Saturday, 7 July 2012

Resurrecting the Software - 6

The BBC Computer

It is a year since I have posted anything about the BBC software on this blog – and during the intervening months I have thought about the matter frequently – especially as I now have a BBC computer sitting next to my P.C. and I can switch on the system, pull out the keyboard and run MicroCODIL without doing more than swivel my chair through 450.

So read on to find out why I have not yet transferred the software to a PC.

The more I looked at the task of transferring the software to run under a BBC emulator on a P.C. the less attractive it appeared. A significant part of the software (and hence the conversion work) is devoted to the driver routines for the display and the keyboard. For those of you who do not know the B.B.C.Computer (which was one of the most powerful home and school computers when it came out) the memory was very limited. As a result I was forced to use the teletext screen mode of 24 lines each of 40 characters. In MicroCODIL this tiny area was subdivided into a number of separate windows (some scrolling, some fixed) and the whole driver was written in assembly code. If I simply moved the software across I would have more space for the program code and data – but without totally rewriting the screen drivers I would still be limited to a 24*40 character screen. There are similar problems with the keyboard – as the use of colour coding to guide the user's typing was complicated because of the way the teletext display handled colours. There was another problem. In addition to writing code in both basic and assembler I used a variety of function calls which reset system parameters – for instance to control an “unofficial” software paging system – and it looked as if this would cause difficulties. It soon became clear that it would be easier to extract the CODIL parts of the code – and give it a much simpler user interface – than to convert the whole package. However if this was done in BBC Basic, using an emulator, it would still reflect some of the limitations of the BBC computer.

But if anyone (at least in the UK) wants to see the system working the BBC computer is now a cult machine and second hand working systems are often available on ebay. I can easily give demonstrations and if someone sends me a blank 5 inch floppy they can have a copy of the system to run on their own BBC computer. After all no one who has read the independent reviews written at the time can doubt that the software actually works.

So simply transferring the software to run under a BBC emulator would probably be a waste of time. In fact it could be easier to rewrite the research-relevant parts of the software in a more modern computer language, using standard library routines where appropriate. But if I was doing a rewrite to demonstrate CODIL's relevance to brain modelling it would be sensible (and almost as quick) to produce a version that could run on a network of intelligent cells – and to make other sensible modifications.

But at the age of 74 I have no wish to learn yet another programming language and rewrite the software yet again. The problem with CODIL is not that the idea doesn't work - because I have clearly show that it does. There seem to be four reasons why most people decide to reject CODIL without even bothering to ask any questions about it, or express their views in a comment.

  1. The world and its wife (especially the establishment that is in a position to support unconventional research ) takes it for granted that the stored program computer model is the best thing since sliced bread and that it is a complete waste of time to even consider any alternative model.
  2. No computer company (not even one being swallowed up in a government inspired takeover) could ever have throw out an interesting “blue sky” research project.
  3. Everyone with a good idea should be able to bring it to fruition in any university department – because by definition all university departments provide a fertile environment for original research – and would never allow such research to be squeezed out by an excessive emphasis on teaching, short term commercial contracts, or government targets.
  4. Science is now so big and so specialised that in the modern world no individual can ever have an original idea - so any individual who dares to think they have something original to say ought to shut up. (This is a self-fulling theory if everyone holds it!)

As long as most people act as if they held one or more of these views there is no point in me spending time in re-writing the software which the majority of people will automatically reject, without looking at it, because they believe it couldn't possibly work.

It seems far more appropriate at my age to concentrate on blogging and wait and see what happens. After all it only needs one or two people to seriously think “If I find out more about CODIL – and the approach proves to be valid, I could be one of the first people to publish a good working model of the way human intelligence has evolved from an animal brain, and that kind of research would significantly advance my career. .”  

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