Retro Computing – the past and the future

I’ve written quite a few posts on my retro computer projects and during the course of that have met others that have had similar revelations that have turned into business projects related to inspiring a new generation of children to more fully understand computing.

I asked one of these guys, Mark Grogan, what getting into retro computing really feels like and what it means to him on a personal level. Is it just nostalgia for lost youth, or is there something more profound going on?

He and I have a particular thing in common – we were both Atari ST users in the late eighties and early nineties. The ST was a new breed of personal computer much more powerful than its predecessors (The ST stood for 16/32 bit processing. Current PCs are 32 or 64 bit so this was a big step up at the time) and many kids of the day progressed from their Commodores, BBC-Bs and Sinclair Spectrums to 16-bit machines such as the Atari ST or the Commodore Amiga (The Acorn Archimedes, the Sinclair QL and the Apple Macintosh were also available but much lower sellers). With these 16-bit machines we could of course play better games with better graphics, but the main attraction was that for the very first time we could do whole new things using a computer: desktop publishing was one and making music was another.  Today we take for granted doing these sort of things so why did Mark decide to go back in time to the dawn of modern computing?

“Around four years ago I decided to get back into Atari STs, I’d left them back in 1994, as did many of us as we progressed into a world of multimedia PCs and Windows. (Windows 98 is still one of my favourite PC eras, being a former computer shop owner in 2001). 2016, was when the spark happened. I was working with Zach Weddington, producer and director of ‘Viva Amiga: The Story of a Beautiful Machine’ – a documentary about the Commodore Amiga 16-bit computer produced from 1985 to 1996, I was asked to take care of the web marketing in late 2016 ready for the launch of the film in early 2017. Then the whole vibe around tapping into your computing past clicked with me with memories of my own Atari ST. I started looking for one from ebay and from then on that was it, I went down a rabbit hole of vintage computer collecting, restoring and curating. 

“I enjoy the whole process from start to finish, from finding broken and unloved ones that no longer work, to receiving the packages, finding more broken machines, until eventually having lots of parts lying round which enables me to start harvesting working parts into full machines. This takes me back to my days as a computer shop owner, so I’m always happy tinkering with hardware, but the vintage element really is something else, like I’ve never experienced before. 

“In late 2017 I ended up working with one of the most exciting UK projects where we brought computing history into schools as a business called The Code Show, taking working vintage computers into schools for a day and letting the kids get hand-on experience with them. We were the first to do this in the UK and I essentially felt like I become part of a larger cause. As well as my work, the contacts that I have made from this, as well as combining my own Atari ST passions has allowed me to fully appreciate the retro community in it’s full glory – a community of historians, collectors, teachers, documentary film makers and video producers, demo-sceners, video game industry veterans to name just a few. It’s a collection of some of the most interesting, eccentric, supportive and helpful people you could ever ask for and we all do our bit to keep these machines and the history of them alive and we do it because we care. My own personal collection of STs up in Newcastle is called the Atari ST sanctuary – they come here and I keep them alive.

“I get a lot of joy and liberation from these machines. When I take some downtime from work, then there’s nothing better, take yourself back to your childhood. There’s something transcendental about the whole experience I’ve always found: the green GEM desktop has a certain meditative quality about it. I often leave Atari STs running for the same reason that people like having tropical fish tanks in their living rooms, the whole experience of switching on an Atari ST takes me right back to 1989. If you’re looking for the best way to travel back in time to your childhood then I think vintage computing is a great way to go if you were there. Today they are like mystical things of wonder, the way they look, the chip music that has a sound that is only from that certain era in time along with the metallic graphics. I remember the first time I saw the ST and that was exactly it: the metallic graphics combined with that YM sound, it had a every oriental sort of sound and feel on the ST and that was always something that made me curious about the machine from the start. Cosmetically, when you lay them out on the bench, they remind me of Star Wars toys from the 1980s, they are manufactured the same sort of way the Millennium Falcons models were, with care and attention to detail. 

“As well as The Code Show, I have started working on, with a local electronics engineer friend of mine, is ViCE North East (Vintage Computer Events). We aim to launch our first event at Newcastle University around the summer time (with August penciled in), initially as a place for like-minded vintage computer people to get together and share ideas but going forward, to look at opening it up for the public if all goes well.

