Orac, a computer from the series Blake’s Seven, which responded to commands in normal spoken human language

Many years ago, I often watched science fiction TV series, such as Star Trek (the original series), Doctor Who, Lost in Space, Blake’s Seven, etc. I still do!

In all these series, computers were featured. Watching them, I couldn’t wait until the time I finally got my hands on a computer and wondered what it would be like. I didn’t think the computer would be quite like the ones featured in these TV series, but a bit similar to them.

These computers often, or usually, responded to voice control in human language, such as a subset of English, or some other human language. There were often lots of flashing lights, but I didn’t understand what these were for. Later on, I realised that each light which was lit probably represented a 1 in binary. I think one of the most advanced computers featured was Orac in Blake’s Seven, because it was programmed entirely by voice commands and could hack into almost any computer in the Terran Federation. I think this was made possible by Ensor, the inventor of a component called the Tariel Cell, which was found in all Terran Federation computers, building some kind of secret back door into these components, leading into the whole computer. He built Orac to be capable of using this back door. Years later, Microsoft would do something similar with Windows, advertising software that was superior to software by any other companies, because it used this back door, which only Microsoft knew about. One fault with Orac was that it had some cryptic error messages telling people they hadn’t asked it the right questions. Of course, it wouldn’t tell them what the right questions were!

Of course, it’s possible for most people in all countries to learn other human or spoken languages. In lots of countries most of the population has learnt to speak one or more other languages. In spite of this, there are no countries that I know of where most of the population can program in any kind of Assembly Language, whether it’s for the 6502, 6510, 8510, Z80, 68000, Power PC, ARM, or even the possibly still most widespread Intel X86 family of processors. I think this proves my point that human language, not machine language is the answer! I am not Borg! Of course, TMR of the blog and other people he hangs round with have got the attitude “I can do it! If I can do it, then ANYONE can do it!” Obviously, as Mr Spock would say, it’s totally illogical to claim that anyone can do something just because a few other people can do it.

Left to right, The Monitor and companions Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa see the Doctor’s TARDIS shrunk by a three byte long bug in a Machine Code program

In classic Doctor Who there was a computer in the form of a robot dog called K9, which responded to voice control and seemed very advanced. Unfortunately, it was revealed in the classic Doctor Who story “Logopolis” (Tom Baker’s last story, where he tried to fix the TARDIS broken Chameleon Circuit which should enable it to camouflage itself) that his TARDIS, or at least the Chameleon Circuit, was an old model (usually described as a Type 40, while the Master’s TARDIS was a later model) and the instructions had to be punched in by Machine Code! Even one of his then three companions, Adric, who was wearing a star for mathematical excellence and could calculate approximate square routes for large numbers in a few seconds, said that this was so tedious! The Doctor demonstrated possible disguises for the TARDIS, such as a pyramid, which came up on a small screen on the console. Of course, the Doctor’s race the Time Lords have 12 regenerations, so 13 lives, and the Doctor claimed to be about 749 years old around that time, so he’d obviously had plenty of time to learn this type of Machine Code, but us human beings don’t have all that time! Of course, the TARDIS computer graphics from around this era were usually done on Acorn computers, such as the BBC Micro or Electron, which both had the excellent BBC BASIC, but as the story Logopolis was made in late 1980 or early 1981 before the BBC Micro was released in about December 1981, and the Acorn Atom had more limited graphics, I’m not sure what computer was used in this story. The “Machine Code” featured later in the story may actually only have been just a listing of sprite type data which described all the TARDIS measurements of the outer Police Box shell. Later on, Adric and the leader of Logopolis, called “The Monitor”, walked round the streets of Logopolis, which were made up of alcoves of mathematicians calculating the data necessary to carry out the TARDIS repair, while calling out a series of hexadecimal numbers as a way of checking the Machine Code listing for a bug which had reduced the TARDIS outer shell to a fraction of its normal size, trapping the Doctor inside. They found that three consecutive numbers were wrong. The term hexadecimal was never mentioned, but either in this story or the next, they said they were using a base 16 numbering system. The term Machine Code was only mentioned once in this story. It was all part of something called “Block Transfer Computations”, which could change physical objects and even form new objects out of thin air, as in the following story “Castrovalva”, which was Peter Davision’s first story as the Doctor.

