That time I wrote an email system

When I started university back in 1990 the computer systems available were a lot more primitive that today.

Desktop PCs were only made available to college students the year after I joined, so for the first year of my Computer Science studies I only had access to mainframe systems, and in particular a VAX VMS system.

This was the type of terminal I had to use, which had an 80 x 24 character screen.

There was a big darkened room in the basement of my faculty building that housed row upon row of these terminals, and it was common to see student hunched over the machines for hours upon end – although not necessarily doing college work.

We didn't have the internet to distract us, but we make a lot of use of the mainframe's internal email system (called "MAIL") to keep in contract with friends. This was before the days of mobile phones, so the email system was one of the few ways to keep in contact with classmates and friends.

The problem was that the university soon realised that the student's use of email was overwhelming the ageing mainframe system – and so they introduced a daytime email ban. Between the hours of 9.00am to 5.00pm on weekdays students were barred from accessing the email program.

Getting around the ban

Of course, resourceful Computer Science kids like me, with lots of free time on their hands, soon found way to bypass the ban.

We quickly realised that the ban was being enforced by the use of a script – in the VMS language these were called Digital Command Language (DCL) scripts. The script checked the time, checked whether the user was a staff member or not, and then decided whether to run the MAIL program or issue an error message.

And so in order to bypass the ban, all it took was the writing of a slightly modified version of the script that didn't do the staff check. Simple.

Of course, after a while the university IT staff soon realised that students were still accessing the MAIL program, so they tightened up security by implementing changes to the security using access control lists that implemented a more effective ban.

An email program written in DCL

The DCL scripting language was actually quite powerful, and you could write small applications in it. I had grown quite interested in the language during my long hours in the lab and had already written a number of small utilities, such as an application launcher, that a number of my fellow students were using.

So it occurred to me that I might be able to also write a primitive email client as well.

The mechanics of it were actually quite simple. The program would launch a text editor where you would write your message. Then, when the text editor closed, it would save the file in a common directory and prompt the user for a username and email subject. Details of the filename, sending username, recipient's username, and email subject were then written to a log file.

When the recipient then accessed my email program, it would scan through the log file for any matches of their username, and present the details of the emails to them.

The user could then choose from options to delete or reply to the message.

The program was very basic, and not always stable. Some of the time the log file would get corrupted from multiple people trying to write to it at the same time. But for the most part, it served as an effective email system for the couple of hundred students that knew about it.

Short lived success

My basic email system lived for around 6 months, completely undetected by the IT staff, and sent and received in the region of half a million messages. I had to keep clearing down the log file periodically, as it wasn't indexed and a full file scan as the log file grew was taking longer and longer. 

Then at the start of the new academic year – my second year – a revolution happened. A new lab of Windows 3.0 desktop PCs appeared, with the Eudora email client installed and proper POP3 email accounts, and students soon lost interest in using email on the mainframe.

The reduced load on the VMS system meant that the MAIL program restrictions could be lifted, and the need for my email utility disappeared overnight.

In fact, all interest in the lab of VT terminals quickly dried up, as their fixed character screens were viewed as quite primitive in comparison to the GUI available on Windows. But I'll always have a soft spot for VMS mainframe systems and the DCL scripting language.

After university I even tried to get a job with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) who made the VMS computers – but I suspect I came across too strong in the interview!

Maybe I should look into getting a VM running OpenVMS so that I can revisit the operating system one last time.

Hifi Downsizing

My interest – and for a while, obsession – with hifi music began when I was still in school.  

Marantz Receiver
Marantz Receiver

I had been given a second-hand Marantz receiver (combined radio and amplifier), which looked very impressive, with lots of buttons and dials – but I quickly realised it didn’t really do anything on its own.

I would need to get some speakers, in order to actually hear some music. And if I wanted to listen to anything other than the radio, then I would need some other components – or separates.

So, at a time when most people were buying an all-in-one music centres or ghetto blaster, I was being indoctrinated into the world of hifi separates. The idea espoused by audiophiles was that a single-box solution was a compromise in terms of audio quality. The only way to chase the dream of true high fidelity music was to buy separate components, often from different specialist manufacturers.

