Printers I have known

Teletype – when I was one of the small group doing a Computer Science O-level, we had to go to the local FE college who were just starting to teach it. They didn't actually have a computer for us to use, but they did have a Teletype with a connection to the Open University. You wrote your BASIC program on the Teletype, and a leased line to the OU enabled it to run. When, not if, the program didn't work. I can't remember how we edited it (some extremely simple line editor or just over writing lines by entering a new line 100 or whatever?) but you could also get the Teletype to save it onto paper tape for fast – something like ten characters a second! – upload next time.

I don't think I have any of the paper tape, but there's at least one printed program somewhere.

Some dot matrix – after a month or so, the college got the bill for the leased line, went 'HOW MUCH?!?' and decided that getting a Research Machines 380Z would save money, even at over £3k for the version with 8" floppy discs.* Plus at least another thousand for a dot matrix printer, because it wouldn't work with the Teletype properly.

I can't remember what it was, but it could do 132 characters on a line which rules out the next one. I do have a couple of printouts from it though, including a program that simulated radioactive decay by turning a rectangle of asterisks into dots over several passes – my first encounter with e, after I noticed that if my little asterisk's half life wasn't 'one' loop, doing the obvious calculation** didn't work properly – and two games. Doubtless someone somewhere could look at them and go, 'ah, a Centronics..'

Epson FX-80 – I'm quite surprised that WP doesn't have a page on this, even though it gets a mention on the dot matrix printer one, because to those of us of a certain age, it's iconic. I didn't own it – they were about £700 around 1981 – but my university department had several because they were so (relatively) cheap. They also ended up with some MX-80s that could do graphics (not very well, but even so..)

Some line printer – dot matrix printers print a vertical slice of a character at a time, a typewriter prints a character at a time, and a line printer does, gasp, a whole line of text at a time. As this is done by 80 or 132 or more little hammers hitting the paper and something solid at the same time, five or more times a second, they're quite noisy. I SAID THEY'RE QUITE NOISY! Consequently, it was kept in another room under a noise insulating cover, and we only got the results.***

ZX Printer – the first one I bought, £49.95. That was the end of the good news. Narrow and nasty and needing special paper (about a fiver a roll) it worked by having an electrical spark burn off a layer of aluminium from the paper to reveal the black paper underneath.

You tell the young people of today that, and they don't believe you.****

I do have a couple of printouts from it, but the printer and some paper got donated to the computing museum at Bletchley.

Tandy / Radio Shack plotter – in one sense, another bonkers design: a small cartridge held four tiny pen-like ink cartridges. By moving it and the paper in the right way, you drew lines on the 15cm or so wide paper. Draw the right lines and you've got text! I think it was in a sale to the point it was cheaper than an inkjet and did colour that meant I got one.

Some OKI 24-pin dot matrix – not mine, but the person I worked with for many years. They paid £1,500 for it, the same cost as their Zenith 8088 PC clone running at 8MHz, so almost twice as fast as a real IBM PC. The reason for the price tag was that unlike the FX-80 et al which created their characters with a maximum of nine dots per vertical line, this used up to twenty four. Some of the 9-pin printers could bodge this by printing each line three times, moving the paper very slightly each time, and calling the result 'near letter quality' (i.e. as good as a typewriter) but it never was.

Neither was this, but it was over three times faster. The design meant you could also reuse the ribbons quite easily too. I can't remember what eventually failed on it.

Citizen Swift 24 – another 24 pin dot matrix, got largely because of the price (£200ish??) and the way we didn't need the width of the OKI. Only used by me with DOS, Windows XP had printer drivers for it.

Canon BJ-10 – the first inkjet I used. These were neat – a bit shorter than a ream of A4 paper lying down, but otherwise more or less the same size, they were virtually silent and did produce high quality results. As a result, when it died it was replaced by a..

Canon BJ-10e – slightly better version. I think this was the one that had a lovely tall but narrow bold font that was perfect for printing speeches on. It also died after about 18 months.

HP Deskjet 500 – Going back to an older machine! Bought second-hand off cix, this wasn't as neat, but was much more reliable. The quality wasn't great and inkjets are expensive to run, so..

HP Laserjet 6P – the first laser printer for the office in question. Alas, this was after the marketing people took over HP. The print quality was very good – some very nice brochures for a potential Millennium Commission project were done on it – but who thought it was a good idea to have the paper intake be a dust and crap magnet at the top of the printer? Most of the rest was plastic rather than metal too.

