Anniversaries

Happy Birthday! BASIC just turned 50. It should have been 1981 or ’82 when I first saw a BASIC listing. The magazine was named Nuova Elettronica (New Electronics) and it was featuring a series of column about building a computer. I remember the writer was very proud they managed to license an Italian version of BASIC. For sure it was weird (even more in hindsight), something was even understandable (LET a=3, in Italian “SIA a=3”), something else was pretty obscure (FOR i=1 TO 10, “PER i=10 A 10”). I had no computer and Internet wasn’t even in my wildest sci-fi dreams, so I wondered how that lines could produce 10 high resolution (!) concentric rectangles. One rather puzzling statement was LET a=a+1. I understood equations (I was at the first year of high school), but that couldn’t possibly be an equation as I knew. So I tried to asked to an even more puzzled math teacher, who stared at the line for a while, then muttered something about simulations and universe changing semantic.
Luckily short later another magazine “Elettronica 2000” (“Electronics 2000”) started a BASIC tutorial. I read those pages until I consumed them and learned Basic. For some years programming and BASIC were quite synonyms. The first thing you saw when you switched a Zx or a Commodore on, was the BASIC prompt. The machine was ready to be programmed.
BASIC era, for me, ended with the Amiga, years later (at that age, years are eons indeed). Microsoft BASIC for Amiga was pretty unstable, also real performances can be achieved with C. Maybe the tombstone was at the second year of University, at the first lesson of Computer Science, when the professor write “BASIC” on the blackboard and then stroke it out saying: “This is the last time I want to hear about BASIC”.
Talking about anniversaries, I think it is noteworthy that the first message I wrote on my blog was posted 10 years ago. I would have liked to celebrate this with a new look for my website. I have been working on this for a while now, but it is still not ready. I hope to have it on line before my website becomes of age.

On The Edge

As far as it may seem odd nowadays, there was a time when BASIC was The Language. Computers from different vendors were 100% not-compatible and resources were so constrained that your average mobile phone could be considered a supercomputer when compared to. It was the Home Computer Era. Back then, it was the first half of the 80s, home computers started to spread around even in Italy. I was fourteen and started programming (and playing) with my ZX Spectrum 48k.
We hadn’t Windows or Linux, Vi or Emacs, Java or C#, but we had our religion wars – the most bloody, was Sinclair vs. Commodore and more precisely Spectrum vs. C64.
Owning a Spectrum I was in the Sinclair’s party – the gummy keyboard machine with a nice rainbow. Spectrum had superior BASIC and faster CPU. I like to think I always have an open mind, in fact, some years later, I was about to buy a C64. The Commodore machine sported for sure a superior hardware – more memory, more graphic modes, better audio, sprites, and decent keyboard.

I waited, then evaluated the C128, but bought an Amstrad. Some years later the Amiga arrived and I became a happy Commodore customer.
This book is like a documentary of the troubled history of Commodore. From the very early days, when the designer of the MOS 6502 CPU designed the first PET, to the final days of bankruptcy.
I found the book very good, more balanced of iWoz, maybe just because the writer is not directly involved in the company and just interviews people trying to rebuild facts.
The book reads nearly as a fiction book, with interesting characters, heroes, foes and plot twist, while the narration proceed toward the glooming end.
Two aspects stroke me during the reading – first is about success and failures, the latter is about overtime.
Many of the engineers interviewed hold that the most successful products were achieved when they were free from the marketing and worked almost free (but for the deadlines set directly by the CEO). The most unsuccessful products (notably the Plus 4 and C 16 abominations) were marketing driven. What really strikes me is how could the marketing and the middle management be so computer-unaware? They had a powerful brand, great hardware, yet they failed to steer the company helm to easily reachable success.
Overtime was a sort of way-of-life for Commodore engineers. Unrealistic deadlines were hit thanks to work around the clock for several days. One of the engineers recalls that his longest stay at office was 11 days. He just got some hour sleep in his office.
Unrealistic deadlines were needed to win against the strong competition from other vendors, but this is something you can’t live with for a reasonable time. You have to work less. I am a strong supporter of the 8h/day per 5days a week with just occasional overtime. My argumentation is that overtime tends to burn out people, making them behave in a sub-optimal way in the medium period. Also because of the long hours away from home they need to do something personal at work, just to keep up with life. So I wonder if those jewels (C64 and Amiga) that Commodore gave us could have existed and could have been the same with more human working conditions?

