Saturday, 31 January 2015

Retro desktop

    For someone who earns a living by sometimes pushing computers to the limits of their abilities, I have been rather deficient in some of the things most people use them for. Take office tasks, for instance. My laptop sports a copy of LibreOffice as part of its Ubuntu Linux distribution, but it rarely gets used. I've not had a functional printer set up for about a decade, as very little of what I normally do is paper based.
    So I found myself rather unprepared recently when I realised I was going to be needing a bit of good old-fashioned office word processing. All the things most people have to hand around their computer, I didn't. The thought of shelling out for a pile of new kit didn't really appeal, so to furnish myself with what I needed I turned to my stash of random stuff-that-will-come-in-useful-someday.
    My desktop PC hasn't had a refresh since the early 2000s. I remember when it was a cutting-edge gaming machine, now it just about runs a cut-down Linux distribution and is far too slow for the software in hand. Plus it has a very noisy fan. Useful to have for pulling data from old hard drives, but come to think of it that's all I've used it for these last few years.
    Fortunately I had a handy replacement already on my desk. A pocket-money-cheap Raspberry Pi with a GertVGA adaptor drives the venerable CRT monitor, and I had to dust off my 25-year-old IBM model M keyboard. It's difficult to explain the attraction of these rather noisy devices, but their unique bent-spring mechanism gives a typing action like no other.
    The oldest item I pulled out though was the printer. A 24 pin Epson dot matrix printer from the 1980s, complete with period sound effects. With properly configured software these printers can produce output that would fool you into thinking it came from a laser printer, but because most people didn't know how to set them up they gained a reputation for poor quality. The reason I hung onto mine though is cost. Instead of ink or toner cartridges these printers have a ribbon like that in a typewriter which only costs about a fiver, and produce an astounding number of pages from a single ribbon.
    All I had to buy to complete my junkyard desktop were a couple of USB adaptors which together cost me under a tenner: a PS/2 keyboard and mouse adaptor and a parallel printer adaptor.
    I was pleasantly surprised with how usable LibreOffice is on a Raspberry Pi. It's not the fastest of machines by today's standards so I hadn't set my hopes too high, but I guess using Microsoft Office 2010 over a network at work had conditioned me to poor performance. After a bit of playing with the Linux printing system to get everything talking I soon had my documents coming off the printer in very high quality.
    So there I have it. The sounds of a 1980s office, clack-clack-clack keyboard and dot-matrix whine. I guess you have to be here to appreciate it.  

Friday, 2 January 2015

I've had a few

     At my workplace, there is a three-storey-high atrium that divides the centre of the complex. It joins a substantial Victorian building to one built in the 1980s so it follows the '80s architectural fashion of exposed painted architectural steelwork and glass with the odd bit of mildly tacky gold trim.
    On the ground floor, seating and a coffee bar. The first floor mezzanine, comfy chairs and glass coffee tables popular for informal meetings. The top level is much smaller at the top of a grand flight of stairs, a single coffee table and chairs, an impressive view across the city skyline, and only an '80s-style glass and tubular handrail between you and a sheer three-storey drop. Jump off that and you'd hit the floor next to the diorama of technologically outdated machinery from the organisation's industrial past in somewhere about a second and a half.
    It's an unfortunate function of our condition, the tendency to notice things like that. I like the view from up there, but the edge is too close for comfort.
    So, regrets. Like that damn song lyric, I've had a few. If you had none during transition, you're lucky.
    You have to sort things that happen into two piles. "Stuff that could have been caused by transition", and "Stuff that would probably have happened anyway". My past 16 months have not been the best of my life, but for example I can't blame losing my mother on transitioning. Or even parting from my wife, deep down I am guessing that could have happened anyway even if not this year. Relationship issues aren't the sole preserve of trans people. Given the three trouble-free years before transition working down a corridor from that atrium though I can't imagine work would have gone sour for the scruffy bloke. Never mind, reap the whirlwind and all that.
     I will never shake one regret though, that I couldn't make it as the bloke. Not that I ended up transitioning, but for the bloke I never was. I know some people never look back, sadly it doesn't work that way for me.
     It's tempting given a new year to talk about grandiose plans. I think I'll avoid that one, just concentrate on getting through it in one piece.