My (8-bit) Computer Club: part 2

Don’t let the title ‘computing’ put you off. This is more about teaching and learning as a whole than I realised since I wrote part one.

Computer use has gone though a few different phases since the home computing revolution of the 1980s: 

Programming > gaming > admin > multimedia > communications

Initially microcomputers were novelties where users could understand how the machine worked and learn how to do things with it from scratch. Over 60 books were published  for the commodore VIC20 between 1982 and 1984 (and just as many for every other platform). There was even a term, now long forgotten, for someone who used computers in this way: a computerist. But just as we now don’t have true motorists, we just have drivers, the computerists have by and large gone. Today we just have computer drivers who are users of the software that only a few experts know how to make.

All the books on the VIC20 I could find.

We were promised as computerists that we could do our accounts, control our central heating, manage our entertainment – but we couldn’t, not yet anyway. What we could do was play games and as the machines gained more memory and higher resolution graphics, that’s what everyone did. 

Then in the 1990s we saw the rise of the IBM PC clone and Microsoft productivity software. Suddenly you could be your own personal assistant, your own typist and data manager. We entered the age of Admin.

The late 1990s brought Steve Jobs back to Apple where he launched the iMac and iPod, devices that could manage your multimedia. With Photoshop and desktop publishing, the computer became a creative tool to manage photos, music and later, movies.

As the new millennium began, the internet started to become fast enough to be useful and computers could be used for shopping, banking and research. The shift to the then-called Web 2.0 gave rise to two-way communication between websites and the era of mass social communication networking began. This became so much more powerful in 2008 with the launch of the first proper mobile smart internet devices. 

If course, people obviously still do all of the five types of computer use today but it’s the first one that fascinates me the most. In the rush to get better games, better graphics, more useful apps and entertainment, I believe we have lost touch with what a computer is and how it works. I think this is detrimental to society and especially the next generation who were born into this closed magic box world. With the next stage of the internet well underway (the so-called ‘internet of things’) where computers upload and download data to the internet themselves, we need a new generation of computerists to design and shape this technology for the greater good, for themselves and us.

It was with all this in mind that I set up my computer club at Fyling Hall School. It’s been running for three terms now (since September 2018) so what have we learnt?

There have been a few students who came, then didn’t come back, but a few have been coming back every week, girls and boys aged 11 to 17.

The initial idea was to create a text adventure game (see my previous blog). But I found I’d have to back-track a little further than even that. I wrongly assumed that kids would know what a simple text adventure was. It was only by explaining it that I actually realised what it was: a simple, primordial artificial intelligence. You think about it: the user enters a two word phrase (a verb and a noun) and the computer has to take apart that entry, work out if it makes sense compared to its database, work out what the verb and the noun is and respond accordingly. It is Siri. It is Alexia. It is and Cortina (or whatever that thing is called). 

We’re not just making a pointless old fashioned game here. We were looking at the basis of AI, with a direct link to present systems and the future.

Some people might frown that I’m using a suite of commodore VIC20s, 39 year old technology, to do this. They might think it quaint, amusingly retro, or crudely out of date. But no one teaches music by giving the kids an orchestra to play with and expect them to write a symphony: you give than a recorder to learn the basics – even though a recorder isn’t in the professional orchestra. You don’t teach electricity by showing them the controls for the National Grid or expect them to safely wire a house: you give them batteries, bulbs and wires. You start simple, you start basic and you start from first principles. Otherwise you’re just giving instructions to prepare the simplest type of microwave meal, a user of food, when we need them to be a chef, a designer and creator.

You can’t deny the facts: kids do use technology. This is why there is a big debate on whether phones and such like should be allowed in schools or not (we’ll save that for another day). But whatever they are using their devices for, for good or bad, it’s not programming that they’re doing on their phones, iPads and laptops. They’re spending all their time being really good users of someone else’s app.

In our lust for the latest tech we’ve lost sight of the idea of having a device that does one thing well. Your laptop is an unlimited multitrack recording studio. (The Beatles recorded Sgt Pepper on tape with just four tracks. What would they have done with a MacBook?). It is a high resolution graphic design and photo studio, greater than Fleet Street in its heyday. It has more productive movie making power than Hollywood had in its first 80 years. It has access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge. (And yet what do we do with it all? Look at videos of skateboarding cats and play Candy Crush. Clearly having a great tool doesn’t make you an engineer. Give a paintbrush to an elephant and it’ll paint a picture. It might be an amusing novelty but it won’t be a match for the Sistine Chapel.)

