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A Program from a 35 Year Old Magazine for BASIC Month and a Chat with Its Author (bytecellar.com)
113 points by janvdberg on Oct 4, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

At the People's Computer Company (PCC) we published many BASIC (and other programs) beginning in the early 1970s in a number of publications: PCC Newspaper, Personal Computing, Recreational Computing, and Doctor Dobb's Journal. We also ran storefront computer facilities where people (kids and adults) could rent time on a TTY connected to a computer. Most of the computers we used for that were DEC PDP-8s.

One of our most popular books was What to Do After You Hit Return, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_to_Do_After_You_Hit_Retur.... It remains, to this day, a classic.

Typing in a program from a magazine or book was always a crapshoot unless you really understood and could change the program simply because of the large number of different dialects of BASIC.

Microsoft BASIC eventually became a "standard" of sorts, but that was later.

I hated Mircosoft BASIC in the 80s. Platforms like the C64 had widespread appeal but the BASIC it shipped always felt backwards compared to other micro computers I used in that era. But then we were spoilt in the UK with the likes of BBC BASIC (Acorn - the same company that gave us the ARM CPU) and Locomotive BASIC (Amstrad).

That's more on Commodore than Microsoft. They kept using the cheap bare-bones Microsoft BASIC license they got for the original PET on all their subsequent computers even though later versions were much better.

"Typing in a program from a magazine or book was always a crapshoot unless you really understood and could change the program simply because of the large number of different dialects of BASIC."

Which is how lots of us learned to program.

My biggest learning experience was translating a program from Pascal to BASIC; it seemed like a fairly simple translation, but it just wouldn't work. I finally realized the massive difference between GOSUB and a function call. I ended up having to implement my own stack to make things work.

> Typing in a program from a magazine or book was always a crapshoot unless you really understood and could change the program simply because of the large number of different dialects of BASIC.

The books I remember from my childhood largely countered this by putting asterisks next to certain lines of a listing:

* For ZX Spectrum change to ...

* For C64 change to ..

I still, vividly, remember the covers of the books I borrowed from my local library. Now available for free here (scroll down to "Usborne 1980s computer books"):


Yes, I remember being frustrated trying to get magazine games to work on my Apple II with Integer BASIC (or Applesoft BASIC if I spent several minutes to load it in on cassette tape). However, I learned a lot trying to debug these games and get them to work. Sometimes I was successful and that was very rewarding. Things definitely got easier once I got an Applesoft ROM card and Microsoft BASIC became more standard.

Read about your group in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Has been a while but I recall you had a sort of social networking and classifieds piece of the store front project?

I do recall from days past that some of the content came of the Keiwit games scodelib :-) Too bad Bridge never got ported, that game smacked the crap out of my Dad :-)

I loved that book! My dad's computer store stocked it continuously for years. And Dr Dobb's of course.

If I were somehow transported back to 1983 in front of my TI/99-4a... I'd run outside to smell the grass, then head up the hill with some friends in tow to sit among the oak trees and talk about dragons and fairy lands, and only after the sun was solidly beyond the horizon and we'd eaten our ice cream and I'd let my father beat me in chess, would I lay out the list of companies he needed to invest in. I'd watch him prosper from afar until I was able to wedge my foot in solidly at IBM/MS and tell old Mr. Gates to open his eyes (and wallet) to make those dinosaurs at IBM look into what they were doing with the Amiga and Atari ST. I would drive broadband-over-cable while people were still using it to watch soft core skin flicks on Showtime, I'd show people how to implement Deflate and kick the mouse out of petek's hand before he added macros to word documents. I'd...

There are lots of people like this with fascinating stories to tell about being the first programmer or systems specialist at a company back in the 70s or 80s or early 90s. Sometimes people share their stories right here on HN and they are always a joy to read (well, at least for me). So many internal and external dynamics at the companies as they transitioned to using software, databases, etc. For the people running the tech, there were huge challenges, yet there were also opportunities to grow.

Incidentally, I used to try out some of the BASIC programs in the magazines (usually the shorter ones) on my VIC 20 but I rarely got them to work. Not sure if that was a result of a typo on the printed page, or a typo on my screen, but when I did get something to run, it really felt like an accomplishment.

Because I was young and did not have much pocket money, I would get only the cheap magazines which were written, printed and carefully stapled by a bunch of volunteers. They usually had unclear characters, so you had to debug it. Which was annoying then, but great in hindsight.

Typing BASIC from magazines was one thing, I also remember the densely packed pages of hexadecimal that you had to type in for the machine code programs. (Each line checksummed to try to catch mistakes - I remember as a terribly naive 10 year old thinking I had invented a way of only having to type in the checksum to enter the program!)

I also enjoyed being reminded of the incredibly hyperbolic write-ups the magazines used to give the games (you can see the one for the article in the photo). You would read lurid tales of battles against space aliens, then you'd type it in and it would be guiding an ASCII character through a maze with the slow as molasses reponse time that was the hallmark of 8-bit BASIC.

Coincidentally, I recently located my first published BASIC game in an 80's magazine, on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/1984-12-compute-magazine (page 79 if you're truly curious)

Back in that era I worked for Compute! magazine as an "editorial programmer". People would submit BASIC games to the magazine for some particular 8-bit micro (as in the linked story above), and it was the job of the editorial programmers to port the game to other computers. I did the Apple ][ ports. I got the job (high school, so after school) through a friend who did the C64 ports.

I miss reader service cards. :-/

My place of employment still runs on BASIC. Inventory management, shipping, order processing, invoicing, accounting, purchase orders. It's kind of a nightmare. It works. But, it's a nightmare.

Is it a nightmare because of Basic or because of the development and maintenance practices?

i feel really bad now, i'm pretty sure i pirated his bbs software.

He just purchased an airport, so I think he did okay anyway. But you could always retroactively donate the money to a charity in his name.

Huh. I did the same a few weeks ago on a TS1500, my first computer :) https://youtu.be/aHXDAOv8AQA

This is amazing. I can remember typing in that program in the 80s.

I totally remember that article and how pissed I was that I didn't have the extended basic cartridge. I loved that magazine, though.

Great read. I really enjoy hearing people's career stories, it is interesting where you can end up after 35 years of work.

I'd like to see basic (or equivalent) for simple logic, but have the OO and more advanced techniques offset to another language. something simpler than lua, maybe similar to sql.

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