Trekking

Past

I can remember when I first saw Star Trek.

That’s not so unusual, but if my memory is right — and I’ve just more or less confirmed that it is — then when I first saw it was the absolute first time anyone could see it, in this country, at least.

Here’s the memory (and it’s tied up, as many good things are, with Doctor Who).

It’s 1969. It’s the summer holidays, and we’re in a holiday home with a TV. That in itself makes me doubt the memory, because back then holiday houses just didn’t have TVs. A lot of houses in general didn’t. But this memory has always told me that we were on a family holiday. And it’s Saturday, late afternoon. I’m settling down at the TV, and somebody says — I think it’s my sister — “Martin, Doctor Who finished, remember?” Because it was Doctor Who time.

And I said, “But this is like Doctor Who!”

And as the new programme started someone else — my Dad, I think — said, with a tone of surprise, “He knows all about it!” And then the Enterprise swooshed towards me out of the screen.

I’ve long wondered how true this memory was. It was 1969; I’d have been five. But I just checked:

Which exactly matches my memory: summer, Saturday, Doctor Who slot. And the calendar confirms that the 12th of July 1969 was a Saturday.

I wouldn’t be five for another month plus. Not a bad bit of early-memory retention. I wouldn’t have remembered it at all, if it wasn’t for one thing: trauma caused by fear that my parents would turn the TV off just as this exciting new programme was starting burned it into my brain.

My Dad always liked Star Trek too, so I guess I was partly responsible for that.

Present

Yesterday I watched the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which are on Netflix (in the UK and Europe, at least; in the US they’re on CBS’s own new streaming service). And I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it felt like being that nearly-five-year-old again, but it did feel like they’re trying something new and potentially very exciting.

Today I was looking at its entry on IMDB. It turns out there are user-written reviews there, which I don’t think I’d been aware of before.

Sadly they are almost universally negative. “It’s not Star Trek,” is a common theme. But there’s a strong whiff of racism and misogyny coming through. Two non-white women as leads means “social justice warriors” are running the show, it seems. Well from what I’ve read of Gene Roddenbery, I think he’d have been happy to be called a social justice warrior. Star Trek was always about diversity and tolerance.

Future

I don’t know how many episodes of this new series they have lined up, but I know I’m looking forward to watching them. So is my inner five-year-old. So would my Dad have been. And so would Gene.

New Job

As you may know, I’ve been between contracts lately. Had quite a lot of interest from my CV, but not been so lucky with the tests and interviews.

Yesterday at about 10am a recruiter called me. Today at just after 5pm I was offered the job. A new contract, six months initially, with the likelihood of extending. Sometimes things go fast.

Spout Rolla

Back in Balloch in 1981, 82 or so we use to play a Pac-Man clone called Spout Rolla. But there are no references to it on the internet, as far as I can tell. So this is my story about it.

Once upon a time a gang of kids — thinking they were adults, but not really — used to go to the pub, and play a game.

The pub was actually the bar of a place called Duck Bay Marina. I see from that link that they now call it “Duck Bay Hotel.” Either way, it was a couple of miles outside Balloch, on the west bank of Loch Lomond.

Why did we go there, when there were pubs in the town? Two reasons, I suspect. One, some of us had driving licences and the chance to use our parents’ cars, so why not? (I wasn’t yet one of them at that point.) And two, it had video games in the foyer.

That had a dual advantage. We could play the games, and those of us who, let’s say, weren’t quite strictly within the parameters of the legal drinking age, could stay out of sight of the staff.

So: usually two machines, as I recall, plus maybe a fruit machine or two. I first played Frogger there. It was the era when arcade games had started to extend beyond shooting things in space to other tests of skill, like crossing rivers on logs.

Spout Rolla was in a similar vein. But it was a clear derivative of — let’s be honest, rip-off of — Pac-Man. I’m not sure I’d actually played Pac-Man at that point, but I must have been aware of it.

