Category Archives: English

England’s screaming? 3D Monster Maze (1981) and punk auteurism in 8-bit programming

[Meant for an internal Swansea University audience at this stage, but drop me a line, wherever you are, if this sort of thing appeals to you. It’s almost the definition of a work in progress though: please don’t expect much finesse.]

Dr Rhys Jones
Department of Media and Communication // Adran y Cyfryngau a Chyfathrebu
Keir Hardie 206, Wednesday April 26th // Dydd Mercher Ebrill 26ain

This talk will be given in English // Traddodir y sgwrs hon yn Saesneg

How do we theorise a videogame? What importance do we place on its history, genre, narrative or gameplay? In this work-in-progress talk, I explore such questions using one game in particular: Malcolm Evans’ 1981 debut, 3D Monster Maze (3DMM). A silent game programmed for the black-and-white Sinclair ZX81 microcomputer, it has been seen by some as the progenitor of first-person shooters and even survival horror. I suggest that, in examining single-author productions such as 3DMM, it is essential to focus on the nature and context of the tools used in their creation. I tentatively advance the concept of ‘punk auteurism’ as a way to explore the DIY nature of microcomputer programming, and the singular vision of its practitioners. Is this an adequate way to explore the shaping of programs such as 3DMM? Join our intrepid hero as he examines a labyrinthine world of competing theories and methodologies, and attempts to emerge from the maze with his credibility (partially) intact.

Sut fedrwn ni ddamcaniaethu gêm fideo? Pa bwysigrwydd rown ni ar ei hanes, ei genre, ei naratif neu’r ffordd o’i chwarae? Yn y sgwrs hon, sy’n waith ar y gweill, rwy’n ymchwilio i gwestiynau o’r fath gan ganolbwyntio ar gêm gyntaf Malcolm Evans, sef 3D Monster Maze (3DMM), a ryddhawyd ym 1981. Rhaglennwyd hi ar gyfer y Sinclair ZX81, microgyfrifiadur du-a-gwyn, mud, ac fe’i gwelir gan rai yn un o hynafiaid gemau saethu person cyntaf, a hyd yn oed gemau arswyd ‘para’n fyw’. Awgrymaf, wrth archwilio cynyrchiadau un-awdur megis 3DMM, ei bod yn hanfodol canolbwyntio ar natur a chyd-destun y dulliau a ddefnyddir wrth eu creu. Petrusaf wrth gyflwyno’r cysyniad o ‘auteuraeth byncaidd’ fel ffordd i archwilio natur DIY y broses o raglennu microgyfrifiadur, yn ogystal â gweledigaeth unigryw yr ymarferwyr. A yw hyn yn ffordd ddigonol i archwilio rhaglenni fel 3DMM? Ymunwch â’n harwr dewr mewn drysfa o ddamcaniaethau a methodolegau, wrth iddo geisio cadw’i hygrededd yn (weddol) gyfan wrth ddianc.

Just published: The Routledge Companion to Global Internet Histories

Three-and-a-half years and an elephantine amount of effort in the making, Routledge have just published their Companion to Global Internet Histories. Congratulations to Gerard, Mark, Emily and the rest of the editorial team. It looks like a much-needed corrective to the US-dominated field of internet history, and contains some contributions from familiar names (to name but a few: Niels Brügger, Larissa Hjorth, Charles Ess, Goggin and McLelland themselves), other contributions from authors who deserve to become more well-known, and also, a chapter from me.

Mine’s called, in none-more-clickbaity style, ‘Porn Shock for Dons’, taking its name from a memorable Western Mail front page article about an incident that happened at my current employer the year before I became a student there. It mostly looks at the way that the Western Mail, Golwg and Y Cymro conceptualised new media in the early-to-mid 1990s, and the hopes and fears evident in their coverage of the internet and related digital platforms. It was excellent fun to research, and in getting the material together I wheeled my way through thousands of feet of microfilm (the early 90s being the pre-CD-ROM Dark Age), and hundreds of fascinating articles about the information superhighway, at least one of which genuinely and unironically used the term ‘interweb’. I’m not entirely sure I did complete justice to all the material, but the result is now there for you – or, let’s face it at that price, your library – to buy.

Goggin and McLelland’s introduction, available online for free, gives an idea of the scope and ambition of the volume. Hopefully it’ll be the first of many similar projects.

