Atlanta Georgia then the pop-up museum is surely well worth a visit. Its open on April 20th and 21st as part of Vintage Computer Festival.
This Macintosh 512K isn't in the museum, as it's mine

Monday, April 8, 2013

NASA approves next generation exoplanet survey satellite

NASA has given the go-ahead for a $200 million mission called Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to hunt for exoplanets around nearby stars. TESS will built upon the work of the Kepler Space Telescope which to date has discovered 2740 exoplanets by detecting the dip in starlight from nearby stars as the planets travel in front of the star (or rather the face of the star facing us).

While Kepler works well it is restricted to a small portion of space (0.28% of the sky) while TESS will be able to survey all of the sky using an array of telescopes and should be able to detect many more exoplanets. The key goal of TESS will be to hunt for planets which have similar conditions to Earth and maybe could contain life. TESS will launch in 2017.
Image credit: D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Sunday, April 7, 2013

4 decades of Pioneer 11

The Pioneer 11 space mission began on April 5th 1973 when the rocket carrying the satellite launched from Cape Canaveral. Pioneer 11 followed its predecessor which had become the first man-made object to leave the inner Solar System to visit Jupiter, where it took detailed photographs of the red spot. It then went onto visit Saturn, the first probe to do so.

By now Pioneer 11 had completed its mission objectives (and more) but it also served a use to test the route through Saturn's rings which the Voyager missions (which were following on a couple of years behind) would also take. In doing so Pioneer 11 discovered two new moons of Saturn and the F ring of Saturn.

Pioneer 11 was then sent out of the Solar System and it left the planetary system in 1990 (beyond the orbit of Pluto). The last transmission from the probe was detected in 1995 and NASA officially ended the Pioneer 11 mission however the probe is still heading out into interstellar space towards the constellation Scutum.
Saturn (and Titan) taken by Pioneer 11 (Image NASA Ames)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The story behind Apple DOS

CNET have a fascinating article on the Apple's first Disk Operation System (DOS) which it needed for the Apple II microcomputer. As the article describes Apple bought the DOS from an outside company to work with the Apple II and the innovative disk drive Woz designed as they didn't have anyone in house who could develop the DOS in time.

Apple DOS was critical in the success of the Apple II and hence Apple itself which may not have survived long enough to develop the Lisa and Macintosh if the Apple II had not been the success it was. Indeed the Apple II continued to be a success well into the 1980s.

Apple DOS was written by Paul Laughton, and it together with Woz's disk drive and VisiCalc (the first killer app) made the Apple II a success in business. Interestingly it was developed on a minicomputer, stored on punch cards and debugged on that system before being put on Apple's microcomputer (more about this can be read here on Laughton's own website). This is nothing new of course, the Apple II itself was used to write early Lisa and Macintosh system software.
Apple IIe, Mac IIcx and 2 floppy drives

40 years of cellphones

The mobile phone in its cellphone guise is 40 years old today. On April 3rd 1973 Marty Cooper, an engineer with Motorola, made the first public phone call with a cellphone. His phone, a DynaTAC 8000x, was quite chunky compared to today though my first mobile phone in 1997 (also a Motorola) was also quite chunky.

That was an 8800I, if you threw that at someone you could hurt them for sure. If i threw my iPhone at someone? They'd probably barely feel it, not that i want to test this out.

Experiments in hand-held communication devices have been going on for some time, as this article apparently detailing prototype mobile phone technology from 1938 describes. (I think its more likely a tiny radio).

So how many mobile phones have you had? From memory i think i'm on 8th now. My favourite phone was my Panasonic X200 which i still have. I'd rather use my iPhone though...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Weapon Fail : Chauchat

Some weapons may seem great in the workshop under development or on the drawing board. However once they are used on the slightly less controlled situation of the battlefield then design flaws which went unnoticed at the factory often shown up especially if they have been badly made. Such was the case with the FM Chauchat or Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915, a light machine gun developed by the French in the First World War.

