Rod Douglas

rodRod Douglas was born in 1947, suspiciously about one week after Aleister Crowley, famous British occultist and believer in reincarnation, died. I’m not linking the two but it’s worth remembering…

Now I don’t know much of my father’s childhood or indeed early adulthood, aside from rumours of excessive speed in motor vehicles – which he seems to have passed on – I do know, however, that at the age of 21, Rod Douglas married my mother Mary. In 1969 no less, the year they landed on the moon, two major achievements in one year that no one could have predicted.

My parents shared 46 years of marriage, there were ups and there were downs and there was me. There were rows and there were happy times; family trips to Morecambe, holidays on the Norfolk Broads, we even went abroad once. Sadly my father wasn’t “a flyer”, so we didn’t do it twice.

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He looks thrilled

In amongst these happy memories there are some regrets; the things that we did not do that I will desperately miss; never having had a beer together in a bar, no father and son projects undertaken, no late night chats or shared wisdom. In a way though this serves as a lesson to me and guides me as a father.

Where my father and I did have a bond was in a shared love of technology. Shared is perhaps not an accurate description, it was his love and fervent belief in technology that was imprinted on me, as I am led to believe was imprinted on him by his father Hugh.

A tale I was often told by my father was that Hugh once said to a television repair man who was in his living room fixing his television; “It’ll a’ be different when ther’ hingin’ aff the wa'”, it is reported that this was greeted with a look of bemused indifference from the engineer but my father always knew that Hugh was right and sure enough twenty five years after his death his predictions came true.

Televisions were indeed available that could be hung aff yer wa’.

What my father perhaps never realised was that he too told me something that stuck in my mind as much as his father’s story did for him and influenced my career choices.

In primary school I was asked to write about something that would make the most impact in the future, my father insisted I write about the rise of computers. His “hingin’ aff the wa'” moment came when he excitedly told me that one day in the future your computer would be tiny, would go everywhere with you, would wake you up in the morning, know when it was your birthday and perhaps even talk to you.

He was right.

I know he was proud of me, though he was unable to articulate it in any meaningful way for most of my life, partly due to his upbringing and partly due to his dour nature. That dour nature evaporated though when he was in the presence of his grandchildren. We have so many photos of them together, splashing in puddles, giving cuddles and him looking proudly at their antics.

My father was a fiercely intelligent man. Unfortunately for him he grew up in a family and in an area where such attributes were considered a sign of an inflated sense of superiority. With the right encouragement he could’ve been anything. It is deeply sad that that encouragement appears never to have been given by his family when it mattered most.

Oftentimes I wonder what my father could have made of himself and his family should he have decided to stay in Newcastle and not return to Annan. These ponderings are short lived however and I am glad, in a way, that he did decide to return, had he not I might not have the life I have now.

There are numerous memories that have bubbled to the surface lately that remind me of my father’s company and his provision of amusement usually without his even knowing it.

His inadvertent advisement of the punishment for being late to the opticians sticks in my mind; “If you don’t get to that opticians on time you’ll be buggered.” He didn’t talk to me for a week after I told him that as punishments go, that seemed a bit harsh.

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My dad and me

His fast forwarding through the sex scenes in The Terminator when I was a teenager, thereby missing a key section of plot that left me at a significant disadvantage when, a few years later I was discussing the sequel with my friends.

His agreement when I was 10, after weeks of badgering, to let me watch an American Werewolf in London if I could just watch one little clip without being scared. He knew what he was doing. I soiled myself and didn’t watch an American Werewolf in London for another fifteen years.

His inability to express any positive emotion without downplaying it. The best I ever got from him on anything was “Aye, it’s alright.” or “For those that like that sort of thing…”, in a way that made the rare times he actually got excited, all the more special.

Our shared love of video games, which usually saw me watching him complete them (The Last Ninja being a particular favourite of his, which he completed when he was the age I am now) but on occasion afforded us the opportunity to enjoy the hobby together, I’ll never forget playing Bubble Bobble with him, a game which he even managed to play with his granddaughter.

