Interview - Pavel Tišnovský

Even though Pavel and I are working only 100 meters apart, for various reasons, we didn't manage to arrange a long enough personal meeting. The following text is mostly based on e-mail communication. In this communication, I tried to reveal some secrets about this (un)known atarian.

BM: In the areas of computer science I am fond of (i.e. free software and Atari), you are a well-known person. However, I didn't have much luck while searching for detailed information on you on the internet.

PT: Yeah, it is good you didn't find anything :). We, old men, are not going to the social networks. To be honest, I wrote about me a bit at LinkedIn. That was before Microsoft bought that service.

BM: Of course, you are a very well-known author of more than 1400 articles (an admirable number) for the server, including a long series on the history of computers. You wrote several books and graduated at VUT FIT (Brno University of Technology, Faculty of Information Technology). I also know that you work for Red Hat Czech much longer than I do. What else you can tell us to introduce yourself?

PT: So briefly: I finished studies at SPŠE (technical college of electrical engineering), branch of Electronic computers (did they predict invention of the photon computers at the time?), then VUT. When I was entering VUT, FIT didn't exist yet, as we "only" were UIVT (Institute of Informatics and Computer Science). I have been working in Red Hat for nine years. I was working for several companies before, among others Czech Railways, more precisely one of their subsidiary companies.

BM: Apart from, you write articles for FLOP. Do you publish also elsewhere?

PT: Few of my articles were published at "abíčko" (portal, and more than 100 articles at Frankly, Root has been my domestic server for fifteen years. We published three series as complete books, but I don't know how the sales are going (and I even don't know who is getting the money for the books sold :-)

BM: Aside work for Red Hat and writing articles on free software, you are giving presentations at related conferences. How did you get into the free software and what is your relationship with it now?

PT: Well, that's interesting as I believe I got into real free software in 1991. At the time, for money I made during holiday jobs, I bought a brand new machine with the 286 CPU. On that machine, I installed FractInt and the Vivid ray tracer (one advantage of Vivid was that it was running on 286, while the more powerful POV-Ray required then ridiculously expensive 386). Both FractInt and Vivid fascinated me by their graphical capabilities and - what was revolutionary for me - included the source code (ANSI C) that I absolutely didn't understand. Anyway, I was completely surprised by how much effort the people spent on that and how they gave it for free and in open form (that was completely contradictory to what was happening in the country - the wild era of capitalism).

By the way, this story is a best showcase of my ignorance of C: I was thinking that ANSI C means a C language supporting ANSI terminals, i.e. a possibility to display text in 16 colors in DOS.

Even before, there were many programs that we would describe as "free software" today, especially for 8-bit Atari computers. No one bothered to include license agreements in their programs, though.

I remember one short BASIC program that I was actively using at the technical college to plot measurement charts. It allowed you to enter several points [x, y] and asked for degree of the curve. Then it performed curve-fitting to the points with some polynomial function. With more points, the plotting took a ridiculous amount of time and it was necessary to choose a suitable degree too. But, if the result plotted in GR. 8 was sent to the BT-100 (a dot matrix printer with one pin), a "fancy" chart was conceived that made my schoolmate jealous - until someone bought a PC with 9-pin dot matrix printer :-)

BM: From your series of articles on 8-bit computers and the history of computer games, I conclude that you have certain personal relationship with them. We are also happy to see you at Atariáda. How and when you've got into computers and what was the role of Atari in that?

PT: At the elementary school (in 1980s), I was attending an electro hobby club that was part of the Pioneer organization (a dominant youth organization in Czechoslovakia). The club was eventually disbanded, as we were not attending those official Pioneer events (we just wanted to solder, not to go to competitions in orienteering). Then I joined Svazarm (Union for Cooperation with the Army, organization that provided diverse activities, many of them reminiscent of the Boy Scout movement). As we were kids, no one was asking us for any political activities, we just kept soldering. One day, right to the Svazarm place (rooms in the basement), someone brought a strange plastic typewriter that could connect to a TV. For one hour we were looking at the owners who were trying to draw a chessboard on screen, in text mode. I was thinking the people were absolute wizards; they were typing something like PRINT, GOTO and other strange words. The computer either responded with ERROR, or was drawing white rows here or columns there. After one hour, the chessboard was done.

At the time I had no idea what's going on, but I knew that one day, I would like to work with exactly these machines.

In 1987 (I believe), my brother and I were given an Atari 800XL with a data recorder and two joysticks. The computer fascinated me completely. We seized the family TV and tried to type in some programs from the handbook, not knowing what exactly we are doing. Then we somewhere appropriated a cassette with few games. As we had only a data recorder that allowed standard transfer speed, you can imagine how adventurous it was to load a game. I remember that moment precisely: It was Bruce Lee, loaded after nine tries. Then the Atari computer stayed powered on for three days. We didn't switch it off as we feared the game will not load again.

Obviously, Atari user group memberships followed. There were several groups in Brno, we were switching them often. It was a period when one was learning something new every day. We were cracking Polish handbooks, rewriting BASIC programs from ZX spectrum etc.

