Robert Hampton

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15th March 2013

Techno techno techno techno

ComputersIt’s hard to imagine now, but when this blog was founded, I had to write the entries by creating a series of punched cards, which were then sent by first class post to a laboratory in Cambridge, where a man in a white coat would feed them one-by-one into a mainframe computer to create each blog post.

OK, that’s obviously not true. But technology has moved on in leaps and bounds in the last decade, often in new and unpredictable ways. In 2003 there were no YouTube videos to embed, no tweets to RT, and if you poked someone in public, you could expect a slap in the face in return. Google was a search engine company rather than an… everything company.

As for me, in 2003 I was still using RISC OS, the operating system designed by Acorn Computers for their ARM-based systems. Acorn had shut up shop in 1998, but the OS was still being developed by an independent company and I had fun playing with the latest versions as they were released. I was also still using it to do web design work (still haven’t found an app as good as Draw for quick pictures and diagrams). So when my machine started developing hardware faults, I was alarmed.

When computers develop hardware problems, my usual attitude is something approaching blind panic. I never did a backup (I meant to, but never get round to it), and I never paid attention when the hard drive started playing up last year (I meant to, but never got round to it). Procrastination 1, Rob 0.

ComputersI solved problems as they arose and kept things going. I then spent a lot of money on a next-generation machine to replace it. I was using it for e-mail as late as 2005. Really, though, the writing was on the wall. I had bought a Windows PC back in 2002, initially just to access web sites the RISC OS machine couldn’t reach. However, RISC OS was in what seemed to be a terminal downward spiral, as I lamented in 2007 (when I consigned my old machines to the cupboard):

It would have been tempting at this time to simply say goodbye and switch to Windows, but I didn’t — partly because I’m a stubborn bastard, but mainly because there were lots of good reasons to continue with RISC OS. The PC world was stuck with Windows 98, which had all the lovely games and multimedia addons (“Intel Inside! Dun-dun-dun-dun!”), but simply wasn’t as pleasant to use, and was dogged by complaints about reliability. RISC OS just seemed so much… nicer. Unfortunately since then the situation in the RISC OS market has declined, to the point where RISC OS is no longer viable for me to use for serious work.

With Acorn no longer an option, my attention turned to Apple, which enjoyed something of a resurgence throughout the noughties thanks to the iPod and later the iPhone. In 2006 one of Apple’s newest products caught my attention:-

Robert wants a Mac Mini.

That was 2006, and I was conscious at the time that my Windows XP machine would need to be replaced soon. Apple’s shiny, tiny computer was seriously tempting, but, as I said a few months later:

I’m not going to leap headfirst into getting the Mac, though. I’m going to do some research first. I saw The Mac Mini Guidebook, which has loads of info for PC users wanting to switch to the Mac Mini, in Waterstone’s. There’s also that rather nice Apple Centre in the Albert Dock.

This was in the dark days before Liverpool ONE and its Apple Store, otherwise known as March 2006. Fast forward to January 2007, and Mitchell & Webb’s “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads are becoming etched into the public consciousness. It seemed as though they were working for me:

I want a Mac. And I want one NOW. Somebody buy me one!

So, did I buy a Mac? Well…:

A nice Irish lady phoned me up today to say that Dell will be arriving at my house on Monday morning to drop off a brand-spanking new Windows Vista PC with 19-inch LCD monitor, preloaded with Microsoft Office 2007.

My name is Robert Hampton, and I am Bill Gates’s bitch!

I’m so ashamed. I plumped for a new PC running Windows Vista, which proved to be a misjudgment on my part, as there were problems throughout. My only concession to Apple during that time was to buy an iPod nano.

There were vestiges of my former militant anti-Microsoft stance still remaining throughout the blog, however, such as in this blog from October 2004:

How did everybody in the IT industry fall asleep and permit Microsoft to become the dominant power in the computer world?

Ludicrous security holes, an e-mail client which cheerfully executes random code, a default browser which will unquestioningly attempt to install “precision time and date manager” without warning you that it is spyware which will pop up hundreds of ads for porn sites per second. And that’s just the beginning.

By 2004, Salvation from Microsoft hell was on the horizon, however:

Finally got round to installing Firefox today.

I love it! I’ve been using Mozilla for nearly a year now, but Firefox seems to be much faster and better than anything I’ve used before.

Remember that the default browser for PCs was IE6 at the time, and Firefox was a breath of fresh air (the mention of “Mozilla” is, I believe, referring to the now-discontinued all-in-one suite that combined e-mail, web browser and more in one app).

Away from the PC world, Apple continued to innovate, of course – in 2010 they announced the iPad, and I cast my weary eye over it:

I remain to be convinced that this the quantum leap forward for computing that the pre-launch hype promised us. But it’s Apple, and the brand name and lovely design will surely mean that 100 billion are sold within the first 20 minutes.

Essentially, the above blog post boils down to, “I don’t want one, so I can’t see why anyone else would either.” I was wrong, of course.

I’m quite a sceptic about new technology; I don’t particularly care for MP3 downloads compared to CDs, for example. Tesco self-service checkouts also flummoxed me.

Pitfall IIWhile new technology didn’t always impress me, old technology blew me away. Over the past few years I’ve become quite a fan of retro-computing (one could argue that, as an Acorn fan, I enjoyed using old-fashioned computers anyway). The first real record of this is in 2009, when I fired up an Atari 2600 emulator to play Pitfall II.

My real passion, though, was for the first computers I ever owned – Commodore’s 8-bit machines, the Commodore 64 and VIC-20. Lovely machines – archaic by today’s standards, of course, but back in 1987 or whatever I thought they were wonderful.

So there are several posts about Commodore’s machines: first this one, about the Commodore VIC-20. Then, later, I went on to talk about the VIC’s bigger and more successful brother, the Commodore 64, and some of the amazing games that graced the system, from Manic Miner to Mayhem in Monsterland.

The other great thing about the old 8-bit machines was that you could easily get your hands dirty with amateur coding. Earlier this year I took a look at Compute’s Gazette, an American magazine for Commodore hobbyists, which was chock full of coding tips and type-in listings.

Some of the programs run to two or three pages of quite small text. Even with the assistance of a special “Proof-reader” program (which itself had to be typed in), entering and debugging this code was not an experience for the faint-hearted.

I think my favourite bit of the magazine is the screenshots, which are quite clearly done by pointing a camera at the computer screen. None of yer fancy digitising technology here, thank you.

Modern computers have lost that interface, of course, but last year a new low-cost PC aimed to change all that. The Raspberry Pi aimed to make coding accessible to kids again, and I was excited.

The Pi has been created with educational purposes in mind. The device’s creators want to get it into schools, so kids will have something they can tinker with to their heart’s content. They will be able to write their own programs and, hopefully, learn that there is more to computing than Facebook and cutting and pasting Wikipedia articles into their essays.

In many ways, this is an attempt to turn back the clock to the 1980s and the heyday of hobbyist programming. The computers of the day were very different beasts – turn on a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum or BBC Micro and there were no fancy icons or windows to click on, just a text prompt and a flashing cursor. To make it do something useful you had to type something.

The arrival of the Raspberry Pi is a neat bookend to this blog, as the device is now able to run RISC OS, which I believe is where we came in. It won’t be the last mention of Raspberry Pi that you’ll see on these pages.

Incidentally, six short years after first mooting the possibility, I finally bought a Mac in December 2012! I thought that decision through very carefully.

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