First Steps

By Mark Hutchinson


Issue 29

Sep/Oct 87

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As a relief from programming tutorials, and the fact that this issue will be on widespread public sale, I thought that I would share with you some of my letters which I receive from beginners. Most come with an s.a.e. so answers will be returned directly. Those that do not enclose the necessary s.a.e. just have to wait for moments like this.

For those of you not familiar with this column, let me explain the idea. I try to help out those people who are just beginning their ATARI computing. I write about the basics of computing and try to keep it at a low level. I cannot please everyone with my level of writing — even beginners progress! —but I hope that the column has been instrumental in getting a few new Atari owners on the road to writing their own programs.


I have often conversed with the Editor, Les Ellingham, about the magazine listings. His biggest headache is people who ring him about a listing that they cannot run, yet lots of other people can. I can verify that after many hours of typing and proofreading a type of word blindness occurs. It is very hard to spot the mistake at the time, yet next day the error is so obvious. The moral is to rest your eyes and give it another try much later. Another good point is to read the instructions —when all else fails!

I received a letter from a reader in Co. Meath who asked about TYPO 3, a great debugging aid when typing in programs. The two letter code printed in the magazine is only for comparison with the code that appears on screen when you use TYPO 3. If the codes are wrong then you must find the error and correct it yourself, the computer will not do it for you! The program and directions are in every edition of the magazine.


Error codes can be very frustrating if you do not know what they mean. Issues 21 and 22 of PAGE 6 carried an explanation by Steve Pedler of these codes and are worth getting hold of. As an example, in the same letter ERROR 130 was quoted. This means that a non existent device was specified. This could be as simple as CLOSE #11 instead of CLOSE #1 — double typing a character. It could be more involved such as CLOSE #N1. N1 is a variable that should have been set at the start of the program and either has not been set or has a wrong value.

A really common error is 143 AT LINE 0. When the program has loaded a mistake has been found by the computer. Getting to know error codes is important. If possible try to get hold of the issues mentioned or a photocopy of the relevant pages and pin them up somewhere handy to your computer. This will save a lot of time and frustration.

Remember to LIST the program often to cassette or disk, press NEW and RETURN then ENTER the program back again and continue typing. This may not fully combat the infamous ATARI lockup (some other computers are prone to this as well) but at least you do not have to type the listing from the beginning again.


Several months ago, all fired up after reading 'Going Online' by John Davison in PAGE 6, I obtained a modem and tried out some bulletin boards. I would like to thank Ian Hillen for his letters and kind words about PCW, and for his help during the time I wandered around 'The Gnome at Home'. If you are interested then you could contact him at the BBS, 01 888 8894 (ST Phone Home). I consider it an interesting experience.

I had a letter from a man in Littlehampton who had trouble writing programs. I diagnosed his problem as trying too hard! The secret for beginners is to type in very small programs, then amend one bit at a time and see what happens. Get to know the commands and how to use them before you try out any long listings. If you are a slow typer, or are not used to the control characters or even if like me you prefer the easy life (who mentioned the word lazy?) why not consider a subscription to PAGE 6 on disk?


I have often been asked about a good book to start off a programming hobby. I have always recommended 'ATARI BASIC — a self teaching guide' by Albrecht (called the Wiley manual) for outright beginners and 'Your ATARI Computer' by Len Poole and 'Revised Mapping the ATARI' by Compute! Books which are books that everyone who wants to program should have.

I have sometimes been asked to debug or write programs for readers. This is very time consuming as you can imagine and it is something I do not undertake. I will however write small programs, say four or five lines, to demonstrate a particular point. It is then up to the readers to investigate this and try to amend it to his or her own use. One letter prompted me to start the 'Write — a — game' articles (issue 18 onwards), causing sleepless nights for Cliff Winship! Sometimes I receive disks; these give me problems if they are double density as I still use an 810 (small hint to Paul Rixon).

Having just used the word 'her', why is it that we see very few female names in PAGE 6? What is Linda Tinkler doing now? one asks. ( Look out for programs by Sarah Keates and Linda Naysmith in forthcoming issues. Ed.)

On odd occasions I have received responses from people whose letters I have answered. They are nice to read, as they give me an idea of how much help I have been. One such letter Mark Hutchinson's column for those new to Atari programming
was from Mrs. Ellen Barnes whose son wanted to purchase a computer. It was a very nice letter, but what made it better was to see an article from Warren in Page 6 so that just proves that you can do it as well!.

If you care to write to me at the address below, remember the s.a.e. if you want a reply.






Over the next few issues I have decided to write definitions of some common words found in computing circles. Many beginners don't understand the jargon and I hope this will clear up some of the mystique. Unfortunately the definitions will be quite short due to lack of space (the Editor keeps cutting my column!) but I hope they help.

Address – A number identifying a specific location either in memory or, with a peripheral, a specific register within the peripheral interface.

Algorithm – A sequence of steps to be followed when performing a task.

Alphanumeric – a character from either the 26 letters or ten numerals.

Analog – Relating to continuous quantities.

ASCII – The American Standard Code for Information Interchange. A 6, 7, or 8-bit code used to represent letters, decimal numbers and certain control functions.

BAUD – One signalling element per second. The measurement of the signalling rate on a data channel.

Binary digit (bit) – The smallest unit of information that can be used in a digital computer. Either a 0 or 1.

Byte – A group of bits considered as a unit. A byte is the smallest unit of information that can be addressed.

Bootstrap loader (boot program) – A short program that allows more complex program to be loaded through an input device, i.e. cassette.

COMING SOON IN FIRST STEPS ...... reading and saving screens and more dictionary definitions.