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Friday Philosophy – My Introduction To Programming Way Back When March 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in history, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,

One fortunate thing about me is my age. Or rather, how old I was in the 1980’s. I was at school in the 80’s, I did my ‘O’ Levels (taken at age 16) in 1984. One of my ‘O’ levels was in Computer Studies. This was before Windows and Excel and Word and all that office software, before the internet was in existence (TCP/IP was only standardized in 1982!) and phones were all tethered to the wall with a cable. What were we taught in Computer Studies? Programming. That and a bit about hardware, but mostly it was programming.

This beast had  about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

This beast had about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

In the first year of my two-year course we had just two computers to use between us, both RM 380Z’s I think, so we wrote out our programs by hand and worked through them logically to try and get them as good as we could before our turn came to put them into the computer and run them. This was of course painful, but our programs initially really were of the terrible simple “take in the temperature in Centigrade and convert it to Fahrenheit” scale of things, before we went all crazy with power and wrote a program that would ask you which way you wanted to do the conversion. We all had a 5-1/4 inch floppy to store our programs on but were told to take great care of it as they would not be handing out more! Needless to say, it was not long before most of us were turning up at the “computer room” (the schoolroom with the two machines and the broken lock) at lunch times and after school in order to get more time on the machines. The only problem was that in our first year of ‘O’ level we had to contend with the older kids from the year above us and they did not like us oiks turning up to use “their” computers. At least we were introduced early to a key concept of a career in IT – working outside and beyond the standard office hours.

For some of my class mates, they had other options. The early 80’s were also when home computers burst onto the scene and some friends had ZX81s, Vic 20s, Acorn Atoms, Dragons or, gasp, commodore 64s. My older brother had a ZX Spectrum, with the 48K ram pack.

My brother's spectrum, access denied to little me

My brother’s spectrum, access denied to little me

However, the Spectrum was not available to me as my miserable bastard of a brother would not let me near it. You might think this was reasonable as he was the older brother and it was his computer. But it was plugged into my portable TV and my cassette tape recorder. This was what you had to do with these early home computers as almost none came with a “monitor” and most with no storage device. Certainly no internal hard disc! When you turned off the computer, whatever program you were running immediately evaporated out of memory and you had to load it up from tape next time you turned the computer on – given that you had saved it to tape first. Games came on cassette tapes so before you could play, you had to load it. For. 10. minutes. I think one person had access to a machine that could use our precious single 5-1/4″ floppy but he was not happy as that computer was rubbish for games.

{For anyone reading this who is less than 35 years old, before downloads we had CD’s, which you know about. Before CDs we had vinyl records, which you may or may not know about as they became cool for a while again. Before CDs we also had cassette tapes, which you may not know about, which were about the same size as a credit card but about 1.5* as thick as an iPhone. You could record between 30 (C30) minutes and 2 hours (C120) of music onto them, over and over again, and they would fit in your pocket. But then the tape would either eventually stretch (especially if it was a C120) leading to very waily, odd playback, or your cassette player would “eat” the tape and you would spend 30 minutes with scissors and tweezers pulling it out of the machine. Ahhhh, the memories.}

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

Where was I? Oh yes. My brother used my TV and my cassette player which, together, had cost more than his computer. He felt he could just use my stuff as he wanted but I could not use his computer. If I was watching my TV when he wanted to use his spectrum, he would get really obnoxious and aggressive until I “agreed” he could use it. But I was never allowed to use his spectrum (well, not when he was around to know, anyway). You might pick up that this could have led to a little bit of sibling angst and an ongoing feud that continued into adulthood? Too damned right!

