Vintage computing.

This month I explored some vintage computer tech. I had some 3″ floppies from an Amstrad PCW which contained some letters etc that  I could no longer access, so I bought a refurbished Amstrad single-sided drive and a special cable kit for connecting it as a PC floppy drive.

Modern PCs and the latest PC operating systems don’t support floppies any more, which presents some difficulty.  I have an old tower PC with an internal floppy drive, so was able to connect the 3″ drive to this in place of the internal 3.5″ drive.

With the 3″ Amstrad drive connected I was ready to try reading off some files.  There are several programs which may do this. I found one that worked (CPCDiskXP) and copied files over to a directory on the hard disk.  CPCDiskXP was not the easiest program to use as it came without instructions.  However if you find the disk edit option you can read the disk, which first checks all the sectors and then reads them all off, you can go to a list of files and select them all to be saved/ exported.

The files were still in an obsolete format.  It is not too difficult to clean up one file in a word processor, but if there are scores of files it is worth finding a program to do the job.  If you find and manage to install Locoscript for PCs, it can export the files in a more modern format, but it is much better to find and use a program called ‘Ailink’ which will batch process Locoscript files.

I also found some 5.25″ floppies in the attic and in a similar way I attached it to an older PC and selected 5 1/4″ 1.2 Mb drive in the CMOS setup. Windows 7 and Windows 10 no longer show any floppy drive in Windows Explorer even if you manage to connect one. However, there is a work-around. Select ‘devices and printers’ and click on the item for the PC itself. A menu for ‘browse files’ will then appear above.  Click on this and you will find Floppy a: listed.  I was able to read off the files on the 5.25″ disks, which turned out to be nearly all DD 360Kb disks rather than HD, and copy them to the computer’s hard disk.

The files were not anything of particular value but it was an interesting exercise. As with the Amstrad disks, nearly all these 30 year old disks read OK.  I copied some files back to the more useful 3.5″ floppies so I could try them on an even older XP machine, with mixed results.   The Locoscript software refused to install as it wasn’t on the master disks (how did it know?) the Wordperfect disks turned out not to have been a complete set, and the last Sidekick disk threw up disk errors.  On the other hand, I found it was possible to download archive files for many of these old programs, even if it is a chore to unpack them, copy them to installation disks and try installing them.  Installing a modern program on a modern PC is so much easier.

On the plus side, I found a couple of 3.5″ cover disks in the attic with Locoscript installation files on them, so I got that to work.

Telescope wish-list – 8″

Beyond the starter sizes of astronomical telescopes, keen amateur astronomers usually yearn for something bigger.
The ‘something bigger’ often takes the form of the popular 200mm (8″) size.
At this size there is some shake-out of the options available, as the refractors are long and heavy, and price themselves out of the running except for enthusiasts with deep pockets.

On the other end of the scale, you can get a Newtonian 200mm, on a Dubsonian mount, for under £300, cheap enough to tempt the unwary beginner. The Dobsonian mount was designed to be cheap, light and portable, for mounting large Newtonians and taking them out to astromeets and dark-sky sites, and designed to be easy to make as a DIY project. It is not really intended for starter-scopes. No single-axis tracking, no slow motions, no powered drives and no Goto.

For a Newtonian mounted on a solid equatorial mounting with electric drives and Goto, you can triple the above price.
The advantages of a Newtonian are cheapness and (usually) a short focal ratio good for astro-photography. That’s it.
Disadvantages: needs frequent collimation checks, awkward eyepiece position, requires eyepieces designed for short-focus telescopes.

Further up the scale are the catadioptric telescopes, usually a SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope) in this size range. These have a folded optical train and a corrector plate at the front, giving a compact tube and a convenient eyepiece position, with a long focal ratio. They do not require frequent checking or adjustment. With a Goto mounting, they cost from around £1300. Good for astro-photography and general viewing (except wide-field). If you want the very best, you can spend £10,000 on a superb and fully equipped catadioptric 8″ telescope and mounting. Not that many people do, other than university astronomers.

A Goto mount will allow you to rapidly find objects by their RA and declination, something that setting circles are supposed to do but actually don’t, except at an observatory. Also they can be hooked up to a laptop for sundry purposes including accessing observing lists from the Internet.
Norton’s Star Atlas and Goto firmware databases contain small lists, but download a full list of what double stars your telescope should be able to resolve, and you’ll be gobsmacked.

