QL workshop and Quanta AGM 2011

Picture of the venue


A QL workshop and Quanta Annual General Meeting took place in Manchester on 16th and 17th April 2011. The Endeavour scout hall made for a rather large venue for the number attending, but the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, and the talks and presentations room was usually full for the varied events which took place there during the weekend.

Quanta had the usual stand there, Rich Mellor brought an assorted variety of second user hardware, as did Derek Stewart. John Southern and his family together with David Buckley ran a successful QL A&E department, breathing new life into otherwise broken QLs and assorted hardware. To mark the 30th year of the ZX81 computer (on which some of us cut our programming teeth!) a CD was launched with ZX81 emulators for various platforms (including QL).

It had been hoped to show and discuss the new Quanta website, but delays in migrating the current website and Content Management System over to the WEC host site had meant the work could not be completed on time.

Geoff Wicks hosted the first of the day's talks, when he demonstrated Roger Godley's recent work in enhancing the QL Xchange software to display new colours on GD2 systems. Roger has already done work on the separate Psion QL programs which have been available to Quanta members from Quanta Library, but now he has turned his sights on Xchange and is anxious to see his work made available to everyone. He also showed a quick preview of Roger's new paint program for GD2 systems. Geoff hopes that these will be available on his Just Words! website a little later in the year when he has had a chance to revise and update the site.

Picture of Zero-2The second talk brought something that little bit different - robots! David Buckley has had a long standing interest in robotics and he brought three little robots with him to the event. One of them was a Zero 2 robot, which can be connected to a QL via a serial port. Back in the 1980s David had written some software on a QL to simplify the use of these robots. The QL's turtle graphics and the possibility of defining new procedures and functions in SuperBASIC made it straightforward to write software on a QL to effectively control the robot.

Back in the 1980s there was a lot of interest in the Logo programming language and his QL program made it easy to define movements for the robot, e.g. 4 turns and 4 straight lines of given length with the robot's pen down for drawing a square can easily be described in Turtle Graphics commands like this. Imagine writing a routine to do this descriptively: move to start position, pen down, forward a given distance, turn through 90 degrees, forward the same amount, turn through 90 degrees again and so on until the square was drawn, then lift the pen and send the robot back to its original position, turn round to unloop the cable if necessary and so on. Individual routines such as this can be combined to simplify larger programs, a bit like QL procedures and functions in many ways. Here's a little example of what such a little routine might look like to draw squares (bearing in mind I never learned the Logo language this might not be strictly correct, but it should give an idea of what I'm talking about):

To Square
move 50
turn 90
move 50
turn 90
move 50
turn 90
move 50
turn 90

While this sort of thing might seem trivial at first glance, it can help you learn a little bit about basic robotic principles and programming techniques to build up your skills. These types of little robots can have drawing pens attached, white line followers, light, beeper, trailer connection/disconnection, bump sensors or "whiskers" to detect obstacles and so on. In fact, the way David described this I found myself imagining programming such a device to move around a room, beeping and flashing a light to warn the cat to move out of its way when they meet, coping with furniture left in various random positions by its human housemates, remembering where it had travelled, working out the shortest route back to its parking spot, turning around to untangle its own cable when required and so on. Despite that sort of thing seeming nothing more than playing with a little robot, it isn't that much of a step up to programming robots to move about safely and effectively in warehouses and factories, for example. And when you realise you can already buy lawn mowers which mow the lawn by themselves without also mowing next door's lawn or getting lost behind your garden shed, and finding their way back to the charging position when batteries start to go flat, sending a message to your mobile phone if it gets into difficulties and so on, you start to realise there are plenty of real-world practical examples of why learning some robotics basics can actually be quite a sensible career move too if you are interested in this type of thing.

Chairman Sarah Gilpin had been called away for the weekend due to her father's illness and later on the Saturday we heard that her father had passed away during the day. I'm sure we all wish to send her our condolences at her loss.

Saturday evening saw us get together for a meal at the Pond Quay restaurant in Urmston. The atmosphere was a bit muted after hearing the news of the Gilpins' bereavement, but the occasion managed to strike a balance between respect in view of the news and having a lovely meal and chat. What's more, a certain magazine editor did not try to walk away with a napkin this time.

Sunday morning saw us get back together for the second day of the meeting. Geoff Wicks chaired a session on looking at the suggestions for changes in the Quanta constitution to iron out potential problems and also to try to make it suitable for the future as Quanta starts to move towards 30 years of the QL by 2014. Rich Mellor, who trained as a company lawyer, is helping to redraw the constitution and a small group will be looking at producing a new draft constitution over the summer ready to discuss and eventually put to the membership to vote on acceptance at the AGM next year. Examples cited of problem areas in the consititution include the fact that for many years it has mentioned the Sinclair QL and Thor in its "Objectives" section, while clearly times have moved on and there are many other QL compatible computers and emulators not mentioned by now. It's also hoped to tackle improving the wording in some areas, and of course the difficult issue of the term of office of Quanta officers on the committee. How times have changed there - back in the 1980s I remember reading magazine articles which commented on how home computing was an almost exclusively male preserve then, while in recent times a majority of the Officers on the committee have been female!