“This sort of personal time travel help you join the dots backwards. It’s always important to remind yourself where you’ve came from (and as a computer person then I think it’s important to keep in touch with your computing roots). Is there a link between spirituality and computing? I think there could be, you just have to take a look at Silicon Valley culture today and trace its roots back to things like the Whole Earth Catalogue, but that’s another story. This dynamic that has worked well for me, working within computer history and combining my passions and interests of vintage computing really has had some big advantages for my life.”

– Mark F. Grogan

My thanks go to Mark and once the current situation settles down I’d definitely be having the Code Show visit my school at Fyling Hall.  Read more about the Code Show here. Visit his 16-bit Creative business here.

Back to the future in (8-bit) Microcomputer Club – part 3

You might ask, if computer programming is so important, shouldn’t a modern school equip its students to succeed in the modern world? So why have I kitted out my club in the Physics lab with computers that were first released in 1980 and discontinued in 1984? 

There is of course an assumption with technology that the very latest thing is the best and the thing from last week is out of date and useless. That’s what corporations want to us think. I prefer to look at what job needs doing and chose the appropriate tool to get it done.

Let’s put it this way. Imagine you wanted your ten year old to play in an orchestra, perhaps the clarinet or cello. With no musical theory knowledge, no experience of scales and no practice in dexterity of finger movement or lips and breath techniques giving them a cello or clarinet and placing them in a live orchestra would not be a successful learning approach. 

So what do we do instead? We give them a simpler tool on which to learn the basics: music notation, scales as so on. Most often the tool is the recorder*. But you could say the recorder is a baby instrument. It only has a few notes. It can’t be used to play a tune that anyone would actually want to listen to. It has no place in the modern orchestra. No-one’s going to give a record deal to a recorder player. It’s just not an instrument that is taken seriously. Yet the recorder does the job it was designed to do. Results are quick and the theory can be learnt before moving on to a more sophisticated instrument. This is how it’s done in musical training, this is how you become a professional musician and yet this is not, as a nation, how we have treated computer science learning over the past few decades. 

It’s no wonder then that people enter the world of work unable to program any computer. We’ve all had access to the full orchestra with no idea how any parts of it work. Give a child a modern, expensive PC, Mac or iPad type device and the last thing they’ll do is want to take it apart to find out how it works. The last thing they have time for is learning how to program it when at the click of a finger amazing games, videos and chats can be had. 

This is where my commodore VIC20s** come in. They are the recorders of the computing orchestra. With them we can learn that the computer is nothing more than a bank of digital switches called transistors miniaturised to fit millions of them on a microchip called the 6502. The arrangement of the circuitry on the 6502 allows codes to be sent (in ones and zeros) which will have certain effects like change a colour or print the letter A on a screen. We can learn a stylised language that’s easier than feeding in those zeros and ones that lets us structure what we want the computer to do. Here we’re talking directing to the computer, in a language very close to its own, without the layers of other people’s code of a mouse cursor, windows and folders. All those graphical metaphors make things easier but are really multiple programs stacked on top taking us further and further away from the science of the computer. 

Just because we can find a clip on YouTube, spend hours on Fortnite or get loads of likes on Instagram doesn’t make us a computer expert, it makes us a user in the same way that we are washing machine or vacuum cleaner users. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but we need to have at least a few of us who still know how things work. That’s my job as a science teacher. As the cosmologist Carl Sagan said, “We live in an advanced technological society in which no-one knows anything about technology.”

It turns out I’m not alone in taking this approach. There are various companies attempting to strip down a modern PC into a more straightforward device that can be used just as a learning tool without the temptation to just go on the internet and check your notifications. There’s a massive retro computer community out there as I found out when I was asked to be interviewed for one channel. You can watch the interview here:

I made a tour of the lab set up that was edited for use in the interview. You can view the whole tour (I even got some tips from the actual guys who designed the VIC20 for commodore, wrote the manuals and games through groups on Facebook!)

I was delighted to see that after a year of running my club and fixing up old machines, the commodore VIC20/64 is back into production last year (from RetroGames for £109). You can actually now go and buy a brand new one, plug into any new monitor and easily save and load your programs (I got one of these the very day they came out).

