Acorn Pocket Book II

The Acorn Pocket Book II is a personal digital assistant manufactured in 1991. Actually, it is a Psion 3 that has been rebranded by Acorn.

Imagine, if you will, a device that you could carry around with you, and that had apps on it. In 1991!

The Acorn Pocket Book II was truly ahead of its time. I picked up my version on eBay for about £20 and I am interested to see how it compares to a modern device and whether it can still be used as a personal assistant today.

Acorn Pocket Book showing the desktop and the huge amounts of memory available. This model was the 256K version. About 90K of this is used as graphics memory.

Well, the first thing to note is that the size of pockets hasn't changed much since the early nineties. Although it is slightly larger than a modern smartphone (and a few times chunkier) it still fits in most of my pockets, so all is good and the device lives up to its name.

The desktop is initially difficult to navigate, although even with the touch-sensitive buttons that launch many of the apps, most of the navigation is achieved with the cursor keys. The desktop displays icons in a horizontal row, with files associated with each application stacked vertically below.

The 'file' button brings up a menu bar containing all of the various file operations you would expect an operating system to provide.

Interestingly the Acorn Pocket Book II was designed for the education market and so it came with security features such as passwords disabled (although it is possible to switch these back on). Presumably, Acorn were worried that naughty school children would change the passwords and lock their teachers out of the devices.

OK, let's have a look at all of the pre-installed apps and see if they are still relevant. I'll put a score out of 5 based on how useful the application is, where 5 is 'as good as any modern smartphone app' and 1 is 'of very limited use'.

Cards (1/5)

Cards is a card filing system. I had originally hoped that this would be similar to the Card File program in Windows 3.1, however, instead, it is a very simple database with fields for 'name', 'phone', 'address' and 'notes'. I find this feature completely redundant as I would prefer to use the contacts/address book features in Android and Windows 10 to store this information.

Write (4/5)

Write is word processor program. It works really well, although, as you might expect, it is rather simple and using the tiny keyboard is difficult at times, especially when using the shift key at the same time as another key. Even so, if you wanted to use your Pocket Book as a notebook, then this application would still be of use today.

Schedule (1/5)

Schedule is a diary application. I have no use for this as I use Outlook.

Time (4/5)

Time is a clock/alarm clock application. It is simple but comes with multiple alarms as well as the ability to program them with repeats on workdays etc. In fact, this application is almost as good as any modern alarm clock application.

World (3/5)

World is a world time clock, with many cities as presets. It will tell you the current time in any of these cities as well as the distance, sunrise and sunset time. This app is still relevant today, although I am not entirely convinced that it gets the daylight saving times correct for Wellington, New Zealand.


Calc (5/5)

Calc is calculator application with powers, trig and preset memories. It is as useful as any standard calculator application. It is simple, but I have no complaints here.

Abacus (4/5)

Abacus is a spreadsheet program. Although not as powerful as a modern spreadsheet, it is still useful for basic tasks. In fact, I have found various uses for this application, not least to calculate my mortgage payments.

Acorn Pocket Book showing Abacus spreadsheet.
Spell (4/5)

Spell is a dictionary, anagram and thesaurus application. It is quite good, although I am not convinced that the on-board dictionary is all that big.

Record (3/5)

Record is an application for recording sound from the onboard microphone. It works. You don't get much more than 10 seconds of recording time before you run out of memory.

Plotter (3/5)

Plotter is an app for graphing mathematical functions. It is no Desmos but it does a job.

OPL (N/A)

OPL is a programming language for the Psion series personal assistants. I am struggling to find much documentation on how to get started and so I haven't even managed to write 'hello world' yet, but in theory, OPL allows you to write your own native applications for the Pocket Book, as well as integrate scripts with some of the other standard applications.  I've rated this N/A as I know that it is a really useful feature, but since I can't get it to work I won't be commenting.

Is that is?

No way! The Acorn Pocket Book had a thriving shareware community back in its day, and if you search hard enough you can find many more applications and games for this device. I have only discussed the applications that came with the standard release.

