Robert Hampton

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Computers & Technology

10th February 2015


The first Acorn computer I ever owned (and the third computer overall, after a Commodore VIC-20 and C64) was an A3010. It was bought for me in May 1993, purchased from Rapid Computers on Childwall Fiveways. It was a reward from my parents to celebrate my passing the entrance exam for Merchant Taylors School; had I known how that was going to turn out, I would probably have stuck with my Commodore 64 for another year or so.

Acorn A3010

The A3010 was the “budget” Acorn computer, an attempt by Acorn to escape from the classrooms and science labs where their computers were usually found and get into teenagers’ bedrooms with a games machine. There was no monitor supplied, but you could plug it into a TV for glorious 640×512 resolution. Only 1 megabyte of RAM, an ARM250 processor running at a blistering 12 Mhz, and no hard disc – why would you need one when an ADFS floppy could hold 1.6 megabytes?

It was cheap’n’cheerful and, to me, it was computer heaven. For a year or so before, I had gazed longingly at the BBC A3000 in the corner of my primary school classroom, enviously looking on as my fellow pupils typed away in the Phases 2 word processor, printing off their rubbish poems on the noisy Epson FX80 printer. Now, finally, I had a RISC OS machine to call my own.

A few years later I got a big power increase when I upgraded to a RiscPC, and the A3010 was relegated to a secondary machine. But it will always hold a special place for me. It was on this machine that I bashed out my first BBC BASIC programs. It was on this machine that I stayed up until 1am doing a project for History that I’d put off until the last minute. It was here that I wasted more than a few hours playing Sim City, and Lemmings, and probably my favourite of all, Fervour:-

When we moved to our current home there was no space to have my Aladdin’s Cave of computers on display, so the A3010 got put away in a cupboard. But it gained a new lease of life for a few years, as I wrote a program to run a game of Family Fortunes. Being able to code the game directly in BBC BASIC and then plug the computer straight into the TV to run it gave it a big advantage over the newer computers which we were using by now. It got dragged out regularly at Christmas get-togethers, with me playing the role of Les Dennis.

I thought long and hard about getting rid of this machine. Sentimentality can’t always win out, though: it’s been sitting in a cupboard for nearly three years. It needed to go, so tonight a nice man came and took it off my hands. I hope he loves and appreciates it as much as I did. Or uses it for parts. Whatever.

With the advent of the Raspberry Pi, I’m still using a distant relative of the A3010 every day, so I haven’t cut ties with that world completely. Even so… the feels.

2nd February 2015


The tech world is abuzz today – Raspberry Pi is back with a new, sexier upgrade:-

A new more powerful Raspberry Pi 2 that is six times faster than the original from 2012, has been launched by the Cambridge-based startup costing £23.30.

Good luck getting one. They’ve been selling fast, and servers at some of the online retailers are buckling under the demand.

The Pi, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a £25 computer. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but easily capable of running a variety of software. The Pi is leading the charge to get people (especially kids) interested in programming. Find a spare USB keyboard and mouse, then plug the Pi straight into the TV, just like the ZX Spectrums of old (although the Pi’s HDMI output is at a slightly higher-resolution). The idea is to have a cheap computer that can be tinkered with at will, without worries about breaking it. If something goes disastrously wrong, simply reformat the SD card and start again.

Although the target audience is kids, plenty of older geeks (ahem) have bought a Pi for their own pet projects. Pi has been used to run a home security system, create a retro game console, and even to create a DIY Ceefax service.

RISC OS Pi Desktop

I got an original Model B a couple of years ago. Everyone else put a flavour of Linux on it, but I went and whacked RISC OS on mine. That’s the OS I grew up with – first on an Acorn A3010, then a RiscPC which lasted nearly eight years (towards the end of its life it was held together by bits of superglue and gaffer tape). Apart from the odd game of Fervour, I was the archetypal teenage bedroom coder, churning out semi-functional BBC BASIC files week-in, week-out. My proudest moment was getting one of my apps onto the Acorn User cover disc.

Zap displaying BBC BASIC code on RISC OS Pi

I haven’t had much time recently to play with the Pi, but I’ve tried to set aside an hour or two each week to sit and do some coding. After the stress of dealing with our barely functional LAN at work, and the slog of studying three (3!) Open University computing modules, it’s nice to have a reminder that computers can be fun.

