randombio.com | commentary
Saturday, February 29, 2020

We finally got our computer-driven microscope to work--by ditching the computer

Shall I divulge how Windows truly lost its powers? Heck yeah

I have always been wary of the practice of making scientific instruments dependent on Microsoft Windows. Our old LTQ mass spectrometer would only work on XP with no service packs. The instant we put that PC on our local network it got a virus, so our choice was to air-gap it or pay $10k for all new software. Another instrument still runs on MS-DOS 6.22, totally oblivious to the fact that the 1990s are over.

Our old UV-visible spectrophotometer will only run on Windows NT 4.0. An upgrade bringing it to W2K costs more than a new instrument. The password, set by the vendor, is the old street address of HP headquarters. I wonder how many young people know it.

These are problems, whether you're a Microsoft fan or not: Windows will not be around forever, but instruments cost up to half a million bucks and they'll be in use until they quite literally fall apart. But the only things we truly care about are the data; the time is approaching when computers, and their obstreperous operating systems, will just be in the way.

Last month we got a new inverted microscope from a big German company that was not Zeiss. Microscopes aren't useful in the lab unless you can save images from them, and as with most microscopes these days, this one was designed to run on a Windows computer.

SD Card
SD Card sneakernet

The first sign of trouble was when the software arrived with two CDs. CDs and DVDs are going the way of the floppy disk and most computers these days can no longer read them. Well, as Voldemort would say, no matter, no matter. We copied it to a flash drive and tried to install it.

The software then demanded .NET 3.5. It was old software, something I should have foreseen: the computer only had .NET 4.0. Again, no matter, we'll just download .NET 3.5 off the Internet. The .NET comes in two forms; both are installers that require the Internet, but the bigger version can also use the Original Installation Disks and a Windows Incantation Code. The One Who Must Not Be Maned had a full head of hair at that time, but it was getting thinner. I spoke the unbreakable vowel, plus a few choice consonants.

I had hoped for better. My lab is in a building with no wired Internet access and no IT support to speak of and the PC had no wireless, so I took the PC home, where there's a functioning network, and installed the old version of Dot Net.

The software then demanded a license key or, it said, a magical dongle would do. Tech support knew of no such thing. No, they said, to use the software payment must be made, payment intended to weaken the bank account of any user. Something about bones unwillingly taken, I really wasn't paying attention. But there was a light version that did run. It insisted that the microscope did not exist. Something about Firebolt, Firewire, something like that, though the camera had only HDMI.

A British friend who, for some reason, is always nattering about a place called King's Crustacean, found us a monitor with an HDMI port. The camera came with an SD card and an infrared remote. We found that flourishing the remote at the camera in a specific way while saying “Episkey!” and pressing the Episkey key would cause it to take a picture and write it to the SD card, which acts like a tiny floppy. The two CDs went directly into the recycling cauldron, .NET along with it. Now, all we need is something that can read an SD card.

Somehow the SD card seems anachronistic: why not send it wirelessly to my cell phone? Maybe 5G isn't a bag of burning dog poo after all.

I want to see the light leave the computer's eyes when we get rid of Windows forever. I can make computers hurt, if I want . . ..

feb 29 2020, 6:40 am

Related Articles

Linux and Windows: Why You Need Both
Linux and Windows complement each other's weaknesses.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

book reviews