Over a quarter of a million Chauchats (named after the man who headed the commission that accepted the gun into service) were made making it the most widely produced automatic weapon of the war and it was used by the French and seven other nations. It was one of the first light machine guns that could be carried and fired by 2 men, one to fire it and someone to assist him, instead of needing a whole team. There was just one problem with the Chauchat. It was rubbish.

It's main problem was the open sided magazine. In a muddy environment it caused the gun to easily jam, mud being fairly abundant in the trenches. It's bad ergonomics and loose bipod also made it an inaccurate weapon when it wasn't jammed and working. It also overheated easily if used for long bursts rendering the gun useless until it cooled down. This could take several minutes which obviously was not a good thing if the enemy were attacking. So basically the gun was prone to jamming but if it didn't jam then it was inaccurate and overheated. Other than that it was great!

The 8mm Lebel cartridge it had to use caused some of the problems as the cartridge's taper dictated the semi-circular nature of the magazine. It's action was also not suited for a light machine gun. It's design flaws were made worse by the gun's generally poor standard of manufacture and the poor raw materials used. The gun was quite light though which was maybe it's only virtue.

Improved guns without the open sided magazine were designed but they were too late to see any service in the war. The gun itself was immediately replaced with superior guns after the war ended. Indeed there were superior guns like the Hotchkiss M'le'09 around before the Chauchat which should have been adopted instead. C'est la guerre.

It has been described as the worst machine gun ever made, maybe somewhat unfair but it certainly was up there among the worst.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dragon returns to Earth

Earlier in the month we reported on the successful launch and docking at the ISS of SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Dragon CR-2 splashed down in the Pacific on the 26th of March ready for recovery.

Dragon has returned to Earth the results of a number of science experiments, over 200 of which are ongoing on the International Space Station. The results returned include from experiments on improved food and crop production both in space and on Earth and improved solar energy panels. In total 1,200 KG of material was returned though of it was waste materials (you can't just kick your trash out of the airlock!), some of it has been transferred from the Dragon capsule as soon as it reached dry land with the rest staying in the capsule until it returns to SpaceX's facilities in Texas.
Photo credit: SpaceX

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Micro Life (3) : BBC Micro B

The Commodore VIC-20 was a great little computer i played a lot of games on but my Dad (for some reason) wanted a computer he could actually do... like... stuff with so he bought a BBC Micro Model B. This was our computer for the next few years and a very fine computer it was too. It marked the end of me being part of the mainstream with video games though, while my friends had Spectrums and C64s (and even one weirdo with a Dragon 32) i had a BBC Micro and as no one else in my class so i couldn't share any games any more...

We could however expand the computer fairly easily (a key feature of the BBC) and could actually use it to do some useful things. We bought a printer for it (a Star NL-10), it was difficult to get anything decent printed out though. (Cynics might say the printer was working perfectly normally then!) We bought a word processor which loaded from ROM (the name i can't recall right now but it may have been a Word Star variant). My Dad wrote a HAM radio database program while i wrote some text-based adventure games and some other rubbish.

More excitingly we got a 5.25" floppy disk drive for the computer and were freed from the misery of having to load software from cassette tape!

The BBC was a great little computer which was in use for a long time especially with schools and universities, i know Birmingham City University for example still had them in its Engineering faculty up into the early 1990s, but ours died long before then. It suddenly conked out one day while i was using it (and i would like to emphasise not because of anything i was doing on it!) The 8-bit era was over in any case so our next computer was our first foray into the PC world but that is a story for another day...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Recovery of Saturn V engines from the seabed

What to do when you are the mega-rich founder of Amazon like Jeff Bezos, well you could fund an expedition to recover the F-1 engines from the Saturn V rockets that sent the Apollo missions on their way perhaps? That is exactly what he has done and now 2 engines from the massive rockets' first stage have been successfully located and salvaged from the seabed off Florida.

The engines will be restored as they are somewhat corroded after 40 years under the sea however the photos show the engines are in remarkable condition all considering. Serial numbers are however as yet unreadable so the team are unsure which Saturn V rocket the engines came from. No decision has yet been made how to display the recovered engines in future.
F-1 engines being stored in the F-1 Engine Preparation Shop. (NASA/MSFC)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

IBM 5100 Portable Computer advert

An advert for IBM's 5100, one of the first portable personal computers... though as it weighed 50lb/22.7KG "portable" was maybe a matter of opinion...

