Disks to Downloads, DOS to Dust

Storage

Image by succo from Pixabay

This is another of my “young ‘uns today don’t know how lucky they are” articles, cue the wavy picture and harp music…

When I started with computers you didn’t install anything, nothing had any permanent storage to speak of and software had to be loaded from a cassette or floppy disk every time it was used, as such task switching, a matter of a fraction of a second now involved making a mug of tea.

Move on to the nineties and PCs had gained hard drives and Windows but there were still computers such as Amstrad’s PCW that had a one-at-a-time way of working, the operating system came with whatever you were running because at that time it was what was called a Disk Operating System (DOS), hence MS-DOS. A DOS had a command line into which you typed commands to copy files, delete them, format disks, and other functions. There were reference wheels and cards for all these now archaic commands, I still have mine, unsurprisingly, and if you look you can still find them in Windows though strangely the commandline now runs inside Windows whereas once Windows ran from the commandline.  

Anyway, because PCs, unlike other computers with a specific operating system written for its fixed set of components, have a multitude of differing hardware the OS had to be tailored to each computer and so came along device drivers – programs added to the OS to operate them. Windows, like all modern OSes do more than operate the disks and as such are bigger and more complicated.  Early on displays were pretty much the same and used the same convention for displaying blocks of text, the same applied to printers but soon things became more complicated and later new developments such as CD-ROM drives worked in new ways that the OS was never designed to cope with and more drivers were required. These things were a nightmare to use, you had to manually edit configuration files, decide which part of the limited memory to load the drivers into, and when larger memory became available which went far beyond what the OS originally worked in you needed drivers to operate the higher memory which you could then populate with other drivers and then also use programs that knew if the extended memory was present that they could use it, if you’d configured it correctly. Do this all wrong and nothing would work because nothing had enough memory to work.

No wonder people were terrified of computers, it seemed to be a black art. More like a pain in the art.

Somewhere I still have a copy of PC Today magazine from the middle of 1991 which featured the brand new MS-DOS 5.0 on the cover. In the days when Operating Systems came in shiny cardboard boxes with a manual that listed every command and could be repurposed as a door stop after you upgraded.

Windows improved the situation somewhat but still relied on many of the DOS drivers for CD-ROMs etc until Windows 95 and Windows NT finally relegated the old DOS to a legacy subsystem to run old software, a PC within a PC, a Virtual Machine, though the configuration files still remain for those of us who know what they mean to tweak and those who don’t to Google. As we moved into later eras through 16-bit into 32-bit so memory could just be continuous so at least one problem disappeared.

It was with joy that the time came when Windows would automatically install a new piece of hardware’s drivers from a CD-ROM, except that sometimes it would be allowed to find the drivers itself and others it had to be told where to find them, depending on what the driver and software were for. It was still a huge improvement. In pre-broadband days though you still had to do some work to install the OS. You’d install Windows on a blank PC to be confronted by default drivers which meant a screen display with huge fonts and buttons that could be seen clearly from the next room and no space on the desktop – the dreaded 640×480 resolution (my current monitor has a roomy 1440×900 pixels). From this starting point you had to install the proper video driver so you could see what you were doing, the sound card so you could hear it beeping in complaint and hear the cheery startup sound that was the first thing to find itself disabled in the settings, and anything else unusual. Often this wouldn’t go according to plan and you’d see yellow warning triangles in Device Manager and have to start again – removing and reinstalling drivers, until you had a working PC but less hair.

Today you just download a copy of the Windows 10 disk from the internet, burn it onto a DVD pop it in the drive (or use a USB stick), go into the computers BIOS (basic input/output system) settings – the only throwback to the old days – tell it to boot from the external disk and set it going. As long as you’ve provided it with an internet connection via a wireless or wired network connection it’ll install, use whatever driver it can to connect to the outside world, download all the correct drivers and a couple of hours later you’ve got a working PC. Mostly. It only needs help if you’ve got obscure or old hardware it can’t find drivers for but even then the right ones are often only a download and install away. This is all possible thanks to all the manufacturers working together to try to make the disparate bits of a Windows PC work together.

