Polytechnic, Brighton - H.N.D. Information Technology (1988-90)
At good old Polytechnic in Brighton where you didn't get a great workload giving you time to hack about and pursue other studies in the library. I watched the whole World at War and Open University Astro-Physics miny videos wheel there. And stayed in halls where we had our meals provided and I played many games of snooker of table tennis, or watching 'Sergeant Bilko' with my Friend Moti Lal, his parents were from Punjab but he wouldn't say what religion he was not believing in all that sort of thing. I believe my first conversation was I'm going try and solve Fermat's Last Equation. He came from a family of five Children put each had a different surname for some reason. He also enjoyed his Beer and developed quite a Beer gut. Hall also had 4 UNIX terminal linked to the main site so you could do work in the evening or play Star Trek against other people on line. It was a very primitive text game with things like fire photon torpedoes, raise shields, orbit planet, talk to other ship (player)... Also I sometimes went into the campus on Saturday Mornings to use the Unix System there, and get a packed lunch so I could go on into town, rather than have lunch at Halls.
HND's (Higher National Diploma's) are fun as the work load isn't as great as a Degree giving you time to relax, have outside interests, and explore the bits of the subject you find of interest in greater detail but a HND isn't worth much in the Job market. Why would they choose a candidate with a HND when you can have one with a Degree of which there are a lot. Most HND students either go into jobs unrelated to their subject or move on to a Degree. Classes are much smaller however meaning the you actually get to talk to the Lecturers and makes it easier to make friends. I don't regret doing my HND I learned how computers work and had a lot of friends.
Most of my other friend's in halls also studied 'Maths and Decision Making' like him a Degree level. I also had a few friends in my rather small HND class. 20 in the first year. 10 in the second year, only 3 of which turned up to lectures at the end, rather embarrassing, myself included of course. I was too shy to talk to girls then, though still had a thing with a couple but barely talked to them in my own charismatic but backward in coming forward way. After all I had travelled the world. We also went to the pub once a week, then ten-pin bowling, then the pub which our Muslim friend from halls didn't like going to again. Then off for a Kebab.
I seemed to spend a inordinate amount of time down the arcades, in the common room reading the newspapers and watching TV with my feet slung over the chair in front of me. We also went out to night clubs occasionally and the University of Sussex student bar, and the swan near Falmer where they are going to build the new Brighton Football Stadium, having games of darts and a chat. They spiked my drink and 'I was bowling in the other alley. I was also sick on occasion particularly at a halls party were I mixed larger and bitter, both of which I detest. I drank, cider and southern comfort them. My tipple recently was Bacardi Breezers, but now I have gone on Vodka and Orange. Some girl recently bought me a Malibu and Coke in a night club, but I think that's really a girl's drink.
Three students on our course did very little work in the second year preferring to play Pool all day. Bopesh and Cowpesh were Asian's (who liked the singer Betty Blue, I understand they completed their course the following year) and their friend was Rowan from Ireland.
When I was at Polytechnic I wrote a programme to transmit a message from one computer to an other down an RS-232 serial interface, still found at the back off your computer that your external dial-up modem plugs into (if anyone still used external modems). You can also have a null-link cable for connecting two computer together for group gaming, not that anyone used them. This port is a 25 Pin D-type connector, I've soldered up a few in my time. It also comes in a 9-Pin D-type variety which has the Pins: Send, Receive, ACK (Acknowledge), REQ (Request to Send or sometime like that, I forget) plus GROUND of course to complete the circuit. The data is sent serially i.e. one bit at a time. The other 25-Pin connector is for the printer and sends 8-bits at a time, much faster to the Centronics (a cool name) port of the printer. I've used this to make an interface to drive 8 LED's (Light Emitting Diodes) to send binary signals (1's and 0's between 0 and 255 decimal) i.e. 128+64+32+16+8+4+2+1. The lecturer was most impressed.
