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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

psion 5

It was a good machine, the Psion 5. Even after twenty years there are still a lot of them around, though mostly I suspect lurking at the backs of drawers. I note they’re fetching good prices on Ebay too, which suggest they still have a bit of a niche following, but surely it’s had its day by now, hasn’t it?

I wrote a lot of stuff on mine – this being at a time when your main computer sat on the floor and hummed and got hot, and portability meant a laptop. But laptops were only for business users – being rather on the pricey side, so if you wanted to write away from your desk, options were limited.

I used it every day for the better part of a decade, so much so the keys went shiny. I wrote everything on it it, only transferring stuff to the computer when I was ready to publish. Why did I eventually give up on it? Well I found that, as computers went through their various iterations of the Windows operating system, it became harder to get stuff off the Psion and onto the computer.

For data transfer you used Psion’s Psiwin software, which you installed on the computer. Then you plugged your Psion in with a venerable old RS232 cable, and your Psion popped up as an icon on your desktop. After that you ran the Psiwin conversion utility on the files you wanted, to get them into MS Word or even just plain old RTF format. But at some point that cable thing failed to keep up, RS232 was abandoned and suddenly I needed a USB cable converter before I could do the converting, and the cable converter thing never worked properly.

I remember die hards arguing over it on the forums – switch this, switch that, hold your mouth this way and poke your tongue out and all will be well, they said – or words to that effect. But by now laptops were cheap, so I bought one of those instead, and the Psion got left behind. I’ve not touched it since 2007.

Then, out of curiosity, I popped a couple of AA batteries into it, changed the button cell and switched it on, and it still worked. Instantly. I riffled through the files on the compact flash card and discovered an entire first draft of The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, a substantial prototype of Between the Tides, and several other early works I’d completely forgotten about. It was like an archaeological dig through my older writings, but it also reminded me what a terrific mainstay of my writing life this little device used to be.

Over the years, I’ve missed the Psion for its ease of use, for its portability, indeed its pocketability, and have tried in vain to find a replacement for it. Laptops aren’t really that portable, as anyone who’s lugged one around knows and you need to be able to plug them in every day or they’re useless. A Psion will run for 50 hours on even the cheapest home brand AA’s. Stick a couple of 2700 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeables and it’ll take you to the moon and back.

I also liked the fact that, before the cable issues, the Psion just worked. You opened it up and the last thing you were working on was right there. Instantly. No distractions. The machine never bothered you with nags about updates and it never flashed adverts at you.  So I wondered,.. might there be a way to beat those RS232 blues after all, and get this thing back on the road?

Well, you still need those conversion routines in Psiwin – no way around that – but the cable? Actually, no, you don’t need it, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. You still need Psiwin, no way around that, but if you’ve lost it, don’t worry, you can download it legally, for free, here. Trying to install it on a 64 bit machine running Windows 10 though will throw up an incompatibility warning. But in spite of these protestations, Windows will still load all the files you need into the program folder, so ignore the warnings and carry on.

As for that cable. Forget it. Instead, simply remove the compact flash card from the Psion and slot it into a card reader on the computer. That’s all there is to it. True, most computers no longer cater for Compact Flash cards in the media slots, but there are plenty of older pro-DSLR cameras around that use them, so you can still buy them, along with plug-in usb readers.

Windows should then identify your card and list your files, but these will be in Psion’s own Epoc format. They need converting. So, you navigate to the Windows/Programs/Psion folder, and rummage about until you find the “cpycnv” (copy and convert) executable. This is the only thing you need, but before you can coax it to life you’ll have to right click it and change the compatibility mode to XP service pack 3.

You should then be able to use the cpycnv interface to locate the files on the flash card, tell the converter what format you want them in and where you want them. Then you’ll be able to open them in Windows using whatever package you prefer. I use Jarte or Libre Office.

All right, it’s a bit of a faff to begin with, but it definitely works, and with a shortcut to cpycnv on the desktop, things should be slicker next time.