Panasonic KX P4420 – I recognise it, and I wrote a printer driver for my word processor (Borland's Sprint) for it, but I can't remember if it was the replacement for the LJ6P or if it replaced the LJ IIs of the LibDem by-election team.

Minolta SP101 – back to my ones. Many laser printers of the early 90s had 512kiB of RAM. While that was plenty to print text and small images, it wasn't enough to do a whole page image at 300 dots per inch resolution This one did some compression of the image data, so it could. You could also 'easily' fit some more RAM but the Minolta sales person at the show I bought it at gave the wrong info so I ended up buying the wrong chips at first.*****

Even so, this is what the London Bisexual Group newsletters and other stuff were printed on for my years as its Hon Secretary.

HP LaserJet Series II and Series III – I've written about these before. As they went out of fashion, they became dead cheap while staying extraordinarily versatile thanks to an host of companies doing add-on stuff for it.

Dell laser printer – I can't remember which. I can remember getting it from a Freecycle event in Forest Hill c2010 and being pleasantly surprised it worked. When the LJ III stopped picking up paper reliably and the usual cures involving sand paper didn't work, it got replaced by this. The speed – about 16 pages a minute – was nice, but it failed to pick up paper after a couple of years and nothing I did could get it working properly. The first printer I had that used USB rather than a parallel port.

Brother HL-2250DN – the current one, bought for £85 in 2013. Does duplex and has a Ethernet port as well as USB so it's shared with everything here. Replaced in Brother's line by something slightly faster but more expensive, grr, but it's showing no sign of going worng.

* I'm sure I've told the story of breaking it by putting a floppy in the wrong way up. They were very nice about it…

** If the half-life is say three ticks rather than one, then 1/6 – a third of a half – must die each time, yes? No!

*** Several hundred compiler errors ending with 'Missing ; in line 3137' usually, indicating that you'd left one out somewhere in the preceding three thousand or so lines.

**** I've just tried.

***** Every cloud has a silver lining: the 256kiB chips ended up expanding a sound card, the lovely Gravis Ultrasound, the sound card to play DOOM with.

It was the best cow I've seen..

.. in Into The Woods, anyway. I don't know how I missed seeing while booking that JA's and my tickets were on the second row from the front, rather than the back. They must have been returns, and huge thanks to the unknown people who didn't want them.

The show itself was excellent, with only a few problems. With eleven people on stage, including someone mostly there as a pianist, it was slightly undercast in terms of numbers: Cinderella's prince was doubling as one of her stepsisters, for example! There's also no real narrator – that was shared – which leads to a problem avoided by cutting a bit out. But all of them were good, especially the person being a cow, and it was the second best second act of any of the, erm, nine productions I've seen.

Speaking of which, another highlight was that the family to one side of us had only seen the abomination that's the film version, and so were a bit surprised at how many people are killed off in the second half of this one, even if it's lower than it should be.

Sunday was [title of show] which is on until next Sunday. Smaller still, it's the story of the creation of itself… As such, there's an element of wondering how real some bits are. Alas, I didn't have any doubts about the realism of the way the two gay men writing it were noticeably giving themselves much better bits than they give the two women.

Oh, is that the time?

Earlier this week, Amazon finally had a cheap copy of a book I've been after for a while – the Haynes Owners' Workshop Manual for the Panzerkampfwagen VI, otherwise known as the Tiger Tank. It arrived just before I left for the weekend. If you're interested in the subject, it's a fascinating read: I started at about 9pm and went 'Oh..' at after midnight.

As far as the 'owners' bit of the title goes, the equivalent Haynes book on the Spitfire says something like 'forget owning one to fly unless you've a million quid to spare'. This one just says 'forget it': only six of the just over thirteen hundred made survive even vaguely intact.* But it is written by the owners of the only one restored to running order, The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset.

Hmm, it's been at least five years since I visited.** Hmm, Tiger Day or Tankfest next year?

Typically, the Daily Fail's article on the book gets lots of things wrong in its historical picture 'German Tiger Tank on road in Normandy in Northern France during the Second World War'. As any fule kno that's the Panzerkampfwagen VII, aka the Tiger II. And there are two of them. And, to me at least, both of them are by the side of the road…

* Not that stops assorted people offering one for sale. One bunch sent photos of a model to prove they had one…

** I spent the first day of the second OpenCon there as it was nearby. I think that was 2011. The previous visit was just after I'd leant to drive, so early 2002. The one before that was as a child, when they still let you clamber all over everything!

Foreign language exchange trip: failed

I did badly at French when I was at school. Last in the class at the end of year one* exam, and it went downhill from there.