Also at Polytechnic I programmed the RS-232 link to dial-up a modem. This is the funny sound you hear when the modem connects to the internet via your telephone. It goes through all the baud rates: 300 bits per seconds (very slow)... 14,000... and more and many in between until it recognises the signal. It was written in C a language developed by two programmers at Bell (Telephone) Laboratories in California home of Berkley (I think I Emailed someone there once, and at Los Alamos, and M.I.T.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology where the classic IF Zork game was developed said to have delayed the development of the computer industry by 3 weeks - there motto is 'M.I.T, Degree, M.O.N.E.Y!', they also have the infinite corridor there and a room named 'department of alchemy' - the study of turning base metals into gold only really possible when a second generation Star goes Nova or in the yet undeveloped fusion reactor in minute quantises). The operating system I used was Unix which ran mainframes, a central computer with many dumb terminals: a keyboard and monitor.
I also programmed a Simple Spreadsheet Programme using Modula-2, a language similar to Pascal only with separate modules to allow a complex problem to be broken down into similar components. Each modules has two files attached to it: one describing the procedures and variables that can be called, the other implements them. So a lead programmer only has to define what each Module has to do with out knowing how it does it, this can be left to more junior programmers, or picked up ready made from a library. Modula-2 was an attempt to industrialize the production of code and make it easier to test, and reduce errors. Programmes are notorious for being late, over cost and error prone, this was an attempt to reduce these problems. I got 100%! No one else in the class really bothered to programme it but I was interested to know how a spreadsheet works. One module for example held a 2 way array of cells; another dealt with functions like reading / writing to/ from cells, adding numbers...
Object-Orientated programming was the next step after Modulation, which is what I wrote my (and Steve Meretsky's) Planetfall-Spacestation Text Adventure Game in. The language is called Inform developed by Graham Nelson, a Oxford University Mathematics professor, much like c++, only free and specifically tailored to Interactive Fiction. The game is at:
Just download the .z5 WindowsFrotz2002 interpreter and the spacest2.z5 code from the Planetfall Transcripts page. Click on either programme and you should be away. Type 'help' for a list of Commands and general Game Rules. Bigger brains than mine wrote the interpreter and for nothing. Hats off to them. Incidentally frotz is a magic spell in one of Infocom's games that causes an object to give light. .z5 means Zork Version 5, Zork being one of the first adventure games ever written at M.I.T. and the language Zork being the first multi-platform language.
I actually began this project at Polytechnic with two other pupils, who just worked on the manual, one had not understanding of Science Fiction, and a lecturer trying to teach us how programming was done in industry. I attempted to write the interpreter from scratch using Pascal (a language inadequate for the task) but did get quite far with. After month's of work during and after the course. When I found the internet I soon found Info. With this and 1 and half years work I managed to get the game written. Whether it was worth doing I still don't know. But I'm kind of attached to it. And it proved I could programme a big project. And believe me I got EVERY last detail, some were very complicated indeed to programme like:
Trying to open the Scooter Hatch in Deep Space, and landing it in the Docking Bay.
Looking in another room through a transparent force field barrier.
Plugging in a computer using an adapter, typing on it, and controlling it's screen.
Dealing with the player getting more and more hungry, giving out hunger messages a set times, eating and / or dying.
Fussbudget, Sidekick character, that you have to wake up, and release from a cage. He also follows you, and helps you solve a puzzle.
I went to an Interactive Fiction Convention in 2000 at a Hotel in Coventry. Luckily some people brought along computers so we could play everyone's games. I don't have a car. One person was very impressed that I was an 'implementor' and had entered a game in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. Another guy had written simple 2 word parser games for Sir Clive Sinclair's Spectrum Computer (creator the ZX81), that used numbers to identify and link rooms (instead of the room name pointer system that my Pascal and Inform programmes use). One game he wrote was called 'Haunted Castle', and he said he thought of ideas for his game while working as a motor cycle courier. Another guy had written a graphical adventure set in Culdits POW Castle, but had rather stupidly forgotten the URL of his site where it could be downloaded. The game involved talking to guards and other prisoner's to get stuff and info. Another guy had travelled all the way from Northern Ireland and said he worked on computers for an aircraft parts company in California.
