Smart metering – 1973 style

46 years on since this quirky piece from Tomorrow’s World,12 million or so first generation smart meters are installed. Second generation meters are supposed to be ubiquitous by the end of 2020. But by January of this year, just 250,000 had been installed. The £11bn project is running years late and at least £500m over budget. It seems unlikely this target will be met. The “and then a miracle happens” graphs in this House of Commons Library article bears this pessimistic view out.

The forty pence per year to read each meter in 1973 is around £4.80 in today’s money. Assuming that there are 48 million domestic meters, the programme will cost at least £240 per meter. Break-even in 50 years – if meters were still read 1973-style and they were capable of lasting anything like that long. But at least you won’t find Michael Rodd rummaging through your cupboards.

Note: For the computer history geeks, the ‘small computer’ shown in the clip is a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8.

An appeal: PAFEC DOGS is worthy of conservation

Recently, there’s been quite a bit of banter in the comments of a post I wrote a couple of years ago about my first employer, PAFEC Ltd.

It’s got me thinking. It would be great to try to re-create a working copy of their most famous software package, DOGS (Design Office Graphics System) on (say) a modern Linux platform such as the Raspberry Pi, for conservation reasons.

As one of the first general purpose CAD packages on the market (it was first released around 1979 if my memory serves me correctly) that didn’t require specialist CAD hardware to operate it, as well as being the leading British CAD software package of the 1980s, it would be a shame not to try I think.

I’ve no idea who owns the rights to the software today, but if they’d like to get in touch I’d be very interested in putting together a small team together to start a conservation effort – assuming that they still have access to its source code.

Raspberry Pi, Python, Star Trek and Morecambe & Wise

I’ve now managed to get a first, very rough version of I.L.Powell’s 1979 Triton Tiny BASIC ‘Star Trek’ game to work in Python on my Raspberry Pi. Most of my effort has been spent in understanding how the original game worked – not easy, even for someone who learned to program in BASIC at about the time the original article was published.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I wanted to try to remain reasonably faithful to the way the original game worked, even to the point of preserving the original data structures and codes. I have however made a few tweaks – the most noticeable being to slow parts of the program down to try to replicate that ‘authentic’ early home computer experience! I think I’ve achieved that part of what I set out to do.

As for my other aim of producing some reasonably elegant Python … well, not yet I haven’t! My code is a hack – and a fairly nasty one too. All this exercise has convinced me of is that 20 years or so after I cut my last piece of production code I absolutely need to go back to basics (if you’ll forgive the pun) if I’m ever going to become reasonably proficient in the language.

So I think I’ll spend a little time over the next few weeks working my way through the MIT OpenCourseWare in Object-Oriented programming in Python – it seems as good a resource to try as any.

For anyone who’s really interested, this is the original Tiny BASIC version – and this is my first working attempt in Python. Shield your eyes from my attempt if you believe that code should be poetry … to be brutally honest, this code is more like Eric Morecambe playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in the 1971 Christmas Show.

“I’m playing all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order.”

Raspberry Pi – we *have* been here before!

The lauch of the Raspberry Pi is beginning to look more and more like the early days of home computing – but this time, it’s not about the excitement of programming, it’s all about delays in delivery. Having been promised delivery by April 30th, it will now be with me “around the end of May”. Oh well. It’s not the end of the world I suppose!

Earlier on today, I found this reminder of the problems that Science of Cambridge had in delivering the MK14. Somehow, the apology from Science of Cambridge in 1978 seems somewhat more sincere than the rather gushing email I received from Farnell element 14 a couple of days ago.

Late delivery of the Raspberry PI - an almost apology.
Late delivery of the Raspberry PI - an almost apology.

However, at least I’ve managed to place an order with Farnell – which is more that RS Components have managed to offer me so far. In the meantime, I might just have to dig my Vic20 out of the attic to have a play with as well as playing with the UK101 sat by me in the study as I type this …

WARNING: Computing is highly addictive

… is what Practical Electronics said about the launch of the Compukit UK101 back in August 1979.

While you’re reading their article, remember that it isn’t about the Raspberry Pi – instead, it’s about an 8MHz 6502, 4Kbyte computer with a UHF output to a black and white TV monitor and a 300 baud (very, very slow) cassette tape interface for backing up your programs and data.