I should say at this point “other operating systems are available” but these such as the various Linux distributions are similarly streamlined these days.

Beyond the operating system installing software has become even easier, not even a disk is required – I’ve recently installed Norton Security with nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a number on it and a broadband connection.

See, not everything about the older days of computing are better, I do like some progress too. The geek in me though does miss the shiny software boxes.

Too Smart For Their Own Good

Kettle, Boiling

Image by Ken Boyd from Pixabay

Why do we need “smart” fridges, kettles, toasters. I like some technology to be dumb.

On Red Dwarf the smart toaster ends up in the rubbish compartment, because it’s annoying.

Considering the limited useful life of the average smartphone or tablet, before updates and so on force it to become slow and unsteady or it just fails altogether why do you want one attached to, and controlling your fridge. Ok, so it can keep track of what you need to buy, it can show you recipes and play music – so can your phone or tablet that you no doubt also have. My fridge-freezer is over three years old, I know this because it was here when I moved in, lurking in the kitchen as though waiting to see who’d turn up next. It’s seen the departure of the spare freezer and the replacement of the mouldy washing machine that had also been left here. The manufacturer is defunct now but the fridge-freezer still works, it has one control and keeps stuff cold, if I want to know whether I need more milk I have a cunning method – I open the door. There has been talk of smart fridges being able to tell you whether you have the ingredients for a recipe – fine if they’re all in there, for mayonnaise or eggs and bacon perhaps – but again, just look in it. Similarly they say you could scan things in and it’d help with monitoring diet – so what’s next a fridge that criticises my food purchases. I’m not having an appliance judging me for buying an eclair (or two) or for eating them both withing two hours.

I also prefer critical gadgets like alarm clocks and door locks to be low tech too – my clock radio is analogue and short of a power-cut will wake me up with modern miserable pop songs every morning without fail, having not crashed and rebooted, losing it’s settings overnight. I don’t want my door to unlock with my phone, a key only fails when it snaps – much less of a regular occurrence than the wifi or bluetooth not working. And I know the digital locks have a manual backup but that, in a way, just proves the point – they have to have the backup so why not just use the backup in the first place, a key needs no batteries. The car has a remote but there’s a flip-out key attached to it.

The internet of things has some uses, remote heating control and alarms or video door-viewers for example, but considering I need to fill the kettle with water and the toaster with bread I feel that the simple controls on both are enough, I do like the hidden blue progress lights on the toaster – only visible when in use, they are the funkiest thing I’ve seen on a kitchen appliance.

So much is tech for tech’s sake, a case of look what we can do, and as the more complex a device is the more likely something will fail. I wouldn’t want to buy a new expensive smart kettle every couple of years, or find I can’t have a coffee because the manufacturer’s gone bust or the API is no longer supported, I don’t want to wait for some toast because the toaster’s upgrading its software.

And so again it’s time for a decidedly low-tech cuppa. Goodnight.

Portable TV

Television

Image by 동철 이 from Pixabay

In the past the term “Portable TV” just meant the set had a handle and was small enough for one person to lug into another room, it wasn’t truly portable as it still had to be plugged in, to the mains if not an aerial. Today though, again through the multipurpose devices we call smartphones, TV is everywhere.

Again the sheer volume of output sees people feeling the need to watch wherever they are and mobile networks, of course, trumpet this as a virtue of their 4G and upcoming 5G networks – you can binge watch the new series that supposedly “everyone” is watching on the train, on the way to work, on the toilet, or all three. The previous menace of people not watching where they’re walking because they’re texting or facebooking or tweeting has now become people not being present in the real world because they’re watching fictional ones instead. Similarly on holiday people want free wifi everywhere so they can watch boxsets that it would be cheaper to simply spend a fortnight watching at home.