It is also worth noting that this device is very power efficient. I don't know how long, but I know that the batteries will last for a very, very long time.

The verdict... (3/5 )

Overall, I think that the Acorn Pocket book was a brilliant device for its time, and even today has some use.  Overall it gets 3 out of 5, about the same as Revenge of the Sith.

Obviously, the lack of internet makes it much less useful than your modern smartphone for almost all of the above tasks, but it still is a curious device and I do love finding uses for it from time to time.

If you found this post interesting, then you might like to read about how I tried to use an Acorn BBC microcomputer as my main computer.

Good bye

Next steps with Ubuntu

Last time I wrote about setting up Ubuntu on a virtual machine. Today I shall ramble on about stuff I have done with it so far. This will be more of a general ramble rather than a set of instructions, but it may be useful to anyone thinking of trying out a new operating system just for the giggles.

Ubuntu settings
The first job was to dive into the settings to try and personalise the experience a bit. Apart from changing the desktop background I went into 'Online Accounts' and connected a few services together. I do intend on using Ubuntu as a productivity machine, so it was important to link up my Google drive account. I added in my Microsoft, Flickr and Pocket accounts while I was at it. More about them later.

The Ubuntu desktop may look unfamiliar to a Windows user. The first place you will want to start is the 'Show Applications' button, which looks like this:


You will find the settings program on the menu that appears.

Some of the programs that come bundled with the current Ubuntu release.
Ubuntu comes bundled with various applications and utilities that will be of use to the general user. My next step was to link my Firefox and Spotify accounts. I wouldn't get far without some tunes and web tools.

Installing new applications

The bundle of applications that comes with Ubuntu is fairly rich, however, it is extremely likely that you will want to browse the store for more programs.  The software store icon looks like this:


The first application I installed was for Dropbox. Once installed and your account has been confirmed a DropBox folder will appear in your home folder your files will sync between your devices.

Tadaa!
The time taken to sync will, of course, depend on the speed of your broadband, and the size of your Dropbox. If you intend to sync files in this way, then it is essential that you have chosen a virtual hard drive of the appropriate size when setting up the machine.

I am going to need a notebook, so the next application I chose to install was Zim. Zim is a 'wiki for your desktop' and is available for both Ubuntu and Windows. I am pretty sure that I already wrote about Zim once so I won't go into too much detail here, suffice to say that it is a pretty neat tool for notetaking.

I chose to save my first notebook into the new Dropbox folder so my notes are available on all my Windows devices as well as the virtual machine.

My current desktop showing Zim, a notebook where I keep all my world domination plans, and recipes for chilli sauce.
There were a few other applications that I installed next including 'Photos' which is a fairly good application that links with your Flickr account so you can see all of your selfies and duck faces.

It is also worth noting that Ubuntu comes with Libre Office pre-installed and the Thunderbird mail client, so if you are missing Windows and Office, then there are still document and email options available to you right out of the box.

Adding the file store

I have a network file store. Connecting to this was really easy under Ubuntu. First I opened the 'Files' file explorer and selected 'Other locations'. Then in the 'Connect to Server' edit box, I entered the path to the file store. This starts with the 'smb://' samba protocol, followed by the internal IP of the router, and then the folder that I was interested in - 'usb1'.

Setting up a samba connection.

Installing Apache

The last thing I did before writing this post was to install Apache web server. As this requires the use of the terminal commands in Linux, it is probably beyond the scope of this post so I will save it for another time.

If you enjoyed this post then you might want to take a long hard look at your life. If you are still awake, then you might also like to read about my experience with the RISCOS operating system, or maybe you just want to play a game.

Setting up an Ubuntu Virtual Machine

Virtual machines can be used as a sandbox to test unfamiliar software in a safe environment, or they can be used as a fun way to explore a different or new operating system. It is very easy to set up a virtual machine as this post will hope to demonstrate.

In this post, I am going to set up a Virtual Machine and run Ubuntu as a productivity machine on top of my Windows 10 laptop.