16th December 2014

Time to meet your maker

Mario Maker is one of the more interesting games to be released for the Wii U in 2015. It’s a level editor allowing players to come up with their own 2D Super Mario games. A range of graphical styles are available, from the pixellated perfection of the original Super Mario Bros. to the HD glory of New Super Mario Bros. U

It seems, in part, to be inspired by the demented ROM hacks that get released on the internet. There have been countless tools released which allow you to step into Shigeru Miyamoto’s shoes and assemble your own levels. Nintendo have just gone and made it official.

I love a good level editor. As a teenager, I whiled away countless hours on my trusty Acorn A3010, concocting levels for Fervour. If you think about, adding a level editor is a great way to extend the lifespan of a game – there’s an infinite number of levels.

So yes, I’m looking forward to this. Now, I just need to actually buy a Wii U…

3rd November 2014

Windows 10, then

Thank you for downloading

Much like Star Trek films, the received wisdom has it that only every other version of Windows is good. If you look at the pattern, it’s a fairly compelling argument: 3.1, 95, 98, Me, XP, Vista, 7 – the experienced computer user will have no trouble identifying the clunkers in that list.

Windows 8 is filed away safely in the “terrible” category, so if Microsoft is sticking to the pattern, this means Windows 9 will be excellent, yes?

It’s slightly worrying, then, that Microsoft has chosen to skip 9 completely and jump straight to Windows 10. No official explanation, beyond the usual marketing guff, has been forthcoming, although some media outlets maintain that it’s to prevent badly written legacy code checking for “Windows 9*” and falling over.

Almost everyone now acknowledges that Windows 8 was something of a misstep for Microsoft. It was a fairly radical departure from the familiar Windows we know and “love”. Gone was the Start Menu that we had used to launch our apps for the best part of two decades. In came the Start Screen, with its assortment of animated tiles, designed for a new generation of touch screens. This was an interface designed to be poked, swiped and generally fondled. Keyboard and mouse navigation was still available, but seemed to be very much discouraged.

Windows Preview Feedback

The desktop was still there, but the future seemed to lie in “Metro” (or “the new UI”, as Microsoft clumsily renamed it). Apps no longer lived in windows, but instead ran full screen. You could, if you really wanted to, run two apps side by side – multitasking is for losers.

This seemed a massive step backward: users could have a 3 Ghz quad core CPU and 8 gigabytes of RAM, but if you wanted to run a calculator and e-mail program side-by-side, the OS would struggle.

The most important problem with Windows 8: users hated it. Really, really, despised it. It’s not just the lack of start menu – commonly used features are buried behind a mystifying set of “gestures” which are completely non-intuitive. The first time I used Windows 8, I had to Google how to turn the computer off (on a different machine, because I couldn’t figure out Internet Explorer either). Online news sites quickly filled up with complaints about the new OS.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Windows by any means. Remember the howls of outrage when “new Twitter” was rolled out a few years ago? Can anyone now remember what “old Twitter” was like? That’s because, after a few weeks using the new interface, people got used to it and moved on. Perhaps Microsoft expected something similar to happen with Windows 8.

Windows 10 Alarms App

But Windows is not Twitter. Nobody is forced to upgrade to the new version, unless they get a new PC (even then, you can still find new Windows 7 machines out there). People voted with their feet and stuck with the familiar. Microsoft’s most important customers, in business, government and industry, refused to move away from Windows 7. Some even decided to stick with XP for a while longer.

Windows 8.1 addressed some of those criticisms: the Start button was reinstated (although it throws you straight back to the Start Screen) and Windows could now run four Metro apps at the same time, although overlapping the windows was still forbidden. A baby step in the right direction, but not enough to convince many people.

This probably explains why, two years after Windows 8 launched, it still has less than 17% market share, still lagging behind the 13-year-old (and, since April, obsolete) Windows XP.

So Windows 8 was a flop. It tried to unify Microsoft’s desktop, tablet and phone operating systems under a single UI, but failed miserably. Microsoft needs to win back its core audience, and it’s going to do it via the worst-kept secret in computing world – the return of the Start Menu.

Then, back in September, Microsoft announced the Windows technical preview, an early test version of what would become Windows 10. My curiosity got the better of me, so I headed on over to Microsoft’s web site and downloaded the ISO file.

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22nd September 2014

Berlin Day 2: OK Computer

My second full day in Berlin was Saturday. I spent the morning riding the Berlin U-Bahn. I ended up back in the city centre at around 1.30pm. My sole nourishment so far that morning had been a Snickers bar from a platform vending machine, so some proper sustenance was needed. I got back on the U-Bahn and took a short ride to Alexanderplatz. Here I found Galeria Kaufhof, the massive department store. The restaurant on the top floor had been recommended to me by my friend Dave.