It’s not all bad though. With digital TV and internet streaming came catch-up services which I use regularly. Often the Cricket or Formula 1 clash with other programmes and as such I can sit later and watch it on my tablet or stream it to my TV via the Chromecast, or even watch two things at once such as the British Touring Cars and F1 British Grand Prix which due to the current back to back races were on at the same time. In the recent hot weather I’ve enjoyed being able to prop the tablet up somewhere cooler than the living room and watch the Cricket highlights – by which I mean the kitchen, not the downstairs toilet. Another advantage is while streaming either live or catch-up is being able to transfer the programme from the big TV back to the tablet and take it into the kitchen while making something to eat and still keep watching. Sometimes of course it’s nice to be able to lay on the sofa and prop the tablet up on my knees and watch the cricket highlights, QI or something similar in even more comfort than normal, especially in winter when pyjamas, a dressing gown and blanket may be involved as well.

When internet TV started I wondered whether broadband would have the bandwidth to cope, it seems to, even on the mobile networks and even on my 4Mb broadband at home I can stream effortlessly and in high quality.

There used to be an image of a family gathering round the TV of an evening, now they might watch the same thing in different rooms, even different houses and still chat about it on social media. Strangely though during and since the lockdown I’ve found myself turning the TV off more and reading, listening to music while looking out of the window or just, as the summer allows, the breeze and the sounds of nature outside. Some people seem to revel in the constant availability of entertainment but I’ve found it overwhelming and as much of it is repeated relentlessly I’ve become more selective and have felt better for it – this blog has certainly become better for it.

For someone like me it’s bliss to turn off, to be quiet, knowing that the now ever-present telly is there, if and wherever, I want it.

It’s Old And Clunky, But It Works

Some time back a customer was surprised to see some software we use which is clearly, based on its buttons and layouts, from the days of Windows 95. He was even more surprised by our MS-DOS based booking and diary system. Old it may be but I can tell you it’s much more efficient than Windows software.

Everything is done with the keyboard and once you get used to it it’s lightning-quick – use the page up and down keys to select the week, then the arrow keys to select the day, while seeing a complete overview of current bookings, then hit enter, hit insert, hit enter a few times to move to the time fields and enter them, hit F1 to go into the customers list, just start typing the name until it finds the right one, or hit insert to enter a new one. Once the customers details are in use the left and right keys to go to the notes section or the phone numbers section end enter those, select File to save it, hit Escape to go back to the diary. Everything done in seconds without even moving your hands away from the keyboard.

I’ve used Windows booking systems and the ones I’ve seen involve clicking on different tabs, moving to the right button to save, etc, etc. Like so many things the more modern (the more “feature” filled) is also less efficient.

For those of us of the DOS generation it’s perhaps why websites and apps are frustrating, because of their multitude of buttons and tabs, replacing the keyboard combinations that we used to know by heart – including the ones used in Windows such as CTRL+B for bold text, CTRL+C and CTRL+V for copy and paste, automatically hitting CTRL+S to save the document while in the middle of typing and so on, actions that became second nature, reflex actions. Admittedly many, if not most of these shortcuts still exist in modern software but so many functions require the hunting and pecking actions of mouse or touchscreen. One example in Windows is when I upload photos to Flickr I append an ” f” to the filenames and it’s much quicker than clicking each file to highlight it and then click again to put the cursor at the end to just press F2 to edit the filename, END to go to the end and then CTRL+V to paste the pre copied ” f” to the end, then hit ENTER and DOWN ARROW to the next file.

My first book was written in Protext on my old IBM 486DX PC, the one with the perfect clicky keyboard I wrote about a while back. I learned word processing using Microsoft Works on things like Amstrad 1512 PCs and similar, and indeed taught people to use these same systems later. Protext 4 was a freebie on a computer magazine in the late nineties, Works tended to be bundled with PCs back then the way a trial of Office 365 is today. It was basic in todays terms but like the appointment system it was quick and easy to use for getting words into some semblance of order. Formatting it was a different matter but as this was still the era when most choices of typefaces and emphasis (bold, italic etc) were down to what the particular printer you were using has installed it wasn’t really much of a consideration – generally the aesthetics of word-processed documents were secondary to the words.

