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The Icon Bar: News and features: RISC OS interview with Chris Johnson

RISC OS interview with Chris Johnson

Posted by Mark Stephens on 08:05, 12/4/2021 |
This time round, we talk to Chris Johnson, long time software developer of his own applications and more recently recently fo several 'orphan programs' from others.

Would you like to introduce yourself?
Hi, I'm Chris Johnson, originally from Somerset. I came to Edinburgh in 1966 for a year, but am still here! Having lived in Scotland for very many years, it has become a reflex to add "no t, no e" (up here it is almost invariably assumed it is Johnstone). I am a long retired academic, whose chosen subject was physical chemistry. Any computing related knowledge I have is entirely self taught (and probably not very well).
How long have you been using RISC OS?
Essentially from when RISC OS came in to existence. I started much like others here - from ZX81, through BBC B, to the Archimedes. My recollection is rather hazy, but I think Acorn visited Edinburgh to demonstrate what was a prototype of the Archimedes before it was released for sale. I went for an A310 as soon as it was available. Since then I have moved up through the hardware - A440, Risc PC, Iyonix, BeagleBoard, up to the Titanium. I also managed to get a few machines in to the Chemistry Department at various times, both in teaching laboratories, and in my own research lab, although it became more and more difficult to swing the funding out of the department as Windows PCs, Apple Macs, and Unix workstations were used more and more. We were still using RISC OS machines in my research lab, and even at the synchrotron facility at Daresbury, up until I retired (getting on for two decades now). Most of our reaction dynamics simulations and modelling were carried out under RISC OS, using software I wrote.
There were really only two commercial packages running on PCs we used. One was Simion, which we used to design time of flight mass analysers and electron energy analysers, by plotting charged particle movement under the influence of electrical fields. These were subsequently constructed by the workshops at Daresbury, and worked well. The other was Gaussian, which was a package to calculate the energies of molecules in various structural configurations using ab initio methods. Every other part of the modelling was run on RISC OS using our own code. RISC OS was also used for preparing papers etc using the likes of Impression, Ovation (Pro) and Techwriter. Several PhD theses were prepared using RISC OS, and excellent results were obtained. We had to make more use of PCs in later years, of course (industry standard!), but some of the research students would always use RISC OS when possible.
What other systems do you use?
Nothing exotic. I have a Windows laptop for those operations RISC OS cannot do, such as banking and occasional on-line shopping, and we also have an Apple iPad and MacBook, used mainly by my better half.
What is your current RISC OS setup?
I have an ARMX6, which 'became the Iyonix' after that machine terminally expired some years back, and is used for general stuff such as email and browsing (where such browsing can be done on RISC OS). I have for my bit of development work, and some image processing needs, an IGEPv5 and a Titanium. I also invested in an ARMBook, but that is very little used - without proper wifi, it means it has to be plugged in to ethernet (via powerline adaptor) to access either other machines, or the great world outside.
What do you think of the retro scene?
I tend to think of retro as 'gaming on old hardware'. Assuming that is what is meant, I must confess, it is not something I have anything to do with. I have never been a gamer of any sort. Many, many years ago, when my daughter was still at primary school, I bought "The Hobbit" for a ZX Spectrum. We worked steadily at it and managed to complete several levels, but then in one level, whatever one did or at times doing nothing, one was suddenly thrown back a few levels, and it became a sort of 'groundhog day' scenario. We never did solve it. I was convinced either there was a bug in the program, or the cassette tape holding the program had been corrupted. That was my sole experience of gaming.
Do you attend any of the shows and what do you think of them?
Edinburgh is rather a long way from most shows. At one time there were some shows held in Glasgow, which I always went to, but that didn't last for long. On a few occasions I managed to organise trips to London for meetings or conferences in such a way as to also be able to attend a show there. The last show I attended was a Wakefield show four years ago. We were visiting stepson's family in the Blackpool area, and I managed to escape on the Saturday.