Rich Mellor gave a talk about his work in seeking to preserve QL software for the future and the difficulties he has tackled such as making one good copy out of two or three damaged copies of rare old QL software. He had some QL arcade style games running on a demo QL on his stand and it drew a lot of interest from those passing by (including some Scout group members meeting in a nearby room who wandered into the QL show to see what was happening and "what this QL thing was"). Sales of a QL games CD on an adjacent stand seemed to benefit! He also talked about his QL Wiki site, which provides a valuable source of information about QL hardware and software. Simply by registering, QL users can add new information and amend existing pages to provide an extensive reference source of information for us all.

Derek Stewart showed some pictures of Peter Graf's SD card interface for the QL, which sat in the position occupied by MDV2 (allowing insertion of an SD card through the existing MDV2 slot in the QL case), with a small ribbon cable leading further into the QL to connect the second half of the unit to the QL itself at the EPROM slot. If preferred, the SD card connector can be positioned externally. Only SDHC cards are supported (these are very common). The driver software will be free and open source, although it has not yet been developed.

QL SD external view QLROMext QL SD

QL SD interface prototype, showing (left) SD card inserted at MDV2 slot, baseboard (centre) QLROMEXT plugged into EPROM slot, and (right) how card slot PCB is added in MDV2_ position inside the QL case.

Lee Privett showed off his alpha test version of Windows 95 running in a QL emulator on a PC. In case anyone saw this and didn't realise it was a spoof, the only Windoze 95 actions it recreated were the "blue screens of death" when a PC crashes! This was then followed up by someone else running QPC2 with some screen copies of a Windows 7 desktops used as BGIMAGE wallpapers in QPC2, giving the impression that Windows 7 was running under QPC2 rather than QPC2 being the emulator! The things some people get up to at Quanta workshops...

Windows in QPC2
Windows 7 emulated in QPC2? Surely not...

The AGM came along at 2pm, and in the absence of the Chairman, the committee used existing provision in the constitution to ask Geoff Wicks to act as Chairman of the AGM in view of his experience. The motions put to the AGM were all carried, and the new committee elected as follows:

Chair - Sarah Gilpin
Secretary - Alison Southern
Treasurer and Membership Secretary - Keith Dunbar
Committee members: Dan Abbott (Webmaster), David Buckley (Librarian), Dilwyn Jones (News Editor and Helpline), Lee Privett (Magazine Editor designate)

Lee Privett was welcomed to the committee, as a new member from Southend. Apart from being the only committee member living in the south of England, he is someone who has fairly recently returned to using a QL for the first time since the late 1980s after some nostalgia upon stumbling across Quanta's website and discovering that a QL scene still existed. We hope that his experiences of returning to the QL scene, re-learning a lot about the QL and so on will help bring new ideas for reaching out to former QL users and those interested in retro computing, for example. To show his enterprising spirit, he had his QL connected to an LCD monitor. How many times have I thought this to be impossible? Well, what he had done was buy a video upscaler box, which was connected to his QL via a SCART lead.

The AGM voted to redraft the constitution in the coming year, present it to the membership for discussion during the year and to work towards putting it to the membership for approval at the AGM in 2012. The rather difficult issue of the need to raise the membership fee was also discussed. The Treasurer's report had explained that Quanta had a deficit of income of over 500 pounds this year, plus there was a need to finance the move to a paid-for website service with WEC this year. There was a suggestion that together with raising the membership fee (for the first time since Quanta was set up in the mid 1980s - how many organisations can boast of no rise in over 25 years!) Quanta should look at the practicalities of offering a discount if members elected to commit to a 3-year subscription paid in advance, for example, to soften the impact of the rise in subscription fees. While the change may prove painful int he short term, it will help to keep Quanta as a viable organisation financially for some years.

Pictures from the meeting

Here are some of the pictures I took at the meeting. Remember that non-members are welcome to attend the workshops!

Geoff Wicks presentation Rich Mellor presentation
Geoff Wicks during his presentation
A relaxed Rich Mellor during his presentation
David Buckley The Zero 2 robot
David Buckley and his little robot friends
The Zero-2 robot under QL control
The HxC interface Zero 2 program on QL
An uncased HxC SD card interface attached to a Trump Card QL
An example of a Zero 2 being controlled by a QL program
Picture of Lee Privett Evening meal picture
New committee member, Lee Privett
A picture taken at the evening meal on the Saturday


Some pictures taken at the Quanta Workshop and AGM in Manchester, April 2011

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