As with so many things which become rediscovered this simplicity and efficiency in software has now, of course, become the latest big new idea in the form of distraction-free text editors that have simple, uncluttered interfaces that allow you to type words and nothing else, some even have aped the interface of old that we oh so gratefully, naively, ditched as soon as WYSIWYG appeared and even have monospaced text.

The other advantage is that simpler software has, in theory, like a basic car with less gadgets, less to go wrong or slow you down.

So, in essence, though we didn’t know it at the time, us children of the seventies were, in terms of productivity, ahead of our time, no?

Bored On The Fourth Of July?

Beach

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

Not really. I actually wrote this a few summers ago while I was on holiday and pretty much disconnected from the internet, something that many people can’t deal with anymore, as evidenced by people I see leaving shops or the Royal Mail parcel collection point and immediately reaching for their smartphones.

Instead I was using an energy efficient, wireless information transmission media to give me something to do when not watching ships go by, fishermen fishing or birds swooping around – reading books and magazines. It was great, relaxing, not feeling that I should be doing anything else. I did even less in the afternoon after arriving – simply sitting in the sun watching the occasional boat go by and listening to the waves and birds. Me and my folks had walked into the nearby town, eaten fish and chips by the sea and done some shopping.

I wasn’t completely electronics-free, I had access to a digital TV to watch Antiques Roadtrip and thousands of songs stored on my phone to listen to but mostly I was only doing these things later in the evening, after Cider-O’Clock, when the sun was setting and, to paraphrase the cricket, bad light stops reading. If I’d relied on internet streaming services I’d have no music or TV.

If I stood in the right place I could get a faint 4G signal and my phone beeped a few urgent notifications at me but I didn’t feel the need to leap on them like my life depended on them, like they were some kind of life-sustaining manna from the cloud. For many today though the lack of connection would be unbearable – no way to know what everyone else is doing, no way of telling anyone what they’re doing – OMG people will think I’ve disappeared, or that I’m upset with them, I’ll lose their interest, or worst of all, I’ll fall off their news feeds, arghh. Some people would even worry that they’d miss something important from their work, that they should be available, just in case.

People who spend too much time online call this a digital detox but for me it wasn’t too different from being at home really, though it was refreshing to be away from the lure of Ebay – bargain hunter that I am it’s easy to just sit looking for stuff I don’t really need or in the end never actually buy. As it was the holiday was timed perfectly as at home I was still sorting out and reducing unnecessary stuff following my house move so if I’d been at home I’d have spent every spare moment digitising paperwork to then recycle.

So as the Americans celebrated their independence day (no comment) I celebrated my independence from their digital monoliths with a cider by the sea and sunset.

Paper Versus Pixels

Notebook

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

It has often been noted that ideas bubble up in the mind at inconvenient times: in the shower, on the toilet, when you’re just dropping off to sleep – it’s usually when your brain has few distractions, but it’s also when you’re often nowhere near anything electronic to make a note of them. I use Evernote to organise ideas and drafts for this blog and as I’m too stingy to pay the monthly subscription I can only use it on my desktop and laptop PCs, at home. Therefore when I think of something for a post I have to write it on a post-it note and I then end up with a small but colourful collage of three-inch squares of paper stuck to the desk.

The same is true of to-do lists and things to remember and shopping lists.

Before smartphones existed I had a Windows Mobile equipped PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, or Personal Organiser) which still failed to organise my life, through no fault of it’s own. More recently I’ve tried again, using apps on the phone and tablet but find that I tend to forget that I’ve put it on there whereas a piece of paper sits there, waiting to be dealt with, visibly. I have found the reminders useful though. I am tired of the clutter however so I’m going back to what I used to do before trying to go digital and using a single notebook that I can keep open on the desk to jot anything down on whether the computer is on or not and if I do use a random piece of paper – if I’m not at home when inspiration hits me round the chops for example – I can transfer it to the book when I get home and bin the scrap instead.

