How Lord Sugar taught me to hack stuff

This piece was originally published on a now-defunct website for general audiences. It now lives on here in vaguely inappropriate perpetuity

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, most likely bought at Dixons in Worthing, England, circa 1986. But that's not the one I'd like to talk about, because it was defective and went right back to the store.

Dad, convinced by Clive Sinclair's legendary quality control that you get what you pay for, opted for the expensive Amstrad CPC over a replacement or a Commodore 64. Together, these three machines were the ruling triumvirate of 8-bit home computing in Thatcher's Britain. The Amstrad wasn't much different to the Commodore -- brighter graphics, tinnier sound -- but came with a built-in tape deck, a crisp color monitor, and a decent warranty.

I got my parents' money's worth over the next few years, but their value was not my value.

The rationalization my folks cultivated was that I'd use the computer "for school." It was to be educational, not fun. This once-common parental delusion fostered a generation of unmonitored, pre-Internet computer use. The result: lots of gaming. As soon as I had the boxy charcoal-gray Amstrad hooked-up and powered on, it was to the "free fun pack" that I went.

The machine was a good nanny. Immersed in pixelated classics like Elite and Jet Set Willy, I found friends with the same platform to share gaming war stories with. We copied one anothers' games with double-cassette decks, and bartered them in schoolyards like seasoned day traders. It wasn't long before the idea of using computers to learn geography or math slipped into the guiltless lapsed duties of being a kid, like taking the dog for a walk every day: solemnly promised, but only ever performed on demand.

It didn't help that the Amstrad's free educational titles were the most boring things on Earth. There was Animal Vegetable Mineral, a text-only knockout pill that tried to guess what you were thinking of. Then, Wordhang, a version of hangman that now sounds like a Mitchell & Webb joke. Particularly disappointing was Timeman One, whose name suggests a gripping existential sci-fi drama, but which turned out to be a method of learning how to read analog clocks. All of these horrors were produced a company called "Bourne Educational Software," whose impact on software history was insufficient to earn a Wikipedia entry.

So, games.

The important thing to know about games, at least back in the olden days, was that the machine schooled me anyway. By owning my own computer and having free reign to do with it as I pleased, it cultivated an interest in how complicated things work -- in this alone, it offered more of an education than anyone ever got from those terrible 'edutainment' packages.

Perhaps it was just the general cultural and technological impact of home computers in the Eighties. Perhaps it was the relative ease back then of flipping up the hood and tinkering around: the real rules emerge from the system, not its creators' intentions.

When you give a kid the power and the freedom to explore a system, they'll discover unexpected ways to manipulate it, faster than most grown-ups will. Youngsters are selfish and impatient, refusing to defer gratification for arbitrary or social reasons. It's a learning strategy that works well, even if sometimes favors people who don't work well with others.

Moreover, games offer particularly engaging systems to play with--especially oldschool ones where technical limitations forced a creative minimalism onto their developers. Show-stopping bugs in titles, often too-quickly translated from other computer platforms, encouraged us to seek our own shortcuts. You could fix it yourself. Facilitated by the fact that old computers were open as pie (many loaded a programming language as soon you turned it on and exposed access to the entire system) enormous creative power was at the user's disposal.

Computer mags served as the gateway. In the old days, magazines printed short programs which screwed with games' internal logic, to increase the number of lives, say, or reduce the damage inflicted by enemy weapons.

Almost all such programs were essentially the same, a loader that would run the game as usual, but sneakily edit variables after they'd spooled off the tape into RAM.

These "pokes", named after the BASIC command for directly inserting data into memory locations, were often completely opaque--think 50 lines of hexadecimal nonsense--but framed by more easily-read code that hinted at how it worked. The reward system was perfect: learn this and you beat the game by legerdemain, impress your peers, and experience the power of creation. The universe has sneakily taught you the basics of algebra, and you didn't have to complete a single line of homework. Compared to traditional education, that's an intoxicating thing, at least if you're a geek.

Even screwing computers up builds a confidence often lacking in our dealings with the machines. The delicate thing loses its intimidating mystery and is revealed as a blunt tool, easily reset to its factory settings. Letting yourself fail makes everything better.

I doubt that Lord Sugar knows much about computers. Unlike Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, he was a business opportunist who moved on to other things when the market for 8-bit computers faded. But in its hands-off approach to technology—Amstrad released much of its intellectual property under a free-ish license after the system's withdrawal from the market—is a permissiveness often lacking at today's anxious market-grabbing tech titans, whose ostensibly open products tend to come in curiously horselike shapes.

So that's how Amstrad founder Lord Sugar inspired me to do strange things to boot sectors. I was never smart enough to code much, but it ultimately got me interested in making tiny chiptunes on the Commodore Amiga, and I was pretty good at that. Thanks, Sugar!