Friday, April 4, 2014

Birthday retrotech surprise! Here's a hint: it's made by a leather company...

OK, so this wasn't my birthday cake -- I had trifle. But if I was 27 years younger, maybe it could have been:
A CoLeCoVision? No no -- this is retrotech from the /other/ great leather-electronics company. When my partner saw the TRS-80 Colour Computer MC-10 in the thrift store, still in its original box (discontinued in 1984, /30 years ago/), she suspected it might be up my alley. She called up one of my compatriots (who is kindly maintaining custody of my C64, VIC-20 and Sega Master System in his basement while I get my storage figured out). Despite the burden my collection has already imposed upon him, he suggested to her that it was, indeed, my thang. Little did either of them realise that the CoCo was the first computer my family owned, and its green screen and rubbery keys carried with them a great deal of nostalgia for me. This model is only slightly more gutless than the one I cut my teeth on, but that one is long since rubbish -- after having caved in, melted after sitting next to a desk lamp's hot light bulb for too long!
My family actually owned two CoCos, I suppose because we were gluttons for punishment, though my dad's was an enhanced model. I remember my father slaving over his university essay on Milton's Paradise Lost in its Color Scriptist word processor, which he then insisted I use for my Grade 4 presentation on City States of Ancient Greece. You could safely figure that I was the only kid in my class submitting computer-printed manuscripts in 1988. Circa 1993 my now-ex-brother-in-law made the mistake of telling my father that he could really use a computer for word processing on, no doubt angling for a juicy loan with which to buy a current machine, but instead he was bequeathed my dad's CoCo 2 complete with all our software cartridges and audiocassettes, its printer and tape deck. Which I'm sure all went immediately into the garbage. I wouldn't be able to run any of the carts on this machine (no cartridge port!) and surely the magnetized tape, dodgy enough back in '87, would no longer carry a strong enough signal to be readable today. Fortunately, it does come with its BASIC programming book, and should be able to rock any program I care to type into it. I opened it to a random page, and there it was: the hopping ogre (no Dancing Demon, alas!), hopping about on the screen to the strains of a major rendition of the Pogues' "Worms".
Given my early start (see attached period pseudocode for one of the non-random submarine simulators I found in an old notebook -- I think my handwriting has actually gotten worse since Grade 3) and considering that I've probably spent an average of 3 hours on a computer daily since the mid-'80s, I always figured that I'd end up as so many of my BBS friends did, harnessing the power of computers and programming for them to earn my daily bread. But despite logging enough hours at the C64 lab to be automatically considered a hacker by my elementary school librarians, my early interest and experience in BASIC, then Turing (a critical misstep) and, briefly, Pascal, proved inadequate to maintain the momentum -- I moved, but not /forward/. But technology kept progressing and eventually my having once been handy on the CoCo was no longer an asset in giving instructions to the kinds of computers people were actually using. My experience allowed me to tinker, hack and prank on C64s and even in QBasic on my MS-DOS PCs, but the muscle atrophied to the point where I struggle to even complete projects in Inform 7's natural language. (On the plus side, my HTML isn't going anywhere!)
So here it is: a reasonable facsimile of the machine on which I beat my head against the wall trying to make sense of the well-named Madness and the Minotaur. Because of my positive then-experience (and in spite of my negative now-experience) I like to believe that such a machine (well, maybe up to and including an MS-DOS sandbox) is suitable for use by a child as a first computer -- to become acquainted with some computing concepts and get some idea of "how" a computer works and not just "what" it does for you, because I really have no idea at all where the next generation of programmers are going to come from -- unless we're using self-programming computers at that point. I know that others would disagree -- Edsger W. Dijkstra famously quipped that "It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration." David Brin thought otherwise in his 2006 essay Why Johnny Can't Code, which proved to be quite a controversial piece in and of itself. It's a moot point, since I can't imagine my daughter -- who as a pre-verbal toddler has already figured out iOS despite our best efforts to minimise her screen time -- will be giving anything so user-unfriendly the time of day in six years. Maybe she'll have better luck with Inform 7 than I will (or maybe it'll be Inform 8 by then!)

Unrelatedly: on a birthday run to a thrift store, I saw some Sega Master System cartridges live in the wild for just about the first time I've ever seen: Alex Kidd, Wonder Boy, R-Type, Altered Beast, Alien Syndrome. The Sally Ann was asking $9 a piece for them, which is simply too much. (Garage-sale prices would be more like $9 for all of them, which I would definitely consider 8) It would be nice to have at least one game for my SMS for demo purposes (it may or may not have included Snail Maze on-board, we haven't tested it yet!) but "it would be nice" is a gateway to a thousand and one kinds of financial ruination.

In conclusion, here is another birthday cake that was not mine:

leather company (CoLeCo);