On the plus side, it did mean I was put into 'economics / government and politics' from year two rather than Latin (those who did well) or German (those in the middle), so I only ended up failing the one O-level..**

.. so badly, it didn't appear on the certificate as a fail. Result, even if I thought I was going to get at least an 'E'!

Yesterday, we were told that the girl JA stayed with on her German exchange trip earlier this year has failed.. something, possibly just English.. so that her school is keeping her back a year and she's not being allowed to go on the return visit here in a couple of weeks time.

Even I think that's unfair.

* What I'm supposed to call year seven now.

** Which I'm still a bit annoyed about: at the end of year three when it came time to pick options for O-level, the school said we could drop French. Then, when the results were in, said 'Oh, we were lying – we just wanted to see how many people would drop it if they could. Which they can't.'

I think this might be a record

I need to be in London on Saturday evening – someone booked the wrong train there, so I'm giving them a lift. Ok, what's happening in the London fringe theatre then? Slightly annoyingly, the previous best way to find out has had a makeover and it's not as nice to use as before but..

.. Oooh! Menier Chocolate Factory have the last night of a production of Into the Woods! It's probably not worth clicking to check if there are any seats left, but..

.. Oooh! Last one!

So this will be the third professional production of it in ten months: Manchester Exchange (intimate, very good) at the end of December, West Yorkshire Playhouse (bigger, some nice ideas and very well sung, but not quite as good) in June, and now this. Add in another three months, and there was the American school that did it at the Fringe last August, making three and a half productions of all sorts.

They've all got it in for me..

1. Over the past couple of days, I've gotten around to testing the kit I bought from the bunch who were closing. It looks like they sent six 'lots of red LEDs' shields rather than the five red and one (more expensive) white LED version. I'm now pondering whether or not to get a partial refund from PayPal. On the one hand, it's not much money, but on the other, I'm still very annoyed at their taking the documentation for their kit off the web and stopping it being archived by Google /

2. Speaking of bad documentation, the other thing I've been testing is a small touchscreen LCD shield for Arduinos and compatibles. Checking, I bought it from a Chinese website almost exactly a year ago but never got around to playing with it. Problem one is that it came with zero documentation. Problem two is that, although the basic shield is fairly widely available, there are at least half a dozen different controller chips in use generating the displays and which any particular board uses looks to be almost completely random. Even this bunch have used several different ones, and of course, they all need talking to in more or less different ways.

So I attach it and the Arduino UNO clone it came with via USB. Well, the display lights up white. Let's try programming it. A quick look reveals that it should use a Spfd5408 controller, and someone's done a driver library for that, based on the one done by Adafruit.

The test example uploads to the Arduino, says it's working over the serial interface, but doesn't actually do anything on the display. Apart from flicker, once, when the Arduino is reset.

Hmm. A look at the reviews on the page show quite a few people moaning about this sort of thing, but the vendors point to a file somewhere..

.. that no longer exists.

Fortunately, someone mentions the file name and a search reveals a copy in someone's 'Live Drive'. There's quite a bit in it, including a user manual (in Chinese), a PNG image with various dimensions, a 239 page datasheet (in English!), the libraries, and various other stuff mostly in Chinese.

The test example uploads to the Arduino, says it's working over the serial interface, but doesn't actually do anything on the display. Apart from flicker, once, when the Arduino is reset.

Hmm, a look at the code reveals this:

  uint16_t identifier = tft.readID();
  if(identifier == 0x9325) {
    Serial.println(F("Found ILI9325 LCD driver"));
  } else if(identifier == 0x9328) {
    Serial.println(F("Found ILI9328 LCD driver"));
  } else if(identifier == 0x7575) {
    Serial.println(F("Found HX8347G LCD driver"));
  } else if(identifier == 0x9341) {
    Serial.println(F("Found ILI9341 LCD driver"));
  } else if(identifier == 0x8357) {
    Serial.println(F("Found HX8357D LCD driver"));
  } else {
    Serial.print(F("Unknown LCD driver chip: "));
    Serial.println(identifier, HEX);

Or, in English, 'read what chip it says it is, immediately overwrite the result with the value for one of the five chips the library will presumably work with, then work out and announce which chip it is'. Taking out the naughty line reveals that it's reporting as having an identifier of 0xC0C0.

Which it doesn't know about and clearly can't cope with.

Fortunately, another link leads to another bit of code that does work, and the display is now being wiped with red, green and blue in turn in an infinite loop.* Unfortunately, that's all the code does and adapting the considerably more powerful libraries – as you might have guessed from the length of the datasheet, these chips are quite powerful – into using the right registers etc has been left as an exercise for the buyer.