Two highlights:

Imagine being able to run a program to help your child (or yourself) revise for exams. Animated diagrams are possible, such as an internal combustion engine shown reciprocating, with mathematical equations to match. Picture an automobile program designed to accept daily input from you on petrol and oil use, along with mileage, etc. The machine could accumulate information, and at any time give you the average m.p.g., plot performance versus time or some other parameter, and remind you when to check the tyres and drive to the Garage for a service.

and rather more presciently:

For the first time, anyone, technical or otherwise, can have an affordable easily programmable home-computer for domestic use – a much neglected area at the moment, but one which is about to take off.

The first page of the article on the UK101 from the August 1979 edition of Practical Electronics
The first page of the article on the UK101 from the August 1979 edition of Practical Electronics – click the image to enlarge

The launch of the Raspberry Pi – haven’t we been here before?

Yes. We have. But not for a long, long time and that’s why I’m looking forward to receiving mine, once production can keep up with demand. At £21.60 + VAT for a “model B”, you can’t really argue about value, even though you have to provide your own keyboard, monitor, SD cards and a case.

According to the charitable foundation behind the Raspberry Pi, it has come into being because:

Eben [Upton, a Cambridge University lecturer] had noticed a distinct drop in the skills levels of the A Level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year when he came to interview them. From a situation in the 1990s where most of the kids applying were coming to interview as hobbyist programmers, the landscape in the 2000s was very different; a typical applicant now had experience only with web design, and sometimes not even with that.

A number of problems were identified: the colonisation of the ICT curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines that people of an earlier generation learned to program on.

Single board computers were all the rage amongst hobbyists in the late 1970s / early 1980s. I have my own rare example, purchased from an internet auction site a few years ago when I was feeling nostalgic – a 1979 Compukit UK101.

Practical Electronics Magazine - August 1979
Practical Electronics Magazine - August 1979

The UK101 wasn’t the first single board machine (the Science of Cambridge MK14 and the Ohio Superboard II – of which the UK101 was a pretty close clone – predated it) and it wasn’t the last either. How I wish I’d invested a few pounds in a Sinclair ZX80 – good examples sell for hundreds these days!

Comparisons are odious – but that’s what I’m going to do anyway.

1979 Compukit UK101 2012 Raspberry Pi ‘B’
Central Processor 6502 ARM1176JZFS
Clock speed 1MHz – stepped down from an 8MHz crystal 700MHz
Graphics Processor No dedicated processor, but 1Kbyte VDU RAM Videocore 4 GPU
RAM 4Kbytes – expandable to 8Kbytes on board using 0.5 Kbyte 2114 RAM packages 256Mbytes – included in package with CPU and GPU. A “system on a chip”. No expansion capability
Operating System Machine code monitor and I/O utilities in ROM Fedora Linux on SD card – other ARM11  compatible distributions should be possible
Programming Language Microsoft BASIC (8K in ROM) Python – but presumably any other language capable of running on Fedora Linux (Wikipedia is suggesting that an implementation of BBC BASIC is already available, along with C and Perl – I am sure there are other languages that will run too)
Monitor output UHF to TV RCA video and HDMI
Power supply 240V AC mains transformer – 9V DC Micro power 5V USB
Interfaces Cassette interface (CUTS) – 300 baud (often modified to run at 600 baud), RS232 possible as an enhancement, as was an 8” floppy disk controller USB 2.0 and Ethernet
Audio None Via HDMI or 3.5mm jack socket
Designed in UK UK
Supplied as PCB and kit of parts – assembly required Pre-assembled board
Launch Price £219 + VAT from Compshop Ltd. £21.60 + VAT from RS Components or Premier Farnell.

I really hope that the Raspberry Pi succeeds in its aim of reintroducing the fun of programming to novices. One potential mark of success would be the return of the “listings magazine” – which provided not only source code, but also useful articles on how to program and reviews of new hardware.

I get all misty-eyed when I think of the hours I spent typing in programs from the long gone “Computing Today” and learning how modify code written for a different BASIC dialect to work on either the Sharp MZ80K I had, or the RM 380Z and Commodore PETs the school acquired when I was in sixth form.