Virtual Box is an easy-to-use open source Virtual Machine for Windows and other operating systems.
Setting up

First I needed to grab a copy of the VM software. I choose to use Oracle Virtual Box.

Second I needed to download a copy of Ubuntu.

Once you have installed Virtual Box, the next step is to create a new virtual machine by pressing the handily titled 'NEW' button. Once pressed you will get this dialogue box. Simply give your machine a unique name and select the correct Type.
The next stage is to allocate RAM from your host machine to be allocated to the guest machine. The value that you spare will depend on how much your host machine has to spare and what your guest machine will be doing with it. I am going to use about half of the 24GB available.

Unless you already have a virtual machine hard drive, your next steps will be to allocate some of your host machine's hard disk to be used by the guest machine. 
You have two options here. Either create a drive that will grow in size until it reaches a maximum, or create a drive already at its maximum size.
I intend to store a significant amount of files on my machines, so I am going to allocate 100GB from my host machine, space that I can easily afford to spare.
VirtualBox will now start creating your virtual hard disk. Depending on size and speed of your machine, this could take several minutes, so go and put the kettle on, or write a letter to your mad Uncle. We will reconvene when it is time to install Ubuntu,

Installing Ubuntu

Once you are ready to start, click on the name of your virtual machine to boot it up. This is where the Ubuntu disk image comes in.

You are ready to point the virtual machine software at the location of your Ubuntu disk image. Once located then you are ready to start, so click 'start'.
Yup, you are ready to choose your language and hit Install. 

Oh, go on then...

It sounds scary, but yes, you mean to click the first option, unless you are planning something else not covered in this post.

Select your location.

You are ready to give yourself a name. If you want, you can use the one that your parents gave you. If you don't know this name, then you could ask a family member or someone else. If this doesn't help check the back of your shirt, maybe it is written on the label. Failing all that, just call yourself something. Oh yeah, and you are going to need a new password.
Th...th...th...that's all folks!
Well, that's about it. Sit back and watch Ubuntu installing on your machine.

StoryBoard

StoryBoard is my current favourite toy at the moment. StoryBoard helps you create awesome comic-book-style images in seconds whilst simultaneously requiring you to have absolutely no talent whatsoever... Currently available as an experimental app by Google for Android, StoryBoard allows you to load a video or gif image; the app then strips out individual frames as stills which it then applies artistic filters to make it look like a comic strip.


The processing all happens on your device, so you do not have to worry about upload times, or waiting for server time etc. Another good thing is that it does not try to add any frivolity to the image - no speech bubbles or 'kapows' or 'kersplats' - which would be someone distasteful..


The whole process is ludicrously easy. You simply select a video or gif and then wait a few seconds for the algorithm to select a few choice frames, There are half a dozen or more different filter styles and if you don't like the current selection a simple tap or swipe will generate a whole new different one.

And, well that's about it. I do hope you have fun making your home videos look like they belong at the start of an episode of Grange Hill.


Really Bad Chess

Really Bad Chess is an interesting take on an old favourite. It is chess but with random pieces, in random positions. Need three bishops and 10 knights? No problem.

A pawn on the back row? Why, of course, you can.

You can forget about memorised openings here. Chess pieces appear at seemingly random positions. At first, it may seem like a trivial version of chess, however, this game really gets you thinking about how to play. It flips chess on its head, but in a way that will help you understand the game better.

Really Bad Chess has a number of modes of play. The standard ranked mode starts off easy, with you being assigned a greater proportion of good pieces. In the image above, for example, white starts the game with four queens to black's zero. The more you play, and the more you win, then the more the algorithm flips the advantage to your opponent. This makes for a great introduction to chess for newcomers to the game. You can really focus on how your pieces move and interact without worrying about being crushed in a few moves by a powerful AI. Conversely, the 'freeplay' mode lets you choose the difficult at the beginning.

'Daily board' and 'weekly board' challenges complete the package, both letting you compete against other players in beating the board. There is even an option to turn off the AI and have a board to play against a nearby human if you know any.

