6 Alternative Ways to Kill Time at Home

With many of us now on lockdown, or working from home, there’s a worry that a lot of people may become bored, and possibly even more anxious. With that in mind, we’ve got six great project ideas that you can do from the comfort of your own home, without breaking the conditions of a lockdown.

Being forced to stay at home certainly isn’t easy, especially if you’re also unable to work while at home – or you have younger people to try and entertain on top of everything else. The enforced lockdown by governments from Spain to the US, limited movement and mixing with people has forced many to look to the internet in the attempt to find something to do; and here’s our contribution:

Learn to Code

Most of us at home will have access to a computer and the internet, so it makes sense to use the time wisely and try and learn something completely new; how about learning how to program?

Programming, or coding, is simply being able to enter lines of commands into a specialised interpreter, and running those commands for an end result. Coding comes in different languages, some of which are extremely complex, while others are simplified and easier to understand.

Python and C++ are two of the most well used and powerful coding languages available, and they can be used on a computer for free. Python is used by everyone from CERN scientists to NASA, as well as gamers, students, and those who are looking to get into coding without the bewildering jargon that’s associated with it. C++ on the other hand is more complex than Python, but it’s a powerful language that used to create entire operating systems, triple-A rated games and much more.

Getting to grips with the first steps into coding isn’t too difficult. We have a number of on-line guides available here, while we also offer many coding books here, and available via Readly.

Do Some Retro Gaming

If you have fond memories of playing games on the 8-bit home computers, consoles and arcades, then this is a project that’ll keep you entertained for many hours. Retro gaming has come a long way in recent years, with the release of better emulators, online resources and more games from the golden age of gaming being released to the public.

With a decently powerful computer you’re able to emulate almost any console and home computer from the last forty-plus years. Such favourites as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, Sega Mega Drive and Master System, NES, SNES and Gamecube. Even the more powerful systems are available, like the Playstation 3, Xbox, MS-DOS and early Windows, and Sega Dreamcast. Plus, there’s a wealth of content available from the arcades: Space Invaders, Pacman, Operation Wolf, Galaga… the list goes on.

Emulation is when you download and install an app that will mimic the specified system. Spectaculator, for example, is one of the best ZX Spectrum emulators available, and offers the user a huge range of options from the type of Spectrum to emulate (48K, 128K, +2 etc.) through to a virtual tape loader. The same goes for many other emulators, however, there are some systems that are still copyright bound. Systems such as the Amiga, for example, are still bound by copyright, and own the rights to the system BIOS – the core of the system. You can pay for the BIOS, but others have created their own, homebrew BIOS that works similar to that of the original.

Once you have the emulator of choice installed, you’ll need to find some games to play on it. Now, here’s where things get a little murky. Many games, across multiple systems, are copyright, therefore it’s illegal to have an image of them, unless you’ve purchased the image from the copyright holder. Other games are so old that the company who originally published them, and the people who created the game, are no longer available. These games are now classed as Abandonware, and are perfectly legal. Other games are released by the owner’s permission, and are also therefore legal. It’s a grey area, and as you can imagine there are plenty of sites on the internet that freely distribute games. We’re not going to send you to them, but we’re sure you can find them with a little search or two.

Games are called ROMs, and they are an exact image of the tape or original disc. You will load a ROM into the emulator, and the game will start as if it you were loading it directly on to the original machine. However, if all this sounds a little too much, then take a look at the Internet Archive. This wonderful resource houses an enormous collection of games across many different platforms, and it’s all online. All you need to do is find the system, find the game, and you can play it directly from your browser. Interested? Then take a look at https://archive.org/details/softwarelibrary, and see what brings back memories.

Watch Classic Movies

While Disney+, Netflix and the other big named content streamers are all ramping up their collection of available content, it’s worth noting that there are some of us who are more interested in classic films, rather than the latest blockbuster.

Many of us will already have a collection of classic on DVD, as a media file, or even on video tape, but if you don’t, and you still fancy watching the likes of Night of the Living Dead, Nosferatu, or Charlie Chaplin’s The Vagabond, then turn to our good friend the Internet Archive once more.

At the Internet Archive, click on the Movies link on the top bar. From there you can click into a number of sub-categories like Sci-Fi and Horror, Comedy, Film Noir, Silent Films, and more. There are thousands of items available across the many different categories with dates ranging from 1874 through to 2020.

Expand Your Mind with Documentaries

Watching a good documentary is often better than zoning out to the usual blockbuster movie. There are a number of great documentaries available throughout the internet, with many being available at the Internet Archive, however, YouTube is one of the best places for the latest and some of the best documentaries.

Such noted documentaries as Inside North Korea, The Extraordinary Genius of Albert Einstein, and numerous wildlife and nature documentaries are all available in high quality and completely free of charge. If you’re looking for a good project, then consider lining up some documentaries in a YouTube Playlist and showing them to the family.

Start Some Fighting Fantasy

For those of you not familiar, Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are a range of books that take you on a story in which you make the decisions. They are usually separated in to 400 or so short numbered chapters, and work by giving you, the player, an option at the end of each numbered chapter. The options can range from choosing a direction of travel, through to engaging in a fight with an orc. Each option will send you to another numbered chapter, where you’ll discover the consequences of your action and take the story on a different line.

Throughout the story, though, your fate is determined by a scorecard and a set of dice. You roll the die to first set your physical and mental attributes, these can be altered as you make your way through the story, but they set a limit to what you can do. Scorecards also hold vital information you gather during the course of the story, such as a password you can write down that you’ll use later in the book, and you can list items you’ll pick up, like keys, potions and so on. They also determine combat within the story, and here’s where things get interesting.

