BACK TO BASICS
There must have been hundreds of books published that promise to teach 'anyone' to write BASIC programs. Even discounting the ones by Tim Hartnell and Ian Sinclair.
It is now fashionable to publish book and cassette combinations - where the cassette is little more than a consolation prize for the unlucky purchaser, when he or she discovers that the book is impenetrable to anyone lacking a degree in maths, a dictionary of computing and the ability to learn entirely by inference.
Despite this dismal pedigree, and a typically cliched title, Jim Maitland's Basically Speaking package is a good effort, and may well teach a few Mums, Dads and (notoriously ignorant) Computer Science teachers what programming is all about.
The package starts out from the assumption that the reader is interested, but probably non-technical; perhaps a bit overawed by computers, not given to much reading, and not necessarily equipped with 'O level Maths. Many books claim to use a similar starting point, but they don't maintain it for long...
The last paragraph comes from the covering letter which came with the CRASH copy of Basically Speaking. Jim Maitland has certainly done his homework, as indeed one might expect of a Physics teacher with two teenage computerholic sons. Just to make sure that I spotted all his hard work, he includes a careful critique of other 'beginner's BASIC' books, and an analysis of his response - he's definitely taking no chances with reviewers!
For £8.95 you get the usual black plastic binder holding a 100-page paperback book and a data cassette. The text has been produced with a daisywheel printer; the layout is neat and there are plenty of diagrams and gaps to keep things looking interesting. Some rather twee cartoons pop up every so often - sometimes these add to the text but they're often more embarrassing than illuminating.
General interest books written by teachers often fall down because they patronise their audience. To some extent Basically Speaking falls into this trap. The author aims to write for young and old, but sometimes he unnecessarily divides his audience. Overall, though, the text is carried by its conversational style and relaxed humour.
The book starts with a brief, friendly introduction, containing two 'Golden Rules';
1 Don't wonder what would happen if... Try it out. Experiment! Be bold. Pressing wrong keys won't harm the computer.
2 If it refuses to respond, no matter what you do, just switch off and start again.
Armed with this excellent advice - which trades much of the mystique of computers for fascination - the reader is gently introduced to the computer keyboard.
There are different versions of the book for Spectrum and Spectrum Plus users. The publishers think that the beginner has enough to cope with initially without having to wade through footnotes and brackets to find out which phrase or statement applies to that particular machine. It is a shame - especially given the large market that this book should find in shops - that the two editions are not distinguished by pictures of the target machine on the cover. Retailers need all the help they can get.
The course consists of twelve units, covering most areas of ZX BASIC: arithmetic, decisions, loops, strings, arrays. sound and so on. Each unit consists of a few pages from the book, and a couple of short programs on tape. The text is strewn with simple but ingenious exercises, with solutions provided.
The book ends with an appendix about keyboard fingering, a brief glossary and an index. The programs on the tape are simple and tend to crash if you type gibberish into them, but they're easy to list and understand.
The course does not go into any detail about graphics, and it certainly doesn't teach programming as a profession or as an engineering discipline - the coverage is practical, with virtually no theory. But - within its brief - Basically Speaking is accurate, friendly and fun.