And so it was, over time that I added more separates into my collection – a tape deck and a CD player – and I also replaced the second-hand receiver with a separate amplifier and tuner. However my quest for incremental improvements in audio quality wasn’t yet satisfied. To try and eke out the last drop of sound quality I would end up buying a separate DAC (digital to analogue converter) to try and improve the sound from the CD player. I would also upgrade all the interconnect cables, connect all the power sockets to a surge protector, and isolate each component from vibration on its own glass shelf.

hifiathome

Before the end of my 20s I had acquired a very impressive set up, which sounded amazing. And every time I moved house since them, over the last 15+ years or so, each separate was packed away in its original box, transported to the new location, and then faithfully reconnected at the other side. It was a labour of love to set up my hifi in each new living room, but in recent years I realised it was also a wasted effort.

With the advent of streaming services like Spotify, I had stopped buying and listening to CDs, and I didn’t even own any cassette tapes any more. Indeed for the last 2 or 3 years I had only ever used my hifi for playing back music on my phone or tablet. All my CDs had been ripped to MP3s, or the music was available on Spotify. And so everything except the amplifier and speakers fell into disuse.

Hifi Downsizing

It was earlier this year, as we were having a clear-out prior to moving out of our apartment, that I finally cut the cord (metaphorically) and got rid of the stuff I didn’t need. Gone was the tape deck for which I had no tapes. Gone was the CD player that didn’t really work properly. Gone was the DAC that never really added anything. And gone was big glass stand that it all sat upon.

I’ve kept the amplifier and speakers, as they’ll still be used – but for now they’re in storage while we live in temporary accommodation and hunt for our new house. And in the mean time, I’m making do with an old pair of shelf-mounted speakers powered by a tiny little amp called the Gemtune SA-36A. The amplifier is simplicity itself – on the front it only has an on/off switch and volume control, and on the back are sockets for speakers and a single music source – and it works perfectly with the Spotify playlists on my phone.

It’s not a true audiophile system, but for the amount of music I actually listen to at home (as opposed to the amount I imagine I will listen to), it’s good enough – and it also doesn’t take up half the room!

Gemtune SA-36A Amplifier
Gemtune SA-36A Amplifier

Improved music while you work

Sometimes in the office I find it helpful to listen to music. Simply the process of putting on a pair of headphones helps me zone out of the distractions of the office, and concentrate better on the task in hand.

My problem was that I wasn’t convinced the quality of music produced by the work laptop, and so I tried to see what I could do to improve the sound quality.

High Quality Streaming

The first thing was to ensure the source of the music was as good as it could be. There are music services like Tidal that offer lossless audio – but they charge double the price of other streaming services, and its debatable whether you can tell the difference unless you have very high-end audio equipment.

I use the Spotify premium service, and they offer a high quality streaming option in their desktop app (see Edit->Preferences). The high quality option doubles the bit rate from 160 kbps to 320 kbps, which should improve the quality of the music.

Better Headphones

Music through a €5 pair of ear-buds is never going to sound as good as through a €500 pair of audiophile headphones. But again, there’s a balance to be made here – and a law of diminishing returns. As you spend more, the incremental improvements get smaller and smaller. As such, I’d say don’t spend over €200 for headphones in a noisy office environment.

When buying new headphones, you’re looking for good noise isolation. You don’t want your music interrupted by the conversation across the room, and similarly you don’t want your music to leak out and annoy your colleagues. Look for closed (or closed back) headphones to avoid noise leakage.

For very noisy offices, you might want to consider noise-cancelling headphones, which alter the audio to try and actively block out ambient noise. They are useful if you do a lot of air travel, as they are designed to block out low frequencies (such as airplane engine noise) – but there are disadvantages to using them. They are often more bulky, they need battery power to operate, and the noise-cancelling effect can reduce the audio quality.

Bulldog clip providing a handy place to hang the headphones
Bulldog clip providing a handy place to hang the headphones

External DAC

Once you have a good quality source of music, and good quality headphones, the only thing that can let down the music is the thing that sits in the middle – the computer. The headphones socket of your PC can often let you down in terms of sound quality, and an external DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) will go a long way to improve the quality.