The idea was you guided a paint brush moving around a watery maze, painting the maze behind it. Fish would come out and try to catch your brush. If you painted all the maze you got a new screen (which I think might just have been the same maze in different colours, maybe speeded up a bit).

Instead of the power-pills of Pac-Man, there was one part of the maze that had a paint roller in it. If you approached the roller from the right direction, it went with you and you accelerated just for that section. Then you could turn back and roll over the fish that were following you, for extra points. And that was it.

Simpler times, simpler pleasures, I guess. It never made much sense, but we liked it.

Thing is, everything’s on the net today, right? Well, apparently not. When I googled it today, I found two surprising thing. First, that there are no references to “Spout Rolla game” to be found, with or without quotes round the first two words. Second, that Spout Rolla is a place in Scotland, namely a waterfall in Perth and Kinross. (Weirdly the only Wikipedia page for it is in Swedish.)

Could this possibly be that most unlikely of things (at least before Rockstar Games): a Scottish game?

My son suggested that there would be people my age trying to remember what the game was called. So I tried googling for a description of it: pac-man clone fish paint roller. That search has selected videos, which I didn’t. But I did find a possible explanation.

It seems there was a game called Crush Roller, also known as Make Trax, and the one I remember could be a rebadged version of that. Plus you can play it at that link. As with many games of the time, it’s not as satisfying playing them with arrow keys as it was with a joystick.

So, no, it’s not Scottish, but it could possibly have been rebadged for the Scottish market. Or maybe just that one in Duck Bay, who knows.

The only thing is that, seeing that version, I had forgotten that there being two rollers. I was fairly sure there was only one, but playing it felt familiar, so I guess Crush Roller/Make Trax is it.

Looking Back and Forward

My recent and forthcoming live music experiences all involve bands of my youth that have reformed and are touring their old material.1 Wallowing in nostalgia, some might call it.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with bands getting back together. It can be problematic if you are the band that tours as the Dead Kennedys, of course. There’s a whole saga there that I won’t go into, but if Jello Biafra’s not involved, and in fact is actively against it, then it’s not the Dead Kennedys.

Indeed, in his song “Buy My Snake Oil” Jello suggested that a way for old punks to make money off their history would be to

Give in
Ride the punk nostalgia wave
For all it’s worth
Recycle the name of my old band
For a big reunion tour
Sing all those hits from the “good ol’ days”
‘Bout how bad the good ol’ days were

Which is a fair criticism of old bands doing their thing in modern days, I guess. But I see two arguments to counter it, from a gig-goer’s point of view.

Unfinished

The first was made by my friend Andrew, around the time that the Sex Pistols reformed and toured. This would have been in 1996.

“I missed them first time round,” he said when I challenged him about it. “This is unfinished business for me.”

Which was a good point, and kind of made me regret playing the purist and not going.

In 1993 I had investigated going to see the reunited Velvet Underground. But I really didn’t want to see them at an all-seated venue. Partly because I’d had a bad experience seeing Lou Reed a year or so before (despite having had a very good experience with him a year or two before that).

I recall that I phoned the venue — Earl’s Court, I think — and found that it did have some standing room. But those tickets were sold out. So I didn’t go. Regretted that, too. So I’m talking the chance to see bands like the Rezillos, or The Beat and The Selecter, that I missed first time around.

OK, But What is it Really?

The second point about the “punk nostalgia wave” (or any similar accusation of nostalgia) is: that is not what it is.

Because here’s the thing: it isn’t nostalgia if you’re carrying on with something that was always there.

Nostalgia (noun): a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past

according to Cambridge.

But this isn’t that. Because while those bands’ heydays might have been in the past, their music has remained available and frequently-played. You can’t be nostalgic for an album you listened to last week, or last night.

And a live performance always happens in the present.

This train of thought was kicked off for me a couple of years back when there was an article in the Guardian, prior to The Force Awakens coming out. I can’t find it now,2 but it claimed that “nostalgia” was part of the cause of the excitement for the new film.