It’s unlikely that a listings magazine would work in print form today, but I look forward to seeing some novice-friendly web equivalents appear.

In the meantime, I’ve just rescued my UK101 from the attic. Now, where did I put my computing magazines?

UK101 program 03-03-2012
I can still remember how to program in BASIC!

… and another thing!

I was reflecting on the Oh(U) dear post I wrote on my Friday evening train journey again yesterday. Fundamentally, my overriding concern with it is the idea that it seems to be peddling: that if technology is good enough, human contact is unnecessary for learning. I knew I’d seen that idea somewhere before!

For a view from 1951, you might want to spend a couple of minutes reading Issac Asimov’s (very) short story “The Fun They Had“.

And if that’s not convincing enough, you might enjoy this rather amusing clip from the 1967 film 1999 AD. The poor child looks bored out of his mind … and I’m pretty certain that both options given to the question “who ground the first telescope” are wrong, too!


1999 A.D. Learning by donaldtheduckie

Soggy Warwick

I’m sitting in the Rootes bar drinking coffee, trying to wake up in time for the final part of the DD307 weekend. On days like these, with the skies grey and overcast and a fine drizzle in the air that soaks everyone it touches, this place really does start to feel like an airport. Even the queue for breakfast felt like the rush for the aeroplane when boarding is called.

It’s been a really useful weekend. But more than that, it’s made the course enjoyable again. I feel quite motivated to revise now. Part of that has been the lectures – but an equal part has been about meeting other students, many for the first time “in real life” who I’ve been talking to in the forums and Facebook pages. It’s been great to see you all! There are also a few people here who I have met before too. Half of my DXR222 project group from Bath in 2008 are here – but doing DD303 revision. But this time, it’s been a more relaxed encounter as we’re all a little more experienced at the OU game and there isn’t the pressure of a project to get done.

I think it’s just starting to properly hit me that October 13th marks the end of the degree, save obsessively looking at StudentHome in December every hour to see if the results are in. And then there’s graduation, of course! I’m looking forward to wearing a gown again and pretending I’m Batman (maybe not).

Still, I have lots of old computers in the attic that need a bit of TLC. I could start a museum – with my Compukit 101 and Sharp MZ-80K taking pride of place. Mmmm. BASIC programming and 6502/Z80 assembler. Lovely.

Time for me to hit “publish”, head over to the Social Sciences building and get soggy again …

DD303 – the final analysis

I always feel a little bit deflated after receiving exam results even if, like this time, I achieved the grade I wanted. I still remember finding out the result of my first degree in 1985 and thinking “now what?”

At least this time around I have DD307 to look forward to next year and I may also decide to register for SD226 as well – but I only have until the 22nd December to make my mind up if I really want to do both courses simultaneously. However, I’ve definitely decided to switch from the diploma to the degree and I’ve updated my records on StudentHome already to reflect this change of plan.

When I took my computer science degree at Warwick in the 1980s, before the wonders of the world wide web, the way you found out your result was to fight your way through a melee of students outside Senate House to squint at sheets of closely typed A4 paper to find your name and result alongside those of your fellow students.

Anyway, I picked up my DD303 result just after 7am this morning by the wonders of my laptop (a fantasy in 1985) and a wireless broadband internet connection. I still remember thinking the first 56k modem I owned was really, really fast.

I digress.

Looking at my result in a bit more detail, the question that let me down (these things are relative of course!) was question 7 on concepts. This surprised me – I’d thought it was my second best answer on the day but as the other three were good enough, I’m not going to worry about it too much.

The other surprise was that this year the OU don’t seem to have provided a detailed breakdown of how you did on each individual question – something I did get on both DSE212 and ED209. On those courses you saw how you fared on each question broken down by accuracy and level of understanding, use of evidence, critical analysis, clarity & structure of your answer and your focus on the question. This time around there’s just the overall grade band each answer falls into.

The part of the results analysis that I suspect most people like to read is the indication of how others fared on the exam and the questions they chose to answer. It’s all reported anonymously, unlike the sheets of paper on the noticeboard at Warwick in the 1980s.