For some reason I’ve also found that if I have a list of titles, or brief ideas, for posts in a notebook I can flick through them and gain inspiration better than doing the same in Evernote.

I’ve had A4 and A5 spiral bound books before but now I’ve treat myself to a nice A5 six-ring binder as when I’ve typed up the notes I can remove the pages and bin them. I know I could do that with a spiral book but as I’ve said before I appreciate nice stationery and the posh binder looks neater on the desk, or on the tv unit in the living room.

I know that today I could even simply say “Hey Google add milk to shopping list” or “take a note…” so there’s not even any typing involved but somehow I just prefer actually writing the thought down, and anyway the virtual stenographer in a box would simply file the note away where I would forget about it again. Similarly, when it comes to reminders being able to just ask Google to set one up is handy. As for shopping lists I tend to use a basket and hold the list with the same hand as the handles so using my phone would be more of a problem anyway. When, one day you can make the Google assistant keep asking you, as you’re doing shopping “have you got the milk?” “Yes Google.” “What about the pasta sauce…” then it might be useful, or maybe not.

Beyond my inability to remember that Google Keep, or Microsoft Todo exist the paper notebook has the same advantages as a paper novel – it needs no batteries, it doesn’t have to boot up or sync with a server and as such it’s instantly accessible, as long as you’ve also got a working pen handy. Maybe this is why thirty-odd years since they became the yuppies’ trendy accessory-du-jour the Filofax is still with us.

The Ghosts of Software Past

I remember when all software came on magnetic floppy disks, sometimes on one, but later on many and even installing Windows 3.11 required a large number of disk changes, you couldn’t just set it going and leave it like today. I still have a copy of that version of Windows and of Borland C++ which came with a huge box of reference books and a similarly huge number of disks – both the smaller 3.5″ ones and the older 5.25″ ones – you really felt like you were getting your money’s worth. You’d put the first disk in and wait for what seemed like an eternity until the installer would flash a message up saying “Please insert disk 2” and you’d search through the stack if you’d somehow shuffled them and hope that it wasn’t missing – either not supplied, or lost if you were reinstalling. Then the waiting would continue and repeat until disk 10.  Fun times.

Since then we’ve been through CDs and DVDs and now thanks to high speed broadband you can even download a whole operating system in just a few small hours, or so it seemed to me when I did it a couple of months back with Windows 10. At each stage it was possible to shortcut the earlier process by copying the floppy disks onto a single CD, and then later copying whole CDs onto a large USB stick or portable hard drive though Windows can still use a DVD to install.

Because of all the disks, and the boxes in which to distribute them manufacturers in the past couldn’t keep selling old versions of software due to the manufacturing costs and the space required to warehouse them though some companies such as Serif would sell old versions cheaply alongside new ones for a while. Today though with downloadable software they can keep supplying old versions for much longer which is useful when you have old hardware that needs old software. Sometimes you’ll have an old computer that won’t run a 64 bit version of windows for example but new software won’t work on 32 bit windows, the newer version is incompatible with all or part your computer, or, as I found out, you buy an old negative scanner and the software disk that came with it was unreadable and the current version won’t work, luckily though the manufacturer still sells the old one via their website – preventing the new hardware becoming an expensive paperweight, or in the scanner’s case doorstop.  Many freeware, shareware or low cost independent software authors have an archive of old versions on their websites.

In other cases old, usually free, software or device drivers that have been rendered obsolete or the manufacturer has just decided not to continue developing them anymore can still be obtained via individuals uploading and archive copy to a download service. Again this is helpful as some older utilities have been replaced by newer, slower, clunkier “improved” replacements and you don’t have the option of the old program you liked – where the old version is either automatically upgraded or doesn’t come with a new operating system or application. This may also be true for paid for applications so long as you have the correct licence to install them.