At Fyling Hall we are teaching computing as part of ICT for all years using introductory languages such as Scratch, Logo and Python***. In my club we’re focusing on computer science using BASIC and assembler language (which is machine code in hexadecimal). It’s the technological equivalent of teaching Latin, which may not be used as a spoken language now but it’s the root of many modern languages and supports the learning of them.

The language of the computer is mathematics. Learning how to program enhances maths skills and gives a deep understanding of logic as well as developing imaginative creative problem solving. In many ways it’s at odds with how we typical use computers today in that the other skill you need most of all is patience: programming is not quick, it’s a slower and more thoughtful process than we give credence to these days in our high speed fast results world.

But most of all, typing your own program, that you’ve written, into a computer that up until that point simply sat there doing nothing, waiting for you with a flashing cursor saying ‘Ready.’ and then to type RUN so the computer begins to execute something you designed yourself, is actually quite rewarding and fun.

My clubs haven’t been able to run for the last year but we’re hoping to start up again very soon.

* The recorder, by the way is the earliest known musical instrument. One has been found dating from 60,000 years ago. It was made from a bear bone and has three notes: Do, Re and Mi. It wasn’t even made by humans like us, but by Neanderthals. See here.

** The commodore VIC20 was the first computer of any kind to sell over a million units and one of the first colour computers. It’s graphics and sound were improved to make the even more popular commodore 64 which went on to sell nearly 20 million units and is still the biggest selling computer in history (although the Raspberry pi is getting close).

*** Python is the modern version of BASIC which we gravitate to when designing Raspberry pi electronics projects.

See part 1 and part 2 on this topic to see how it began.

The Making of The Early Show

Nearly a year ago, during the first lockdown, I wrote and recorded 12 half-hour episodes on my own TV show for school called The Early Show featuring Dr Terry Dacktyl (he’s the puppet in the pic below) with interviews with expert guests on topics relevant to school. During the series I end up getting chastised for blatant product placement and Terry finds his confidence.

It was nice to have the comment passed onto me from a parent in which their son has said that the on-line assemblies were good, but the ‘live versions are better’. I don’t know about that. Although we started out with a premise of ‘replicating what we do in assemblies’ I like to think The Early Show became something different and in some ways, better.

Ep.1 resilience with John Hotowka 

Ep.2 vision with Steve Judge 

Ep.3 goals with David Hyner 

Ep.4 wellbeing with Frederika Roberts

Ep.5 wonder with Matt Pritchard

Ep.6 memory with David Thomas

Ep.7 wider school opening with Steve Allen

Ep.8 internet use with Alec Drew

Ep.9 self belief with  Linda Sage

Ep.10 express yourself with Jackie Perkins

Ep.11 decisions with Graham Frost.

Ep.12 the meaning of life with Silky

The first major difference was of course no live audience as with that loss we lose the immediacy of a live performance. I’d been watching the American chat shows from New York and due to lockdown they had all resorted to filming from their homes. Some worked well as they changed their format, some felt empty and hollow. I decided to go in the exact opposite direction: I wanted to make a show that looked more ‘live’ than ever before. I’ve done a lot of standup comedy (maybe you can’t tell that by looking at me, but I have) and I’ve faced some pretty tough audiences. There’s no tougher audience than a barn full of teenagers, in uniform, at 8:30 on a Monday morning I can tell you. So many jokes just don’t land when the audience is half asleep or wondering if it’s appropriate to laugh at their physics teacher making a fool of himself on stage. 

So in writing the scripts for The Early Show I was so conscious of where the laughs were supposed to come, it made sense to put in a laugher track and applause in at the right moments. This was what was missing from the US chat show comedians broadcasting from their lounges. It worked.

Maybe you didn’t realise it was all scripted? Every word. Filming is not something you can ad lib. You’ll probably miss the message for one thing, ramble on or miss the links to the next sections. So I had to write the script, then learn it, then film it and that took ages

I started filming the show with a Canon HG10 before switching to my Canon DSLR 7D with two fixed Quartz 2000W lights on a green screen, all set up in the barn. It was edited in Logic Pro X on Mac. The theme music was provide by Purple Planet as was some of the incidental music, some of it was my own tracks. I started my career in television and film editing at Quantel, creating training materials for the video editing and graphics systems before later working as designer and then creative director in multimedia agencies. So I was able to edit it quite fast, but it still took around a day, especially with the multiple layers of live footage of the view outside, the fake room and window frame over the green screen and colour corrected footage. 

