Dinosaurs of Computing

The Dinosaurs episode of This Developer’s Life struck a chord with me. Not because of Fortran or Dataflex although hearing about developers dealing with small memory constraints or attempts to convert an archaic piece of code into something shiny did make me grin stupidly.

No, there’s a bit about the Commodore 64 in there and some great SID chip music throughout the podcast. That sealed the deal for me! :)

17,827 Euro for a Commodore 65 on Ebay

The Commodore 65 was a prototype computer produced by Commodore between 1990 and 1991 to be an improved Commodore 64. I’ve hardly ever come across it online and never heard of it back in the day, but when Commodore was liquidated they sold the prototype machines. If you have one and are willing to part with it you could be in for a nice surprise!

c65 on ebay

This one on Ebay went for €17,827 last month. It’s not as if much can be done with it as it was never official released but I guess you can run it in C64 mode.

Anyone got one or played with one? (via)

Huge 6.5GB of C64 demos, games, music and stuff on archive.org

Well, this is quite amazing. Jason Scott is archiving all the programs found on The Old School Emulation Center on archive.org.

That means there is now a gigantic collection of retro computing history on archive.org. There’s lots of stuff from the C64 to the Speccy, from the Apple Lisa to the TRS 80 there. I’m bowled over by the huge Commodore 64 collection and even found some tunes ex-Ozone member Merman created in the late 90’s. None of our demos there yet though.

One name that caught my eye was Derbyshire Ram, a swapper/cracker I have a vague recollection of. He died a few years ago but others put his huge disc collection online. I wonder if I should do the same with mine? My collection is much smaller and I think I’ll need to check any notes for personal messages but someone might find it interesting. I’m not the only one either.

Go have a look, you may find something you remember from your childhood!

C64: Wanted Dead or Alive

Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” as played on a real Commodore 64. The song was digitized on an Amiga, downsampled to 4 bit audio and copied onto a 3.5″ inch disk that the Commodore 1581 drive could read from. The song data was streamed in realtime from the drive to the tiny 64Kb of memory in the computer and fed to the SID chip for our aural delight. I presume the screen has been blanked to save processing power, or the data for the sample gets dumped into screen memory.

This did require an Amiga with the Perfect Sound digitizer. I hooked up the CD player to the digitizer and then using a custom routine on the Amiga, my brother would convert the data to a 4 bit sample. Then we used a null modem cable and Novaterm with a cartridge port adapter to transfer the data to a 1581 floppy. Quite a bit of work went into this.

20 years ago I recorded my own voice onto a cassette saying the word “Ozone” (the name of my demogroup) and I figured out how to sample my voice using the Commodore cassette deck hooked up to the C64. I can’t remember now what memory register it used, I’ll have to search my disk images or examine a C64 memory map one of these days. The quality was terrible but if you knew what was being said you could make it out. It had to be kept short because I’d ran out of memory! I think I used it in the last part of my demo “Awareness of Reality”. (via)

My early memories of programming

My earliest memories of programming are directly related to the pain of not being able to save my work.

The first proper computer my family owned was a Commodore Vic-20. I guess my parents bought it in 1984 or 1985 but it might have been earlier. The Vic-20 came out years before but this was recession hit 80’s Ireland. I’m pretty sure the computer was bought in O’Callaghan’s shop, where the betting shop is now on Pembroke Street.

I remember copying a flying bird BASIC listing from the Vic-20 manual one school morning, and I think I made it fly left and right too. What made it stick in my mind was the anguish I felt because I couldn’t save it. We had a Vic-20 you see but we didn’t have a datasette that could record or play back data on cassette tapes. I left the machine on while I went to school which was risky because they had huge heavy power supplies that had a tendency to overheat (not that I knew that then!) Thankfully we did get a datasette later because I remember playing Wacky Waiters on it. Or it might have been some sort of interface that let me plug a regular cassette player into the Vic-20. Chip Electronics sold them in clear plastic bags I think. All a little hazy now unfortunately!

So, thanks to this site I was able to track down a scanned copy of the Vic-20 manual and immediately jumped to the Flying Birds bit. A little bit of rose tint nostalgia on a murky Friday evening almost 30 years later.

What got you into programming?

Happy birthday my rubber keyed friend!

Well, 2012 has turned out to be quite a year for retro computing. The Commodore 64 turned 30 this year, Jack Tramiel died, and the ZX Spectrum is 30 years old too!

I have fond memories of the original 48K ZX Spectrum. Even though it had a tiny rubber keyboard it suited my much younger and smaller hands. I do recall the “Symbol Shift” key got stuck a few times making it hard to type in BASIC code but I guess I opened up the machine and cleaned the keyboard membrane when that happened.

