BBC covers an old-school hacker

Yesterday, the BBC posted an article on [Julian Skidmore]‘s AVR-based homebrew computer.

[Julian]‘s project uses an AVR and a derivative of Forth to recreate the capabilities of the 8-bit computers of yesteryear. With 8kB of RAM, [Julian] got a TV-out up and running, and even included code for a Lunar Lander game.

We’re happy for [Julian] getting some notoriety as an old-school solder monkey, but we’re wondering why the BBC is covering a project not unlike the something that could be seen on hackaday once a week. Could it be the first inkling of respect for the hacker and DIY community in the general public’s eye?

In any event, we love the initiative shown in [Julian]‘s quote at the bottom of the BBC article: “Building the machine is a way to learn the essentials of what a computer is all about.” If you want to understand something, you’ve got to build it yourself. Truer words…

Comments

  1. mowcius says:

    Unfortunately they didn’t use the word ‘hacker’ or ‘hack’ so the general public still has no idea what a ‘hacker’ is.

    The BBC does its own features so they wouldn’t simply link to a website like hackaday. The feature did at least show the making bit and try to show the fun and that ‘feeling’ you get from making something yourself.

    It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

  2. Luke says:

    I like how the explain what soldering is.

  3. am_i_evil says:

    No disrespect to Julien – not his fault he was picked for the story – but it would have been much cooler to see the BBC cover the Uzebox project.

  4. Doktor Jeep says:

    Since it’s impossible to develop anything in this world and profit from it without needing connections and getting lawyered up, a Second Realm Strategy of DIY and cheap underground production will be how we prosper in the future.

    Any respect for DIY and hacking is good.

    BTW: Forth? I thought it was dead.

  5. HUSSTECH says:

    I was very pleased to see this feature on the BBC.

    John is an extremely intelligent person, and very knowledgeable in all things computing. He’s a member of my local Hackspce in Bristol, and he has always helped me find a solution to a problem. John is a true hacker, in the sense of this community on Hack a Day.

    @mowcius while hack a day was not linked in the article, John’s personal website was, take a peek.

  6. zokier says:

    I wonder if he has actually tried to type that lunar lander code with those 8 tactile switches.

    Overall both the story and the project seem to be more about nostalgia than producing an actually viable computer, even for education.

    Actually building a relatively fully featured (compared to early 8-bit home computers) computer around a MCU would be rather interesting exercise. A keyboard, bit better video output (color, lowres graphics), mass storage (recreating a tape recorder would be fun, but maybe SD cards would be more practical), maybe simple sound even.

    Obviously such project would need few more parts, but I bet that it still would be far more simpler than that Compukit shown in TFA.

  7. zokier says:

    @am_i_evil

    Oooh, Uzebox looks cool. Add a BASIC (or Forth…) interpreter and a keyboard, and you’ll get the whole 8/16-bit experience

  8. D_ says:

    Perhaps it’s a good thing the term hacker wasn’t used in the story, the general public isn’t likely to differentiate between a malicious software hacker, and the mostly more benign hardware builder. Unless Don Lancaster trademarked the term hardware hacker, I feel it that term should be used more often hacker. Then again it really wouldn’t matter if the term is trademarked.

  9. Edward says:

    While I’m all for giving credit and spreading the ingenuity and hard work of the hacking community this is merely a human interest piece. It happens to feature a piece of hardware that has broad appeal, particularly for older generations. The BBC is only covering this because it is has a strong human interest factor and it happens to overlap with something their audience might find of interest. This article has nothing to do with the real hacking communities that have been around for decades or even the new “movement” whatever it qualifies as(potentially a fad in my opinion).

  10. haley0918 says:

    My suggestion would be to just keep the hacking activities and sort to our own self and to people with interests and similar understandings.

    Putting too much publicity on our projects, especially the hacks, might bring more trouble such as the lawsuit.

    For some people that should not be a problem but there is also some that would take take hacking up to extreme level that might offense some companies or cause new bills to ban.

  11. Stevie says:

    @mowcius the general public mostly know what a hacker is. Especially with the recent hack of PSN. I’d like to slap hackers in the face with a large trout.

  12. ren_zokukne01 says:

    “oh yeah, sure, he found out how twiddle with the internal registers of an x86 in debug to make it run faster.. big deal… tshh… shit. i’d like to see that work on other systems”

  13. marc says:

    Remember, wear safety glasses while soldering…

  14. Hi folks,

    Thanks for the comments! As the developer of FIGnition, I’d like to reply to some of the points raised here.

    Firstly, is Forth dead? Well, not quite, it’s currently sitting as the 43rd or so most popular language… something like 0.43% of programmers use it.

    Secondly, The BBC contacted me, because it somehow connects with the invention of the Microprocessor 40 years ago, I guess they’ll be running a series of articles there. In fact it was Makerfaire UK who put me in contact with the BBC, many thanks to everyone involved.

    Thirdly, I know Hackaday covers machines and designs like this from time to time. FIGnition is primarily educational… an introductory machine to build code for and understand. Hence, it uses a simple keypad not even a phone keypad from Maplin nor a PS/2 keypad: I want people to see the code and understand it, so it must be compact. I want novices to be able to build it – fathers to show their sons, school kids to do workshop classes in it.

    Fourthly, yes I originally typed the entire lunar lander game using the keypad – I need to prove the design is practical. That version was sent to be the BBC though at the time was undebugged. The keypad almost never requires more than 2 keypresses so it’s better than a cell phone and similar to a Sinclair style keyboard.

    Fifthly, Uzebox is cool, it needs a proper RAM chip though – proper home micros were RAM dominated and that’s really what’s missing from most of the homebrew MCU type computers we see on Hackaday. Of course, Arduino is also a fantastic device – my early development for FIGnition was done using an Arduino given to me by the Manchester Madlab.

    -cheers from julz @P

  15. John Smith says:

    @Doktor Jeep

    Forth is not dead:

    http://osxbook.com/book/bonus/ancient/whatismacosx/arch_boot.html

    It is in the bios of every Mac. It’s also in this game adapter for the arduino:

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2084212109/gameduino-an-arduino-game-adapter

    It is a very powerful low level language. It is fairly easy to implement forth on a bare CPU with a minimal amount of assembly.

    Here is a tutorial on how one person implemented it for x86:
    http://rwmj.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/jonesforth-git-repository/

    You will find a forth implementation for just about every CPU out there.

  16. anti-fanboi says:

    as much as things change with computers over the ages, one thing at least has stayed the same: forth programmers are a bit nutty (in a good way)

  17. twopartepoxy says:

    @Doktor Jeep:

    I agree, in fact the whole nonsense of negotiating which particular clan of suits will get the most undeserved benefit from any development takes so long that it has almost completely stifled the creative process, its akin to the protection rackets of organised crime syndicates, just legal. DIY and non-IP/patent are the way to go for mankind

  18. bob says:

    “why the BBC is covering a project not unlike the something that could be seen on hackaday once a week”

    Are we talking about the same BBC that teamed up with Acorn to create a personal computer that introduced millions of children to computing?

  19. twopartepoxy says:

    @bob, good point.

    I remember the BBC computer (and BBC basic), great days, great days!, what a legacy! In a way they were doing what OLPC is trying to do at the moment. (of course, I had a zx spectrum too – who didn’t?).

    here is another recent article from the BBC about DIY processor building, well worth a read:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13271133

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