Monday 19 November 2018

Cardboard and scotch tape

Being totally uninterested by school, I spent most of my spare time on building things. Remember that it was before computers, so I had to find other ways to have fun. Every pretext was an idea that needed to be made.

I used all the tools at my disposal, cardboard and scotch tape, little motors and batteries, switches, dismantled electric or electronic toys. Like every kid, I had 'periods'. A period when I was fascinated by tube radios, spending my time listening to the AM radio I built from a kit. There was nothing in that period on AM radio in France, so I spent hours listening to distant incomprehensible radios in other languages watching the hot end of the the radio tube trying to understand how this could work. This period was certainly the origin of my passion for old radios that I used to collect in the 90s. I had up to 30 of these magnificent devices, most of them working. But the collection was too big for our small house and I had to finally get rid of them with a broken heart.

A candle factory period, which started with 'Bougies 2000', a toy I had for Christmas and ended the next year at Christmas at our place with dozens of personalized candles of various shapes for each guest.

Various gadgets made of cardboard and yellow scotch tape - I got a stock of nice thick tape from my cousin's optic shop. I used so much cardboard that the bottom of every box of the house disappeared into my creations. One that I remember was an 'electric dice'. Six light bulbs were wired to an random rotator moved by an electric motor. You ran the motor during a period and when it stopped the remaining one was the choice of random. This gadget worked so well I brought it to school where it had a little success with my geek friends.

Today, with computers, you can get this with one line of code:
Print Random( 6 )

I also has a very intense 'photo-laboratory' period. No smart phones at the time, photos were done with chemical, and I got a black and white photo laboratory kit for one of my birthday. I immediately setup my personal laboratory in the top of the building in the a small cupboard. There was no water, and part of the fun was to install a sink made out of plastic basin and water supply with aquarium pipes. Unfortunately there was no lift in the building so I had to carry the water up to fill the tank, and also down to throw away the chemical waste.
The next gift was a real reflex camera to build yourself (an expensive gift from my parents who saw me so impassioned by photography), and soon I was the official photograph of the family.

I will always remember the red light of the laboratory and the excitation of seeing the picture magically appear when you put the paper in the developer. The chemical had a specific smell and soft touch to the finger. I kept this laboratory until I was 21, at the time with much better equipment in the house we had after the apartment.

Like many kids, I also had a 'chemical laboratory' period, based on 'Chimie 2000' another toy of the '2000' series chosen by my father. It ended abruptly by a fire in the kitchen that scared the hell of out me and my mother. 

After the fire, my brother and I started to cultivate crystals. It is a fascinating and simple experience that I would love to do again today. By over-dissolving a chemical compound like copper-sulfate in hot water, and letting it rest for days, crystals start to appear. You then select a nice one, hang it on a wire and make it grow for month. You obtain magnificent crystals of pure blue for copper sulfate. Other color and shapes were also possible with other chemicals like potassium ferrycianide.

I was also interested by mechanics. We had the luck of having an old Solex motorcycle. Solex were small motorcycles very popular in France in the 60s. Their particularity was to have a small engine on the front wheel and not under the seat as usual. This construction made them very cheap to produce. Propulsion was ensured by a pebble under the engine pressing on the front tire, which was problematic under the rain. The engine was not very powerful and a Solex could hardly reach 30 km/h, but the engine was so simple and well thought that I must have dismantled it completely to remount it 10 times, discovering the principle of a two stroke engine. I was not old enough to drive it in the street (11!), but I could use it for promenade along the river in front of the apartment, and was so proud when the engine worked again after being torn apart and remounted!

Certain evenings, my father came back with work to finish. He usually brought back with him one of the first electronic calculators, a large device with a tube-display. My brother and I waited impatiently each time for having the authorization to play with it after his work was finished. We spent hours just doing calculations and playing with the machine to see the wonders of modern electronics.

My father also taught us electronics, and he had his personal projects too. One of them was a complete square-wave electronic organ, one tone at a time, the case being made in wood in the basement workshop with my 'help'. I was also a fervent reader of the magazines he received like 'Electronique pratique' or 'Elektor' and had my own soldering iron, ordered simple electronic kits that I usually failed to build.

But all these projects were nothing compared to the number of machines I created with the best toy of all, Fisher-Technics!

Sunday 11 November 2018

Forever kid

After my father died in 1975, my mother, who had never worked in her life but a couple of years as an English teacher before meeting my father found herself alone with three kids. Philippe, the oldest was following medical studies in Nancy a town located at 60 km from Metz, Patrick was in high-school and I was in what we call in France 'college', the first years after the primary school system.