Since my father’s death I have been greatly heartened by the number of people that have expressed their sympathies to my mother. Clearly I had underestimated the number of people that his life had touched. Rod Douglas was a good man, a loyal husband, a proud father and father-in-law and a very loving grandfather. He will be greatly missed.

Every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things but vice versa the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

Bill Hicks: Legend

No single human being has ever had as much influence on me as Bill Hicks had. Not one. Sure, Bob Dylan makes me think and I like the Beatles, I’ve even been known to laugh at Monty Python. They never completely changed my perception of the world though.

The first time I ever saw any of his act must have been on Channel 4 (looking back it was probably Relentless), the vehemence with which he attacked those things that disgusted him was amazing. I’d never seen someone so angry, or seemingly informed, about a subject.

Virtually unknown in the states Hicks only ever really became moderately famous in the UK. Part of the reason for his lack of success in the States could be attributed to his poor opinion of America, and his disappointment in people he once admired. Jay Leno, presenter of The Tonight Show, was one such entertainer. Originally idolised by Hicks for his comedic ability Hicks noted that he’d been reduced to hawking Doritos at a point in his career when he was already very comfortable.

You not got enough money, you fucking whore? You’ve got to sell snacks to fucking bovine America now?

It was this kind of rampant commercialism in his heroes that disappointed Bill the most. A struggling young actor taking a role in an advert was one thing, but millionaire sell-outs was entirely another. The idea that anything could have a dollar sign attached and be sold, integrity included, seemed to rile him most.

By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day, they’ll take root – I don’t know. Kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously.

Outspoken on virtually all the topics you could care to mention from the Kennedy assassination to people involved in marketing, Hicks has left a lasting impression on my world and would suggest that you try and let him do the same to you.

Of late Bill Hicks has been derided as a fad as someone who didn’t really have much to say but shouted and swore a lot, a man without any good material and sure enough if you look hard enough you can find evidence of that on some of the recordings of his sets on YouTube. At one point, out of utter frustration, calling an audience member a cunt, something you wouldn’t get you many repeat gigs nowadays, in fact it would probably get you banned from Channel 4.

There’s even a crazy rumour that he faked his own death, only to become Alex Jones a couple of decades later, which my rational side says is nonsense but my less rational side says is, yeah, that’d be sort of cool…

But looking past the crazy rumours and his shouty ranting reveals a man who really knew what was important, who knew the path the world was on.

Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer on the 26th of February 1994 and the world he left behind is just a little bit heavier for it.

Why Are We Still Printing Books?

I love books, it’s a fact. A fact that my bookshelves attest to.

Since childhood I was told that books were things of beauty and learning, to be cherished, respectfully handled at all times and never abused. A book’s spine was to be treated with utter reverence, a book was never to be set down open on its beautiful pages, that broke its spine.

Being responsible for a book’s broken spine was not on my list of things to do.

Largely the message got through, books are good m’kay? I understood, I appreciated that and what’s more it stood me in good stead throughout my childhood. Aside from an incident with a fountain pen cartridge and a school text book, which left me practically paralysed with fear for three days, I’ve been good to books and, in turn, they’ve been good to me.

The whole books are important thing was a message received and understood, and finally in my late teens I became a voracious reader. I’d moved past the resentment of being given Treasure Island over Lego as a child, my love for books had blossomed.

It started with Ray Bradbury. God, Ray Bradbury. The man single-handedly made me love reading. The places he took me with his short stories, the pictures he painted in my mind, I will never forget a single one. His words stretched out across time and took me from the dust bowl to Mars, from the veldt to lighthouses on wind swept, rain soaked prominences.

After Ray came Douglas Coupland. Wow, did he speak to me.

