Lockdown Extension Day 41

Today’s picture is of the first nasturtium flower of the year.

A couple of years ago I tried growing nasturtiums in my hanging baskets. This didn’t really work (the results were rather stumpy) so last year I tried again because if it did work they’d look good. The results were much the same, except one of them came through the winter intact. It has now flowered. So here’s the result.

Yesterday was Towel Day, in honour of the late Douglas Adams. I missed this through a spot of absent-mindedness at a critical moment, so here’s a quote from Fit the Tenth (Series 2 episode 3) explaining the definitive nature of that wholly remarkable book, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it is always reality that’s got it wrong.

So for instance, when the Guide was sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Traal literally (it said “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists” instead of “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists”) the editors claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing, summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty, and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true.

The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present before going off for a pleasant evening’s ultragolf.

This short excerpt features many interesting elements of Adams’s comedy. First is the pleasant interweaving of running gags, giving us as the audience a sense of a rounded universe that we could find our own way around in the knowledge of several of the risks involved. This particular running gag is the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, which crops up in the first episode (eating a Vogon’s grandmother, which the Vogon is – to his profound irritation – unable to do anything about without pursuing the proper line of consultation and paperwork first) and appears at periodic intervals thereafter.

An interesting pub quiz question is whether we ever actually meet a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast in the Hitch-Hiker’s universe, in its many forms. The immediate response is that one appears in Fit the Sixth – followed by a recollection that this monster is in fact a spontaneously re-evolving Haggunenon that has turned into a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast because this is a convenient shape for disposing of some unwanted wannabe hijackers of his flagship. A Beast appears in the film with the task of eating Trillian, though we never see more than its eye. It appears to live in water in a (relatively) small container.

This contrasts with the computer game, where the Beast is introduced as a shadow that turns out to be “vaguely Bugblatter Beast-shaped”. Once seen properly it has “Lasero-Zap eyes, its Swivel Shear Teeth and its several dozen tungsten carbide Vast-Pain claws, forged in the sun furnaces of Zangrijad”. This makes it sound like an artificial creation, which explains why it is generally referred to in the singular (with the notable exception of the Fit the Tenth description above).

Adams also frequently plays jokes on convoluted reasoning – the introduction of the Babel Fish is promptly followed by its use as an argument that God does not exist based on the fact that a creature so useful must have been created by some kind of deity; the Infinite Impossibility Drive is invented using a finite improbability generator owing to it being only a virtual impossibility and therefore merely highly improbable rather than actually impossible; the above quote features a twist on poetic observations about beauty being truth with the obvious response that a beautiful observation about Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts must therefore be true. The punchline of this marvellously clever argument is then neatly whipped away and followed by the fates of the people who came up with these brilliant lines of thought: the Man who proves God’s non-existence with the Babel Fish then gets killed on a zebra crossing; the inventor of the Infinite Improbability Drive is lynched by a bunch of respectable physicists; the Guide lawyers who argue nonsense about beauty being truth are summarily executed by the judges overseeing the case.

There is something satisfying about the fact that the people who make these arguments don’t actually win. They push the boundaries, but the boundaries push back. Even in an infinite universe, there are rules.

But then also perhaps part of the appeal of the humour is its innate violence; it’s got the explosions and slapstick of simple “childish” humour, but dressed up in (usually pseudo) philosophical and scientific discourse. After all, this is a story which begins by wiping out “six thousand million people” and plays it for laughs as much as shock value.

But the laughs are also played by exaggerating existing problems, especially those of our hero Arthur Dent, into little local difficulties compared with the planet-sized problems that spring up in galactic terms – and once we’re on galactic terms nobody is very interested in Arthur’s problems any more. So in Fit the First his house is knocked down, but this is juxtaposed against his planet being blown up; in Fit the Fourth it then turns out that a whole dimension of alien beings is upset not about the wholesale slaughter of the residents of the planet but at the fact that they now won’t get the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything that would enable them to understand the singularly useless Answer. In Fit the Sixth Arthur’s friend Ford expands on a planet that got potted into a black hole during a game of intergalactic bar billiards and killed ten billion people – “only scored thirty points”. In Fit the Ninth Arthur has an argument with a drink dispenser, which episode (via a vision in the sky) later turns out to be responsible for the dominant race on the planet Brontitall staging a revolt against their electronic gadgets.

So here lies a message all difficulties are local and personal to us, even when they affect billions of people, but at that level they become impersonal masses of numbers. Such impersonal masses of numbers, in fact, that at one point an entire battlefleet is accidentally swallowed by a small dog due to a terrible misapplication of scale. Of course, once we are involved personally these impersonal masses of numbers become terribly important to us, perhaps as justification for our point of view (the plural of anecdote is data after all) and to this end in the computer game it is very important that the dog – usually just a throwaway gag – does not eat the battlefleet.

Perhaps this sense of one person finding his way through a big and confusing universe, filled with impersonal masses of numbers, is another reason why Hitchhiker’s, in all its forms, is so popular. The universe is a big and confusing place but, through one means or another, Arthur finds the people who matter to him – be that a staggering coincidence involving an Islington ‘phone number or the whereabouts of where he thinks he left his cave. Mostly happy things happen (except in Mostly Harmless, which is a bleak book filled with fairly unmemorable happenings).