We had to leave the apartment of course (in 1978), but we were not poor, thanks to life insurance my father contracted while he was working. So we found a nice house in a suburb of Metz.

The house on Google maps exactly as I remember it,
behind the tree, just after we sold it in 2005.

Having never done any accounting of management of finances in her life, my mother had to learn everything while still suffering the loss of the love of her life, and she handled that admirably. She had to take a job to have health-insurance coverage for the family. The first job she found was in a private hospital where she was the lady managing the 'little-shop' of the hospital, the place where you find sweets and drinks. 

It lasted for a couple years and then she switched to being a librarian at a privately-own chain of libraries called 'La Bibliothèque pour Tous' (The Library for All). 

While she liked it at first, she soon started to hate this job, mostly due to the fact that the library was managed by old cranky ladies that mistreated her. Being the last kid in the house after my brother Patrick started his medical studies (he wanted to be a dentist), I will always remember her complaining about the 'Les Vieilles Biques' (the Old Goats) that gave her incoherent orders and all the bad tasks. But she had no choice and carried on until she could retire in the 80s. She always preferred the company of men and never got along with women.

Although she hated the job, I was really happy she worked there as I had access to the extensive library of comic books that the library had. Not super heroes but good Belgium and French comic books. I had access to fantastic authors like Franquin (Gaston Lagaffe and Spirou), Hergé (Tintin), Greg (Achile Talon) at absolutely no cost.

All along she managed to keep the family together and did what she could to keep us happy despite the fact that we had no more father. Every school morning, she came to wake us up with a little coffee in bed, and we had massive amounts of chocolate and sweets every week-end (a typical week-end load would be 500 grams of chocolate, one large pack of sweets, the best, Regal'ad from Krema and a few extras like Treets (the name of MnMs at the time) etc. 

The sweets of my childhood.

I was an very average student in school. I never (and still do not) understood anything to mathematics, had no interest in girls, and never was part of the 'hip' groups. I had awful acne during all my adolescence up to my marriage at 27, the kind with green pimples that split out to the mirror when you press them and then last for a full week on your face. I was once year classified by the girls in the class as the 'ugliest' of the whole class. It was OK as I was as well designed as one of the most funny. I always had one or two very good friends, also rejected by the others and we were having fun together. As in the US movies, we were the 'misfits', the weirdos.

I also was known to make loud jokes in the classroom, the kind of jokes that also make the teacher laugh and get you 'popular'.

I got in real trouble one year. One of the girls of the 'hip' group was very nasty to us the misfits. So we decided to have a vengeance. I built a small machine out of cardboard and scotch tape, with a battery, a motor, a needle and a remote control. The 'Stinging Machine'.

The remote control, taken out of a toy, started the motor, and the needle got out of the box violently. After a couple of days of tests and fine tuning, we implemented the plan in history course. Before the course, I drilled a hole in the chair of the girl and glued the infamous machine upside down under the chair, the needle being right in front of the hole.

In the middle of the course, when everyone was sleeping, one of us pressed the remote. The machine worked wonder and the girl on the first raw jumped on her chair with a scream. She of course looked at what was on the chair and saw nothing as the needle had retracted in the machine. We could do that a couple more time until she had the idea to look under the chair and discovered the device. She of course unglued it and put it horrified on her desk, luckily needle down, so we could make the machine jump by repeatedly pressing the remote! No need to say that the four of us in the middle of the class were easily spotted as we were laughing so hard (still laughing while writing this).

I got a warning for misbehavior this trimester and decided to play nice the next one, and did it so well that I got encouragements! Teachers can be so easily manipulated!

Just a kid. I stayed mentally young - actually stuck at 10, but this is another story, Asperger is its name - up to my release at 50. I guess this is the main reason why AMOS was before all a fun program, a toy, made by a forever kid.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Workshop and holidays

My father was an engineer and he was also a maker. A maker of that time without a 3D printer, with casual tools. He knew how to make furniture and how to work iron.

I was always fascinated by what he was doing and spent many hours with him on Saturdays and Sundays, 'helping' him as a 10 year old kid can help his father: by just being with him.

His workshop was in the basement of our apartment of Metz. The building was old and the basement was large and dark. I will always remember the smell, a mix between humidity and old things. I will also remember forever the smell of my father's cigarettes, the worse ones in France at the time, the 'Gauloise sans filtre' (Gauloise without filter) that I hated so much. He smoked all the time. My mother and older brother Philippe were heavy smokers too. It was a nightmare for Patrick and me in the car when all three smoked at the same time with us coughing in the back and begging to open the windows. They opened the window, two centimeters! 'Look it's open, stop complaining!'...

