Windows has encountered an error…

So I just got to play with two things I never knew existed in my PC

The UEFI BIOS recovery system and the Windows 7 recovery system.

… was doing a Windows Update, PC turned off, when I turned it back on the power button got stuck and made the PC repeatedly power up and down which corrupted the BIOS.

So then after that Windows went mental and decided to bluescreen at boot (because, unknown to me various subtle BIOS settings had been set to useless factory defaults – I gained a serial port though!). Thinking my machine had got corrupt I had a play with the system restore stuff in Windows 7.

It’s really cool, you have various options to really break your machine, drives are identified by GUID labels rather than useful names people understand and there’s a tempting command prompt option if you really want to destroy your data. Or you can just click the ‘restore my computer’ button which repeatedly reassures you that your documents and other non system data will not be altered. It told me that three times, it was quite reassuring.

This didn’t fix my PC though. Going into the BIOS and setting my SATA controller up properly fixed my PC. Took all of five seconds.

So yeah… turn on all that automated backup crap that comes with Windows 7 (and I presume 8), it does actually work and seems better than totally re installing everything.

Oh and my wireless USB keyboard stopped working until I installed the drivers for no obvious reason. Logging in with the onscreen keyboard is a right laugh, I highly recommend it.

A car that has been clamped by the DVLA due to having no road tax

Looks like someone forgot to pay their road tax, and the DVLA noticed…

A car with no tax that has been clamped by the DVLA

The rules for owning a car in the UK are fairly simple

  • It needs to be Insured
  • Which means it needs to be taxed
  • Which only happens if it has a valid MOT
If not, the roaming hoards of ANPR equipped police cars will catch you (and then you’ll be turned into cheap late-night TV entertainment) or they simply turn up at your house and make it immobile.

Every vehicle registered in the United Kingdom (UK) must be taxed if used or kept on a public road. If the vehicle is kept off-road it must either be taxed or have a SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification) in force. If not it could be wheelclamped or removed.

 

It appears its owner now has 24 hours to produce a valid tax disc, or the car gets towed away – at the owner’s expense. Then, if they still don’t produce a tax disc it gets turned into scrap.

Web and domain move complete

This is mostly a test post to check things like file uploads, image linking and mod_rewrite are functioning correctly. After a bit of research and discussion I’m using a place called Gandi.net to host my domain and have configured Apache on my own server to handle this site.

Setting up my domain was straight forward. It took about an hour for the domain to be transferred and me to recreate the host names. DNS then slowly propagated the changes over the next few hours.

Configuring Apache was also reasonably straight forward once I’d worked out how to do wildcard domains properly – the order Apache reads the virtual host configurations is important. What caused me a few hours confusion was that no images on my sites would load, but the http rewrite was working. This turned out to be a file permission problem within WordPress, and as soon as the webserver user was granted access the site sprang to life.

The next thing I am trying is SSL. I have a free SSL certificate for 1 year (after that it’s €24 a year) and once that has been generated I can create a private SSL site for a few services I want to use.

11 Years of excellent service

Way back in 2001 I wrote a short note on here about my website moving. Back then the company I worked for had a colocated Linux server with a company called UKShells (they started off as a CAD company and did colo on the side). We found maintaining the colocated machine difficult when it lived in a warehouse in Birmingham. This was 2001 Linux and not some clustered cloud instance so messing with LILO and vmlinuz images was required.

UKShells started a Linux shell account service which offered domain hosting, mail and web space for a reasonable price per year. We moved to that service and I gained my own domain to play with.

11 years later and unfortunately they’re ‘retiring’ the service I use and I need to find a new home. Bit of a bugger really, they’ve provided faultless hosting and caused me zero problems.

Currently I’ve asked them to update the tag on my domain so another host can claim it, Google Apps are configured to do my mail and once I reconfigure Apache I’ll host my site from my own machine.

Quite interesting how technology changes in 10 years. I could buy a cloud instance and use that (that’s the backup plan if hosting my own website becomes unusable), and my home broadband connection is fast enough to cope with doing this to it. Also Google appeared.

So yeah, I’ve kind of gone in a circle with my hosting.

Building my own computer … from components

A Fignition computer

Yesterday I told you a little story about how I got my first computer. Thing is, this wasn’t a random chance event where my parents bought me a computer because it might be “educational”; they didn’t even buy it to help me with my homework.