Making the most of the middle-aged micro (1)

There are comparatively few reasons to remember Saturday, February 6th, 1982. No world-changing events, no particularly memorable births or deaths. In the Five Nations, Wales scored a notable victory in Cardiff against France (a fact I didn’t have to look up), beating them 22-12 (a scoreline I did have to check).

Far more significant for me, though, was the object my parents brought back from their day trip to Cardiff: freshly bought from WH Smith on Queen Street, a Sinclair ZX81. It was my first computer, and it’s fair to say it had quite a drastic influence on my life.

The microcomputer, a category into which we can definitely place the ZX81, has undergone a mini-revival in media studies over the past year, thanks to Tom Lean’s encyclopaedic one-volume account of the period, Electronic Dreams, currently at pocket-money price on Kindle, and the first truly British platform studies book, Alison Gazzard’s Now the Chips are Down, about the BBC Micro. Both are excellent and heartily recommended. Today I’m forced to reflect on the fact that, at least by the Biblical definition of threescore years and ten, my interest in computers is now exactly middle-aged, as I suppose, by extension, am I.

It’s too lazy to categorise the recent resurgence in writing about the micro as simply being the product of academics reaching a certain age (and inaccurate too; Gazzard’s book has been five years in the making, and Lean has been researching the field for over ten). Rather, it’s the fruit of a growing realisation that the early-to-mid-80s UK micro boom was a hugely culturally significant event, a definably geographical one – no other country took the micro to their heart in the same numbers – and one which still reverberates today, in kids’ coding initiatives and tiny single board computers.

Yes, Dad, you really should. Go on!

So what of the ZX81, my introduction to computing? I’d longed for one for the best part of a year, my interest being piqued by an article in my dad’s Which? magazine the previous July, talking all about these new-fangled home computers and what people did with them. That, I think, was the first time I saw any computer code in print, and I felt mesmerised by it – a portal into a new age, and something I instinctively knew I could Do Something With.

A sniffy review…

The following month, Which? conducted a group test of about a dozen micros, from manufacturers as diverse as Acorn, Apple and Tandy, but the one that stood out for me was the ‘very cheap’ Sinclair ZX81, at a price of £73 including postage, though with a warning to budget an additional £50 for the extra memory. Turning the page from a mediocre review of the Apple II Europlus at an eye-watering £799 (an early data point in the ‘Jobs tax’ graph), the value-for-money of the ZX81 seemed like a revelation.

In many ways, it was. I wasn’t to know at the time, but the ZX81 was 1981’s successor to Sinclair’s ZX80, its name being taken from the cheap Z80 processor at its heart and its year of launch with, it seems, an X for extra mystique. The ZX80 was sold by mail order for £100, and is a very early example of what Lean calls an ‘appliance’ computer. Before this, micros were the preserve of the hacker, the tinkerer, the maker, the person generally handy with a multimeter and not afraid to get their oscilloscope dirty. As names like the Compukit UK-101 would suggest, they’d usually be built from parts, with components soldered onto the board (or, in the case of one particularly hapless Acorn Atom builder, glued instead). The ZX80, though, was different – designed to be plugged in, attached to your TV, tuned to a spare channel, and to then be ready to use. Slightly less complex than plumbing in a washing machine, and as ready-to-go as a toaster.

What I did find out over the coming months, thanks to Sinclair Research’s blanket advertising campaign, with double-page spreads appearing regularly in my parents’ Sunday Times magazine, was that somehow the ZX81 was cheaper than the ZX80 at a time of high inflation, and contained less than a fifth of the main parts – just four chips, as opposed to its forerunner’s 21. This, I later learned, was due to Sinclair commissioning Ferranti, the UK electronics manufacturer, to combine the majority of its functions into a single chip. Manufactured at volume, it was a significant saving for Sinclair once the design costs had been covered, it meant less to go wrong, and it meant the parent-pleasing ‘very cheap’ price point of £69.95.

I asked for a ZX81 for Christmas. Instead I got some Plastercasters, which I think I enjoyed making, but which were no match for Sinclair’s machine. My parents, realising that their son’s computer obsession was likely to be slightly more than a passing fad, eventually capitulated six weeks later.