Has Voyager 1 exited the Solar System?

After travelling through space for thirty-five years it is now thought that Voyager 1 has finally left the Solar System. In fact it is thought, by scientists writing in Geophysical Research Letters, that the spacecraft exited the Sun's heliosphere back in August 2012 when dramatic changes in cosmic rays were detected by Voyager. Cosmic rays trapped by the heliosphere practically vanished but galactic rays emanating from outside the Solar System greatly increased.

One major question scientists are considering is whether Voyager has left the Solar System or has simply reached a previously unknown region outside the heliosphere. The Voyager team itself at NASA think the spaceship is in a new region called the magnetic highway.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

Since 2008 the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) has been recovering data from 5 unmanned NASA spacecraft in the 60s which were tasked with looking for landing sites for the Apollo missions. Running on a shoestring and now reliant on public donations after NASA funding ended the project involves restoring data from tape drives from the original Lunar Orbiters which were found in a barn and analogue data tapes. Funding is needed to refurbish the tape heads and pay for the engineering team which looks after the old hardware.

The Lunar Orbiters developed their own photos, scanned them and then transmitted the data back to Earth where they were printed out. Luckily the received data was also recorded onto analogue tapes which the LOIRP team is now processing. The resulting images are of a higher resolution than the original printed photos from 47 years ago.

People donating to the project (and today is the last day) can receive a number of goodies depending on the size of their donation, even some of the original printed photos from the 1960s. The official LOIRP website can be found here.
Photo taken by Lunar Orbiter 4, from here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Return of the Gastric Brooding Frog

In 1983 a frog unique to Australia was declared extinct but now scientists have bought the species, Rheobatrachus silus, back to life! The frog, known as the Gastric Brooding Frog, is notable for giving birth via its mouth having incubated the offspring in its stomach after swallowing the fertilised eggs. It was one of only two species of Platypus Frog (both now extinct) but it died out to to habitat loss and disease.

However tissue samples from the frog taken in the 1970s were implanted into cell nuclei from the eggs of a similar species, a form of cloning known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Although the embryos only survived for a few days it is hoped that the technique could bring other extinct species back to life, the implanted cells when divided were shown to contain genetic material from the extinct frog.

Cue the Jurassic Park headlines. The team of scientists, known as the Lazarus Project, say the technology shows great promise and could be of great use to conserve the world's amphibians, which have been suffering from a great decline of late.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Old Calculators (1) : Triumph-Adler 814

I have a fair amount of old computer junk... i mean equipment in my attic including several dozen calculators from the 1970s and 80s. The 70s was especially an interesting time for calculators with many different manufacturers and designs. In this series i will display some of the more interesting calculators in my collection. We start with the Triumph-Adler 814, a chunky mains powered calculator no doubt intended for desk work and heavy duty number entry. I suspect this calculator has calculated a few payrolls and monthly accounts in its time.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

ICL Personal Computers

A promotional film for ICL's early PCs from 1982.

Weapon Fail : Northrop XP-79

Fed by data captured from the Nazis Western aircraft designers in the immediate post-WW2 period sought to see just was possible with the new jet engines and related techologies. Not everything worked out though, and the Northrop XP-79 was one of them. What was wrong with it? Really it was the concept of the weapon system, the XP-79 was intended to stop enemy bombers by hitting them!

The XP-79 was an interceptor developed by Northrop in WW2 initially to powered by a rocket but later 2 turbojets were substituted because of delays in developing the rocket engine. Although it was to be fitted with 4 machine guns the XP-79, which was built very strongly from a magnesium alloy with very strong wing leading edges, was intended to ram enemy bombers and slice off their tails with it's wing's leading edge!