I also managed a visit to a South West show at Weston at one time (in my childhood Weston-Super-Mare was a regular seaside haunt, since we lived in Bath), again when on a visit to family in the West Country. I have usually found the shows of interest, and one can always begin to put faces to names. Some of the informal chats can prove illuminating, and one gets asked things about ones own software that puts things in to a very different perspective - usually along the lines of 'I use your app, but it would be so much better if you could make it do this, that, and the other impossible things'.
What do you use RISC OS for in 2021 and what do you like most about it?
I do all my development work on RISC OS, using the native software such as the Norcroft C/C++ compiler. I have never had a unix machine so no cross-compilation. One of my hobbies is photography, with an interest in macro photography. When the weather is better I can sometimes be found crawling around the garden looking for interesting little creatures. I have never used Photoshop in anger, and my image processing needs are fairly basic, but I do use DPlngScan quite a bit for simple editing such as cropping, resizing, and some basic colour, brightness, or contrast adjustments.
The thing I like most about RISC OS is that it is so familiar, and so feels very simple and intuitive to use. Trying to do things on the dark side always has such a steep learning curve that it becomes very time consuming to actually get going and complete the task. I have never felt the need to persevere with PC/Windows applications if I can do what I need to in RISC OS.
I also do small jobs for my wife, who is an embroiderer (and some textile work). In more normal times she runs classes for a small group of local ladies. My role is mainly to do with scanning, and producing outline patterns from such scans using e.g. Draw or ArtWorks. Sheets of instructions may also be needed, from Ovation Pro.
What is your favourite feature/killer program in RISC OS?
I am not sure I have a single favourite. I am probably like the majority of RISC OS users in using applications such as Ovation Pro, ArtWorks and Draw, DPlngScan. Some other ex-Pilling software such as SyncDiscs and Snapper are in regular use. I suppose I should be using them, since I now try to keep them up to date. Applications such as SparkFS, Pluto, and NetSurf are always on the iconbar. I will not mention a text editor, wouldn't want to generate a lot of heated discussion!
When I was regularly converting the Archive magazine issues to HTML format, I had to use Impression/Publisher a lot, since the magazine was produced in Publisher, but in general I would normally use Ovation Pro.
What would you most like to see in RISC OS in the future?
If one is realistic, it is unlikely that RISC OS is ever going to see major advancement. If the OS could be persuaded to make use of all the available cores in the current range of CPUs, then that would be very welcome progress. It might help a little with some of the ports of software from other OSs, which are often so slow as to be unusable for real tasks.
With the current indications that ARM are moving to 64-bit processors, then it would be a huge development for the OS to keep up. However, removing the rose tinted glasses, there are so many RISC OS applications that are now unsupported, a 64-bit OS might not be such an advance in practical terms.
With that in mind, perhaps a better range of native development tools, in particular a much better debugging environment, would generate more interest in producing new software in the future. It is a little ironic, for example, that ROOL have moved to using GitLab as the repository for all their software, when currently it cannot be accessed natively from RISC OS.
Favourite (vaguely RISC OS-related) moan?
In my much younger days, when we started moaning about anything, Mother would say 'stop moaning, count your blessings instead'. I guess I should therefore hold my tongue on this one, and not mention the current assumption that everyone has an internet connection and a smart phone, or that web sites expect you to register and provide all sorts of personal information before even allowing you access.
Can you tell us about what you are working on in the RISC OS market at the moment?
Nothing exciting - it is primarily maintenance, updates and bug-fixing in my current applications. I have just started working through software that hasn't been touched in years to recompile and (try to) ensure it all runs on the latest hardware.
Although I have always used Norcroft for all my coding needs, I keep meaning to try to get to grips with GCC (on RISC OS), since some libraries that could be linked with current apps to extend their capability cause considerable headaches when an attempt is made to compile with Norcroft.
Any surprises or dates to tease us with?
I wish there were!
Apart from iconbar (obviously) what are your favourite websites?
