Yet another gem recovered from my old blog. Enjoy.
1983: One of our electives in junior high was a “Computing” class, which was held in high regard by many students as a “total kick back class.” Not everybody was interested in computers, but I was, so I signed up for it.
It was situated in a small “Computer lab,” which was basically a regular-sized classroom with long tables set up to accomodate the 30 or so computers. It was chock full of TRS-80s, which were, at that time, the most convenient and easy-to-use machines for anyone looking to learn BASIC programming. It was also ruled by a small clique of the Nerd Elite – 8th grade kids who not only knew BASIC programming, but were adept at it. They actually understood how to use the TRS-80s.
Nevertheless, this class was cake. The teacher was a total laid-back, mellow guy, who spent most of his time hanging out at his desk, feet propped up, chatting away with the Nerd Elite of the 8th grade and budding nerds of the 7th. Oh yeah, this class was nerd central. C’mon. Computers were gaining rep as a viable technological breakthrough, and these brainiacs were allll into them. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends and I were basically just hanging out ourselves, trying to make sense of these TRS-80s.
There was no class instruction, no class lectures, no homework. The only term assignment we had was a box full of a thousand or so Scantron-looking cards, on which we had to fill in certain bubbles with a pencil…there was no explanation as to what these were, nor what they did; the teacher just wrote some code on the board each day and we were supposed to fill in our bubbles accordingly.
Everyone had a box; everyone had to do it. That was that. Oh man and this was so easy. It’s like, all we did was fill out those bubbles for like 15 minutes, and the rest of the class time was spent however you wanted. It turned out that later, at the end of the semester, we had to feed these boxes full of cards into some electronic reader, and voila! Some boring “fun” program fizzled onto the screen. If your program ran, you got an A in the class. I guess, through the filling in of thousands of binary bubbles, we were supposed to be impressed with the magic of computers. I was not.
So how did we regular kids spend our days in this class, if we couldn’t be part of the Nerd Elite? We tried to make use of the TRS-80s. How? Most of the time, it was just staring at a blank screen, that white cursor blinking in the void, as we came up with interesting junior high topics of conversation. Or, we could do the ultra-popular name scrolling program, which meant that we learned an inkling of BASIC. The code went like so:
10 CLS 20 PRINT "(WORD OF CHOICE HERE)"; 30 GOTO 20 RUN
This would scroll your name, or favorite band’s name (i.e., Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, or Def Leppard), or expletive (whichever you chose), down the screen forever, until you hit ESC.
Now if one knew their BASIC shortcuts, they could substitute a “?” for the PRINT command in line 20, thus cutting their coding time by a whopping 20%. Whoopee.
10 CLS 20 ? "LED ZEP RULES!"; 30 GOTO 20 RUN
This too, would also scroll your name, favorite band name (i.e., Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Men At Work, Flock Of Seagulls), or expletive (whichever you chose) down the screen forever, until you hit ESC.
Now if one knew their BASIC shortcuts and a little BASIC tweaking (usually learned from looking over budding 7th grade nerds’ shoulders), you could tweak the space within the quotation marks and add a semi-colon, something like this:
10 CLS 20 ? "YOU SUCK! "; 30 GOTO 20 RUN
This would scroll your name, favorite band name, school crush’s name, or whatever you chose in infinite diagonal columns across the screen forever, until you hit ESC. The amount of space you put between your name and the end quotation mark equaled the amount of space between the diagonal columns. It was mindless, hilarious fun, especially if you ran the program right when class ended, so that the next student who sat at your computer saw this:
Of course, all this got ultra-boring after awhile, so we had to find new ways to entertain ourselves. So I went to the local library and picked up some handy little books on TRS-80 BASIC programming, and learned a few cool tricks, which I shared with my friends.
One thing we picked up on was String Variables, which allowed some genuine, mind-bending interactivity for us twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. It was like, “Oh my God! The computer is talking to me!” A quick conversation with the computer was coded as easily as such:
10 CLS 20 INPUT "WHAT IS YOUR NAME";A$ 30 PRINT A$;", YOU ARE THE RADDEST GUY IN THE WORLD!" RUN
Running the program would have the computer appear as if it was asking you a question:
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?_
You would type in your name…
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?GREG
Hit ENTER, and the computer would “answer” you, like so:
GREG, YOU ARE THE RADDEST GUY IN THE WORLD!