So we have local difficulties reduced to amusing anecdote because they happened to other people, twisted logic from irritating clever-clogs (who don’t get anything out of being a clever-clogs) and slapstick jokes. It’s a reassuring world to grab onto in the style of all great children’s novels, but a thing to hold onto is just as relevant in adulthood. Some more adult-y jokes (booze, expensive restaurants, rude words) plus the detailed scientific theories round it out into a graspable, intelligent world. It sounds like a good basis for something worthwhile.

Later Adams would get an entire computer game out of the difficulty of getting the bank to send him a new credit card. Perhaps his writings, even in this relatively obscure Infocom text adventure, are responsible for the fact that this now just involves walking into the bank. (Well, it does with mine. And admittedly not at the moment.)

Lockdown Extension Day 40

Today’s view is looking northwards from the flanks of Mynydd Tan-y-coed above the Fathew valley.

The road below is the B4405 Bryncrug to Talyllyn road, though perhaps the valley is better identified as the one used by the narrow-gauge railway that purports to go to Talyllyn and doesn’t. The car park at bottom left is for the Dolgoch Hotel and Dolgoch Falls, which are of course better reached by the said railway. It’s lost somewhere amongst the trees at the very bottom of the picture.

The shallow cross-valley, home of a hamlet called Abertridwr (“mouth of the three waters”) carries through to the valley for the rather larger Afon Dysynni. To the left is the green and shiny form of Foel Wyllt (288m). To the right is a general bit of lumpy raised ground, the main feature of which is the Bird Rock. This splendid 233m lump of rock looks out over the Dysynni some distance to the east of the spot where this picture was taken, and so is not in shot.

Further to the north is Allt-lwyd (392m) which sits as the western end of the ridge that eventually rises into the handsome mountain of Cadair Idris. Lurking to its left are the lower and flatter terrains around Llangelynin and Rhoslefain. (Llangelynin has the notable feature of having lost its rail services in 1991 because the annual revenue was inadequate to justify installing an extension lead from somewhere to power a platform light.)

Beyond that is the Irish Sea, doing its best to merge seamlessly into the sky.

In today’s excitement, the Order of the Bed has staged a new breakthrough in automation by creating a programme for writing press releases:

Presently, after about two hours of work, the software is at version 0.2. For version 0.3, there will be the ability for the outside person’s comment to observe on whether this event is “richly deserved” or “wholly undeserved” to reflect whether it is a positive or a negative press release. By version 1 the aim is to make the sentences consistently read correctly without requiring additional user input. At some point the responsible IT expert will also make sense of the bit in the user manual about exporting the output to disk. (There is some departmental intrigue as to whether the Boris Johnson quote is genuine, given that he is supposed to be busy sacking someone at the moment.)

The Order will of course be offering this service to the public, especially to anyone who is willing to pay it a £30k annual retainer for consistent auto-written press releases instead of employing some media graduate on £20k per annum to produce inconsistent ones instead. The software can also be licensed subject to the following system requirements:

  • Operating System: Atari TOS;
  • 3½-inch double-density floppy drive;
  • 10kB of memory;
  • This software is an add-on to ST BASIC, which the user must acquire first.

To celebrate, here is a rousing song about ironing goldfish:

(Ironing goldfish is understood to be inadvisable owing to the uncertainty as to whether the desired results will be obtained, and as to whether these desired results are desirable.)

And now, some News

In today’s leading news story, Man has 30-year-old computer that Works!



Anyone would think it was the only working computer from the 1980s.

This one works too, and it seems to have done more work than his has. Proof indeed that his parents were daft to buy an Apple when they could have bought an Atari instead.

Atari 15 JPG.jpg

(Regular readers may note that since 2015 the Atari has moved.)

Points are awarded for identifying what is being done on the Atari.

Atari 16 JPG Atari 17 JPG.jpg

Meanwhile I am off to see if I can track down the disk with the manuscript of Templars, Hospitallers & Teutonic Knights. (This book is available from all good second-hand bookshops – and remember, if you can’t track it down that means that nobody has sold their copy to a second-hand bookshop, so it must be worth having. Send the author a cheque for a very large sum of money, bearing in mind that you’ll be lucky to get it online for under $100, and ask to be put on the waiting list for the reprint.)


The Internet is one of the great inventions of the world. It is particularly impressive because, barring the now-optional cost of providing a line into the house and the not-wholly-obligatory cost buying something to view it on, it is generally free to use.

On one level this is because lots of people are happy to shove stuff on the internet for nothing (this blog, for example, is not terribly remunerative).

There are also websites set up to sell you things which provide lots of information on those things, which count as sales brochures that save on paper and avoid requiring you to sift quite so obviously through 874 pages of stuff that you don’t want at this juncture.

And then there are the websites paid for by advertising revenue. Advertisers supply ads to ad companies who load them onto websites in the same sort of way as they post them up on bus shelters and roadside hoardings. Unlike the bus shelters and roadside hoardings, it is easy to track when someone has acknowledged one of these ads because they click on it and the advertiser promptly gives lots of lovely revenue to the host. There may be one of these ads at the bottom of this page and WordPress would really like you to click on it. (Except for the fact that WordPress has to stay afloat to host this thing for me, I am pretty ambivalent on the matter.)

Adverts are a key feature of the capitalist economic system. They draw your attention to certain brands and encourage you to buy those as a known brand rather than buying someone else because you either thought you knew them better or didn’t know the competition existed (or did know but had never given the matter sufficient thought to consider using them).

