South West 2009 show reportBy Martin Hansen. Published: 23rd Feb 2009, 06:13:19 | Permalink | Printable
Martin Hansen describes his time as both a punter and an exhibitor at this year's annual RISC OS event held in the south west of the UK. While there were no major announcements ahead of the show, the otherwise friendly and mildly busy atmosphere was coloured by Friday's tragic loss of Paul Vigay.A year can be a long time in the world of computing. A company storming ahead in January can be verging on bankruptcy, laying off staff and find its products no longer selling come December. This year, it's global. The recession is reducing profits at all major technology companies, but what about our little pocket of the IT world?
On Saturday, February 21, I found myself once again making my way to the annual RISC OS South West Show. As is the tradition, it was at the Webbington Hall hotel in Axbridge, Somerset. As I drove down from Shrewsbury, I reasoned with myself that, at least in my mind, RISC OS was well placed to weather the financial difficulties of the wider world. Its predominantly grey-haired punters are careful with their money but without being mean. Certainly not when it comes to supporting what they believe in and think worthwhile. These RISC OS enthusiasts don't assume there will always be these RISC OS shows to go to. To keep the scene alive, we're all acutely aware that it's important to value the shows and make an effort to support them whether user or developer.
Today, I was a developer. A couple of months spent writing program code full-time (quite aside from having a full-time job) meant that three big projects were ready for release. I didn't know if they would sell but they would certainly add some action to the proceedings. The fortnight before, I'd got sound working on !Flicker - my InterGIF-style film and animation desktop player. The week before, I coaxed my TurtleChalk software to produce its first animated ArtGraph. The day before, I managed to finish off enough of my Mandelbrot Movie Maker software to make it a hat-trick of new program releases.
Then there was the day before. That was the day made terrible by news of Paul Vigay's tragic death. For me, it was a strange day of frantic tapping on a keyboard, removing bugs from my software, but with a worry in my mind from a early-morning comp.sys.acorn.misc posting by Louie, Paul's partner, to say Paul was missing. Then blunt news: his body had been found. As the show got underway, event organiser and RISCOS Ltd boss Paul Middleton made a clear announcement of the news. Everyone was visibly shocked by the turn of events. Concern and sympathies were voiced for his family and friends. A good sized crowd of over 100 people remained gathered in front of Paul Middleton in the show hall. We wanted to do something to show that we had respected and had liked Paul Vigay. Of course, what form this may take needs to be worked out in consultation with Paul Vigay's nearest and dearest. Paul Middleton will be the point of contact. We were asked not to contact Louie directly.
From left, Paul Middleton, Louie Smith and Paul Vigay from the RISC OS Christmas 2008 Show, taken last December.
Puppy dog learns new tricks
The first theatre talk of the day was from Paul Stewart. I decided to abandon my MathMagical stall and attend. He was going to demonstrate how to get emulated RISC OS running on top of Puppy Linux. The theatre was full. This hot topic was obviously of popular interest.
Paul gave a clear and uncluttered talk of what was involved. The gist of the matter is that it's moderately tricky and long winded to get RISC OS up and running the first time, but thereafter it's brisk and straight forward. Enthusiasm surged when the audience realised that once the initial set up was done it could be kept as one entity on, say, a pen drive - they suddenly had a very neat method of summoning RISC OS quickly when needed. No money need be spent to achieve this, although a fiver to RISCOS Ltd for a copy of the OS seemed to be a modest price to pay for not having to faff around extracting ROM images from the chips in a RiscPC. There were a couple of down sides which Paul Stewart was open and honest about. To be usable, you need a good computer, no more than three years old, he suggested. And whereas VirtualAcorn's VirtualRiscPC emulator gives full-colour depth at all screen resolutions, the free emulator RPCEmu has the same restrictions as the RiscPC. So, for example, if your resolution is set at 1280 by 1024, you can't display at 16 million or even 32 thousand colours. Just 256 colours would be the maximum.
Hair and graces
The talk over, my first sale of the day was to Ron Briscoe. I congratulated him on his promotion to write for Archive magazine following the demise of the ARM Club's Eureka magazine. In turn, he marvelled at my lack of hair. I wanted to point out that at least I had some but Ron, I realised with mild annoyance, had plenty. We enthused about Textease, a classic RISC OS document processor. Ron had a 32-bit version for his Iyonix. I did not. So I make that 3:1 to Ron.
Flush with cash from the sale, I went to look through the charity stall. I was on the look out for any 128MB sticks of RAM. I'd like to get my StrongARM RiscPC up to the full 256MB and my Kinetic RiscPC up to the RISC OS select maximum of 512MB. My work developing Flicker had taught me that you can never have too much RAM. There was a lot of good quality kit on the stall but I already had it. An enterprising person, provided they were selective, could have grabbed a lot of stock to then sell on eBay. Items that caught my eye included TechWriter, Textease, ImageMaster, SparkFS, FontFx6, The Replay Starter Kit, The Complete Animator, the BBC Basic guide and many very old Acorn User magazines from the day when they contained interesting program listings. There were various Video capture cards by Eagle and Irlam that I know are sought-after items.
A two-slice RiscPC was priced at 50 quid. In my attic I've got twenty non-StrongARM RiscPCs that I rescued from a skip. In spite of a full attic, when I saw that this one was a StrongARM machine I was tempted. Closer inspection weakened my resolve further. It contained two CD drives (one writable), a 18GB new(ish) hard drive, 2MB VRAM, 4-slot backplane, 32-bit Castle SCSII card and RISC OS 4.02. I decided that, once again, I'd go home with one more computer than I came. I'm typing this article on it, by way of checking it out. I am thinking: "Bargain."
