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Friday Philosophy – My First Foray Into I.T November 13, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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This is the first ever computer I used. The actual one. It is a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. It was at the heart of a long, terrible family feud, the source of much angst, anger, and even fist fights. Blood was spilt over this machine. Literally!

Picture of a Spectrum home computer

The actual first computer I ever used

Anyone who lived in the UK in the early 1980’s and is currently about half a century old will recognise this box with the grey, rubber (sometimes called “dead flesh”) keyboard. It was the model that came out after the Sinclair ZX81, which is itself a classic of early computers, and sometimes the ZX Spectrum was called the ZX82. The Spectrum could put colour on the screen (up to 8 different colours at a time!), had a resolution of 256*192 pixels, the Z80A ran at 3.5MHz, and it could make a sound. A beep basically (from a wide variation from too few hertz to hear to too many hertz to hear, and of any duration – but it was still just a beep)

The Spectrum was initially a rival in the UK for the Commodore VIC 20, BBC Micro, Atari 400 and, later, the Commodore 64 (C64). They all had their advantages, the Spectrum’s was it was cheap! Even the more expensive 48K version (as opposed to the basic 16K) was cheaper than most rivals. It even tried to make out it was superior to it’s rivals as it was simpler and had fewer chips inside it. The Spectrum and the C64 were probably the most common home computers in the UK. They might not have been the best but they ended up having a huge number of games you could play on them, and that’s what counted.

The Spectrum was the first computer in the Widlake household. My dad agreed to buy it for my older brother Simon, who made a strong argument that it was an educational tool – and the early advertising material for the machine made a lot of it’s suitability as a such, with lots of worthy software for doing graphs and learning computer languages. About the only game available for it on release was chess. Dad was of the opinion Simon was the genius in the family – he was going to go to University! (At the time no one in the family had ever gone into higher education, only about 5% of people in the U.K. did then. As it turned out, all three of us kids went into higher education). So Dad felt it was worth spending the money, as he felt computers were going to become something. He wasn’t wrong.

But before Dad agreed to get Simon the Spectrum, he made Simon agree it was something the whole family was to have access to, he was to share it with myself and Steve, the eldest. Simon agreed.

Spectrum with games and tape recorder

The spectrum needed a tape record and a TV to be used

So the Spectrum arrived. Back then, home computers almost never came with everything needed to use them. The Spectrum, like several rival computers, needed a cassette tape record to save and load programs from tapes, and a TV on which to show the image. Simon had his own tape recorder and he was of the strong opinion that, except when Dad wanted to watch the news, he could use the family TV whenever he wanted, as he was a genius. He quickly lost the TV argument, the last thing our parents wanted was to lose the power of distraction that the TV provided for the other two kids. Steve did not watch a lot of TV but as he wanted nothing to do with the computer, it would have been really unfair on him.

But Simon had a back-up plan. I had a portable TV and Simon was older & bigger than me. So he took possession of my TV. I complained to the court of Mum & Dad but the Tyrant justified his acquisition of the resource on the grounds that he was going to have to share his Spectrum with me – so it was only fair?!? “Yes” I agreed, but only when I was not using MY TV for MY watching of what ever (probably crap) I was wanting to watch. The court came down on the side of the Tyrant, but with caveat of the plaintive. Tyrant could use the TV when Plaintive was not watching it. It turned out that the reality of the situation was that Simon was still bigger than me and to my considerable surprise “I didn’t want to watch anything” whenever Simon wanted to use his – err, sorry, “our” Spectrum.

The next blow to the plans of bigger brother was that it turned out his tape deck (the one in the picture) was crap. Most games would fail to load from it. But my tape recorder worked fine… So, yes, you guessed it, another possession of mine was now to be treated as his – sorry, “our” – possession, still on the basis of shared access to the Spectrum.

So Simon used my stuff as and when he wanted, but did he share?

Sinclair User Magazine

Well, sort of. Those of us of the correct vintage who got into early home computers would buy magazines like (in our case) “Your Spectrum” or “Sinclair User”. Inside there would be long code listings of programs. Simon “let me” read the text of the code out to him to help him type it in more easily. Or, if he was in a really good mood, he would let me type the code in on my own – whilst he was doing something else (like seeing his friends or picking on the cat). I was not allowed to play it until he got back. Yeah, like I paid any attention to THAT rule…

These games you typed in often had bugs in, especially if they had a lot of code. And, to give him his due, Simon was really good at finding and fixing the bugs. Once there was a flight simulator in the magazine, spread over a couple of issues. I think it later got developed further and become “Psion Flight Simulator”. But the version in the magazine did not work properly. Simon found and fixed the bugs and even got them published in a later copy of the magazine. It taught us both that software could be wrong and that it could be fixed. I did fix some of the games myself (sometimes Under Orders from the Tyrant, who was out setting light to papers in people’s front doors or something…)

But I was not allowed to play with the computer myself without permission, and certainly not if he was out. Apparently I was old enough to enter code for him unattended but not to load up “Meteor Alert” or “Ant Attack” and have fun. You’d think from this I was about 8 or 10, but I was actually about 14 and more than old enough to recognise hypocrisy and injustice. I would say that’s what older siblings are primarily for, to teach you about these philosophies. Not by saying “this is something you should not do, oh younger brother of mine” but by amply demonstrating for real what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such bullying treatment. But my oldest brother felt no need to deliver such life lessons, so I could be wrong.