Whether this could have worked is unknown, the XP-79 only flew for around 15 minutes. On it's first flight in September 1945 the pilot, who lay in a prone position in the plane, lost control and was killed whilst trying to escape it. The project was canceled. Perhaps a reason for this was the authorities suddenly realising that ramming enemy aircraft was the act of a desperate collapsing power not the side who actually had won the war.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alma observatory now operational (video)

The Alma (or Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) observatory in Chile is now operational. This group of radio telescopes is said to be able to look further into space than ever before. See below for a video from the Guardian/ITN.

Alma consists of an array of 66 radio telescopes observing millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Visi On

The early days of personal computing saw a number of competing early graphical user interfaces (GUIs), in fact the first i ever used was GEM Desktop on an Amstrad PC but pre-dating that was Visi On by VisiCorp which was the first GUI for the IBM PC back in 1983. The excellent GUI Gallery site has a tour of the system as well as some of the original files and how to get them to run nowadays.
Visi On was quite different to later GUIs with its menu bar at the bottom, though this was in some ways similar to early Apple Lisa prototypes. Although it may look quite primitive these days, compared to contemporary GUIs it wasn't that bad and indeed was superior in some ways to Microsoft Windows' early versions (which was not to arrive for a couple more years anyway).

Aimed mostly at businesses Visi On was never a success. It was rather slow and pricy and Microsoft promised that Windows was just around the corner in order to deter people from buying Visi On. By the mid-80s VisiCorp had merged with other companies and Visi On faded away.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Our new near neighbour, WISE J104915.57-531906

A pair of stars have been identified by NASA's Wide-Field Survey Explorer (WISE) survey which is the third closest system to the Sun. The brown dwarf pair WISE J104915.57-531906 is the closest star system discovered since 1916 and is 6.5 light years away, just a little further out than Barnard's Star. As the stars are brown dwarfs they are small and dim which has meant it has been difficult to detect them until now (and of course means there could be other close bodies yet to be discovered).

The system was discovered by Kevin Luhman at Penn State University who studied images from WISE over a 13 month period, the star system was seen moving quickly across the sky indicating its proximity. Once detected Luhman was then able to other equipment and surveys to measure its distance away and its temperature which was found to be low. Sharper imagery from the Gemini South telescope in Chile also revealed there were two stars not one orbiting each other.
Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF

Russian satellite hit by debris from past ASAT test

Last month it was reported that a small Russian satellite's (the BLITS Ball Lens In The Space) orbit changed noticeably. Changes were noticed in its spin velocity and altitude. Now these changes have been traced back to a debris strike back in late-January. It is thought the satellite has been damaged by the collision. The debris came from a retired Chinese satellite which was deliberately struck in an anti-satellite test in 2007.

Fengyun FY-1C was a retired weather satellite which destroyed by a kinetic kill vehicle launched on top of a modified ballistic missile, over 2000 trackable pieces of debris resulted from the strike plus over 150000 particles. The size of the debris cloud and resulting danger to other space vehicles sparked international controversy and concern.

Debris strikes are still pretty rare though are getting more common as the amount of debris in orbit increases. A couple of times debris from the Chinese ASAT test has come close to the International Space Station.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bell Labs' Holmdel Computing Center training videos

What was intended as a training video for new employees to Bell Labs' iconic Holmdel Computing Center (which after all was where the likes of C and Unix originated) in 1973 is now a fascinating insight to high-end computing back in the pre-PC age and a nostalgia fest of old iron. This reminds me of my minicomputer days at university, writing programmes in a Volker-Craig terminal and then going to the library to collect my print outs on big fan fold paper...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Weapon Fail : Nuclear Bazookas

The idea between the nuclear bazooka was fairly simple: it was a very short range tactical nuclear weapon that can be used by troops at the front line against fast approaching enemy troops. Weapons like the Davy Crockett (US Army) and Wee Gwen (British Army) were designed in the 1950s as a way of halting Soviet ground forces and buy time for NATO to regroup.


Davy Crockett was a nuclear recoiless rifle projectile with a range between 2-4km. Obviously the nuclear warhead of such a device had to be very small otherwise it would be destroy the defenders too. Davy Crockett had at it's core the W54 warhead which was the smallest ever produced by the US. The warhead had a yield of between 10-20 tons of TNT (0.01-0.02 kilotons) but a major part of the weapon's effect was the radiation produced that would leave the area of impact uninhabitable for 48 hours. As such it was one of the first neutron bombs though the term was not used at the time.