Astronomy bits

I recently acquired some more astronomy hardware. First, a Helios 200p OTA (or in plain English, a large Newtonian reflector without mounting). I hoped that this would provide some extra power for looking at planets in particular, as well as making use of my under-employed EQ-5 mount with electric RA drive. The OTA was very cheap, a fraction of the cost of a new one.
I also got two premium quality eyepieces, a Baader Classic Ortho of 10mm and a Celestron X-Cel of 8mm focal length. I got the X-Cel cheap on Ebay- they retail for around £70.
Last night I managed to test the new eyepieces in my 127 Maksutov telescope. Both are an obvious improvement on the 9mm stock eyepiece that came with the Celestron Mak. The 9mm struggled to split Epsilon Lyrae 1 or2 (not a severe test for this scope) while the other two split this double-double easily, showing round dots with diffraction rings.

I am still working up the Helios, having so far tried it on the EQ-5 mount three times. I have adjusted the collimation, given it a spare red-dot finder (only good for finding very bright objects, unfortunately) and checked that it works with various eyepieces. I fitted a grab bar across the tube rings so that I could handle the scope safely. With the tripod legs fully extended, the eyepiece proved to be too high to reach when the telescope was aimed at the zenith. At 9Kg this is the heaviest scope one can put on an EQ-5 without exceeding the maximum recommended loading. It seems stable enough for visual use.
The Helios has a f5 focal ratio, like almost all the larger Newtonians for sale today. This f-ratio is not really well suited for visual work, but makes the scope shorter, lighter, and easier to mount. In this case, making the tube any longer would bump up the mounting requirements to a stronger, heavier and more expensive mounting.

The Helios seems much less user-friendly than my 127mm Mak go-to outfit, and I wonder what a beginner would make of it.

Battle of Jutland 1916

Since we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of this naval battle it seems worth explaining briefly why it was significant. The British expected to have command of the seas, and with their large and impressive fleet were able to achieve this for many decades up to WWI.
The Germans had similar ambitions, and their aggressive construction of a new High Seas Fleet was just one of several causes of WWI.
Each side hoped to bring the other side’s fleet to battle and destroy it, which would certainly be possible given good tactics and luck. WWI battleships bristled with huge guns and even today would be capable of sinking anything afloat, provided that the target did not shoot a missile back. Unfortunately, by 1914 they were proving vulnerable to mines, and to torpedoes fired by smaller craft, and by that sneaky new weapon, the submarine. This concentrated the minds of the admirals on keeping their expensive battleships out of such situations.
However, at the end of May 1916, both the British and German fleets were at sea, each hoping to lure the other into a tactically difficult position and inflict a smashing blow. The result is a matter of record, but after some fighting, the largely intact German fleet retreated to harbour, leaving the British (who suffered higher losses) in possession of the North Sea for the rest of the war.
The result created much anger and despondency in a Britain accustomed to crushing Trafalgar-style naval victories. Only gradually was the real significance of the outcome understood. It fell to an American to point out that “the Germans had assaulted their jailer but were still in jail”. Winston Churchill said that the British Admiral Jellicoe was “the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Jellicoe had his afternoon, and he didn’t lose.
After Jutland, the British tightened their strangling sea blockade of Germany, and were able to ship men and munitions over to France and the trenches unhindered by the German navy. If we had lost at Jutland, the outcome of WWI would have been very different.

The Rise of the Robots

The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, Oneworld, 334pp, £9.99
The Rise of the Robots coverTechnology and the threat of mass unemployment.
Whenever a new machine is introduced to replace human labour, we are told that this is progress, and that the humans displaced will find less deadening jobs elsewhere, that they can be retrained to work in other industries, and so on. Who still believes this? For many people, the search for a job entails hundreds of applications and futile visits to the jobcentre, and for those in work, it means a struggle to make ends meet on the minimum wage or a zero-hours contract. Well-paid jobs for blue-collar workers or for the middle classes are disappearing. Why? What is happening?
Martin Ford’s book provides many of the answers. The replacement of mass employment by automation has been going on for many decades, and the effects have garnered little public attention. It’s only when one is forced to look at ‘then’ and ‘now’ that the differences are apparent. Films of factories taken fifty or sixty years ago show thousands of workers streaming out of the gates in cloth caps and filling the streets. The typical new facility of today is an automated factory, or a vast datacentre in which you’d need a sniffer dog to find an employee anywhere.
As Ford points out, advanced technology systems being developed today have the potential to make almost any routine job, whether in a workshop or at a keyboard, obsolete. Mass production in factories is now largely automated, and a host of other jobs are under attack. Driverless cars are news, and in a few years will be threatening hundreds of thousands of jobs. If you can summon up a driverless car to take you where you want to go, who needs taxi drivers? Or delivery van drivers? Or do you need to own a car at all? If you don’t, the number of cars required to serve the population will be far less. Meaning fewer dealerships, filling stations, car parks and repair shops. The disruption caused by Uber will be as nothing compared with this.
A popular job for newly qualified lawyers is searching for documents relevant to a legal case. This can be automated too.
Do you eat at McDonalds? There is one in Milton Keynes where the row of clerks at the counter has been replaced by rows of terminals where patrons can select and order their meals. Catering is one of the remaining providers of mass employment (admittedly not well paid) but this too is now under attack.
There are statistics that show how while the number of people in the labour market is rising, the number of hours worked stagnates, and the wages and salaries paid remain static or fall.
The trend is clear enough and leads to a future in which a super-rich elite holds most of the wealth and the remainder of the population struggles to find any work or gain any income. And how will this affect the economy? A capitalist economy needs mass consumption, but robots don’t consume, and people on the breadline consume very little. The outlook for the economy is not good.
To put it plainly: No jobs = no spending = no mass market = no economy.
Ford offers a possible solution – that all citizens be given a guaranteed income so that they can feed and house themselves, and carry on participating in the economy, even if they don’t work. the cost of this could be met, Ford suggests, by reassigning the sums spent on jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, disability benefit, etc, and their inefficient administration, increasing the taxes on the rich and making international corporations actually pay some tax. Surprisingly, this has been looked into in a small way in a few countries, but I’m not holding my breath for this to happen in the UK or the USA any time soon. You can easily deduce how Tory politicians will react to this idea, since they have not grasped that Austerity is having the same effect on the economy as the destruction of employment…
Read this book.

