To book or not to book?

It is that time of year again when the heat starts to make it’s way up the thermometer, pushing the numbers higher and higher. It is that time of year when leaving home for a trip somewhere, after ten or eleven, is considered as madness.

I must admit. I don’t do too well with the heat. Maybe it is because of this AS and RA I suffer with. But most probably it is up to my increasing weight as I grow older and medications take their toll. The fact is I don’t eat that much to justify this growth, but there you have it.

Anyway, back to our subject. The heat. It makes people do crazy decisions. Some take to the beach, fling off their clothes, flash us their hairy chests or cheeky bums, and soak it all in. Others take to cooler countries for a while.

Those, like me, who have neither hairy chests and bums, nor money to burn, take an easier route.

We stay in

side and increase our reading. Now I know that voracious readers do not need the heat to indulge in their fantasies, but it is a dead cert that more books are opened in these months than in winter (or what passes as that season here).

As my friends know, I prefer the Kindle e-reader over printed matter. The reader is light, front-lit, can hold hundreds of books, and of course, for every aging guy with precarious eyesight, re-sizable fonts.

For what use is a dead-tree book for me if I can’t see the words? And Kindle books are, of course cheaper. And on any given day, there are hundreds of free books on Amazon. All for the Kindle of course.

And who doesn’t like free books?

Needless to say, books increase one’s knowledge. And knowledge is power.

Live Long and Prosper! \\//

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Spend! Spend! Spend!

Today, I am touching a subject which is to everyone’s heart. Money! (Or the lack of it!)

Granted, today we live in a consumer-centric society, and that the onus is to contribute more to the coffers of capitalism, but sometimes there are times when one has simply to stop and take stock of a situation that ultimately, threatens to run away with him.

I am of course, talking about the spending which occurs from the end of November to the end of December. Starting from the Black Friday deals all around the world, right up to the Christmas holidays and the New Year celebrations, people from all walks of life splash out on far more money than they have accumulated over the same period.

And let’s face it… some of the things on your wishlist suddenly become far more affordable than they could ever be. When is the best time to splash out if not on Black Friday? It’s true. I have fallen into the trap more than once myself. As an ardent gamer, I cannot resist really good deals. It’s inherent in all of us.

But are we really saving money? Is that gadget, service, whatever, really important to you? Will this purchase relieve you of a pressing desire or need? And most of all can we afford to buy this item instead of, say, food? Or clothing? Education even?

This goes on right through the Christmas season when it is customary for families to relax their grip on the kitty. Mothers and Fathers look on these occasions as the time of the year when it’s the ‘Time to be jolly, and forget the woes of a hard year.’

I tend to disagree. Many families splash out on expensive gifts, outings, meals with friends, using the same money they have worked so hard to put aside. While nothing illegal, it is totally illogical. You spend months slaving to save money only to splash it out on gifts which will (in my opinion) never make it past the first week of January?

This is nothing but madness. I am not adding to the mix something else entirely. People borrowing money via ‘soft loans’ on their credit cards. Money which has an insane interest on it, and where the minimum payment will not even scratch the surface.

It is quite common here in our country to talk to people who admit to having two debit cards each. Since it is laughably way to buy stuff online (you never SEE the money go out), we see families burdened with a ‘soft loan’ of around three thousand euros with little chance of paying it out completely.

So yeah, I could be called a grinch, but we are losing our ability to think clearly and realize that this constant bombardment of advertising is pushing us to limits that we will finally admit to have passed so many years back.

As an inquisitive person, I also nosed around to see what colleagues think about saving. Sadly, very little do any saving at all. And it’s not only because of the miserly pittance that passes as wages here, but also because we have lost the capability to do so.

Everybody wants a new car, a new computer, a new hair-do every week, nail technicians, gym memberships, a new mobile every year… but can we really afford them?

We are living beyond our means. WAY beyond it.