In 1994 Personal Computer World reprinted a short story, which had previously originally appeared in Wired, called Microserfs and it blew my mind. It introduced me to the unique writing style of Douglas Coupland, a writing style that really appealed to me. One of the best books ever written is his; Hey! Nostradamus.

This waxing lyrical about my love of books and the effect their authors had on my adolescent mind is quite obviously designed to (mayhap, over) compensate for the bit that’s coming up, the bit about my desire to get rid of all books.

The Book Industry Is Bloody Wasteful

Trees are cut down, pulped and bleached, the resulting paper is printed, bound, boxed up, put in to lorries, driven and flown across the world then put into air conditioned buildings where they remain until sold, to people who’ve driven there. If they remain unsold, they are put back into lorries and sent to be pulped.

What a waste of energy for something that’s origin – more often than not – begins inside a computer as data, data that can be sent across the world in nanoseconds, to be read anywhere, by anyone, rich or poor, instantly. Digitally speaking a book is a tenth the size of one single MP3. I can’t think of any other industry that is so wasteful and ripe for this digitisation.

Focussing on the smell and feel is perhaps understandable to a certain extent but is simply just nostalgia, there is no need for books to be printed anymore. Buying and consuming books digitally is not akin to the Nazi’s book burning as some seem to feel rather it’s a progressive step forward, a means of moving towards an egalitarian society where information and story telling aren’t limited by greedy middlemen artificially inflating the cost of learning without adding anything of value.

It bewilders me that my most ecologically concerned friends are always the first to assert that books must come in this wasteful form simply because of their feel and their smell. Yet these same people bang on endlessly about global warming, buying eco friendly everything and recycling properly. It’s arch hypocrisy.

Let’s stop this waste. Paper as a medium for the transfer of information should have died long ago, join me, buy a Kindle, forget about the smell and the feel. Focus on the words.

After all, isn’t that what you read books for?

Jeff Minter: Futurist

As a callow youth I used to read Commodore Computing International. It was a very serious magazine, not at all like Zzap64!, although it did have one thing that Zzap didn’t and that was a regular column written by Jeff Minter.

Jeff and Jon

As a rule I wasn’t a huge fan of Jeff Minter’s games, that was until TxK and Polybius, but I was always a huge fan of his style. Living in Wales, eating curry, loving the ungulates, wandering around in the rain, going to the pub, I think you get the picture. All of this was communicated to me through his articles in Commodore Computing International and back in the March 1988 issue he wrote the article that was to shape my future, set in the far away year of 2001 it filled me with tingly feelings about the advances we might see in my lifetime.

It essentially predicted touch interfaces, large tablets, Google Earth and electronic ink displays (of a sort). It was nothing short of astounding.

I was lucky enough to bump into the man himself one morning on the way into work, he was just there, in the street, walking like a regular human, and I must say he was as straight forward and as nice as I had always imagined he would be.

Anyway, like the geek I am I’ve scanned and OCR’d the original article for the enjoyment of future generations, who will no doubt view it with little understanding of what made it so special, given that most of what he talks about is now common place.

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Jeff Minter finds tea – the drink not the smoke – mind blowing stuff, discovering fantasies of strange futures for Commodore, Atari and even HAL from 2001. What will he think of next a computer called PG?

Quarter to two in the middle of a windy Welsh night, and I have decided to leave off writing the internal-sequencer module for ‘Space II and bring you this. The Bug Which Prints Zeros Forever will just have to wait until tomorrow morning. Right now, I have just assuaged the raving dreaded Munchies with a sarnie followed by one-third of a cream-and-jam pie, and I’m just washing the lot down with a really good cup of tea. Tea. Wonderous substance.

