Covid-19: Disappointment day

It’s nine weeks since I wrote my last Covid-19 piece. Thanks to mistakes and bad practice by various parties our daily Victorian positive number hit a peak of 725 in early August and by then (Sep 21) had dropped to 11, a figure that people in Europe and USA would think miraculous. As someone whose family is all in UK, I’m all too well aware of the result of failure to take hard measures when required. Look at this graph: Victoria is the red line, the UK the blue one. As our fight against the second wave was taking effect, the UK sadly lost control. How it (France, USA etc) can recover, I don’t know.

One of the sad things about the pandemic here in Victoria is how it has split society. You’re either with Dan (Daniel Andrews, our state Premier) or, spurred on by the LNP (conservative) opposition and the Murdoch press, have what might described as a vicious hatred of him. Tim Smith LNP deputy leader posted “a series of playing cards graphics of Labor MPs that appear to be inspired from the ‘kill or capture’ campaign waged by the US against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein“. Murdoch journalists turn up at the daily press conferences more intent on pursuing an agenda than asking the questions most people would like answered. A photographer from The Australian turned up on CHO Brett Sutton’s doorstep – one might see the subtext as being “we know where you live; we know where your wife and children live” – as Dan observed, it wasn’t as if they were short of photos of him.

Michael O’Brien, LNP leader, endlessly negative, has sought publicity by encouraging lawsuits against our state government. Win or lose, the cost of defending them will come out of the pockets of ordinary people. One of his causes was café owner, Michelle Loielo, who claimed to have lost 99 per cent of business under the state’s lockdown – my local café is no doubt down on business but take-away business still keeps three people busy. A look at her website doesn’t inspire confidence in her business sense: its ‘News’ page is still (as I write this) advertising Fathers Day specials starting with Seafood Bonanza for 2 $138.00; Fathers Day was September 6th, seven weeks ago. I hope the food isn’t that old!

After the 725 case scare, Daniel Andrews declared that our (very hard) lockdown restrictions would be lifted only when it was safe to do so. Not unreasonably this drew a lot of criticism for its vagueness, and so some hard numbers were substituted, the one for today being that the threshold for lifting a whole swathe of restrictions was subject to a 14-day new case average of 5 cases or less, with the caveat that this was subject to circumstance (e.g. 11 days at 3, followed by 5,10,20 would give an average of 4.8 but the upkick would be worrying and justification for delay). Needless to say, our LNP opposition were still unhappy. To quote Jason Wood LNP MP’s Facebook post of two weeks ago:

If NSW could manage with around twenty cases per day, then why does the Victorian Labor Party and our stubborn Premier want to reach this ridiculously unrealistic target of a 5 case average over 14 days?!

What’s turned out to be ridiculous was the assertion that this was an unattainable target. We have reached it! So why have I titled this piece, ‘Disappointment Day’? Sadly we have reached it but – not unlike my example above – have had a sudden outbreak of school-connected cases in the last few days. So, not unreasonably in my view, the hoped for relaxations (opening of non-food retail and hospitality etc) expected today have been deferred for a few days to see whether this outbreak develops or comes to nothing. For everyone’s sake we all hope the latter. But these two representative comments from The Age website show how polarised a society we have become:

  • We have all been through so much to drive numbers down. It would be tragic if all our hard work and forbearance was in vain and we went into a third wave, just because we couldn’t wait a few more days. Patience and persistence, Melburnians! We’re almost there! Anonymous
  • This incompetent government continues to lead us to destruction, until we change the leadership we are destined for failure ! Drew

Hopefully tomorrow and Tuesday’s numbers won’t show anything to worry about and the changes we hoped to see today can be implemented. But whatever happens, the damage this virus has done is not just to health, not just to livelihoods, but to the understanding that people of diverse political views can maintain those views with a respect for those who differ.

And then …. (Tuesday update)

It was a long 24 hours but what a result! Zero new cases and zero deaths (repeated today!). And so mid-afternoon Monday Premier Dan was able to announce that from midnight tonight retailers would be free to reopen as would – subject to occupancy limits – restaurants and cafes, with many other restrictions being eased or removed either now or in two weeks.
In other news, a poll gave Dan a 52% satisfaction rating – pretty good considering the way certain sections of the media have hammered him. In contrast, ‘Mr Negative’, opposition leader Michael O’Brien’s satisfaction rating was a derisory 15%; even amongst LNP supporters he could only manage 27%. It’s gratifying to see his style of politics so resoundingly rejected, and a welcome remind that the popular press holds much less sway over its readers than it might like to think.

