Still pondering over BASIC


Last month I put a bit of effort into fixing BINSIC – the collection of Groovy scripts that allows the execution of Sinclair ZX80/81 BASIC programs – and I have been thinking about the thing that they offer that modern computers don’t: the ability to switch on and just write a simple program to solve a problem.

The obvious thing to do would be a browser plug-in that replicates the straight-to-coding environment: particularly for Chromebooks and the like.

BASIC lacks expressive power but it is simple to use and would be a good choice, though I guess the line numbers abstraction would have to go.

BINSIC – Sinclair BASIC emulator – is back


BINSIC was my 2012 project to emulate Sinclair ZX80/81 BASIC on a modern computer.

It is a series of Groovy classes that provide a mixture of interpretation and ‘domain specific language’ (i.e. executing BASIC as native Groovy).

Over the years bitrot seems to have set in and the code in the GitHub repo wouldn’t work and the BINSIC jar that would allow Java users to execute some BASIC without a Groovy install disappeared.

I have fixed all that now. You can see the Groovy at the GitHub BINSIC repo – and use that to explore or edit the code.

If you just want to cut to the chase then have a look here: http://n4decameron.org.uk/~adrian/

There you’ll find a jar and test.bas – an implementation of Conway’s Game of Life.

To run the code download both and execute:

java -jar binsic.jar test.bas

When the code starts specify filled cells with a character like ‘*’ and empty cells with a space. (You don’t have to fill in a whole line, but a blank line needs at least a single space.

When you have filled in the initial grid type ‘DONE’ and hit enter and the code should start – to advance through the generations hit enter.

Feel free to experiment with your own BASIC programs – I have copied a few from the classic BASIC Computer Games and they generally work – but I’ve not tried anything very long. All contributed programs would be gratefully accepted – happy to consider pull requests at the repo.

BASIC is out of fashion these days – but you can read about the motivation behind the project here.

Updated: A day (wasted?) with Groovy


Update: After staying up late (after 2am after the clocks went forward), I found various bugs – I don’t know if these reflect underlying changes in the language or the JVM in the interim but it seems to work now (see GIF of the Game of Life below). Working on getting the jar done too so it becomes easier for others…

There has been a small revival of interest in the wonders of 8 bit computing lately and I thought now would be a good time to revivify the BINSIC project. But has all proved to be a highly frustrating waste of time.

BINSIC – BINSIC Is Not Sinclair Instruction Code – was my 2012 project to build a DSL in Groovy that would allow users of modern computers to write and run ZX80/81 BASIC. I wrote it to explore whether it was really easier to make instructive programs that explored basic mathematical and scientific problems back then.

The first problem I had was that Groovy (and this behaviour wasn’t advertised as far as I could see) simply would not run code written in block capitals. So a DSL was essentially out and I had to write something that was more (much more) like an interpreter.

But it worked, mostly, and I had some fun with it, turned it into a jar file and forgot about it.

Unfortunately the machine hosting the jar file is gone and I never got around to trying to rebuild it – until today. And now I find the code from 2012 just won’t work.

If I try to run that code I get this:

Why code that ran a few years ago won’t run now is a mystery, but replacing the empty element in the list will get it to run – a bit – and this gets me something from the Game of Life I wrote in BASIC:


But again something that worked well 8 years ago now breaks the system:

On top of all that I seem unable to build a jar file on the command line, unable to install Eclipse and unable to get NetBeans, which will let me install a Groovy plugin but not use it, to work properly.

Learnt this week… 24 January


My friend and former colleague Adam Higgitt every Friday posts a list of “five things I have learned this week”. It’s popular and good fun – especially as Adam is not afraid of an argument if you challenge some of his claims.

For a while I tried to do the same thing myself, but failed miserably.

I am not going to try again, but I am proposing to try something different, if inspired by Adam.

So here is the first list of things “learnt this week” scientific or mathematical facts and amusements. I will aim for five, but this week just did not make it.

1. A random walk can be used to build a binomial distribution – but not a very good one!

Imagine a left-right ruled line centred on zero and a marker than can, in every time step move either left or right be one step where the probability of moving left p_l and of moving right, p_r are both the same: i.e., p_l = p_r = 0.5 . At the “beginning of time” the marker stands at 0.

Then if we count the times the marker is at any given position they will be distributed bionomially (well, as we approach an infinite time). The BASIC code below (which I wrote using BINSIC) should give you an idea (this code runs the risk of an overflow though, of course and the most interesting thing about it is how unlike a binomial distribution the results can be).