I also programmed a project called grades that I started after a throw away comment by one of the lecturers. Being of a perfectionist nature once I started it I couldn't stop. I spent a lot time on it and had it a private in the unix system so no one else could look at it. Chris Polk did try. It was a total waste of time really.
I remember writing a article called 'The Pen is Mightier than the Sword'. Philosophising about something like this, and then deleting it because I was a bit worried it didn't have much to do with the assignment in hand. Also we had an assignment to get the exchange rate for Spain in Pesetas, then. And I was to shy to go to the travel agent and look it up, so got another member of our group to do it. We also had a lesson where outside speakers from industry came in to talk to use about their businesses. But in the second year we had one lesson where only 3 of use showed up, plus the lecturer, so it was canceled. I also had to give a speech in front of a camera which I didn't like doing. The UNIX mainframe system printed documents to a special room which had a folder for every member on the system, which was quite a lot. It used a very fast line printer. Once I ordered a print of the entire UNIX code which ran into hundreds of pages.
We had a lesson to programme the Z80 processor in assembler, used by the ZX81 computer. Incidentally the 6800 processor, a better processor than the Z80 which came out a year or two after it was designed to control cruise missiles when acquiring their target and traversing the terrain to get there, but became used in the much better know Commodore 64 Computer (with 64K of Memory) My Commodore VIC20 only had 3 1/2 K! But a plug in Cartridge added 16Kbytes of ROM for the game Gorf for example. Note there are 1024 Bytes (8-bits e.g. an ASCII Number or Letter) in a KByte.
My Final Year Project consisted of 16 7-segment displays and some buttons (debounced by capacitors and Schmitt triggers) interfaced to the 68000 computer. The display scrolled 'Welcome to Brighton Polytechnic' as best it could, as 7-segment displays can't display all the letters in the alphabet.
One of the lecturers was very impressed by a TV programme called 'My Best Friends a Computer' which came out at the time (1988-90). It's never been repeated to my knowledge. There were and are many many young males who spend all their time on computers and who have few friends, at had quite a lot of friends to my class and at halls. At least with the internet they can talk to other people. Programming seems to have gone out of fashion. If they weren't on computers they'd being doing other loner stuff like reading, walking, making electronic circuits... He said the programme reminded him of the people he had to work with on a railway control project in Germany.
Another TV programme I really liked was 'Triumph of the Computer Nerds' by a one Mr. Cringly. I Emailed him once suggesting he make a TV programme about the renaissance in the text adventure gaming world. He Emailed back saying he was pushing the TV Networks for a New Series about the '80's Computer Gaming industry, but they weren't buying the idea. A shame considering the amount of rubbish on TV these days. Gaming included Bat and Ball, Spaceinvaders, PacMan, Donkey Kong (hand held), hungry Horris at the 1K ZX81 (with additional 16K RAM Pack), Karate on the Commodore 64, Commando on the BBC Micro, Atari... 'Triumph' was like a breath of fresh air to me.
It detailed the growth of the personal computer industry, driven by two main players Apple and Microsoft:
Steve Job's who is interviewed in programme started in the Tech. industry by making a 'phone dialer circuit' from a blueprint that could phone internationally for free. He tried the Pope, but he obviously had more important matters to deal with. This gave him the confidence to start dabbling with computers in his garage. One search Engine also started in someone's garage. But it wasn't until he got into Xerox photocopier research park that things really took off. About 50 eggheads sat around on beanbags bouncing ideas off each other. They came up with three:
Multiple Graphically Windows. Point and Click. Drop Down Menus. What was known then as WYSIWYG - What you see is what you get.
Object Orientated Programming. Makes for faster to code and more robust programmes.
Packet Switching. Used by the Internet to route your message though a number of computers until it reaches yours. The data in broken down into small Packets which are sent individually. And re-assembled at the other end. Any missing or corrupted packets are re-requested.