WELL I THINK YOU GOT YOUR SUMS WRONG

I spent some of that time writing variations on the program I’d seen in Which? six months previously: I didn’t fully grasp its algorithm, but could work out the basics, and knew that I could, by tweaking a line here and a line there, make the code my own, a process, I’m sure, replicated in bedrooms up and down the country. It may have been a new world, but to the legions of teens and pre-teens looking in, it felt like theirs to own.

The ZX81 box arrived from Cardiff under strict instructions not to play with it until after school on the Monday. I obeyed, and two long days later plugged the computer into what was then our second TV set, an elderly black and white ITT model, newly usurped by our colour one. I plugged the computer in, moved the tuning button up and down the dial and… nothing. Not the slightest flicker of anything on screen, other than analogue static. Puzzled, my parents phoned our television repairer (an occupation I have intense difficulty in explaining to most of my students: they used to repair televisions?) He’d seen it all before, and said he could come out and modify the set so the computer could be used. Tactically, my parents timed his visit for two weeks later, in the middle of half-term holidays, perhaps anticipating the new computer’s capacity to suck up all my time. After all, early 1982 was still at the tail-end of three channel television, with daytime TV a good four years away, our first expensively rented Granada VCR more than three years in the future, and multichannel simply a pipedream. As far as home entertainment went, a computer attached to your telly was one of the few games in town.

We repeated the process of two weeks previous. Plug in, computer cable to the TV aerial socket, fiddle with the spare button until, miraculously and, to me, entirely unexpectedly, it worked, and a slightly fuzzy white-on-black K appeared in the bottom left of the screen. This was my Rubicon. I wasn’t going back.

[to be continued]

Being wrong, bigly

Marking a clutch of (genuinely very good) student essays on the interrelationship between social media and journalism reminds me of something that happened a couple of years ago.

At the time of the possible Grexit crisis, one of our journalism lecturers, the very-soon-to-be Dr Savyasaachi Jain, saw me in the corridor and suggested, given my interest in Twitter, that he and I collaborate on a paper about Yanis Varoufakis’ use of that social network, because he was harnessing it in a very direct way to talk about policies in a radically open manner.

Don’t be silly, I said, surely this is a one-off. The political animal’s still a cagey, on-message creature. Varofakis is entertaining, sure, but he’s an outlier when it comes to politicians’ future use of Twitter.

I’m big enough to admit that I may have been wrong on that one.

Telsa Gwynne, 1969-2015

At their request, I’ve written something for the Hacio’r Iaith blog about Telsa, a dear friend, who died recently. It’ll be published there later today, I expect, but I thought it reasonable to put a (fairly rough) English version here too. As a note, many translator’s liberties have been taken, so this is more a gist translation than a clause-by-clause rendition. I believe you can mouse-over the text to get some of the original Welsh.


About two weeks ago, we heard the very sad news of the death of Telsa Gwynne, after a long illness. She was well known to many of us within Hacio’r Iaith, as a friend and fellow traveller.

It’s extremely difficult to do justice to the various activities with which Telsa has been involved. Suffice it to say that she bridged the technological, linguistic and literary spheres in an entirely natural manner, without the merest awareness that they might have been separate worlds in the first place. She learned Welsh as an adult, starting in 2002, but it’d be a mistake to think of her as a ‘Welsh learner’ of any kind. A mere nine years after starting her Mynediad course for absolute beginners, she graduated from Swansea University with a first-class honours degree in Welsh, after performing exceptionally well in her studies. Immediately after graduating, she embarked on doctoral research. Her PhD would have been innovative and greatly influential – examining, as it did, linguistic aspects of the Welsh language as presented on digital and social media. It built on a brilliant undergraduate dissertation. 

In Hacio’r Iaith’s latest podcast, Telsa is described as a ‘pioneer’: a perfect description of her in so many areas. Sioned Mills spoke about Telsa’s contribution towards the Hacio’r Iaith gatherings, and her ability to put people from diverse backgrounds at total ease within quite a ‘techie’ environment.  That, in itself, is a talent and a half, but it also reflects Telsa’s nature: magnanimous, amenable, and someone who delighted in those who contributed towards technology and the Welsh language.

She was one of those contributors too, of course. She was an integral part of the efforts to translate the free desktop, GNOME, to the Welsh language, and re-reading her excited emails during that period, reporting on the project’s progress, is a bitter-sweet experience now. Self-effacement prevented her from calling herself a ‘translator’, but that’s what she was, and her attention to detail served to refine and polish the end result. She was also a key contributor to the Welsh Wikipedia for several years, and was very active with the Association of Welsh Language Software.

