Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Digital Trainspotting


    I know that computers and digital electronics have almost completely taken over our world, but it was still an eye-opening experience to see just how much they have infiltrated one of my peripheral interests: model railways.

    Many years ago, when space and time permitted, I indulged physically in the world of railway modelling. It's almost mandatory for the real anoraks and ex-trainspotters who are generally into railways (the full-size ones). Even if it's only by joining a local society and/or visiting model railway shows. Though my early experience as an active modeller, some 30+ years ago, came to an end through a combination of moving house and Clive Sinclair (I bought a ZX80 and never had time for any other hobbies after that).

    At the time, in conjunction with an interest in electronics, I was attempting to replicate a section of the East Coast Main Line complete with fully operational signaling, block working, switching, track circuitry, etc.; an area of the real railway environment that has always fascinated me. But, though the full size railways were pretty much fully digitized and electrically powered even back then, the ability to replicate it in model form was severally hampered by the lack of suitable, easily-available hardware.

    Yet a trip over the holiday weekend to the model railway show at York (one of the primary shows of the year - and somewhere that, years ago, was an annual pilgrimage) revealed just how much has changed; and what it actually possible now for even the most ham-fisted railway geeks amongst us. Especially those with a parallel interest in computers.

    Most of the electrical control logic for my unfinished project was based on banks of miniature 9 volt relays, miles of wiring, a few integrated logic chips containing AND/OR gates, and big hot transformers to supply all the current it required. All of which could be easily hidden in a cupboard. But the visible items, in particular signals at 1:148 scale (2mm to the foot / N-gauge) required working lamps of around 1.5 mm diameter. In those pre-"cheap and hugely varied range of LED" days, the smallest was a 3 mm diameter "grain of wheat" bulb. Building a working 4-aspect colour light signal was a task well beyond my capabilities, and nothing even close was available commercially. Yet, now, you can buy ready-made 2mm scale colour light signals in a range of styles. Even though, it seems, 3-aspect is the maximum; but I also found cheap 1.5 mm diameter LEDs so it would be reasonably simple to build 4-aspect signals and other more esoteric combinations such as junction signals.

    Meantime, the availability of reliable 2mm scale locomotives and chassis was a real problem 30 years ago. A few German chassis were available at huge cost if you fancied building the superstructure yourself, or adapting a kit. But even with these high-quality items, the principle of powering them with a variable DC voltage meant realistic speed and slow running was not guaranteed. Now the trend is digital command through a constant 15 volt AC signal applied to miniature decoders in each loco. From what I saw, accurate and reliable running seems easily achievable even in 2mm scale locos measuring less than three inches in length.

    The digital command control systems allow control of anything that is electrically powered. Internal lighting for coaches and buildings, loco head and tail lights (that change automatically), signals, turnouts, road crossing barriers and gates (and warning lights), even the flickering glow from the firebox of steam locomotives. Plus the use of high-intensity white LEDs to replicate arc welding in a workshop that seems to be almost mandatory on many layouts now. And the hand-held controller is, of course, wireless these days - so you can wander about while driving.

    And one relatively new feature, driven by the command control systems, is digital sound. On many layouts, the locos sounded just like the real thing, with the engine note changing to match speed, the sound of air brakes, and a realistic tickover when stationary. On one sales stand I even discovered that you can program the sound chips with the actual type of the loco, and it emits sounds recorded from the real thing. Amazing.

    But it doesn't stop there. In the "olden days" we used to build track plan panels with embedded lights, just like the real thing, and populate these with the switches for turnouts and isolated sections that allow multiple locos to be used. With digital command control, isolated sections are no longer required and combinations of turnout settings can easily be set up in one action. And when you add in a computer, you can easily introduce additional logic features such as block working and proper locking of signals and turnouts.

    In fact, several of the layouts were completely controlled by a laptop computer that displays a clickable live track plan that controls everything. In some cases, automatically driving all the trains as well. Though I guess this just matches my continued surprise when I go to a social event where there's a disco and discover that there are no record decks or even CD players any more - the DJ just runs the whole thing from a laptop.

    I'm not sure we aren't heading for a time when railway modelling becomes a spectator hobby. OK, you still need to build it first, but there were some complete layouts for sale at the show. Perhaps in the future the younger generation will just order their model railway online, set it going in the spare bedroom, and spend the rest of the evening tweeting and facebooking their friends with status updates about the trains they've seen going past.