All that is strictly beside the point, however. What I’m going to waffle about this month stems from some thinking I’ve been doing, and something I’ve been reading, too. The reading was an article about Alan Kay, the guy from Xerox who went on to Apple and there worked on the Lisa and Mac interface, you know, the pointers-and-windows stuff we all have nowadays even on the humble ‘64. It seems they had a lot of that stuff running at Xerox, back in the ‘Sixties for God’s sake, on flight-sim hardware! And here’s us thinking that Intuition’s such a brilliant hack, and how come nobody ever thought of doing it that way before – and all the groundwork was done 20 years ago! After reading that article, the thinking ensued – I fell to thinking: what have they got in the labs now? What’s cooking in the Apple labs where they’re using a flipping Cray to design the next generation of user interface?? And what would it be like to have a computer with such an interface? So I came up with the following spoof review – of a personal computer system you might buy to kick off the new millennium with – and I thought I’d lay it on you this month, instead of the usual 68000-worship…

Extract from Your Supercomputer magazine, 21/12/2001

EXCLUSIVE: PREVIEW of the Atari ‘Discovery’ computer system!..

We have been fortunate enough to be invited to the headquarters of Atari where we were shown the new Atari ‘Discovery’ machine, which should be released this month. Atari have been working on this machine since the early ‘Nineties, and now that superconducting chips and ‘processor memory’ (the logical development from the Transputer systems of late last millennium – ALL memory within a ProcMem-based system is capable of performing a variety of processing functions upon whatever it contains) are available, the design has come out of the labs at Atari and onto the streets. Well, we think Atari are going to freak a LOT of people right out with this new machine. Here’s what we saw…

(Your Supercomputer hack, Zippy the Chiphead, takes over the story)…

I got to Atari not quite knowing what to expect. Atari have been very quiet since they bought Commodore several years ago, and despite evidence of some activity in their research labs little has been known of what they were working on. After admiring the quaint little display of antique STs in the entrance lobby (did we ever really put up with pixies so large you could actually see them one atatime?)Iwas ushered into a large, comfortable room in which there appeared to be just a large desk and one of those amazing hydraulic chairs which look like they belong on the Star Ship Enterprise. No monitors, no disk drives, not even a fan. After a certain amount of confusion, I was assured that the desk was, in fact, the Atari Discovery computer.

At first sight the computer appears to be a large, black monolith, perhaps six inches thick, mounted on suitably high-tec legs. On sitting down to the machine you find that the whole surface can be tilted so as to be at a comfortable angle for the user. Of course, I sat down at the machine and felt a little foolish, I kept looking for the mouse and not finding one! I reached out a hand to touch the surface of the monolith, and got my first surprise: the Atari logo appeared in the middle of the smooth black surface. It looked just as if it were painted on, except for the fact that it was doing the most amazing colour-cycling. The image was startling to a computer user used to looking at monitors – even the highest- quality monitor cannot render graphics which look like they were printed images. This was my first encounter with Atari’s new display technology – the ‘screen’ is composed of millions of tiny beads which change their colour according to what image is being displayed. The beads are opaque, and if viewed by ambient light, it appears that the surface of the monolith just changes colour. It doesn’t shine, like a monitor, because unless you turn on the backlighting if it’s really dark, the colours you see come from reflected ambient light just like they would for a piece of paper. The effect is uncanny.

On the Discovery, the whole upper surface of the monolith functions as both screen and interface to the computer. When you rest your hands upon the surface of the machine, it comes to life: after the Atari logo has been displayed the monolith changes into what appears to be a fine wooden table with a couple of bits of paper lying on it. (Atari assure me that the user can configure the default desk surface to be whatever he likes, so if you favour cracked Formica instead of walnut veneer, you can have it). The surface of the monolith feels faintly resilient: in fact it is a highly-accurate touch-sensitive surface capable of distinguishing between the lightest touch and the heaviest pressure. Operating the system is totally instinctive, as I found out: just reach for one of the pieces of paper and drag it towards you, and that’s exactly what happens. You can do anything you could do with a normal piece of paper: turn it around a little so as to get a better view, slide it over or under another piece (depending on how hard you press as you slide) . . . of course you can’t make a paper aeroplane out of it, the screen is still only two-dimensional! Examining the paper, I found that it was headed, in a neat hand-written script, ‘Atari HAL operating system Version 0.9’. (The script is again user-configurable, so if you’re into Epson Dot-Matrix circa 1984 on some kind of nostalgia trip you’ll get your way).