I decided to follow the US chat show magazine format although it morphed into a surreal variety show quite quickly. So we start with the ‘monologue’, the host talking to camera. In the US shows they talk about current affairs, politics, celebrity gossip and so on. All of these are hard enough to get right live on a Monday morning, much harder to get right pre-recorded where every word can be analysed in perpetuity. I had a few safe jokes about lockdown, but how topical could I get? Is it appropriate to criticise the governments response or make jokes while people are in intensive care and dying? Probably not. I’d seen endless US unfunny jokes about lockdown wearing very thin. So the route had to be more creative and lighthearted. I can make it slightly topical, but not political. I can try to reflect the mood of the times in a light way, but not in a depressing way. Some viewers out there may well be suffering and I wouldn’t want to hint that I’m mocking that. I’m not qualified to give advice either aside from the generic ‘stay safe’. 

I needed a foil, someone to talk to, to have banter with. But since I was the only one available: as the sole writer, performer, cameraman and editor the only one around to step up was Terry Dactyl, the puppet my wife Rachel had made for our family movie a few years earlier. Rachel made the T Rex costume too (Terry’s Jurassic teacher from 65 million BC).

Now I had to learn both my lines and Terry’s lines and perform Terry’s lines as if I was hearing them for the first time. I think you can see my novice acting skills getting better as we go along. I then overdubbed Terry’s voice in post production, trying my best to match his mouth movements. It did take ages, under hot studio lights, wearing a velvet jacket, on the hottest days of the year so far, with my arm up a puppets backside. 

It wasn’t just a case of operating a puppet – he had to have a character and I had to have a relationship with that character. I came up with the idea of him loving musical theatre and always wanting to sing (he later becomes an aficionado of pop music too). I looked at all the puppets and their operators from the past to get a handle on it. You may have noticed some clues as I developed the character:

Sooty is clever (but doesn’t speak) while Matthew (or Harry if you’re older, or Simon if you’re younger) is usually incompetent.

Emu is very naughty (and doesn’t speak) as Rod Hull apologises for him.

Orville the Duck is shy and self depreciating while Keith tries to make him feel better. (Keith’s other puppet Cuddles the Monkey was his favourite with his catchphrase ‘I hate that duck’ which was really Keith’s opinion of his own successful creation.)

Basil Brush (a fox version of Terry Thomas) was outrageous and quick witted while Mr Rodney, Mr Derek, Mr Roy or Mr Billy looked like idiots. 

Then there’s arrogant Hartley Hare (from Pipkins), Zippy and George (from Rainbow), Roland Rat, Gordon the Gopher (CBBC), Spit the Dog (Tiswas), Zig and Zag (The Big Breakfast) and of course the Muppets (although not strictly puppets). It does seem like puppets, once the mainstay of children’s television from the 1960s to 80s seem not to have many contemporary counterparts.

There’s a running thread throughout the story of Terry if you watch closely: he starts off innocent and full of enthusiasm, becomes riddled with self-doubt, he get’s bullied, but he works hard, he gains confidence, then he wins and gains respect. It’s a journey so many of us go on, but not all make it to the other side.

If you’re eagle-eyed for more cultural references, you may have spotted appropriation from Stuart Lee, Vic Reeves, Bob Monkhouse, Stephen Colbert, Morecambe and Wise, the IT Crowd, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Count Arthur Strong, Take Hart, Screentest, Cheggars Plays Pop, The Grumbleweeds, Record Breakers, quotes from every Beatles movie (plus I quote almost the entire sleevenotes from the Beatles 1964 LP Beatles for Sale, yes, really) and finally Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The interviews generally took an entire morning or an evening to plan and record. My guests were carefully chosen and we spent a lot of time planning each interview to mould it into the theme for the episode as well as designing a task or discussion for the tutor groups to carry out after watching. 