That wasn’t the end of her involvement with computing, by a long way. Telsa kept an online diary (no, not a blog – she was adamant that her diary wasn’t that, and the term didn’t exist anyway in 1998, when she started using the web to record bits her life), she documented many free software projects, and she was passionate about bug-reporting in free software, also wonderfully explaining to others how they could do the same.

She loved the Welsh language too. One of her favourite poets was Waldo Williams, someone who, according to Telsa, shared much of her outlook on life. And while I’m no sentimentalist, Waldo’s famous line about the nature of existence, translatable, roughly, as ‘a great hall between narrow walls’, encapsulates Telsa’s life for me. The hall she created teemed with rich activity of many kinds, and the walls, to her, were as nothing.

Goodbye, Telsa. We’ll miss you greatly.

Rhys Jones

With profound condolences to Alan, Terry, Deborah, and the rest of the family. Donations in Telsa’s memory can be given to Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Data rhesymol fawr / Reasonably big data, 2015-11-17, 13:00

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CODAH – Centre on Digital Arts and Humanities
CODAH – Canolfan y Celfyddydau a’r Dyniaethau Digidol

Reasonably Big Data – #DataRhesymolFawr
SURF Room, Fulton House, Singleton Campus
1pm, Tuesday 17th November

Dr Rhys Jones: Department of Languages, Translation and Communication, Swansea University/Adran Ieithoedd, Cyfieithu a Chyfathrebu, Prifysgol Abertawe
Dr Daniel Cunliffe: Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science, University of South Wales/Cyfadran Cyfrifiadureg, Peirianneg a Gwyddoniaeth, Prifysgol De Cymru

Traddodir y sgwrs trwy gyfrwng y Saesneg – This talk will be given in English

We outline our work in progress on the use of Twitter by the political parties who contested the 2014 European and 2015 UK general elections in Wales. We build on our existing work (Cunliffe, 2008, 2011) which examined the relative levels of Welsh-language provision on party websites during the 2007 Welsh Assembly and 2010 UK elections, and bring to it our previous research (Jones, Cunliffe and Honeycutt, 2013) on Twitter and the Welsh language.

However, this will mainly be a talk about the challenges of ‘data rhesymol fawr’, or, in English, ‘reasonably big data’. We now have a corpus of over 40,000 tweets from 12 political parties, and we will outline the challenges we face in analysis and discuss possible methodologies for constructing and discovering meaning in what we have collected.

Byddwn yn amlinellu ein gwaith ar-y-gweill ar y defnydd o Twitter gan y pleidiau gwleidyddol hynny a ymladdodd, yng Nghymru, yr etholiadau Ewropeaidd yn 2014 ac etholiad cyffredinol y DU yn 2015. Mae hyn yn adeiladu ar ben ein gwaith blaenorol (Cunliffe, 2008, 2011) a archwiliodd y lefelau cymharol o ddarpariaeth Gymraeg ar wefannau’r pleidiau yn ystod etholiad y Cynulliad 2007 ac etholiadau’r DU yn 2010. Byddwn hefyd yn ymwneud â’n gwaith ymchwil blaenorol (Jones, Cunliffe a Honeycutt, 2013) ar gydberthynas Twitter a’r iaith Gymraeg.

Bydd y sgwrs hon, fodd bynnag, yn bennaf yn trafod heriau ‘data rhesymol fawr’. Mae gennym bellach gorpws o dros 40,000 o negeseuon trydar gan 12 plaid wleidyddol, a byddwn yn amlinellu’r heriau o ddadansoddi, ac yn trafod methodolegau posibl ar gyfer adeiladu a darganfod ystyr yn yr hyn yr ydym wedi ei gasglu.

How Jordan invented the iPlayer (sort of)

Charlotte Higgins’ excellent series on the BBC’s past, present and future has unearthed some gems; take this, for example, from her last-but-one instalment:

[BBC iPlayer] was the product, so BBC folk memory goes, of a drunken night out in 2003 after a digital worker got into trouble posting an inappropriate photograph of the model Katie Price on the BBC3 website. Requiring a redemptive idea to stave off disgrace, he and colleagues came up with the notion of a video-on-demand service for the channel. Four years and 86 internal meetings later, the iPlayer was born.

Wrthi’n cychwyn // Just starting up

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