Jason Finch wrote one of Commodore Format’s most popular sections. As the host of Techie Tips, he answered hundreds of reader’s technical questions over the years. “I used to really ham it up”, he remembers. “Like comparing Jean-Claude Van Damme to plug in cartridges”.
Hey Jason! So before we get going – what have you been up to since the last CF in 1995? Oh, y’know, this and that. Funny, I found a friend from school on Facebook the other day and asked him what he’d been up to for the last 20 years since we last met. It’s surprising how quick adult life can be summed up.
Anyway. I got a degree in the rather bizarre subject of Artificial Intelligence at University. Then I started a web design company in 1995 with my partner who, for the avoidance of doubt, was a bloke. And, no, he didn’t share my passion for Mark Owen from Take That. Nor Jean Claude Van Damme. Surely you spotted all the Universal Soldier references in my CF pieces too?
We did all the early internet stuff for the likes of English National Ballet, Xemplar which later became Apple Eduction, Toshiba Europe (yes, the whole of Europe), Lotus Cars and even the joyous Gossard Bras. We then moved on to focusing on High Street retailers and helping them to overcome the challenges of people wanting to buy their stuff online.
We had a decent team of folk but after a few years trying to convince the UK’s retailers that the internet really was happening and people would buy stuff on it, I lost the will to live. We gave up bothering trying to convince the old grey-haired Executive Directors of big name retailers and went snowboarding in Canada for 6 months. I decided to emigrate there, persuaded my sister to do so too.
In the end I didn’t, but she did. Loads happened in the meantime, I learned to snowboard down pretty much any hill I wanted, I learned to fly helicopters, and now I’m trying to persuade the world of convenience stores to adopt more modern technology than the hideous clunky till systems and stock management rubbish that they have at the moment. But I’m now eyeing up a life driving construction site vehicles and ditching computers altogether eventually!
Take us back to 1992. How did you end up getting the techie column in Commodore Format? I’ve John Simpson, aka Bones, to thank for that. We’d known each other throughCommodore Disk User magazine and became good friends. Those were the days when you actually had to talk to people on the phone or write letters that took days to arrive in the post.
He was writing stuff for Commodore Format magazine and I think someone there had asked him about taking up the gauntlet on the techie letters column. He felt I was better placed and put my name forward. The rest is history. And a lot of history that I really can’t remember. So, somehow I then ended up doing it.
Commodore Format was a whole different story to Commodore Disk User though: on CDUeveryone wanted to know how to draw bitmap lines between point X and point Y, or why their Star LC10 colour printer didn’t work with their GEOS word processor. On Commodore Format everyone wanted to know how such and such a game had so many whizzy sprites or how music things worked. But so far as how to find out answers to techie questions, CDUhad taught me a lot and I managed to convince CF that I could answer whatever was thrown at me.
Tell us about a typical month on Techie Tips. Did you get big pillow sized envelopes to your door? Yes. Lots and lots of letters with lots of weird handwriting. To this day I credit my ability to read all sorts of scrawl to my early days dealing with Commodore Format letters. Young people won’t appreciate the fact that back in the 90s people had to actually write, with a pen, on bits of paper. And then put it an envelope and post it. Or they’d sometimes use blunt pencils on anything they could find around the house. I once got a letter written on a short length of toilet paper. Commodore Disk User had always published my home address and so letters just drifted in throughout the month, but Commodore Format was a bit more professional and less happy about using my real address. So everything went to them and then got shoved, unopened, into a huge envelope. I’d receive one each month with some other instructions.
What was the weirdest question anybody asked? And did you ever get odd fanmail? Andy Roberts (Gamesbusters editor – Ed) had a few photos sent to him from “admirers”…I don’t think I ever had photos sent to me. I certainly haven’t kept any. I never had my photo printed in the magazine and the nearest caricature was probably the illustration that went with [regular feature] Dr Finch’s Casebook. That wasn’t particularly enticing so I’m not sure people felt compelled to try to bond with me.
Nothing especially weird in terms of a question stands out in my mind, but I definitely had a very weird letter once. The intro to one of my articles in Commodore Format, the bit in bold that [editor] Trenton or someone else used to write, once said that I knew this, knew that, knew who shot Kennedy. A couple of months later a letter turned up from Australia, tightly typed and spanning two A4 sheets of paper. There were no paragraphs, just sentence after sentence. It described how Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, and linked it to the death of John Lennon. It gave street names and dates of birth, and people who were linked to people who knew people who lived at places that all pointed to why Kennedy was shot. It warned me that if I knew the truth then all this information would help me piece together the whole plot. It was quite amazing. Almost without conclusion it just ended. No name, nothing. I kept that letter for years. I never purposefully threw it away as, when it arrived, I actually promised myself I would keep it forever in case I mysteriously vanished one day. But now the letter has vanished and I haven’t. If I ever find it in an old dusty filing cabinet, you’ll be the first to know!