I'd complain, but I see that I paid the equivalent of $5.10 for the display, the Arduino clone, and a USB lead. The clone is worth rather more than that. I couldn't post it all back to China for that much!

3. Rather than typing all this stuff, I was supposed to be taking JA for a guitar lesson near Lincoln with a new-to-us group. Except that when I got in the car, I noticed that the driver's wing mirror was turned in. I'll just push it back out..

.. ow, that's broken glass!

Someone's hit it and smashed it completely.** The passenger side one was broken a couple of years ago, and partly because it wasn't me that broke it while driving along, I've never bothered to replace it. It's not legally necessary and it does still give an indication of what's on that side. Neither of those apply to the driver's side: you have to have one and it is completely shattered.

Fortunately, I can get replacements for the glass and have it in a fixed position. Having proper adjustable replacements would probably cost a large chunk of what the car's worth… ditto putting in a claim on the insurance.

* Reminding me of the beautiful lights of Balham, 'changing all the time: green… amber… red… red and amber… and back to green.'

** Although the impact must have been obvious to whoever did it, there's no note. Sadly, there's no sign that it smashed their wing mirror too.

Meanwhile, back with more or less factual reading

So what have I been reading recently?

The Run of His Life: The People vs OJ Simpson – the book that was adapted into the recent TV series. That's meant it's now available in the UK, albeit with the title changed to match the series. It largely assumes you know who OJ Simpson was – the very interesting five part series 'OJ Simpson – Made in America' that was apparently shown on BT Sport has much more of the background and the postscript – but if you saw the series, you'll know that almost no-one comes out of it looking good and this has more of the usually horrible why.

Boy Racer – Mark Cavendish on his remarkable 2008 Tour de France interspersed with stories about his career to that point. Obviously, quite a lot has happened since then, but this shows what it's like to be in the middle of a bunch sprint and why he's so good at winning single races: he's got a rare combination of talent, a drive to win and intelligence. (He reminds me of Stephen Hendry in that.) There's no 'with' writer credited, and I can believe that he needed an editor more than a writer, because his ability to remember – and learn from – what happened in any race is remarkable.

Neighbours – not the TV show, but the 'The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland'. This took place in July 1941 (the town had been conquered by the Germans in 1939, handed to the Soviets as part of the pact between them to split up Poland, and just been reconquered by Germans) and is summarised as half the town killed the other, Jewish, half. It looks like this is an overestimate of the deaths, but the investigation it lead to had to avoid overly disturbing the site of the massacre so their figure of the deaths could have been an underestimate. It did confirm that although the Germans were watching and could have stopped it, it was around forty Polish citizens that actually carried out the massacres. Obviously, this was hugely controversial in Poland, not least as an earlier Soviet investigation had used torture to get to the same conclusion.

Analyzing Politics – not so much 'what does an MP do' (not least as it's a US book) but 'why would someone who wants A vote for B?' Because it's better than C or D, usually, and one way or another they know they can't have A. The electoral system may not let them express preferences, or the order of votes may have been arranged by someone who knew what they were doing. (Unsurprisingly, the first edition of this was the basis of several of the games in the Playing Politics book I used for a session on how to win committee meetings at BiCon 2006.)

In the 'to read' pile: David Millar's autobiography, covering his cycling career before, during, and after cheating.

Before it goes splat at the bottom

My reading of fiction in book form fell off a cliff some time ago. I had the last but one Pratchett Discworld novel (Raising Steam) out from the library for months before reading it, and I still haven't looked for the last one. I'd borrowed the first two in the 'The Long Earths' series and returned them unread. I finished the last but two Christopher Brookmyre, Flesh Wounds, recently and will read the other one I've had out for months, Dead Girl Walking.

A few years ago, I'd have finished them on the first day.

In addition to those two, in the past year I have also read a couple of Len Deighton's – two of the first three 'Harry Palmer' books, The IPCRESS File and Billion Dollar Brain, doing them in a Monday morning shift in the bookshop. Annoyingly, someone bought Funeral in Berlin before I did that one.

But I have a horrible feeling that's it. And the Pratchett might have been earlier.

Other past likes have been Philip Reeve's work, particularly the 'Mortal Engines' series (although I don't think any of them have lived up to the first) and the silliness of the 'Larklight' series.

