Posts Tagged With: technology

What’s in a Cute Mouse?



Let’s clear this up right away – I mean a computer mouse. You didn’t think I would be opening up an actual Mus Musculus did you? Me, who passes out at the thought of blood… uh oh *falls off chair*

One large glass of wine later…

One day last week, the cute mouse for my laptop computer became non-responsive and the light went out of its not-an-eye-at-all. Now, I really do like this particular mouse: it doesn’t weigh a lot, it fits the palm of my hand perfectly and it doesn’t eat its way into my box of breakfast cereal before eating the actual cereal. The night before Christmas, it joins all other mice in not stirring but then it doesn’t indulge in this activity any other night of the year either.

I did a fast diagnosis and decided that it was probably the thin, flimsy USB cable that had probably snapped somewhere inconvenient. In fact, the wires seemed to make intermittent connections right where they disappeared into the body of the mouse.

Time to take it apart!

RIMG9101 - Laymans

What most people see when they take their mouse apart…

I still experience a buzz from disassembling something for the first time. It doesn’t last that long as usually something breaks in the process and a world of sweary pain opens up, but it is there, nonetheless.

RIMG9101 - Nerds

What people like me see when they take their mouse apart…

The difficult bit was removing the cable from the circuit board without melting anything important. Once that was achieved, the difficult bit was reattaching the wire having removed the bit that was broken. As suspected, the wire had indeed snapped at the grommet and, as also suspected, the grommet was an integral part of the wire. The fix here was an old-fashioned knot on the inside of the case to act as a strain relief.


Notice how the wires had been glued onto the board, making repair that much more irritating… also notice how the letters indicating the colours of each wire don’t actually match up with the colour of the wires. Genius.



In recovery – the patient is doing well

All back together and working well. Hopefully it will be another 3 and half years before I have to do surgery on it again!


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Telegraph Road – Why Electric Motors made the Internet Possible (Part 2)


Where the cables emerge in a beach hut



So, your electrical signal has crawled through a thousand miles of cable under the sea, and emerged, breathless, in need of regeneration.

Signals 2

Once you see what was done, you can see that it was genius and, as the best ideas often are, simple. If you know when each bit (here representing a dot or a dash) is going to start, you can then make a reasonable guess as to what the original bit was. Provided there is a quite a big difference between the signal level for a dot and a dash, you should be able to regenerate the signal accurately. Regeneration hinged on knowing exactly when each bit started…

So, what could be used to reliably keep time in new electric Victorian world? A motor, that’s what. Use a clock to produce a pulse of electricity to drive a motor round and then everything could be synchronised, like the steam-powered factories that used belts to drive the machinery – only this was a pulse that drove everything in unison.

The dotted lines represent the pulses that are synchronised across the whole telegraph network, from master clocks at each relay sending/receiving station. The clocks were themselves synchronised to all the others using signals sent at the beginning of the day. There was also a speed adjustment on the interpolator to allow the speed of its motor to be tweaked to ensure absolute precision. Once you were synchronised, it was all straightforward.

  1. You know when the character is supposed to start because your master clock tells you. You wait for half a turn of your motor – this puts you right in the middle of the incoming bit.
  2. You then ask the question – is this signal above or below the reference (plus or minus a few microvolts to allow for noise)?
  3. If it is above, you set a high voltage (usually 100 Volts) on your outgoing cable.
  4. If it is below, you set a low voltage (-100 Volts).
  5. Bingo! One regenerated signal now able to crawl through the next bit of wire.


This was all done using a motor and relays. If you are familiar with Terry Pratchett’s book “Going Postal”, you may recognise a distinct “Clacks” feel to this. The thing is, this was the start of the idea of long-distance near-instant communication being made real. It was also the beginning of the rise of the (electric) machines. Operators, previously required to re-key the messages were now replaced by wires and electrons. And it turns out, wires and electrons were hopeless at sports. On Ascension Island, so few engineers replaced the 30 or so operators, that team games had to be ditched in favour of singles tennis.

A new age was dawning, where the world was becoming connected, where information would be the new empire to conquer. At the heart of this revolution was, at least to begin with, the humble electric motor.


Either the author is really tall or this is a diddy telegraph pole. I’ll let you, dear Reader, decide…



With huge thanks to John and Ravy (sorry to have misspelt your name here!) and, indeed, everyone who helps run the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum.

