Retro computing scene alive and kicking

It started with this 2014 Commodore 64 demo music by Pex “Mahoney” Tufvesson. If you were to follow that link (please come back!), you would hear an indiscriminate collection of bleeps and grunts. You will have to take my word for it that these bleeps and grunts are in some ways better than any assortment of bleeps and grunts that came before on this machine.

It was a bit like coming across a band that you had thought had split up in the nineties, but not only were they still together, they were producing some of their best music ever. Stumbling upon the retro computing scene was a very pleasant surprise.

And it turned out there was a lot more to it than late advances in SID programming technology (SID is the name of the sound chip in the Commodore 64).

Until then—then being a few weeks back—I had thought the retro scene was mostly about looking back – like in 2008 when Martijn Koch built this interpretation of the 1971 arcade game Computer Space – or about carefully preserving a couple of machines while spare parts were slowly dying out.

Turns out there is quite a bit more to it.

  • New Amigas are being made, specifically the X1000 and the X5000.
  • You can now buy generic computers (so-called FPGAs) which can then become whichever machine you like.
  • And of course there are software emulators.
  • The Commodore 64 demo scene still turns out dozens of demos a year.
  • Fresh games are being made.
  • 8-bit hackers give hour long talks on the Commodore 64’s hardware to packed rooms.
  • There are several retrogamers vodcasting on YouTube.
  • Last year the party for the Commodore Amiga’s 30th birthday in Amsterdam drew 400 people.
  • People still use their 8-bit and 16-bit computers for proper gaming.
  • Some musicians use double, triple or even more SIDS to make their chiptunes with the original hardware. (Bonus link uses one SID.)
  • A variant of the CPU of the C64 is still being made by one of its original creators.

You could consider the FPGAs as blank silicon upon which you imprint the hardware from a long ‘dead’ 8-bit or 16-bit computer by loading that design from an SD card. The Mist FPGA even has two Atari joystick ports, as were used on Atari and Commodore computers in the 1980s, and a MIDI interface. Quite frankly at about 250 euro (300+ if you want your computer preloaded), that’s a sexy bit of kit if you don’t mind me saying so.

Sometimes games programmers use their skills (and our modern knowledge of old computers) to right old wrongs. The 1984 port of the Ghosts ‘n Goblins arcade game did not contain all the elements of the original, so last year somebody turned that old port into a version that appears to have everything from the arcade game (see screenshot).

g-and-g-c64

The Amiga’s birthday party wasn’t just held in Amsterdam, there were parties in Germany, the UK, Australia and USA (and more?).

So why are people still using these old machines and in some cases even returning to them? The reason is no doubt nostalgia. Computers back then were manageable. A single person could know what was going on in a MOS 6502 and share that information with others.

And also we now have the internet and we have development tools that we can use outside the target machine. I started coding a little in my Commodore 64 emulator, first using the slow BASIC language, then after I got frustrated switching to assembler (using JASM). If I were to do this programming on my old 64 (which is stashed away somewhere in the attic), that would be quite cumbersome. I’d have to save and load intermediate versions of my program from and to tape and that would take quite a while.

But I can now use my much faster Windows machine and the superior developer tools I have on it to do my coding; testing is just a matter of loading the result into my emulator.

What is more, groups of developers can use git repositories to share their code and chat rooms to talk to each other. Information not only gets stored inside programs, but gets shared between developers. (To be honest, both the 8-bit and the 16-bit computers had wonderful, dedicated magazines which also contained a lot of knowledge about how to develop for these devices, including the Dutch Amiga Magazine for which I wrote as a freelancer.)

Finally, knowledge gets added to. If you check the “8-bit hackers” link above, you can see at the start of the talk the difference between how well the Commodore 64 was understood at the beginning and at the end of its 10-year life (which, by the way, is an insanely long time for a single model to be produced).

I started something

I started another blog. Why, Branko, you say (sarcastically), how nice of you considering the many, many (*cough*) things you post here.

You would not be wrong about that. I do blog too little.

The new blog, called Beezels, because I needed a name and any silly thing would do, has a single purpose: to write about cool stuff I found on clickbait sites so that I can share them on Facebook without actually having to force my Facebook friends to go onto these clickbait sites. Cutting out the middle man, so to speak.

