Press button A

A and B_240

When I  first became aware of public telephone boxes – that would have been in the early 1960s – they operated as follows. The caller first inserted a suitable number of coins, and then dialled. If the call was answered, the caller had to press a button marked ‘A’ in order to continue the call. By pressing this button, the inserted coins moved into the cash box. If, on the other hand, the recipient of the call did not answer or was busy on another call, the caller had to press button ‘B’. By doing so, the inserted coins were returned.

The A and B call boxes were later replaced by another system. The caller dialled the number. If it was answered, the caller heard a series of beeps. At this point, the caller had to insert money in order to remain connected. Many years after this newer system was installed, my father used to yell down the ‘phone:

“Press button ‘A'”

He did this despite the fact that button ‘A’ no longer existed.

Today, with the advent of mobile telephones, mastering the intricacies of operating public telephone boxes has become almost unneccessary.

Do not lose it

 

I write a great deal on my computer. Although computers are generally reliable, they are prone to technical hiccups and even total failure. Therefore, I am in favour of following the generally accepted advice that it is a good idea, nay essential, that you save your work not only on the computer’s hard disc but also remotely from the computer.

I tend to back-up anything I don’t want to lose on USB memory sticks. However, being of a somewhat paranoid/neurotic nature, I do not place my trust in these alone. What if, for example, I lose one or one of them suddenly ceases to stop working as happened with a costly hard drive that contained almost five years of documents and photos and then suddenly ‘conked out’? To avoid this, I record everything on to two or more separate memory sticks. 

But, still I am not completely content. Although large companies like Gmail, Dropbox and Microsoft might possibly go ‘bust’ one day, this is far less likely than me losing my memory sticks or my computer giving up the ghost. So, I upload my work onto the hard-drives or ‘clouds’ of the large corporates using Dropbox, OneDrive, and various email accounts I have created, which are dedicated to storing my work.

Call me over-cautious if you like, but I don’t care. Re-writing an important letter or a several hundred page book that has been lost because it has not been securely saved is not a prospect I relish! And, nor should you!

Adding up

CALCULATOR

When I was at high school in the second half of the 1960s, I studied, amongst other things, maths, physics, and chemistry. All of these subjects require calculation, sometimes quite complicated. There were no pocket calculators and few computers accessible to schoolkids in those days. 

For complicated calculations, we had to rely on working out the arithmetic with pen and paper, or with tables of logarithms, or using slide rules. Today, you would find it difficult to buy either a table of logarithms or a slide rule. By the way, calculating with the latter required one to make an estimate of the answer to ascertain which power of ten the anser should be. For example, should it be in the hindres, thousands or hundreds of thousands? Also, when making divisions using slide rules, there were almost always two possible answers, only one of which was correct. A rough estimation done on paper or in one’s head, would determine which of these two was the right one. 

If you are getting lost already, stop worrying because this will not get more complicated.

In the late ’60s or early ’70s, pocket electronic calculators entered the market place. At first, they required enormous pockets and pockets filled with money because they were quite expensive. Well, they were certainly beyond my means.

In late 1973, I began working in a laboratory with a view to collecting experimental data to be submited eventually in a PhD thesis. One of the other PhD students in our laboratory came from Kuwait. He would travel there occasionally to visit his family. When he returned from one of his trips home, he brought me a wonderful gift. It was a Casio pocket calculator. Reading this today, you will probably think that was a lousy thing to give, as you can go into shops all over the place and buy a pocket calculator for a very modest price, maybe no more than the cost of a packet of cigarettes. However, when I received my Casio, it was a very precious gift both financially and in terms of labour saving.

And, now one does not even need to buy a calculator because there will be one installed in your mobile telephone. I suppose this is progress. However, progress is a word I do not like to use because in medicine a ‘progressive’ disease is one that continues to get worse, often leading to death.

 

Picture taken at Russell Market in Bangalore, India

Looking for something?

Archive

 

I write a great deal in my spare time. Apart from blogs like this one, I write books about subjects that require a considerable amount of research. I have a British Library (‘BL’) reader’s card, which gives me access to an unbelievable collection of material. However, even though I live not far from the BL, it is quite time-consuming getting to and from the material inside the library. Apart from security checks at the BL, one must leave many items, which are forbidden in the reading rooms (e.g. food, drink, all kinds of writing implements apart from pencils), in a locker in te basement. Once in the reading rooms, the BL becomes a joy to work in.

 

Over the years, I have been using another kind of library. It is on-line, and is reached by typing https://archive.org/ . Using its superb search engine, you can explore its collection in many ways, such as by author, by title, by keywords, etc. What comes up, if you are lucky, is a set of scanned volumes of relevant books or pamphlets. By clicking on an item, you are given the option of downloading it (.pdf, Kindle, and other formats), reading the scanned book using a very practical online reader, or reading a typed transcript of the entire text online. If the item is one you need, it is a lot easier reading it via this website than having to ‘schlep’ to the BL. This is especially the case if you do not live in London.

 

If you have not come across this website and you are looking for texts published long ago and not so distantly, head for archive.org, and give it a try!

