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.

Planets in daytime

Those interested in amateur astronomy may yet not realise that the planets can be found in the sky during the day. Many people will be aware that the Moon can be seen in the daytime clear sky, if you know where to look. Same with the planets, but they can’t be seen without a telescope.
To do this you’ll need one of the various telescopes available nowadays that have a computerised star-seeking mounting. Assuming you know how to set it up, perform a “Solar System Align” using either the Moon or the sun. (Do not look through the telescope or finder at the Sun. Use the telescope’s shadow and then catch the bright projected image on a bit of card.) Once this is done, finding a planet is a no-brainer – just select one on the handset and press Enter.
Venus is the easiest to see by day, followed by Jupiter and then Mars. Mercury, otherwise a very elusive object, can be seen if the sky is clear and the Sun is not shining on the telescope. I have never managed to see Saturn (too dim).
It is also possible to find the brightest stars by the same method.

Some experienced astronomers may point out here that it should be possible to get the same result using an equatorial mount and setting circles. To which I would reply: if you can make setting circles work for you, fine. But I never could, which is why I got a ‘SLT’ as mentioned above. 🙂 It’s like using a sat-nav for the night sky, and makes finding interesting objects far easier.

Backyard Astronomy

Lidl supermarket telescope
£70 telescope kit
I have an interest in amateur astronomy, which I have pursued on and off since childhood. Lots of others have felt the same, often inspired by popular TV programs. There is something about having a look for oneself that is hard to duplicate indoors.
On the other hand, many people dabble in amateur astronomy, then give it up almost at once. Why should this be? One reason is that what you can see from your backyard does not measure up to the amazing photos taken at major observatories or from space. Another is that a lot of the equipment sold to amateurs is neither of good quality nor particularly suitable. The sorry fact is that good quality astronomical equipment varies in cost between expensive and eye-wateringly expensive, and many telescopes or “starter scopes” are sold on the basis of cheapness. Starter-scope mountings, for instance, are almost always too wobbly.
Several of the desirable qualities of a telescope (performance, cost, size, ease of use) conflict with each other. So how are you, as a vaguely interested person, to navigate your way through this minefield? Possibly not by visiting a telescope store, where you will be confronted by telescopes of all shapes, sizes, designs and prices. Think about what you want the telescope to do, and how much you are prepared to spend. Less than £100? Same price as a new i-pad or smartphone? Same price as a used car? Any optical aid for looking at the night sky is a lot better than none, but with the cruder instruments you will soon run out of interesting objects to view.
How are you going to use it? Most likely, keep it indoors and haul it outside on a clear night. That imposes constraints on size and weight. How much time are you prepared to spend setting up the thing every time you use it? If the answer is “two minutes” you might be wasting your money on one of the more sophisticated mountings.
The mounting, you say? That’s another specialist, and potentially expensive subject, which I’ll return to later.
Where do you live? If like most of us, you live in a town, you can still discover many objects in the night sky, but you will be looking at small bright objects rather than extended dim ones, which has a bearing on your choice of telescope.
Of the designs commonly available the ‘refractor’ conforms most closely to the layman’s idea of what a telescope looks like. In small sizes (under 100mm aperture) these are the obvious choice, but as size increases they become expensive, then eye-wateringly expensive and too long and heavy to be carried. Then there is the Newtonian, which has a mirror at the bottom of the tube and an eyepiece at the top on one side. The prime advantage of these is that, size for size (aperture), these are the cheapest of all the designs, and less bulky and heavy than a refractor.
The ‘Maksutov’ is a modern design which uses both lenses and mirrors to form a very short telescope with an eyepiece at the back. Despite its looks, this like the refractor, is a ‘long focus’ telescope suitable for looking at small bright objects. The compact form makes it very convenient for keeping indoors and hauling out on a clear evening, or even transporting by car.
Be wary of the various ‘short focus’ designs, as these are more of a specialist scope for astrophotography or looking at wide starfields, and are more prone to optical problems than the ‘long focus’ designs.
Mountings – the ‘alt-azimuth’ mounting is one whose function the layman will at once understand, as it allows the telescope to be pointed up and down and from side to side. It is also quick to set up. The ‘equatorial’ is tilted over to align with the earth’s axis, so that to compensate for the earth’s rotation the telescope only needs to be moved on one axis, (an action which can be motorised). Once you have tried observing for yourself, the advantage will be obvious, and it is also essential for long-exposure photography.
Both varieties of mounting are now available with electronic assistance in the form of built-in computers and motors which allow you to find objects by selecting them from a list on the handset, typing in their co-ordinates, or even clicking on a list on your laptop. This is a great advance allowing you quickly to locate objects invisible to the naked eye. All models will track objects once found. You can even find planets in broad daylight. If you can afford such a system, why would you settle for less? Why put up with the frustration of being unable to find objects that are not bright and obvious? The downside is the increased setup time, and for computerised heavy-duty equatorial mounts, the cost.
If you can afford one, I would recommend a ‘Maksutov’ telescope on an alt-azimuth electronic computerised mounting as your starter scope. Examples are available for under £400, which might seem expensive compared with some of the scopes available. But in terms of “astronomical objects viewable per pound (or dollar) spent” it is better value than apparently cheaper telescope kits, and in this price range you will bypass much of the rubbish.
An expert’s view