As it happens, most of the really cool stuf on clickbait sites (of course I mean cats) is stolen from elsewhere anyway, so this blog will allow me to do something that clickbait sites seem to be hesitant to do, which is to acknowledge and link to the originals.

I am still hammering out the details. What is online now is little more than a test version. Feedback is welcome (here).

A few of my goals:

  • Stuff I and my Facebook friends find cool and that is shareworthy.
  • In others words (though it may not look like it), this is supposed to be a personal site.
  • Leaner than lean, content is king.
  • Corollary: no ads that require interactive technology like JavaScript (which probably means: no ads—I am fine with that).
  • Facebook-ready.
  • Acknowledging sources.
  • No comments; the goal is that these links get shared in your networks, not in mine.

The content, of course, is clickbait, but my goal is not so much to draw you in but to send you on your way with something nice that you can share. No idea if and how this will work, we’ll just have to see.

Cory Doctorow says: no more inCaps!

Cory Doctorow wants to stop using weirdly spelled brand names:

This year, I resolve to minimize my use of incaps when writing about commercial products and companies. An incap changes a word into a logo, and has no place in journalism or commentary — it’s branding activity that colonizes everyday communications. It’s free advertising.

So: “Iphone,” not “iPhone” and “Paypal,” not “PayPal.”

When I was blogging for Teleread (or is it: TeleRead?) I did the same. In fact, I may have even normalized my spelling of brand names back in the 1990s when I was an editor for c’t (marvel at the irony).

At some point I gave up the practice for reasons I cannot quite remember, but it may simply have been because iPhone is actually easier to read than Iphone, and once you give up the latter it becomes increasingly difficult to defend other instances of normalized capitalization.

Doctorow has got a list of exceptions that weaken the effect he’s after, but at least it will be him who determines which companies will get freebies and which won’t.

Do we prefer our biomass as gorgeous reef or as Australians?

A footnote from Maciej Ceglowski’s post on the Australian rain forrest:

Farmers and fishermen in Australia test the limits of human empathy. While I was in Cairns, for example, controversy ranged around the recent extension of the Great Barrier Reef marine park, opponents arguing that the expanded ban on fishing would harm the Cairns fishing industry, and proponents arguing that that was the whole goddamn point. If it were up to Australian farmers and fishermen, the Great Barrier Reef would be processed into bags of fish meal, the fish meal spread as fertilizer on land obtained by clearing the remaining rainforest, the fertilized land used to grow sugar, and the sugar used as raw material for some of the least appetizing desserts in the world. The fundamental question is this: do we prefer our biomass in the form of gorgeous reef and rain forest ecosystems, or Australians?

Shouting ‘bingo’ in a crowded theater

A man in the US was arrested, held against his will and finally convicted for shouting ‘bingo’ in a bingo hall.

Apparently upsetting biddies is illegal now.

26 + 2 links

John Scalzi writes: “I put each letter of the alphabet into my web browser and posted the link it autocompleted to”.

He then proceeds to write small blurbs for each entry.

The following are mine.

  • ad.nl/ad/nl/1001/Sportwereld/: the newspaper’s sports section.
  • buienradar.nl: a satellite image that shows where in the Netherlands it currently doesn’t rain. Handy for a people that ride their bikes most of the time.
  • cloggie.org/wissewords2/: Martin Wisse’s blog about comics, politics and other stuff.
  • dpreview.com: pixel peeping at its finest for camera nerds.
  • earlydutchbooksonline.nl: one of the many book digitization projects of the national library of the Netherlands.
  • facebook.com: Mark Zuckerberg’s people store.
  • gutenberg.org.
  • huizenzoeken.nl: guess what: I am in the market for a house.
  • (This showed only test servers for a customer, and I doubt they wish to see the names of their new websites show up early, so I am not showing them to you.)
  • joelonsoftware.com: computer programmer who used to blog knowledgeably about the more general aspects of programming. He has stopped blogging since, well, almost. I visited his site recently to look something up, as it is still a magnificent resource, even if you are not a programmer. If you are into that sort of thing, his former employee Jeff Atwood still does something similar.
  • knmi.nl/waarschuwingen_en_verwachtingen/: more weather forecasts.
  • localhost: this is where I develop websites for customers. It’s the webserver on my PC.
  • marktplaats.nl: the Dutch eBay (and actually eBay-owned these days). The description is not entirely correct, as it is more of a classified ads site than a bidding site.
  • www.nu.nl/tvgids/: the TV guide. More important than ever now that there is so little worth watching.
  • oh-la-la.nl: the business site of my friend and co-blogger Natasha.
  • pgdp.net: a book factory for Project Gutenberg.
  • www.engadget.com/search/?q=dutch&sort=date: stories that might be interesting for my other blog, 24oranges.nl.
  • rifters.com/crawl/: the witty blog of writer Peter Watts.
  • stevehuffphoto.com: a photography blog. I guess you could call this a guilty pleasure, as it is yet another site for so-called ‘pixel peepers’, people who think the technical quality of a camera is more important than the quality of the photos you take with those cameras.
  • tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/: this blog.
  • drupal.org: another work-related site. This was actually the second site autocompleted, but I already showed buienradar.nl.
  • volkskrant.nl: a newspaper.
  • whatever.scalzi.com: the blog of writer John Scalzi.
  • xkcd.com: an online comic strip.
  • youtube.com: the greatest video archive of our time, although it has lost a good deal of its value since the copyright maffia found out about it.
  • z24.nl: a financial news blog that I follow in the hope of finding stories for 24 Oranges there.
  • 24oranges.nl: my other blog, non-mainstream Dutch news in English.
  • 9292ov.nl: public transport planner.

