The Battle of Britain’s Home Computers

The Battle of Britain's Home ComputersI was recently asked to give a lecture to members of the Computer Conservation Society on the topic of early British home computers, which is very dear to my heart. For those unfamiliar the CCS is a Specialist Group of the British Computing Society, founded in cooperation with the Science Museum of London and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, with the aim of conserving and restoring classic computers while working to develop awareness of their historical significance. The group has been responsible for a number of notable successes since its formation in 1989, from the wartime Colossus and Bombe rebuilds to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) replica, with a complete list available on the official website.

A benefit of membership is access to the group’s regular lectures, which bring together experts and industry luminaries to share their knowledge – and, for some inexplicable reason, me. Given an hour-long slot – which I cheekily overran by about fifteen minutes, having digressed somewhat along the way – I shared what I know on the ‘golden era’ of British home computing: 1980 to 1984, boom to bust.

The talk was very well received, thanks mostly to a terrifically warm and welcoming audience, and the elongated question-and-answer session at the end was a thrill – and revealed just which of the many computers released in the UK during that time truly had the biggest impact, including the discovery that one brave soul runs his business from a handful of disguised eight-bit micros to this day!

A video of the talk was recorded, but is not yet available. If you have an hour and three quarters to kill and don’t want to wait, you can download the slide deck and stream the audio – just move onto the next slide whenever you hear the thump of me hitting the space bar and you’ll be in-sync. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to listen offline, the slides and an MP3 recording can be downloaded together.

I will be giving the lecture again to the northern branch of the CCS next year, giving you plenty of warning if you’d like to attend.

LeedsHack 2012 – ASCIIPoint

ASCIIPoint demonstration at LeedsHack 2012LeedsHack is the annual gathering of coders, hackers and tinkerers in – you probably guessed – Leeds. Held this year in the Leeds City Museum, the challenge was set to write something given 24 hours and a flakey internet connection. Tom Hudson, a talented PHP coder and collaborator on the Raspberry Pi User Guide, joined me at the event to see what we could come up with.

While many competitors opted to target one or more of the challenge APIs – with the most popular being an SMS gateway API, largely thanks to the promise of a Galaxy Nexus each for the best SMS-related hack – the members of Team And In Last Place decided to do something different.

The result: ASCIIPoint. It’s a PowerPoint-like presentation application, but for terminal users. Written entirely in PHP, aside from a small shell script which handles moving on to the next slide based on a keypress or timer, it’s surprisingly feature-rich:

  • Rectangle drawing capabilities for borders of any size
  • Arbitrary slide sizes: up the font size in your terminal for clear slides, lower it for HIGH RESOLUTION (ish) graphics
  • Full cardinal direction slide animations for all objects
  • WordAsciiArt: given a word, it will transform it into an embiggened ‘font’ constructed from hash symbols
  • JPEG-to-ASCII on-the-fly image conversion, resizing and embedding – with animation if desired
  • Typewriter per-character printing for text objects
  • Customisable-width automatic word-wrapping for text objects
  • Slide advance on keypress or timer

To say the presentation went down well is something of an understatement: ASCIIPoint drew admiring gasps and applause from the audience from the very first slide, with several people promising to use it for their next technical presentation. We also won both the Web 4.0 Award and the Click ‘n Mix Most Fun Hack Award – although we donated the prize of a large delivery of sweets to the under-18 hackers attending the event through Breeze.

The full source code for ASCIIPoint – written in the main by Tom – is available from the ASCIIPoint github repository. It’s open source, so fill your boots – and if you do use it for a presentation, send us photos!

Arduino 20/20

Arduino 101 Title SlideFollowing my Arduino article for Custom PC, I was asked to give a 20/20 presentation – twenty slides, each one of which lasts an enforced twenty seconds – on the subject for GeekUp Leeds, a monthly gathering of local techies, hackers, and tinkerers.

The presentation took place at the Lounge Bar in Leeds on the 15th of September 2010, to a pretty packed house.

The slides from the talk can be downloaded in PDF format.  They’re released under a Creative Commons – Attribution – Sharealike – Non-Commercial licence, meaning that anyone is free to download, use, remix, or otherwise modify the presentation so long as it’s not used for commercial purposes and I’m properly attributed as the original creator.

If in doubt, my name plus a link to this site is enough.