In summary, I really like Really Bad Chess, and I think I'll keep using it to help me train.

+1 Geek Experince point for Zach Gage and Noodlecake Studios Inc.

If you are still here, then you might like to read our other chess-related posts.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #24

Every day of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

NORAD tracks Santa

Every year North American Aerospace Defense Command devote bazillions of taxpayer dollars to tracking Santa. If you need to know Santa's exact location then this site will help you find out when your presents will arrive.

It is also rumoured that the United States military guards Santa on his journey around the world, against those who do not believe in Christmas.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #23

Every day of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Listen to Wikipedia

What would it sound like if you could listen to Wikipedia? What if every new page addition, subtraction, new user and edit played a tone or plucked a string? Well, I guess it would sound something like this...



+1 Geek Experience Point awarded to Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi

Advent Calendar for Geeks #22

Every day of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Geek Typer

Geek typer is a site where you can make it look like you are a super-awesome hacker, even if all you know how to do is mash the keyboard, like me.

Wow, it looks like the killer has followed them on vacation. If only we knew someone who could make a GUI in Visual Basic to track the IP.
There are loads of themes to choose from...



+1 Geek Experience points awarded to fediaFedia and Lexuzieel.

The Winter Solstice

This post is a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. Forget Wallace and Gromit, presents and sprouts and heavy metal versions of famous carols (for a moment). A winter festival has been celebrated across Europe since pagan times. The festival of Yule, which was later Christianised into Christmas was a celebration of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the exact point in time where the plane of the equator is at its largest angle from the plane of the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun). This happens at different times during the year and it is related to the length of the daytime. This year it is happening today at twenty-eight minutes past four (which is the same time this article was posted).

Noon for me on today at my location in Northern Europe. The diagram shows the position of the sun in the sky relative to my horizon. You can also see how the sun has reached the largest angle relative to the ecliptic.

I use Sunrise Sunset for Android. This app automatically detects your location, although you can manually select a city from one of many. It tells you the sunrise and sunset times for your location, including Astronomical, Nautical, Civil and 'Official' times (presumably info you will need depending on whether you are an astronomer or a pirate).

The 3D view lets you see the position of the Sun relative to the Earth for your location as a 3D globe which can be rotated to get the best view. It is this that you can see in the image above.

Also included are the rise and set times for planets and the moon which would be of use to all amateur astronomers. 

The adverts can be a little obtrusive at times, but it only costs £1.18 for the version without them.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #21

Every day of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Modular Multiplication Around a Circle

Inspired by a Vsauce T-shirt, the Modular Multiplication around a circle is a graphical representation of the times table for any number.




The concept is explained in this Mathologer video.


Advent Calendar for Geeks #20

Every day of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

The Library of Babel

Drowning in a sea of nonsense, the library contains every single sentence that you could possibly ever say.

The Library of Babel is a virtual library that contains every book that has ever been written, and also every book that ever will be written. Contained within this searchable online library are countless books each containing pages of exactly 3200 characters. Each possible combination of letter, full-stop and comma is contained somewhere within the library. Create a new sentence that you have never said before and you will be surprised to find that it is already written down in the Library of Babel.

+1 Geek experience point for Jonathan Basile librarian f Babel

Advent Calendar for Geeks #19

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Hex Clock

Hex Clock is a online clock that displays the current time as if it were a hexadecimal colour code.

Its Two twenty-six and twenty-seven seconds.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #18

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

In Bb 2.0

In Bb 2.0 is a 'collaborative music and spoken word project'. The project features Twenty YouTube videos that can be played together to produce an ambient musical masterpiece.



Advent Calendar for Geeks #17

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

The True Size of...

The most common projection used on world maps is the Mercator Projection which maintains straight lines of latitude and longitude at the expense of distorting the size of landmasses as you move away from the equator. Greenland, for example appears much larger than it actually is. The True Size of is a web app that lets you compare countries with their true size by litterally dragging them to another place on the map to see the effects of Mercator Projection distortion.