It’s of no surprise that when you have decent ICT suit in a school in which you can research any fact or image, watch the latest tv or movie and listen to any record, it’s hard to say to a student, ‘ok, we’re going to forget all that useful exciting stuff and learn how to move a single character around the screen’ or something. Teaching coding on an all-singing-all-dancing PC is horrendous, it’s so dull and we all know it.

Most schools in the UK are using Scratch to animate characters and that apparently ticks the box for ‘coding’. It’s a bit like the Logo system of old. A high level language that has done all the hard work for you. All the students are doing is clipping bits of pre-made code tother presented to them as simple graphical building blocks. This is fine for showing the flow of logic and its a bit of fun for younger ones. But is this really the best we can do?

Give these kids access to the isolated sandbox which is a microcomputer that won’t do anything at all unless you program it, it’s a different story: they get excited by it. That’s what I’ve found. 

Here are a few recent comments from people on a VIC20 users forum about what I’ve been doing:

“Is one of the best educational computers ever made. The weak BASIC that requires PEEKS and POKES to do graphics and sound is even an advantage.”

“I used to truck around a pair of Vic-20 systems to homeschoolers’ homes to give private computer lessons to kids whose families couldn’t afford a computer. Though the current systems ranged from 386s to Pentium 4s during that time, the kids learned more with the “old” Vics. Several of my former students have crossed paths with me over the years, telling me how much that prepared them for college compared to what their friends who only used PCs had going for them in the same situation.”

“I have programmed all my life, including Vic-20. It is alien to me that I cannot do the same things I could do then, on modern platforms. I just want a language and an output. It all seems so complicated and inaccessible these days.”

“To learn electronics, you need to know what a resistor does, and how a transistor works. You learn the building block first, not from a chip that has millions of interconnected transistors and resistors in it.”

“The principles of programming are the same. Variables, loops etc. Also the discipline is the same. I was self taught programming on the Vic20 and I now programme c# .net. Most importantly 8 bit computers fire the imagination.”

Elon Musk learned to program on his VIC20, he went on to do quite well. Linus Torvalds invented Linux, the open source operating system used worldwide. The BASIC language we’re using on the VIC was actually designed by none other than Bill Gates.

But first we had to get back to basics, I mean real basics. When my generation first used a microcomputer, we brought with us knowledge of the keyboard from the typewriter. That’s how we knew what ‘carriage return’ was, it returned the carriage typing head to the next line. So when faced with a terminal text window, we knew what the ‘Return’ key was going to do. Kids today think it’s all a Word document. They’ve no idea that pressing ‘Return’ means something. They thought they were just arranging characters own a screen, not entering lines of code into the chip.

They’ve heard of Mega or Gigabytes but don’t know what they are. Some think it’s a power rating. This sort of misconception is up there with ‘the Moon only comes out at night’, ‘the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer’ or ‘plants get their food from the soil’, which I have to deal with when teaching year 7 science as clear and as fast as I can. The misconceptions of computer lore have gone unchecked.

The pace of any school curriculum in any subject is super fast. We have hardly any time to reflect, to teach patience or to teach self-drive. All of these issues have come up in the club. I’ve had kids type in their relatively short lines of code, try to RUN it and find it doesn’t work: 

Their first port of call is to tell me. I ask, ‘have you checked it?’. ‘No’ They reply. I can scan the screen and immediately see they’ve missed off quote marks or used a semi-colon instead of a colon or whatever. ‘How can you see that so fast sir?’ they might ask. ‘Because continued effort into directed practice has enabled me to spot patterns of syntax quicker’ I reply. (That by the way is the most profound definition of learning you’ll come across today).

Our kids (and to a large degree all of us) are an instant gratification generation. If we have to wait, it’s boring, and we get distracted. If we have to do something again to correct it, that’s too much like hard work. It we get something wrong, the immediate reaction is to give up.

So, yes, I may be using 39 year old technology. I may be teaching them a hard programming language that is only one step up from machine code assembler but what I’m really showing them is far more important than I realised.

After all, what is a computer programer if not someone who is skilled, logical and creative, who has immense patience and accuracy, willing to keep going until the job is done? Hang on, isn’t that a description of any expert in the workplace?

It’s no wonder industry doesn’t have enough of them.


Bring back Tomorrow’s World

I really enjoyed the Tomorrow’s World Live special last night. But it should be back every week. We’ve got more and faster changes in technology than in 2003 so why is it off air? Why are we overrun with dancing, cooking and idiots pretending to be entrepreneurs?