The Early Show is of course not a virtual assembly – it’s a personal development variety show. After 12 episodes, that’s over 6 hours of material, it’s likely to be a mainstay of our enrichment programme in some form, as a valuable addition rather than a replacement for, whatever we can do next. It’s always been a problem getting visiting speakers to come all the way to see us for just a short session both with their time, fees, costs as well as disrupting lessons to make the enrichment time a worthwhile length. It took a global pandemic for us to realise that there was another way of doing things! 

I currently have eight speakers lined up for September. The word is getting out there. If you know of anyone who can be interviewed for ten minutes on a topic of personal, educational or professional development with tips, a personal story or an insight into their life and work, we’d love to hear from you. Since the programme will likely be shown mid morning or after lunch there’s be a subtle name change too…

If you missed an episode, here’s a full episode guide:

Ep.1 resilience with John Hotowka 

Ep.2 vision with Steve Judge 

Ep.3 goals with David Hyner 

Ep.4 wellbeing with Frederika Roberts

Ep.5 wonder with Matt Pritchard

Ep.6 memory with David Thomas

Ep.7 wider school opening with Steve Allen

Ep.8 internet use with Alec Drew

Ep.9 self belief with  Linda Sage

Ep.10 express yourself with Jackie Perkins

Ep.11 decisions with Graham Frost.

Ep.12 the meaning of life with Silky

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.

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.

Adopt, adapt and improve: What I learned from Lord Alan Sugar

The star of TV’s The Apprentice opened the second day of the National Achievers Congress to an audience of 7500 at London’s Excel conference centre. Along with Richard Branson who would speak the following day, Sugar was interviewed by Michael Buerk. It was the first time the two had met and would probably be the last if Sugar’s response to Buerk’s questions was anything to go by.

Sugar felt a bit affronted by what he considered to be simplistic, inane or irrelevant questions. He correctly surmised that we wanted to know his business thinking, how and why he did what he did. We were less interested his so-called ‘rags to riches’ backstory (which turns out not to be quite true anyway). When asked what one piece of advice Lord Sugar to give to the audience he refused to answer, saying how could he cater for all the different kinds of people in the audience with one stock answer. This gave us an insight into the real Alan Sugar. And guess what, despite what he says, it’s very much the same as the belligerent boss we see on the telly.

The questions I would have loved to know the answer to were things like why did he sell of his manufacturing business when he places such importance on making things? Especially when his definition of a proper business is “you have an idea, you make it and you sell it.” He attacked those who made their money on the stock markets, “making money from other people’s misfortune” and yet there he is now, effectively a property mogul. Not too dissimilar.

He also critised big internet business such as Facebook, citing it as a waste of time. He couldn’t see “where the money is” in such businesses and made reference to ITV losing money of Friends Reunited and the crash of 2000. Both of those examples are as irrelevant as saying there’s no money in computers because Apricot* went bust. Sugar fails to understand what has become known as ‘the New Economy’. The ‘money’ in Facebook is not extracted from traditional methods but from the value in the network and the targeted way people can be reached. Money these days is not made by shouting but by going where the eyeballs go.

Sugar’s main belief still does stand true and offers us all a sober lesson. He believes that a business should start from the ground up, work hard and make money and profit. He pointed out that many young people have been given the erroneous impression that it is all too easy and that it is their ‘right’ to be able to do it and to get loans from banks without taking on board the risk. Sugar had got into trouble at a college, where he was asked to give a talk, for responding in his down to earth way. He critisised a student who thought it was outrageous that the bank wouldn’t lend him hundreds of thousands of pounds without putting his house on the line. “You have to show the bank you are willing to take a risk. If you don’t, why should they” Sugar said.

He gave a great example of this when he wanted to borrow some money for his fledgling computer business in the early 1980s. The bank asked him what assets he had. He listed the components and half-built computers he had in stock. The bank valued all that at zero. They told him that if he went bust, what would they do with a load of components and screws? This is a good lesson for us to hear as we often think in business that we have value in assets which in fact are liabilities (there may be assets we do have, that we don’t value as much as we should, such as intellectual property).