RS 480z - we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

RS 480z – we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

Getting back to the main thread, unlike most of my class mates I was limited to using the two computers at school. However, when I came back to school after the summer break between my fist and second year of doing my ‘O’ levels I came back to find they had finished building the dedicated computer room. It had air conditioning, a working lock on the door, about 16 RS-480Z computers and a smell something like melted plastic, new carpet and nail varnish – which never went. There was also some sort of shared storage, I think it was another 480z with a hard disc in it that all the other machines could see. So we all had a machine to use during lessons, the ability to save and load the programs all the time and programming really did become the thing we did. Due to the afore mentioned brother issues I still ended up doing some programming at lunch times and after school, fighting off the oiks from the year below…

My first real program that I remember doing, which I felt was more than a glorified calculator or pathetic painting of a house in lines and boxes, was a program that played Naughts and Crosses, or Tic-Tac-Toe as our US friends would (in my opinion, crazily) say. I don’t recall how long it took but I do remember my teacher telling me I was maybe being a bit “optimistic” when I said I wanted the computer to play rather than just letting two humans play against each other. I got it to work. Go Me!

As I said, I can’t really remember much more about what programs I wrote, it is a long time ago and my memory is poor. But I do remember that most of the course was about understanding programming and hardware, such as it was back then. As the years went by into the 90’s and 2000’2 I’m told the programming side first reduced and then almost {if not totally} disappeared to be replaced with being taught how to use computers and packages. ie Windows, Excel, Word and the like. So I grew up and was at the “right” age when home computers came along and schools in the UK taught at least some of us to program.

I still have one of these somewhere...

I still have one of these somewhere…

I got a ‘B’ in the final exam, which was OK. So that set me on the road to programming and my career? Well, no. After my ‘O’ level, I did buy my own computer, an Amstrad CPC 464 (maybe not a great decision!) and I did do a bit of assembler and programming, but mostly to try and hack into the games I was playing. By now I was doing my science ‘A’ levels, there was no option of an ‘A’ level in computing and no computing element to my ‘A’ levels. Then I went on to college to study biology, where computers were not really used much outside of the computer science department. There was a terrible programming course I went on as part of the Zoology half of my degree but it taught us less than my ‘O’ level and computers were just not a part of the Genetics half of the degree I did – which looking back at it, stuns me. We used to work out the general size and layout of plasmid genomes (bits of bacteria) by hand on paper. I got sick of doing it and wrote a program on my CPC 464 to do it and, for a few weeks, academic life was easy. My tutor got really mad when he found out I had written a program to do it. I don’t know why and I don’t think he could tell me why, he just felt I was cheating. Oh well.

Of course, once I left college life took another turn and I landed back in the world of computers {back then they would take people with no programming skills but good logic/maths and train you from zero}. But I already knew how to program and that gave me a bit of help in my first job. I could spend more time than my colleagues could worrying about how to be an adult rather than how to start programming. I might be able to program, I’m still struggling with being an adult.

Update – as Niall points out in his comment, things are now improving at schools AND colleges. What originally prompted this was a discussion I had with a friend who had just finished his computing course at college. The course was about computer games. And had involved no programming elements at all, it was all about design, marketing, testing, running a business… I was stunned. I then made some comment about at least he would have learnt about programming at school, but no, he had not. I was stunned again. But he knew that it was coming back – as covered so well by Niall.

I suspect the Raspberry Pi has helped too, though most people I know who have bought one are, well, mid-40’s people who did programming at school…



1. Niall Litchfield (@nlitchfield) - March 13, 2015

Ah memories, though I suffered from the Philip Larkin syndrome, we didn’t have a computer of any description since they were “just a fad” according to my Dad. Of course now I seem to spend half my time trying to persuade my boys off Minecraft so perhaps its just a parent thing.

Anyway I digress. The comments on computer science in UK schools are, hopefully, a little out of date now. It looks like at long last we’ll get children who have studied the subject, not just been given training in office suites. The official guidance was revised a couple of years ago and is at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-programmes-of-study . That’s rather high level so it might also be worth looking at the discussion paper that preceded it http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/ComputingCurric.pdf That whole site by the way is also one of the best arguments for BCS membership I’ve ever seen.

In short we now start with algorithms and code ( for 5 -7 year old children) and work up. There are some challenges of course, not least that many of those responsible for teaching this are errm not as fortunately aged as you and I and so themselves need education and training. There are lots of things that have happened under our current government that I don’t like, but this change is absolutely not one of them.