The Family Scientist by Judith Hann

The Family Scientist by Judith Hann

I watched it every Thursday (at 7pm before Top of the Pops) and when I was eight my parents bought me Judith Hann’s book, The Family Scientist, full of experiments its you could do at home. No wonder then that I continued this interest in science to university and beyond. I’m now Head of Physics at Fyling Hall School in North Yorkshire.

A couple of years ago I ran a project with my year 9 Physics class on technology, inspired by Tomorrow’s World. We looked at the origin of the technology that is part of their lives: mobile broadcasting, LEDs, digital sound and images, the microchip, the internet and artificial intelligence. I showed them some Tomorrow’s World archive clips along the way.

The students produced a report at the end of term about their vision for the technological leaps we may see in the next 50 years and a prize was awarded in assembly with this certificate:

Tomorows World cert

Watching the 90 minute edition on BBC4 last night reminded me what the point of Tomorrow’s World was – where else can we get to see and hear cutting edge science explained by the scientists that are working on it put into context by expert journalism?

It needs to be brought back to help to inspire the next generation. 

The overwhelming feeling I got from the show was… hope. Hope for the future. That’s what we’ve been missing and what we need so much.

Some may say that Tomorrow’s World represents a past where we looked optimistically forward to a glorious future, and now that optimism is long gone and such a programme has no place in today’s venom filled fear and instant gratification world. They said in 2005 that Doctor Who shouldn’t come back because it was out-of-date with modern viewing but it became the BBCs most successful programme of the last 13 years.

Wasn’t the BBC’s remit to Educate, Entertain and Inform? It shouldn’t just reflect it’s audience back at itself but also attempt to improve it? Shouldn’t it lead the change we want to see in the country rather than continue to dumb us all down to the resigned lowest common denominator?

We need more scientists and engineers. That’s a fact. So why not make some attempt, however feeble, to inspire our children to have an interest? That;’s what Tomorrow’s World did for so many of us. Start doing it again BBC.

The Smile and Compliment Club

Assembly Nurture.003

Assembly Nurture.001As the students walked in to our first assembly of the new term, the song All the Good by Jana Stansfield was playing. On the screen were the lyrics:

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs but the world needs all the good that I can do”

I asked them all to turn to the person on their left and give them a smile – and – a genuine compliment, no matter who they were, if they were a friend, and associate, a teacher, whoever.

Assembly Nurture.002A buzz went around the room and a fair few laughs. I asked them how they felt about it. The unanimous opinion was that it felt good, but a little forced, a little embarrassing.
I pointed out how easy it is to be sarcastic, to say cruel or critical things and how alien it is for so many of us to simply say something nice.
So with that in mind we decide to set up our first experiment and join The Smile and Compliment Club.
The idea was simple. I placed a box in the dining room along with a stash of blank compliment slips. For a week, everyone had the opportunity to write someone a compliment anonymously and place it in the box.
There was a lot of activity around the box at the start of the week, which tailed off towards the end. Then at the weekend, I opened up the box and here are the results:
There were over 100 compliments posted. Eleven were too bizarre or unreadable (there were no rude ones though) so were removed.

the box

The Compliment Box and a slip.


Sorting the slips into tutor groups

Year 11 was by far the most complimented group, year 10 in second place. The younger ones in year 7 and 8 received the smallest number of compliments. Interestingly enough there were only four compliments for teachers

The slips were sorted into tutor groups and discreetly given out in tutor time. On the following Monday I reported back to everyone with the results and a conclusion.
Everyone had enjoyed the experiment, both sending and receiving anonymous nice things. But – it highlighted another side and I asked our students to think about who they chose to compliment. Some popular students received quite a few but in some cases, those who would have benefited most from some kind words, did not receive many, or any.
If we were a gardener, would you constantly water and fertilise the strongest and healthiest plants in the garden? Or would you nurture those that need it more, that need it most?
Leadership is about finding the lowest amongst us and lifting them up until they are above us.
Hopefully this got everyone thinking about the idea of nurturing in a positive but soul-searching way, without patting ourselves on the back too much for being perfect and instead to to look carefully at what we can all do to improve and become for nurturing.
The theme of all this was part of my act in my stand up comedy days. Here’s a clip from back then:


Next week will be time for the 2nd experiment…

The (8-bit) Adventure Game: part 1

I’m starting a Computer Coding Club at my school this term. It’s called The Adventure Game. This is the story of why and how. I’ll post later to let you know how it’s going…

commodore VIC 20 Apple computer

Me outside the Apple Store in Newcastle this year, organising a VIC20 ‘flash mob’… of one…

It all began on Christmas Day 1982 when I was lucky enough to find this box and its exciting contents under the Christmas tree. In case you don’t recognise it, it’s one of the the first ever home colour computers, the first to sell over a million units (it ended up selling over 5 million) and was replaced by the very similar commodore 64 (which is still the biggest selling computer ever with estimates of over 20 million sold between 1982 and 1994 and becoming available to but again soon, watch this space).

commodore VIC20 box

But that’s all irrelevant for the moment. The point is it was a programmable computer. You type things in and it does things. You can make your own games and figure out how computers work. And that’s exactly what I did for for four years.