The restaurant is a self-service affair. I picked up a tray and explored the buffet selections on offer. Again, I was thankful that I had made the effort to learn a bit of German before coming here, as I was able to decipher the differently labelled foods on offer: Gemüse, Obst, Salate, Fisch, Pasta (OK, the last two are fairly obvious).

The choice was slightly bewildering, and there were lots of people waiting impatiently for their turn at each counter, so I didn’t have time to stop and consider my options carefully. Eventually, I scooped some pasta, some meat and some hash-browny type thing onto my plate and made my escape.

I took my plate to the checkout, where the cashier invited me to place it on a set of scales. Food here is priced according to weight – €1.85 per 100g. Annoyingly, I went just over 500g, so the price was rounded up to 600 grams.

I found an empty table and sat down, glad of the chance to rest my weary feet for a few minutes. Where did my stamina go? I’m sure that, a few years ago, I would have been able to roam the streets for hours without so much as a single blister. Now, it was barely 2pm and my body was complaining. I must be getting old. From now on, I am only going to take part in activities that can be done sitting or lying down.

It wasn’t just me that needed a recharge – excessive use of Instagram during the morning had run my phone battery down to zero. Continuing the rest of the day without a phone wasn’t an option – I needed access to maps to help me find my way around, and also it was the only camera I had with me. I would have to go back to the hotel to charge it up, even though this would probably eat an hour or more out of my day.

I was about to just get up and go, when I spotted that other customers were taking their used trays away with them. I followed one of them and discovered that there was a conveyor belt to take away used plates. I put my used tray on it, and it was swiftly whisked away through a small door. Technology – you’ve got to love it.

I went back to the hotel. While my phone recharged, I watched some excellent German television – Top Gear on RTL Nitro. Jeremy Clarkson dubbed into German? Hmm, maybe not.

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1st May 2014

It’s all geek to me

According to The Register, the BASIC programming language is 50 years old today. Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code was designed to be an easy to learn language for the masses. With BASIC, even unskilled programmer could knock up a useful program quickly. It also enabled a generation of bored teenagers to go into Currys on a Saturday afternoon and set the shop display ZX Spectrum to print something rude.

Originally designed by staff at Dartmouth College in the USA, BASIC went on to conquer the world, largely thanks to a small upstart company called Micro-Soft (whatever happened to them?), which ported the language to multiple home computers in the 1980s.

Sample C64 program to play a tune

My first tentative steps in computing were taken using Commodore BASIC. The Commodore 64, like most 8-bit home computers of the era, booted straight into a BASIC prompt. At this point, the typical user hit SHIFT-RUN/STOP (or, if you were posh and had a floppy disc drive, typed LOAD"*",8,1) to load up a game. I, naturally, ventured into BASIC programming, diligently typing in the example programs from the user manual and then, later on, from Commodore Format magazine.

Unfortunately, Commodore BASIC was, to use a technical term, piss-poor. Doing anything remotely interesting (like moving sprites on screen, or playing music) needed arcade POKE and PEEK commands to do anything useful. I was glad to move on to an Acorn A3010 with the far superior BBC BASIC. Not only was it much more powerful, but it was now possible to edit programs in a GUI editor. Cutting and pasting code was a lot easier than faffing around with cursor keys.

BASIC was often derided for encouraging bad programming habits. In particular, early versions of the language often required use of the GOTO statement, which caused execution to jump to another part of the program. Careless use of GOTOs caused programs to become a mass of “spaghetti code”, difficult to understand and debug. I’ve heard it said that anyone moving from BASIC to another programming language first needs to “unlearn” everything they’ve been taught about BASIC. I think that’s true to a certain extent – when I started coding in C, there was a steep learning curve to negotiate.

Still, BASIC lives on, in a much changed form. Over two decades after I first typed in my first PRINT command, I’m studying at the Open University, and currently learning Microsoft Visual Basic. It’s a long way from the 38911 BYTES FREE of the Commodore 64, but the Rem keyword is still in there, and the principle is the same – to allow programmers to produce working applications with the minimum of effort. Microsoft have also produced Small Basic, a simplified version of the language designed to teach children programming.

So, happy birthday, BASIC. If anyone is feeling nostalgic and fancies playing around with BBC BASIC, a Windows port is available.

9th April 2014


Windows XP boot screen

In October 2001, Microsoft was at the height of its power. Internet Explorer had crushed its rivals in the browser wars; Apple (pre-iPod revolution) was struggling with its early, incomplete version of OS X; and Google was just a search engine.