I followed my father's work in the workshop with passion and envy. Like a nurse helping a surgeon I was the one giving him the tools, asking questions after questions on what hew was doing and why.

I also spent time in the dark corners of the basement. There was a 'hidden corridor' that scared me and where I used to go with a flashlight, exploring and discovering with fear all the rubbish left by the previous tenants. At the end of the corridor was a old bathroom with a bathtub that made my imagination wander.

The workbench had a self-made circular saw constructed with the motor of a washing machine, incredibly noisy and scary. So exciting and dangerous for me!

He built so many things in this cave that the list would be too long. I remember particularly the holiday trailer. 
We used to go for the summer holidays to the town of Antibes on the French Riviera for the two month of the summer holidays. We had a little boat, a 'Zodiac Mark II' with a 33 horse power engine and we needed a trailer to carry it. 

The trailer was his masterpiece. He made it from A to Z, soldering the frame with an electric soldering machine, using the wheels of a used car. It was big and heavy. From a simple trailer to carry the boat, it slowly became equipped with a picnic kitchen, easy access organised storage areas etc. He made me participate to the construction, most of the holes in the iron tubes were made by me with the metal driller. I was so proud!

I spent all the summer holidays of my childhood in Antibes on the French Riviera. We rented the first floor of a large house, very close to the beach with an immense garden. The riviera was not as constructed as it is today, the garden was immense and un-cared for, and led to remaining parcel of forest that we used to call the 'little forest'. The place was mostly un-constructed, there was even a farm with greenhouses that we used to watch with binoculars.

I was always the first one to get up. My first reflex was to go in the garden in the fresh and wonderful morning of Provence. The smell and sounds of nature will forever remain in my memory. The garden was full of fruit trees with peaches and plums, juicy, sweet and delicious on which I rushed after getting up.

One of my favorite place to play in the early morning was the remaining of an old sail boat under the plum tree, the perfect place for my imaginative mind.

Some evenings we went through the little forest (it was a shortcut) to Juan les Pins, the city near Antibes to have a drink at a cafe. One of the cafe had a Scopitone and I was always begging to go there. It rarely worked as it was such a delicate machine and was so expensive. But one time, it was open! I was fascinated by the inside and spent the whole evening staring at the repair-man.

Another fascinating machine I encountered in those evenings was the famous Sega Killer Shark arcade machine, one of the first real arcade game, entirely electro-mechanical. The sound of the shark when you kill it is still in my ears.


Out of the two month we usually spent there, my father could only come for one due to his job, usually in August. We all were excited when he arrived as he brought the Zodiac with him.

The boat was parked in a small harbor in Juan les Pins, a wonderful and quiet place with a few boats. Now a large touristic complex with millionaire yachts. 
The name of the boat was 'Onkrakrikru' a rather unusual name for a boat, taken from a comic strip.

We used to go for boat picnics in 'La Baie des Milliardaires' (litterally the Billionaire's Bay), eating sandwiches and fishing under the Eden Rock, a famous 5 stars hotel in the Antibes Cape, and even sometimes bathed in the hotel's pool by climbing the ladder that led to the sea and passing for residents!

Antibes was close to the city of Cannes, and in the month of August, Cannes hosted the famous yearly firework festival. On the evening, we would take the boat for a night trip to the festival, in the dark under the moon and stars. There was one big danger in the trip that we called 'Le Truc a Sous Marins' (literally The Thing for Submarines), an old unused iron buoy, large and dark, lurking in front of Antibes. We even got close to bump in it, which would have been catastrophic in the night. So the tension was intense each time until we passed the threat.

And we could watch the firework from the sea, an incredible experience with stronger sounds of explosions and magnificent view without the crowd.

Unfortunately, my father died when I was 12, of his sin, tobacco (brain embolism). He would have been so interested by computers and my life would not have been the same. I would not have chosen to do vet studies and would have certainly become an engineer like him. 

But AMOS would certainly not have seen the light.

Monday 29 October 2018

The beginning.

I was born in Maubeuge, a small town in the North of France near the Belgium border where the climate is rainy and the people shiny. The town was know in the whole France by its moonlight, after a funny hit song "Un Clair de Lune à Maubeuge" (Moonlight in Maubeuge).