Then, like everyone else I moved onto a more sophisticated IMG_3690computer, in my case an Atari ST, at Christmas 1986. I then did what almost everyone else did with their computers as they became more and more powerful: I stopped programming and started using them as multimedia controllers: making music, artwork, desktop publishing, then managing photography, music libraries, video, animation and so on (getting my first Apple Macintosh in 1995). My much loved VIC20 went back in its box and into the loft.
But when I started teaching, it came back down. I set it up and took a photo of it (that was turned into a Top Trumps card by the makers of The Commodore Story see above). I set it up in my lab and left it on the side with this poster next to it, as teaching took over my life (as any new teacher will tell you).

commodore VIC20 A4 posterThe more I got into teaching and found out what kids of today could do, and not do, and saw the skills and ideas they had, and didn’t have, I came too a conclusion that many of the opportunities for learning that I got from my VIC20 are missing from so many of my students:

• they lack patience
• they lack resilience to overcome failure
• they lack strategies to process ideas logically
• they lack outlets to develop their imagination and creativity
• they struggle to organise thoughts
• they use technology but don’t understand it.


This advert for the commodore VIC20 from 1981 sums it all up: being able to use technology and play games is not a skill that will set you apart from anyone else. If you only use technology to surf the internet, use office productivity tools like Word, Powerpoint and Excel, great, but you’re a user, you’re an administrative clerk. If you only play games, great fun, but you’re living within the bounds of someone else’s imagination.


Hero: Ian McNaught Davis

The next piece of the puzzle came from the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project Archive (visit it here) and I started watching all the BBC’s excellent TV programmes from the 1980s hosted by the genius of computer expert Ian McNaught Davis and journalist expert Chris Serle. The way they introduced computers to a nation who knew nothing about computers was brilliant and I felt a similar approach could be used for a generation who used computers but knew nothing about computers.

If that wasn’t exciting enough, re-watching the excellent BBC docudrama ‘Micromen‘ about the beginning of the first computer revolution of the 1980s and the clash between Acorn and Sinclair made we want to get involved in something even more.

Computer programming (or ‘coding’ as it’s now known) isn’t taught very consistently in today’s schools. In the UK, it is now part of the National Curriculum, but there aren’t enough qualified teachers out there to deliver it and schools are left to their own devices on how to tackle it. The result is that it’s tagged onto ICT lessons, usually using a visual high level tool like Scratch, ran in an IT computer room on PCs running Windows.

Why I think this isn’t a good idea is because using a modern powerful multimedia PC to learn to programme is a little like using a Rugby field to play tiddlywinks in. Computer programs today are very sophisticated and have had in most cases thousands of experts working on them for many years. To use a modern powerful PC to play around with simple programming feels like a waste of time. It’s like using the Large Hadron Collider to understand simple electric circuits: the tool is just too sophisticated.

VIC20 circuits.jpgUsing a self-contained microcomputer to do the task is not only more appropriate, it’s more fun. And why not simplify things down a bit? It’s what we do in all the other sciences. In Physics, Chemistry and Biology, we teach smaller systems and model attributes of larger more complex systems. We use little motors and bulbs, make batteries from lemons, copper and zinc and make models of DNA from sweets and straws. We can’t investigate black holes or do neurosurgery in a school lab and no one would even question that we don’t. So why not use a similar approach and use the appropriate tool to teach computing?


My own computer notebook from my own experiments when I was 12.

I played with electronics as a child. When I show components to many kids today, they’ve never even seen them before. They just don’t take things apart. They’d certainly not take their MacBook or iPhone apart, and even if they did, the miniaturisation is such that you’d learn very little. Understanding how an 8-bit microcomputer works is so interesting as you can get right down there to the actual 6502 chip, send it commands and see the result straight away. Learning to programme on a modern PC feels like theoretical gardening – you just don’t feel you’re getting your hands dirty. There’s so much learning that can be done on a self contained micro.

