Coding, Networking, Mothballs and Frank Sidebottom

Credit for photo: Matt Rudge https://www.flickr.com/photos/mattandkim/

Credit for photo: Matt Rudge https://www.flickr.com/photos/mattandkim/

I learnt how to code on my ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro at school. My first experience was to type out laboriously the code listing from a magazine. It didn’t work.

I remember going through it line by line and then character by character. I found a few typos but on running, it still didn’t work.

I then did what anyone else would do and rang an IT support line, i.e. my mate Roy. He didn’t actually know anything about computers but his mate Fitz did. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was networking; something I find really hard to do now as an adult with all my inhibitions and fears.

“Hello Mrs Fitz,” I said, “can I talk to Fitz?” She was suspicious, as I was a voice she’d never heard before.

“Who are you?” she enquired.

“Oh I’m Joe, I got to school with your son.”

That meant it was OK I suppose. They were quite a posh family and she didn’t want to be rude. I knew Fitz would be able to help me, as he’d had a zx spectrum since it came out. Mine was a second hand one my parents had bought out of the Liverpool Echo.

My parents both worked long hours to make things meet and quite rightly bought things second hand. The local paper was the Gumtree / Craigslist of its day. I got a lot of things second hand. Clothes, bikes, a Hornby train set built on two massive wooden sheets that me and my Dad got home from Speke on the bus; two buses actually. I got a lot of hand-me-downs too. My school blazers came from my cousins and were always three sizes too big, patched to hell and smelt of mothballs. I digress.

Fitz came on the phone, “Hello?”

“Hey Fitz, it’s Joe here from school.”

“Who?”

“You know, Roy’s mate.”

“Oh yeah, I know.” I really don’t think he did.

“Listen, I just plugged in a program from Sinclair User and it did’t work.”

“Right?”

“Any idea what might be wrong?”

There I’d asked it. Now to get the answer.

“Er, it could be anything.”

Thus, my first lesson in the reality if computer coding happened, over the phone, on my parents stairs, no where near my computer.

The reality was that he wouldn’t be able to magically fix it with just that to go on. The error I was getting which referenced a particular line could actually not be on that line and elsewhere etc.

I was crestfallen. Two hours of inputting via the Spectrums waxy, multi fingered, find the command keyboard. All for nought.

“Bring the magazine in on Monday and I’ll have a look,” he offered. I duly did and after thirty minutes poring over the code printed on poor magazine paper, he spotted the issue. There was a misprint. He underlined it, I took it home and corrected the code and Lo it worked!

Games of Action and Excitement A tank was now rolling across my screen. I had a great time hacking the code, changing bits, breaking it, fixing it. I quickly came to the end of my abilities and needed more help beyond the ZX Spectrum BASIC Programming guide that came with it. From my local library I got Games of Action and Excitement for Your ZX Spectrum by Andrew Nelson and entered the impenetrable world of computer manuals and guides. (Go on admit it, the titles of these books over at World of Spectrum are cool. You don’t get them like that any more.)

It was hard. There was no stackoverflow to post my show stoppers on. Just trial and error. I was however hooked. Never to the degree that I would spend all nighters trying out code, but hooked enough to kindle a lifetimes obsession with coding, technology and computers.

Cue lots of simple programs involving GOTO 10 in W.H.Smiths. Having it belch sounds out with rude words on the screen. The Oric was my personal favourite as it had a bell sound. The staff caught onto this pretty quick and would try to grab the nearest likely person who may have done it. Advanced programming skills involved putting a PAUSE in there to allow you to run it, walk away and view the effect from afar.

I took my lesson from these early experiences that it was ok to hack, copy and paste – but if you want to go further you actually had to use a reference. I often get asked why I only put JavaScript and PHP and not all the various frameworks on my CV. The answer is I learnt the underlying code first before I used any short cuts or other folks code / frameworks. If there is a bug or something changes then how do you fix it? This happened when I built an app in Phonegap. The update of iOS changed where the local db was stored, so if your user upgraded, your app stopped working. It caught the Phonegap community on the hop and didn’t get solved for nearly a month. I had to write some objective-C to handle the upgrade by moving an existing db and pointing the app to the new & correct place.

If I hadn’t sorted that out underneath the framework I was using, then the app delivery would have been seriously delayed.

I still think back fondly to my ZX Spectrum. I played games on it more than I coded and then I bought the Cheetah SpecDrum add on dongle. Many hours spent programming out Beatles songs that I could play my guitar over the top of.

Hat’s off to this however which I found last week. Chris Sievey, he who became Frank Sidebottom, used the B side of his single Camouflage to create the world first vinyl based pop video. Enjoy


Joe Molloy is a freelance technical consultant, project manager and writer, based in London, UK.

Joe helps start-ups and companies convert their vision and ideas into real world products and services. Joe specialises in helping companies get it done.