If we don’t have adverts online, either the internet will give up or we’ll all have to start paying for it properly (set up an account with Google and pay them 10p per search, for example).

A few months ago my web browser updated and offered me a built-in ad-blocker. I ticked the box. Why?

1) Security

My mobile phone spends a lot of time, when loading web pages with lots of little adverts on them, warning me that the content of these pages is not secure. The mobile does not come with an ad-blocker, so I can’t do a proper test, but the warnings tend to come up at about the time when it’s loading the ads.

After a while I get both irritated by the warning signs (which, when supplied to excess, start to make browsing the page very long-winded) and slightly paranoid about what these ads are doing while not being secure. Ad companies who dislike this reason can sort out how to make their ads secure.

2) Browsing speed

Ads add to the time it takes to load a page. This comes in two forms. In the first, you simply have to sit and wait, staring at the page you want to use, while you wait for the ads to sort themselves out. In the second, the page apparently finishes loading and then starts moving content around and shifting links to fit the ads in.

As a result fast movers clicking at where their link was when they targeted it find themselves somewhere else entirely – occasionally on the advertisers’ site. This isn’t actually any good for the advertiser, since the usual response is to close the tab with a “humph” and find the way back to the original page.

This can make it quicker to look up journey plans with a paper timetable than a website. (Actually this remark is unfair, as I almost invariably find it quicker to check my journey plans with a paper timetable than with a website anyway.)

3) Internet usage

I spent a while last year on an internet connection with a usage cap. Ads eat into this usage cap. Most of them are high-definition and high-frame-rate. Doesn’t leave much room for anything else.

I was off the usage cap when I was offered the ad-blocker, but still in an ad-blocking mood.

There is also the small matter when running uncertain bandwidth that while Youtube videos will drop quality until they reach a happy medium, ads persist in running one high-quality offering. This can mean a lot of time spent watching them buffer-up. This is bad enough on something that you actually want to watch.

4) Noise

There are a few adverts which still insist on playing noise without being asked (most are now polite enough to play silently until a cursor is rolled over them, and occasionally I do this out of curiosity). When I already have something on in the background (say the flutes and triangles of the Iolanthe overture), a sudden blaring ad buried somewhere in a webpage that I’ve just opened in background tab is a trifle distracting.

5) CPU usage

Until a bit over a year ago I was running a 9-year-old XP computer which, being a 9-year-old computer laden with software, files and operating system updates, was inclined towards being clapped out.

The Independent‘s website, for those who have never used it, is inclined to feature two side-bars of high-definition ads which the computer attempts to run in preference to scrolling the webpage.

As a result the website was unusable for any purpose other than crashing the computer (for which function the computer needed very little assistance in its final months, until it began noticing “replacement” being discussed in my emails and went demob-happy). As a consequence of that I have got out of the habit of reading the Independent. So much for ad revenues.

6) Ads blocking views of webpages

There is a common body of thought amongst certain advertisers that when a person goes to look at a webpage, what they want is an advert to come scrolling across the whole page and tell them that a Chelsea Tractor that can pollute glaciers and run over polar bears is really cool.

It is nice to be spared the immediate implications of sharing the world with these advertisers. (The less immediate implications caused by people taking up the advertised Chelsea Tractors unfortunately have to be lived with, including cleaning the residue of the Tractors’ atmospheric pollutants off the front of my house occasionally.)

7) Ads blocking links

I have horrible residual memories of the sort of advert which crawls onto the screen when a cursor gets to near it and in the process blocks the “next” button. I fancy these were particularly common on the GoComics site. Anyway, I no longer have to bother with them.

8) Utility

I never click on web ads anyway, so webpage providers really aren’t losing much per click revenue from me not looking at them.

9) Content

Half these ads are for, variously, reclaiming PPI, “you won’t believe what this child actor looks like now”, skincare with bits of plastic and teeth whitening. I suppose I shouldn’t query who’s actually paying for these adverts and shouldn’t be snooty about the quality of ads that I ignore, but am not entirely sure about this whole thing. Has the world really got to the stage where “Mom makes brilliant skincare discovery that shocks experts”, with no obvious brand for the story-carrier, is actually money-making in itself? Or will the site nick my personal details? Do I want to try it and see? (Not really.)

10) Alternatives

I do actually pay one trusted website £10 per annum to read his news – a small roughly daily update of pictures and commentary that interests me. If it now went up to £20 I’m not wholly sure I would stop paying in protest. I also happy pay £10-£12 per month for paper magazines of similar interest, some of which I then play swapsies with for other magazines with colleagues, which you can’t really do with digital subscriptions. (For some reason I also have an idea that they are not as easy to keep or rifle through for references as the ton of scraggy paper I have recording 40 years of back railway history in my front room.) I would consider the same sort of annual rate for some other news websites (and some other websites in general), but the charges for things like the Times are higher than I fancy paying at the moment. (If I were to be got into a habit…)

(The Times is £6 per week. If I was budgeting £6 per week, or £312 per annum, for such things I’d be buying the paper. This is more a subscription for existing regular readers on the train to work than for attracting the stingy sorts who read half a dozen articles a day. The Telegraph‘s article cap, if made daily, would not be an exceptional problem to me.)

And of course a lot of websites I look at have associations of being cluttered with ads which I already don’t like and don’t trust even before these ads start getting close to payment screens. If there’s a suggestion that after paying I will still have to look at lots of ads, this puts me off the idea. That’s one thing the Times has dead right. There is not an advert to be seen on its homepage, except for itself.