I didn’t expect my first computer to be as advanced as the ones in these sci fi series, but I expected it to be looking to the future, pushing things forward as much as possible. At first, I thought I was happy, but then things soon turned sour. My first program was a rewrite of a program from the Commodore course “An Introduction to BASIC”, where instead of just ordering whole bottles of wine and being asked to pay a certain price, I changed it so it allowed the user to order glasses of wine, instead of bottles. If I’d had an Atari 8 bit computer instead (even a 400 with a flat touch sensitive keyboard, or one with a replacement keyboard) then my first program could’ve been a variation on the famous Atari BASIC lightning bolt, complete with a slightly altered sound effect! How amazing that would’ve been!

Unfortunately, Commodore 64 BASIC requires programmers to memorise what seems like an almost infinite range of numbers representing memory locations, or in other words to think like a computer, or a cyborg, not like a human being! It seems that most of these begin with the digits 532. Of course, this makes it very difficult to remember the various numbers using a popular Greco/Roman memory system, because this would involve conjuring up mental images all involving lemons. Anyone with any sense would have heard about this memory system, then shifted some of the important locations into a different range of memory locations such as those beginning with 540 or 550, because this would have enabled different letter combinations to remember them, such as LRS and LLS, where 540 could stand for low rise, or lairs, while 550 could stand for lawless, low loss, etc. Of course, there were very good reasons why Jack Tramiel era Commodore didn’t do this, which were that they didn’t care, and it may have cost a bit more money, as well as getting people to buy cartridges such as the Super Expander 64 or Simons BASIC to fix their mess! The Super Expander 64 was an early version of Commodore BASIC 3.5 or 7, which followed on from the Super Expander for the VIC-20, which I think was Commodore’s first computer with colour, graphics and sound, although of course it had no commands to program these facilities, but more about the VIC-20 in a future post. Years before this, Atari had written a series of official labels standing for the memory locations which were important on their Atari 8 bit computers, such as GRACTL (player missile graphics control, 53277) and PMBASE (player missile graphics data, 54279). Programmers were recommended to use these labels in Atari BASIC as well as in 6502 Assembly Language. This is much better than trying to make up words or sentences from the letters LMNKK or LMNCK (53277) or LRNKP or LRNCP (54279)! What have “lemon cake” or “lower on cape” got to do with controlling or defining player missile graphics/sprites?

While I was reading up on the Commodore 64 in various magazines, such as Your64, Commodore Horizons, etc, I read two articles about what I thought was an amazing language called LOGO. I think the first article was “Sprite Logo Icon Style” in Your64 magazine No. 2, June 1984 page 52, which was available to view on the now closed “Commodore is Awesome” website, but now you’ll have to try and find it somewhere like or . From what I read, this language, which was either part of or another version to Commodore LOGO, enabled people to do impressive things using a language that was much closer to spoken English than BASIC was. I realised that if the Commodore 64 had been supplied with this language then it would’ve been a totally different kind of computer. I was also very upset by reading this because I had no chance of using either of these languages as Commodore LOGO was DISK ONLY, while Commodore 64 Sprite LOGO was either DISK ONLY or just too expensive. Interestingly enough, on page 72 of the same magazine a software house owner called John Peel (NOT the deceased BBC DJ) says about converting his fantasy adventure game “Valhalla” from the Spectrum “Translating to the 64 was horrific. The memory map is a real mess, and we had to do all sorts of filthy things to get it to take a 35K program,” Peel said. “Our technical people hate it. In fact, so deep is their love of the Commodore 64 that in future we will be developing 64 software on a BBC micro!” WELL SAID JOHN!

The Borg try to install a temporary neural transceiver onto Capt Katherine Janeway without asking permission. They claim “You will not be damaged”. Wanna bet?

Some years after I sold my Commodore 64, I watched the series “Star Trek: Voyager”, which often featured a cybernetic race called The Borg. In the episode “Scorpion – Part 2” Capt Katherine Janeway makes a deal with The Borg to help them defeat Species 8472 in return for safe passage across Borg Space to their own Alpha Quadrant, where the United Federation of Planets is partly located, as well as the Beta Quadrant. The Borg suddenly start to try and attach neural transceivers to some of the Voyager crew without first even asking permission, because they claim this will be a more efficient type of communication, enabling them to share their knowledge. They claim it’s only temporary and say “You will not be damaged”. I beg to differ and I think it was likely to cause a similar type of damage to trying to memorise all the Commodore 64 memory locations needed to write programs which used colour, graphics, or sound. I am NOT Borg!

So, to sum up, Commodore with the C64 were looking backwards in time, while all other computer manufacturers were looking forwards! I look forward to the day when it will be possible to program computers in a subset of English or some other human language, as well as to get these programs to run on other compatible computers as a runtime or compiled version, which doesn’t require a copy of the software that was used to produce them!


Posted August 25, 2013 by C64hater in Uncategorized

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