The image shows Greenland as it would appear on the map if it was located at the equator.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #16

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Watercolour map

Create watercolour maps of your favourite places with maps.stamen.com.


And not just watercolour - high-contrast toner, Terrain, Burning, Mars and more.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #15

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Shakespearean Insult Generator

This is one of mine, although it is based on Shakespeare Insult Kit which is widely attributed to an English teacher from Center Grove High School in Greenwood Indiana named Jerry Maguire.

Simply press the button for a new insultThou spleeny fen-sucked lout!


Advent Calendar for Geeks #14

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Online Maze Designer

A really simple maze designer tool. Simply click to draw your path.

There are options for saving and importing as well as loads of info on maze as well as some games to enjoy.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #13

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

The Wub Machine

The Wub Machine is an online tool for automatically remixing tunes into dubstep classics.


Simply upload your music and choose a genre. You can also add songs from Soundcloud and download your creations. All work comes with extra wub wub wub.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #12

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Map of the Dead

Map of the Dead is a zombie survival tool powered by Google maps. It provides information about possible infestation areas in the event of a zombie apocalypse.


Along with areas to avoid the map lists locations of where to get your supplies, such as the fire station, which could be a could source of axes, or hospitals, likely to be over-run with the walking dead, but a good place to stock up on medical supplies.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #11

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Music Map

Music Map is a site that lets you explore which musicians are similar in style to others. You simply enter the name of one musician or band and a cloud of other musicians will appear around it. The closer two musicians appear next to each other more likely a person will enjoy both musicians and a great way of discovering new music.


Advent Calendar for Geeks #10

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Your life in history

Your Life in History allows you to explore how your personal timeline relates to major world events. You simply enter your date of birth and the site puts the history of your timeline into context.



For example, my father's life can be split into two halves - one before hip hop records and one after. For me personally, I have lived half of my life with Harry Potter and half of it without.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #09

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Estimate of World Sleeping Population

How many people are asleep right now? Alphabet Passport have an estimate on their site.


The algorithm makes assumptions such as 90% of the population of a country would be asleep at peak time and most people sleep for 8 hours (I wish!). Then taking population and timezone data from Wikipedia the results are plotted on an interactive graph. It also includes notable celebrities who may be asleep at the time.

If you are a benevolent philanthropist who is planning on visiting all parts of the world this month in an attempt to distribute presents to all the good christian children of the world, then this site could be of use to you.

Advent Calendar for Geeks #08

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Sideways Dictionary

Sideways Dictionary is a dictionary of technical jargon explained through everyday analogies.


If the jargon term you are looking for is not there, then there is a suggest button, although I do not know whether this site is actively supported. There are currently fewer than one hundred terms available, although each analogy is tagged so you can cross reference your analogy all you like.


Advent Calendar for Geeks #07


Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Strobe illusion

Strobe illusion is a good implementation of the motion perception illusion. Stare at the animation for thirty seconds and then look around you as your drawing room goes all wibbly-wobbly.



Advent Calendar for Geeks #06

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Software developer Oleg Dolya has created this procedurally generated medieval city map generator.


Currently there are various options for selecting the size and features of your map with an option for exporting in PNG and SVG format for use in your roleplaying games,

Advent Calendar for Geeks #05

Everyday of Advent I'm going to post a geeky link to something you can play with online until it is time to open your presents.

Touch Pianist

Touch Pianist is a fun web toy for playing a present piece of music. The tutorial features Moonlight Sonata, by Ludwig van Beethoven (which reached number one in the charts in 1801), but other tunes are available.

Plus one Geek Experience point for Batuhan Bozkurt

Play the piece is really easy, you simply have to click the screen whenever you feel musically inspired to do so. You can't get the notes wrong, although you may get the wrong timing, which is all part of the fun. The spacing between the glowing circles give some clue as to the intended rhythm for the tune, and with a little practice you will convince your friends that you are a musical prodigy.

This site urges you to run in Chrome, although I found that Chrome did not work very well at all, although everything was fine in Edge browser. There is also an Android version.

Have fun...more stuff tomorrow....

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