And I thought, no. Well, maybe for some people. But for many of us, if not most of us, Star Wars never went away. We’ve watched it, talked about it, read theories about it, and so on. It has been part of our lives.

Or take Doctor Who. Sure, there were the wilderness years before 2005, but The Doctor never really went away. The Tardis and Daleks are burned into Britain’s cultural memory, and I think they always will be.

Now if I were to see an episode of, say, Marine Boy: that would be nostalgic. I remember it fondly from my childhood, and have never seen it since. I’ve never even seen it in colour, because those were the days of black & white televisions.3

But I can’t be nostalgic for punk bands or Star Wars or Doctor Who, because they never went away. The sense of warmth and shared experience they bring: that’s not nostalgia, it’s something else. Familiarity, at worst. Or better: community.


  1. Or a mixture of old and new, as with The Rezillos. []
  2. This is why you should always save links, folks. []
  3. God, I really come from another time, don’t I? []

Saved Life

In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair., but it was definitely a trigger point.

People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.

Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that ,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.

At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school

he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.

With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart to the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.

But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.

But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:

Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2

And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.

A life can hinge on such a small moment.


  1. Somebody must have, of course. []
  2. In an amusing followup to recent thoughts, I originally wrote that as “army,” but find that lyrics sites think this plural too. Correctly, of course. []

It’s Not Tomorrow if You Haven’t Gone to Sleep yet

Yeah, OK, so I missed my deadline: I’m typing this after midnight. But it’s still the same day I got up in, in sleep-cycle terms. Also in terms of how the TV listings mags give the days, too. Which can actually get a little bit confusing sometimes.

It stems, of course, from the days when all TV would have stopped by midnight or shortly after. Yes, kids, I know it’s hard to imagine, but TV stations used to “close down” at night. One or other of the channels used to even have a wee programme that was actually called Closedown, if I remember correctly. I think it was one of the weird religious things, where a priest or minister would come on and give a Thought for the Day kind of mini sermon.

Anyway, and still on TV, apparently the best comedy show around, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is having that annoying recent habit, a mid-season break. We have no idea when it will be back. And… well, if you’ve watched it…

No, I’m not going to say any more about it. Just hurry up and get back, guys.

I may actually backdate this post, just so my daily posting doesn’t show a gap. After all, I’m treating it as still Thursday 16th of February, even if the clock doesn’t.

The Origin of the Bitface

Things go quicker than you think. This tweet post1 was inspired by a tweet, and I thought it wasn’t too long ago. But in fact it was April last year.

My friend Yusuf’s tweet inspired me to finally write about the term “biftace” and why I chose it and what it means. Actually I thought I had written this before, but it seems not.

So a long time ago, when I was first thinking of a name for my blog — before it even existed, indeed — I thought about the way the press used to refer to teachers working “at the chalkface.” The analogy with miners at the coalface was probably original meant to disparage the labour of teachers as being less than that of miners. I’m guessing here, but considering the term seems to have originated in tabloid journalism, and tabloids tend to be disparaging of anything intellectual — though to be fair, they haven’t exactly been friends to miners either, over the years.

Anyway, I quite liked the term, and wanted to come up with something similar to refer to my own industry, that of programming. I tried out one or two for size, at least in my head. “Byteface” felt more accurate (it’s rare for an application programmer to care to much about bit-level things, and I mainly write Java, which compiles to bytecode); but it didn’t feel right.”Codeface” would have been another, but again, didn’t feel right.

“Bitface” did feel right, and so an early version became “The Bitface Diaries.” I don’t think I ever made that live.

When I started my Livejournal (which nowadays is just one of my syndication targets) I went with “Tales from the Bitface,” which I still like. And then when I decided to set up my own site I went with “A Labourer at the Bitface,” which harked back to the original impetus for inventing the word, and also alluded to my support for the Labour Party.

Which means I’m considering a rename now, as I consider my future in said party. But that’s another blog entry.

