Electronics, cars, thoughts and theory.


11:32am, Saturday May 31st, 2014

This is going to get kinda wordy, which I offer a small apology for. Not too much of one because every "about me" link should have some long spiel offering thoughts that seem pertinent at the time to the author, which in fact are fairly nondescript and dull.

That is where I shall begin, then.

I'm sat here typing this up on a Wyse green-screen terminal which is perched on my sideboard next to my 1970's hi-fi, listening to Elvis croon the morning away.
For me, the world began in 1980. I soon learned that it had in fact been around for considerably longer than that, and that people had been building and making things and thinking about philosophies, wars, architecture, computing and industry for many years. I felt welcomed to the machine, as it were.

Both my parents are ex-Air Force. My mother with a predominantly secretarial background, my father mainly engineering and theory. Therefore, organisation, structure, repair and frugality were all part of my childhood.
I grew up in the depressive malaise Thatcher-reign years. We never had much money so as a family we never really had much in the way of new stuff, but as an only child I did have toys and gadgets. I was taught to look after them- break them and they go away if they can't be repaired.
I spent time with my father in the evenings and at weekends when he had time outside work and his degree study. There were fun times where I got to play with oscilloscopes and study thermodynamics on a basic level by testing the temperature of boiling water in a cup, with and without shaving foam on the
My mother made sure I spent time studying. I could read and write by the time I started school, which proved useful. I recall a fair proportion of what I was taught back then, surprisingly. I started typing on a keyboard using my mother's Smith-Corona typewriter- something I enjoyed back then, and still do today despite not owning a typewriter any more.

I started exploring mechanical things by use of Meccano and Lego, taking things apart to see how they worked, and then with the adage that my father learned form his father- "Taking things apart is easy. Putting them together again is harder, but putting them together again and making them work is the hardest task of all".
I have always loved cars. We owned the kind of cars that were fairly cheap, simple and repairable by someone handy with a wrench on a weekend. I spent time learning how the engine worked, how the steering and suspension operated, brakes, gearbox.. mostly by watching and helping by passing tools when inevitably things broke. I grew up in a period of "Either I fix it or we walk", so the necessity taught me well.

Besides cars, I have always had a passion for electrics and electronics. I was never satisfied with the face value of a device, be it a tape recorder or TV set.
I had few things that were deemed cheap enough to take apart, but at the age of 4 I was found in the living room with a screwdriver, taking the wall outlet off the wall to take a look inside. I still remember that well, also.
I had a Tandy/Radio-Shack "50-in-one" electronics set that I remember receiving one Christmas in Liverpool whilst we were visiting my aunt and uncle. You know the type, the cardboard base with the components connected out via little springs that you push wires underneath and connect the various bits together with, following their instructions.
Spent many hours building things that lit up and flashed and made noise.
Didn't fully understand the concept of transistors back then because you couldn't take them apart and see how they worked, and the books I had read explained in terms of P-N doped regions which was less than explanatory to a kid.
Either way, it taught me that you could do lots of fun stuff with
electronics and I was most upset that I didn't know how to make things work, how to design circuits that did what I had wanted them to. I promised myself that I would learn.

I know this is a little disjointed in terms of timeline, but bear with me. If you've read this far, it's evidently worth it. I can't really break things down into years or decades, mostly because I was doing so many different things all at once. It's easier to break down into concepts such as electronics, mechanics, computers and theory.