I have a DacMagic XS which has provided me with a noticeable improvement in sound quality. It’s tiny – smaller than a matchbox – and plugs into one of the USB ports of the laptop. I then plug my headphones in the other end. It’s small enough to look unobtrusive on my desk, and can also be used to improve the sound output of a smartphone or tablet.

Two months with a OnePlus One

OnePlus One

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the release of the OnePlus One mobile phone since it was announced just over a year ago.

Even today the Chinese manufacturer still maintains a certain air of mystery and supposed exclusivity by maintaining an invite-only means of ordering. They also run promotions every now and again to enable people without an invite to order, such as the one-hour sale they had at the end of October – and that’s how I got mine.

The OnePlus One is not sold in high street or online shops – it’s only available to order from the manufacturer’s website. It’s also not on sale in Ireland, but you can easily use Parcel Motel to bypass delivery restrictions.

I wasn’t 100% convinced I’d like this phone before I ordered it.  I was worried that the handset would be too big, because it has a 5.5 inch screen – a significant step up in size from my old 5 inch Google Nexus 5. But in actual usage it feels very comfortable in my hand. I can just-about operate it with one hand, but the far edges of the screen are a bit of a stretch. I’d also say that it occasionally digs into me when I’m sat down with it in my jeans pocket.

The screen and camera are both better quality than my previous phone, and everything just seems to run a bit quicker.  But by far the biggest improvement over other smartphones I’ve had is the battery life.  I fiddle with my phone pretty-much all day, and I found that after a year’s usage of my Nexus 5 that the battery was running down by late afternoon.  Not so with the OnePlus One, which has a huge battery capacity.  I’ve never come close to running out of battery, even when I’m out of the house for 12-14 hours.

One other difference the OnePlus One has over its rivals is the operating system.  It run something called CyanogenMod, which is a variant of Android. However, there’s no steep learning curve when switching from other Android phones – it’s just like Android, but with a bunch of extra options and features available.

The price is also a bargain in comparison to other mobiles.  My 64GB model cost £269 (about €360 at today’s exchange rate), but the 16GB version cost just £229 (€305).  That’s compared against €699 for the cheapest iPhone 6 from the Apple store, or about €650 for a Samsung Galaxy S5.

All in all, I’m very happy with the phone, and would recommend getting one if you are able.

4G/LTE Restrictions in Ireland

One thing to note with the OnePlus One is that it only supports a limited number of 4G (LTE) frequencies. It supports bands 1, 3, 4, 7, 17, 38 and 40.  Currently in Ireland, Vodafone uses band 20, Meteor uses bands 3 and 20, and 3 use band 3.

So you should be fine to connect using 4G with Meteor or 3, but if you’re with Vodafone you’ll have to make do with 3G.  Having said that, I’m with Vodafone, and I get download speeds of 15 or 16 Mbps on the 3G HSPDA, so I can totally live without 4G.

Help couriers and delivery drivers find your location with PinLogic

PinLogic are an Irish company based in Co Mayo that are trying to help couriers and delivery drivers locate their customers easily and efficiently.

pinlogic-205638-h900The service makes use of the GPS location tracking available in smartphones to pinpoint exactly where a customer is located, so that delivery drivers don’t waste time and fuel driving around trying to find an address.

The delivery driver uses a smartphone app to send an SMS to the customer.  The customer then clicks on a URL in the SMS, which opens a web page. The web page then uses the GPS in the phone to find the location, and sends it to the delivery driver.  The exact location is then plotted on a map in the driver’s app.

It’s quite a simple idea, but an effective one – and it could be especially useful for rural deliveries, or where a driver isn’t familiar with an area.  And with Ireland’s supposed new postcode system not showing any signs of appearing soon, this is a great solution.

However, I would like to see the service expanded to include more customer information. At present the service is focused on providing an accurate location to a delivery driver.  But as anyone who’s ever waited in at home for a delivery knows well, it would also be great if the customer could track where the delivery driver is located.

Hailo seem to do this two-way information quite well.  The taxi driver gets an accurate pickup location when the cab is booked, and the passenger can also track the approaching taxi and keep an eye out for it.