Combat within a Fighting Fantasy gamebook is conducted with a pair of dice. You’ll have your set attributes: Health, Stamina, Strength and such, and the enemy will have their own set attributes. You’ll then roll the dice twice: once for your move, and other for the enemies’ move. The highest roll wins the fight, and you can deduct points off the enemy attributes. When the enemy’s health has reached zero, you’ve won the fight. If yours however gets to zero, then you’ve lost the game and must start again.

As a project, you can create a scorecard for the family, then act as game master while they play out the story. The original Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, are all available via Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=fighting+fantasy&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss), but there’s also a series of fan-made online content available from the Fighting Fantasy Project: http://www.ffproject.com/.

Explore the Bulletin Board System on a Raspberry Pi

In a digital world before the Internet was a common household name, there existed a connected community of surfers. These individuals didn’t surf the WWW, instead they dialled up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), and opened a whole new world of content.

If you’re old enough to recall, or have watched since, the excellent movie Wargames, then you’ll be roughly familiar with the way in which a Bulletin Board System works; and if you haven’t watched Wargames, then we recommend you get hold of it.

In the movie, the young protagonist spends his days at the keyboard of his early 80s computer, using his modem to dial into remote systems. Once inside these remote systems, he then goes about traversing the remote host’s file system looking for anything interesting.

The movie plot aside, this is essentially how a BBS works. It’s a remote computer that runs a specialist BBS server software with a mix of content either pre-installed, or added by the system admin (sysadmin or sysop). A user of the BBS can then dial, in the old modem sense, the BBS server’s phone number, and gain access to the system with a valid username and password; or if they’re new, they have the option to create a new user.

These days, of course, the dial-up aspect has pretty much gone the way of the Dodo (although there are still some retro stalwarts who relish in the chronic noise of a dial-up connection), however, we can still enjoy the retro feeling of a traditional BBS using the legacy protocol, Telnet.

In a world of Internet snooping, a BBS is probably one of the last bastions of digital privacy; to some degree. A private BBS is somewhere where you can connect to likeminded individuals, to chat, swap code, reminisce, play a text-based adventure, or simply just hang out. True, you can get hold of copyrighted or explicit content, but that’s only if you connect to those BBSes that serve such content, just as with the Internet.

Most BBSes follow a theme, whether that’s old DOS-based adventures, ZX Spectrum fans, Commodore 64 gamers, or even something non-techie related, such as a Ford Cortina owners club; no doubt swapping owner manuals, old photos of the Cortina E and such.

In truth, a modern BBS is a bit of fun. Connecting to a system someone has installed and built, set around a particular theme, and designed with fantastic looking ANSI graphics, is a great pastime. It’s a form of respect, in some ways, to acknowledge the work that’s gone into creating the BBS by connecting to it. And you also get to learn a little more about how protocols work, and how everything is connected.

Connecting to a BBS via the Raspberry Pi is quite easy, but to get the most from it you will need to get your hands dirty in the Terminal.

As mentioned, we’re going to be using a form of the protocol Telnet, in this instance using the program SyncTERM to emulate the old-style Terminals that support ANSI art and IBM fonts while connecting to the remote BBS with the Telnet protocol. You can simply use telnet under the Terminal (once you’ve installed it), but you’ll miss some of the glorious artwork displayed within the majority of the BBSes.

To begin with, drop into a Terminal session on your Pi. When the Terminal is fired up, enter sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade to ensure your system is up to date. If everything is okay, enter: sudo apt-get install telnet. While this stage isn’t strictly necessary, it’s always a good idea to have the base protocol client installed.

When telnet is installed, you can then start the procedure of installing SyncTERM. In order to get SyncTERM working, you’ll need to build it from source. By now, you should be a dab-hand at this, but here’s the process in case you’ve forgotten (along with some added elements to help everything go to plan).

Begin by changing directory to the Downloads folder, and downloading the source code:

cd Downloads\
wget http://syncterm.bbsdev.net/syncterm-src.tgz

With ls entered, you should see the newly downloaded tgz file. To unpack the downloaded file, enter:

tar -xf syncterm-src.tgz

This will create a new syncterm-(DATE) folder, where DATE is the current date when you’ve unpacked the contents of the tgz file.

You will now need to change directories to:

cd syncterm-(DATE)
cd src
cd syncterm

You can mesh these directories together, but for the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll stick to one folder at a time. Also, remember you can hit the Tab key to auto-complete a directory name.

Once in the syncterm directory, you can begin to build from source. However, before you do that, it’s worth installing a couple of extras to ensure the BBS session works to perfection. Start by installing the following:

sudo apt-get install libncurses5-dev
sudo apt-get install libsdl1.2-dev

Once these two are installed, start the build process by entering:

sudo make

Followed by:

sudo make install

The process may take a few minutes, so be patient. When everything is installed you can enter the command: syncterm, to start the program and change the screen settings, if you wish. However, to get straight into connecting to a BBS, try one of these commands:

syncterm dura-bbs.net: 6359
syncterm bbs.kernelerror.com: 10023
syncterm particlebbs.dyndns.org: 6400
syncterm heatwave.ddns.net: 9640
syncterm sysgod.org:23000

Naturally, some or even all of these BBSes may be offline when you come to test them. They are, after all, being operated by individuals like you and I. If they are offline, you can always get hold of a comprehensive list of active servers by visiting https://www.telnetbbsguide.com/bbs/list/brief/.

It’s worth spending some time finding the sort of BBS that suits your tastes. As you’ll see by visiting the aforementioned website, there’s over 500 BBSes currently listed, so somewhere in there a BBS could be your new online haunt.

David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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