The conversation with with Yusuf was about hardware, which is not what the term was about. But I never worked out what we should call working with hardware in similar terminology.


  1. Post! This post, not this tweet. []

Recent Events

Just in case you think that I haven’t been paying attention to recent events… yeah, I know, how likely is that…?

Brexit? Trump? Celebrity deaths? 2016 is well behind us — though regarding Trump and Brexit, the worst is still ahead.

But anyway, I haven’t said anything about my work status since back in the summer. So I should bring things up to date.

I had a few interviews, but no serious interest. Then July was ending, and I was beginning to think that soon we’d be going on holiday, and once we got back it would be nearly September. That was longer than I fancied going without having something lined up.

And then I got a call from a recruiter telling me there was a bank in the City looking for someone with my exact skill set for a six-month contract. It was supporting — and to some extent building on — the products that I used to make at Misys. That wasn’t quite what I had seen myself doing. I was looking for something that was more of a change, more of a challenge.

But I went in to talk to them and it all sounded pretty good. A significant number of the people who work there are ex-Misys, and I know them, so it would make for a relatively smooth transition.

But a contract. I hadn’t really intended to go down that route. Still, the idea of being a freelancer appealed. I’d like to have a go at indie development one of these days, and the two can be complementary. We’ll see where that goes. But I decided to go for it. Set up the limited company (more on that in a later post), discussed the contract (including while I was on holiday) and started at the end of August.

And it’s… OK. The people are good, the location is great. But the work is not that interesting, and the internal politics are… interesting.

And there’s the pressure of knowing that you’re dealing (sometimes) with a live system. With real people’s actual money. Having only worked for a software company before, that feels unexpectedly high-pressure.

All things considered, when my contract is up for renewal at the end of February, I don’t think I’ll be renewing it (even assuming they offer it to me, which they probably will). So I’ll be looking for another position shortly. Maybe contract, maybe permanent again. It depends what comes up.

Pokémon Gone

I am so not a gamer.

Oh, I loved Asteroids back in the day. I solved Monument Valley, and I got on fine with Alto’s Adventure. But I’ve never got more sophisticated modern games. There’s a whole big post about that that I’ll maybe write one day.

But Pokémon Go has lit up the internet for the last week or so, and it sounded kind of fun. So I thought I’d give it a try. Probably more healthy than arguing about the Labour leadership crisis on Facebook, anyway.

I was just out at the shops, and I remembered I had it, and sure enough, there was a wild Golbat outside the local supermarket. You’ve got to throw the pokéball to catch them, right? I’ve seen enough of the TV series with my kids to get that.

A hovering Golbat superimposed on a shop called 'Local Supermarket'.

But could I catch it? Could I buggery. No matter how many times I flicked up on the screen to send the ball towards it, it just would not connect. I must have tried like fifty times, standing outside the shop like an idiot.

This is why I never get into games. I soon hit upon something frustrating and get bored with them. No doubt I was doing something wrong. I’ll try again, I suppose, but it’s very discouraging.

Oh, and I couldn’t get the name I wanted. “Devilgate” was taken, but so was it along with just about every suffix I could think of, including just random strings of numbers.

Kind of cool to see the pokéball rolling off under the vegetable racks, though.

Suzi Q, where are you?

I got a card in the post the other day, from my friends Di and Johnny. Regular readers will know Di as one of the most frequent commenters here (ie, she has commented). We disagreed over The Great Gatsby.

Anyway, the card had a post-it stuck inside, with some writing on it that I couldn’t quite make out. Di wrote, “Been trying to get this for you for ages… can you guess who it is?”

I was slow to realise that the “who” referred to the writing on the post-it. But she also said there was a clue on the back of the card.

On the back she’d written “devilgate.org”.

The post-it looks like this:

SuziQuatroAutograph

And I read it to say, “To Martin. Suzi Quatro.”

I mean, if it says that it makes sense considering my origin story; otherwise, not so much.

Thanks Di and Johnny. It’s a lovely thought.