This radiation hazard proved even more important when the weapon was tested and found to be highly inaccurate. Anything 400m from the blast was likely to receive a fatal dose of radiation even at the lowest yield setting though 550m was considered the minimum safe distance for friendly troops. The margins were a bit tight though as 500m would cause sterility and a lack of co-ordination. Contrary to myth the blast radius was not greater than the range of the weapon so it was not a suicide weapon, in fact the blast radius could be as small as 200m.

Davy Crockett was used by the US Army between 1961 and 1971. The British Wee Gwen never entered service, it was very controversial with the Army who considered weapons like it and the Davy Crockett unsound because of the difficulties it would create with command and control.

The inaccuracy was the main problem with the Davy Crockett, because the blast radius of the weapon was small it was likely the defenders would have to fire a lot of the weapons to try and halt a determined mass Soviet attack. The further the projectile was fired (and thus safer to defending soldiers) the more inaccurate it got too... Well you see the problem there.

Because of the inaccuracy troops would have to fire more against concentrations of the enemy to try and ensure a hit and lets just say there were cheaper warheads they could have fired. Never mind less hazardous! Like many "toys" from the Cold War, we should just all be thankful the Davy Crockett was never used.

Who built the first aeroplane?

We all know that the Wright brothers built the first practical aeroplane don't we? Everyone knows they flew first in 1903. However there have been other claims over the years about people who may have beaten the Wright brothers to it. One claim is that Gustave Whitehead (or Weißkopf) first flew his Number 21 aeroplane in 1901, interestingly Jane's have now said that they think he was indeed the first. The first flight was widely reported at the time in over a hundred newspapers and periodicals though nowadays of course everyone knows it was the Wrights.

Its no surprise if it is true and that Whitehead was first but is largely forgotten now, often this happens with inventors. The first is not necessarily the one who is remembered especially if there are a number of people working on the same problem simultaneously. Historical "facts" can be challenged later on especially as new technology allows for analysis of material that was not possible earlier. One example is the analysis that has been made of a proported photograph of Whitehead's aeroplane in flight at a 1906 exhibition. A photograph of the exhibition has been forensically examined to see if the phone of the flight can be discerned. The analysis is fascinating but i remain to be totally convinced.

This story comes with a whiff of conspiracy too. The Smithsonian has barred access to some photographs which may (or may not) show Whitehead's aircraft due to the fragility of the material. The Smithsonian got their hands on the original Wright Flyer in return for giving the honour of first flight to the Wright brothers (this has been found to be true thanks to a Freedom of Information request according to Jane's).

Gustav Whitehead probably did fly his aeroplane first though whether it was what you could consider a controlled flight is a matter of opinion, he stated himself that to steer the aeroplane he had to move himself around in the fuselage. Whitehead's aeroplane was a bit of an evolutionary dead-end, the Wright biplane was the template for heavier-than-air aviation for the next few decades in many ways.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Dr Who's Pr1me Adverts

Yes indeed Dr Who, who looked uncannily like Tom Baker at the time, did some adverts for Pr1me Computer in 1980. Here they all are collected into one video. Proper computing!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Atari 2600 iPhone dock

Peter Morris has turned an Atari 2600 into an iPhone speaker dock, complete with 6 EQ settings and an FM radio. I am in two minds about this, its cool but at the same time a 2600 should remain a 2600... mind you the console was not working anyway so i suppose it is an incredibly funky example of recycling. Its available from Peter's Etsy shop (probably already long sold!)

Blue Monday 30 years on

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the first release of New Order's classic early synthpop electropop track Blue Monday. The original music video is also a complete 8-bit video nostalgia fest.

My Micro Life (2) : Commodore VIC-20

As we saw in part 1 of my series documenting the computers i grew up with, the ZX-80 was fine but i didn't do a great deal with it. I needed something with a bit more oomph in order to fully be able to explore the world of computing and be able to properly interact with this exciting new paradigm... in other words i needed something that could play decent computer games. So our second microcomputer was the Commodore VIC-20.