So I had decided. Somehow I’d teach what I knew about programming and make it fun. But which computers to use? The perfect tool was and is, the Acorn BBC B microcomputer. That’s what it was designed for. (You HAVE to see Micromen!). I managed to get hold of three of them, they’ve still retained their value and as such are comparatively expensive. Plus, when they go wrong, I don’t know how to fix them (as I do the VIC20).

Raspberry-Pi-3-Ports-1-1833x1080The perfect tool would be the Raspberry pi. At £32 you can’t go wrong, except that is for the actual micro, you still need a keyboard, case, SD card, screen, mouse and a load of cables: not so good for setting up in a classroom – easily messy, prone to breakages and things going missing.


The brilliant FUZE

I briefly toyed with the idea of setting up my own computer company, making a Raspberry pi in a case like the BBC B or VIC20. How cool would that be! But I haven’t got the funds, connections or time to make that work quick enough. But then to my delight I found that someone else has already done it: FUZE.

They are doing exactly what I wanted too do: put a Raspberry pi in a durable (metal) case with a keyboard, all the ports (including a very useful breadboard for attaching external electronic equipment) plus a new version of BASIC, the computer language I learnt on.

IMG_3822When you add up what you get with a FUZE and add a screen, it comes to a cheaper price than what you’d spend if you bought a Raspberry pi and all the bits separately. The Raspberry pi is built with the Acorn ARM chip (and also in most mobile phones) as designed by Acorn originally for the BBC B. Things have indeed come full circle. I now have three FUZEs so far.

Commodore VIC20

My commodore VIC20s set up in my Physics lab to promote the idea of the club.

But what I know best is still the commodore VIC20 and the BASIC language (which was originally written by a certain Bill Gates. It stands for Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code). I bought some more VICs from eBay, got some old TVs from local guys around Robin Hood’s Bay where I am, and decided that I’d start off where I first began: typing in BASIC. Interestingly enough, I can get the FUZE to emulate a VIC20 (or a commodore 64 or a BBC B or run the latest RISC based ARM OS).

So the stage is set. Next Wednesday we begin properly (after a few teasers, assemblies and a look at the equipment last term).

But what is our project? We can’t just mess around playing games, there has to be a goal. This is where The Adventure Game title comes in.

Scott Adams

Scott Adams then, and today.

In the late seventies, a new type of computer game was pioneered by a man called Scott Adams. He developed a range of text adventures (initially for the VIC20) and later added graphics and the technology evolved into the games of today. Those original games are effectively the origin of what we now would call  Artificial Intelligence, the ability for a computer algorithm to anticipate an outcome from an input and its internally stored data. Those early games were 33313-1actually the first use of Databases. The goal of my club has become for the students to learn enough about computer coding to be able to create such a database, to create their own original text adventure game and by doing so understand a computer language, the microchip, how artificial intelligence starts out and hopefully have a lot of satisfaction and fun along the way, just as I did when I was 11…

To do this we’re going to use the book by Usborne ‘Write Your Own Adventure Games’. All Usborne’s excellent books are available to download for free.

Using BASIC on the VIC20 and on the FUZE is a great point to start as long as we employ structured programming skills along the way. Then, the students will be able to translate their learning into other languages such as Python, Java or C++ just as those who now run the technology giant companies do, many of whom began on commodore machines. The adventure begins…

adventure game logo

Let me know what you think in comments below was well as any memories you have of programming your 8-bit micro.


My six VIC20s set up in my lab last term to generate interest in the idea of a club.

Into the Vortex

1 corridor before smallThe corridor outside my school lab was dull. Oh so dull. I asked the students to be honest:  if you didn’t know any better, where did you think this corridor was from? The most common answer was ‘in a disused wing of a mental asylum‘. So something needed to be done.

Do you think they were right?

The opportunity came when we decided to have an extra curricular activities week at the end of the summer term. We brainstormed loads of ideas of ‘skills’ that we could teach the students that weren’t normally part of KS3-4. The result was a programme of events called ‘Reality Bites‘.

The whole school was split up into random teams of 10 who rotated around the various workshops which lasted 90 mins.

What I want to do was paint the corridor – but simply giving the kids a brush and some paint would too much a case of free labour and not a direct learning experience. So instead I came up with a plan to have a session that taught them a brief History of Art with a focus on the use of perspective. We then looked at optical illusions that played with our perception. Then I showed them how I’d created the plan to turn the corridor into a forced perspective tunnel.

2 corridor drawing small

Obviously I’d done a lot of pre-preparation. I’d done a scale drawing of the entire corridor and marked out a 50cm squared grid over the walls and ceiling. I’d then mapped the spiral design over the corridor photo and distorted it in Photoshop over the scale drawing. Some talented 6th formers helped me draw out the curves (this was much harder than it looked!).