Anyway, people always find somewhere to put advertising…

Copenhagen Posters 1 JPG.jpg

Not that it always does them any good – sometimes they just lose the election and have to go home to the other half in Aberavon anyway…

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Quite often it can barely be seen for the crowds…

Edinburgh 3 JPG.jpg

So you may as well ignore it and get on with admiring its surroundings.

Hamburg Hbf 1 JPG.jpg

(Still wish I had a picture of the upside-down poster that said “Because things go wrong” mind you..)

An Atari at Thirty

In 1985 Atari brought out a computer. Competitively priced – half the rate of the slightly inferior Apple competitor – and of contemporary design, it sold well and remained in production until almost the end of Atari’s computer-making career seven years later.

Atari 3 JPGAn Atari computer. Note keyboard, monitor, two disk drives, mouse and desk light.

Atari is a name associated with a strange mix of success in computing. It was one of the earliest names to appear and is generally connected with the first widely-seen computer game – a simple affair called Pong. Computing technology being what it was at the time, Pong was hard-wired into the arcade machines it was built to play on and wasn’t so much an executable as part of the machine.

Pong was as in “ping-pong” or table tennis – it was the first tennis simulator. There were two lines, one on each side of the screen, which players moved up and down to bounce a small ball between them (pixellation requirements, however, dictating that it was less a ball and more a square).

Atari then produced various games consoles through the 1970s, which were designed to be plugged into the television rather than coming with their own stand-alone monitor. These all appeared with the standard Atari logo stamped on them and their packaging – three vertical stripes, the outer ones curving away from the centre stripe at the bottom, next to the rounded sans-serif word “Atari”. What the word Atari was supposed to mean was always a bit vague.

Atari 13 JPG.jpgThe Atari brand, next to a computer model number.

The computer industry began to grow in the 1980s. Atari had the relatively niche gaming market nicely wrapped up in 1980, though things went a bit to pot and three-quarters of a million ET game cartridges ended up being quietly buried in a New Mexico desert under several tons of concrete. Meanwhile business computers were predominantly managed by IBM. Everyone else was a disruptive influence. This was a good thing, as IBM urgently needed disrupting. This was the company that might not have said that the entire world would need 5 computers (though with the growing fondness for Facebook, Google and cloud storage they may yet be proved right on this) but which everyone found it all too easy to agree probably had. Its customers essentially marketed for it with the novel slogan of “Nobody was ever fired for buying an IBM”. The complacent message: every other computer manufacturer was a risk. The press were no better than the customers, reckoning that IBM had staying power and it wasn’t worth giving competitors any attention.

Leather GoddessesEarly 1980s white-hot technology – the 5-inch disk. This example contains (or contained – it hasn’t been checked for whether it still works lately) a piece of software innocently called “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” – Phobos of course being one of the moons of Mars. In those days floppy disks were actually floppy, both in terms of the disk itself and when it was in its nice little case. The 3½-inch design has a rigid plastic shell, a metal cover for the exposed bit of disk and a proper grip in the centre for the drive to hold. Humorous anecdotes abound of incidents encountered by computer experts during the conversion process from 5-inch to 3½-inch disks, all of which are now largely lost to posterity because hardly anyone is interested in floppy disks any more.

Unfortunately for IBM, the 1980s was a decade for risks. It featured deregulation of industries, scientific exploration (this was the decade where the Voyager probes were poking at the farthest planets) and the collapse of the European dictatorships. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t have much room for complacent computer manufacturers.

What it did have room for was new computer manufacturers. There was Sir Clive Sinclair, making his kit of parts for enthusiasts to learn the working of computers by first building their own and then writing programmes for it. This developed into the ZX Spectrum – a wonderful little machine which ran off cassette tapes. The cassette tape storage medium meant that a careless storer of recording mediums, who otherwise would merely put on Pink Floyd after it had been accidentally put in a case marked Debussy, could add particular interest to their game of cassette roulette by discovering that the blank mix tape was in fact a string of binary code.

“Beep… Beep… … BeepBeepBeep… BeepBeep…”

How many budding romances such carelessness did for (or enhanced) is not recorded.

Then there was Acorn, who produced the BBC Micro. The Micro contract was mainly fought between Sinclair and his former employee Chris Curry, who was one of the top bods of Acorn. The resultant friction was the centre of a BBC docu-drama a few years back starring Alexander Armstrong and Martin Freeman. The Micro was intended to grow access to computers in schools and tie-in with BBC programming. One wonders how many of the anti-licence-fee lobby first met the future of communications courtesy of the BBC.

Then there was Alan Michael Sugar (now Lord Sugar) and his Amstrad range. The Amstrad was not the world’s most complicated machine. Some marvellously unthinkably large number of people now sit down every week to watch Sugar fire people on their computers. The Amstrad somewhat predates such concepts – as indeed did all 1980s equipment.

On the other side of the Atlantic a college kid called Bill was writing his own operating system called Windows. It ran on IBM’s Personal Computers, using 5inch floppy disks as storage mediums. IBM liked 5″ floppies. Subsequently it was realised that as Bill Gates’s operating system was merely a means of telling a computer how to interpret commands it could run on any computer which understood what Gates was trying to say, so there was no need to buy IBM’s kit specifically.