As a writing tool, the Psion may be old but it’s definitely still relevant, as evidenced by the fact I wrote this blog on it, and plan to write more. It’s certainly much better than trying to write stuff on your phone or a tablet – even one with a generous amount of screen to spare. And it’s actually easier with the Psion to convert to the more recognisable – (ie MS) word processing formats on a PC, than it is from a portable Android or an Apple device.

The keyboard is solid and has a good feel to it, being about as small as is practical while allowing for fast, accurate typing. It has a word count and spell checker, and no internet to distract you. And of course the whole thing folds up and slides nicely into a jacket pocket. For writing on the go, it hasn’t been beaten in twenty years.

On the downside, the Psion screen is an early touch-screen LCD and quite murky compared with the crisp brightness of a modern device. Mine has a backlight but that seems to have faded over time and makes little difference now. All round though, the Psion 5 is a design classic, rather like an old Smith’s clock – solid, reliable – and made in England!

If you’ve still got one at the back of a drawer, why not blow the dust off it and remind yourself how good a thing it still is?

 

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blessing clockIt’s got to be the ugliest clock I’ve ever seen. Worse than that it was broken – fully wound, yet not even the hint of a tick when shaken, and the hands were dangling loose. Cosmetically it was in poor shape too, tarnished, with rust leaking through the gilt, and I really didn’t care for that ormolu filigree decoration at all. Who in their right mind would waste money on such a thing? Okay, so I would, but for £1.50 from the charity shop it was hardly a ripoff, and I’d get some pleasure from tinkering with it, even if it was only to learn a little more about how these things were put together. Such knowledge is pointless of course, because nothing is put together like this any more. But then much of what we pick up in life, even the stuff we think is really, really important, turns out to be pointless in the end.

It’s a Blessing – the clock I mean, made in Waldkirsch/Breisgau, West Germany. Like most old consumer grade clockmakers they’re gone now – the latest I can date them to is an advert for 1974, but they were a prolific maker in their day. If you search online, Blessing clocks are as common as Smiths. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, so I’m being subjective in describing it as ugly. Anyway, clocks of this period are usually pretty “robust”, so all was not lost. I was sure I could get it going.

What usually happens is they get dirty inside, the original oil turns to mush and the whole thing gums up. It slows down, becomes unreliable, you get cross with it. It stops. That’s the thing with these old wind-up clocks. You could have it serviced by a clockmaker, but it’ll always be cheaper to throw it away and buy a new one. So, quirky and unloved, consumer-grade tickers like this usually end up in the bin. How this one escaped is a mystery, but anyway,..

It’s an act of defiance I suppose, that I should want to get it going, though who the enemy is, who or what it is I am defying is harder to say – and I don’t just want to get it going, I want it ticking as sweet and accurate as when it was new. In a further act of defiance I can perhaps give it back to the charity shop and they can get a fiver for it.

I suppose what I’m doing is acting in a way I’m not expected to. I’ve been doing this fairly effortlessly one way or the other all my life – like the way I get the exact atomic time from my ‘phone each morning, and transfer it to any one of a variety of wind-up wristwatches, circa 1950, which manage to keep track of it within about ten seconds per day. But this is another story – unhelpful tangent – except to further illustrate my eccentricity and total lack of any coherent explanation of myself.

Anyway back to the Blessing: Mechanical devices from this period – I’m guessing late sixties/early seventies – were manufactured in ways that were reversible – in other words you could take them apart, strip them to their nuts and clean them up. They were put together by people sitting at a bench. Modern, consumer clocks are made and assembled by robots and are meant to be thrown away when they stop. Many aren’t even granted the dignity of a fresh battery.

Sure enough, the mechanism comes out of the case without much trouble – just unscrew a few things and the case comes apart into an array of interesting bits and pieces, all of them metal except for the acrylic “glass”.

The back-plate of the mechanism is stamped by the maker. This is West Germany, and marks it as coming from the pre-unification, cold war period, as important a period in post-war European History as will be the period post BREXIT. Already our ugly old clock is having us think of interesting things.

