In memoriam: Tim Hartnell

Last week the students and I went looking for our long-lost GnuRadio USRP in a dusty hardware security lab down the hall. This particular USRP hasn’t been seen in about five years (I suspect it may have been deported with the lab’s previous occupant) so the whole thing was kind of a long shot.

Sometimes best part of a treasure hunt is what you find along the way. The students didn’t find the USRP, but they did uncover a fog machine and laser that someone had tucked under a workbench. This kept them happy ’til we got a whiff of the “fog” it was making. I scored something even better: a mint copy of Tim Hartnell‘s 1985 masterpiece, the Giant Book of Computer Games.

If you’re just a few years younger than me, you might think Games is a book about games. But of course, it literally is games: dozens of all-caps BASIC listings, printed in a font that was probably old when Wargames was new. Each game sits there on the page, pregnant with potential, waiting for a bored 9-year old to tap it into his C64 or Apple ][ and hit “RUN”. (Sadly, this could be a long wait.)

Flipping through Games brings back memories. The Chess AI was a bastard, routinely cheating even if you implemented it properly. And you never implemented anything properly, at least not on the first pass. This was part of the fun. Between typos and the fact that Hartnell apparently coded to his own BASIC standard, the first play usually went like this:

> 2

You learned debugging fast. When that didn’t work, your last, desperate move was simply to delete the offending lines — ’til the program either (a) worked, or (b) got so crazy that you deleted it and loaded Bruce Lee off a cassette. Sometimes you hit the sweet spot between the two: my “Chess” AI would grab control of my pieces Agent Smith-style and send them hurtling towards my undefended King. I never saw this as a bug, though; I just thought it had style.

When I started writing this post I intended to make a broader point about how my experience with Games mirrors the way that modern implementers feel when faced with a mysterious, unjustified cryptographic standard. I think there is a point to be made here, and I’ll make it. Another day.

But when I googled to see what Hartnell is up to, I was saddened to learn that he died all the way back in 1991, only a few years after Games was published. He was only a few years older than I am today. So on reflection, I think I’ll just let this post stand as it is, and I’ll go spend some time with my kid.

Tim, wherever you are, please accept this belated tribute. Your book meant a lot to me.

2 thoughts on “In memoriam: Tim Hartnell

  1. I grew up with the Vic 20 and C-64. Came across Tim's book; loved his writing style and his ability to capture your imagination. They were certainly the good ol' days of computers.

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