I liked the intelligence of all of them, and the relative shortness of the Deighton's. I can still do 'big books' in non-fiction, but it's been a long while since I've been tempted to put in the commitment needed for a story that takes more than a day to read. Probably the last one was the expanded version of American Gods, which means it was before moving here.

Any recommendations, preferably with what makes them good?

So, farewell then David Cameron

The worst Prime Minister since…? Chamberlain?

Go back a year, and it must have seemed so different, the first Tory leader to have an absolute majority for 18 years! Since then, his legacy has been defined by failure in the EU referendum and the image of him sticking his dick in a pig's head.

The first was totally unnecessary, a promise he never expected to have to keep. Having made it, and unexpectedly ended up in a position to have to follow through, there were so many things he could have done:

* Ensure that a majority of the countries of the United Kingdom would have to vote against continuing membership before any exit would be considered – two of them have European commitments built into their devolution deals! Having English voters annoyed at voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland is nothing new, and builds support for the 'English votes for English laws' idea*

* Explicitly give the electorate multiple 'leave' options rather than bundle them together in a single campaign: stay a member of the single market regardless of free movement or stop free movement at the cost of being a member of the single market or…

* Tie up his 'friends' into working for 'remain', rather than discovering after he'd called it that several of them were prepared to campaign for 'leave' in order to maximise their chances of replacing him

.. instead, he displayed a level of incompetence in political management so great, it almost makes Corbyn look good.

By resigning as an MP now, he's going to cost Oxfordshire council the money to run the by-election (although doubtless the constituency will get a boost from a small pile of journalists etc coming to cover it) and doubtless cost a bunch of schoolchildren a day of school. I don't know what will happen with the area's constituencies following the forthcoming boundary changes, but it's likely that it will create more problems for the Tories than it would if he were to step down at the next General Election – his replacement will be amongst those trying to ensure they're still an MP.

What a complete Cameron.

* Which is a bad one as proposed for a number of reasons, but it's his policy.

Today was a green day

In the morning, L and I looked around a 'superhome' – one that's been retrofitted with things like external insulation to make it greener.

It was near an open Age Concern shop that had a 'two DVDs for £1' offer (and a lot to chose from) so eight are going to be reused rather than going into land fill.

Then there was a choice: the Nottingham Green Festival in the very green Arboretum Park or the Mela at the (free for the day) Nottingham Castle. We went for the latter, partly because the weather was lovely.

By the time we got there, we were quite hungry. Hmm, that's interesting, there are at least a dozen stalls or stands selling food and they're all 100% vegan. The nearest you could find non-vegan cheese was a note on the organic veg delivery scheme stall that they also did local cheese. Oh and, shhhh, meat. That can't be a coincidence…

… and looking, reveals that, no, it's not. The new bunch that's organising it decided that the event should be '100% Vegan' and so stall holders were told not 'bring items that contain meat, dairy, honey, eggs fish or animal bi-products'. That's actually a tighter definition than the Vegan Society use: as a vegan friend likes to point out, you can have a job experimenting on live rabbits and hunt foxes while wearing leather and still be a member provided you don't eat animal products.*

Hmmm, a group deciding that 'green = vegan' reminds me of the way that lots of city Prides think that 'LGBT = gay, gay, gay, with a small bit of lesbian and trans'.**

As you'd expect from an event that evolved from the Nottingham Peace Festival, there was also an ethical policy: no product from any company that is subject to a consumer boycott for violating human or animal rights was allowed, for example. So what on earth were the rape apologists of the Socialist Workers Party doing with a stall there?*** There's a boycott of them that goes way beyond the usual struggles between different Trot groups. And the pair of them on the stall were ignoring the rule that said they must not 'accost visitors with leaflets' in a stark contrast to all the others.

After this, we did some shopping and went home via a new(ish) ice cream place we'd noticed signs to but never actually been to. Expecting something like the excellent Newfields Dairy parlour, it turned out to be more like a shed on the edge of the farm. We've seen those before – there's one near Honiton that does really good ice cream – but this one turned out to be a self-service ice cream / milk / cake shed! The 'fill your own carton or bottle' milk machine is particularly neat.

I've also given the lawn probably its last mow of the year. All in all, a good day.

* Probably not a very popular one, but…

** Speaking of misleading, I'm currently watching an NFL game on US TV, and a mobile phone company has just promised '20Gb of unlimited data'. Erm…

Another game, another relevant coincidence: Green Day's American Idiot is recalled by having George W Bush help with the coin toss and give a video message.

*** Another thought was that with Labour and about six Trot groups having stalls vs just the Green Party, it was more a Red Festival than a Green one…