Let’s see: the balance spring is in good shape, likewise the rest of the escapement. So, our ugly old clock is in with a chance. Note of caution though: there are fingerprints all over the end-plate, so it’s obvious someone’s had a go at it before me. This is not uncommon – a squirt of 3-in-1 oil being the usual desperate remedy. I know because I’ve done it myself as a kid. It hadn’t worked – it never does – and fortunately further attention seems to have proved too intimidating for my predecessor – there being no tool marks on the nuts that hold the plates together.

So far my £1.50 investment is yielding great value for money.

The mechanism is heavy with fluff and hair, both human and cat, and goodness knows what else. A preliminary swill in white spirit gets the worst of this gunk off, then the mechanism is at least in presentable condition for the workbench, and further disassembly. One day I’ll get myself a cheap Ultrasonic tank.

Already we see the clock is wanting to run, the balance wheel is fluttering and a hesitant ticking is beginning to emerge from it. We’re a long way yet from getting things going properly, but the signs are promising.

Next comes the fun of a full strip down and a battle with the feeling that the further one goes, the less likely one is to remember how things go back together. Once stripped, we clean every little pin and pivot, put it back together, oil it, and away it should run.

A further note of caution – we’ve got big springs here, one for timekeeping, one for the striker and neither of them contained in a barrel. A spring released suddenly from full tension like this is a wild thing, and it will bite. It’ll run riot in the mechanism and break things. I listen to myself and realise I’m sounding like a pro. Don’t be fooled, I’m merely speaking from experience. We need to let them down, carefully,… We search for the “click”, there isn’t one – oh well, we must improvise. Pass me the screwdriver – no, the bigger one,…

Does the clock survive? Do I? Does any of it really matter? Well of course not, but that’s life. We ponder what we think matters, and we ponder it wherever we can find it. And we can find it anywhere, even in the innards of an ugly old clock.

Stay tuned.

Graeme out.

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mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

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because you write

You see this one a lot in the blogsphere, and it’s always worth a glance. Of course there are no rules to blogging. You can write whatever and however you like, but there are certain things that attract readers. Readers turn into followers, and bloggers like to have followers – even the ones who say they don’t.

I’ve clearly some way to go before The Rivendale Review becomes one of the touchstones of the global online community, but I accept my material doesn’t have mass appeal. Nor am I about to start writing on “popular” or “controversial” or “trending” topics just to attract more traffic, and I recommend you don’t either. As bloggers our uniqueness is our appeal to readers, so don’t try to write like everyone else. Above all be yourself. The blog is you. Your blog is where readers come to find the unsanitised view of the world through your eyes.

All right,…

You’re a voice in the wilderness, your topic of conversation might not have mass appeal, so, without sacrificing your virtue, how do you best present yourself and start picking up an audience?

Here are ten guidelines – in no particular order of merit:

1) Keep it short. In the early days of this blog I wrote long pieces – several thousand words long. They were careful analyses on issues that interested me. Long, long essays on this and that. They’ve sunk without trace. No one reads them.

When I was writing for print I knew that however long my first draft was, I could always reduce it by at least a third without losing the essential meaning. Unlike print, in blogging we can blather as much as we want, but it’s a bad habit, so economise, economise, economise. Keep it short, or even your most loyal follower is wondering if they have time to do you justice. They move on, they get distracted, and they don’t come back.

How short? Currently I aim for between five hundred and a thousand words.

2) Tag. Us the tag function to tag your piece with key words or phrases. These things have a ranking. Hit upon a popular key phrase, one that’s currently “trending” and your blog starts popping up on the front page of Google searches. You can get clues to trending tags by using google’s auto complete function. “Writing a good blog” autocompletes after the third word, plus the b of blog – so I know it’s a fairly popular search term. But don’t sacrifice your ideals on a popular tag. Write what you want to write, then think how you might widen its appeal with the judicious use of appropriate tagging.