You could earn $$$,$$$!

What do you watch? And how do you pay for it? Back when I was born in the UK, there was just one television channel, the BBC. Television ownership was then far from universal, though the Queen’s Coronation on June 2nd 1953 had spurred the demand for televisions. The BBC was financed (and still is) by a licence fee, payable by everyone who owned a TV  (or radio in those days), rather than by advertising. This gives it the freedom to carry content that doesn’t necessarily command a mass audience but serves subsets of the population. The counter argument would be that the freedom from commercial imperatives leads to content which doesn’t match the desires of those who have no choice but to pay for it.

The endless BBC-knocking stories in the right-wing UK press invariably draw comments on the theme of ‘The BBC should be cut loose and made to finance itself’. Let me just note that according to BARB research, the BBC channels are the most watched (51:29 per day avg, 14-20 Sep 2020), well ahead of ITV (37.58), Sky (17:32), C4 (17:02) and C5 (11:59). A couple of decades ago, ITV had more viewers than BBC so who is failing the audience? If the BBC lost its licence fee and was made to take advertising, the other commercial channels would no doubt take a massive hit.

But all these channels are now up against other competition, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime etc. Most are subscription services. YouTube gives viewers the option for ad-free content, but do many people pay for this? In its early days it seemed to be a home for what were once dismissively called ‘home movies’ but no more. The production values of most YouTube content are as good as anything on mainline TV.

What’s really interesting is that YouTube has evolved to be a money-making platform for content creators. In most cases it’s a case of attracting eyeballs and getting a cut of the associated advertising income, but what I find interesting are the ones that ask for money. The users pay, not because they have to, not because they are going to receive anything in return (perhaps a mention in the credits or a preview), but just out of a desire to reward the producers of what they’ve enjoyed and to encourage them to do more. The patronage of past times, where the wealthy supported causes close to their hearts has been democratised. According to its website, Patreon  now currently supports more than 100,000 creators, who receive recurring donations from over 3 million supporters. Some are earning six-digit sums each year. Few manage this of course, but in principle anyone could! All made possible by technology. Lest you wonder I’m not planning to become a YouTuber. But here are three of my favourite YouTube channels:

  • Big Car – for anyone interested in the history of ordinary British cars (Patreon)
  • Cruise Tips TV – videos all about cruising (ad-hoc donation support)
  • WooTube – how an Australian maths teacher became a cult figure

Covid-19: Month 5

I didn’t write anything about the Covid pandemic in May and June since there was really nothing to say. Then in my July 15th piece, “After the shock of July 10th’s 288 new cases, one couldn’t help be scared at the thought of this number continuing to escalate. The next day, 216 (phew). But it’s not over: 270 yesterday, 238 today.” But any optimism at that point was misplaced as this chart shows.

coronavirus-cases-victoria-jul-aug-2020

Coronavirus cases Victoria Jul/Aug-2020

Back in 1989 when I started my software business the internet as we know it didn’t exist. It was some while before I got a credit card merchant account – in those days merchant facilities were only granted after careful scrutiny of your accounts and an inspection of your premises. Thus my one source of orders was people sending them by mail with an accompanying cheque or purchase order, and the day’s mood was set – for better or worse – when the post landed on the mat.

It’s felt a bit like this during the last month, waiting each morning for the latest new case count. On July 27 we saw our first ‘5’, 523, then were relieved to see a couple of days fall, only to be shocked by a one day rise from 384 to 723, beaten by 725 a week later. Kipling’s stanza re dealing with triumph and disaster came to mind as at the daily press conference our Premier and chief medical officer reminded us that not too much should be read into the latest number. Coupled with the new case rate was the steady rise in deaths, mainly among the elderly in residential care homes, their families distress being the greater because of the restrictions on funerals.

Not surprisingly early August saw severe new restrictions including compulsory mask when outside, a curfew from 8pm until 5am. and the closure of many business premises. Thankfully the vast majority of people seem to be complying with these rules – the doubtful being encouraged by hefty fines – and the daily welcome or unwelcome surprise has been replaced by numbers following a steady trend. But of course the only number that will really satisfy is zero, and New Zealand’s recent experience has shown us that a long run of zeroes doesn’t guarantee anything.

I suspect that things still won’t be back to normal by Christmas, am waiting to be told that my February cruise is cancelled, and am by no means sure that I’ll be making my annual visit to UK next July. Time will tell.

