Play Expo 2014

It’s been a few years since I last wrote about a retro gaming event I’ve attended.

This one was Play Expo 2014, held in the gigantic shed that is Event City in Manchester. This isn’t the first time I’ve been to the event – I’ve been going there since 2011 and somehow managed to get signed up as the Talks Co-ordinator. A task that involves the varied challenges of clicking PowerPoint slideshows for guest speakers, trying not to blind them with stage lighting and fighting the ever present demon that is microphone feedback.

If writing about retro gaming events has kind of lost its interest to me, taking photos at them definitely has. At one time this blog would be full of images of people playing games, standing around or computer screens showing games.

But I have hundreds of those photos, and social networking has made keeping them kind of irrelevant. So then I tried to be arty and take fancy pictures. Editing those takes effort, something I’m not that interested in doing at 10pm on a Sunday night after a weekend of heavy PowerPoint wrangling.

So this year, I decided to take photos using only my 3DS and its incredibly poor built in camera. Yes, I have intentionally taken photos of the Occulus Rift, original VR headset and a 3D telly on purpose. No, you can’t take a 3D photo of an Occulus Rift, or a polarised TV and have the image look 3D on a 3DS. The only thing missing from my collection was a Virtualboy and some of those old 3D slide viewers – there were some on display, but I forgot to go and take pictures of them.

I did get to meet Chris Barrie, and have a suitably terrible “muggle standing next to celebrity” photo to add to the collection.

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

Sounds of obsolete technology

Modern technology is so quiet and efficient, so here are some reminders of how noisy computing used to be:

Number 1: The dot-matrix printer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Muajxx8vUV4

Number 2: Rotary dial phones.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hUAQtqlhT4

Number 3: Tape-loading games

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJykX4s9MtQ

Number 4: Modems

Number 5: Floppy drives

How and why it works – a TV from the 1940s

A television receiver from the 1940s

Here is another book I found in a local car boot sale. Coming from a time when education and intelligence was assumed and the dumbing down disease hadn’t yet taken hold How and why it works is a book that does exactly what it says on the cover. It tells you how things work, and explains why they work that way using neatly labelled diagrams and paragraphs of text. Everything from how a coal mine operates to electricity generation.

The fascinating part is the section on the television receiver. According to Wikipedia, television was first transmitted in 1932 by the good old BBC but this was a mechanical system at first, eventually using an electronic scanning method by 1936. Then it all stopped during the war and wasn’t resumed until 1946. The book I have was published in 1948, and the television is introduced by relating it to a radio set and to a cinema, making it look to be a fairly new concept compared to the radio on the preceding pages which starts with “The programmes you listen to on the radio” where it’s assumed everybody knows what a radio is. I scanned the television section in as a series of images, and have also created a PDF from it.

The book is really interesting, it contains a mix of brand new technology such as the TV and very old more traditional technology like the plough, electric torch and ratchet screwdriver. It’s a snapshot of time before the transistor existed, everything electronic contains valves and there is no mention of computers whatsoever.

Tomorrow – Infantry Training and mortars in the attack.

GPO 746 Rotary Dial Phone – Remember these?

UK GPO 746 Rotary Dial Telephone

When I was small I have memories of my grandma and my parents owning one of these phones, not that they had much choice of course since it wasn’t until the early 80s that other companies were allowed to make phones in the UK; before that it was the good old GPO’s job to rent one out to you. I took mine to bits to fix the dial, it kept sticking, and while taking it apart I took some photos which are attached to links throughout this post. Read on, this is more than a bunch of photos…
Continue reading GPO 746 Rotary Dial Phone – Remember these?

Welcome to the World Of Science!

… as it was 20 years ago.

The World of Science
The World of Science ISBN 0723543208

While wandering around a local car boot sale this book caught my eye. I quite like the old science and computing books from the 80s and 90s. There’s a certain style to them that doesn’t exist any more. They’re books I used to read from the library or have bought for me at Christmas. Books aimed at children, but books that assume the children reading them aren’t stupid and can cope with complicated words.

I also like the hand drawn images. No computer rendered images in these books. The World of Science is the usual affair telling us all about atoms, space, magnets and gravity. None of it goes into any particular depth, but it’s enough to make an enquiring mind think “that magnetism stuff… what’s it do, where can I get a magnet from? Dad, buy me that science book on magnets please it can be an early birthday present”. Don’t forget, in 1990 there was no Wikipedia so information wasn’t instantly available, it had to be paid for in books. Yes teenagers… books… you didn’t just fire up Google and type “what is magnetism” into the PC; a time when libraries actually contained more books than computers.

