Category Archives: Computing

A less than bright spammer

This post is a work in progress, more to follow

Spam email from someone who thinks I own

Spam email from someone who thinks I own

Barely a day goes past without me getting an email like the above.  Does ‘Aaron’ not realise that is a major provider of email services to people like me?

Chapel Next The Green – Into Print

Chapel Next the Green cover

Chapel Next the Green cover

As described last time, I started with the idea of a simple update to a 25-year-old church history  and ended up doing much more. Reading church minute books led to investigating denominational records, the site history, local newspapers and much else. Now it was time to turn my copious notes into a book we could afford to print and which people would find interesting. Having unpicked the story of the dissolution of the church in 1879 and its re-formation in 1882, I suggested a Centenary weekend whose highlight would be the release of my finished history. Now I had a deadline to work to.

In 1979 I was one of the first people to get a home computer, a Commodore PET. I bought a word processing program, name long forgotten, written in BASIC, so customisable. It allowed text to be edited, saved to and retrieved from cassette tape. Output was limited to a monospace font with full space justification. Very limited – the superscript references to footnotes were written in by hand using a Rotring pen – but what a step change from repeatedly retyping manuscripts. Over many weeks I typed up my notes creating the first rough draft.

Centre spread pictures of ministers

Centre spread pictures of ministers

I approached a printer near my office, Emberbrook Print, and explained what I had in mind – a saddle-stitched (stapled) A5 book. Just their sort of job. The church agreed to underwrite the print cost on the basis that selling the print run would return this. This all led to settling on a 72-page book (including covers). The extra cost of the four-page centre photo section was met by a former member. After allowing for prelims, pictures and footnotes, each section would, on average, be limited to around two pages, 800 words. Impossible given the extent of my notes!

For several years my best friends Brian and Margaret Pearce had made me welcome for coffee on Sunday evenings. Now these turned into editorial meetings. Brian, when not working as a college librarian was a writer and poet, and Margaret acted as a fearless editor of his work. Just what I needed! I took the decision to divide my account up by pastorate. A few people criticised this, as placing too much emphasis on the part ministers play in the life of a church, but I hope that my text has the balance right. Over several months, each Sunday morning I handed over a dot-matrix printout of the latest section, vastly over-long yet containing nothing that could be left out (or so I thought). The same evening over coffee I was presented with my edited text, English and punctuation corrected as necessary by Brian, large chunks marked for deletion in red by Margaret. A healthy discussion followed! With some sections this process was repeated several times.

Finally the text was complete but eight lines over length! On a beautifully edited text finding any content that could be removed was hard work, but we managed it. In the meantime a friend’s father, Edmund Heller, took professional photographs of the inside and outside of the church building and my good friend Arthur Burgess organised copies of the obit pictures of former ministers originally printed in Congregation Yearbooks.

Sample of body text

Body text (note the handwritten superscripts!)

Now to the final stage. To keep the price down, the book was to be offset printed from camera-ready copy. This was produced on a Qume daisywheel printer, hired at vast expense from a firm in Old Street, carbon ribbon onto coated paper. I took a week off to produce the page masters. The body text was relatively straightforward, but each page took about ten minutes to print – I watched patiently as the WP program fathomed out each line’s justification. The double column appendices were harder work: the sheet was loaded into the printer and its position carefully marked with a process blue (invisible to a litho camera) pencil before printing the left-hand column. Then it was a question of reloading the paper, lining up the marks and printing the right-hand column. Any previously-missed  error on the output meant another ten minute wait but eventually I had a set of page masters.

The front cover uses an enlarged extract from the 1863 OS map. The cover text was supplied by Emberbrook in the form of Letraset-style strips (one per line) which removed the need to manually space letters.

Page masters delivered, I waited with a mixture of expectancy and apprehension. I need not have worried: I was (and still am) very pleased with the result, though of course it reflects the technology available to me at the time. For the centenary weekend we invited back all those former members we had contact with and it was a great occasion, with Rev Richard Hall, URC Thames North Moderator preaching at our Sunday morning service. I was touched that with the book being just hours old, he quoted from it in his sermon.

Will a future church history ever be published in book form? 2035 will mark the 200th anniversary of the formation of the church. But the reality is that it’s much easier to assemble a body of knowledge as a series of web pages which can be updated as new information becomes available and which are readily searchable.

Twickenham United Reformed Church website history pages

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 channels that ask for money. Their viewers pay, not because they have to, not because they are going to receive anything in return (ok, 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

P.S. Dec 2020. Nicky from Kitchen Sanctuary explains How we made over $100,000 in the first half of 2019 – great recipes!

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.


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!


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!