10 DIM A(1001)
12 FOR I = 1 TO 1001
14 LET A(I) = 0
16 NEXT I
20 LET POS = 500
30 FOR I = 1 TO 50000
40 LET X = RND * 2
50 IF X > 1 THEN LET POS = POS + 1 ELSE LET POS = POS - 1
60 LET A(POS) = A(POS) + 1
70 NEXT I
80 PRINT "*****BINOMIAL DISTRIBUTION*****"
90 FOR I = 1 TO 1001
95 LET X = I - 500
110 PRINT X," ",A(I)
120 NEXT I

Here’s a chart of the values generated by similar code (actually run for about 70,000 times):
Not much like a binomial distribution2. Things that are isomorphic have a one-to-one relationship

Up to this point I just had an informal “things that look different but are related through a reversible transformation” idea in my head. But that’s not fully correct.

A simple example might be the logarithms. Every real number has a unique logarithm.

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A little plug for BINSIC


Thirty-three years ago my brother and I got a new cassette player for Christmas.

That allowed us to write and save games for our ZX80 computer (like many ZX80 owners we found that an older cassette player just didn’t work) and in 1981 I wrote a Z80 machine code version of Conway’s Game of Life – still my proudest programming achievement.

Last year I sought to complete the circle by writing an interpreter/DSL that mimiced ZX80 BASIC and called it BINSIC as “BINSIC Is Not Sinclair Instruction Code” and then wrote a BASIC version of the Game of Life (see the screenshot below).

Game of Life in BINSICSo, if you are from that generation computer users, or even if you are not, why not give it a try – more details here: BINSIC

Getting booted from Wikipedia


A short article on “Binsic Is Not Sinclair Instruction Code” (BINSIC), my BASIC-like interpreter/DSL for Groovy faces getting deleted from Wikipedia on the grounds of lack-of-notability.

It would not be right or proper for me to intervene to stop this, but if you have been a BINSIC user then a proper third-party reference to it (followed by a clearance of the deletion message in the prescribed manner) would be very much appreciated.

The BINSIC article does not generate much traffic here (perhaps a visit a day), so I admit it is not a particularly important project in the world of computer science, but I hope it has been fun for at least a few people and it is worth keeping as a link to a quick and easy way to get BASIC on your computer.

More than a game: the Game of Life


English: Diagram from the Game of Life
English: Diagram from the Game of Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conway’s Game of Life has long fascinated me. Thirty years ago I wrote some Z80 machine code to run it on a Sinclair ZX80 and when I wrote BINSIC, my reimplentation of Sinclair ZX81 BASIC, Life was the obvious choice for a demonstration piece of BASIC (and I had to rewrite it from scratch when I discovered that the version in Basic Computer Games was banjaxed).

But Life is much more than a game – it continues to be the foundation of ongoing research into computability and geometry – as the linked article in the New Scientist reports.

For me, it’s just fun though. When I wrote my first version of it back in 1981 I merely used the rubric in Basic Computer Games – there was no description of gliders or any of the other fascinating patterns that the game throws up – so in a sense I “discovered” them independently, with all the excitement that implies: it is certainly possible to spend hours typing in patterns to see what results they produce and to keep coming back for more.

  • “Life.bas” should run on any system that will support the Java SDK – for instance it will run on a Raspberry Pi – follow the instructions on the BINSIC page. A more up to date version may be available in the Github repository at any given time (for instance, at the time of writing, the version in Git supports graphics plotting, the version in the JAR file on the server only supports text plotting). On the other hand, at any given time the version in Git may not work at all: thems the breaks. If you need assistance then just comment here or email me adrianmcmenamin at gmail.

BINSIC plotting working


At the risk of being attacked as an enemy of all that is good, I have to confess to being less than riveted by the Olympics, so far. So I have made far more productive use of my time in seeking to recreate the computing experience of 30 years ago – by working some more on BINSIC – Binsic Is Not Sinclair Instruction Code, my reimplementation of Sinclair ZX81 BASIC.

I have finally got PLOT and UNPLOT to work – not on the same screen as ordinary output, but on a separate graphics console.

Game of Life on BINSIC graphics consoleAs the above – from Conway’s Game of Life –  shows, this has all the sophistication and Ă©lan of the original ZX81 experience!

It’s just in the Git repo now (at Github under mcmenaminadrian) but an executable JAR will follow shortly.