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! 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.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Weapon Fail : Supermarine PB 31E Night Hawk

A new series on weapons that... well... failed. We start off with an aircraft that was in some ways ahead of its time, and ahead of engine technology for sure...

For this first failed weapon we go back to the First World War and the first aircraft to bear the Supermarine name. The company changed had it's name from Pemberton Billing in 1916 (after Mr Pemberton Billing sold his interests to the company's other directors). One of the last aircraft Pemberton Billing had been working on had been the PB 29E, a large quadruplane for anti-airship defence. Unfortunately the sole PB 29E crashed during flight testing but the Admiralty decided to continue pursuing Pemberton Billing's ideas for combating the zeppelin menace so sponsored a further aircraft.

Supermarine PB 31E

This was the PB 31E, like the 29E it was a large quadruplane 37ft (11.27m) long and with a wing span of 60ft (18.28m). It was made more sturdy than the 29E with a planned crew of 5 and heavily armed with a 1½-pdr recoiless gun and twin Lewis machine guns. It was intended to be able to stay aloft for up to 18 hours and carried a searchlight that was powered by a separate engine and thus was probably one of the first aircraft to carry an auxiliary power unit. Because of the long planned duration it was fitted with some basic comforts for the crew including a heated cabin. The aircraft also carried armour in some key areas and the cockpit was bound with fabric to avoid wood splinters in the event of a crash to protect the crew.

The problem with all of these innovative and advanced features was that they weighted a lot! The PB 31E weighed over 6100lb (2787kg) when loaded and there simply wasn't the engine technology at the time to adequately power such a plane. Two 100hp Anzani engines powered the PB 31E and was enough to get it airborne but not enough to give it sufficient performance to perform in the anti-zeppelin role. The PB 31E took an hour to climb to 10,000ft which meant that zeppelins could easily escape it by ditching ballast and climbing rapidly. The design speed had been 75mph (120kph) which was considered fast enough to catch zeppelins (though some zeppelins could go faster than that in favourable conditions) but it is reported the PB 31E struggled to pass 60mph (97kph).

Front view showing the search light on the nose

The PB 31E first flew in February 1917 but by then it was apparent there were flaws in the concept, highlighted by the PB 31E's poor performance. Unable to pursue a zeppelin it's only chance of success would have been the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time and firing on the zeppelin before it got out of range. It's main armament, a 1½ pounder Davis non-recoil gun, was also rather unwieldy.

The sole PB 31E was scrapped in the Summer of 1917, the second planned example never being built. The PB 31E, which was given the name Night Hawk, was technically innovative and it's concept could maybe have worked with a better performance. It was an early example of what we would call today a "weapons system". In the event the zeppelin was near the end of it's time as a military weapon anyway. Supermarine survived the war, you may have heard of one of their later products...

Further reading :

Supermarine Aircraft Since 1914 (Andrews & Morgan, Putnam, 1981)
Warplanes Of The First World War - Volume 3 (Bruce, Macdonald, 1969)

Friday, February 22, 2013

35 years of football video games

This great video collects together dozens of snippets from football video games showing how the beautiful game has evolved in the world of computer games, ranging from Football in 1978 to last year's FIFA 13.

International Space Station - Haynes Manual (Book Review)

For years Haynes manuals were synonymous with home car repairs and workshops but in recent times they have applied their iconic design and approach to other topics too and they are among my favourite books these days.

Haynes manuals are excellent value books full of accessible information, their book on the development of the International Space Station is no different. Starting with Mankind's earlier attempts at permanent space stations through to the Mir the book then describes how the ISS was built up piece by piece and what every module does.

Missions to the ISS are also described and listed chronologically as the ISS was developed up until 2011. The number of nationalities who gone up to the ISS is very interesting and helps to show how little the ISS is mentioned in the mainstream media as everything genuinely goes very smoothly (things do go wrong occasionally) . Obviously the success of the ISS is a good thing but its a shame it is not written about more.

This wonderful book helps readdress the balance and is highly recommended. It has been written by Dr David Baker who worked for NASA for 25 years including time on the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programmes. For a video tour of the ISS see here.

Chromebook Pixel

The Chromebook is a great concept, as i mentioned before my Mum got one last year and for her its perfect. I'm not sure about Google's latest Chromebook however.

The Chromebook Pixel is a high-end laptop with a very high resolution screen with touch screen capability. Although Google will give you a terabyte of online storage to go with this baby (which does indeed look great) i can't help think if the Pixel is a bit misguided. You can do many things in the cloud now but a laptop in this bracket (which costs over £1000) is used by powerusers with their heavy duty Adobe and Microsoft application suites and the like. And Google say the Pixel is aimed at those powerusers.

Cloud applications have come a long way but are they enough for the sort of professional who can afford such a computer? Time will tell, it certainly has the wow factor. It will look great when opened at a meeting and begins to play a hipster video while the audience sup on their skinny lattes.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seeing the future through Glass

If computing futurologists are to be believed then the next big thing will be wearable computing. Apple are rumoured to be working on an iWatch (though won't confirm or deny anything) and Google are already developing a head mounted computer called Glass which will be released to selected early adopters soon.