That brings us into line with where I'm at today, in a way. I recall well the first computer that I ever used. It was in about 1986, a Sinclair ZX81.
It was an afternoon I'd been brought into my father's workplace (As-was South Bristol Technical College, Bristol) to have a play about with the hydraulics, pneumatics and computer control as my father wrote up course notes. I'd spent a while with fun stuff like servo-assist pneumatic rams and motors, and was introduced to a small robotic arm called MicroGrasp, attached to this computer. Sat in front of the TV screen I was using PEEK and POKE commands (remember those?) to position the various aspects of the robot arm to pick up and place nuts and bolts from the table into plastic
bins. Time ran out too quickly that day, but it remained etched in my memory.
We later borrowed a friend's Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ which I spent evenings copying programs out of magazines into the computer to make it create pictures and space-invaders and the like on the Decca Colour in the living room. Again, the loan of the computer came to an end too early. That was negated by moving up into the classes at school where we began to use the BBC Microcomputers that the school had (all five of them). I began programming the things in BASIC, not really getting too deep into the aspects of the machine that make it operate. The BBC Micro is still a fairly
complex machine, and back then the way that you communicated and controlled it outside of BASIC commands (&nnnn calls and memory commands) were beyond me, despite attempting to understand.
1990 rolled around and we had saved up enough to purchase a computer. We went into town and stopped at the computer store. We didn't know much about computers, but walked out with a Commodore PC20-III, a marvel of 1980's Germanic design, incorporating a 6MHz 8088, 21Mb IDE Western Digital hard drive, 360kb 5.25" floppy drive and 640kb of RAM, soldered to the board.
With an ATi EGA Wonder crammed into an expansion slot, it was a very good business machine but booooy was it ever slow. We purchased an 8087 math co-processor for it so my father could use AutoCAD. Uh huh, CAD on an 8088.
It was painfully slow, even by 1990's standards, but it did work.
By 1996 I had come into posession of several BBC Microcomputers, two robot arms and the ZX81 that I had used a decade before. I still own them and they still work.
1995 was the advancement to 486 DX4-100 territory, with 4Mb of RAM and a 320Mb hard disk. As time went on that was expanded, playing games like Doom, running Windows 3.11 and generally being nearly up to speed with the computers at school. 1998 saw the addition of a dial-up modem. Online, at 30p a minute! That was expensive.

I went to college to finish up my schooling in terms of high school and sixth form to get my grades up for University. That taught me a lot- I was studying physics and mathematics, and as part of the course had to take a couple of other smaller title courses in order to get the hours-attended number up. I studied electronics repair and house alarm installation. The house alarm stuff was relatively straightforward, that was more a course for
the kids in the industry to get themselves certified, but the electronics course was based around computer repair- I missed one half of the course which studied TV and VCR repair. The electronics side threw me right into the area I was hugely interested in- the inner workings of electronics and computers. I learned machine code, assembler on the Z80 processor, a little
bit of 6502 and 186 work, but learned properly how to poke about in the thoughts of a computer right down at the level that I knew people had actually been involved at a personal level in the design.

Finished school and moved out to go to University in Birmingham. At that point I was trying still to figure where computers could take me and signed up for a Software Engineering course. I ran though the first year, basics and everything that SE wasn't; that proved to be the most valuable year because I made a bunch of friends, a couple of whom I still talk to to this day. It also showed me that SE wasn't the exact direction I wanted to go in.
My parents pushed me to continue, in the belief that I could just apply myself and it would happen. At the beginning of the third year I dropped out, and went got myself a job to try and pay off the course and recoup a little bit of money.
I went to work as a general handyman up at the airport. That taught me a lot (that I don't want to do that kind of work for money) but had its perks from time to time. Driving fuel tankers was one such perk. Qualified to do so, mind, officially trained by BP! Fun when the rain wasn't going sidewards, at least. 
After a couple of years I decided that I needed to go back and finish up my degree. 
I took a mostly-online course with the Open University, having learned from Birmingham that my love for computers in the real world lay in networking. I completed the course in a year, which claimed me my Bachelor's.
That also led to one of the main changes in my life, meeting the lady who is now my wife. She was studying a similar course, just in the USA. I started helping her out with her mathematics. We started talking more and more, and one thing led to another. We were formally together when I finished up my degree. I made the decision at that point to move out to the USA. 
Paperwork ensued, sold off a bunch of my stuff and moved out with just a suitcase in my hand. We got married, several times.
After a SNAFU with the Social Security office not understanding the visa paperwork and turning us away several times on misinformation which led to six months of me not being allowed to work here, I started working as a driver for my wife (oilfield haulage, part of what makes Southern Louisiana tick) as I looked for work.
I landed a job at the local ISP/Cable TV/phone company in 2007 as telephone technical support. As I write this, I'm one of the network administrators for the company (we were bought out by a larger firm in 2012).

I still enjoy working with older electronics. Repairing them is a relaxing hobby for me, much in the way people build ships in bottles or play golf.
I've been expanding my knowledge of these things by finding equipment that's completely broken and bringing it back to life. (Hence the introduction of this site). Some of these have been more
challenging than others, but I do find a simple pleasure in making
technology function and finding use for it in today's world.
This green-screen terminal is a perfect example. There's nothing but text on the screen, no distractions to what I'm typing up. It's also attached to my Network Accessible Server (NAS), and runs the music playlist I'm listening to. No point in over-complicating this task.

Well, now you've read through this, go read the rest of what I've written.
It's hopefully more interesting. It also has pictures.

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