Tag Archives: ZX Spectrum

Looking back to 8-bit computing to move forwards

In my third essay looking at increase breaches of personal information through malware and questionable security practices, I will now take a look at existing computing systems.

As security breaches have become common practice with companies and governments ‘loosing’ personal data, a new way of thinking and working with IT systems is required. There has been some recent high profile data losses, notably with eBay, Orange France, voice recording technology used by emergency services worldwide and the fallout from the Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL program’s code is still an unknown quantity.

Security researchers have complained about how the recent introduction of US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), is making it difficult to track down potential security vulnerabilities and exploits. The dichotomy of policy makers within government can be seen with another recent story where the “White House and NASA gear up for National Day of Civic Hacking”. Citizens are encouraged to find solutions to problems, technological or otherwise. This is at odds with government wanting to suppress security analysts from researching flaws through CFAA enforcement.

With the ever increasing threat from malware effecting modern operating systems of all flavours, should we all be looking at either not storing personal information on computing systems or returning to less complex operating systems? Should we be reviving 8-bit home computer booting practices to protect personal data?

I recently wrote about George RR Martin’s use of a DOS based computer running WordStar to write Game Of Thrones novels. The lack of connectivity and the use of a less advanced computer system protect Mr Martin’s work. I suggest in this article that maybe we should be looking back to the 1980s and early 1990s of 8bit and possibly 16bit home computing to look forwards again. Continue reading

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As BASIC celebrates 50 years, a revival is needed

On the 1st May 1964 BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language was initiated when at 4 a.m. Professor John G. Kemeny and student programmer Thomas E. Kurtz (who later became a professor) simultaneously typed RUN on neighbouring terminals in the basement hall of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. When they got back the correct answers to their programs, BASIC was officially born. This innovation implemented the concept of time-sharing on computer systems and set in motion a chain of events which would lead to computers becoming available to all.

At the time, computers were generally used by science and mathematics students, and required custom written software. Data and programs were often stored on punch-cards and paper tape [Footnote 1], with magnetic tape being introduced in 1951. During the 1970s there was rapid growth in different flavours of BASIC, additional functions were added with extra structuring keywords and advanced floating-point operation features.

With the introduction of 8-bit home computing, from the ZX-81, Commodore VIC-20, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro & Acorn Electron, Amstrad CPC 464 and other models and makes of the 1980s, versions of BASIC became widespread and were often integrated into the computer’s firmware (ROM chip) along with an interpreter and operating system commands. Cassette tapes were used for data storage and retrieval initially and later floppy disks.

ZX Spectrum BASIC example

ZX Spectrum BASIC example

Upon powering on a home micro an interpreter prompt would be displayed, this enable writing BASIC programs or executing commands built into that hardware platform’s operating system. For example, to load a word processor package (e.g., Tasword) one would type LOAD “” and press Enter. Then play the tape. Friends with attached Interface 1 + Microdrives or floppy disks with the later ZX Spectrum +3 (Amstrad) would be able to load data at a much faster rate than cassette tape.

With the growth of 8-bit home computing, complete source code for computer games and other programs were published in magazines and books. In the UK the BBC embarked upon a Computer Literacy Project using BBC BASIC. Over the years BASIC has continued to develop, notably with Microsoft’s Visual Basic. Some teaching guides such as the AQA A/AS Level Computing books still provide examples in Microsoft Visual Basic, however this version of BASIC is closer in structure to Python or Pascal rather than 8-bit computer BASIC.  Continue reading

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WordStar used to write Game of Thrones

BBC News reported on 14th May that Game of Thrones author, George RR Martin, still uses WordStar 4 on a DOS based computer.

The Game of Thrones author has revealed that he did not want a modern word processor amending his writing as he typed, did not fear a virus (malware) from deleting his work, or have auto-correction spell checker change words not recognised in a fantasy novel.

Mr Martin said:

“I actually like it, it does what I want a word-processing programme to do and it doesn’t do anything else. I don’t want any help, you know?

“I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lower case letter and it becomes a capital. I don’t want a capital. If I’d wanted a capital, I’d have typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key. Stop fixing it.”

Mr Martin further expanded his explanation saying:

“I actually have two computers. I have the computer that I browse the internet with, that I get my email on and I do my taxes on. Then I have my writing computer, which is a DOS machine not connected to the internet. Remember DOS? I use WordStar 4.0 as my word-processing system.”

Prior to Mr Martin talking on the Conan O’Brien show about his use of WordStar 4 on a DOS based computer, he previously revealed in a blog posting in February 2011:

“I am a dinosaur, as all my friends will tell you. A man of the 20th century, not the 21st.”

