Tuesday 26 April 2022

Excavations in the Midden-Heap of my Memory

 And now for something completely different

My secondary school was Morgan Academy, Dundee.  In my class there were two people who later became professional newsreaders - Susan Rae and Craig Millar - that can't be very common.  Susan was already well-known as an award-winning singer.  But I particularly remember Craig because it was through him and a friend of his whose name I can't remember now that I got to know most of the classic Monty Python sketches.  My parents didn't approve of MP so we didn't watch it in our house.  But the next day Craig and his friend would re-enact the routines during break time, so that was how I got to know the dead parrot sketch, the four yorkshiremen, nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, etc., etc.

Northern Lights

In my second year at St. Andrews University, I shared a flat with a few people including a certain Robert McNaught.  To be honest he seemed a bit of a weirdo (which could probably have been said about me too).  He was fanatically obsessed with practical astronomy.  He would stay up most of the night, photographing the night sky, searching for meteors etc., then sleep in and miss his lectures.  One night he woke us all up to tell us that there was a spectacular display of the Northern Lights; that's the only time in my life I have ever seen them.  However he fell out badly with the academic astronomers, one time they accused him of coming into the university observatory when drunk and misusing their equipment.  Eventually he graduated with a degree in Psychology.  So recently I googled him and discovered that he is now considered the world's greatest comet discoverer.  He lives in the Australian outback with a partner called Tanya and retired a few years ago after a "stellar" career in more senses than one.  He has both an asteroid and a comet named after him!

I did learn something important from Robert.  At one time he asked me about how he could approach doing some astronomical calculation by computer.  This was long before the days of home computers, there were probably two or three computers in the whole University, and the kind of "user-friendly" interfaces we take for granted now were a distant dream.  Robert was a clever guy and he knew what he wanted to do, but he was not a computer specialist and could not see how to achieve it.  I don't think I managed to give him much practical help, but his question started me thinking about how computer systems could be made more accessible to a wider audience.  That theme is something that has stayed with me ever since.  I think it's a lesson that some of my colleagues would do well to learn; sometimes there is an attitude that if the programmer can solve the problem to his/her own satisfaction that is all that's needed, but that solution actually has little value if it can't be comprehended and used straightforwardly by other people.

The Dawn of Functional Programming

At St. Andrews I studied Maths, Physics and Computing; while poking around the computing lab I discovered the manual for a strikingly innovative programming language which had just been invented by one of their junior staff, David Turner - a year or two later he wrote his PhD thesis on it.  I started experimenting with this and wrote various programs in St Andrews Static Language (SASL), which made a lasting impression on me.  SASL was the first computer language to turn purely functional programming from a theoretical idea into a practical technique, and gave rise to a whole new area of computing.  It then took a long time to move from academia into industrial practice, but is now recognised worldwide as an important alternative programming technique which has some downsides, but also some significant advantages.

What a load of old KACC

I later dropped out of university due to mental health problems.  But I had caught the computing bug, so when home computers started to emerge a few years later I was keen to experiment with them.  In those pre-internet days information about such things was spread by computer magazines and also by local clubs which sprang up all over the country.  One such club was started in my home town of Dundee, and I soon got involved.  This was the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club (KACC), which met at Kingsway Technical College.  The club ran for quite a few years, I was its secretary at one time.

Some of the young lads who came along were fanatical about games (which never interested me much) and started writing their own, showing off their latest work each week at the club.  A group who had met at the club then set up a company to turn this interest into a career.  After a few moderately successful releases they hit the jackpot with "Lemmings" which sold in millions.  A recent documentary looking back at the development of Lemmings can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbAVNKdk9gA.  I don't know of any other computer game which has been commemorated with a group of bronze statues.

The same people later developed the famous (or infamous) and highly influential "Grand Theft Auto" series of games. I learned recently that "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" includes a military installation called K.A.C.C., so they haven't forgotten their roots! Several other computer gaming companies were set up in Dundee by people I knew either through the club or from Dundee University, where I later worked.  One of those is responsible for the Xbox and Playstation versions of "Minecraft", another innovative and hugely influential game.  All this activity eventually led to the other university in Dundee, Abertay, setting up the world's first degree course in computer game technology.

Apart from the gamers, there were quite a few club members, mostly older, who could see the potential of computers to assist them with their professions or hobbies.  Since there were no off-the-shelf packages for such things, not even spreadsheets in the early days, they had to write their own programs from scratch.  For example I remember one man who worked in electrical engineering and was writing programs for various calculations he needed to perform for that.  I later got a job where part of my work involved professionally maintaining and enhancing some similar amateur-written software which had become indispensable to the operation of some local companies.

Early home computers had no disk drives.  They could save and load programs on cassette tapes, but this was slow and not very reliable.  Also there were few ready-made programs available, but the magazines would publish programs that had to be laboriously typed in.  About half-way through one club session, one young member accidentally bumped the main power switch feeding the whole room, turning off all the computers there.  Some of those present had just spent an hour typing in programs, only to have them wiped out before they had the chance to actually run them.  They were not best pleased 😖.

The college used to run an annual open day or days, and the club would participate in that.  We had an area with a few computers set up and we would chat to whoever came along.  One year I got access to a early speech output unit that the college had bought, and I wrote a basic text-to-speech program to drive it.  Rather naively we set this up for anyone to try at the open day, and of course the local youths got great amusement from typing in all the rude words and phrases they could think of and listening to it struggling to pronounce them.

Eventually the contacts I made through the club helped me get started on a professional computing career.  But since I'm now retired I can say I have at last returned to Amateur Computing 😎.

1 comment:

  1. On reflection, I think all these stories show that a fanatical devotion to the pope, no, to a life-goal, will eventually pay off.


Excavations in the Midden-Heap of my Memory

 And now for something completely different My secondary school was Morgan Academy, Dundee.  In my class there were two people who later bec...