My young child-hood was a happy one. My father was a engineer in the metal industry, and worked at the local steel factory that was called ‘La Fabrique de Fer’ (literal for ‘The Iron Factory’). My mother did not have a job and was taking care of me and my two brothers, both older than I, Patrick and Philippe.

We lived in a very nice house provided by the company of my father. Being an engineer at that time was highly respected, and not only did we have the house, but also the car, and one full time house employee that slept on the premises (that used to be called in France at the time ‘La Bonne à Tout Faire’), and a gardener.

In the late 60s, ‘La Fabrique de Fer’, small metal company had to shut down and we moved to Metz in Lorraine on the East of France in 1967, where all the metal industry was concentrated.

Metz was a very nice town, unjustly qualified of ‘dark’ and ‘boring’ by the rest of France, certainly due to the amount of military people that resided there. It is a fact that there was a lot of barracks, and still is today. I even spent my military service there, and programmed AMOS in a small room in a barrack!

In Metz, we lived in a very posh and large apartment on ‘Boulevard Clemenceau’, the place were all the high families of the town lived. 

Of course included in my father’s job advantages as well was a company car, usually a Citroen… I still remember the Citroen GS and it’s pneumatic suspensions that raised the car each time you started the engine, a fascinating property for me.

I learned later that he had a very high rank as an engineer justifying all this.

Metz was also the home of ‘AMOS La Bière de Metz’, the local beer that beard the name of the product of my life! Talk about destiny! The brewery was very close from the school I attended, “L’école Sainte Thérèse”. I remember the awful smell in the whole area when their were brewing batches of bier. It was renown for being a bad beer, and the brewery closed in the eighties.

Christmas was, as for every kid, very special to me. And in Lorraine we had the extra advantage of having Saint Nicolas, the celebration of the the ‘real’ Santa Claus in the east of France. It happened on the first Sunday of December, Saint Nicolas visited our house and left many toys for us spread all around the living room floor.  I remember the exaltation of the Saturday evening before the event, where my brother and I discussed of the toys that we would get, and even had a peak at the living room in the middle of the night. Without getting caught of course.

After opening the toys, we always made a basket for the donkey of Saint Nicolas with carrots, potatoes and sugar and left it in the living room on Sunday evening. The next day we always found the basket on the floor and some of the vegetable mysteriously eaten.

And we also had Christmas presents too! Like every kid. December was such a great month! My father having lost all his family, we did Christmas with the family of my mother, rotating each year the location.

Christmas was the occasion for me to meet my cousin Eric. Eric was older than me by 3 month only and we went along very well, a very ‘technical’ kid like me. As soon as we saw each other we disappeared and went into our own games and stuff.

The best Christmas were at our place in Metz or at my uncle “Dédé”. Eric and I always embarked in adventures different each time. 

One highlight was the funny ‘torture’ of my hamster Gabuzo.

Like many kids I had a ‘hamster’ period. My first one was the best, a female, much more fun than the males I had after her. Eric and I decided to create a special maze for her.

It started on the top of my cabinet by a rude slide to my desk in a cotton ball. Once arrived on the desk, we built of maze of closed tubes in cardboard with various challenges for the poor animal and indicators of its progression. The center piece was a crank-driven conveyor belt made in Fisher Technics with a transparent ceiling. As soon as Gabuzo entered this (nice and fun) torture chamber, we started to turn the crank trying to keep the animal in the center of the device.

Note: I will find a better way of scanning such drawings in the future.

But we were laughing so hard at the time that it was almost impossible to achieve and always ended by the hamster jumping at high speed to the end or start of the conveyor belt.

The goal of all this construction was of course to have a lot of fun, but mostly to prepare it for a show to the entire family. Unfortunately the demo did work that well, Gabuzo being a little tired of the process. But we had so much fun it is still a subject of conversation between my cousin and I.

Another year, for new year’s eve at my cousin’s house, we built a complete ‘incredible machine’ in the whole basement out of the stuff that was available there. Staring by rolling a marble on the top of a shelve and ending with a ‘happy new year’ cardboard appearing after 1 minute of impossible things triggering each other. And it worked!

This kind of machine is common today and is called a Rube Goldberg Machine and can be found easily on Facebook and Youtube, but remember we were in 1972!

Example of such a fantastic machine, by OK Go.

Another one of my favorite place for Christmas  was the house of my uncle “Dédé”. He was a pharmacist and we used to sleep in the top of his big and old house in Saints du Nord, a small village where he was the local pharmacist. 

We were sleeping in an isolated room in the top of the house.
Eric and I started to invent trap-driven courses in the dark in this room, and played the whole day setting an incredible mess. 

