Monthly Archives: March 2011

Someone has to be second

At last, a professional footballer has come out: Anton Hysén, son of eighties mulleted Kop legend Glenn. OK, he plays in the fourth tier of Swedish football – unlikely to hear the siren call of Abramovich gold or to wear his country’s cap any time soon – but he’s a professional footballer, he’s out, and he’s proud. And it has to start somewhere. Well, start againJustin Fashanu was first, twenty years ago.

Hysén emerges blinking into the rainbow just a few weeks after England cricketer Steven Davies. Both still young, eligible and non-munty, both hopefully with long careers to come, neither willing to sacrifice their personal happiness to the bigotry and intolerance of a dwindling minority of thugs and churchgoers.

The received wisdom is that Davies will have an easier time of it from spectators than Hysén. If your IQ is high enough to appreciate the rules and nuance of cricket, I suspect the theory goes, you won’t stampede to the exit in a froth of green-inked indignation whenever Davies adjusts his box.

Conversely, football is watched by walking tattoos: illiterate, innumerate, unthinking yobs judging sexuality by the chunkiness of a scarf’s knit and the heft of a fatty overhang.

Not true, of course. Gays watch and play football. Bigots watch and play cricket. The lazy stereotypes of the footballing thug and the TMS-addicted, bespectacled connoisseur of cricket are just as prevalent as that of the mincing, bitchy, promiscuous, diseased, cottaging queen. They exist: but are they the norm? Which way lies the trend?

It’s entirely possible that Hysén will receive no abuse from crowds, and that Davies will. Next time England play the West Indies in Jamaica, I virtually guarantee it.

However, just as we have the wisdom of crowds, we have the dumb predictability of crowds: past performance is a good indicator of future performance. The chances are that Hysén will receive more stick than Davies, though my hunch is that Swedish football crowds are more tolerant than English or Scottish ones – and vastly more tolerant than those of some other countries like Croatia or Russia.

I confess I am fascinated by how this will play out. How will the men themselves react to any grief they receive? How will their teammates and opponents respond? Or the stewards, or the police, or the rest of the crowd?

This is a social experiment being conducted in football for the first time in a generation, and in cricket for the first time ever. When rugby’s Gareth Thomas came out not long ago there was abuse from one crowd in one match – and the club and the authorities came down hard. Sadly there’s no guarantee that football and cricket would follow suit.

And Hysén’s experiences in tier four of Swedish football, whatever they are, might not transfer unchanged to the Emirates or Old Trafford, or even to Greenhous Meadow of League Two’s Shrewsbury Town, the rough equivalent of Hysén’s current club Utsiktens BK. Davies, though, is an international cricketer already and was part of the recent England tour of Australia. You can be sure that other gay footballers, other gay cricketers, and other gay people in other sports are watching this experiment with a wary eye. It could open the big gay floodgates, or bolt the closet door shut for another generation – or both.

Let’s assume that Hysén has the strength and character to play on despite any heckling and that Davies continues his Surrey and England careers untroubled by the vein-popping rage of Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells. What then?

Would an English or Scottish football club – in any division – buy Hysén? (Dear journos: please ask them. Any answer you get, even no answer – especially no answer – is illuminating.)

Will the tabloids – and the tabloidesque broadsheets – publish the standard falling-out-of-a-club-at-5am-shocka story, or the kiss-and-tell exclusive, and treat them identically to straight sportsmen?

And my favourite: what will happen when either man finds a boyfriend? This will be a story, make no mistake; while the men might wish for privacy the media is unlikely to allow it. Undoubtedly the Littlejohns and Widdecombes and Phillipses and Moirs and Greens will be temporarily defrosted from their 1970s lives to be intolerant for money, or to selectively quote a poor translation of an old book of short stories, or to spout the usual guff about soap’n’showers, marriage and paedophilia.

But this is news only while it is novel. Nobody remembers the second million-pound footballer.

So who’s next?


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We could use it for recipes, or something

I’m often asked: “What were computers like when you were young, grandad?” The answer is: big and clunky, even the ones that weren’t big and clunky. The past always looks like that. Apollo got to the moon with little more than a heavily disguised abacus, intravenous nicotine and a mountain of nerds. But at the time, it was the future.

That was forty years ago. Thirty years ago, the future was the home computer. I remember my parents asking what would we use it for? I pointed to the moustachioed twonk in a glossy magazine advert, inexplicably engrossed in a green-on-black low-res bar chart. Finance! I implausibly claimed. Or recipes, or something. I’m not sure they bought either argument, but eventually they bought the computer. Christmas 1980: the Tandy TRS-80.

That means I’ve been coding, on and off, amateurishly and professionally, for fun and profit, for thirty years. I’ve seen more religious wars than the Vatican correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle. I have a list this long of creators of programming languages, libraries and other technological ephemera who I would, gladly and vigorously, throttle.

I started programming with TRS-80 BASIC and a very much mistaken belief that I couldn’t reuse variable names. Multi-dimensional arrays took a while to grasp, before I stopped worrying about real-world metaphors of rows of columns on pages inside folders inside shelves inside filing cabinets inside rooms on floors inside buildings in streets in cities in states in countries in continents on planets in solar systems in galaxies in universes and realised that if I needed an 18-dimensional array then I had bigger problems.