Why should such revelations produce a mini media storm? Well possibly because many have bought into the idea of upgrade to the latest product and throw out the old. However newer does not always mean better, different, sometimes less complex, but generally more complex. Having used computers since the days of the 8bit home computer, from the ZX Spectrum onwards, it is refreshing to hear what I believe to be a positive IT story.

There is much about data loss, bugs and potential compromise in the news currently, almost on a weekly basis (and sometimes daily) it seems… Orange France, Heartbleed, PayPal and eBay… to mention a few recent stories.

An important issue of connectivity has been overlooked with this micro media storm. The very lack of connectivity and complexity George RR Martin employs for writing, is the very same thing which protects his work from malware, cyber espionage, buggy software and frustrating “features” found in many modern word-processing applications and IT.

However, Mr Martin is no ‘dinosaur’.  Continue reading

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ZX Spectrum celebrates 30 years

With a plethora of articles celebrating the launch of the ZX Spectrum,  a 8-bit home computer with 16K or 48K RAM models launched 30 years ago, I thought I would also mention the anniversary of such an iconic machine.

The ZX Spectrum’s 30th anniversary coincided with St. George’s Day 2012 in England. Google produced a Google ‘doodle’ to commemorate both events on Monday 23rd April.

Google doogle of ZX Spectrum 30th anniversary on St. George's Day

St. George & ZX Spectrum 2012 – Image © Google

I have previously mentioned the ZX Spectrum in articles about the Raspberry Pi and computer programming. I remember loading games such as Atic Atac, Continue reading

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Model B of Raspberry Pi on general release

With the launch of the Raspberry Pi earlier today 29th February 2012 (6 AM GMT), I found myself being flabbergasted and happily amazed in equal measure. It took me over an hour to get onto Premier Farnell‘s website early this morning and about 20 minutes to access Radio Spares Components. I initially held off ‘registering an interest’ for a RasPi on RS as Premier Farnell had stock today, however @Raspbery_Pi twitter-sphere soon indicated Farnell had sold out in just over an hour and RS were not selling today. Soon after I ‘registered an interest’ for the Raspberry Pi on RS.

For Farnell and RS it might have seemed like a co-ordinated DDoS as requests flooded in due to demand for Model B RasPi. For me not being able to get onto these sites (as for many I suspect) has been both frustrating and exciting, as this signals the start of an exciting journey for the Raspberry Pi from 1st generation onwards. This also demonstrates a success story not just for computing technology enthusiasts, hobbyists and experts alike, but exemplifies a thirst for learning, imagination and creativity for many, due to the scope an inexpensive pocket computer running an open-source OS (Linux) can be used for.

While the media is currently focusing on programming aspects of Computer Science, the RasPi opens up computing technology for many not just in learning programming, but also for understanding how stuff works as well as for fun. With accessories such as the Gertboard due to follow later this year, the RasPi can also be put to use in other science and engineering projects, from designing robots through to controlling them. Continue reading

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How do I become a computer programmer?

With news stories earlier last year following the Raspberry Pi foundation‘s mission to get computing science taught in schools, a lack of programming skills amongst British citizens have been highlighted. For the past 15 years (± 5 years) schools have taught ICT (Information Computer Technology) skills, which are useful, but have left a whole generation of children and young adults without valuable coding skills within the early 21st century information age. A small number of schools teach computer science, however this has not been the norm due to the National Curriculum’s ICT policy; this maybe about to change.

One may ask why should this matter? Well within the 21st century it matters because of our dependence on computing and information technology for so many aspects of our lives. During the first golden age of home computing in the UK and many other countries around the world, the Sinclair ZX-81 and ZX Spectrum, Commodore VIC-20 and 64, Acorn Atom, Acorn BBC Micro (Proton) and the Acorn Electron brought the ability not only to play computer games, but also enabled children and adults to use these micro computers to learn programming and how they worked. Continue reading

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Resurrection of the BBC Micro

Will a descendent of the BBC Micro usher in a new golden age of home computing?

With the Raspberry Pi about to be released, a new golden age of home computing is set to grip enthusiasts who grew up during the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 home computer era. The first golden age of home computing ran for about a 10 year period between 1982 – 1992; it should be noted that the first 8 bit home computers appeared in 1977, with the Commodore Pet, Tandy TRS-80 and Apple II in USA, although the price of these machines were out of reach for many people.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k

Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k - © Bill Bertram 2006

Although the BBC Micro ran to about 1994 with the Commodore 64, these 8 bit micro computers were superseded by 16 bit home computers in the guise of the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. The popularity of 16 bit home computers followed on from the demise of the 8 bit micro in 1995 and ran for approximately 8 years for the Atari ST and up to the mid 90’s for the Commodore Amiga in the guise of A1200 and A4000 models.

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