Did you meet any of the CF guys yourself? Was there a favourite editor or guy you worked with? I have a vague recollection of once visiting Bath and walking by the Future Publishing building. I may have gone in and met the team. But it’s all a bit of a blur. I recall seeing what we’d now think of as those old Mac computers, whiteish grey boxes, little tiny built-in screens, and stuff like that; of meeting Trenton and some of the other guys. But to this day I wonder whether I just dreamed all of that.
Weren’t you behind the fanzine on a disc, Club Light? Tell us a bit about it working on it. Were Future bothered about it, did they see it as competition? Yes, Club Light was an interesting story. I’m not sure if it’s legal to tell you everything. I had the idea in the dying months of Commodore Disk User. The plan was always to sneak a special adventure game onto the last ever CDU cover disc that told the story about the demise of CDU and the rise of this mysterious but awesome new magazine on a disk calledLIGHT. The chap I used to work with at the time who did astonishingly good graphic work on the C64, Doug Sneddon, actually did a whole bunch of graphics for the game. They never saw the light of day. The theory was that if you completed the adventure it would give you all the details you needed to sign up to the real LIGHT. But CDU collapsed pretty quickly and it never happened.
Somehow or other, in a story that is lost in the mists of time, John Simpson and I ended up working on it together. I wrote the whole system that LIGHT used on its disks and we’d snaffled some of the software that had been submitted to CDU but not yet published. We tried to get WHSmith interested in publishing it. We had a concept of mounting the disc on a funky iridescent bit of card and having it stacked with computer magazines in shops. WHSmith pretty much controlled the whole distribution network but the guy we went to meet in London was a bit of a Luddite, he just didn’t get the whole concept of computer magazines on a disc and basically shut the door on us. He’d asked his ten year old Grandson if he’d buy a magazine on a disc and this kid had said no so he thought it was a shit idea or something. Old business people who know more about old school things like books and magazines making decisions about technology is usually a bad plan, but when they involve their grandchildren, it’s just bonkers.
Not wanting to be kicked in the face John and I just decided to try to publish it ourselves. We used the same disc making company in Telford [Ablex] that CDU had used and made the first master disc, I drove it to Telford in my little VW Polo and waited through the night for the first ones to be produced.
Each month it was a major drama trying to get decent software submitted, put together the disc, John and I wrote a lot of stuff for it. We’d get the master, I’d drive from Leeds to Telford, wait, then drive them all the way to Norwich where John lived. We’d sit in his living room, with his wife Jenni and their nine cats, and put them all into envelopes, label them up, stick stamps on and send them out.
Looking back on it, I can’t quite believe we did it. It only ever went out to about 300 people and we didn’t make that many issues before we realised we just didn’t have a way to get more customers without spending a shed load on marketing. And we didn’t have a shed load. Eventually we just had to shut it down.
I don’t think Commodore Format ever saw it as a threat. It was always a more techie thing than CF, we didn’t do game reviews and stuff, and it was very much focused on people with disc drives, given it was on a disc! CF ran a feature about it with a demo on the cover tape; all was happy families really. We just couldn’t make it work financially, or get enough quality bits of software to keep it going. John and I didn’t want to put out shit and we didn’t want to just produce a “shareware” CD or something with demos on, so unfortunately it had to die.
When ZZAP! relaunched as Commodore Force, there was a similar section to yours in it. What was it like having a “rival”? Did you check out the cheekily named Mighty Brian column each month? I may have read it, but it wouldn’t have been because I thought I had a “rival”. At the moment I write the technology pages in, get this, Better Wholesaling magazine. There are others who write technology pieces for it and I don’t see them as rivals as such. They run businesses that may potentially compete, but they’re entitled to their opinions and to write for magazines just like I am. Part of being the most respected expert in a field is keeping ahead of the crowd and I think I do that. I think I did that back then.
As an arrogant teenager-and-a-bit I probably thought the column in Commodore Force was a poor substitute; I knew that I knew I could answer any letter that was sent to me. But that was only because I’d had so many nightmare letters over the years that had tested me to the limit and I’d had to buy so many books to learn everything there was to know about the C64. I’d had a C64 since I was 11 or 12 and been writing for CDU since I was 15 or 16; theCF stuff was more when I was at University. That said, I still wish my parents had bought me a damned piano that Christmas instead of a C64. I may have been a concert pianist by now! Oh well, next life.
So, I had every piece of add-on hardware you could get because as soon as I got a plotter, or a LC10 colour printer, someone would want to know why their new C64 mouse wasn’t working, or why their 3.5” 1581 disk drive didn’t read discs properly, or why their new super-accelerated 5.25” drive was so slow. Or why they could only get 64 sprites in the right-hand border when some game or other had 128. I had to buy everything that was going, every cartridge, try to hack every game because everyone always wanted to know how to do everything and my job was to find out how anything and everything was done. By the time I started doing Commodore Format I’d already had to research a shed load of stuff thanks to my techie letters section in Commodore Disk User.