I cannot accept that. I cannot live in peace, laying my head on the pillow every night knowing that if the shit hits the fan, I cannot provide.

Sure, I spend money like everybody else, but at least, and this is thanks to a priceless lesson from a colleague at work, I first put away an amount of money from my salary for a rainy day, THEN a smaller amount for us to enjoy. After all, life is not all about work and saving. It’s about having the financial capability to make it through when the going gets tough, but also living comfortably.

And utilizing micro-management (for which an article will appear tomorrow), we are not only living better, we are also saving money easily. EASILY.

Live long and prosper.

My 30th year anniversary using computers!

As the years have passed, it is easy to overlook something as commonplace as the computer in our homes. But a very few short years ago, there were no such things in our rooms.

Yeah, we actually had to get out of the house to entertain ourselves… also known as playing with friends.

But I digress… anyway.. computers… it is 2014 and this year marks the 30th anniversary of my first properly owning one of these marvelous machines.

The first computers to gain popularity in the homes were actually microcomputers, and they all had their different versions of ‘operating system’ so to speak. Most were very basic affairs with the most horribly complicated programming Basic languages.

But inversely, my first (actually second, but that is a story for another day) computer was a great little number, the Texas Instruments TI-99/4a. This computer had 16k of VRAM (but in reality only 256 bytes scratch RAM), no storage space to speak of, and around 8k of ROM. One had to load and save programs using a cassette tape, and the screeches of the different baud rate signals were enough to wake the dead during the night.

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Most of my friends bought Spectrums, commodore64s or Ataris, but the price of the TI-99/4a, at 55 Maltese liri of the time was too low to ignore. And as a family of four with modest income, the price seemed to be about just right for my parents.

Apart from this not inconsiderable fact, the Texas (as it was known), had the first 16-bit microprocessor, 16 colours, a REAL keyboard (Spectrum users take note), a three-channel
sound chip with real music, and space for a number of expansion packs, notably extended basic with its’ extended commands, including ‘sprites’.

If there was anything to lament on the Texas, it was the lack of machine code on the system, so one had to write all the programs in TI-Basic.This meant that to squeeze every bit of speed from the machine, we programmers had to be thrifty and wise.

It was, indeed… slow… but I tell you what… I loved that machine to bits. I learnt programming in a few days, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Together with a mate of mine, we created games like there was no tomorrow… After purchasing the extended basic cartridge, I expanded even more into programming complicated stuff, and sold some games on the official market. I can never thank my parents enough for buying me this machine!

After the Texas, I purchased a Goldstar MSX computer, surmised to be the next big thing across the world. It even utilized Microsoft Basic 1.0… the premise was that all MSX branded machines would need to conform to a minimum standard.. so we had computers from Sony, LG, Goldstar, Fujitsu, Funai… all different but the same.

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The thing was a real doddle to use… the Z80 CPU made programming machine language and assembly so so easy. I cut my teeth on assembly using this MSX, and it got me a long way. I loved this machine too, and I am so sorry that I sold it…

And the reason I sold it is that my mate Mark (who recently passed away), and with whom I spent many happy hours with, had upgraded straight to a Commodore64… Ah… Now THAT was a machine to be reckoned with… 64k RAM (38911 available), easily accessible machine language commands, super sound chip, incredible keyboard, easy interfacing… and the games… my god the games…

I wanted one… and I wanted it immediately. I sold my MSX to buy the C64, and after a short time, also the 1571 disk drive for it… remember that this was a time when a game would take all of twenty minutes to load… and the disk drive, supposedly enabling faster times, was a ‘serial’ disk-drive… then Turbo Loaders came along, and all 64k of RAM was squished into 5 seconds of controlled high-pitched gibberish… Magic!

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I learnt 6502 machine code on the C64, and it seemed so easy… All I needed was an Assembler, and there we went…I really enjoyed programming in Assembly, back then thought of as very difficult… again, I took to it like a duck to water, and I was swapping registers and creating games in hours.