The best part of this book is the Tomorrow’s World section at the back where the book’s authors attempt to predict the future. Yes, there’s the assumption we’ll all be in space in little 2001 style pods, flying cars and the like. And like all books of the era, it totally and utterly fails to predict the popularity of computers or mobile phones. I wonder what blindingly obvious things we’re missing right now…

Here’s a two page scan of that section to read. Click it for a bigger image.

The World of Science - Tomorrow's World

How good is your memory?

Or, how observant were you and how absorbant was your mind?

Think hard, what’s the furthest back you can remember?

I can remember being at nursery watching TV. Only because the ‘Thames TV‘ logo had a distinctive sound. I can also remember having to go to bed during the middle of the day at nursery, which I used to think was a really stupid idea. We had toast, then we went to bed. I was fine with the toast bit, but the going to sleep? Why? There was still so much Lego to play with!

I can also remember wondering why TV programs said ‘MCMLXXXIV’ at the end of them.

I don’t remember my first day at school though. I remember the day the smelly kid came to school, he cried a lot and we did about the Romans and their under-floor heating.

Attempting to repair my FAL Phase 44 amplifier

FAL Phase 44 Amplifier
FAL Phase 44 Amplifier

Sometime last year my old Kenwood hifi amp stopped working due to the speaker cutout relays not working. The speakers would never switch on, making for a fairly useless amplifier.

While my cousin was sorting out his mess before moving to the US he found this old “FAL” brand amplifier. A spot of Googling reveals this was made by a company called “Futuristic Audio Limited” who also seem to make guitar amps. He didn’t want it, I needed an amp, so it came home with me.

Due to its age I noticed quite a lot of noise when trying to adjust the volume so decided today to take it apart and attempt to clean the insides out. I also bought some switch cleaner to spray in the potentiometers.

The insides were very simple. Here is a photo of the main circuitboard which contains nothing but through-hole mounted resistors and capacitors. The most complex electronic components in this are the four transistors bolted to a piece of metal. There are also some large looking capacitors, and an interesting looking network of diodes.

Unfortunately I think cleaning the contacts on the potentiometers and switches might have messed the electrical characteristics of the amp up. Since this isn’t an IC based amp, I have a feeling there’s a fine balance between the components that makes the thing work, and squirting a load of switch cleaner into things has altered this. When I power the amp up, only the left channel works and the volume goes really loud then distorts – all by itself, without me moving the volume knob. I’ll leave it for a few hours to see if the cleaner evaporates off. It’s no great loss if it is broken, the reason I took it apart was because the sound wasn’t correct and the volume kept wandering between left and right speakers, so maybe it’s finally packed in.

Looking at the electronics inside, part of me wonders if it’s repairable.

Blogs and websites I like to read

I use Google Reader to follow quite a lot of websites, blogs and anything else interesting that squirts out an RSS feed. For the curious, here is a list of my favourites. I’m leaving out the well known things like XKCD, Dilbert, Hack-a-day and so on.

I often find these kinds of sites while browsing around the comment fields of popular websites. It’s fun to click the random links in people’s signatures…

What are your favourite websites to visit? I’m always interested in new things to read.

Asahi Pentax S1a SLR Camera

Asahi Pentax S1a SLR camera
Asahi Pentax S1a SLR camera

I’ve been given one of these cameras along with a zoom lens and 55mm prime lens by Amy. I did some research on the web and discovered the camera was the first SLR camera with a pentaprism and dates back to around 1960. I stripped it down and discovered the clever simplicity of totally manual SLR cameras, there’s nothing inside them!

Really nothing, I took the lens off, opened the back, set the shutter to “Bulb” mode and upon pressing the shutter release ended up with a giant 35mm hole going right through the camera. Nothing on this camera is electronic, and it’s so obvious now looking through the lens and twisting the aperture ring to work out how that affects the image.

It’s been cleaned out and loaded with film. I’ve already shot ten “test” shots and will take it for a ride about on my bike tomorrow if it’s not raining. The Asahi Pentax camera is all metal, with a zoom lens that weighs more than my Nikon DSLR body and lens! The lens also has “Made in USSR” stamped on it πŸ™‚ This is a camera I’d be quite happy dangling from my neck while walking through town – if anyone tried to steal itΒ  I’d just whack them on the head with it πŸ˜‰

I took a few photos of it, and a few photos looking through the lens. Meta-photography is sort of amusing.

Once I’ve used up the film and found somewhere that can develop it, and assuming the camera doesn’t leak light like a Lomo I should have some nice photos. It’s quite hard guessing the exposure settings by eye, but since I shoot in manual on my DSLR I’m constantly altering the aperture and shutter speeds anyway and I think my guesses should be good.