Technology wise it was quite a leap from the Sinclair, having a whole 5K of RAM (which was later expanded to a mind-boggling 16K!) and more importantly it had colour! It also had a proper keyboard as opposed to the awful membrane keyboard on the Sinclair. Software was loaded from a special Commodore cassette player (same as with the Sinclair) though there was also an extension socket to load games and other software from cartridges. We later added an extension board so you could load multiple cardridges.

I had a few games on cartridge and my Dad tried his hand at a bit of assembly language programming (you can see the cartridge for that in the photo below, its the black one by the joystick. The cartridge loaded in the VIC is the RAM expansion one). Actually my Dad was a keen programmer back in the 8-bit days but i don't think thats why i became a programmer myself later on, it is just because its one of the few things i am any good at.
VIC-20
Me on the VIC in 1983, see the cartridges and other paraphernalia.

The VIC-20 gave us several years of trouble free and largely enjoyable computing and for me that meant a lot of gaming. I can remember some of the games i played on it, vaguely, though not their names. My favourite was one where you flew a Harrier jump jet and had to shoot down MiGs, though running out of fuel was always a problem and when you landed for refuelling the MiGs would always come out of nowhere and blow you up! I used to play videogames quite a lot back then, not that i have ever been any good at them.

After a few years the VIC was becoming a bit obsolete and my Dad wanted something with more expandability potential so he could experiment with computing and his HAM radio so the next computer in our house was the BBC Micro but that is a story for another day...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How guys will use Google Glass

This is funny and probably very true. More seriously read the Google Glass feature no one is talking about.

The strange beauty of old iron, historic computers

Wired have a great article on the sights and smells of historic computing, the strange beauty indeed of mainframes, minicomputers, line printers and other historic computing artifacts. Many of the computers and peripherals at places like the Computer History Museum in California (somewhere i must visit one day!) still work after being restored adding an extra dimension to the experience. The sound and heat of a punched card reader...

It is a very different tech world to now, a bigger world too. Computers filled huge rooms with printers being the size of small cars, plus tape units the size of wardrobes. That is part of the fascination i feel, its just so different to the computing we use now.

Unfortunately by the time i entered work we were past the age of old iron, though i did use a Prime minicomputer at university which was great fun. The biggest computer i've ever had physical access to is a HP PC server which was the size of a small fridge. Just not the same. One place i must try and get to this year is the UK National Museum of Computing which includes a fair amount of old iron in it's collection.
Photo from Flickr Commons

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tweetdeck

Twitter have announced that Tweetdeck, the stand-alone Twitter client they bought some time ago, is to be relegated to merely being a web app (ironically they announced this on a Posterous blog, something else they have bought and will kill off soon). There will be a Tweetdeck Chrome app and the native OSX and Windows apps will remain (but will not be updated as quickly) but the original AIR, iOS and Android versions will go.

This is disappointing me to me as i have used Tweetdeck for years and i will probably not be moving to the web version. I find Twitter is much superior and easier to use when it is in its own stand-alone client rather than relegated to yet another tab in a web browser. Of course Twitter want you to use their web site for the service.

So now i am in the market for a new client should the native app Tweetdeck also go (matter of time?), Tweetbot has been recommended to me, are there any others i should try? PC Mag lists some alternatives.

Saving endangered and historic photographs

The conservation of historic photographs is a very complicated business because of the variety of methods used in early photography, and the science itself being a fairly recent development.

This fascinating article traces the history of photo conservation and the complications involved. Research into photo conservation was spurred in the 1990s by the explosion in value of historic and artistic photos and the discovery of some notable frauds.