3) Answer your comments. Make conversation. Let your readers know you’re a human being, and not one of those horrible web-farming machines. If someone follows you then consider following them. If someone likes you, have look at their blog. You may have something in common. Blogging is interactive. It’s also a community.

4) Pictures. I like interesting pictures to accompany a blog. They attract the eye, they encourage your clicker to settle in and linger. But keep it relevant, and tasteful, and legal.

5) Keep going. Update regularly. Once or twice a week is okay. If you’re down to less than once every couple of months and it’s becoming a chore, then maybe blogging’s not for you. On the other hand don’t update too regularly. If you have followers they don’t want to be hearing from you several times a day. You’re asking to get unfollowed.

6) Don’t blog because someone’s paying you to endorse a particular view or a product. And don’t blog as part of a multi level marketing scam because that just annoys the hell out of everyone. You’ll get found out, and then your name is mud. You lose your virtue – and remember that’s the only thing you have going for you.

7) Don’t be afraid of sounding like a fool. Express yourself. Marylin Monroe, that most iconic of muses, once said: Imperfection is beauty. Madness is genius. It is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. She could have been talking about blogging.

8) Important one this: don’t blog when drunk, or within 24 hours of an emotionally upsetting incident, and especially not to get back at someone. I know you can always delete the nonsense you wrote next morning, but by then the damage might already have been done.

9) Normal rules of libel apply to blogs. Be careful what you say and how you say it.

10) Last of all, don’t listen to me. The best part of blogging is the journey, finding your own way, and your own audience.

So in the spirit of interaction, let me ask you: How would you write a good blog?

Graeme out

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androidThis is my new Smartphone. It’s a cheap one I bought direct from China, saving me a fortune on the price of an equivalent device with a more familiar western brand name. Dual sim, it takes both my Orange and my Vodaphone PAYG cards that I’ve had for years in other phones. It runs the Android ICS operating system, has accelerometers and a GPS built in. It can be a satnav, wordprocessor, ebook reader, spreadsheet, diary, planner, address book, a reasonable camera,… even a seismometers and an inclinometer if you should ever find yourself in need of one, plus a long list of other stuff that may or may not be useful to you. Oh,… it also makes calls and sends texts. It is the Swiss Army knife of mobile computer technology. It’s not perfect, but it’s well built and I’ve used it every day for the last couple of months, and I do like it,… really.

However,…

If you forget to plug this ravenous beast in overnight, and I mean every night, it’s useless. Battery life is worse than those old brick ‘phones we had in the nineties. At first I thought it was because I’d been a skinflint and gone for a cheap knockoff ‘phone with a poor battery, but reading reviews of more well known brands of similar size and spec, this pitifully short operational life is typical, so I know my device is no worse than any other. It’s simply the price you pay for having all that functionality in your pocket.

By comparison I was told the tale of an ordinary “dumb” text and call type ‘phone that was lost on a camping trip two years ago. It was found recently on another camping trip when the tent was unrolled and the phone discovered lurking in a fold of the groundsheet. And yes, it was still working!

I’ve not thrown my old ‘phone away, thank goodness. I haven’t touched it for several months, and I note the battery still has 50% charge. That’s it with those old “dumb” phones – it had got to the point when you were almost surprised they needed charging at all. By contrast I unplugged my smartphone at 8:00 am this morning, and now (10:00 pm) it’s down to 15% and has already nagged me to plug it back in again. And no, I’ve not been playing games on it. I’ve sent two texts and the rest of the time it’s been on standby.

I feel like a slave to it, like to one of those little Tamagotchi pets – conscious all the time of this thing in my pocket that’s dying hour by hour unless I do something to sustain it. I think once the novelty has worn off, I’ll be going back to my old ‘phone. Until battery life catches up with all that power hungry functionality, Smartphones look like a pretty dumb idea to me – a little ahead of their time.

The best gadgets are those you use every day, yet remain an inconspicuous part of your life, providing a useful function without adding even more nags to you list of things to do.

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