Fifth wonder of the world
Back on my stall, another sale prompted me to visit David Snell's stand. I wanted to upgrade from version 3 to 4 of WebWonder. I'm not at the show to make money and so I try to 'recycle' any earnings from my software. WebWonder is a great piece of RISC OS programming. I had no hesitation in handing over 20 quid to upgrade.
David very kindly offered to show me the new features that he's working on for inclusion in version 5. This is due out in about a year's time. First, David asked me to notice that throughout WebWonder's windows on this pre-release were small information icons; each button had a little white 'i' in a blue square. David showed me that when one was clicked, the WebWonder HTML help-manual launched. It opened on-screen at the relevant paragraph explaining the feature the information icon was located by.
Another new addition allowed WebWonder to generate a "site search". WebWonder knows what code to insert so that Google is called to search for the word or phrase entered into a user text box. So, you'd end up with a search facility like the one on the Drobe home page. To emphasise: the search is only throughout the site from which the call comes. The final new feature I was shown was a "site map" generator. This could be configured to generate a private site map, only for the WebMaster's use. Or it could be made to inject the map in the site itself. David was having a good day. Last year at this show he sold just one copy of WebWonder. Today, as I walked away with the last one, he had sold out.
Wail of a time
Over at the RISCOS Ltd stand I had a play around with the A9 widescreen-all-in-one (A9wai1). Still not available to buy, this is a proof-of-concept package that has an standard A9 computer inside one of two connected LCD monitors. Some additional electronics cause the second monitor to act as an extension to the first (see Drobe passim). The ability to use multiple monitors with RISC OS has been around for a number of years. An implementation for the Iyonix, for example, is present in Geminus. However, this was the first time I'd had a proper session with such a set-up. It was fun to drag a window back and forth across the "join" between the two monitors.
Elsewhere at the show, an old Archimedes A500, used to develop the Arthur operating system (pre-RISC OS) was coaxed into performing. I always think Arthur as "Half A" and find this amusing because Arthur OS was so crude and unpolished. After my play with the A9wai1, working with a 640 x 512 screen was painful. At home I like working with a 1280 x 1024 pixel screen. I'd forgotten just how chunky 640 x 512 is. Yet, it was on such a 'tunnel vision' screen (on an A410/1) that I wrote, for example, WordChain.
Returning to play some more on the A9wai1, I wondered: "If I got used to two screens working fluidly together, would I find it intolerable to go back to just one 1280 by 1024 pixel screen?" Should the A9wai1 be made available to buy? As a product to take to market, it's not a surefire winner. The real drift for the majority of computer users still seems to be to replace desktop machines with laptops, sometimes even accepting a reduced screen resolution in making the transition. But I do like the idea of the A9 computer being hidden inside one of the two monitors.
Back at my MathMagical stand, I noticed that my A6 Microsoft Windows PC had crashed. I bought this machine for my daughter, Fran, in 2004. For today's show I had reclaimed it. This was the first time in over a year that I'd used Fran's VirtualAcorn RiscPC emulator. Why had it now crashed? Over the course of the day, I realised that the Windows screen saver was causing the problem. Whenever it cut in, it took down the emulation. So I disabled the Windows screen saver. Then I realised that the sound was not working. I couldn't figure out why. I seem to struggle with emulation. This was probably another factor prompting me to buy that second-hand RiscPC from the charity stall. If my Iyonix stops working, I think I'd struggle to justify spending the 750 quid being asked for an aged Iyonix at the CJE Micros stand. It's a shame Castle can't be here with an Iyonix II.
Stalwart exhibitor Robin Edwards was at the show selling his Serious Statistical Software. Robin is always interesting to talk with not least because of his questioning of the statistics being used to 'prove' global warming is caused by the human race. Sure, mankind is releasing truly vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and is managing his affairs in a non-sustainable way, but Robin wants to see the statistical evidence linking what we are doing to the change in climate.
He told me of a most interesting theory that endeavours to explain what is really going on. In a nutshell, the solar system revolves around its own centre of mass and not, as many mathematical models assume, the Sun. Pursuing the consequences of not making this assumption results in a mathematical model in which the variation in the distance between the Earth and the Sun is greater. We get both a little closer and at other times, a little further, from the Sun. Mostly, it's the big planets Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn and Uranus and, of course, the Sun, that fix where the centre of our solar system lies. The variation in the energy bathing the Earth thus varies by 2% rather than the established figure of 0.3%. We're currently closer than the model containing the erroneous assumption predicts. Result: a hotter planet. Such conversations are typical of what can make a day spent at a computer show enjoyable.
As packing up time approached my moment came. I was to give a 20-minute theatre talk on my new software. Several conversations during the course of the day had given me a feel for the key points to emphasise, what explanations seemed to work and which just muddled. It was a big relief to find that my RiscPC worked with the provided projector and that we also had sound. I first showed off !Flicker - this was the first time I'd heard the soundtracks of the !Flicker films played through a good quality system. They sounded great. I then talked through how to make an animation (for playing on either !InterGIF or !Flicker) using my new ArtGraph Film Studio software.
This ArtGraph tutorial is available from the MathMagical website. In a couple of months or so !Flicker will be free to download from the RISCOScode website, so I'll save writing about it in detail until then. At the moment it's being bundled with the rest of the new MathMagical Software Suite. To my delight, I sold a couple of copies of the software after my talk. I must have said something right.
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