So I know there were 974 of us who took the exam and that 80 of us achieved the top grade. I also know that the question on connectionism was the least popular from the methods section (only 108 attempted it), that I chose to answer two of the three most popular questions from part 2 of the exam (the one on concepts and the other one being on perception) and that I was one of a hundred people who answered the part 3 question on cognitive modelling. The part 3 question on consciousness, with a staggering 798 attempting it was by far the most ‘popular’ question on the whole of the exam paper.

Well done to everyone who passed and commiserations to those who didn’t get the result they wanted. For some I know it also marks the end of your OU journey.

Maybe you’re like the 21 year old me and thinking “now what?”

Whatever your answer is, I wish everyone the best for the future.

PAFEC – August 1991

I’m still looking for the photographs of the Warwick University Rent Strike of 1983. I’ve not managed to find them yet, as it involves going through a cabinet in a cupboard in my younger daughter’s bedroom to find them, which first of all involves tunneling through the masses of teenage detritus she keeps in what we laughingly term a bedroom. You can rarely see the bed (or the floor.)

But I did find these photographs, which are interesting historical documents in their own right. (OK, they’re interesting to me, and me only, probably.) They show the middle office of the 2nd floor of what was PAFEC’s Stapleford premises at 39 Nottingham Road in August 1991. At that time, I was the Product Services Manager and was in the process of building a team from the remnants of three others involved in porting the company’s software, as well as having been given the publications department.

One of the goals we wanted to achieve was to introduce more professionalism into what the company was doing. One means of  making sure this happened involved getting the Support Services Division (which my team was part of) through an ISO9001 audit against TickIT. As part of working through this, we realised (pretty quickly!) that we needed to be far, far better in how we organised our working environment. The first photograph shows the scale of the task we faced. The team covered the whole of the 2nd floor – so we had two other offices that didn’t look too dissimilar to this one.

PAFEC Product Services Office - August 1991

Key to photograph

  1. Back of two Sun ‘shoeboxes’ – at this point in time, they would have contained either 70 or 140 Mbyte SCSI disks and one of them would have had a cartridge tape unit.
  2. A PAFEC DOGS menu card – though probably for one of the options, like DOGS NC, from a superficial view of the colours used on it.
  3. Uncontrolled media – probably containing DOGS source and object code. You can also see piles of it in the open cabinet behind my desk. Part of the process of getting through the audit was to eliminate most of this from the offices (and keep it in a fire safe in the computer rooms in Strelley and Stapleford, where it belonged.)
  4. Our Sun SparcStation 1 workstation.
  5. Our Harris MCX workstation.
  6. The console for the Data General mini computer we had in the office, running the now long defunct AOS/VS operating system.
  7. A Tektronix graphics terminal – probably a 4111.
  8. A Prime PT200 terminal, connected to the customer support database and contact management system.
  9. Boxes containing various revisions of SunOS 2.x, 3.x and 4.x for Sun 3 and Sparcstation hardware.
  10. The back of one of the Sun 3/50 workstations we had in the office. Out of picture to the left would have been our second 3/50, a diskless 3/110, a Sun 386i and a Whitechapel MG-1.

The other offices would have had a number of Apollo workstations (DN3000s  and earlier models), Vaxstations, DECstations, an IBM PC RT (6150) and a HP9000/400 workstation. A range of graphics terminals (Tektronix, Sigma, Westward, Datapath)  would have been capable of working through a Gandalf switch with the “heavy lifting” minicomputers in the machine rooms at Stapleford and Strelley, including Prime, Vax, Data General, HP, Norsk Data, Bull and Harris.

The second photograph shows my desk (you can just about see it in the background of the first photograph) after we’d finished our clear-out. Neat and tidy – with not a piece of uncontrolled and unlabeled media in sight.

PAFEC Product Services Office - My desk, August 1991

We got through the audit later on that year, first time. The quality of the processes we were following improved beyond all recognition and we started to deliver software, not in jiffy bags, but in the type of packaging that the rest of the industry was capable of doing. Which meant that we started to get the right software to our customers, first time, rather than second, third or fourth time. Quality went up, costs went down and the company (after the false hopes we had for the 3D CAD market were past) started to recover with our later diversification into electronic document management software.