The Computer Programme

The Computer ProgrammeOne of the best things about my day job is that I come upon a lot of old computer lore — things like INTERCAL. And the other day, a request came in for a resource page on BBC BASIC. I’d never heard of it, and I figured that the “BBC” must be a coincidence. But no. It indeed stands for the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was a programming language developed especially for a television series on BBC2 called, The Computer Programme.

The BBC is a public institution and so it actually believes in educating the public as well as entertaining it. And back in 1979, someone at the broadcaster decided that they really ought to inform their viewers about this brave new world of computers. But they wanted to do it in a very hands-on way. The problem at that time was that there were a zillion computers. There were things like the Sinclair ZX80, which are hard to imagine as computers at all. But regardless of that, they were all different, and what the BBC needed for The Computer Programme was consistency.

So they had a computer built, the BBC Micro — built on an 8-bit 6502 chip, which was hugely popular until the 8086 family became dominant. It was created by Acorn Computers. (Acorn was later purchased by Broadcom, which was bought just last year by Avago Technologies to form Broadcom Limited. It’s the nature of the computer business.) It sold at the time for £235 (about a thousand dollars today.) The new machine needed an interface, and as old-timers like me remember, that almost always meant some form of Basic. So they had a very young Sophie Wilson lead the project to create BBC BASIC.

The Computer Programme Begins!

This was all put together, and on 11 January 1982, the first episode of The Computer Programme appeared. And as you will see if you watch the first episode embedded below, it’s really good. It starts off with a discussion of Stonehenge as an early computer that eventually had to be abandoned because it was so difficult to reprogram to accommodate changing astronomical variables (eg, precession). And then they move onto computer punch cards and how they relate to silicon chips. And before you know it, they are playing a break-out pong game on the BBC Micro.

What I most like about this episode is a short reported segment about a woman who owns a candy store. She had earlier bought a computer and started doing all her accounting and inventory on it. She says that it saves her hours of work every day. But the main thing is that you can see she loves computers. I remember feeling the same way. I bought my first computer to do music on, but almost immediately, I was creating programs to calculate the value of pi and the number of atoms in the universe. It’s very addictive.

It turns out that the candy store woman has branched out and is now doing computer work for other businesses. The reporter asks her if she hopes that the computer business takes off, and the woman is very keen on this. She explains that because of some change in the traffic flow of the area, the shop has not been doing too well. Given that the woman seems like she’s about 50 years old, she comes off as heroic.

By 1982, personal computers weren’t that new a thing. But it was still a heady time with all kinds of different machines. It’s fascinating to look back on it all. Today it isn’t computers that are interesting but the network itself. In those days, you were on a computer. Today, virtually everything I do is online. The computer is just a portal — more like a television than computational machine.

Morning Music: Ladies and Gentlemen

Love Songs for Patriots - Ladies and GentlemenOn at least one of my videos, I used the first three words from the American Music Club song “Ladies and Gentlemen.” It’s off the album Love Songs for Patriots, which is perhaps the least known album in the band’s canon. That’s because the band broke up in 1994, after the commercial failure of San Franisco — an album I’m quite fond of but was generally seen as a disappointment. And they did nothing for almost a decade, and then got back together for this new album. What is so remarkable about it is that nothing had really changed.

I have a theory about success in pop music: it has to come early. If American Music Club was going to hit, it was going to be with “Firefly” off California. The problem is that while the writing only gets better, it also gets more adult. Now Mark Eitzel was never writing bubble gum, but at least “Firefly” had a a youthful yearning that appeals to kids, “You’re so pretty baby; you’re the prettiest thing I know; you’re so pretty baby; where did you go?” Of course, Eitzel was already pushing 30 when he wrote that; he was in his mid-40s by the time of “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

The music is typical of American Music Club: a deeply layered punk that feels like it is only in the assured hands of this band that it doesn’t explode. The lyrics are a call for all of us (ladies and gentlemen) to be ourselves. Given that Eitzel is gay and he lived in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s, it is easy enough to see the song in that context. But I don’t think it needs any context, “If you can’t live with the truth, go ahead, try and live with a lie.” To me, that’s the story of life — the story of growing up.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time…

Anniversary Post: Oscar Wilde’s Persecution

Please forgive me for recycling last year’s anniversary post. It took me a lot of work to do the transfer of my sister’s old blog to here. Plus, I think what happened to Oscar Wilde was outrageous. But then, what else is new? It reminds me of an article I wrote almost exactly three years ago, Michelle Obama and Downton Abbey. In that, I wrote, “It allows people of today to look down on people of a hundred years ago. Yet people today have prejudices that are every bit as pernicious; they simply have different prejudices.” So today we don’t lock up men for the crime of sodomy. And that’s good! But it still drives me crazy that millions of American lives have been destroyed and continue to be destroyed by laws that the man currently in the White House violated.

The Picture of Oscar WildeOn this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested for the crime of sodomy. It’s an outrage, of course. Just the same, Wilde brought it on himself. The Marquess of Queensberry left a note for Wilde at his club, which read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” So Wilde sued him for criminal libel. Of course, Wilde was a sodomite. And the Marquess had no trouble finding male prostitutes who would testify to that fact. So Wilde lost the case.

Immediately after that, a warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest. He went to court and lost. He was given two years in prison, although the judge believed that the acts were so vile that they deserved far more than that. After serving the full sentence, Wilde went to France, where he should have gone long before. He died about three years later, his health having certainly been compromised by his time in prison.

Pretty much everyone today sees the treatment of Wilde as ridiculous. I think it is interesting, because drug users are treated exactly the same way today. And what is the difference? In both cases it is private behavior. But things have reversed over time. In 1895, opium use was generally considered a bad habit — much like tobacco is today. But homosexuality was seen as a grave threat to society. Today it is drug use that will destroy society. There is really nothing but bigotry behind both positions.

We mark this day as the start of the persecution of Oscar Wilde. The only thing that has changed is which people the UK government persecutes.