One of the two stayed outside of the room while the other was preparing the course. Pillows falling, dead ends, things to find, even water… a whole new course each time. Once ready, light were turned off and the one on the outside came in crawling and awaiting all the traps while the other was listening and laughing. Here too, incredible fun and memories. Talking about memories, one that will remain forever was how anger my uncle was when he discovered the state of the bedroom, alerted by the constant laugh and our disappearance for the whole day!

Eric is now following a successful career in the petroleum industry. Meeting him is always a great pleasure.

I could carry on for pages and pages exposing all the crazy things my cousin Eric and I did during the family reunions, but I will stop. I realize that, contrary to what I said in the previous post, I did not talk about the holidays on the French Riviera, sorry for that, a blog has this advantage of freedom for the writer. I will try to limit myself to two pages each time so that it does not become a ‘task’ instead of a pleasure.

Thank you for reading! See you next week.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Welcome to this next attempt at creating a regular blog! I have so many things to tell about AMOS and how this product has changed my life, and is continuing to do so even today...

Being a programmer with a logical mind, I will expose first the goals and plan of this blog.

GOAL: tell the whole story about the creation of AMOS Basic and its consequences on my life and the life of others... up to Pixel Party 2018.

- To explain why I was at Pixel Party, I need to talk about Friend and Friend Software Labs and my encounter with Hogne Titlestad, David Pleasance and the team, Robert Lapinsky, Olaf Krinsky and all amazing Poland,
- To talk about Friend, I need to talk about the revival of the Amiga at Amiga 30 UK (for me),
- To talk about this, I need to talk about my life before. My life before can be defined by the products, machines and people I have been working with, in reverse order....
- Clickteam Fusion, how to be right on-time on Steam despite a summer in hell,
- Multimedia Fusion, and the runtimes on all platforms that saved a company,
- Jamagic, my failed attempt at creating HTML5 five years too early, and the beginning of my depression,
- Corel Multimedia Fusion and the 1.5 million dollar check in one single day story, and the next one with IMSI,
- The Games Factory, the largest product physically on shelves in UK in computer shops, how to take the wrong 'multimedia' path and loose your vision,
- Klik and Play and my association with Yves Lamoureux and Francis Poulain that would lead to Clickteam,
- AMOSPro Compiler and its massive delay, and the danger of going 'over the top' for a programmer,
- AMOSPro, how to choose the worse name for a good product,
- Easy AMOS, the 'little seller' as Richard Peacock used to call it at Europress,
- AMOS Compiler, meeting Jean Baptiste Bolcato, my first employee,
- AMOS, how to change your world in a corner of a barrack, while pretending to be a vet,
- STOS Compiler, how to make difficult things look simple,
- STOS, the first ever game engine on computers, and my encounter with Europress and Richard Vanner, Meash, Chris and all the team in Manchester,
- Captain Blood, with real geniuses like Yves Lamoureux, Philippe Ulrich and Didier Bouchon,
- The TO7, the most horrible machine chosen by the French government and the reason of the failure of the 'Plan Informatique pour Tous' in France,
- My trip to the USA in summer 1986 and the writing of 'Abner's Bible Tales' in a over-heated garage on CBM64 in Colorado Spring with Jim Cuomo and his very Italian mother, my cousin Khena and the upmost incredible moment of my life, 
- The 'JAWX' period, and how easily geeks can be manipulated by great guys who did not realize that they were doing it, and the horrible trial that followed and polluted by life for so many years,
- All the cool systems we used for cheating in vet school, you won't believe it,

- The Oric period, and the discovery of what a personal computer could be, and my very first commercial product, Driver, worth 'five products to choose in our catalog',
- The Ohio Scientific Superboard II my first real computer bought the year when entering Vet studies in France just-to-please-my-mother,
- The TI57, my first programmable device at school and how I felt against the lucky owners of a HP41c showing off in math courses,
- Fisher-Technics, the incredible toy that allowed me to create so many stupid machines,
- My life as a child, and all the good memories in me forever.

Stories will come back as I write. There will be personal stories, failures, attempts, successes etc... I will let it flow, and this 'reverse-plan' is just an indication of the milestones of my 'mentally-agitated-while-looking-normal-to-the-outside' life...

Stay tuned! I will do my best to write one story per week, every Sunday morning... or afternoon depending on the evening before. 😉

Start of the show, next Sunday! A trip to Antibes on the French Riviera, at the time where it was still beautiful and livable and where I spent the best holidays for an imaginative kid!