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Telegraph Road – Why Electric Motors made the Internet Possible (Part 1)


Ravy patiently explaining how an interpolator works

One of the things I wanted to do on my return to Cornwall this year (it seems you can’t be banned from the county for dipping a Cornish pasty in a bottle of sauvignon so I was able to go back) was to revisit the Telegraph Museum at Porthcurno and talk with the volunteers who maintain the old telegraphic equipment. Many are ex-telegraph engineers themselves so know a thing or a hundred about telegraphs.


John patiently explaining to me how a line balancer works

Imagine: it’s a bit before 1870 and, being a wealthy Victorian, you decide to connect the new-fangled telegraph-whatchamacallit to the rest of the world (or The Empire as it was known then). You find a nice quiet cove and haul the first cable, going all the way to Portugal, onto the sand. Well, OK, YOU don’t personally because you have people to do that sort of thing.

And it all worked very well, with Morse code messages being sent back and forth from America, India and, of course, Portugal. Problem was that the signal, having crawled along thousands of miles of underwater cable, was feeling a bit washed out by the time it reached anywhere, so relay stations were built along the routes, which is why Britain and other Western European countries became very interested in those tiny Caribbean islands – it wasn’t just they fancied sunny holidays at the Empire’s expense. Messages would arrive, tired and a bit worse for wear, then be retyped (re-keyed in Morse parlance) onto the next bit of cable and so on. Lots of people were needed which was fine because there were a lot of people who fancied a holiday at the expense of the Empire.


More patient explaining

Of course, if there was one thing Victorians were in love with, it was the idea of automation. If there were two things, then the other would have been sunny holidays at the expense… oh, you know the score. So, the idea of REGENERATION was born, long before Doctor Who made it a handy way of changing the actor at the end of a series.

The issue was, as with great comedy, that of timing. How could you synchronise and also understand an exhausted signal from thousand of miles away? It needed some kind of clock and rejuvenating in some way.

And that involved a motor. And another blog post…


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Dodging the Landfill


Waste Generated by this Exercise

The choices for my (t)rusty old PC were pretty clear: replace or reuse. The former was the easy option, although there was the small matter of a new hard drive and a new graphics card fitted 18 months and 6 months ago, respectively. The latter was hard to believe as being even possible – after all, operating systems are made obsolete to make you buy a new machine, right?

I like my desktop machine. It has two screens attached to allow me to write and research simultaneously (and by that, I mean gaze half the time at a blank page and the other half at social media), something that isn’t quite possible with a laptop. Its Vista operating system worked well enough.

Not for long. Vista will be ditched completely by Microsoft in  April and most browsers no longer work properly with it anyway (I had put up with Firefox’s shenanigans for the last year but only just. I have less hair as a result.).


So, my delight at discovering that I could upgrade for fifteen quid to Windows 7, still supported until 2020, was more than it should have been for so mundane a reason. And after about 9 hours, the upgrade worked and my beloved desktop PC was once more running, albeit with a Chrome browser rather than Firefox (which seemed to just collapse under the regime of a new operating system).

No waste to trouble landfill, no energy needed to produce new hardware, no packaging to recycle.

This is how technology is supposed to be in the 21st century, isn’t it?


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The Ascent of Machine


Kodomoroid will read the newspaper to you but probably not do a sudoku or understand the cartoons

Their faces, if that’s what you can call them, stare out from the display cases, imploring you to imagine that they are still alive, telling you the stories of their lives from all that time ago. You know that these are relics of the past, from a time before evolution had shaped the common features that everyone recognises, the delicate noses, the deep eye sockets, the curved forehead.

You know this and are comforted by it. These faces belong to a bygone age when things were less civilised.

Then one of them moves.

Its eyes open wide and a perfectly pitched voice says “Well, hello there! Aren’t you a shiny, happy person?”


Winner of the “Creepiest Robot Ever” Award


“To be or not to be”, that depends on your programming


The Grand-Daddy of them all – well, some of them

When I go to the Natural History Museum in London, and gaze at my ancestors’ skulls, I find it a little disconcerting. These were real people once, from the dawn of human time, from before we as a species started to mess things up properly.

The row of old robots I found in the Science Museum in London were a mixture of the scarily realistic and the just plain creepy. And one was a movie star, so not a ‘real’ robot at all.

One day, you might imagine these machines (and their descendants) being in the Natural History Museum, with some cyborgic entity laughing at how primitive their ancestors looked and how they seemed so ape-like, before heading off to recharge “the ol’ batteries” (possibly literally) at one of the museum’s cafés.


All me own teeth!

“Robots – The 500-year Quest to make machine Human” is on at the Science Museum London until 3rd September 2017 or until a robot army liberates the exhibits.


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