A couple of inevitable notes:

  • Some of these links I barely visit. I suspect they popped up because I visited them recently, meaning that Chrome may include freshness in its algorithm for determining what to show in the auto-complete.
  • The links above can easily be subdivided into:
    • Day-to-day off-line life (B, H, K, M, N, 9).
    • Day-to-day online life (A, F, V, Y).
    • Photography (D, S).
    • Project Gutenberg (E, G, P).
    • Work (L, S, U).
    • Blogging (Q, T, Z, 2).
    • Other (C, J, O, R, W).
  • People who know Steve Huff’s blog may claim that his site is emphatically not about pixel peeping, and I want to have this argument out in the open now. Steve Huff’s blog shows a lot of photography, but always as a function of the camera they were taken with. It also prints a lot of camera and lens reviews where photos are secondary. Steve Huff may not use fancy test charts and widgets, but the implication of almost every posting on his blog is that you need camera X to get a photo quality Y. His blog may not be suited very much to actual pixel peeping, but it is aimed squarely at pixel peeper sensibilities. This in contrast to real photography blogs, where they almost never mention what camera was used.
  • As with John Scalzi, you don’t get to see the sites I visit in private browsing mode.

If Hemingway wrote JavaScript

Angus Croll wrote a couple of Javascript programs that calculate a fibonacci series, each program in the style of a famous literary author. Cool stuff.

One of my favourite blogs is back

Spoiler alert! There will be a bad word in this posting, and it will appear right after this sentence.

Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest is back. This is one of my favourite blogs on the web, because of the bloody-mindedness of its sole blogger, Freewheeler.

The blog is about the quality and quantity of cycling provisions in a London neighbourhood, i.e. abysmal and almost extinct. Cycling is to the English what atheism is to the Americans, something that you are allowed to hate without a shred of reservation. Where most English bloggers are of the accommodationist, Stockhom Syndromish type, always willing to see reason in the most blinkered argument, Freewheeler takes no prisoners.

His intelligent but no holds barred writing makes him a joy to read, even if it is about a subject that is about as dry as watching paint, and it has also provided other British bicycle bloggers to occupy a less accommodationist stance without coming across as nutters.

Freewheeler stopped posting almost exactly a year ago, and has resumed 352 days later. Since he goes only by a pseudonym, and allows no comments on his blog (that would only dilute the message I guess), his readers were left pretty much in the dark about what his reasons were for quitting, and if he would ever return. That has, I feel, weakened his brand. Other bicycle bloggers have been moving in on his franchise.

Still, there is only one original, and that is Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest.

Take On Me a-capella version by UMD Generics

A couple of years ago I posted a few seconds of an a-capella version of Aha’s eighties monster hit Take on Me AS SUNG BY PICKLES, and … you know? Youtube just keeps on giving.

Turns out this version was not made by pickles in jars, but by a group called UMD Generics, and their website lets you download all their albums.

Writers and their typewriters

The Guardian has a nice (but short) gallery of an extinct cliché, photos of writers behind their typewriters.

Via Eamelje. Photo of JG Ballard by David Montgomery / Getty Images.