Simon would let me play “with him”. This usually took the form of him playing the game and, once he lost, letting me play until I lost – and then we would swap again. Sounds fair? Not really, as a lot of the time he would be playing on his own and I was not invited. He would be using “our” TV and “our” tape recorder but it was still His computer and he was not letting me join in. So given my lack of practice and that I was younger and not so good at computer games as him, when he did let me join in his go would last 20 minutes and mine would last 2 minutes. Basically, he liked to be beating someone. I was better than him at a couple of games, one being “Attic Attack”, as I had learned the layout. We never played Attic Attack. Oh, he did play Attic Attack. He played it on his own, trying to get better…

I could beat the Tyrant at Attic Attack

After about a year things came to a head. Simon was never going to play fair, in his mind it really was his Spectrum and also now his TV and tape recorder. After all, as he kept telling me, his computer was the more expensive item. Only, it was less expensive than my contribution combined. I started playing on the Spectrum when he was not in, as far as I was concerned I’d put more into this pot that he had and I was not going to accept this shit. As you can guess, this did not go down well with him when he found out and the Tyrant did what all bullying, older brothers did and he physically asserted his authority. He’d hit me. I was not really pleased about that, so when he’d go out and I would absolutely play on it out of spite (and also to keep my edge in Attic Attack) – and it would repeat. One time he made my nose bleed – and it dripped on the computer. That was, of course, my fault…

It was now warfare. I banned him from using my equipment. Which he ignored of course. I went to the court of Mum & Dad, but not only was Simon “the genius” but he was, back in reality, a lying & manipulative sod and he made out he was sharing and I was being a spoilt child and I was told I had to share as he was (!!!!). So I took things into my own hands – and I started hiding the cables to my tape recorder and taking the plug off my TV. He tried to work around it, one day I came home from friends to find he had plugged the Spectrum into the family TV and he’d got hold of a spare power cable for the tape recorder and he was using it, despite me banning him from it. I went nuts. I demanded my stuff back and an apology or something or let me play too and he was having none of it. So I tried to take my tape recorded back and he tried to stop me, but I was so mad I got hold of it (I think I was finally getting strong enough to fight back a bit) and, shouting something like “and you used it to load that games, so I’m taking THAT as well!” I kicked the power plug out the Spectrum. Game gone, no tape player to load one up, games afternoon with his friends was over and there was nothing he could do about it. He went BERZERK, trying to wrench the tape drive back off me but I was so furious I held my own and I think I even kicked his computer again. He was straight off to Mum saying I was trying to break his computer. And this time, the Court of Mum & Dad finally realised Simon was being a little shit. He could not deny he had used my things, even though I had told him he could not, and he could not claim I started it or acted unfairly or attacked him first (his usual stance), as his mates backed me up. Yeah, his mates dobbed him in it!

This led to a full judicial review and this time the voice of the Plaintive was heard (after all, I had witnesses and I must have been pretty mad at him to be taking the plug off my TV!). Simon was told to play fairly or else… have his precious Spectrum removed.

Amstrad CPC 464

This was my Amstrad, I bought it, Simon was not using it.

After that, it got a bit more equal. I did get some time on the Spectrum myself (though I did sometimes have to get enforcement from the judiciary) and I did not just play games, I had typed in a lot of programs for Simon and fixed a few of them, so I slowly learnt how to program. I wrote a couple of my own simple games and put in stuff from magazines I wanted to try but Simon had no interest in.

But it never did really completely end. He could no longer stop me using the Spectrum. But if I was using it and Simon decided he wanted it, he would just bully me, or tell dad I was stopping him “learning” (I am not so sure what you learn from playing “Jet Set Willy”). That Spectrum came, for me, to represent what a selfish, lying, bullying, devious shit my older brother was. I swore one day it would be mine.

Then I got my own computer, an Amstrad CPC464, which I bought with my own money I earnt from months of back-breaking fruit-picking work (Simon was “too good” to do manual labour, so he had no money). It had not been bought by Mum and Dad, it was in no way a shared resource, it was totally mine. And guess what I said to him when he asked (well, demanded) to use it?

Yes, he could Fuck Right Off.

And I was now strong enough that it would be a more equal fight if he tried his old tricks (manual labour will do that for you), so he decided against that. He could keep his crappy Spectrum.

Well, the Spectrum is now mine. I picked it up from Mum’s house this week. Simon passed away many years ago, so it’s been sitting in a drawer for almost 2 decades. Well, being a Friday Philosophy I guess I should now tell you what the Spectrum now means to me, the healing process, what we can learn from this?

Well, I can.

Simon was always a bullying, nasty, selfish, self serving sod and he got no better as he got older. So there.

And the Spectrum is now *mine*!

But I don’t have a TV to plug it into and I know already – that tape drive won’t load games…