 

My picture is part of a screen-shot of a page of results from archive.org

 

The simple life

KILSHANNIG 76 Standing stone

 

A long time ago, I remember seeing an advertisement issued either by Aer Lingus or the Irish tourist board, which said:

“In Ireland, it rains every fifteen minutes for a quarter of an hour”

During my first visit to the Republic of Ireland (Eire) back in 1976, I stayed with some friends in their secluded country house far south of Dublin. Remote as it was, it had a telephone, but it was without a dial. To use the ‘phone, it was necessary to lift the receiver and then turn a small crank several times. This crank sent a signal to the operator at the exchange, who then connected you to the switchboard. Next, you told the operator which number you required, and he or she then tried to connect you.

One night, there was a fierce storm with much wind. On the morning following, one of our party wished to make a ‘phone call. After several attempts to alert the operator with the cranking mechanism, we concluded that the storm had damaged the line connecting the house to the exchange. We thought that it would take many days before this would be repaired. One of my friends suggested that we got in the car and followed the telephone line to discover how and where it was damaged.

Soon, we found the place where the problem had occurred. The wind had caused the two wires that led to the house to become tangled in the branches of the tree. One of my friends stood on the roof of our vehickle and using a long stick, a branch that had been brought down by the storm, managed to disentangle the wires. When we returned to the house, we discovered that the problem had been resolved. Life was so simple in those days! 

Back to BASIC

computer

During the last two years (1968-69) at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, we were taught about computing. The teacher in charge was one of the pioneers of the computer programming language called BASIC (an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). The first version of BASIC, which was considerably simpler to use than FORTRAN or COBOL, was released in 1964. So, our teacher was advanced in introducing it to us. We learned about creating flow diagrams and then converting them into BASIC.

When I learnt BASIC back in the late sixties, the only computers available were huge main-frame machines that occupied large rooms. PCs and lap-tops were not yet available, or hardly even imagined. The school did not possess a main-frame computer. But, it did possess a keyboard attached to a telephone line. By dialling a number, the keyboard could be connected to a remote computer. It was not possible to type directly into the computer. First the programme that we concocted had to be typed on the keyboard, which converted the programme into a series of holes on a long ribbon of paper. When the programme had been transferred into the punched holes, the remoter computer was dialled, and then the long strip had to be fed into a slot on the keyboard console. Then, the author of the programme had to hold his breath. For, it would be some time before the computer sent back a message that was typed by the console onto its paper-feed. More often than not, the message would convey the sad news that the programme had an error. Then, it was back to the ‘drawing board’ to determine where we had gone wrong.

When the programme was correct, the results were exciting. Some people used the computer to do statistical work, or to generate answers to mathematical problems. I discovered how to make the computer write random poetry. I submitted some of what I produced to the school’s magazine, but it was turned down.

Several of my fellow pupils and I became obsessed with programming. We could not get enough of experimenting with programming. The console was kept locked in a wooden cabinet, which could only be opened by our teacher. Somehow or other one of us managed to get a copy of the key, and, more importantly noticed the number that our teacher dialled to access the computer. From then onwards, we had far greater access to the machine.

The IBM company lent the school a prototype of a table top computer. This could only be programmed using machine language, which is the coding that underlies languages such as BASIC, FORTRAN, and COBOL. Using machine language is real programming, and quite difficult. It was to difficult for me to master even at a very simple level.

When I went for my interview at the Physiology Department at University College London (‘UCL’), the other candidates and I were shown the room containing a large computer, which the Department possessed. The staff were very proud of these advance machines that were able to process experimental data in “real time”. Information from the measuring instruments employed in the experiments was converted into numerical data that could then be processed statistically by the computer, and then displayed to the experimenters while the experiment was proceeding.

A week or two after my interview at UCL, I went for another interview, this time at the Physiolgy Department of Chelsea College (now long since closed). After I had been several questions by the Prof and some of his colleagues, they allowed me to ask any questions I had. Having been impressed by what I had seen at UCL, I asked:

“Do you use computers in your department here at Chelsea?”

“Of course, we do, all the time” answered the Prof immediately.

After a short pause, one of his colleagues said:

“Well … actually… we don’t have any computers in this college.”

Then the Prof said something, which I found rather pathetic:

“I can understand that your first choice is UCL. However, we would be happy to offer you a place in our department providing you will promise to accept our offer if UCL does not give you one.”

Fortunately, UCL did offer me a place on their course.

I gained admission to UCL, my first choice amongst the six universities to which I applied. During our first year, we had to take a course in physics. Once a week, we spent an afternoon in the laboratory carrying out practical work. One day, we were asked to write computer programmes to solve a chosen problem. I was the only person (in our class of fifty students), who could complete the task. No one else had a clue as to how to do it. They had attended good secondary schools all over the country, but only mine had offered teaching in computer science.

After that class in the physics laboratory in 1970, I did not touch a computer until about 1997. We bought a PC, because my wife needed one for her studies. When she was not using it, I experimented with it. It operated with one of the Windows programmes. I was flummoxed. It seemed quite different to what I experienced in the late sixties. How was I going to programme it? After a short while, I realised that things had moved on a long way since I learnt BASIC.

 

Image source: www.quora.com