Oh, the hilarity. Oh, the wild entertainment. Depending on how cruel, cynical, conceited, or just plain stupid you were, you could have the computer tell you (or your friend / victim) all kinds of things.
CYNDI, GREG THINKS YOU'RE A FOX! AARON, YOU RULE AT DEFENDER! HEATHER, DURAN DURAN SUCKS! KIM, WILL YOU GO WITH ME?
Yes, we would laugh our asses off at the creative nonsense. But the Nerd Elite just weren’t impressed. They would walk by and see our on-screen antics, and just push their noses up in arrogance. Especially one kid, Alex, who was indeed the almighty emperor of programming nerdness, and knew it. “Oh please,” he’d say, rolling his eyes. “That’s so old.”
My friend Aaron and I had to find some way to show him that we could do something as good as he could, so once again I ventured to the secret resource, the local library. This time I delved even deeper into the books, hitting books with advanced chapters featuring some real hardcore lines of coding—stuff which I just didn’t understand. Then I stumbled upon something awesome: GAMES. Yes!! Now I could write an actual game program, to challenge the emperor’s rule!
We could hardly contain ourselves as I fetched a little library hardback from my backpack a few days later. I told Aaron I’d found a cool game called “Dog Race,” where 8 dogs raced across the screen, and you could bet which dog would win. It was the ultimate entertainment, and sure to cause some commotion amongst the Nerd Elite ranks.
Oh but it took forever to code. There were pages and pages of coding, and I lost track several times. Once you entered a line, you couldn’t go back and edit it if you made a mistake; you had to type the whole line over again. And then when I tried to run it, it would have a bug, and I would have to proofread my lines of code to see if I misspelled or misplaced anything. Keep in mind that I was basically just cutting and pasting here. Those lines of code were as incomprehensible to me as the tears one of my female classmates was shedding over the wedding of Duran Duran’s John Taylor.
But finally, after a whole class period of coding, the game was finished. I pressed ENTER to race my own little pixelated dogs for the very first time, and the dog I bet on lost. But, I had won. I had accomplished the ultimate in BASIC programming interactivity…a GAME. I showed Aaron, and we both called out to Alex in unison. I made sure to hide the book.
Somewhat annoyed, he answered. “What?”
“Dood. Come over here. Look at this.”
“C’mon. Don’t show me some stupid stuff. I’m busy.”
“No, it’s not! C’mere.”
He came over, expecting to see the ever-so-familiar diagonal columns of expletives flowing across the screen. But no. This time the screen was blank, except for a rectangle, in which eight faithful pixel-dogs waited patiently for the starting gun.
He tried to hide his surprise. “What is that?” He asked.
“Pick a number.”
“Why? Ok, 7.”
I pressed ENTER, and the dogs moved across the screen in varying speeds. Some fast, some deathly slow. The whole time, I knew Alex liked what he saw. He really liked what he saw. Nobody had done anything with graphics in the class. But he tried hard to hide his interest. The dogs ran… #7 ran moderately, but not quite fast enough. At the end of the race, number 3 broke the tape. He held his face stern, showing the slightest disappointment in the results, and fighting harder to not look excited at the graphics display.
7 LOST, the screen read bleakly.
“Hahahaa…you lost!!” We both said, slapping our knees in laughter. “Cool, huh?”
“Ah, whatever. I can do that,” he said, shooing the screen with a wave of his hands.
Despite his claim, he never could top my feat. I had, for once, faced up and defeated the Nerd Elite Captain. Yes, by dirty, scoundrely means, but it was still fun. But of course, this achievement went unnoticed, unannounced, as we once again returned to filling in those thousands of bubbles on those thousands of cards for that mystical, awe-inspiring “fun” program we all had to look forward to at the end of the semester. But that “Computing” class remained, and still remains, one of my favorite classes of all time.
For those of you who want to experience the magic of a TRS-80 (and I highly suggest you do), I present you a wonderful link to a TRS-80 Level 1 BASIC Simulator. Go ahead, enter the coding that I did above, and you, too, can see how fun it was in 1983. Who said there was no such thing as time travel?
What was your first experience with computers? What was the funnest / funniest thing you were able to do?