What was it like on CF as the Commodore 64 really began to die off? On the one hand from Andy Hutchinson’s editorship onwards there was a lot more techie content and work for you. On the other, the magazine whimpered out with just 22 pages… It’s sad looking back on the demise of both CDU and CF now for me. I did a lot of work for both of them and each had a bit of a pathetic last issue. Maybe a bumper “going out on a high” would’ve been better. In the end, I was just grateful of more work as the games content dried up and there was more and more scope to write techie stuff. I did try to keep it interesting though and genuinely useful. A lot of the stuff I was asked in the techie letters related to games and, to this day, I think there are not enough kids that get into actual computer programming. Without kids learning to program computers, there won’t be any games. So the balance is pretty important.
A few from our readers before we let you go, then, Jason. Frank Gasking wants to know if FROST was your idea, or if CF asked you to make it? It seems very popular with C64 fans even now. [FROST was a sprite editing app which appeared on the covertape – Ed] I’m really proud of FROST, to this day, so hearing it’s still very popular is great news. I tried writing games on the C64 but they were always shit and I was fairly rubbish at gameplay, butFROST was a useful application and I tried to pack as much in as possible. I was always impressed with that amazing bitmap screen graphics package that came out for the C64. The name escapes me now. I tried to make FROST as good as that, but for sprites.
It came about because John Simpson was pitching a bunch of articles to CF about sprites. I don’t think it could have been my idea alone but at some point the notion of writing the best ever C64 sprite editor came up. The trouble was there were a billion different sprite things around at the time and they were all a bit shit. John wanted to call it NASA, Not Another Sprite Application. I wasn’t so keen, that seemed naff from the start. I think his wife, Jenni, agreed with me on that score, which helped! It’s odd to try to think back to how the nameFROST came out. I’m pretty sure I came up with it, but it may have been a CF thing. It stands for Format’s Really Original Sprite Thingy. But I can’t believe anyone could’ve come up with the name FROST and then thought about how to make words up to fit it, and I can’t believe anyone would have made up that name and gone “OMG that spells FROST!”.
Anyway, I’m the sort of dumb idiot that thinks up really cool things to do that are usually so big and complicated to actually implement that they don’t ever happen. With this we kind of had to deliver. I remember working endless days and nights to do my bits of code. I was probably a bit of a control freak at the time, so I ended up writing the whole drop-down menu system it used, doing all the user interface code, most of the sprite manipulation code and everything. John wrote some of it for sure, and we shared the meagre amount of cash half-and-half. That was fine, as although I think I did most of it, without John we wouldn’t have had the whole thing in the first place as it was his sprites idea that started it all off. I think. We’ll probably find out now that his sprites features were a year after FROST was published, huh?
Jamie Ware asks – What was with the constant Take That references? It seemed to start one month with the titles to each letter, then become a bit of an in-joke…Answering endless technical letters gets a bit tedious and dry. Part of the remit was to inject some humour and life into the features and a bit of personality. I think the style was quite chatty in places and I had to come up with titles for all the letters too; but I sussed that it was the titles that tended to help the arty folk choose photos or illustrations for the piece. I genuinely can’t remember how it all got started, I was pretty obsessed with Take That at the time, embarrassingly enough! Believe it or not one of the first “band” websites online wasThe Unofficial Take That Fan Club, developed by yours truly. Oh the shame. I drove one of my mates from Leeds to Stoke so that he could meet Robbie Williams; he was, errr, stoked to end up having a few games of pool with Robbie in the pub opposite his house that day. Crazy. But I was always more a fan of Mark Owen.
I think maybe I just started hamming it up and going with the flow. You’ll find quite a few recurring themes if you look hard enough. Try to find the tenuous link between Jean Claude Van Damme and one of the plug-in cartridges for the C64 that’s in one of the issues.
And Mark wants to know if there are any games or other bits of Jason Finch software out there we should know about…No games, but my code does drive the online ordering systems of one of the UK’s largest convenience wholesalers. So next time you pop around the corner shop to pick up your booze, fags or chocolate, it may be my software that’s helped ensure that’s all on the shelves!
Thanks for giving us your time, Jason. What are you doing for the rest of the day? I’ve no idea. It’s now 7pm on a Friday and I’m on the train home from working in Edinburgh. I imagine the rest of the day will involve a lot of yawning and slouching on the sofa. Well, I am forty now! CF
Jason Finch edited Techie Tips, Commodore Format’s techie forum. It first appeared in CF21. This interview is copyright 2013 The Commodore Format Facebook Page and Jason Finch. It may not be reproduced without permission – to make contact, go to our legal page.