It's easy to feel that the glut of computing books forgo the
rudiments of the craft and settle for
lots of games for the Frogger freak. But, asks Alan Jowet, could
it be that the authors of these
texts ignore a rather vital question. What is a book?
Anthony Burgess, the Clockwork
Orange man, described books in a recent
colour supp ad as "boxes of organised
knowledge". But too many of the micro
volumes sitting in the racks round at the
dealers are really collections of old
magazine programs, writ large and often
writ fast. No worse for being collected,
but no better either. |
"The first rush of books on the Sinclair machines has been, to put it kindly, disappointing. Certainly none can be considered a serious text on Sinclair Basic. We felt that a book was needed which gave the first time user a worthwhile home tutor on computing," so say the authors of Century's new Computer Programming Course. Perhaps they're right. Have you or your kids been up at night furrowing over fuzzy repros from a defunct ZX printer ... are you wasting your time on books that aren't worth the paper they are printed on? And it's sobering to consider just how many Sinclairs are listed in the 'Swaps and For Sale Cheap' columns because the owners have got fed up with the turgid prose of their books. The majority of the tightly crammed pages are in their way as unreadable as the 60's underground magazines that used to print green ink on purple pages. Indeed, one unmentionable guide went for four pages before introducing a new paragraph! The impression is that many are written by scientists or science teachers 'on the make'.
True fans of everything that Clive Sinclair originally begat will want to invest the full £9.95 on the aforementioned Century Programming Course, a massive 525 pager that takes you right through every nook and cranny of the ZX81 and Spectrum. If you believe that your interest in Sinclair Basic is going to persist for the next few months, let alone years, then probably this is the one. It might have been more logical, however, to have brought in the Spectrum system and keyboard at an earlier stage than page 439 in section W, as if assuming that everybody is progressing from a ZX81 first.
£5.95). It's probably the best of the
general guides and it seems to aim
towards being more readable than the
manual that accompanies the machine
itself. This Sinclair must have made a
mint from those who assume that he has
kinship with our great Mensa sage, but I
wouldn't begrudge a penny of it. Sinclair Minor actually tries to make a few
jokes - nothing actually very funny, but
enough to make things more readable
and any attempts at whimsy are worthwhile. |
Sinclair doesn't make the pedagogic mistake of thinking that lack of knowledge equals lack of intelligence. But he does provide welcome diagrams for newcomers to the art, and a breakdown
checklist. Advanced readers of this
column may quietly sigh, but they were
once beginners, and not that long ago
either. The computer clubs are full of
people wondering why their Spectrums
won't work, and most of the answers
will be found here. |
Actually, for those truly at the starting gate, for my money the best book to buy is First Steps with your Spectrum - my fave rave for any Sinclair computing course. Authoress Carolyn Hughes ran computer courses at her son's school. She has provided a manual that sensible dealers could pop in with the Spectrum as a goodwill gesture (it only costs £1.25 from Armada) and one that should have any reader from eight
to eighty programming in half an hour.
Tim Hartnell, who has not been slow off
the mark in dashing off a few million
words of his own, adds in a foreword
"There are lots of books written about
the Spectrum. They were not written
with you in mind." |
The point is, were they written with anyone in mind? Apart from the bank manager that is.
Is it beyond the wit of publishers to attract a real writer to investigate the world of programming - and compose a book that is enjoyable to read, to handle and to program from? If you think that Fleet Street journalists spend all their time making up stories and muck- raking, cast an eye at The Sunday Times book on Skiing, mostly written by Harold Evans. Technical material is superbly illustrated and magnificently described and it has the reader almost leaping on the next plane in a mad urge to be out there on the slopes. Hands up all those who've ever had a thrill like that from reading a programming hook.
patience; knowing how to de-bug is all
about mind over matter most of the
time. Walking the dog, reading poetry,
listening to Brahms might help, but the
books don't contradict the idea that the
micro is what's all important. It's easy
enough to pick up a smattering of Basic
and learn how to doodle a bunch of pixellated munchkins all over the screen,
but the books don't encourage you to
ask any of the global questions. |
The best programming book I've seen over the past two years had not a single program in it and was nothing to do with the Spectrum or any other machine. But Design and Memory (McGraw Hill - John Wiley, £8.50) is the one I'd take to that desert island.
Full of wisecracks aimed at programmers in big corporations it's still highly relevant to Spectrum users - after all, a lot of us have 48K at our fingertips and that was more than mainframe power only a few years ago. Peter Huyck and Nellie Kremenak urge programmers to get themselves to think of people as being useful, and to discover how the machine can help in their own lives. Too many Spectrum owners get their value out of the machine as a quick thinking toy, never seeing it as a way of helping to develop themselves.
OK, so you don't want to learn archaic algebraic formulae. But, as the book points out, a good programmer is much like a jackleg carpenter - and they don't read philosophy either. And snippets of Reader's Digest aphorisms
filtered through MAD magazine keep
cropping up, telling you to summarise
the condition of humankind in 25 words
or less, or to cycle down to Kitty Hawk
and feel the breeze coming from the
South. Find one aspect of programming
that inhibits innovation, they urge. Their
approach is that there are only four
billion of us at the moment and you can't
assume that somebody else is asking
those vital questions. |
We're all getting the benefit of immensely clever chaps like Sir Clive and his Mensa friends. But let's not pretend there aren't holes in our ways of looking at the world.
Logic is flexible but too many programmers are too rigid and impatient to try trial and error methods. Librarians are just the same. Huyck tells the parable of how titles of books in Oriental languages are transliterated into the Roman alphabet and filed by the ordering rules for English titles. The rules are devised by Westerners but most people looking for books in Oriental languages are Orientals, so no one can find anything in the Oriental collection.
Logic, philosophy and programming are all useful to each other. Bits of informed approaches will rub off on micro programmers over the years, but not if we just stay put in front of the same half dozen reliable guides. Don't just look under the safe old Dewey code of 001.642 in the library stack - let your fingers walk a few inches on both sides. After all, life is a bit of an adventure.