Start Programming With The Electron

Author: Dave E
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Machine: Acorn Electron

Published in EUG #71

The book Start Programming With The Electron was supplied with every new UK Acorn Electron ever bought. It was meant to be an alternative to the rather dry Acorn Electron User Guide. It was 'alternative' in more ways than one though. There was no real introduction to programming - yes, despite the title! - and the programs which it did contain were complicated, messy, explained badly and poorly executed.

The programs were originally included on the Introductory Cassette supplied with the Electron and were, quite bizarrely stuck on to the end of Side A and the beginning of Side B. If you were playing through the official Introductory Cassette programs on Side A, you were suddenly instructed to turn the tape over and press PLAY to avoid them! In fact, I'd hazard a guess some users who never really investigated the book were completely unaware these programs were even hiding away on their cassette.

Anyway, moans and groans about the book aside, Start Programming With The Electron is a collection of the four programs spruced up with a snazzy looking menu screen (a la Image2bbc). It's a sinch to call them up - Greeter is a BASIC conversational game, Rivergame is the whole cross the river with fox, chicken and grain puzzle, Turtle is a turtle graphics program and Solver is a maze solver demonstrating basic Artifical Intelligence.

It's sometimes difficult with a collection such as this to review the disc as an 'entertainment' product - the programs are clearly designed to demonstrate simple concepts. For example, Greeter gives the pretence of holding a conversation with the user but it is restricted to simply remembering the name of whoever speaks to it, and greeting them according to how they ask it to. To this end, its first question "How are you?" is completely unnecessary. No matter what you reply - "Bad", "Dead", etc. - it will always reply "I am quite well too, thank you." Eliza it ain't.

Rivergame is the second program, and clearly is meant to demonstrate the use of procedures. The name of each procedure, as it is called, is displayed in a text window at the top of the screen. This is perhaps useful if you are indeed starting to program, but simply looks clumsy if you just want to play the game.

One of the criticisms levelled at the book was that it taught very silly, and ultimately, useless things. Rivergame's graphics are perhaps the best example of this. The game runs in Mode 5, and has no user-defined characters, even though each character is plotted in a single colour. Instead, MOVE, DRAW and PLOT commands are used to plot each character and, if you move one character, all six of them (including the background picture of the river) are re-plotted all over again. There seems little sane reason for this incredibly tedious procedure other than to 'demonstrate' how to plot relative shapes on the screen. Relative shapes might be useful in some other settings but in a 'game' they are completely out of place.

Another criticism of the book concerns its long foray into turtle graphics in the early chapters. No-one at Acorn Computers, apparently, took issue with the fact that turtle graphics isn't programming at all. This Turtle program isn't even user-friendly - the user cannot even type in commands such as FORWARD 1, TURN 90, etc. Instead he must use procedures to change position.

Solver is an extension of the Turtle program that allows the user to define a maze and set the Solver to find its way through it. Again, it is incredibly unfriendly to use, fiddly to the point of bewilderment and has nothing to do with programming the machine itself!

Hence, of course, why the reviewers had a field day bashing the inclusion of this book with new Electrons. It is not simply because the programs themselves are bad - even though they undoubtedly are! - but because what they teach is, in the end, pointless. The novice user who thought the fun-looking alternative to the User Guide might help him to 'start programming' found himself simply flummoxed instead, confronted with turtles, plotting pixels and a maze game.

The Start Programming With The Electron disc naturally therefore adds little to the portfolio of companion discs available for the Acorn Electron. Rivergame is the best of a very bad lot, but even that is sorely let down by its slow speed of execution - it could easily be reprogrammed, in BASIC, to work five times as fast. It's also worth mentioning that the book, very very curiously, has a version of the Rivergame program included which does not even have graphics - only the cassette version has the plotted graphics included!

Probably the whole Start Programming book saga was one of the more costly Acorn mistakes - and it's no wonder there was a market for 'better' guides to the Acorn Electron than this. Perhaps this is why European countries got a translated copy of the User Guide but a different book altogether bundled with Euro-Electrons!

Dave E