    Maybe trainspotting is about to see a whole new lease of life...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    My Email's Gone Cloudy


    For the past several months I've been fighting to resolve network connectivity problems, especially with the Office 2013 version of Outlook. And then, suddenly, this week all the problems went away. Without me doing anything!

    Those brave souls who subject their Monday morning coffee break to my rambling diatribes will no doubt recall some of the efforts I've made. Getting rid of ISA Server. Reorganizing my DNS infrastructure. Replacing my wireless access point. Upgrading the internal network to 1 GB switches. Replacing the load-balancing router. Upgrading both ISP connectivity packages. And generally fiddling with settings and options in Outlook.

    While all this has provided some dramatic improvement, especially in the areas of web browser responsiveness and removing the occasional failed connections, it made absolutely no difference to the way Outlook resolutely and randomly disconnected, spend minutes trying to synchronize with the mail server, and left sent messages in the Outbox for up to an hour before dispatching them.

    Wits end was becoming a regular destination during my working day, especially when waiting for an urgent email to arrive. Those conversations where someone says "I've just sent you an email..." became embarrassing "I'll call you back" events, and last-minute emails sent just before the team went home didn't get read until the next day. I was fast becoming an email pariah.

    Of course, I regularly phoned our tech support people to try and solve the problem, and they were generally helpful until I mentioned that it happened on all my computers, on Windows 7 and Windows 8, and so it probably wasn't a hardware or software issue - at which point the usual response was "It must be your network that's the problem." They assured me there were no issues with the mail server or the configuration of my mailbox. Maybe I should just move house, or go back to snail mail.

    Yet now, huge joy, it's working fine. No delays. No loss of connectivity. No more hourglass or warning triangle on the Outlook notification icon. Messages fly out before I even see them hit the Outbox, and incoming messages appear almost before they were sent. Why? Because this week I was upgraded from Exchange Server in our local datacenter to Office 365 Exchange Online running in Azure. So maybe not all of the problems were actually my fault?

    I wonder if I can send the IT department a bill for my network upgrades...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Book By Any Other Name


    So last week saw the sad demise of Bruce Robertson, the managing director of the UK-based Diagram organization that specializes in artwork and design for books and other publications. While I'm sure he'd most like to be remembered by the great work his company has done, the somewhat unfortunate fact is that he's probably best known for founding the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year.

    I'll admit that I hadn't heard of this (or him) until I read his obituary in the newspaper. Not that I always read the obituaries, but I like to check if there are any interesting recently dead people (was it Phyllis Diller who said she always read the obituaries to make sure she was still alive?)

    And a concise history of the prize is (as you'd expect) on Wikipedia. Some of the less controversial titles include the famous first prize winner "Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice", the 1984 winner "The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today", and the rather amazing "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It".

    Other more specialist titles include a guide to banishing fairies from your home called "Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop" (I especially like the use of "one's" rather than "your"), the no doubt fascinating historical guide called "Highlights in the History of Concrete", and the technical treatise named "Unsolved Problems of Modern Theory of Lengthwise Rolling" (supposedly a vital technique in metalwork).

    What's illuminating about the prize is that the judges are urged not to read the books in case they discover that the title is actually meaningful and not odd at all. Probably the same applies with computer books, especially if you're not a computer geek. For example, on the first few pages of Amazon's computing books section I found "Analyzing Neural Time Series Data: Theory and Practice (Issues in Clinical and Cognitive Neuropsychology)", "Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation" (does that include cake?), and "Python for Data Analysis: Data Wrangling with Pandas, NumPy, and IPython" (probably a completely nonsensical title if you are more familiar with zoology than computing). I also came across "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware", and just had to break the no-reading rule to see what on earth wetware is. Turns out to mean your brain. And I thought it might be about underwater computing.

    And what about "iPad for the Older and Wiser"? You can't help but wonder if there is an associated guide called "iPad for the Younger and More Stupid"...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Infinity = 40


    At last our phone company has managed to drag a strand of high-speed cable across the six miles from the exchange to the green box at the end of my garden. In a flash I've been transported from the "back of beyond" into the exciting world of the "digital now" (at least, that's what it says on the publicity blurb they sent me).

    According to the leaflet, the new service is called "Infinity" and is immediately available with speeds "up to eighty times faster than ADSL". Of course, you do have to take into account a few over-excitable marketing terms here. It's actually still ADSL, but closer to you than it was before. Also, the multiple increase in speed simply reflects how slow it was before (less than 2 MB in my area). And when I phoned and asked if "Infinity" was a description of the actual speed I could expect, I wasn't really surprised to discover that it's actually around 40 MB maximum. I'm wondering how long it will be before the Advertising Standards Agency people start to ask difficult questions.

