old school

The Week-Long Discussion

Cover of the book "Head First C#"Andrew Stellman, co-author of O’Reilly’s excellent and easy-to-read C# intro, Head First C#, is holding a week-long “Inner Circle” discussion on C# and .NET 4.0 in the forums for O’Reilly’s “Head First” book series. In this discussion, he plans to cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Why use C# instead of any other language?
  • C# best practices
  • Becoming a better C# developer
  • Dealing with objects
  • Productivity hints
  • The best of C#

If you want to follow the discussion, simply point your browser at the Head First Labs Forums’ “Head First C#” section and look for topics started by Andrew Stellman. You don’t have to log in to just read, but you’ll have to register for the forum if you want to join in the discussion and comment back.

The Challenge

Charlie Chaplin and the original IBM PC

In his first discussion topic, Andrew issues a challenge: build an old-school, text-mode game in C#! In the 1980s, the computing world was seen through the command line in an 80-character by 24-line grid (40 characters if you were on an Apple ][, Commodore 64 or Atari 400/800, even fewer if you were on a VIC-20), and that’s how we played a lot of games, whether they were commercial or typed in from source code in magazine or books like the ones scanned into the Atari Archives.

If you’ve never written a text-mode game before (or in my case, if it’s been a long, long time), he’s written an article to help out — Understanding C#: Use System.Console to Build Text-Mode Games.

Your efforts in building an old-school text-mode game will not go unrewarded. Submit a text-mode game and you can win a prize! He’ll judge them on the following criteria:

  • Game play
  • Fun
  • Technical coolness
  • General awesomeness
  • “Retro nostalgia” for extra point

The winner will receive five O’Reilly eBooks of his or her choice. He’ll also choose runners-up who will get a free O’Reilly eBook.

If you’re looking for ideas for an old-school text-mode game, check out these books at Atari Archives, with source code written in old-school line-numbered BASIC. Some of these take me back to my high school days:

Video Q&A: Stellman on C#

As a prelude to the discussion, Andrew recorded videos of his answers to questions about the C# programming language and the second edition of Head First C#

Why should developers learn C#?

What kind of applications can you build with C#?

How hard is C# to pick up?

What’s the toughest thing to learn in C#?

What’s new in the second edition of Head First C#?

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Flamewars, 1839 Style

by Joey deVilla on March 23, 2010

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the need to have arguments in public and win popular support is an unintended consequence of social networking services. I think that things like Twitter and Facebook make it easier and that they vastly expand the reach of an argument, but that we’ve had that urge to have flamewars long before the internet.

Here’s a data point for my thesis: a placard from 1839 that wouldn’t seem out of place on any online debate, aside from the dated language.

"TO THE PUBLIC: The object of this placard is to inform the Public that Gen. Leigh Read has declined giving me an apology for the insult offered me at St. Mark, on the 5th inst. That he has also refused to me that satisfaction, which as an honorable man, (refusing to apologise,) he was bound to give. I therefore pronounce him a Coward and a Scoundrel. -- WILLIAM TRADEWELL, Tallahassee, Oct. 26, 1839."

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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Multitasking in the “Mad Men” Era

by Joey deVilla on January 15, 2010

square root

Here’s a great video from 1963 featuring the great-granddad of today’s web servers and cloud computing systems. It was just posted by Boston’s Computer History Museum titled Solution to Computer Bottlenecks. Filmed in May of that year, it features MIT Science Reporter John Fitch – who has a classic 1960’s announcer’s voice – interviewing MIT computer scientist Fernando J. Corbato, the guy behind Corbato’s Law (“The number of lines of code a programmer can write in a fixed period of time is the same independent of the language used”).

The subject of the film is the then-new approach of timesharing, which Corbato describes as “connecting a large number of consoles to a central computer”, which made the great (and very necessary – it even gets mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers) leap from batch to interactive processing possible. Here’s the video; enjoy all the retro-tech goodness:

This may have been really deep nerd stuff back in 1963, but today, it the sort of thing that you might see covered in a grade school class. Even if you’re not a programmer or IT pro, I think you’ll find it entertaining.

Some Gems from the Video

A computer terminal in one’s office isn’t unusual in this day and age, but back in 1963, such a thing must’ve been incredibly super-1337. Here’s the console in Corbato’s office, which he introduces by saying “Here’s one of the consoles we might be using in the future.” Even to the reporter of that era, it looked like an ordinary IBM Selectric typewriter:

1963 future console

The general principles of digital computers haven’t changed much since those days. Corbato describes memory as “a bunch of pigeonholes” that store numbers, some of which function as data, some of which function as instructions.

memory pigeonholes

The concept of a CPU, the program counter stepping through memory and looping already existed in 1963:

cpu program counter

He describes the new setup “a set parallel consoles which are not all near the computer in fact, most of them are remote…and let the users use these with a reaction time of a few seconds instead of a few hours.”

7090

He says that eventually they’d like to switch from “typewriter” consoles to "graphic displays”, but at the time there were still some kinks to be worked out.

One of the “elaborate advanced ideas” that he hints at but says is beyond the topic of the film is going beyond hooking up dumb terminals to the mainframe and attaching smaller computers to it as well, such as the DEC PDP-1 and 1620:

advanced elaborate ideas

When discussing the hard disk and its capacity (9 million words), Corbato has to explain to Fitch that it isn’t a big whirling disk on which you store tape, but a platter coated with a magnetic material like tape. This is old hat to us in the 21st century, but at the time, disks weren’t household items:

hard disk

At the time, disks had been around for about a year. Corbato confesses that there are still some problems with them: they “haven’t figured out how to keep things from getting mixed up”.

And on it goes with ideas that are still in use today: programming languages (“a particular synthetic language which is largely technical, and which is to some extent algebra too”), the organization of different programs in memory at the same time, multitasking with a scheduler that determines which program gets the processor’s attention at the moment, file loading and management by the operating system, the concepts of “brute-force solutions”, context switching (which they can “keep down to 10%”), input validation and even the phrase “it’s a feature”.

The line of Corbato’s that I love most is his prescient statement about usability and demand: “We’ve really made the computer extremely easy to use here. And so it’s very clear that in the long run, we’re going to increase in the need for computer time by a large amount.”

This video is all sorts of old-school awesome. If you’ve got nothing to do on your lunch break, check it out!

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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Portable Computing in the “Mad Men” Era

by Joey deVilla on October 20, 2009

Are there any computers available today that come in that particular shade of blue, with matching chair?

1960s computerClick the photo to see it at full size. Photo courtesy of retrofuture.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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24 Years of Windows Packaging and Boot Screens

by Joey deVilla on October 17, 2009

TechRadar UK is publishing a series of “Windows 7 Week” articles, some of which take a look back at the history of Windows. One of the articles presents a timeline of Windows packaging, from version 1.0 to 7:

windows_packaging

…and another is a chronology of Windows’ boot screens:

windows_boot_screens

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Photoshoppery of the Day

by Joey deVilla on September 19, 2009

I was 10 years old when Space Invaders came out, so this photo brings back happy memories:

space_invadersClick the photo to see it on its original page.

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Goin’ Retro!

by Joey deVilla on August 14, 2009

go-go_boots_multicoloured_keyboards

Two things we need to bring back into style: go-go boots and multi-coloured keyboards.

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