What Sugar was good at, was seeing an opportunity to sell someone something they wanted. His early examples were when he was employed to sell tape recorders. Instead of hauling round every small independent shop that might buy two units, he went to the then new bigger chains such as Currys, Rumbellows, Comet and Dixons and got them to buy hundreds or even thousands.

All his type of innovative ideas take the same kind of route: he modifies something that already exists to make it more attractive. Think about his most famous business, for which he is still known for today, home computers. The market was dominated by the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Acorn BBC. Sugar had previously been making bundled hi-fi equipment. Up to that point, all hi-fi equipment was sold as separate units made by different specialist manufacturers. You bought a record player, a tape player, a radio and an amplifier and you ‘stacked’ them on top of each other and plugged speakers in. His model was to use cheap Japanese electronics and put the record player, tape cassette player and radio all in the same box. At the time this was a revelation and it opened the way for the stereos and ‘ghetto blasters’ that defined the 1980s. Lifting the lid of a rival’s computer he saw that inside there was no magic, it was just silicone chips, resistors and circuit boards, just as in his hi-fis. He applied the same idea he had done to his hi-fi business. Let’s have a closer look.

Sugar four things that made his business a success, these four simple innovations:

  1. He built in the datasette (the cassette tape recorder that the computer programs were stored on) into the keyboard.
  1. He bundled a cheap monitor so that the kids wouldn’t have to plug their computer into the family television.
  1. He used MSX BASIC as the operating software. This was a new variant of Microsoft’s BASIC programming language that was already being used on most of the computers of the time. The difference was that each of the different companies used a different version of BASIC so a program written on one make wouldn’t run on another. MSX was a new standard that was being adopted by a host of other computers meaning that software for the new Amstrad computer had more games being written faster.
  1. He made it really cheap, and sold it really cheap.

Many would argue that the Amstrad home computers (as well as his stereos) were cheap, cheerful and lacked style and class. They didn’t attract the wider appeal, kudos and cult following of the classic home computers like the ZX81, Spectrum, VIC20, Commodore 64 and BBC B. But they did make Sugar a lot of money.

When the home computer market ran out of steam (the home computer gold rush only lasted from 1980 to 1984) he switched his attention to a computer that would only have one function: a word processor. This is perhaps Sugar’s finest hour. He got into that gap in the market at exactly the right time. With subsequent innovations such as his hand-held personal organiser and video phone, he was too early. In fact it seems, with the possible exception of his BSkyB equipment and petrol station advertising screens, that consumer product magical innovation skill has eluded him since the mid 1980s.

But perhaps that too is a lesson for all of us. Our businesses may be lucky enough to make money from something that becomes iconic, or maybe we’ll have to be happy with making money from something that goes unseen and unsung by the general public but is successful nonetheless. We need to make sure we are working hard to make profit, not glory as the two seldom go together.

One thing is clear from what Lord Sugar had to say. If you want to start a business and be successful in it you must chose something that you have some knowledge in. It must be something that you have experience in, and it must be something you have a passion for. So many people, he pointed out, have made the mistake of trying to jump on what they think is a get rich quick bandwagon of what appears to be a good idea but is outside those key areas of their knowledge, experience and passion. The secret to a successful business is simple, obviously simple, but it’s not easy: hard work, determination, innovation and an eye always open for opportunities.

Just look at what happened in the latest series of the BBC’s The Apprentice. Sugar changed the rules. He wasn’t looking for another employee this time. He didn’t need another salesman. That’s why Tom the inventor won. He was really the only suitable candidate. The rest were old school sales employees. Sugar valued the approach and ideas that Tom had and saw the value in his already substantial achievements with his curved nail file invention. Who knows what he’d come up with next.

This shows that Sugar still has some interesting business mileage in him, unlike Donald Trump who’s tv series has descended into celebrity game show farce.

Lord Sugar may not be held in the same high esteem as Richard Branson or James Dyson and his companies may not be regarded as cool as Innocent or Apple. he may be out of touch with some of the newer methods of doing business such as the increased emphasis on networking (although he does tweet every day) but his knowledge of the principles of starting, innovating and selling to make a profit are universal and give us sobering lessons we can all apply.

*Apricot was a British PC manufacturer in the 1980s who could have rivaled IBM and Apple, but didn’t.

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