The 8-bit inspiration part 0: preamble
Hi, it is Matyas again, from the neighbourhood, with a probably much more topical guest post than my previous one. It is in fact a part of a series, the "8-bit inspiration".
Apparently there is quite a significant renessaince of 8-bit computing nowadays. While those of my age are obviously prone to nostalgia, many younger folks are also touched by the spirit of the 1980-s micros. There are outstanding YouTube channels about it like The 8-Bit Guy or the RetroManCave which I'm very much fond of, and these are gaining a significant popularity. They do, however, have a stronger focus towards hardware and especially, gaming which I very much enjoy, but mine will be a different perspective.
I'm not a gamer myself, and I never was really. I like games, but as my background is in theoretical physics, to me they were not the most interesting things a computer can be used for. In addition I'm an old-fashioned UNIX power user. To me a computer without a proper POSIX shell and Emacs is hardly capable of addressing tasks of real relevance. (O.K. maybe vi is an option for Emacs… Just for the sake of Pipas who belongs to that church…) So how does the 8-bit thing come then?
Well, I grew up in the 8-bit era, too. My first programming experience is thus related to BASIC, and even from the hindsight, it was a very good start. Facing a command-line interpreter and having to write a BASIC program to make use of the machine developed a lot of skills and a way of thinking still useful today.
I just recently saw an excellent video on Retro Man Cave about the BBC Micro, the computer which was the answer to the British government to the challenge of laying the foundations of computer expertise of the new generation. And in fact, here in Hungary, behind the iron curtain, I must say our that time government also had done a good job with this. And as a kid I was one of the beneficiaries.
In particular, they had first introduced the "First School Computer Program" from 1981 with the aim of equipping Hungarian high-schools with micros and educating teachers to get the necessary expertise. Like in Britain, there was a call for manufacturers to build a computer for the purpose, won by the company "Híradástechnikai Szövetkezet", with a machine which was a clone of the EACA Video Genie: it was a Z-80 machine with level II basic, called the HT-1080Z. So they were in a way our "BBC Micro"-s, albeit hardly affordable for households: their price was comparable with a car those days. Which means that the government found this project really important. And maybe even more importantly, many people did many efforts to make real use of the new devices. There is a very good page about these computers and the whole action, really worth visiting. (Though partly in Hungarian; but let me join to Pipas' efforts to improve your Hungarian anyway.)
A few years later the "Second School Computer Program" was launched, this time to include elementary schools. That was already the dawn of the 8-bit era on the other side of the iron curtain; it happened so that Commodore sold the Plus/4 at such a bargain price that no Hungarian company could compete. (Check out this video by the 8-bit Guy to find out the detailed reasons.) Hence, the largest proportion of the Plus/4-s ever manufactured ended up in Hungary. These were not cheap in particular but already affordable even for private people like us.
And this is where my experience started: at my age of 10, the brand new Plus/4-s arrived to our school. Our maths teacher was sent to a course to be able to teach us, but the computers were shipped with very good books. These included the original manual translated to Hungarian as well as great books to learn Basic programming with excellent exercises just for us kids. A few months later we were writing loops and conditionals like charm, and helping our teacher to get by. (Alright, also in the 8-bit era the common attitude also shifted soon towards being able to type the "LOAD" command to get to games ASAP, but at least the basic UI was a command-based, programmable thing, not a touch screen with icons…)
Why did we have those excellent books? On one hand, there was a significant intellectual effort put into the School Computer Programs, including the education of teachers and the motivation of experts to contribute. In addition, to be able to comfortably access a computer was a new experience to scientists, too. Many of them: mathematicians, physicists, engineers they knew a lot about algorithms in theory and some had experience with very expensive professional computers, but this was the time when anyone, including these very educated people could do whatever they wanted on a real computer. And this was a breakthrough. They also wrote books and even newspaper articles in DIY magazines. Many of these contain ideas which are still interesting, and even sometimes useful or inspiring to think about and play around with. These forgotten gems are the topics of this series.
As for the Plus/4, in spite of its business failure, it was one of the best 8 bit computers of the era from my perspective. For sure this is the point when C64 and Spectrum fans will anathematise me. But in fact it was much better than the Commodore 64 as it had a proper high-level basic and a built-in assembly monitor. It even had an office package in its ROM; I made my first database designs with its DB management subsystem and I wrote my first ever computer-edited text documents with its editor. The Plus/4 had colours with high-res graphics (unlike the HT-1080Z of our first School Computer Program). Not to speak about, well, sorry Speccy fans, about its keyboard…
So what shall we have here? The plan is as follows: I have my "8-bit desk" with a Plus/4 on it: And I'm in hold of a number of books of the aforementioned kind. So I plan to look for some nice ideas for programming, and play around with them on the old machine. Then we are going to look at the problem from a contemporary perspective, e.g. writing some demo code on a Linux machine and/or finding some still interesting, mostly mathematical puzzle which still harbours new insights.
If you want to go for it, follow the next posts of the series. Next time we shall draw random trees like these, just for fun: and learn about their relation to joint probability distributions of random variables.