Then there are the people who have managed to get really old software to run on modern PCs, like a Windows 3 emulator for that nineties computing experience. I had a Super Nintendo emulator to play games on my PC once but it just wasn’t the same so I bought a second hand real one instead.

Biting The Hand That Feeds It

Adverts

Image by Falkenpost from Pixabay

I’ve been trying to catch up on some news articles I’d saved for reading later but it’s been difficult, not because of the news itself, it’s not that deep and meaningful, the problem is advertising. Just about every news website apart from the BBCs is virtually unreadable today, some more than others. The reason is animated adverts. On my tablet, or an adblocker-free browser it’s impossible to read most of these sites because the page starts to load, you see the article, you start reading it and then either it won’t scroll further down as the whole browser has locked solid or when you scroll down and keep reading it suddenly jumps back to the top again – often because some huge animated ad that’s taken an age to load has suddenly flounced onto the front of stage like the proverbial eight-hundred pound Gorilla. It’s even worse when there are multiple adverts and their continuous loops stop you reading down the page as it’s become unresponsive or slow or worse still when they obscure what you’re reading altogether.

When using a desktop browser with an adblocker to make the site actually usable many sites have a popup crying “you’re using an adblocker, how are we supposed to buy our groceries at Waitrose tonight?” So you turn off the adblocker and find that the site is back to being virtually unreadable.

Adverts in magazines aren’t animated, for obvious reasons – it’d be damned expensive to put a screen in every issue, and bulky – but they still achieve their ambitions, they rely on old fashioned techniques to gain attention, the sort of thing I used to design in the days before you needed to know about javascript syntax, curly braces and whether to use an unsigned integer variable; things like colour, typography, layout, imagery. It seems that the people who design websites started using animation just to show off that they could, and convinced marketers that they needed to use animation to gain attention from their target demographics, and the marketers believed them, and paid more for the animation. There is though now no going back because the idea has become so ingrained. They have combined the TV advert model with modern Hollywood firework displays, applied it to the written word media and ended up with a nuisance.

The thing is that although people do notice the ads and notice the message they’re also annoyed by the side-effects – if websites had static ads which would load at the same speed as the rest of the content and would instantly be there, front and centre then people wouldn’t need to use adblockers, we don’t object to the ads, they pay for the website, they pay for this website – though as I don’t develop the site itself I have no choice about the type of ads, on my Flickr page I pay to have no adverts. The objection is against the intrusion and frustration they cause. As with desktop software the developers test these websites and ads on powerful computers connected directly to a server rather than on a normal laptop or tablet connected to a 4 meg broadband connection so I doubt that they have much appreciation of what they fancifully call the UX (user experience) is like in the real world.

I wonder whether companies actually look at the website metrics – the visitor count, length of visit and so on – and perhaps notice that many visits are too short to possibly read anything. They no doubt do but the views that just put up with it outnumber those who don’t and at the end of the day a click is a click and another payment from the advertisers, even if the clicker doesn’t stick around long.

I though still think it’s about time the wannabe Hollywood filmmaker developers and marketers stopped showing off how clever they are and set out to please the users who ultimately pay their wages by tolerating the adverts that annoy them so much. If a brand gets its message across without the negative connotation of being a nuisance surely that’s better, no?

Junk Shop Days

Milk Cans

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

I like second-hand and charity shops, not only for the benefits to charity and the environment of recycling, or because I’m being fashionable but largely to get things I couldn’t afford years ago amazingly cheaply now. Of course the same is true of Ebay. I’m missing these shops at the moment, but when they reopen I’m on a mission to find garden planters.