Perhaps the greatest software on my C64 was undoubtedly ‘Graphic Adventure Creator’. My brother was a keen adventure fan…make that an adventure nut, and after playing many games from the Level9 stable, decided to start creating our own…

The coding was easy enough, but creating the images was difficult… well they had to be. the C64 had no basic to speak of…. no circle, no line, no paint, or fill…. that meant that everything had to be hardcoded, and that was our undoing.

Again, I totally loved this machine, and even now, own 2 Commodore 64s…

Cue a couple of years playing with the 64, and I upgraded to an Amiga500, expanded to 1Mb and an extra floppy drive. The Amiga was a beautiful machine, doted with an incredible OS, Workbench, and the games were simply more than arcade standard.

(At work, PCs were just coming into vogue, and the first PC I saw was a Victor 286, with a mono screen… hardly impressive. These did not inspire me, even when I saw the first HP 286, with a CGA colour card costing hundreds of pounds for the 4 colors alone. I once took my Amiga to work for the engineer to see. He was absolutely gob-smacked at how far ahead the Amiga was.

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Unfortunately, like the rest of the adult world, he saw it as a machine for games…)

Again, after a few weeks in acclimitising myself with the splendor of titles such as Defender of the Crown, or Ferrari challenge, I decided to pursue programming once again. A new basic/c language was just coming out at that time, called AMOS. I bought the package by mail order and happily spent years and years using the Amiga as a programming tool.

Then after four years, and just when I married, I purchased my first pc…. a non-descript 386sx. I often remarked that it did not hold a candle to the Amiga.

The 386sx had a math-co-processor added to it, making it a dx, then I upgraded to a 486sx-25, then a 486sx-40, then a 486dx4-100, my first Pentium100, 120, 166mmx, PII-333, then a PIII-600, and on to a succession of Pentium IVs… I never got quite beyond the single-core pentiums, because I then wisely upgraded to the AMD Athlons, and finally to a Dual-Core Dell notebook, which is still going strong, and used daily (and nightly!) as a kitchen computer.

I have turned to the MAC as an alternative way, and the computing experience is so much better.

But looking back at all my years using computers, never has been the light so bright as when I started off back in the early 80’s. I have forgotten how many nights I have burnt the midnight oil playing a succession of games that thrilled me and drove me to tears with frustration.

I rest easy in the knowledge that I created many games myself, including the first PC Football manager… 4 divisions of 16 teams each, modelled on the Serie A at that time. I sold many copies of that game on the PC, admittedly very cheaply, but it was money just the same…

These days, the magic of programming games is just about gone. The splendour of modern titles such as Tomb Raider or Call of Duty, churned out by a team of a hundred or more designers and artists crush our little efforts… but we were the bedroom coder pioneers, striving to put the computers out of science fiction into the hands of many millions.

I have owned my own computer shop, selling mainstream PCs, until the market dropped and it no longer was profitable. I still miss the old times and still spend innumerable hours designing games on my MAC. Just for me to play with, trying to relive the glory days. That, for me, is more than enough reward.

So …. yeah… happy 30th birthday to all my computers.

Addendum : Favourite Games.

1. TI-99/4a – Favourite game was Blasto, which I even recreated using a PC and Blitz Basic, taking part in a worlwide retro-gaming competition, finishing in the top 100 amidst some 5000 entries.

2. On the MSX, I still look misty-eyed at the mention of Konami Ping-Pong… what a game… how many hours have I spent honing my reflexes?

3. On the C64, my favourite game was Killer Watt. Again, I recreated this game faithfully to the last byte, gaining an accolade when I re-entered a competition with it. Supreme.

4. Too many games on the Amiga to select a favourite, but most probably it had to be Ferrari Formula 1… my god what a game.

5. There are too many gems on the PC to mention, but the Championship Manager games, and the Tomb Raider series spring to mind.