Roland Waddilove: Geek of the Week

A whole generation of British geeks owe a debt of gratitude to Roland Waddilove. He is a journalist with a rare knack of being able to explain complex technical ideas in a very simple way. Many successful developers cut their teeth many years ago on an Atari, Electron, Sinclair or Amstrad computer, poring over the technical articles of Roland Waddilove in well-thumbed magazines

1205-me.jpg Roland Waddilove is a legend to those who remember Electron User and its stable mates from the 1980s and 1990s era of computer magazines when he edited such titles as Atari ST User, PC Home and PC Today.

“I clearly remember an
advert from Sinclair claiming
it could run a nuclear power
station. I wish I’d ripped it
out of the magazine and kept
and framed it.”

He wrote hundreds of columns, week after week, ostensibly about programming and possessed the rare gift of making technical writing come alive and of making the reader feel that he was talking to them individually.

Now a self-employed writer and programmer he writes for several UK computer magazines about Windows PCs, Apple Macs, the Internet, hints and tips and tweaks, Windows, software, programming, problems and solutions, tutorials, articles and more. He regularly uses PCs running various versions of Windows, Apple Macs running OS X, and Ubuntu Linux, but sometimes other Linux distros too.

RM:
Roland – how did you get involved in computing and technology? Was it through that burst of home computer fever that swept the UK following the BBC Computer Literacy Project? It’s a dry-sounding name but it was a hugely influential series.
RW:
I was a teacher in the early 1980s and computers were just starting to become popular. The school I was at got one – one computer between 1,000 pupils, so as you can imagine they didn’t get a lot of time with it. One or two teachers hogged it too, so I didn’t get to play with it either. It was clear that computers were going to be a big thing, so I thought I had better get one myself and learn how to use it. In late 1981 or early 1982 I bought a Sinclair ZX-81. I hadn’t heard of the BBC Micro at the time and it may have been just before it was launched.
RM:
The critics had a great time knocking spots off the Sinclair saying it was very slow and difficult to use and better suited to use as a door-stopper than as a computer. I’ve a copy of the operating manual which has a fun customer query section with a question that reads:

My computer seems to be crashing when I use the 16k RAM module. It doesn’t crash when I use the computer without the 16K module. What might be the problem?

The answer they give is: If the 16k is causing your computer to crash after a few minutes of use then you should try cleaning the contacts vigorously with a pencil eraser. Tape the RAM pack to the computer to prevent loss of contact due to accidental movement.

Does this sound familiar?

RW:
When the ZX-81 was launched it was revolutionary. I clearly remember an advert from Sinclair claiming it could run a nuclear power station. I wish I’d ripped it out of the magazine and kept and framed it. It wasn’t the fastest computer around, but you’ve got to remember that it cost under £100 or about £60 in kit form if you built it yourself – if I remember correctly.

The BBC Micro was £400, so it’s a bit like saying a £250 netbook is slow and awkward to use compared to a £2000 quad-core monster. The ZX-81 was hugely popular and lots of fun.

RM:
Getting into journalism with a respectable magazine you missed out on all sorts of judicious condemnations of local dignitaries. How did you manage to combine your love of home computing with journalism and not lecturing or teaching in some way?
RW:
In my spare time after work and weekends I learnt how to write simple programs on my ZX-81 and after that, a Jupiter Ace. I had one or two published in a magazine. By this time the BBC Micro had become popular but it was too big and expensive, so when the Acorn Electron came out, I bought that instead. I started writing more programs (everyone was a programmer in those days because we spent so much time typing in listings from magazines that some of the coding stuck in our minds), and sent some off to Electron User. They liked it and asked for more. Then they launched Computing with the Amstrad CPC and they asked me to write for that too. Eventually I was writing so much in my spare time that the company asked me to work for them full time. It was my hobby and it was fun, so I left the school and went to work for Europress, the publisher of Electron User and other computer magazines.
RM:
Do you think earlier machines such as the Acorn Electron made better programmers out of people compared to today’s machines?
RW:
Programming today is very different to programming back then and you use different techniques and write different software. I don’t think programming on the ZX-81, Jupiter Ace or Electron helps me to be a better programmer today. A few fundamental commands and techniques are similar, but the challenges are just so different.
RM:
The April edition of Electron User always had an April’s Fool joke which was usually a short machine code type-in listing which claimed to do something extremely useful and of wide interest but in reality it printed April Fool on the screen. Can you remember any examples?
RW:
I remember we used to do it, but I can’t remember any examples. It was usually some obscure code that was difficult to follow when typing it in, or perhaps a new wonder product that was too good to be true.
RM:
Your website Raw Computing echoes the plain writing found in the magazines you edited. Why did you decide to carry this over into a website rather than publish a book?
RW:
Books take a lot of time and effort to write and I always had my doubts as to whether anyone would buy one if I wrote it. Mind you, there’s no guarantee with a website either and you can build one, but will people come and visit? I’ve thought about compiling all the articles and tips from the website into a book though. There’s enough material. Maybe one day.
RM:
Don Knuth told me that his first rule of writing is to understand the audience – the better you know your reader the better you can write for them. The second rule for technical writing is to say everything twice in complimentary ways so that the person who’s reading it has a chance to put the ideas into his or her head in ways that reinforce each other. Is that more or less, the way you work?
RW:
I agree, but most of my writing has been for someone else and you have to give them what they want and not what I think is best.
RM:
Is programming harder than writing copy for magazines or online media? And if it’s impossible to estimate how long a book may take to write does that mean it’s even harder to estimate how a program might take to code?
RW:
I have always made more money and faster by writing articles than by programming, which is why I devote more of my time to writing articles. To make a living as a programmer you have to be very good and very fast. I long ago realised that I’m not. I know a bit of programming and can write simple software, but it takes me a long time. I can earn more in a day writing than a month programming. The one interesting thing about programming is that once I’ve written a program, the money dribbles in for years afterwards. There are still people buying software I wrote five years ago.