The first “proper program” I remember writing was called Data Draw. It used what might be the world’s least efficient way of encoding a graphic: arrays of ones and zeroes (TRS-80 display: 128×48 pixels, one-bit colour).

My brother wrote a much more interesting Space Invaders variant: it had a single invader, which crawled along the top of the screen while you crawled along the bottom firing lasers (slow-moving pixels) or photon torpedoes (slower-moving pixels) at it. We enhanced it regularly with ever more ingenious and slow-to-render alien designs.

It was a roaring hit. With us.

In those days, magazines like Personal Computer World printed programs contributed by readers. We didn’t submit any of our own masterpieces, but we occasionally typed in ones that looked interesting. They rarely worked – far too many vectors for bug transmission between the mind of the author and our own fingers.

Those we did get working, or bought from the Tandy store in Cheshunt, or borrowed, live strong in the memory. Various Scott Adams text adventures that I’ve written about before, full of plot and ingenuity in no more than about twenty locations. The trading game Taipan! by the excitingly named Art Canfil, with its moneylender Wu and sea battles regularly sending us to Davy Jones’ locker.

And then there was Dancing Demon. This was a genre-defining choreograph-em-up in which you gave a highly green creature a set of dance moves encoded in a long string of characters and watched him twirl and skip and tap along to tinny tunes. Yeah, that was pretty much it. And by the same author, Android Nim: a simple game, but full of character.

The most interesting part: although these games had sound, the TRS-80 had no sound chip. But it saved programs in audio form to standard cassette tape. If you threw correctly shaped bits speedily enough at the tape interface, and gave the user sufficiently detailed instructions on setting up their tape recorder, games could make sounds.

And if you could do that, all it took was a sprinkling of magic hacker dust and you could synthesise speech. And they did: one game we played, Robot Attack, would say phrases like “Game over, player two. Great score, player one.”

Not bad for 16K RAM.

I remember the same kind of astonishment a few years later when I first heard the single-channel audio ZX Spectrum play two-channel music. The game was Zombie Zombie, the isometric 3D follow-up to the isometric 3D Ant Attack. The two-channel effect was achieved by playing short bursts of each note in rapid succession and hoping the brain would fuzz them together. I can still hear the music in my head.

Many of the early TRS-80 games were written in BASIC and it was trivial to see the source code. I learned little coding technique but got a very strong taste for hacking. Even games written in the mysterious and arcane “machine code” weren’t immune. Later I’d progress to disassembly and the hunt for infinite lives and other treats, PEEKing and POKEing my way through my teens almost as if I were a real boy.

In fact I wrote my first machine code program for the TRS-80. It looped through every non-space character on screen – one ASCII-encoded byte per character – decreasing the value by one. Then it repeated, until the screen was entirely spaces. It was a neat clear-screen effect possible in BASIC but too slow even for the paltry 64×16 character resolution – 1K of video RAM.

I learned several lessons writing that first machine code. Not least: save your work before you run it, you idiot. I had no assembler. I wrote on paper, hand-assembled using a Z80 reference guide at the back of a book, and used a BASIC program to POKE the values in sequence from an array. “Error prone” hardly seems to cover it. I eventually got it working. I even got the code to exit properly. I think.

I know I used to be able to recite Z80 opcodes from memory, in hex and in decimal. What a saddo. Er, I mean, real programmer.

The early 80s home computing landscape was the equivalent of turn-of-the-20th-century film-making. Thousands of unpleasantly aromatic amateurs making things up as they went along, trying everything, making the hardware do things its inventors hadn’t thought possible. Audio on a system with no audio. Two-channel sound on a system with only one channel. The BBC Micro had several distinct video modes with different colour depths and pixel resolutions: and Bell and Braben’s classic Elite changed the video mode half-way down the screen.

Thirty years on from the launch of the Sinclair ZX81 on 5 March 1981, we’ve reached the 1930s of film. The talkies have arrived in the form of the internet as a platform for applications and data (some people said the talkies were a short-lived fad, incidentally). Computer games now, like movies then, are becoming a recognised art form – despite much huffing and puffing by those who should know better.

On the desktop, Charlie Chaplin no longer makes his programs single-handed. But the new frontier of mobile and tablet apps still has that back-bedroom feel to it. It still seems possible to make bags of cash developing on your own, at least for a short time. But it’s not a repeat of the early 80s; not another sequel. The difference, the key to success with apps on the new devices, is one simple realisation: it’s not a computer. Numerous geeks and geek-hags groan that their lives depend on unfettered access to a filesystem and the ability to place a thousand and one customisable pointless gizmos on their desktop-equivalents. But real people just want to Do Stuff. Computers are the means, not the ends.

In another thirty years, modulo the usual underwater caveats, the question “what were computers like when you were young?” will likely sound as odd to people’s ears as “what were motors like when you were young?” do to ours. In the early 20th century people could buy motors and add attachments to make them useful: the software to their motor hardware. Then motors became cheap and ubiquitous and disappeared inside the machines.

This transition has now started with computers. Big and clunky; big and clunky, but smaller; invisible.

Now take this Werther’s Original and clear off, I need a nap.



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