No, you see before computers I was somewhat obsessed with electricity and wires. I was one of those kids who, if left alone with an electronic item would be found half an hour later with the thing in bits. Not just “let’s take the lid off and have a look inside it” but I used to do teardowns on everything just for fun. Well, not everything… I wasn’t daft enough to go poking inside TVs or wall sockets.  I knew what mains electricity was so anything that had a plug didn’t get touched. If it ran on batteries and had screw holes? It was fair game.

What mystified my parents was that I’d put the stuff back together and it’d still work. 80s technology was great, there was so much stuff inside your average boombox. All these little metal things with legs that books told me were called ‘integrated circuits’ and other things called ‘resistors’.

I remember proudly telling my parents that one day I’d make them a computer. I didn’t own one (yet) and had never taken one to bits. I must have been exposed to their general existence though since I did manage to construct one at four years old. I mean, it had a few basic limitations like being made from cardboard and wood but it had wire inside it and a few random circuit boards I’d removed from some unwilling ex-stereo.

Well, on Christmas Day in between playing on my Beeb and digesting copious amounts of food I spent a fun hour or so putting together my own computer – from components, with a soldering iron. The computer is called a Fignition and is a computer kit designed with the same idea as the first 8bit micros – it’s simple enough that one person can understand the technical workings of it. Six year olds can grasp the concept of programming and what ‘RAM’ and a ‘CPU’ do. They can even cope with assembler if it’s reasonably simple. They can’t quite cope with multi-core CPUs, GPU shaders and interfacing things to a PCI-Express slot which is probably why modern computers don’t include manuals that have full schematic diagrams in them.

The Fignition contains an Atmel AVR as its CPU, has proper composite video output, a tiny keyboard to enter code, runs Forth as its OS/programming language and while you can use AVRDude to flash the microcontroller it includes its own 8Kb of RAM and 384KB of storage so you really can sit in front of a TV with just the Fignition and tap away writing software. It’s not something that requires a host PC to make it useful – in fact the only reason to plug it into a computer is to update the firmware. Upstairs on our bookshelf are loads of 80s programming books  full of simple type-in programs. I might convert some of the more interesting ones to Forth and type them into the Fignition.

Christmas 1985 all over again

In the 80s calculating your biorhythms was what computers did

Sometime one Christmas in the mid 80s I remember stopping over at my grandma’s with my parents. Christmas morning arrived and I was lead downstairs to the dining room where a spare telly had been set up.

Under the telly was an Acorn Electron, its tape unit, some tapes and its manual. And it was all mine 🙂 It was my first, actual real computer and I spent many hours sat in front of it typing in BASIC listings and loading things off tape.

Occasionally I got to go to work with my dad who worked in a school’s supplies company. One of his tactics to entertain me was to sit me in front of some computer they had there. It was a weird computer made by the BBC and all I really paid any attention to was that it had a painting program and a light pen… and that it was somehow similar to my Acorn Electron but had more holes in the back of it which naturally made it better.

Since there was no such thing as the Internet back then (at least not for someone who was about six years old who had yet to learn what a ‘modem’ did) my sole source of information came from books borrowed out the library. The books were great, but they all had one major failing as far as I was concerned – they were all to do with this BBC computer and not my Electron. So I could read all about how to control a robot arm or a toy trainset, and even type the programs in and run them but since the bottom of my Electron didn’t contain a ‘User Port’ or a ‘Tube Port’ I couldn’t do anything.Political Correctness hadn't been invented back then either!

Back in the 80s it was quite fine and normal to allow your kids to mess around plugging stuff into their computers. I remember reading one book that gave me code and a simple diagram to control household lighting from the BBC. It didn’t contain six pages of disclaimers either, instead it merely warned me that mains electricity can kill and that getting an adult to check the wiring before turning it on was a good idea.

Fast forward to this Christmas and I discover some unusually heavy and oddly shaped presents under the tree. I now have a BBC Model B micro, a selection of floppies (that are older than the person who gave them to me) and a 40 track, single sided 100K floppy drive that sounds like reading disks takes serious effort. I already had the Amstrad monitor, and it conveniently plugs into the BBC’s monitor socket. Had I been given this setup when I was five or so I think I might have exploded 🙂

The effects of wind on ADSL connections

The house I live in is a fairly standard 1940s red brick detached house – bay windows, four double-sized rooms, minute kitchen and bathroom, fairly wide stairs and landing, etc. Remnants of a removed chimney breast in the back room, and a nasty 80s style gas fire in the front room. The UK is full of these as if someone made a template and crapping out red brick houses was the rage.