Then there was Commodore, led by Jack Tramiel, which made the C64. This was a computer with 64kilobytes of memory. It sold like hot cakes and still claims to be the best-selling computer model in the world – it being in the time when if you wanted a Commodore operating system you also had to buy the Commodore computer. Now you can download the Commodore operating system from a slightly dodgy old computing website without having to buy the computer, which is one reason why specific computer models don’t sell as well.

Commodore discovered the problem that arises when a successful first model is combined with good customer service. When the C128 came out – with its 128KB of memory – it was necessary to continue supporting the phenomenally successful C64. As software for the C128 couldn’t be sold to C64 customers – whose computers would fall over at the sight of something that needed 67KB of memory – manufacturers had to continue assuming “Commodore” was synonymous with “C64”. In due course this led to declining computer sales and a reputation for obsolesence – not that Commodore is remembered any less fondly for this.

During all of this, Atari continued trying to punch along with things like the 2600. It also tried to cope with a crazy young programmer called Steve who insisted on working nights so he didn’t have to meet his stupid colleagues. Atari was probably rather pleased when Steve quit one night, less pleased when it was found he was halfway through writing the next computer and distinctly displeased when he turned up elsewhere in the computer market, alone except for another ex-Atari technician friend, a garden shed and the Apple 1 computer.

Megaroids 1 JPG.jpgQuality graphics, 1980s style – comet-shooter Megaroids

In 1984 there was a bit of a reshuffle. Tramiel left Commodore in a huff, had a holiday and then bought Atari. Atari had been somewhat slimmed down after the ET debacle and several of its top staff had gone off to set up their own company called Amiga, where they promptly set to work designing a wonderful new computer. Amiga was now bought out by Commodore. While Commodore sorted out what to do with Amiga, their old computing team decided to follow their boss and took their computing experience to Atari, where Tramiel was trying to build a new computer.

Their mission was to get this computer designed, built and ready for production by mid-1985 – ahead of the next new computer cycle and especially ahead of Amiga.

If Amiga heard of this challenge they probably weren’t that bothered, since building an entirely new computer in slightly under a year was entirely impossible. There was therefore some surprise all round when the Atari stand at a computing event in May 1985 featured the beige, rounded lines of the 520ST. It had 520KB of memory (eat your heart out, C64 owners), a 3.5″ floppy disk drive, a mouse and the ability to run on a 16bit or 32bit basis. Buyers could choose between a low-definition colour screen or a high-definition 640×480 monochrome one. (640×480 is still available on some computers, but on a modern monitor looks ridiculous. When in “native” mode – on a computer screen designed for it – it looks like anything else.) The separate monitor was still, of course, on the cathode ray tube principle. Atari had not had time for fine-tuning. The computer itself just about worked, but the operating system was barely finished and had to be booted off a floppy-disk into the memory every time the prototype was started up, devouring valuable memory. Whether it was enthusiasm or simply that nobody had time to brand it is unclear, but the new operating system simply went by the name of “The Operating System”. Tramiel, never one for false modesty, didn’t overly object to it being called Tramiel’s Operating System. The computers themselves simply described it as TOS when asked for details.

Atari 4 JPGGEM was the desktop system. TOS is the operating system. Note the lack of information on irrelevant points like CPU and RAM. Staring at an early Atari for a couple of minutes trying to trace details of its memory capabilities is usually followed by remembering what the “520” on the case is a reference to. The designers, having invented the desktop, then turned their attention to what to do with it – being able to open windows on the desktop showing the contents of both disk drives is very handy, but when they’re closed it represents over 300,000 mostly grey pixels. The Atari computer family kept the grey background to the end. Nowadays a nice picture or a corporate logo is preferred. The pale zone across the screen is due to the camera picking up the refresh rate that the human eye normally doesn’t capture; there is nothing wrong with the monitor. The unused black border to the illuminated screen is an intentional curiosity of the design.

The keyboard was integral to the computer body – essentially there was a keyboard with a long block across the back which housed the physical computer. The block was decorated with a stylised air grill. The floppy drive took modern 3.5″ double-density disks – but only single-sided, and it counted the tracks differently to everyone else so Atari-formatted disks couldn’t be read by IBM computers. (The Atari was more patient with others’ shortcomings and happily read IBM disks.) The drive was external and had its own power supply lead. Both computer unit and floppy drive had external transformer blocks – large, heavy, black and vulnerable-looking units. The screen also had its own power lead, although this avoided the need for an external transformer. Adding a printer – the computer came with a printer slot, along with ports for MIDI equipment, a modem, a mouse, a joystick, an external hard drive and a mystery bonus Thing on the opposite end to the mouse – provided an opportunity for one computer to demand four plug sockets. “Cable spaghetti” is the technical term for what results – anyone who moves beyond using a laptop will meet at least a low-level version. The IT commentator Douglas Adams remarked at his horror of having to play around under his (Apple) computer and the difficulties of getting anything to plug in anywhere.

Atari 5 JPGThe dusty hulking floppy disk transformer makes a rare public appearance. It is the smaller of the two. Note Atari was proud enough of it to brand it (top right corner). The UK-standard plugs for the monitor, computer and disk drives lie in the background for scale. Behind is the computer unit (with grill) lumped onto the back of the keyboard. Note stylish angles and curves.

Atari 14 JPG.jpgThe computer from above. The clean-lined QWERTY keyboard is of course the prominent feature. The function keys (10 of them) are neatly stylised across the top. Beyond the deep vein is the actual computer block, a little under 3 inches wide and about 19 inches long, with its angled air-vent grill. The Atari logo seen towards the top of this post is at the top right of the keyboard. The three remaining connector leads extend out the back, with the mouse feeding off to the right.