Underneath the main heading was a list of sub-headings; running a finger down the list highlighted each in turn and – a neat touch this – increasing pressure of the finger on an item caused the whole surface of the desktop to ‘zoom in’ on the selected area. Very useful for reading the small print. Tapping an item in the list results in another piece of paper being spawned – the paper and desktop look so real that seeing another piece peel itself off is quite startling a-d weird. I generated a sheet headed ‘Demos’ from the parent sheet, and received a written list of the available demos on the system. Simultaneously, a variety of familiar objects appeared on the desktop: a pen, a paintbrush, a globe (spinning, too)

These objects can be grabbed, moved around, and tapped on in order to get them to work. There isn’t enough space here to fully describe all the demos; the highlights included such things as a WP package upon which you could write with a finger, or by ‘typing’ on a representation of a keyboard painted on the desktop, or by using an empty fountain pen upon the surface of the ‘paper’ on the desktop. There was an art package which was operated by using real paintbrushes on the desktop surface – the surface can detect even minute changes of pressure – proper painting, but with all the advantages of computer graphics.

I liked the Lightsynth program from T.E.A. (a new software company calling themselves True Electronic Art) upon which some remarkable effects are possible by using both hands and that remarkable pressure-sensitive surface. Perhaps the most fascinating program was World, a logical extension from the flight-simulator: linked to a large database of world coordinates, the user can ‘fly’ to any point on Earth at any speed and view the surroundings at any scale; of course a lot of fine detail is lost as even with gigabytes of core you cannot digitise every point on the planet, but advanced fractal techniques are used to generate detail. I went to Machu Picchu in the World simulator and found the fractal rendering of the rough Inca stonework to be quite convincing. At the moment World is empty, but the designers promise an update featuring animals and plant growth next year. The company producing World, Dave Bowman Associates, tell us that there will be a companion program, provisionally entitled God, which will allow the end-user to create new planets to explore using World. Generating a convincing planet should be possible in about a week using the new software.

I can only mention a few of the remarkable demos in my limited space here; expect proper reviews in later issues. After my ‘hands-on’ with the Discovery, I talked with the Atari bosses about marketing and pricing of the new machine. Amazingly, the whole system will only cost you #.

Extract ends, ‘Your Supercomputer’ magazine, 21/12/2001

Who knows?

Anything can happen.

Well, I think I’ll just print this out and shamble off to make myself another cup of tea. Tea. Remarkable substance….

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I can’t begin to tell you how cool that was to me when I was thirteen.

Do You Know SID?

The Commodore 64 was an outstanding machine, its abilities were pretty amazing for the time and whilst its graphical abilities were good, they were matched by other 8-bit machines of the time. Its sound though? Well that’s another story altogether.

The Commodore 64 was home to one of the most powerful sound processors of the time; the SID.

The SID, or Sound Interface Device, was the sound controller that was used in the Commodore 64, essentially it was an analogue synth on a chip and the range of sounds it could produce were streets ahead of anything else at the time.

Rob Hubbard
Rob Hubbard

The guys that managed to coax the sounds from this chip are legendary in retro gaming circles, the most well-known proponent of the art – Rob Hubbard – is a genius. To this day he remains practically unknown, he truly deserves more recognition for the part he played in the foundation of digital music.

Even now though the SID is still used, primarily in a MIDI sound module – the SIDStation – and the sounds it makes have been very popular with the rap and R&B communities, with many tracks sporting SID arpeggios.

Some producers have been less than honest though. Timbaland in particular. He infamously lifted the entire melody from the Commodore 64 arrangement of an Amiga tune; Acidjazzed Evening and used it in the Nelly Furtado song Do It.