Job's immediately saw the future of Windows. And got permission to use it from Xerox against the direct wishes of the researchers. Xerox clearly were too highly focused of their industry. As Cringly puts it Xerox snatched 'defeat out of the jaws of Victory'. Apple had already brought out the Apple II: a computer with keyboard, screen and two disk drives (100K each I think). I used them at Tech. to wordprocess and programme Pascal programmes, named after a French Philosopher / Mathematician. One student turned my computer off while I was still programming, losed my data, and his Father was a senior Policeman. There's nothing more annoying than losed data. Always make backup's. This is a particular problem when changing computers.
Anyway they set to work making two Windows computers: one personnel, the other for big graphics companies etc... They invested most of their time and money in the big computer but it proved to complicated.
So they switched to the small one the Apple Macintosh (after a type of Apple Jobs had picking as a fruit picker). The deadline was tight and for the last 3 days they didn't sleep wirewrapping the mainboard until it worked. They released the Machintosh with a glizy ad campaign, set to Orwell's 1984 universe, showing Apple breaking the mold. It consisted of one computer with screen, internal disk drive (not compatible with PC's) and keyboard. It looked very cool. It was expensive but with Windows an immediate success as it was so intuitive and easy to use. You could also buy an Image Writer Printer for which self configured, and network them allowing them to share data and application programmes. There main functions were are wordprocessors and for the graphics industry. Jobs was later to be dismissed as the head of Apple by a new boss who used to run Pepsi. He has been brought back in recent years and launched the iPod MP3 player, and iTunes at site to get cheap music tracks from. Apple were a partying kind of Company. And Jobs had a very confident type of nature. A showman really. His pal Wozanik was deeply intelligent and stuck to development.
IBM only made computers for industry, and then only big ones: Mainframes. Mainframe's at the time used giant tape readers to input data which had replaced punched card readers (invented by Jacquard, 1752-1834, to weave complex patterns). And had around 100 dumb terminals: just a screen and keyboard. But the appearance of Apple and other small computer companies on the scene worried 'big blue' and a group of engineers were set the task of building a 'personal computer' as it was to become known with in a year. They grabbed most components of the shelf like memory, processor, disk drives, VDU (Visual Display Unit) but needed to design a BIOS chip themselves which ran everything, particularly at start up where the operating system had to be uploaded of the operating system disk in the disk drive. Some smaller computers stored their O.S. on R.O.M. (Read Only Memory). They bought the core Microprocessor off Intel and the O.S. off Bill Gates of Microsoft. Each cost about 1/3 of the cost, leaving IBM with only a 1/3 for itself.
IBM was founded in 1890 to build tabulating machines for the U.S. census, in upstate New York. It even had it's own company song for employees. It's PC Division narrowly avoided being sold to the Chinese a few years ago. The U.S. is selling off asserts at home and abroad left, right and centre to balance it's massive trade deficit with the Far East, and maintain it's large military commitments and gas guzzling culture. Which is known as Imperial Overstretch. IBM almost sold it's prestigious PC division, but didn't in the end.
IBM had a factory in Florida (now closed) to build their PC's which sold for a very good mark-up as industry wanted the excellent after sales back-up that only IBM could provide. Including Repair and Company Specific Software Development. No one else could build the PC as the BIOS chip was copyrighted by IBM. But some cleaver engineer reversed engineered the chip, wrote down the results, and passed them to another engineer who made a BIOS copy. This engineer could rightly say he knew nothing about IBM's BIOS chip. Then a load of companies sprang up to makes cut-price clones of IBM's PC.
One such company was Amstrad (Alan M. Sugar Trading) that built the PC1512 (512K of Memory). Available with Monochrome, or Colour Monitors; and one or two disk drives, or a 20 Megabyte hard disk (disk's at the time could only hold 330K). I myself got a two disk mono version from Dixons. It only worked for a few weeks then the disk drive broke. I had just bought my Planetfall
(IF games site)
game and was dieing to try it. But the computer had to go back to Dixons and took about 6 months to repair. I also wrote Pascal programmes on it.
