Robert Hampton

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May 2014

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.

10th May 2014

Power to the People
Posted by at 7.58pm | Television | No responses

It’s Eurovision final night, AKA “The Gay FA Cup Final”. Join me over on Twitter, where I will be waxing lyrical throughout the whole night.

Recent years have seen the UK performing quite poorly, however this year things look a bit more promising, as the BBC have employed the crafty strategy of entering a half-decent song. Could this be our year?

Regardless of how well we do, it’s always a good laugh. Nigel Farage reportedly hates it, which is enough of a reason to sit back and enjoy the show, as far as I’m concerned.

16th May 2014


Finally, some people in the media are actually challenging Nigel Farage and UKIP to proper scrutiny. Here is James O’Brien of LBC from earlier today. Break out the popcorn for this one:-

20th May 2014

Day of Thunder
Posted by at 6.25pm | Liverpool | 1 response

Heatwave conditions had Liverpool’s citizens rushing for the nearest park or beach over the weekend. Even I, not exactly known for being a sun-worshipper, ventured out into the garden (with the obligatory SPF 50 and beekeeper’s outfit, of course).

On Monday, however, the climate became increasingly oppressive and humid as the afternoon wore on. Then, around 8pm, rumbles of thunder were heard, and for the next couple of hours a spectacular storm raged over Merseyside, with torrential rain lashing down, and lightning bolts ripping across the sky.

I was holed up inside, dividing my time between exam revision and making sure all my computer equipment was correctly plugged into the surge protector. But Twitter was awash with spectacular pictures:-

For a large-size print of that final picture, check out the photographer’s online store.

21st May 2014

The Love Vote

Tomorrow there are European and local elections taking place across the UK. Here follows my usual entreaty to my readers, imploring them to make the effort to go the polling station. I don’t consider military service or standing for the national anthem to be a required civic duty, but voting is definitely something that every adult should do willingly.

Never mind the guff about “fighting two world wars for this freedom” (although that’s certainly worth considering) – when voter apathy sets in, the only winners are the extremist candidates whose supporters always turn up. This is why the North West currently has Nick Griffin as an MEP. This time round, UKIP are hoping to benefit from dissatisfaction with the main parties. While I understand the many issues people have with the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems (especially the Lib Dems), voting for Nigel Farage and his rabble of narrow-minded, ill-disciplined fools is not the answer. Do some research online; examine the candidates standing at the election, find out what they and their parties stand for. In the age of the internet, there’s no excuse for ignorance.

Again (with the caveats above) I say: please go and vote; it’s quick and easy to do and is an essential part of a healthy democracy. As long as you’re on the electoral register, you don’t need the polling card (or any ID at all) to vote. If you’re not sure where your polling station is, contact your local council or see About My Vote for more information.

28th May 2014

Sleeper Sell
Posted by at 8.07pm | Trains | No responses

Sleeper at Fort William

The Scottish Government today announced that the new operator of the Caledonian Sleeper franchise from 2015 will be Serco. It’s another blow to First Group, who currently run the service (as part of ScotRail) and were hoping to win the new standalone sleeper franchise. With this and the Thameslink announcement last week, First have managed to lose two lucrative rail franchises in the space of seven days. Maybe they should change their name to Last!!!111

The Scottish Government’s announcement is a welcome vote of confidence in the future of the service, whose future has often been in doubt. When Victoria Wood travelled on it in the 1990s, the Fort William sleeper had just been reprieved from closure by British Rail. Nevertheless, it did seem that this expensive train, which doesn’t get anywhere near covering its costs, would be an early victim of the brave new business-led railway that was ushered in by privatisation.

Fortunately, the Scottish Government has an enlightened attitude to railways and is now proposing to splash the cash. A glossy brochure points out the coming attractions. The new rolling stock will have a mixture of berths (some with en suite bathrooms) and “podbeds” (seats that can be reclined flat, with privacy screens).

Caledonian Sleeper Brochure

I have to admit, the slightly faded splendour of the former British Rail rolling stock was all part of the charm for me, so I’ll be sad to see the Mk3 coaches retired. I’m not sure how many of my fellow non-enthusiast passengers will share that view, so new rolling stock is welcome. I’ll be interested to see how features like en suite toilets can be fitted in without reducing capacity or sacrificing the ambience of the trains. A lot of press attention has focused on Serco’s Australian train operations, which include several luxury sleeper trains, but the Scottish sleepers are a slightly different market – they don’t just serve tourists, but business travellers too.

In any case, if you’ve been considering a trip on the sleeper and have been putting it off, I think you should go now, before the experience changes out of all recognition in 2018 when the new rolling stock arrives. Tickets don’t have to be expensive – an Advance ticket to Fort William can be bought for under £70 if you book far enough in advance, and occasionally Bargain Berths are available for as little as £19. To whet your appetite, check out my blog from when I did the trip with my friend Ian, or Ian’s blog from when he did the trip with his friend Robert, or the video Ian and I made when we did the trip together.