Atari 6 JPGThe back of the keyboard, with the floppy lead nearest. Behind is the smaller monitor cable, with the black power supply furthest away. In the foreground a USB connector provides some sort of scale. The port on this side of the floppy lead is for the hard disk; the modem is hidden behind the floppy wire and the printer is beyond that.

When placed under pressure it would bomb out – a row of black bombs would appear halfway up the left-hand side of the screen. The “busy” indicator was of course a busy bee. Perhaps most notably, it included the GEM graphics-based desktop system – one of the first computers not to be text-based. Exactly how revolutionary it was to be able to click on an icon marked “floppy disk A” is simply now impossible to comprehend, even if one has used mainframe-based text-driven mouse-not-supported software.

Atari 7 JPGThis particular example of “bombing out” was cruelly induced for your enjoyment with the help of a known bug in the relevant piece of software. How the Atari programmers managed to arrange for a bit of the processor to survive the crash and provide the bombs is an interesting question.

The computer promptly went into production and began appearing on shelves in July 1985, complete with its operating system on a little floppy disk. The writer’s parents bought themselves one for a present that Christmas. It’s a friendly and reliable little machine, if now occasionally given to making odd noises.

In early 1986 the operating system was built in to the computer by the simple expedient of putting it on a chip and soldering it into the computer. Early purchasers of the computer were encouraged to return to the shop where they bought their computer for the operation to be carried out. At the time Mr Jobs made a very similar computer for twice the price and his service stores sold the operating system chips loose as an easy way of doing your own system upgrade. Budget Apple users, keen not to take advantage of any additional features offered by Atari, bought STs, removed the TOS chip and replaced it with an Apple one.

Steve Jobs was understandably rather upset about both this and Atari having a desktop on their computers, which he regarded as an Apple thing. Through most of the ST’s career, Apple and Atari spent their surplus profits on Mr Jobs’s patent suits. There was also a small war with Commodore over whether the swap of computer engineers had resulted in any bright ideas also swapping sides, with both companies happily arguing that the other was infringing patents while marketing computers with similar hardware. (Amiga’s computer has a reputation for being the better multimedia machine, but the ST looks better and was a lot cheaper.)

Once the operating system was tucked away inside the computer, Atari settled down to also tucking away the disk drive and the transformer units, resulting in a rather fat ST. The steady shrinking of computer parts and the additional space provided by this extra bulk resulted in the Atari 1040ST, which offered over a megabyte of memory and otherwise looked much the same as a 520 (except with less cable spaghetti).

Having got this far Atari decided to extract the computer (and disk drive) from the keyboard and put them in a separate box. This created something which looked exactly like the modern desktop computer – keyboard, mouse, monitor (albeit still to the 1985 design) and computer box with internal hard drive. Additional external hard drives could be added. This created a rather good office machine, branded under the Mega range. The short-lived Mega1 was basically a reorganised 1040ST. The Mega2 offered 2MB of memory; the Mega4 rounded off the range. Unfortunately for Atari, they had a reputation for making games machines. The games/ office line was almost impossible to cross – Infocom, makers of quality and intelligent games for text-based computers, also failed horribly. IBM’s machines might have been inferior, and Windows might have been Windows then as much as they are now, but in the States the slogan that no-one was ever fired for buying an IBM still rang true. Atari created a rather more long-winded interpretation, pointing out that “The slogan ‘No-one was ever fired for buying an IBM’ has never been translated into German”. The Germans liked Ataris. They sold well in Britain too, even if the odd buyer would decide that 4MB was more memory than he would ever need. Some of them were a bit puzzled by the capacity of the external additional hard drives as well, and paid extra for obsolete smaller ones.

Mega4 1 JPG.jpgA Mega4 sans desk (they prefer desks when out for more than a few minutes). The computer is now in the box under the monitor and the floppy drive is tidily tucked away inside it, along with a decent chunk of memory capable of handling all the contents of a high-density floppy disk. The 520ST resolves the problem of high-density floppy disks being three times the size of its memory by not being able to read them. (This example, when in the full flight of its career with a book designer, also had a separate hard drive plus the mysterious sounding “B: Phantom Disk”.) The mouse, lost amongst a pile of paperwork on the right, is unchanged from 1985. The keyboard is now just a keyboard, but the decorative diagonal lines reminisce about former times. Both designs have a lot of diagonal lines. Atari seemed to like diagonals.

The ST range was revived by the STacy – a portable Atari which weighed 8kg and had a 15-minute battery life when rammed full of C-size batteries. Cathode ray tube screens have their limits, so it had a modern LCD screen instead. Not knowing what to do instead of a mouse, they went for a rather nifty tracker ball embedded into the keyboard below the numeric pad. Ironically, now most trains offer plug sockets a laptop with no portable power supply is almost a reasonable proposition (almost). A slim-line design, the ST Book, with a very pale screen and a tendency to break when dropped emerged a few years later. Even by today’s standards, it was an impressive piece of portable kit.

Atari then moved back to games equipment on its ST profits, producing the 64bit Jaguar console. It flopped. 64bit was still clumsy and as nobody else made 64bit kit nobody would write software for it. As Commodore collapsed under a mountain of debts, unable to market its latest Amiga machine fast enough to save itself, Atari faded away as a company with pots of cash and no product.