And interfaced it to LED's, motors, buzzers, 2 Line 20 Character LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), x16 Alphanumeric Display (which could scroll text), and Analogue to Digital Reader. To do this I had built a double sided PCB which slotted into a motherboard slot, which had data, address and read/write lines. I addressed it using the reserved prototype address. Some chips decoded the address lines, while other stored data to be passed on. I used the LCD to display which ever rank you wanted in the Stellar Patrol like Shady Dan's ID Card changing machine in Stationfall, ranks 1-10. I also wrote Mr. History which displayed all the leaders of Britain from the First Roman Governor to John Major.
Anyway the clones soon started taking a large share of 'big blue's' market and eventually the Florida factory had to be shut down.
Bill Gates has in fact invented very little. He bought QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) from a guy in Seattle who had programmed it in his garage, basing it on C/PM the work of a professional Computer Scientist. IBM had first wanted C/PM but it inventor refused to even talk to them with out his lawyers. So they went to Bill Gates of the tiny company Microsoft, co-founded by Paul Allen (also a multi-billionaire and financier of Spaceship-1). Gates was first assumed to be the tea boy but when this mix up was cleared up offered to write MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), as he was desperate to sell his BASIC computer language (developed at Dartford Naval College). He had already sold a few to Altair Computer owners. But the Home Brew Computer Club in California of which Jobs was a member took great pleasure it copying and distributing copies of BASIC for the Altair. Bill wrote a stiff letter of dissatisfaction. This is the first known case of software piracy. Gates got an amazing deal out of IBM, instead of them paying a fixed price for the completed operating system, Gates demanded a commission on every unit sold on every computer, even if you have already bought it for your old computer. This was to become the bias of his fortune, and is viewed as one of the worst business deeds in history. Perhaps the Alaska purchase (considering it's cast oil wealth) or the purchase of Manhattan Island, New York for the native Indians for a few beads and a cooking pot. MS-DOS only differed from C/PM in one regards, Gates changed the Hard Disk drive from A: -> C:. He was wrong a it happens as the Harddisk drive is now the primary drive, and many computers don't even have floppy A: and B: drives any more. In the old days the Disk Operating System was loaded off a Disk in A: and B: used for data, generally.
I don't know exactly how DOS works but I should imagine it's something like a high level programme compiler, or an Interactive Fiction parser i.e. it breaks down the line of commands into individual words then interprets them one at a time. The disks at the time were either 100 or 330 Kbytes, and divided into 80 tracks, and 8 sectors, each section holding a small amount of data. Stepper motors were used to bring the read / write head to the correct point, random access, faster than tape which it replaced. The first section is the boot disk that lists the locations of all the files and sections of data, this is often used by hackers to corrupt systems. If a file is big it will take more than on section of data, so a pointer at the end of one section will point to the next section. Sections are generally one after the other, but if the disk is full the DOS will write where it can find space. Such as a deleted file. DOS had filenames 8.3 e.g lister.pas . Some of the extensions used are as follows:
.pas - Pascal Programme
.cob - COBAL Programme
.exe - Execution (Run) File
.com - Command File (Run - for less than 1Kbyte I think?) File
.bat - Batch File, list of DOS commands which run automatically e.g. COPY A:ONE.PAS B:
To delete a file all MS-DOS did was turn the first letter in a filename to '?' so it could be undeleted later by special software, if not overwritten. A disk could be defragmented to get all the file segments together for quicker reading, if a lot of deleting and rewriting had been done. Gates went to a Methodist Prep. School (like me) in Washington, State where the Mother's Clubed together for a telelink to the local mainframe. A wise investment, as Gates learned his trade on it. At a very young age he was offered a job tabulating results of traffic management, but the contractors pulled out being nervous of his age. He then went to Harvard, where he was never out of the Computer Centre. He started his own business there and never completed his degree not having time to. He moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico as it was then centre of the world computer business, later moving to Seattle, his home. He was known to be highly driven, highly intelligent and very withdrawn and shy. I think he might be on Seroxat or sometime similar now as he gives a lot more interviews and attends a lot more events than he used to, preferring Email. People condemn him for his wealth (which he gained by keeping Microsoft shares), but he has agreed to give most of it away, only having built a large computerised house, and will only give his children 1 Million Dollars each on his death. So his effective wealth is very small, except as regards Project Development at Microsoft. He spent most of his early life coding, wanting to be chief programmer and chief executive officer at the same time. He also likes card games.