    What they provide is "Fibre to the Cabinet" (FTTC), so you still have wet string between the cabinet and you (note that I refuse to call it "Fiber" on the grounds that it's buried under our green and pleasant English fields). And at the pointy end you get a modem that translates the signal into a PPPoE interconnection that any suitably-equipped router or hub can consume.

    I always said I'd upgrade my ADSL line when FTTC did arrive, and I was on the phone to a business salesperson at BT (the phone company) the same day as I got the letter. Obviously take-up is somewhat slow because I got a fitting date only a week ahead; maybe because I have a business service rather than a residential one. And within three days they'd delivered by post the hub/router, a box of cables, and a welcome pack. The modem itself, and hopefully the requisite installation skills, would be coming with the engineer.

    And everything did arrive on time, and worked. The engineer replaced the wall socket with a new one (or rather, one exactly the same as the old one but with an "Infinity" label), went off down the street to the cabinet and wiggled the wires for half an hour, plugged in the modem, and I was almost instantly cable-enabled. He also plugged in the hub/router they provided, and did a speed test to prove it would give 40 MB down and 10 MB up.

    But then we got to the bit where I asked him to configure the hub with wireless turned off because it lives inside the server cabinet next to a lot of other sensitive networking stuff. If you happened to read my wireless security diatribe a couple of week ago, you'll recall a mention of how Virgin (my other ISP) tells you that your new cable hub has wireless enabled, including for a free open "guest network" connection. But you can turn it all off.

    So you won't be surprised to hear that the BT hub has the same, but they don't tell you. When I originally placed the order, I'd been careful to verify with the sales guy that wireless could be completely disabled in their hub, and was told it could. What soon became clear is that you can turn off your own "primary" and "guest" networks, but you can't turn off the public open (and unsecured) "BT Wi-Fi" wireless network feature. There's absolutely no capability to configure it. It's on all the time, whether you agree to that or not.

    I suppose it would have been a good opportunity to experiment to see how the free open Wi-Fi system worked, whether it used the same IP address as "my" connection, and whether it actually could eat up all my bandwidth. As I still have the hub (BT might decide they want it back sometime), I guess that's a task for a rainy day when I run out of other jobs.

    Instead, as you'll see later, I simply tagged in a Netgear router that has an RJ45 Ethernet port for cable connections and can handle PPPoE. But that was only after some rather tortuous conversations with a guy at our local electronics store, and a search of the web for a wiring plan. All initiated by the fact that my existing ADSL modem/router can do both PPPoA (ordinary PPP over ADSL) and PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet). So, in theory, there's no reason that it can't be used with a PPPoE modem.

    Or so you'd think. The BT cable modem has an RJ45 Ethernet output socket, but the old ADSL modem has an RJ11 "telephone-style" input port. No problem - I can (according to Amazon and several other online stores) buy, or make up myself, an RJ45 to RJ11 interconnect cable. Though figuring the pin connections from the many different diagrams on the web looked less than simple. So I popped down to the local electronics store and asked if they had one. I have to say that I wasn't prepared for the half-hour spirited discussion that ensued, and I'm still not sure which parts were accurate.

    According to the expert man I talked with, after you switch to "Infinity" the ADSL port on your modem is redundant. You cannot use it at all, for anything. Therefore, you cannot buy an RJ45 to RJ11 connector - there is no such thing. Even if there was, it wouldn't work. Yet, according to BT, you can use your existing ADSL modem as long as it supports PPPoE, can expose a network username and password, and can be configured with an MTU of 1492. All of which my existing modem can.

    In fact, the load-balancing router on my network, next down the line from the modem, can do PPPoE. It has an Ethernet input port, and I confirmed that it worked fine plugged into the BT Infinity cable modem. I could have just used that setup, but I wanted a perimeter network (what we're no longer allowed to call a DMZ) with port forwarding to a web server, so I needed a separate hub/router between the cable modem and the load-balancing router.

    In the end I decided to replace the several-years old ADSL modem with one that has Gigabyte connections (not that I'm actually going to reach the limits of a 100 MB port), and where the firmware is a bit more up to date. And, of course, has an RJ45 Ethernet input port. But I also bought an RJ45 to RJ11 cable from Amazon - at some point I'm going to find out whether this would have worked. Maybe you already tried this, or can tell me whether it's a realistic option before I break something experimenting.

    Best of all, however, the purchase of a new modem/router means I have another ADSL router to add to my growing collection of spare ones...

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