Then, with two colours of paint decided, the first group were taught bush and roller techniques. As each new group arrived, different approaches to the painting had to be taken (and some sections had to be re-done!).

But every student had a go and now all feel part and proud of the finished job (which they all have to go down to Physics and Chemistry!).

10 final small

The finished corridor

(What they don’t know is that it took me ages and ages to finish off, especially the ceiling, during the summer holidays!). See below for what the approach to my Physics lab door looks like now…

If you’re passing, pop in and see us at Fyling Hall School.

Words from the Woods

I’d long had the goal of inspiring children to write more and better stories and collect them into an anthology and finally this year I achieved that goal.

The book is called Words from the Woods (my 7 year old daughter came up with the title from the fact that our school bus nestled on the edge of the woods.)


Initially it had the double goal of using stories with some as a tool to better engage students in science, by encouraging them to create a narrative around a scientific phenomenon an with others, to draw out the creativity of those already proficient in science but less likely to develop their imaginations. Surprisingly, most of the schools I had worked with had little interest in the idea. It was only when I came to Fyling Hall in January 2016 that I could set up an after-school club to develop these ideas and The Intergalactic Writers’ Guild was born.


I say ‘guild’ and not ‘club’ as just like the trade guilds of old, the idea of the meetings was to develop, home and improve our craft of storytelling. We met for an hour every week and played creativity games designed to encourage and develop different aspects of story creation and writing: imagination, description, characters, locations, voice, atmosphere, style and purpose. Two of these exercises resulted in short pieces that are so interesting, I’ve included them as works in their own right at the back of the book.

The themes we explored centred around two interesting techniques that you’ll see reflected in most of the stories. The first and most powerful starting idea for a creative expression was the speculative fiction idea of ‘what if?’ – asking a question or changing one aspect of reality and dealing with the consequences which unfold as a story. 

The other key theme was ‘the ghost story’ which was especially exhilarating during dark autumn and winter evenings (and sometimes telling stories by candlelight) and it is this genre more than any other threw up so many interesting ideas that you’ll find many of the stories herein fall into that category.

Not all contributions contained herein have come via the Guild. A batch of stories were written as part of English lessons for years 7, 8 and 9. Some being given themes such as ‘the cold’ or ‘the other side’. I also gave two special sessions on ‘Writing the Ghost Story’ and on ‘Speculative Fiction’ for year 7 which have led to some fascinating stories that I was able to harvest for the anthology.

Overall we have 52 contributors, including those that have submitted artwork from their GCSE portfolios (not linked to any of the stories) to break up the pages between stories. Special thanks goes to Hee Joo Jin who painted the original artwork for our cover and Head of English Alex Woodhead who proofread our grammar and punctuation.

Layout 1

A sample page from the book.

The challenges that face young authors are the same that face any young person in any 21st century endeavour and fall into these four categories, which we aimed to deal with one by one in the Guild:

1. How to have an idea (creativity).

2. How to turn an idea into an interesting narrative (communication skills).

3. How to keep going (perseverance)

4. How to have a great ending (find purpose and meaning).

These skills creativity, communication, perseverance and finding a purpose are critical for a rounded education and fulfilling life and yet they don’t always fall within the traditional curriculum in many schools. For that reason I believe the work we have done here is of the highest value and has, I hope, enriched the experience of those that have participated in the book. On behalf of all our writers, artists and myself, we now hope that it will in some small way entertain, inform and educate you too, do take a look on Amazon.

I’m preparing a tool kit for teachers on how the Guild and the book were put together with such a good outcome. Drop me a line on twitter or here @aydinstone if you want to know more. I’ll post the resources on my blog here when it’s ready.

Women in Physics poster pack

UPDATE! New version uploaded to include Nobel Prize winning Donna Strickland.

Getting girls interested in Physics is a tough one. There are role models out there but so many are still unknown, missing from history in the stories we tell as well as the textbooks.

So I created these A5 cards to redress the balance and normalise the presence of women in Physics.

I’m happy to share this and for you to download the PDF  Women-Physicists-v3 (if you forward it on, just give me credit somewhere!).

I took the photos from the internet so I can’t profit from it so happy for it to go far and wide.

There are two up on each A4 so just print each page in colour and cut out to make your display.

The idea was to make these scientists look real, normal, varied and relevant, on first name terms.

I chose the best photos I could find close to the age where they did their best work. In two cases I used actors portraying the person; anything to bring these women to life and for our girls to see themselves in them.

Let me know if you get them up somewhere and if anyone comments on it!