As for writing books, it’s not a problem estimating the time and effort required, but it’s a bit like programming in that you spend six months writing the book during which time you get no income and then sales are slow and the money dribbles in. I’m just not sure I can generate £2000 a month profit from book sales, but I can from writing articles for various publications.

RM:
There are quite a few references on the web about Mavis Mole, Jam Butty and Tommy & The Toadstools linked to your name and a couple of magazines you edited. Can you make sense of the names for me?
RW:
I can’t remember Mavis Mole or Tommy & The Toadstools. We published many programs each month in various magazines and there must have been hundreds! I wrote a couple each month myself and the rest came from contributors. I vaguely remember Jam Butty though, which was a platform game I wrote. It was just for fun and it borrowed ideas from other games that were around at the time.
RM:
Do you think many people working in technology are unaware of its history and have little curiosity about where languages came from?
RW:
When computers first came out they were a novelty and people wanted to know what they could do, how to make them do stuff and so on. Everyone was a computer programmer and you had to know something about programming in order to enter magazine listings and debug them. Now people are computer users. They switch it on, point a mouse at something and click the button. They aren’t interested in how the computer works. They are just another gadget in the home like a TV, hi-fi or electric toaster.
RM:
Do you think better education is the answer to poor software? Surely teaching people better would be cheaper in the long run and certainly avoid the huge bloat we see today and we would be able to use simpler and less power-hungry hardware?
RW:
Software bloat is inevitable and unavoidable. At one time you could write a program in a few lines of code. In fact in Electron User we used to give a prize each issue to the best 10-liner. There were some amazing programs squeezed into 10 lines of BBC Basic.

Now it would take a month’s hard work just to open a window using a low level programming language. There isn’t the time and it’s easier to use something like Visual Basic, which enables you to create a window in seconds.

The problem is that when you compile it and add the runtimes required, it will be several megabytes. That’s because the compiler adds everything but the kitchen sink just in case you might need it. We could reduce software bloat by creating better compilers and development systems that remove unused modules. Another contributing factor to software bloat is that as programmers, we build re-usable modules. We design them to cope with lots of different situations, inputs and outputs so we can use them anywhere. However, this means that they contain functionality we may not actually use in a particular program, but it’s easier and faster than writing every function every time specifically for each program. A tried and tested module will be bug free too, but if you write everything from scratch you have to debug it. Software bloat is therefore partly because of time, effort and money.

RM:
A sage once said that software is the most complex thing man has ever invented. Do you think it’s become so complex that no one dares change it, or improve it, for fear of unintended consequences, so adding to it is a lot safer?
RW:
There’s an old saying, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” That’s true in programming and it’s easier to leave something alone if it is working rather than rewrite it from scratch with the possibility of introducing bugs, adding to the development time and effort required. If you’ve got a module that does a particular function and you know it works, you use it because it’s the safe option. You think, one day I’ll rewrite that and optimise it, make it more efficient, but do you ever get around to it? No, there’s always some other demand on your time.
RM:
Staying with this theme, what are the most important but fundamental things, the computing industry can learn from its past?
RW:
Stand still and you’ll get left behind. You’ve always got to be looking for the next big thing. Trying to spot it though is much more difficult than it seems with hindsight. Who would have guessed Facebook would have half a billion users when it was launched five years ago? Look at the apps in Apple’s iTunes store for the iPhone/iPod/iPad – it’s come from nowhere to 300,000 apps and some programmers are making a fortune, but who’d have guessed this would happen?
RM:
When you look back at your career on all the things you have done is there one time or a period that stands out among all the others? What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you as a journalist?
RW:
I had the most fun with computers in the 1980s. I liked the simplicity of them and you could actually understand how they worked. Now computers and software are so complicated that when something goes wrong it’s hard to work out what the problem is and how to fix it. “Why won’t this work?” my wife asks pointing at the screen. “I haven’t a clue,” I say. “I thought you were an expert,” she says. I’ve been using computers for nearly 30 years and I still don’t know why they crash or you sometimes can’t get some network or internet working. Probably the strangest thing that has happened is how popular some of my articles and programs have been considering I’m not the brightest programmer or writer. What’s even stranger is that the programs and articles I thought were really good haven’t been as popular as the ones I didn’t think much about. For example, I wrote a word processor for the Amstrad CPC years ago and it really wasn’t that good, but the response the magazine got was amazing. Readers were talking about it for months, tweaking it, modifying it and so on.
RM:
Is there a moment or event in IT or computer science which you would have liked to have witnessed?
RW:
The only thing I wish is that I was younger when the computer revolution started. Things are much easier to learn when you’re young and I probably would have been a better programmer than I am. I wasn’t far off 30 when home computers took off and I started programming. If I’d been a teenager I might have picked it up quicker. Now, having passed my half century some time ago, it’s tough, but not impossible, learning new languages and techniques and writing software. Experience compensates of course, and it’s a big help having spent so many years playing with computers.