Covid-19: Month 4

On April 8th I wrote a post, Covid-19 Month 1. I envisaged adding an update each month, and in no time three months have passed! This partly reflects me being in a very fortunate position compared with most and partly because until a few weeks ago it looked as if here in Australia we’d tamed the virus, even if we hadn’t eliminated it.

Each Sunday I have a Skype chat with my sister: inevitably the conversation turned to the latest figures and the school maxim of ‘compare and contrast’; from the second half of April through to late June we rarely had more than twenty new cases a day (mostly from quarantined returning residents), with deaths being counted in ones and twos, in contrast with the UK. On 6 June, both New South Wales and Victoria reported no new cases for the previous 24 hours, with Queensland and Western Australia reporting one new case each. As I write this the numbers are (Aus/UK), cases: 10,251/291,000; deaths: 108/44,968. Even allowing for a population ratio of 1:3, the UK figure are still horrific. Is this because we’re so spread out? Scarcely: most of us live in a handful of big cities.

So with these happy numbers we started to look forward to returning to normality. More shops were open, restaurants were allowed to reopen, albeit with limited occupancy, and I felt safe taking the occasional tram ride. For my birthday, I invited my fellow church home group members for dinner at a local restaurant: it was the first face-to-face meeting we’d held in more than three months.

Then …..

New coronavirus cases in Victoria July 2020

New coronavirus cases in Victoria

… it all went wrong. A judicial inquiry is being held to determine the exact causes, but as of now it appears that the private security firm engaged to guard the hotels being used to quarantine returning residents failed on several fronts. Were the allocated staff adequately trained and did they understand what was required of them? Apparently not. Did they exercise any common sense? From the lurid tales of them fraternising with those who were being quarantined, definitely not. What was the security firm’s management doing? And what responsibility rests with those in government (politicians and civil servants) who set this arrangement up. We shall find out. But the bar chart above tells all: these ‘security guards’ took the virus home, then spread it through their communities.

So now we’re back on stage 3 lockdown – no visitors allowed, restaurants closed and army-manned roadblocks isolating metro Melbourne (where most cases are) from the rest of Victoria, and Victoria from New South Wales. We’re only allowed to leave home for essential shopping, daily exercise, medical treatment and study/work (those unable to work from home). After the shock of July 10th’s 288 new cases, one couldn’t help be scared at the thought of this number continuing to escalate. The next day, 216 (phew). But it’s not over: 270 yesterday, 238 today and a small but growing outbreak in NSW. For the next week we’ll all be watching the daily numbers. Our experience is a warning to people everywhere not to be complacent.

If you’ve come here from Docklands News ….

Perhaps you’ve arrived here via the link in Docklands News where I’m this month’s Docklander! If so, you’ll probably find one or more of the following more interesting than the most recent posts on computer hardware. I hope so.

Thanks for dropping by and I’ll try not to get too dizzy with fame!

On Hardware 5: Printers

To round off this series, printers. Given that my business produces software which churns out pages of calculations, printing has always been important.

My first ever printer was a dot-matrix printer coupled to my Commodore PET – it was an Epson TX80 dot-matrix printer customised to work with the PET – very slow, very noisy. You can see an example of the output on this Greentram museum page. When I moved to a BBC computer, it was replaced by a Star NL10 which became my first PC printer, then being replaced by a Star NB24-10 which gave much better resolution.

Along side these, my correspondence (my plan drawing business lasted until 1992) was printed on daisy-wheel printers. Initially I had a Silver-Reed EX-44 electronic typewriter with added computer interface. A Triumph Adler TRD7020 (1986: £148) followed; it was built like a Rolls-Royce and was bought from Boots when they gave up their unsuccessful home computing venture. It sounded like a machine gun when printing at speed! The third, a Silver-Reed EXP800 wide carriage printer was bought from Morgan (1988: £250) – I was amazed to find that ribbons for all these printers are still available. Wikipedia reminds me that “Most daisy-wheel printers could print a line and then, using built-in memory, print the following line backwards, from right to left.” This was always memorising!

The first SuperBeam manuals were originated on the NB24-10 printer, then photocopied, but it was obvious that something better was needed, so 1989 saw me finding £1426 for a Brother HL8E laser printer. This gave good service until it was replaced in 1995 by a Lexmark Optra S with duplexing, £1,643. This was a lovely piece of work but in the end the duplexer wore out (too many church newsletters!). It was cheap to run too, courtesy of a Wembley supplier of remanufactured cartridges.