Next he ripped off Windows from Apple who in turn had got it for peanuts from Xerox. In the days when the internet was just taking off everyone at Microsoft begged him to try the Internet but he regarded it as a fad. How wrong he was! Eventually he was persuaded and immediately converted. He couldn't rip off Netscape Navigator quick enough making the near identical Microsoft Internet Explorer. Netscape was actually invented by a hacker in Scandinavia. He naturally ensured a good Email system and invented Hotmail which users could access on multiple computers. The Microsoft environment is very different from Apple, who are people people. Microsoft had a different building and division for each software product e.g. Encarta (Encyclopedia), Microsoft Office, Browser... The programmers are drawn straight from College and paid peanuts, 'micro-serfs'. Then generally each have their own office, communicate by Email and only emerge to raid the free cola cabinet and play pool. A life style that would once have appealed to me but does not now.
Other Articles from the now defunct British Amateur Electronics Club, which may be of some interest:
My friend of 3 years Michaelís favourite saying is 'the Tedís used to go up the school and wack the teachers up', his next favourite saying is 'I don't drink, smoke, or gamble'. He used to though and a lot of other bad stuff. But he saw the light and now goes to church ever week generally by himself. He didn't do much schooling and worked down the fair and on the
cash-to-tokens counter on the diddle of course! Of course the fact that they medicated him might also have something to do
You have no idea how many daemons in you head there are that control your ever action and reaction. I had an old friend, John English, a low level programming lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic, now University (they also have the University of Sussex in the same town, it's always been a University). He's written one book on programming, 1997, and understand he has a child now. I used to call him 'Sir', until Troy another class friend of mine, exceptionally lazy laughed at me, then I called him 'John'. Incidentally Troy's girl friend became pregnant, but she wouldn't let him see the child. He worked as a post man in rural Wales.
Anyway John said all electronics was 'daemons with pitch forks!'. I wrote an IF / Adventure game that has a routine to deal with hunger. There is a clock in the game that advances with every action or when you say WAIT, the routine calculates the difference in time between when you last ate and the current time, coming out with comments saying you are hungery, hungeryer, staving, ravenous, and dead. If you don't eat. Other games deal with you being sleepy.
Another Lecturer who shared John's office told us a story about a photo-copy repair man who went to a company and repaired their photo-copier, being very smart technically. Anyway the company rang 3 days later and said no one had been to repair their photo-copier. It turned out the guy had turned up and been to shy to tell anyone he was there and snuck into to do his job. The lecturer wanted to make a film of the incident, pointing out the uselessness of being highly skilled technically if you had no social skills.
Quite a number of Lecturer's are said to be Higher Functioning Asperger Syndrome Autistic. I know over a dozen having been to a social group thinking I was one, I'm not, but do have many things in common with them. Most hold down low skill jobs, one works in the back room of the Jobcentre processing forms. It is a spectrum, so some people are a lot more deeply affected than others. It's a subtle condition so people can't tell there's anything wrong with them. They often go undiagnosed and suffer greatly in normal school, through bullying and autism. It often goes undiagnosed. One of the members of our group was a Mathematics Lecturer. H.F.A. use different areas of the brain for emotion and communication so have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. They say a lot of University Lecturer's are, particularly in Technical / Mathematical subjects.
There are many other daemons in your head like adrenaline which every knows makes you angry, increasing blood flow and oxygen levels for the 'fight / flight response'. Other chemicals like Omega-3's which you can find in oily fish control the production of Seretonin which determines how fast neuron synapses fire thus affecting intelligence and more obscure things like confidence and articulacy. My Mother ate nothing but fish before I was born, in Shetland. There are other chemical's that regulate criminal tendency, attention span... Chromosomes also set tendencies.