The original composer was given no credit. The whole thing sucked.

Regardless of all that the SID’s sound remains unique and is instantly recognisable to any retro gaming fan or 8-bit afficianado.

It’s good that SID music is still being listened to, and that it’s so easy to get, regardless of the rather dishonest use of those tunes by some.

Jon’s Top Ten SID Tunes

If you’ve never heard the SID belt out a tune on its own – without an overpaid half wit babbling all over it – you’ve really missed a great experience. That’s why I’ve put together my top ten favourite SID tunes for you to listen to. I’m kind like that.

Tetris – Wally Beben

The closest the Commodore 64 got to prog rock was this awesome twenty-five minute epic that accompanied – in hindsight – one of the worst versions of Tetris I’ve ever played.

Of course I didn’t know that back then, it was pure puzzle perfection at that point and – despite only being able to rotate blocks one way and not having the option to speed the block down the well – it felt like fantastic fun.

At the time I seem to recall feeling that Tetris was life changing (it certainly was for Nintendo) but I was only thirteen and it was a cold winter. Nevertheless listening to Tetris’ music and resetting the line counter twice (it reset at 255) was my idea of a great achievement back then.

Actually, it still is.

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Wizball – Martin Galway

Good grief Wizball was an amazing game and it was made by the music. This is the high score theme which is all wobbly and mellow, it would often round off a session nicely.

It’s relaxing and spacey and jolly all at the same time. I love it!

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The Last Ninja – Ben Daglish & Anthony Lees

Every single tune in The Last Ninja was a corker. In the end I plumped for this one, no particular reason as they are all mini-masterpieces in their own right.

The Last Ninja was as close as you got to a blockbuster back then and in comparison to today’s games it does look incredibly simplistic, though when I first played it in the summer of 1987 it literally left me speechless.

How times have changed.

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Firefly – Fred Gray

Tidy little game, nothing special but the music was ace! That said it was quite nicely designed, it just didn’t really offering anything new.

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Zamzara – Charles Deenen

A scrolling Contra style affair without the delicate control that Contra afforded you. Given that it was a budget title (£2.99, bargain!) the graphics and music were amazing!

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 Quedex – Matt Gray

Quedex, or to give it its full title; The Quest For Ultimate Dexterity! I spent about two hours failing the first level because I hadn’t read the instructions.

The only thing that kept me going was the music, my reasoning being that if the music was this good the game must be pretty special. That and the fact that it had got a Zzap! Sizzler.

In the end though it wasn’t really all that amazing. Shame, shame.

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Sanxion – Rob Hubbard

Ooh! Sanxion! What a belter this is. Loading a game took ages back in the mid-eighties, so it was always good when you got a rocking piece of music like this to distract you. Mind you I didn’t think that much of Sanxion as a game, it never really did it for me. I suspect I’m in the minority there

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Cybernoid II – Jeroen Tel

This came slightly later in the Commodore 64’s life and is altogether a bit more full on. That’s not to say it’s not great, because it is, it’s just a bit stronger.

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Hunter’s Moon – Matt Gray

Another loading screen tune and what a stunner it is. A driving tune with a slow militaristic beat accompanied by a brilliant loading screen once again really got you in the mood for the game to come. Which, I’m please to report, was corking.

As I recall it was also fairly easy to cheat and rack up a whole host of extra lives because of the regenerating nature of the game world. You just had to point your ship at an alien structure, pop a book on your fire button then nip off and have your tea, safe in the knowledge you were racking up big points, as the computer controlled drones went around rebuilding the scenery you were racking up the points for destroying! Happy days.

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Parallax – Martin Galway

This piece of music comes from the part of Parallax where you’re running around the deserted cities, usually attempting to find scientists to drug.

In lieu of the ability of graphics to convey the isolation of being in a practically empty alien city, the music did a bang up job of conjuring those feelings up.

Just me then?

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