It was amidst this backdrop that Windows XP was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, as Bill Gates excitedly announced the end of the MS-DOS era. Up to this point, most consumer-grade Windows PCs still ran the ageing command line system under the hood. This provided excellent backwards compatibility, but also introduced instability; a rogue DOS program or driver could bring down the whole system.

XP, however was free of this baggage. It took the best features of the previous “home user” systems such as Windows 98 and blended them with the much more stable and secure Windows NT kernel. DOS existed only on an emergency boot floppy disc (kids, ask your parents).

Keen to get the new OS in front of as many people as possible, Microsoft launched what was probably their biggest marketing push since Windows 95, six years earlier. This bizarre advert, with a Madonna soundtrack, demonstrated XP’s ability to, er… make its users fly.

Not satisfied with mere adverts, Microsoft’s head honcho headed to the studios of KACL for an excruciating cameo on “Frasier”.

Now, however, all that Microsoft marketing money is being spent to convince you that XP is bad and you’re bad for using it. 8th April 2014 marked the official “end of support” for Windows XP; Microsoft is no longer providing patches or security fixes, which means that users will become vulnerable to new viruses and hacking attacks.

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12th March 2014


Today the tech world is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the world wide webnot to be confused with the Internet itself, which came into existence much earlier.

Even more pedantically, today actually marks the anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal for the web in March 1989. It wasn’t until Christmas 1990 that the first working web browser, imaginatively titled WorldWideWeb, became available, and the first web sites began to appear.

For its first few years, the web was mainly a curiosity used by students and scientists at various academic institutions. Then, around 1994, the original Netscape Navigator browser was released, and web usage began to grow significantly.

I remember the first day I got online – 30th August 1997 (sorry to say, the date sticks in the memory because Princess Diana was killed the very next day). I eagerly tore open the package containing ArgoNet‘s Voyager Internet Suite, listened as the US Robotics modem made various screeching noises, and gazed in wonder at the text and images that were very sloooowly downloaded. Grey backgrounds. So many grey backgrounds! Still, to a 14-year-old who still considered Bamboozle on ITV Teletext the height of sophistication, it was amazing.

Then my mum picked up the phone downstairs and the connection dropped.

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24th January 2014

The Mac: A Look Bac (CC-BY-SA-2.5-it licence) (CC-BY-SA-2.5-it licence)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first Apple Macintosh. There’s a picture of it over to the right. Fans of Apple’s modern designs will probably not be too inspired by the… beigeness of it all. This product predates Jony Ive‘s arrival at Apple by nearly a decade, and Apple’s computers would remain stubbornly in the “beige box category” until the late 1990s.

The computing masses at the time didn’t quite know what to make of it. Instead of a black screen with a flashing cursor, users were presented with something called a desktop, and a strange device called a mouse. Instead of typing commands, you could move a pointer on the screen and click on icons to tell the computer what to do.

It wasn’t, as is often misreported, the first computer to use a graphical user interface or a mouse – Xerox had a product at least two years earlier. Apple themselves had already tried it a year earlier with the Lisa, which failed because of its astonishingly high price point ($10,000!). It was certainly the first to be successfully marketed and sold to consumers.

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5th January 2014

2013 was a big year for…

Matt Jarvis on the cover of AttitudeGAYS! West Ham footballer Matt Jarvis graced the cover of Attitude in just his pants, because homophobia or something. The usually soppy liberal Observer newspaper got itself embroiled in a transphobia row after a Julie Burchill column caused a Twitter storm.

The big news story of the year was, of course, the UK’s same-sex marriage bill. My old Religious Studies teacher (now MP for Southport) declared that he was voting against it. Despite massive controversy and attempts by rebel MPs to derail it, the bill received Royal Assent in July. I like to think it was my vlog on the subject that swung it.

The UK was behind the curve in many ways, as progress was being made around the world. New Zealand legalised gay marriage in April, an event celebrated by an impromptu outbreak of singing. America, as usual, was slow on the uptake, but a big Supreme Court decision in July was a landmark moment, paving the way for future victories.

Elsewhere, however, gay rights were being rolled back. In Russia, a wrestling coach blamed the lack of wrestling at the Olympics on a gay conspiracy. That was amusing to western ears; less funny was the law against “gay propaganda”, which was enacted amidst a wave of anti-gay violence.

On a more positive note, the events in Russia spurred Wentworth Miller into coming out. In fact, it was a notable year for coming out events: Young Apprentice candidate Harry Hitchens came out via YouTube video. Ben Whishaw confirmed tabloid rumours that he was in a civil partnership. And then there was Tom Daley.

Alan Turing was pardoned for his homosexuality convictions, but where was the sympathy for the thousands of other men who were similarly persecuted?

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