EU Referendum

Far be it from me to influence your vote, but if you don’t register to vote by 7 June and then vote on the 23 June, you may find that anti-EU wrinklies have decided the result for you.
A whole slew of august economic bodies have warned of some decline in economic performance if we leave the EU. The Leave campaign counter this by shouting that the Remain arguments are all wrong.
The Leave campaign point to an annoying influx of EU workers taking jobs and putting a strain on public services, which would stop if we left. However, to stop the influx of EU immigrants would require a complete divorce from the EU, with the consequence being a likely economic decline, meaning fewer jobs and less government revenue, so the prospects for British workers are not likely to improve. And not providing more services was a political decision.
If we leave, we could get rid of some annoying EU regulations and control our own country. Maybe, but how is that going to benefit the young man or woman in the street? It could just give bosses a freer hand to set your wages and working conditions.

Astronomy topics

I saw the transit of Mercury on 9 May. I missed the entry as I was trying to get a clear projected image through some light cloud. By the time I swapped to another scope the small dot was already on the Sun’s disk. Later I went to the transit event at the OU where I saw the transit again. They had several telescopes set up with front-end filters to make viewing safe. They also had a specialist solar scope that showed the sun in the H-alpha wavelength, so that streaks of solar activity were visible as well as Mercury.
In a marquee they had a display of real meteorites for visitors to handle.
Before the end of the event, cloud had come over with spots of rain.

This month, Mars and Saturn can be seen low in the SE sky around midnight BST. A small telescope will show Mars as a reddish disk. The planet is at its closest approach for years, so this is your best chance to view it.

I now have the use of three telescope mountings: an AZ-4, a very solid mount that is very quick to set up for use, but has no slow-motions, a Nexstar SLT which I use for general observing sessions – the SLT is a computer controlled mount which works well for finding and tracking faint objects. The tripod is rather wobbly though.
I also have a EQ-5, another very solid mount, an equatorial with electric drive. This is good for observing planets and other easy to find objects but I have not used it much.

The Eye of the World

I wrote this review in the 1990’s. I didn’t think much of it then …
Robert Jordan, THE EYE OF THE WORLD, (Orbit, 670pp, £7.99 trade.).
The cover illustration shows some characters, armed, and on horseback, and the blurb calls the book ‘A splendid epic of heroic fantasy’.
Inside it’s much as you’d expect of Book One of a fantasy series. The rustic hero, Rand, caught up in events beyond his village, is sought by rising dark forces and hunted by various foulnesses called Trollocs, Darkfriends etc. while a sorceress and Warden aid him and his young companions. Magical power is centred in distinct male and female powers; while the female is still effective the male half is tainted with evil and drives its wielders into madness.
The characterisation is a weak point in this otherwise diligently constructed epic; even after 300,000 words one has little insight into these people. The author tends to label them with single attributes, so that one is ‘obstinate’, another ‘broad-shouldered’, another ‘mischevous’ and so on. Possibly the best inventions in the whole book are the Whitecloaks, a truly sinister bunch of armed religious fanatics and sorcery-haters.
The book is something of a page-turner; but the mechanical plotting is at the same time an irritant; as soon as some trouble is outlined one can be sure that our young heroes will do the most foolhardy thing and fall right into it, and then be rescued by some deus ex machina means. At the end of this volume their immediate problem is overcome with unconvincing ease.
Recommended for fantasy quest addicts and uncritical adolescents only.
(Reviewed by Geoff Cowie)