Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

What's With The Title?

When people first see my columns titled "Ravings of a Madman" they tend to ask where the title comes from.  Obviously, there's history attached.

Years ago (around 1981 if memory serves), I drove from Ottawa, Canada to Rochester, New York, to buy one of the first Commodore VIC-20s available.  I'd been hounding the stores there for months asking when they would get a VIC-20, and when I finally got the news they had them coming in the next day I drove down, bought one, and drove back to Ottawa with the very first VIC-20 ever to reach Canada.  I spent a few days playing with it, hooked to a rented "big-screen" (19-inch!) TV, and realized that the VIC-20 was a great little device.

For the record, the VIC-20 wasn't my first computer by any means.  I started programming somewhere around 1075 on a GEAC mainframe while living in Newbury, England, and quickly realized I liked programming.  Hitting Canada for the second time a couple of years later, I got into the available devices (if memory serves there was a TRS-80 and Commodore Pet, as well as some other smaller devices that really were impressive).  The VIC-20 was notable for two reasons: it was really cheap compared to the other devices on the market, and it had a decent graphic character set that could be used for games.  For $300, the VIC-20 was competitive with the packaged videogame systems on the market at the time, much cheaper than the PET and TRS-80, and could be programmed quite easily.  The major competition for Commodore was the Atari 400 and 800, but they were more expensive. 

As one of the earliest users of the VIC-20 I quickly realized this was a clever little game system, although with only 4bB of RAM on the motherboard (you could buy a 4kB expansion cartridge later in the product's life) there was only so much you could do.  Still, I realized gaming on the VIC-20 would be fun as well as a challenge, and I started writing games.  Some of those games were published in consumer magazines of the time ("Compute!" was the big one, but there were others).  I also sold the rights to some or my games to other companies, including Commodore.  What was more interesting than games, to me at least, was the potential to use the VIC-20 for more "serious" stuff.  Although it used a simple BASIC interpreter, there was the potential to add higher-level languages and use the VIC-20 for business purposes.  When I pitched this idea to Commodore Computers, the general reception was incredulity.  They thought the entire market for the VIC-20 was the hobbyist and gamer.  So, when I started writing a column in the premier issue of a magazine called "Commander", which was dedicated to Commodore machines, "Ravings of a Madman" was born and I used to column's early issues to push the idea of using the VIC-20 for more than games.

In fact, the VIC-20 did end up doing more than just games.  I wrote an interface in BASIC to allow paging companies to use the VIC-20 to handle message pagers, which everyone used in those days, and it sold quite well.  I also wrote a memory swapping routine that allowed programs larger than 4kB to be run on the VIC-20 by swapping chunks of memory in and out of the storage device, which was then a cassette drive (it was a similar scheme to UNIX' paging techniques, although I wasn't aware of the UNIX architecture at the time).  It was slow, but it worked, and I used it to port the original Crowthers and Woods Adventure game to the VIC-20.  I even developed a couple of languages for the VIC-20, including an AI language called PILOT and a simplified version of C based loosely on K&R C.  All of this stuff was fun, and I gave it away to anyone who wanted it (they would send me blank cassettes and stamps and I'd dump to their tapes and send them back, often processing a dozen a day).

In the end, the VIC-20 never really did catch on as a business device, as the business computer field was quickly being taken by the IBM PC and Apple devices, but I learned a lot, had a lot of fun, and got a great column title out of the experience.  The VIC-20 was a great gaming machine to compete with the Atari 400, and until it was superseded by the Commodore 64, I wrote dozens of games for it.  Nevertheless, the concept of using a gaming machine for something serious branded me as a madman within Commodore for years!