BM: I would like to add that since last year, you have been member of our Atari user group too. The information on the Atari user groups in Brno interests me. I was mistakenly thinking that there was only one, i.e. the one in the Lužánky quarter that I knew. They were publishing a newsletter. What about other groups, were they focused specifically, or was it just a matter of territorial scope?

PT: I remember more of them. One was on Poříčí street, other one held meetings in the Lesná quarter (now there is an IT publishing house, perhaps it is not a coincidence). To other group, I was going somewhere to Žitná street (In Brno, not in Prague :-) When it comes to specialties - there were subtle differences, in some groups there were more HW oriented people, then there were groups full of "copiers" (pirates, if you remember the "dachshund" device for several data recorders) etc.

BM: Yes, I remember – the dachshund, the harvester, the milker - their names differed. Although you were not a typical "copier", you didn't dismiss playing games. Besides, a great number of your articles deal with computer games. You mentioned your first game for Atari - Bruce Lee. What other games or genres were (or still are) your favorites?

PT: Definitely Archon, we have been playing the game with my brother all the time. I keep playing the game here and there. Then the brilliant Monty/Montezuma (is it "only" a platformer, but plays very well), Ghost Chaser (honestly, I don't know why), Stealth, The Last Starfighter, The Great American Cross-Country Road Race, BC's Quest for Tires (I am still using the protagonist as my nick image), Jet Boot Jack, Ninja. I shouldn't forget to mention the Boulder Dash series. It was released for other platforms, yet the Atari version did the best job exploiting the hardware.

If I need a short downtime, I play Bruce Lee (now it is finished quickly), Archon, or I try Ninja. M.U.L.E is also good; the only problem is that the game is too short.

Obviously, there are games with elaborate graphics and sounds (Zybex, Draconus, etc.), or technically advanced (Fractalus). These I do not play now. Recently I have finished Draconus, but to be honest, I wouldn't have the patience for Zybex)

We had been playing Czech text games too, but you know how it is with them. Once you finished them, you knew the solution forever.

I have a great number of English text games on my TODO list, but I didn't manage to begin playing them.

By the way, I had been playing Colossal Adventure at times when I knew about 20 words in English. That was some experience, reading the text with a dictionary in my hand.

BM: Nice, all are the classics. We would agree on many games in terms of fondness. But no more talking of games. You told that you inclined more to the programming. What you managed to create for Atari? Have you published some of your creations anywhere?

PT: Oh no, I haven't published anything. Some half-finished stuff is taking dust on my tapes - text games (probably everyone's first works), one attempt to write a CAD (really just an attempt), and few machine language routines for graphics and for taking screenshots from the games. Compared with others, it is nothing, but it really interested me. I began with plain Atari BASIC, moved on to the fabulous Turbo BASIC. I was experimenting with Atari Logo (it had many limitations) and naturally with assembler. Perhaps it is good that nothing has been published.

BM: I assume we were speaking about 8-bit Atari. Which way you took when shifting to 16 bits?

PT: Yes, 8-bit Atari; as they wrote in the Bajtek magazine (I think) "male jest piekne" (small is beautiful).

My transition to 16/32 bits was in my case heavily influenced by my acceptation to the secondary school, where they were pushing the Turbo Pascal. What is more, Escon began selling Olivetti 286 for a reasonable price. So, what as shame for an Atarian, I bought that computer. 286@20 MHz, 1 MB RAM, VGA card, 40 MB hard disk. The set included a color monitor. All that sold for 20,000 at the time. How much it would be today is difficult to guess, perhaps 40,000 or 50,000. So it was a lot, for sure. I had saved money from summer jobs and got funding from my parents and grandparents too.

I wanted Atari ST or Amiga, though. For that price of 20,000, I would get a computer without a hard disk, if I remember correctly. So the ordinary and uninteresting PC won. Moreover, it was the time of transition from 286 to 386, so the 286 was somehow problematic. The newer games didn't work, Windows only in the protected mode), even the sound card had not fit (physically), so I built the classic COVOX.

BM: What convinced you to rejoin us and what Atari computers do you own now?

PT: I like the times and situations, where one has some limited resources on hand and it depends only on his skills what he can squeeze from it. A classic example is a sculptor. He just has some chisels and a piece of rock. Whether he sculpts another David or just hurts himself depends on his (in)competency. It was similar for all 8-bit platforms - certain parameters and constraints of the hardware are just given. And you, Mr. Programmer, make the most of it. In the PC area, I haven't seen that and I will not see that. So perhaps it is one reason why. Another reason is a bit of nostalgia. The grass was greener, we were younger, etc.

I have a classic 130XE with extended RAM and the traditional peripherals (data recorder purely out of nostalgia, the same with disk drive). Then I have 2600 with approximately 30 cartridges.

The biggest issue is the video output. I still have an old TV, but it is failing. Therefore, I will have to solve it with some decent conversion to VGA.

BM: Thank you, Pavel. We will do our best to make our events nostalgic enough, though I cannot promise the greener grass.

Bohdan Milar