I regularly monitor the ROOL forum of course. News sites such as the BBC and CNN get visited most days. The Register is also a regular, not only for computing or IT related things but they often have scientific and astronomical related articles. Most other sites, e.g. natural history or science related sites, are visited on a much more ad-hoc random basis. I am not a prolific on-line shopper, so commercial sites are used only as and when the need arises, and then on the Windows laptop.
I guess I am a real Luddite, since I have nothing to do with social media. We do have (or did have) a Flickr presence for some years, run almost entirely by my daughter, who used it to post images taken on her various trips to far flung exotic places, but I don't think that has been updated for some while (may even have become defunct since Flickr have made numerous changes).
What are your interests beyond RISC OS?
I have already mentioned my interest in photography. I am not the type of photographer who joins clubs, and submits images for competitions or exhibition, so it is a very amateur, personal interest. I have actually had a small number of images published in the local monthly news magazine in the past. Everything is digital now, of course, but in the distant past I did make use of the Chemistry Department dark room (originally for the use of x-ray chrystallographers but never used for that purpose since we didn't have any in the department) at weekends to do B and W developing and printing for a few years. This ceased when some younger technicians started using it as a hideaway to smoke, drink coffee and peruse top-shelf magazines. Once there was cigarette ash everywhere, processing was out of the question. It was later converted for other uses, so that was the end of photographic processing.
I have always had an interest in (steam) railways. My grandfatherworked on the railway at Bath, and the back garden of my grandparents house overlooked Bath junction, where the Somerset and Dorset Railway left the Bath-Bristol (Midland Railway) line and climbed steeply out of Bath and on to tackle the climb over the Mendips on the way to Bournemouth. Passenger trains of more than half a dozen coaches were invariably double-headed, particularly the stream of summer holiday trains at the weekend. Freight trains were vigourously banked in the rear on the 1 in 50 climb out of Bath. This was all very exciting for a young lad. I had my first footplate trip at the age of 10 or 11 (arranged by grandfather), joining the loco that had brought the Bournemouth bound Pines Express in from the north (trains reversed at Bath Green Park as it was a terminal), on its run back to Bath engine shed for turning and servicing ready to work the northbound Pines later in the day.
A few years after moving to Edinburgh I discovered the SRPS (Scottish Railway Preservation Society), when looking for somewhere to take son and daughter at the weekend. With the formation of its embryonic steam railway at Bo'ness on the Forth, I soon became a volunteer. I then progressed rapidly through the system (usually as a result of lack of volunteer staff in the less popular areas), via the sales and railtours departments, civil engineering, train guard, signalling, to getting my hands and everything else dirty, and joined the steam footplate section, so for many years worked at the front end, mainly with a shovel in my hand. Unfortunately, old age takes its toll, and it is some years now since I was an active volunteer.
I was never a keen gardener as such, my main role was to keep the grass cut and hedges trimmed, while my wife and daughter dealt with the real gardening. I was often in the doghouse for doing some weeding and pulling out that which was not a weed at all. In more recent times my wife has developed serious arthritis, so I do almost all the gardening now. My daughter, who has lived in a third floor flat in the west end of Glasgow for two decades, still keeps a watching brief and treats the garden 'as her own'. I get regular emails with various instructions, and occasionally a package of bulbs or plants will arrive in the post. When she visits, her first action is a close inspection of the results of my efforts to ensure things are to her satisfaction.
If someone hired you for a month to develop RISC OS software, what would you create?
I think my expertise is such that there would be little to show after a month. I suspect the rate controlling step would be trying to come up with something useful to do within my capabilities, rather than the actual execution.
Any questions we forgot to ask you?
I have already gone on at far too much length as it is, so best to finish now.
You can see some of Chris's software projects on his website
You can read lots of other interviews on Iconbar here
(If you would like to do an interview, please drop an email to markstephens AT idrsolutions.com and I will arrange).
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The Icon Bar: News and features: RISC OS interview with Chris Johnson