On the off chance you haven’t read it yet there’s a great article on the Sir Clive Sinclair’s machine in the first issue of Retro Gamer that came free with the 100th.

At the time many 8 bit machines used tapes to load their software. Disks were a rare luxury. The loading sounds became so engrained in our minds that even now they’re recognisable and someone created an iOS app that recreates them. (Thanks Conor!)

Or the real thing. It takes a while …

Edit: Conor noticed that google.co.uk has a new Google Doodle for the day that’s in it:

It’s not too late to archive old disks

I have a collection of around 300 Commodore 64 5 1/4 disks. They were last used around 1995 and were kept in an unheated, sometimes damp room in my family home. It’s not all bad, I kept them in proper disk boxes so the disks were mostly upright during that time and not horizontal and pressing down on each other. For a long time I wondered about transferring the disks to more permanent and modern media.

When I had an Amiga I joined it and the C64 together using some sort of serial cable and an ASM programme I painstakingly typed into my C64 from the Amiga. Then when PCs became popular I hooked my 1541-II disk drive to the parallel port of my 486 and transferred over some of my own demos but nothing else. Unfortunately with the passage of time parallel ports became as rare as the Dodo and more complicated cables are now required which discouraged me from trying to build them.

So I did a little shopping last month.

On Ebay France I found an old Commodore 1541-II disk drive in pristine condition. The Irish Ebay site was useless and I couldn’t find any local drives. I bought a Zoom Floppy from Jim Brain in the USA. That’s a USB interface you can use to connect the 1541 to a modern PC. You can use the ordinary IEC cable that came with the 1541 or a parallel port variant to “nibble copy” protected disks.

Shortly after ordering both of those I read this post saying it was too late to archive disks. The author, Jason Scott, warned that we had left it too long to move everything off old floppy disks and other magnetic media. Too much time had elapsed. The magnetic signature of the data would have degraded, the media dirty and unusable. I was worried.

Back in the day I had swapped disks with people all over Europe and further beyond. It was my first contact with people from Germany, Denmark, Poland, Belgium and elsewhere. Stuck on those disks were notes and personalised collections of demos and programmes that couldn’t be found online.

The disk drive arrived first, then a few days later the Zoom Floppy interface. Was it too late? Thankfully no.

I’ve transferred 243 disks now and I’m not finished yet. I couldn’t rescue all the disks I tried. In some the media had stuck to the outer covering. In others the magnetic media was so dirty it wasn’t readable. By the time I got to 180 double sided disks done the disk drive packed it in giving the ominous “74, DRIVE NOT READY” error. All it took was a swipe of an alcohol swab over the drive head and all was right with the world again. Then I retried one of Iain’s disks and it died again so that disk will remain uncopied! As luck would have it some of the disks that would inevitably fail were those I used often and had snippets of code, graphics or music on them! I guess less than 10% failed however which isn’t bad for 20 year old magnetic media.

After a number of failures I went searching online for disk images when I recognised directory listings. CSDB is invaluable, and the Binary Zone disks section lists all the disks they offered. I remember buying demos from there so it was great to get the disk images. I sent Kenz a PayPal donation to thank him for his efforts.

I found many interesting things, including stuff that isn’t online. Some of it I have to talk to a few people about but I found something called DMSREAD (and related utilities) for creating disk images. The nice thing about it was that it would break up the image into smaller files so you could squeeze in an extra disk at the end of a double sided disk. Very important when you had to pay postage! Nothing about the C64 version online that I can find.

Setting up the Zoom Floppy was easy. It comes with no documentation (beyond a copy of the GPL) but the xum1541 homepage has the required install files. I used CBMXfer and GUI4CBM4WIN, both frontends to the Open CBM library to read the disks.
Also read about Rob’s experiences with the Zoom Floppy. I definitely recommend it if you need to connect a Commodore drive to a modern PC!

Once I’m satisfied with my archive I’ll probably throw out the disks but can they be recycled? I presume so. I’ll miss them though. A directory listing of D64 images can’t hope to compete with the variety of disk covers and hand written labels!

This 5 years of my personal data amounted to less than 130MB of data. I’ll run through that amount of space today in half an hour of taking photos so I shudder to think how much storage I’ll need in another 20 years time. I use 1.6TB of the space on an external 2TB drive and I find that external USB drives fail every 2-3 years. I’m currently waiting on a new 2TB drive to replace two 1TB drives that died recently (they mirrored each other so no data lost, unless this 2TB drive dies. Gulp!) but I’ll probably go down the route of a gigabit network and a NAS when I can afford it. Any suggestions for a quiet NAS enclosure are more than welcome in the comments section please!