Moving on
Once you have your first scope, what next? An 8 inch Newtonian on a EQ-5 mounting seems a popular purchase, judging by the numbers of new and used kits on offer. An 8″ Newtonian is a lot of telescope for the money and the EQ-5 mounting is a good rigid one. I would not recommend this as a first purchase lest you find that it’s too big to handle and after the first flush of enthusiasm has worn off you can’t find much to look at (without a costly computerised mounting). If you got the basic manual mount, a tracking motor is around £85 and a full computerising kit another £300. Pointed in the right direction, an 8″ should show more detail on planets and fainter deep-space objects than a smaller instrument. With a solid equatorial mounting, ventures into photography are a possibility.

The Vogler Memorandum

Book iconIn the 1970s, Christopher Vogler, who was familiar with Joseph Campbell’s seminal book “The Hero With a Thousand faces” believed that he saw Joseph Campbell’s ideas on story structure being put to work in the first of the Star Wars movies, and wrote a term paper on the subject.
Later, around 1985, he took time off work (when working as a story consultant in the movie industry), and spent a week with a friend going through movie videotapes and identifying the mythic elements that made these films successful. Vogler drafted a seven-page memorandum which he handed to story analyst friends and to Disney executives. Reaction was muted, but the memo spread around the industry, even being plagiarized so that Vogler had to assert his name as the original author. This resulted in Vogler being called and offered a new job.
The Memo is quoted in full here.
The memo grew into The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler (2007) a popular screenwriting textbook.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Book icon The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) Joseph Campbell’s seminal book on comparative mythology discussed his theory of the archetypal hero’s journey found in many of the world’s mythologies. In other words, all myths are basically the same story.
In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarized the monomyth:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
As proposed by Campbell, the hero’s Journey has the following twelve stages:

  1. ) The ordinary World – the hero is introduced in his home setting.
  2. ) The Call to Adventure – the hero is confronted with a problem
  3. ) Refusal of the Call – the hero is reluctant
  4. ) Meeting with the Mentor – often these stories contain a wise older adviser
  5. ) Crossing the Threshold – the hero enters a new strange region
  6. ) Tests, Allies and Enemies – the hero is tested and finds friends (and enemies)
  7. ) Approach – the hero reaches a dangerous place
  8. ) The Ordeal – the hero faces a deadly situation. Often it looks as if he’s not going to survive.
  9. ) The Reward – having survived, the hero gets the elixir, magic sword, knowledge or whatever
  10. ) The Road Back – hero starts back, chased by vengeful forces, more incidents
  11. ) The Resurrection – hero emerges from the special world, maybe after another near-death experience
  12. ) Return with the Elixir – hero returns to his world with the elixir, magic sword, or knowledge.

According to Campbell, myths may not contain all these stages. The myths he drew on for his book include the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, and Jesus, although Campbell cites many other classic myths from many cultures which rely upon this basic structure.
The resemblance of the ‘hero’s Journey’ to a typical fantasy epic may be notable, but the contention is that the ideas are equally applicable to other kinds of story. Though if one is plotting another kind of story (e.g. a romance), most of the terms will need to be replaced by more appropriate equivalents.
In recent years, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey theories have become more widely disseminated, partly as a result of a well-known memo by Vogler which circulated in the movie industry, and have been studied by film-makers, TV script writers and others interested in telling stories. The popular movie ‘Star Wars’ for instance, was claimed to be influenced by Campbell, and an image from the film appeared on the cover of a reprint of the book.
Other commentators have produced their own variants of Campbell’s ideas, sometimes with differing numbers of stages, or dividing the story into Acts. Extended discussion