(Did you spot the title is in the style of the new Doctor Who logo – played by Jodie Whitaker on 7th October this year…)

Women-Physicists-v3Download here: Women-Physicists-v3

The door to the prep room from my lab.

On the Shores of Lake Onyx

My new collection of 18 science fiction and ghost stories is now available.

Kindle: Paperback:

On the Shores of Lake Onyx

Cover for On the Shores of Lake Onyx by Ayd Instone

My goal with this second collection is to invite the reader to step right out on the precipice and invoke within them a sense of apeirophobia, that is ‘a fear of infinity’, what Otto described in Latin as mysterium tremendum, a terrible dread of some wholly overwhelming, almost cyclopean power.

I’ve called it Luminous Awe, a subset of Horror, to be less about simply fear of death or pain and more about fear of fear itself, of the unknown and unknowable: a fear for your soul (even if you don’t know what that is). A good ghost story should make us all shudder. A belief in ghosts is not required, a belief in possibilities is. When horror meets science fiction we have the best of both breeds: a realistic, plausible scenario and chain of events along with a  compelling sense of dread. H.P. Lovecraft described his writing process as first working out what emotion he wanted to convey, then he would work out how it was to be conveyed, by what situations, plot and characters, and then by what order would he reveal those ingredients to construct the story (which is exactly that – the manner and order the plot is revealed to the reader). Probably five of the stories in my first book could be described as ‘ghost stories’ and possibly ten you could call ‘science fiction’. It’s flipped the other way this time. Probably around ten in this collection may be ghost stories, the rest science fiction.

The Curse of Baphomet by Ayd Instone

The Curse of Baphomet by Ayd Instone

I’ve attempted to be as varied and original as possible in addition to getting as many facts correct as I can. In Secret of the Circle the facts are closer to the truth than you think, many of the elements featured did exist. Even the mythical elixir of life, ‘vril’ found its way into the drink Bovril, as in bovine elixir. The myths detailed in The Curse of Baphomet are as accurate as I could make them, drawn from various myths and legends. The Ghost of Tracey Pemberton, the last to be written for this collection, may or may not even be a ghost story, you can decide.

Part of the motivation to write ghost stories may come from the dissatisfaction I have with the supernatural, that I have researched it enough to see all examples of it vanish. This angle is explored in the story here called simply Ghosts. The challenge has been to create a new plausibility to the ghost or an invocation of the uncanny that is as convincing as it is unnerving. Simply using the cliches or stereotypical motifs of ghosts and their standard explanations is not interesting to me. Magic Mirror is a pure tale unashamedly in the style of M.R. James whereas The Keeper at Hobs’ Point attempts to subvert the form by giving a reason, (an explanation being the tenant of science fiction), if not a fantastical reason, to the spooky goings on.

Readers of my first collection will recall the main character of Black Light. She proved popular with enough people to warrant a return in both Two Heads and The Voice in the Dark where her position as the rational scientist is valuable in investigating the strange phenomenon. She even gets a surname in these new stories.

The Keeper of Hobs' Point

The Keeper of Hobs’ Point by Ayd Instone

In popular music they call it ‘the difficult second album’ – you’ve used up all your best songs on your debut which effectually you’ve been working on all your life up to that point and then… a second instalment is needed in hardly any time at all. The cupboard is bare of ideas, the barrel has been scrapped. Where is the new material going to come from? It’s a real test of your creativity and staying power. Is it the same with a short story collection? Ironically I have enough songs written for my first fifty albums, but short stories – I’d put the latest and best plus some scrapped from long past, reaching back to my youth in that first volume, A Voice in the Light. There were all there, those eighteen tales, there were no more. The stories that didn’t make that first collection didn’t make it for a reason so they were out. So all these stories are brand new? Not quite. On exploring the attic looking for my old school exercise books, I came across a couple of sheets of handwritten file paper with a story I’d forgotten all about that a twenty year old me had written (The Moth) and another that I’d written as a screenplay with the intention of filming as a short film (The Fly), originally entitled A Speck of Dust. So there are those two older stories presented here, but all the rest are new since the first collection. That means I have entered into that strange experience of the state of ‘not having an idea’ and then entering into ‘having an idea’ sixteen times within these pages. I’d be sitting somewhere wishing I had an idea for a story. Then, sometime soon afterwards I’d have that idea. Where did it come from? When I’ve written a story there’s a brief glow of excitement and pride, like waking up on Christmas morning and opening a gift of an exquisite multifaceted crystal and I stare into its brilliance for hours. Then, after a day or so, it loses its lustre and becomes dull. I feel low and worthless, dejected and bored. The only cure is to write another. Then the hunt is on again, the excitement of the chase resumes, and the cycle continues.