Right, I’ve been nice about government, I better go and have a lie down ^H^H^H^H^H update my architecture diagrams..

mwidlake - March 13, 2015

You are right Neil, about the teaching coming back – that bit has dropped out of my translation from notes to blog (yes, I know, hard though it is to believe I DO actually prepare some of these). I’ll add in a paragraph.

2. jgarry - March 13, 2015

Floppies! Luxury! I should box your ears with my boxes of cards!

My younger boy is going to high school next year and we went to an orientation session. They have games programming, in java, by the third course they are doing 3-D games. They were showing last semester’s project, very much as I remember Duke Nukem. The instructor was saying no programming experience needed, but math and logic ability was determinant. While playing these games on the big projector.

They also have amazing music composition and digital arts courses, mostly Mac.

I want to invite them on my lawn.

mwidlake - March 14, 2015

That’s good to known, Joel. Not everyone at school right now will need to program. Not everyone at school now will need to appreciate physical geography. Or Literature. Or Chemistry. Or Philosophy. Or politics. Or the free market economy. But knowing enough about those topics to know when something it correct and when something is just wrong will stand any young person in a good place. Programming has been missing recently. I would argue that philosophy and logic have been missing for (checks calendar) 47 years plus.

Let’s help the little buggers to *think*.

3. David Harper - March 14, 2015

My godson’s parents asked me for advice recently on his choice of GCSE subjects. His school offers both ICT and Computing, so I researched the curriculums for both options. I was horrified at how non-technical the ICT curriculum is, but on reflection, I suppose it suits the majority of kids who are never going to become IT professionals.

I’m deeply skeptical of the government’s “teach everyone to code” initiative. Like you, I was a geek in school and taught myself to program, but there’s evidence that aptitude for computer programming isn’t (a) universal and (b) something that can be taught (http://www.eis.mdx.ac.uk/research/PhDArea/saeed/paper1.pdf). Is this something that we really want to force on kids who have neither the aptitude or the interest?

Then again, we could ask the same question about maths, art, music, English literature, French and so on.

mwidlake - March 14, 2015

I agree David. Some people are just not good at some things. I am very, very poor at foreign languages. I’ve tried, both at school & after and I am rubbish. Some people will never be any good at logic and programming so should all be forced to do it?

But I am also dyslexic (mildly). If I had been given the option to cry off English lessons on the basis of that, had it been identified when I was at school, would I have done so? What would have been the impact on my education? Would I have effectively given up on things? As it was, I just got penalised in pretty much every exam for terrible spelling and my slow reading speed was always an issue. But not knowing there was an excuse, I just tried harder.

Maybe forcing everyone to do some programming would help them to understand logic and working within a constrained set of rules?

4. Noons - March 14, 2015

I still recall being called a “darn idot innovator” when I insisted in my second professional job that we should ditch punched cards and use diskettes instead to send our code to the computer centre.
(Yes, it was in the “cloud”!… )

mwidlake - March 14, 2015

🙂 You bleeding-edge-technology rebel you!

It’s interesting how for those of us who have been in the industry for X years, where X is more than 20, we look at what changes we see and yet (well, at least in my case) still take a mental step back when those just a little longer in service say things like “Yes! I used to punch tapes by hand!!!”. They talk about the rate of change now, and it is rapid, but sooooo much changed between mid 70’s and mid 80’s. Soooooo much.

Maybe that is why us old bu66ers can still keep adapting, we’ve been doing it all our working lives.

BTW I did come across punch cards for real, but I was working in public health services where things lasted longer. Us youngsters came in when you could change a Winch hard disc by hand (if, in my case, you have me a box to stand on).

5. Friday Philosophy – If Only I Was As Good a Programmer As I Thought I Was Aged 22 | Martin Widlake's Yet Another Oracle Blog - January 29, 2016

[…] started programming in school, I did an “O” level in computer studies (the exams we sat in the UK aged 16, up until […]

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