Looking around my home much of what I own is pre-owned, or pre-loved to use the modern term. As I described in an earlier post my patchwork Sony stereo is still fantastic; my trio of Olympus DSLRs are used but still going strong, even if the power switch of one needs the occasional squirt of contact cleaner; my old Sony smartphone came pre-distressed so I wouldn’t be if I scratched it. To me even my second hand Citroen felt like a brand-new car, as I remarked at the time. Last year I even broke my usual rule of not buying second-hand shoes and got some lovely red Puma suede trainers. Unused £40 Sony headphones for £12 on Ebay without a box, lampshades, shirts and books from our many charity shops, as well as most of the vases and ornaments I own – including two blue tealight holders that I saw one evening in the window of a charity shop on the way home and had to wait four days to buy on the Saturday afterwards.  Just about every vase and ornament I have was a charity shop find and it’s a little joy to find a beautiful object that you weren’t even looking for.

Our society’s tendency of replacing something because it’s a couple of years old and there’s a new one so why not means there’s lots of stuff available with much life left in it. The phone couldn’t hold as many apps as a newer one and I have to update it manually to avoid the huge updates to built-in apps I don’t use and there are similar compromises with other older tech but if you can live with that then these things are bargains – I only replaced it when the touchscreen stopped working. The irony is that good condition old stuff can be bought cheaply, although much is becoming fashionable now and tatty old stuff can be sold in retro shops for a fortune because it’s “authentic” – I’ll return to this subject in another article. It seems that second-hand bookshops are increasing in number, whether due to the cost of new books, a backlash against ebooks or fashion – walls in trendy hipster loft apartments filled with “authentic” old books – I don’t know.

I’m writing this on my “new” desktop PC which I bought because my last desktop was finally showing signs of not being able to cope any more. No 1 was an HP Compaq “enterprise” PC, built in 2006 with a then state-of-the-art Pentium 4 processor and rescued from a skip a few years later. It languished in my apartment for a few more years until I put in a new graphics card, sound card, hard drive etc to make it capable of running flight sims and Windows 7. It’s been fine for many years but eventually it just couldn’t keep up with modern browsers, note apps and so on, finally a number of strange behaviours made me feel it was perhaps starting to fail. I looked at brand-new PCs but am out of touch with modern specs and didn’t feel that the software I use would need an absolutely new PC. I didn’t know where to start so searched Ebay for pre-owned HP pcs – why not stick to what you know. Eventually I narrowed it down to a particular model with a good spec and again it was a rock-solid Enterprise-spec machine and I could get a cleaned-up and reinstalled machine for £60, delivered next-day from a company thirty miles away. It arrived, not a spec of dust inside it. I installed the graphics card and sound card from the old machine, installed Windows 10 using the Windows 7 licence that came with it and it’s perfect, much faster, much quieter, much smaller. The way computer hardware is today older PCs can still have very much life left in them, my current laptop – another HP which originally cost over £400 but I bought second-hand for £70 – is similarly fantastic, fast, small and light, and only needed a new power adaptor shortly after I bought it, and a new battery eventually.

Then there are cameras – today DSLRs are in the twenty megapixel range, why would anyone want a ten megapixel one – someone who can accept that this size of sensor can produce images big enough to have printed and certainly detailed enough for Flickr. Someone who can’t afford the latest shiny thing. Me. Buying into discontinued product ranges can work out well too.

A couple of years ago I visited our branch of Cash Converters (a UK chain of second-hand stuff shops) and browsed as usual then nearly squealed with excitement on seeing a lens for my number 2 Olympus DSLR, or more to the point the price sticker on it. Alongside examples of the 14-42 short zoom and 40-150 telephoto lenses I already own was Olympus’ monster of a zoom, the 70-300 (equivalent to a 140-600mm in 35mm terms) that I had looked for on Ebay a few years back and given up on. It currently retails new for around £450 and on Ebay second-hand for around £200. The sticker said £59.99. I thought “I’ll just double check on Ebay” then after a few milliseconds my internal voice slapped me round the face and shouted “NO, JUST BUY IT”, it also helped that at that moment a member of staff unlocked the same cabinet to put something in it, “oh, while you’re in there…” I said. I bought it and it’s amazing, even if it did require some rearranging of my camera bag to accommodate it and the shorter zoom – needless to say much thought over which lens would be most usefully attached permanently to the second DSLR, and a helpful drawing to show the overlap of the focal lengths (a visual version of my friend Jane’s famed comparison spreadsheets), helped everything to fit nicely. The long, long lens really needed an Image Stabilised DSLR and No 2 Olympus had the dodgy power switch so turning to Ebay again I bought Olympus No 3 for a very cheap price and it’s been flawless for years since. No 2 still lingers as a backup body.