Glass uses augmented reality to overlay its UI on what you can see, and uses voice control to allow you to take a photograph or record a video of what you can see for example. You can also apparently conduct Google searches or use social media this way. How this works in practice is always key, especially in noisy environments (or you have to Google something embarrassing) but it certainly looks very interesting and futuristic (natch).

Augmented vision and voice control are nothing new of course, they have been used in military technology (such as fighter planes) for years and are a sci-fi staple. This is only the beginning, eventually the technology will shrink so to become almost invisible. Thought control instead of having to speak commands will also be welcome.

My Micro Life (1) : Sinclair ZX80

This new series will describe my progression through the world of personal computing to the present day (perhaps, it might be too boring to describe what i am using now, Macbook Pro in case you are wondering).

It all started back in the very early 1980s with the Sinclair ZX80! My Dad bought one in either 1980 or 1981 (most likely the latter) and it was the first computer i ever used or even touched! My primary school did not have a computer at the time though they did get one just as i was leaving a couple of years later.

Although the ZX80 was the first computer i ever used i already had a pong console so was familiar with the mysterious world of pixels moving around the screen. The ZX80 was a fairly primitive if ingenious computer.

It had 1K of RAM and a 3.5MHz 8-bit processor, back in the early 1980s that was fairly low-end but still competitive with other home computers of the era. Programs had to be loaded via cassette tape and it was all very awkward. You had to listen to the tape and try the various screechy noises until you found the right one. Alternatively you could type programs in and i did this with a couple of programs which were listed in the user manual. One program i typed in a couple of times was Cheese Nibbler, a fun little game written in several hundred lines of Sinclair BASIC. I remember the second time i tried to type it in i got mixed up with all the PRINT A$ and PRINT B$ statements and messed it all up.

I have thus always been an average programmer, in mitigation i should say that editing on the ZX80 was far from ideal with a very awkward cursor. The screen also flashed every time it needed to change (i.e. every time you pressed one of the keys on the one piece membrane keyboard). Typing was miserable on it and this prejudiced me against this kind of keyboard for the next few decades, it even put me off the iPad until i finally got one and realised technology had progressed a little over the years. But we all have to start somewhere and the ZX80 was a great little computer.

The ZX80's heyday soon passed and i got a VIC-20 next as shall be described in the next part of this series. I do still have my ZX80 though, my Dad never threw it away and it passed over to me. Its still in the original box and did still work the last time i tried it a couple of years ago...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Abandoned Apples

Many buildings lie empty or abandoned, rediscovered and explored by urban explorers who document what they find. In this set of photos urban explorers document the Apple computers and other equipment they have found abandoned in houses, offices and schools. In some of the cases it seems a terrible amount of waste left behind.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Camera C64

Instagram is one of my favourite apps with its ability to add a layer of faux retro-ness to your photos. Camera C64 takes it to the next level. The iPhone app modifies your photos to the resolution and colour depth of graphics on the Commodore C64 with its VIC-II video chip! The app is free though there is an optional (and very cheap) in-app purchase for extra colour filters for green, amber and B&W monitors. They were easily worth 69p to be honest! An example photo is below.


Vine is Twitter's new video creation and sharing tool and pretty nice it is too. You create a 6 second long video using your phone when it then posted to your twitter feed. At the moment its a bit gimmicky but i am sure that soon (if not already) someone has come up with something awesome. Here is one of my first attempts

EMACS on the Volker-Craig

Years ago (many years ago in fact, now over 20) when i was at Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) i got my hands on one of the leaflets created by Computer Services to assist us in using IT at the Poly. The leaflet contained instructions on how to use the EMACS editor on the Pr1me minicomputer which we had access to if connected via a Volker-Craig VC404. For some reason i kept this leaflet even after the Pr1me and all the Volker-Craig terminals had long gone. Now it remains a treasured souvenir of the HND which i did at Birmingham Polytechnic from 1990 to 1992, in fact i think it might well be the only souvenir!

Just in case it doesn't survive another 20 years i thought i would scan the leaflet. Whether there are any Volker-Craig terminals still in use in the world anywhere is unknown but i like to think there may be some somewhere and so this information could be very useful.

Birmingham Polytechnic Computer Services Document #82 : EMACS on the Volker-Craig

Monday, February 18, 2013

The rise of the microcomputer (video)

An interesting video from the Open University discussing the rise of the microcomputer in the 1980s and the great variety of machines as computers became democratised and were within the aim of normal people and not just corporations. Some lovely nostalgia as well here, i remember my ZX-80, VIC-20 and BBC Micro well... I had friends who had C64s, Orics, Dragon 32s. Nowadays everyone has an iPad.

Friday, February 8, 2013

How do you turn music into money?

How do you turn your music into money? Of course everyone does it for the sake of the music but that doesn't pay the rent. This interesting article shows how an independent artist (Zoe Keating a cellist) makes her money. Basically she makes most of her money from iTunes with Bandcamp and Amazon also providing a good deal of her revenue. Streaming sites like Spotify only provide a small amount of income though as with anything the exact mix will depend on the artist and their genre.

The message surely has to be though that by cutting out the middle man (i.e. the major record labels) then artists can be best rewarded for their art. Thats what we indie kids have been saying all along...