And connecting this normal red brick house to the rest of the world was a piece of twin core bell wire. It left the window frame, went up the wall to the corner, bent the corner and flapped off to a phone pole so old it still has the ceramic telegraph insulators on it. At one point it was correctly attached to the house with a wire strain relief. I know this because bits of the strain relief were wound round the line about 30 cm along from the house, and a sort of rusty looking hook was poking out the building.

It was very windy yesterday and upon coming home I noticed something was not right with the Internet. The giant list of disconnection messages on IRC was the first hint, the crackling hissing noise coming out the phone was confirmation, and a quick run of speedtest.net (when my line stayed active long enough for it to work) gave this…

If your ADSL is this fast you probably live in Scotland.

Yeah, 0.18 megabits per second… someone’s stolen my Internet and replaced it with a 56K modem.

After 20 minutes on hold to BT, and after some very strange call diversion gymnastics that let me hear different versions of the “BT Woman” saying variations of “Please hold” I managed to get through to an operator who happily accepted my fault description of “the phoneline is not attached to my house any more and is flapping in the wind, which makes my Internet go off” and arranged for an engineer to come out and reattach the line “sometime before Tuesday”. Oh, it’s not fun to sit on hold and be told every 30 seconds that I could do this much faster online. My ISP does this too, they seem to forget that people only use the phone when the Internet is broken, to report faults with the Internet.

10am this morning it was fixed.

I had this mess connecting me to the rest of the world, can you spot the problem?

According to BT there was no fault on my line

Somehow this rusty mess was sustaining a 10Mbit link that passed two BT line tests before the wind and a tree killed it – it was working adequately enough for voice calls before it was replaced. One of the conductors has snapped and must have only been holding together by the insulation – it’s solid core copper too.

I’m now back at a 9-10Mbit connection again, able to drag information off the Internet at around 1 megabyte per second with a ping time of 25-30ms. Oddly this is the same as what I got with the old line; it’s amusing to think 25-30 year old phoneline that was only ever designed to power a phone and make voice calls could cope with modern Internet. The wiring in here is so old you can see where the line was cut and adapted to accept connection to a BT socket.

It’s a shame the BT engineer didn’t see my old GPO rotary dial phone, I’m sure he would have had much entertainment trying to use that to run line tests.

Graph to show how crap my Internet was yesterday. Red = offline

For the scientific types out there, here is a graph that shows my line going off. Every red bar is a period where my router was unable to ping the ‘other end’ of my connection (i.e the default gateway was unreachable). The bit between 7pm and 8pm was when I was out the house, the big red bit afterwards was when I climbed up the tree with a hand saw and started chopping branches off that were touching the line – in the dark, with high winds… wearing sandals, standing on a fence.

Spilling white stuff on my Mac

This is bad... Do not do this.

Yeah, irony is teaching your new students about the dangers of drinking near computers, and denying students entry to your classroom because they’re drinking… and then spilling your own drink on your own computer.

The affected keyboard – one of those nice white Apple USB ones is now drying out after being rinsed under the kitchen tap. After trying a backup keyboard, a blueberry iMac keyboard which the dog had chewed the USB plug on I decided to give a slightly older keyboard a go. The blueberry one was pretty terrible, with all the interesting keys missing and the enter key kind of stuck as if it’d had a soaking in something sugary in its past.

Here’s what I’m typing on now…

Apple Extended Keyboard II with iMate USB-ADB bridge

It’s a 1995 vintage Apple Extended Keyboard II, plugged into a temperamental (due to damaged cable that I need to repair) iMate USB-ADB bridge. The similarities between it and the white one are quite striking. This keyboard has a bit of a PC style to it, with redundant ‘scroll lock’ and ‘print screen’ buttons, along with the PC-style status LEDs. None of that does anything on OSX with the exception of the capslock LED – the capslock button itself is mechanical and locks down when pressed.

The typing action on this keyboard is superior to the newer Apple keyboards too. I might continue using it even if the white one survives its drowning.