The brand has since reappeared on games branding, but is no longer involved in hardware. IBM has happily faded from the hardware scene too, though this has the annoying feature that anyone who bought a pile of computer hardware in, say, 2006 will now find that the suppliers of this hardware are no longer in business or recognised by internet search engines. Amstrad, the Speccie and the Micro have all gone. Only Apple and a pile of suppliers remain on the hardware front; Windows is still written by Microsoft, who still don’t make their own computers. Sony has arisen to fill Atari’s gaming gap. Nobody has quite managed to fill one not very niche element of the ST’s capabilities – its MIDI compatibility made it remarkably good for producing professional music albums (people in the vein of Mike Oldfield, who like interesting noises).

Locomotion 1 s JPG.jpgA 2004 computer game. Note the publisher label at bottom right.


Sat on a desk in a provincial living room, on the wrong side of the house for the morning November sun to shine across its keyboard, is an Atari 520ST. “8 1985” is stamped next to its serial number, but it claims the date as the 19th of November 1985 on every start-up (the calendar function works, but resets on reboot).

It has not been much modified down the years. The “A” drive – its scratched SF354 model code highlighting that it can only read one side of 720KB floppies – still offers all the awkward eccentricities of early 3.5″ disk drives from Atari. A disk carefully formatted on a PC to 720KB can be read by almost any floppy drive in the world – except this one. It can only communicate with its “B” drive.

Atari provided all STs with the belief that they had two floppy drives to ease transferring files between disks – copying files into a “disk” in the memory and out again not being the preferred option. A disk is placed in the drive, opened on the desktop and the files copied from A to B. The computer whirrs and then asks for a disk to be placed in drive B. The disk is removed from the drive, a second one inserted and the computer told that there is a disk in drive B. It will then write the data to this second disk. The process is repeated – automatically by the computer, with manual intervention to swap the disks – as required.

My parents took the reasonable view that this was awkward – as, indeed, was the single-side limitation – so bought a physical B drive capable of reading (and writing) both sides of a 720KB double-density floppy. The Atari A drive is a hulking thing and the fact that its 24x14x6cm bulk cannot accommodate its transformer kit is quite remarkable. It has a large cooling grill at the back for something. The B drive has a black face and beige steel shell of a slightly different shade to the Atari. It is a mere 15x10x4.5cm. A USB floppy drive which I acquired earlier this year to ensure the Atari remains in communication with the modern world measures 14x10x1.5cm. When I ask for double-density disks to put in it, I either get shown the one remaining pack of high-density (1.44MB) disks in the store or people look at me blankly.

The B drive had an interesting beginning to its career; the attitudes of the postal service to people being on holiday at the time meant that it was delivered to a handy neighbour, who in due course remembered that they had received a rather valuable parcel.

Atari 8 JPGDisk drives down the years. Bottom to top: the Atari’s “A” drive, the independently-provided “B” drive and a modern USB floppy. The Atari drives spent a third of their lives in one desk structure which hid most of the “A” drive from sunlight, so only the front of the drive has faded to yellow. The back of the drive remains in broadly its original shade.

Because the Atari thinks that the A drive is two drives, the wiring for the B drive is interesting – the wires feed out of the B drive into the A and thence to the transformer kit and the computer, rather than independently feeding from the B drive to the Atari and the power socket. This also means the A drive motor runs, although the reader is off, when the B drive is working.

Sound is handled in the monitor, where there is a basic speaker hidden somewhere and a shared on/off/volume control knob. Volume is usually left off owing to the “keystroke” tone played whenever a keyboard key is pressed and the background whine that the speaker produces while idle. It is not the 1985 monitor. The ST was displaced to my bedroom in 1995 by the arrival of a Mega4 for book writing and publishing. The Mega4 shares the monitor design. Simplicity of cascading saw the ST get the Mega4’s 1990 monitor and the 1985 monitor stay where it was. It now resides in the loft to which it went when the Mega4 was replaced, at the age of 14, by a less-long-lived cascaded Windows 98 machine. Oddly it has a rather deeper background tone than the 1990 monitor when the volume is on but idle. The 1985 monitor also has an Atari logo and product code design which matches that on the disk drive and the computer itself; the 1990 monitor is marked as an “SM124” in rather more discrete text.

The Mega4 also shares mouse design. The Mega4’s mouse was always stiff and so has stayed with the Mega4 in its loft – which is no doubt of some relief to the ST’s mouse, which occasionally suffers problems with its internal wiring being old and much abused. It also has never plugged into its slot very well. My earliest computing memories are of pushing the mouse plug back in after it slipped enough to lose contact.

Atari 9 JPGThe ST’s mouse. Readers using a computer with a mouse may wish to compare how far styling has come down the years. Underneath is the once-conventional ball (which went out, along with connecting leads, around 2000). Two buttons are provided, unlike the single-button Apple mouse of the time, but there is no tracker wheel. The Mega4 came with a mousemat (in Atari grey), which is now the only bit of that particular Mega4 still in commercial use. Consequently the ST has to make do with a natty blue number.

As an aside, the two bits of yellow plastic on the upper level of the desk are for putting in the disk drives when out of use for long periods or during transport. They are particularly useful as floppy drives have little flaps on the front to keep the dust out, but fifteen or so years ago the flap on the “A” drive disappeared one day and hasn’t been seen since.