Needing a new printer and doing a lot of printing and copying at the time (1999, well before everyone was using the internet), I took a very deep breath and shelled out £4,610 for a Canon GP215 copy-printer – initially I’d thought machines like this to be far too expensive, then was tipped off that for copiers the going cash price was around 50% of list, the latter being set so as to make lease deals look cheap.

Time proved the Canon to be one of my best purchases ever: it was still going strong when I emigrated, having printed several hundred thousand pages at less than 1p per side. The six bins each held a different colour paper – long standing users of SDA’s software will remember the product leaflets on different colours (SuperBeam: gold; SuperHeat: green; ProSteel: purple) and the personalised blue order forms. The printer selected the required colour without manual intervention.

Meanwhile two other printers were at work. A 1994 Epson LQ570+ (£199) did sterling work printing continuous feed floppy disk and address labels by the thousand. Then when we switched to CDs a HP DeskJet 950 printed CD labels.

Here in Australia? I now do very little printing compared with times past. My current printer is a top of the range Brother mono laser with duplexing, current cost about A$500 (say £250). It does much the same as the Optra, 15% of the cost. Nice, but as with monitors, nothing to stun a 1990 time traveller!

On Hardware 4: Monitors

This part is a bit different: no astronomical drops in price, just more year on year for the same money.

Pre-PC, my Commodore PET came with its built-in mono screen, 9”, 40×25 characters. Then my BBCs were coupled to the default Microvitec Cub 14” 1431 colour monitor.

On to PCs. My Dell came with the optional VGA monitor, resolution 640×480 pixels, when many users were still using EGA (640×350) or CGA (640×200). My next three monitors were all 15” VGA, costing around £200-250. The next step up was my 1995 Christmas present to myself, a lovely Idek 17”, offering a superb 1280×1024 resolution. It stayed on the books until 2001 and was a joy to look at.

Then the seismic change. November 1999 saw my first purchase of a TFT (flat screen) monitor, a 15” Panasonic LC50S, 1024x768px. As it was an ex-display model I got it for ‘just’ £637. Two more 15” screens followed, Nov 2001 (£385) and Aug 2003 (£205), then a 19” Benq FP91V in Oct 2005 for £257. Then in April 2007, a year before emigrating, these were replaced by a pair of HP W20 screens for £144 each.

On coming to Australia I started with a couple of Samsung monitors 22”/24” each costing around A$300 (say £150). Surprisingly one failed after a couple of years and was judged beyond economic repair. I’m writing this looking at a 2015 27” LG monitor which I plan to keep for a good few years yet, supplemented by a Hisense 43” 4K TV which serves as a second screen and is used for 4K testing.

So unlike some of the other posts in this series, perhaps not much to see here? A 1990 time-traveller would be dumfounded by 2TB drives for little more than pocket money; as for today’s monitors, polite appreciation at best?

On Hardware 3: Storage

This post covers memory and disk storage. Both have shown a fall in price that would have been unimaginable 30+ years ago. And with the advent of SSDs and memory sticks, the two are now closely intertwined.

Memory

In 1979 I started with a top of the line 32K Commodore PET – £100 more than the 16K version – so that’s £6,400 per MB. 1983 saw a BBC B with 32K, then 1986 a BBC Master with 128K. Then in 1989 I joined the PC world, my first Dell having 1MB.

By 1992 4MB was the new norm; late in the year 4MB cost me just £72 – £18/MB. During this time memory prices fluctuated significantly, 16MB costing me £429 in 1994.
By mid 1996 a 16MB SIMM cost just £85 – just over £5/MB. Then it was 32MB sticks: £100 in August 1997 and £68 six months later – £2/MB, then June 1998 I added a 128MB stick for £99, breaching the £1 barrier. June 2001 saw 256MB for £96, 27p/MB and that was the last memory I bought – since then I’ve bought ready built systems with more than enough memory.
But today? On Googling UK component suppliers and picking the first, I can buy an 8GB stick for £37 – that’s less than 0.5p per MB – or to look at it another way, at 1979 prices 8GB would cost just over £52 million!

Disks

Pre-hard disk, my PET and first BBC used cassette tapes for storage. Adding a floppy disk drive to my second BBC cost around £400. Then for my first PC, I paid extra for a 40MB hard disk instead of the standard 20MB. For the next 20 years I was buying ever bigger hard disks – now I’m nowhere filling the one in front of me.
Some purchases along the way – price per MB in brackets: Mar 92: 130MB/£264 (£2.03); Aug 93: 340MB/£249 (73p); Jun 95: 540MB/£139 (26p); Aug 96: 1GB/£119 (11p); Jun 98: 6.4GB/£129 (2p) and my last separate HD purchase, Sep 01: 40GB/£133 (0.3p).
And now? You can buy a 2TB drive for £54 – that’s next nothing per MB, though SSDs, given their falling price, are now almost universal. 2TB at 1992 prices: about £4.25million!