Another side of this is buying things that are not of any use but you just want to own – you might only justify getting them if they’re cheap. My example of this is a camera I first saw on holiday in Guernsey in 1991, a camera I still have the brochure for, the brochure I just browsed regularly being unable to afford the camera itself. It was an Olympus OM101, one of the last of their film SLRs. After twenty-six years I bought a fully-working camera that cost hundreds new for a tenner on ebay. I could load it with film and use it but at the moment it’s taking pride of place on my bookshelf.

Back to the useful stuff though, when I moved to a house with a garden I needed a lawnmower, I looked at a few options and decided to wait a bit. Then I just happened to visit Cash Converters and saw a Bosch mower for £35, in its box. I didn’t get it immediately but went back for it later. When I opened the box I found that this mower that was £130 new in the Argos across the road from where I’d bought it was, in fact, brand new, never opened.

Earlier in Cash Converters I saw a compact camera, it had languished in the cabinet for months, I’d not really paid much attention to what it was but the price had steadily dropped, I took notice when I saw the price had dropped to £12.99. I looked more closely and noticed it was more than just a cheap compact, it had manual controls and was clearly made of metal. Turns out it was a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, a camera which was, when launched in 2008, a very well-reviewed, £400 piece of technology. It was described in glowing terms in magazine articles, a rare combination of compact size, solid build quality, and a lens that was unusual for a compact. It was brilliant and today, second-hand, they usually sell for over £100. Like my Olympus DSLRs the 10 megapixel sensor will still take great pictures. This particular LX3 had clearly had a hard life, it’s metal shell was dented at the bottom corner, the paint had rubbed off underneath, some of the lettering had worn off too but the screen was virtually unmarked, all the buttons were there and worked and the lens itself was spotless. You’d assume there was something wrong with it but the only reasons it was at that price were that it had no charger, it needed a new (£6, compatible) battery and it was a little worn around the edges. This camera had been ignored and unloved just because it wasn’t cutting-edge like it had been in 2008 and was tatty yet I knew that it still had the same professional features that made it stand out.
  So yes, dear readers, I bought it.
    Would have been rude not to.

From OK Computer to OK Google

Turntable & Laptop

Image by Becca Clark from Pixabay

Today I recieved a Radiohead album, it’s the second copy of OK Computer I’ve bought in my life but this one’s special, it has a second disc of b-sides and it came out last year to celebrate the TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the original which I bought when it came out.

TWENTY YEARS?

Where the hell has it all gone.  For goodness sake.  Shakes head.

Anyway, my point, oh yes. I looked at it and thought about the title and thought about how much technology has changed in those twenty years and society with it (which is the core point of this blog).  The CD Walkman has become thirty-thousand songs stored on a phone, or millions on a streaming service.  Phones themselves have become electronic Swiss Army Knives and almost thin enough to be used as one.  We’ve gone from five TV channels in the UK to hundreds of channels showing mainly repeats, along with a seemingly endless choice of streaming media.  Texting has become Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Whatsapp (the latter three of which I don’t use and in the case of the last one I wouldn’t know what to do with).  Phone calls are becoming a thing of the past it seems with the younger generations in particular communicating via thumb rather than tongue these days.  However we are finally talking to computers, our eighties sci-fi dreams of being able to command the computer like Scotty on Star Trek are finally coming true, enabling us to make appointments, ask questions, play music and, of course, buy more things. All with the swiftness of a “Hey Siri”, “Alexa?” or “OK Google”…