iWoz

Although I am not addicted to retrocomputing, I quite enjoy reading about Good Ol’ Days when Real Men where up to forge the computer revolution. Given this premise it was rather impossible to skip over the Amazon suggestion when I received it. iWoz is the story of Wozniak, the engineer among the two Steves that founded Apple back in the seventies, told by Steve Wozniak himself (or at least edited as if it sounds so).
The book is a pretty smooth reading up to the point where he left Apple, but I think it’s just me loosing somewhat interest in the narrated matter.
I found very emotionally touching the first chapters where Steve writes about his infancy and his father. Maybe it is because I had lot of thoughts recently on being father, but I found this figure of father-engineer really fascinating – never forcing his kid on learning something, but let his strong passion for technology and science “infect” his child. Also noteworthy the strong ethic component of this father about nearly everything. I’d like to be a father like this.
Also the book proves that some kind of chances could have occurred just there. I think nowhere in the world (and likely in time) a group of children could receive as gift from a telephone technician some hundreds meters of telephone wire. Also the home computer revolution had to start right there – all the players were there and they much knew each others.
In some parts of the book I read some naïvety. E.g. the Atari affair. Jobs always did the marking and commercial part of their projects. So they got this deal to build a videogame prototype for Atari. In change of one week effort Wozniak got few hundred dollars, because Jobs told him he got the same. Only later Wozniak discovered that Atari paid several thousand dollars for the project (and obviously Jobs kept the difference). This didn’t made Wozniak upset with his partner. He candidly states that Jobs needed money at that time and later (after Apple IPO) money ceased to become an issue.
Another aspect of the book I found somewhat uneasy with is that Wozniak claims to be a first in many key technologies of the emergent home computing industry – the first computer with video output and keyboard built in, the first color computer, the first computer with audio, the first microprocessor based videogame, remarked more or less with “something unheard of at those times”. I don’t want to take off anything from the pioneering work of Wozniak, but most of those technologies where really about to spring to life in those years and, there were other companies providing the same stuff in different degrees of completion.
Despite of these two aspects I am pretty satisfied of this reading and I recommend if you are interested in the topic.

Rainbow spectrum

You know you’re old when you’d like to start today blog entry with something like: “There was a time when 1k was your roof. Everything, well packed, had to fit in this size. When the ZX Spectrum arrived with the full glory of its 16k in the budget model and astonishing 48k in the advanced model, it was really a quantum leap.” I tried to avoid all this gone golden age crap even if those times were really great and exciting. As most geeks of my generation I learned computing the hard way on a Spectrum, then it came the Amiga, but it was the next quantum leap.
So, aside of meeting some old friends, I was quite intrigued when I heard about the retrocomputing fair held last week end in Varese.
The fair was small, just two crowded rooms, filled mainly with Spectrum derivatives and other Sir Sinclair creations. Being there with my wife I started searching the original Spectrum, the one with the blue gum-looking key buttons. This proved to be quite hard, there was just one (empty) case, at the end of the first room.
Looking at the device, after my explanation of what and why, my wife asked: “But, why computers were so small then and now are so large?”.
Look at the Speccy, it is maybe 25cm by 15cm (more likely some round number expressed in inches), all included but the power supply and the mass storage. Now look at your nearest PC, it is huge compared.
That’s damn a good question. If you think at it, it is not the mass storage – a 1Gb smart digital card is smaller than your thumb, my Palm Tungsten is smaller than the Spectrum and has 64Mbyte of RAM and a 400Mhz CPU. Therefore I’m sure we can build unbelievably powerful computer the size of the Spectrum, saving lot of space in our houses. So why?
I think it is just the way taken by the evolution. Our modern PCs are descendant from the first IBM PC which in turn was inspired by the Apple II. Both were large boxes, filled with empty space in order for people to spend their money filling them in. Adding memory, I/O, storage, and so on. So today you buy a PC that’s based on the same philosophy, even if just a small fraction of buyers will change anything inside, you can add memory, change your video card or upgrade your CPU.
Home computers, luckily, didn’t disappear, they left they legacy to game consoles. In fact, it is here that you find the same strive for compactness (look at the slim PS2!), the same standardization in the hardware, the same fast boot time… they even connect to the TV set like 20 years ago!
What is missing from the current generation of video game console is the chance for everyone to program them. I mean to legally programming them, allowed by their manufacturers. Actually console manufacturers fear the piracy that could arise from letting everyone program their hardware. The PSP case is emblematic. You can do your own PSP home-brew development by downgrading the firmware to v1.0. This is easily achieved on v1.5, somewhat achievable on later releases of the software. Anyway every time you do this you risk to turn your precious handheld into an useless brick. Sony, rather than finding a constructive way to deal with the hobbyist community, choose the destructive path of having all the retail games and demo that update the firmware to the latest version, basically having everyone to chose between having only home-brew (or pirated) software or only original software.
This will go on until someone will make an hardware modchip that will allow users to have both a development firmware and the original one. It is just a matter of time, it is a lost battle for Sony.
I acknowledge that the business model of nowadays console manufacturer is pretty different from the old home computer manufacturers, but I wonder what could happen if the same effort gone into preventing users to run their software on their hardware would have gone into creating constructive ways for discouraging piracy while empowering the home-brew community.