What astounded me was that there have been over 150 different photographic processes developed in the 187 years since Joseph Niépce first took a photograph of the view from his window. The article lists some of these including processes i've heard of like daguerreotypes and also others i hadn't like ambrotypes (example below) and kallitypes!
Photo from Flickr Commons, British Officer from Sir William Dixson's collection of ambrotype portraits, ca. 1857-1858, possibly by Thomas Glaister (State Library of New South Wales)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dragon reaches the ISS

Despite having some problems initially with the thrusters SpaceX's Dragon capsule has docked with the International Space Station for the second time bringing supplies and science experiments. Although there are other ways to send cargo up to the ISS the Dragon is the only one that can return materials to Earth as other cargo spaceships like the venerable Progress are discarded and burn up on re-entry (although an older version of Progress could use a returnable cargo container called Raduga though this hasn't been used with the ISS).

Among the items the Dragon capsule will return to Earth later in the month are some fishes. Some Japanese Medaka fish that have been on the ISS for 6 months will be returned to Earth to study the effect of zero gravity on bone density. Blood and urine samples from the astronauts will also be returned to study the effect on human anatomy of spaceflight.

Dragon could be the basis of a new generation of manned spaceships, as mentioned already it could be used for Dennis Tito's planned trip around Mars.
An earlier Dragon mission lifts off, image from NASA/Alan Ault

Sunday, March 3, 2013

IBM 360 Mainframe

You have got to love Youtube, every possible video is on there... including...

Weapon Fail : Rockwell XFV-12

The Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jump Jet is, to date, the only successful V/STOL jet fighter in the west (and the way the JSF is going that may well remain so). The US adopted the Harrier themselves but in the 1970s they tried to produce a superior supersonic fighter to replace it. This was the Rockwell XFV-12 which was fine looking and futuristic but had one slight snag... it couldn't actually take off.

The XFV-12 had a thrust augmented wing, engine thrust was diverted through slots in the wing to produce vertical thrust. The XFV-12 had 2 sets of wings more or less as it's canards provided almost half of the available wing area. So why did the plane fail?

The problem was simple, the thrust available even with an uprated engine was not enough to get the plane off the ground. Too much engine thrust was lost through the exhaust ducting. It probably could have worked, if the aircraft weighed 25% less. Another major drawback with the thrust augmented wing scheme was that the wings could not be used to carry weapons which meant that the only place to carry weapons was under the fuselage.

This proved rather academic in any event as the project was canceled by the end of the 1970s due to cost... and being useless.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Set course for Mars!

Could mankind visit Mars in 2018? It doesn't seem very far away but Dennis Tito (former rocket scientist, the first space tourist and a very rich individual) has launched the Inspiration Mars project which is hoping to send a man and a woman on a flyby of the Red Planet taking advantage of favourable planetary alignments.

However it will still be a mission that lasts over 500 days and will shatter records for the longest and furthest manned spaceflights. It is possible the mission could use the private space industry developed SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon module. The mission while risky isn't beyond the bounds of current space technology, indeed the systems needed use a lot of technology developed and proven decades ago. Tito's plan would not involve a landing on Mars so that reduces the complexity, risk and cost somewhat. Lots of risk (and cost) remains though, not least from radiation once you travel through the Van Allan Belts.
Image credit NASA

I'd love to go (not sure if i could persuade my wife to join me though!)

Spacewar!

Spacewar! was one of the earliest computer games and was written for the DEC PDP-1 minicomputer in the early 1960s. In the game two players fight each other's space ships while navigating around the gravity well of a star. The game was very popular in the 60s and was considered such a good test of the PDP-1's capabilities it ended up being included by DEC for factory and field testing and as part of the demonstration to potential customers.

It was ported to a number of other computers and continued to be developed and enhanced though only one PDP-1 is thought to still work these days (in the Computer History Museum) though Spacewar! can still be played on it! Happily you can now play the game in your web browser. Another emulation can be found here.
PDP-1 photo from here. You can see the game below.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rebuilding the Titanic

Forget raising the Titanic Australian mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer wants to build a life-size replica of the doomed ocean liner (personally i find building ships to 1:700 more manageable). Although the ship will be built with an eye for detail with the same style of furnishings as the original the ship will have some modern refinements such as air conditioning and sufficient life boats!