The Shadow People by Ayd Instone

The Shadow People by Ayd Instone

I remember seeing an interview with Alan Bennett just prior to the broadcast of his second series of Talking Heads monologues in the late 1980s. “They’re sadder than the first lot,” he said. I feel  similarly about this collection in that it’s darker than the first one. But I like them more. I think they’re better. Without darkness, you can’t appreciate the light, so we need this dark to contrast this ‘luminous’ I’ve attempted to invoke.

You can read the stories on Kindle here:
And get the paperback:


Leonard Nimoy Mr Spock

Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock

It’s an amazing epitaph. An individual, who, through something as simple as acting (dressing up and playing make-believe) inspired so many in such a positive way and in a way that will stand the test of time and be remembered as long as the human race is a space-faring species.

NASA’s front page is dedicated to him today as he and his fellow Star Trek colleagues are woven into the purpose and passion of why we have space programmes and why we went to the moon and beyond and the reason we have the spin off technology we use today without thinking. Spock is part of that tapestry.
It’s an amazing epitaph that a character that was supposedly devoid of emotion actually displayed such compassion. As Kirk says in the movie, “he was the most… human”.
And that is the purpose of science fiction, to turn the mirror back on ourselves and take a long cold look at who we are and think about what we could become. In that, Nimoy was not an actor, but a mirror and we are better off because of what he reflected back to us.
“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP”
– Leonard Nimoy 1931 – 2015

Invented 100 years ago in 1914

1914. A year that resonates across time as almost a living memory, irrespective of the fact that none of us were there. And yet through our families* and our cultures (especially in Europe) we were there.

The War would, by necessity, be the catalyst for a massive surge in invention and innovation. But 1914 offered surprisingly few startling discoveries and inventions. It was a year of quality not quantity. So here are seven of the years most interesting inventions and firsts, the spectre of War of course still dominates.

To begin with, let’s start with the humble Traffic Cone, which was invented in 1914 by Charles P. Rudabaker, made from concrete, for use on the streets of New York. It wasn’t until 1961 that the stackable PVC cones were created (in the UK by David Morgan in Oxford.)

Charlie Chaplin made his film début in February the comedy short Making a Living.

The Panama Canal, the 48 mile ship canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean officially opened on August 15, 1914. It had taken 33 years and cost, in today’s money, nearly $9 billion, shifting 204,900,000 m3  (Over 25 times more earth than in the Channel Tunnel) and had a loss of life of over 5000 people (mainly due to disease).

Fighter Plane

The Vickers FB5 Gunbus

American Frank Shuman invented a process for making two types of Safety Glass: laminated (where two layers of glass are separated by a plastic coating) and wire mesh glass (where a mesh of wire is embedded in the glass). Safety glass was not immediately adopted by car manufacturers, but laminated glass was used in the eyepieces of gas masks during World War I from 1915.

The first Fighter Plane, described as a two-seater aircraft with sufficient lift to carry a machine gun and its operator as well as the pilot (as opposed to an aircraft where the pilot fired a revolver at his enemy), first flew in 1914. The first fighter was the British biplane Vickers F.B.5 Gunbus of 1914. It first flew on 17 July 1914 and was powered by a single 100 hp (75 kW) Gnome Monosoupape nine-cylinder rotary engine driving a two-bladed propeller, capable of 100 mph. It was built with a wooden frame, covered with fabric. A total of 224 were produced, 119 in Britain by Vickers, 99 in France and six in Denmark.

blood transfusion

The first safe, successful blood transfusion

On June 28 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria triggered the war that would become the First World War. The term was first used in September 1914 by the German philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who claimed that “there is no doubt that the course and character of the feared ‘European War’ … will become the first world war in the full sense of the word.” More than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilised. 17 million were killed and 20 million were wounded. Dubbed as ‘The war to end all wars’ it became instead the first modern war and led to the invention of almost all of the accruements of death on a massive scale as well as the technology to defend against them.

But the most important invention of the year, that went almost uncelebrated at the time, must be responsible responsible for saving the lives of many millions of people. After the invention of the blood anticoagulant a few years earlier, the first non-direct Blood Transfusion was performed on March 27, 1914 by the Belgian doctor Albert Hustin.

* My Granddad was 18 when he went off to fight at the start of the war.


Other articles of interest:

Invented 50 years ago in 1963

Invented 100 years ago in 1913

Invented 100 years ago in 1912


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