USB sticks

Disk or memory? You decide. 64GB for £6 – unbelievable to those of us who remember what memory used to cost.

On Hardware 2: Playing cards

One of the massive changes during the PC era has been that motherboards now include all the functionality that once required a handful of plug-in cards. Apart from a video card or two I’ve not bought a card since 2001. But before then:
1989: An early purchase was an I/O card allowing me to run two printers from the same PC. Like all cards from the era, installation was preceded by careful reading of an instruction leaflet and setting numerous jumpers to give the required functionality. Hooray for Plug and Play.
1991: A Compaticard, £182, allowing the same PC to have a 5¼” 360K floppy drive in addition to the default 5¼” 1.2MB and 3½” 1.44MB drives. 1.2MB drives would read 360K disks, but to write a disk that could be read on a 360K drive you needed to use a virgin disk. Adding a 360K drive got over this. There was a time when we bought 360K floppy disks by the thousand. Now we send out a few CDs each week; everyone else downloads. A Promise hard disk cache controller followed in 1993, claimed to make things work a lot faster, followed by several more HD controller cards as technology changed: EIDE in 1995, then PCI
1992: My first network: two PCs linked with 10Base-2 coax cable. Two network cards cost £202, and the networking software, Netware Lite, then Lantastic, another £50 or so per PC. Now you can link multiple home PCs for next to nothing – Windows provides the software, the motherboard the hardware.
1992 also saw my first modem, £41 – dial-up of course – to connect to CompuServe. Speed not recorded but it was replaced by an Intel 14.4 faxmodem in 1994 and a 33.6 faxmodem in 1996 – that’s 33,600 bits per second; now I am on fibre, nominal download speed 100,000,000 bits per second, nearly 3,000 times as fast. And thanks to bloat some websites still work at dial-up speed!
Video cards: 1991 saw my first recorded separate video card purchase (of course my ready-built systems came with HD, video and basic I/O cards), a Trident VGA for £60. For my sort of programming, there’s no need for a high performance video card, save the one I bought for 4K testing last year. Of the video cards bought over the years the outliers were a pair of Diamond Viper Weitek cards bought in 1996 when I was an OS/2 user – as I recall these cards had issues with Windows so were sold off cheaply (£107) but worked brilliantly with OS/2. When I moved to Windows, a Matrox Millennium, then Matrox Productiva AGP and ATI All-in-Wonder cards took over
And somewhere during this decade was a sound card, bought as a personal purchase, another function now handled by even the cheapest motherboard.

On Hardware 1: Desktops and CPUs

I started in computing with a Commodore PET and a couple of BBC computers, then joined the PC world in 1988, spending £2,414 on a Dell 286 system; this price included the optional 3½” floppy drive, 40MB hard drive and VGA graphics. This system was the one on which the first versions of SuperBeam were written and produced.

With my software business (initially a sideline to plan drawing) growing, 1990 saw the addition of a second system, which was designated for admin and disk production, the Dell then becoming the development machine. The new machine came from Morgan Computers, still trading today – I used to love their full page magazine ads. It was an NTS 386SX (£1,419) – when NTS was liquidated, Morgan bought the stock.

The 1990s saw repeated replacement and upgrading of systems with lots of self-building and parts swapping – looking back, much of it was probably unnecessary. The records show a 286-20 (1991); 486SX and 386-40 (1992); 486SX (1994); 486DX-100 and 486DX-75 (1995) and AMD586-133 (1996). Then a ready built MMX200 Pentium system from Mesh (1997: £1,589) and a little more DIY: AMD K6-200 (1997), Pentium II 266 (1998) and Celeron 400 (1999) and Athlon 1GB (2001).

That was the end of self-building and the pace of replacement slowed down. An XP system (2001: £570) and Carrera A64-3200 (2004: £1,033) followed. The last two bought in UK were a HP M7410UK (2005: £373) and Compaq 6400 (2007: £566), both of which came with me to Australia and are still used occasionally as XP and Vista test boxes respectively.

And in my near-12 years in Australia? An I5 box (2009) was my development machine for five years now serves as my Windows 7 and 4K test box. In its place a HP Z230 I7 desktop has served me well for five years and I have no plans to change it. Yes I could buy a newer faster box, but these days the constraint is how fast my brain works!