It looks like the ship is intended to be more a floating theme park rather than an ocean liner built to a retro style. Passengers will be able to dress up in period clothing and party like its 1912. The ship will retain the three separate classes of the original (and classes will not be able to mix) though there could be an option to sample life in all 3 classes. Palmer is hoping the ship, which could begin construction this year, will be ready to recreate the ill-fated Atlantic cruise of Titanic 1.0 in 2016. Hopefully avoiding ice bergs.
Photo from Flickr Commons (State Library of Queensland)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Smartphone calculation machines

A recent review for an alternative calculator for the iPhone made me consider what people want from a calculator on their smartphone. The calculator is one of those apps which you might not need to use that often but when you need it you are really grateful that it is there (or bitterly regret if it is not!) PopCalc which the Telegraph review looks ok and it is good that some designers are trying to think outside the box and not replicate a physical artefact too deeply though i don't really see a huge amount of benefit over the built in calculator app. Software calculators work pretty well on a phone with a touch screen, i hate using them on a computer using a mouse though.

Interestingly the original iOS calculator took a lot of inspiration from a real-life calculator, the Braun ET44. Nowadays the buttons are square but the calculator app does still look based on one of many calculators which were knocking around in the 1970s and early 80s. Personally i am fine with the built-in app though i do have a RPN calculator (RPN25, below right) as an alternative, its based on the HP-25. It isn't that good but it was free and looks funkily retro. If i'm at home i prefer to use my real HP-12C...

Google makes an example of Interflora

Something odd has happened to Interflora on Google, although a search for that word will come up with third party websites the only official website listed is via a paid advert. It is thought that Interflora are being punished by Google for paying newspapers to publish advertorials. Google does allow paid advertorials but they must use the nofollow tag which were not included in the blizzard of advertorials Interflora paid for in the run up to Valentines's Day. Several UK newspapers have also had their PageRank on Google reduced meaning they do not appear as prominently on Google's results.

Interflora is now trying to get rid of these paid links as fast as they can though the damage to their digital presence may take some time to repair. As well as advertorials in newspapers Interflora also sent freebies to bloggers in return for reviews and a link. However one blogger doesn't think these bloggers are the main cause for Google's reaction but rather something more murky is going on.

We don't get paid for any of our links by the way!

Return to 110 Format photography

A few years ago i bought a Kodak Instamatic off Ebay and took a number of photos in the venerable 110 film format which takes the form of a handy cartridge. Then i dropped the camera in the mud at Plantbrook Nature Reserve and the camera went a bit funny. For a few years i got sidetracked and did not complete my film in that camera but earlier this year i decided to finish the film off (which i was unsure if it still worked or not) and also buy a second Instamatic (a model 91 so older than the other one which is a model 400) and try some new film, made by Lomography no less.

And i got the results back last week. Some of the photos are really pretty interesting. Both cameras work fine (though the older Instamatic sometimes needs coaxing to move onto the next frame) so i will continue to use both in future. The Lomo film was Lomography Lobster Redscale 110 which gives everything a reddy tinge, it also adds a period feel to photos such as the one of Shakespeare's birthplace below, which looks like it might have been taken in the 19th century but in fact was was taken on February 1st 2013! I have a black and white Lomo film ready for use next.

I could of course just use an app like Instagram but where is the fun in that? Well there is fun but its different. In this world of instant gratification there is something nice about taking a photo but not knowing for weeks or months if it actually turned out. Of course this can be annoying when you find the photo turned out a blurry mess.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The virtual keypunch

If you want a taste of "old iron", and classic computing before the days of microcomputers, floppy discs and the like try the Virtual Keypunch. Punched cards were an early data storage method with the data being encoded using holes in a piece of card or other material (hence the need of a Keypunch to make the holes!) Programs were encoded using the cards but because each card (if using the IBM 80 column card method) could only hold one line of code then you might need hundreds if not thousands of cards for a serious program.

All the cards had to be in order and there are plenty of tales of people dropping card stacks. One benefit of this data storage method however was that if you did suffer such a data corruption you could restore it by putting the cards back in order! Corrupted cards (bent for example) could also repunched. By the 1970s computers were moving onto magnetic storage and visual display terminals though you could still find the keypunches and readers well into the 1990s.