An emulator exists to convert this high-resolution monitor into a low-resolution one. Unfortunately it boots into the memory and leaves no room for anything else. So this Atari has known little of graphically-intense software like HappyWorm. Small arcade games like Tetris and Hangman are more its thing. Infocom games of course work fine, as do some of the early illustrated affairs from people like Activision. Graphic design software for 520KB is limited, excepting odd things like Doodle (referenced on the first day of this blog) and a good piece of software called Painter. Then there’s Logo and Basic for programming in obsolete languages. I can handle HTML too. Unsurprisingly, I don’t work in computing.

Atari 10 JPGLow resolution. On high resolution, when the computer is running itself in its usual way, both disk drive icons are called “Floppy disk”. The emulator renames them as “Atari disk” and “Double disk” which does rather reflect the respective drive’s capabilities. The trash can at the bottom eats anything which wants deleting, except random non-existent files which Windows likes to install on floppy disks to confuse hapless Ataris. This necessitates knocking the “write” function off Atari-used floppies before feeding them to modern computers. The nature of the Atari’s residual memory means that anything that goes in the trash can stays there; extraction is an awkward process that only works if nothing else has been written to the disk since deletion. (Essentially the computer deletes the name attached to the collection of 0s and 1s that make up the file on the disk but leaves the binary code in place until it actually needs to rearrange it for another file; the code can still be read until the rearranging takes place if the disk with the necessary software still works.)

Atari 11 JPGMedium resolution – for completeness. Weirdly thin and presumably provided so that colour monitor users could look at text documents.

So this machine has mostly been used for word processing. Even there, 520KB has its limits. Pride and Prejudice would have to be split into several files to avoid overloading the memory (and, indeed, the floppy disk). But at the end of the 1980s computing power and budgets were limited, so this little Atari 520ST has a sort of honorary PhD for its help in the writing of one (in a few parts).

The ST has various grounds for survival. There are a few odds and ends on it which don’t play on more modern computers. There is a certain appropriateness to playing Infocom games on a contemporary machine, much as all 35 are abandonware and occasionally available to illegally download onto a Windows computer (they fit very nicely in the corner of a memory stick, along with pdfs of all the “feelies” and high-definition scans of the covers, for easy portability). The word processor, 1st WordPlus, on which this blogpost was written, is simple, intuitive and quick to use. For someone given to writing stories with silly names, not having to turn off autocorrect is very handy. (Last Saturday was spent in the National Archive, trying to persuade a modern tablet running Word 2010 not to keep autocorrecting “Kerne Bridge” into “Keene” or “Kernel”. Sunday was spent with a headache. Probably a connection.)

Hitchhiker's Guide 1 JPGInfocom made the computer game of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a few dozen lines of code for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe also exist out there). This is the original packaging with original disk – it can now also be found in a corner of the BBC website, complete with no packaging and some Activision-style graphics.

Hitchhiker's Guide 2 JPG.jpgAs intended by its creators – how the computer game for one of the world’s more famous stories appeared to the original players. Infocom ran all their games with what was essentially an emulator, allowing the emulator to be tailored to each operating system and the game to remain the same. Making the whole Infocom collection available online to Windows users therefore will not have been much more difficult than updating the Windows emulator and accompanying it with the 1980s code for the games. The BBC now owns Hitchhiker’s; Activision, who bought Infocom in 1986, put Zork 1 on one of its more recent games as a random feature; the other 33 lie largely forgotten.

Mindshadow 1 JPG.jpgMindshadow – an Activision game with pictures. It has some good lines (“The boat isn’t seaworthy. It couldn’t save lives in a bathtub”) but lacks the multiple solutions multi-threaded approach of Infocom games. This makes it easier to play, but less satisfying to return to. The text below the illustration and the inventory (an axe, a bit of canvas, a lump of steel, a map, a rock and a shell) reflects the other problem with the pictures – it means managing a game on two disks. 

(Careful use of chapters – Mindshadow is divided into four distinct parts – makes this less of a problem than it might be.)

This ST also boots fast, doesn’t worry about its antivirus and lacks distractions – there is no Internet, no Solitaire, no photo album, no email, no Skype, no requests for urgent reboots to install something from Adobe, no option of dropping to the desktop and looking at something else. The computer remains to a 1985 spec so the software never needs replacing. (The suppliers are, in any event, almost all defunct – excepting Activision, which has lost interest – so pesters for updates and feedback are absent.) Cathode ray tube screens are a little more soothing than the modern LCD ones – no doubt the smaller one-colour screen also has certain benefits. With the radio off, a bit of bustle outside and a comfy chair, once one has started the scribbling can almost go on forever without realising. It’s traditional writing with a typewriter or pen and paper but with easy edit and multiple-copy functions. Just the writer, a mind and the output – interspersed with the easy whirr of the disk drive saving at pauses for thought…

And perhaps, in some ways, after thirty years (and seven pages on its background), it’s one of the family.

Atari 12 JPG.jpgThis blogpost, on 1st WordPlus, after being written. WordPlus has a spell checker but it’s a little rough-and-ready so usually I don’t bother. Formatting tools, at the bottom, use the function keys for keyboard shortcuts. Subject to computer memory restrictions, the programme will open four documents at once.

Of all the software on this computer it is probably WordPlus that has received the most use. A decent word processor that lets the writer get on with writing is hard to come by. Its support for footnotes makes it marginally more advanced (and academically-orientated) than Microsoft’s Word Pad.