Just the signal, not the noise

Hello 8bit'ers,

Someone once said the clever phrase that 8 is a very special number - it's nestled right between 7 and 9! 🤯

Friday bears a similar peculiarity, as it stands between your (presumably work-filled) week and the well-deserved weekend. And what makes this Friday special? Correct - 9 exciting, informative, and hopefully fun topics that should help you get through the upcoming 2 days.

To be honest, it has to be said that the last two weeks haven't seen any real blockbusters hit the dance floor, but the following topics are definitely intriguing.

Enjoy Issue #79.


Computer Art

Computer Art
Imagesource: Frieder Nake via https://www.amygoodchild.com/

What each individual gets out of the device with the keyboard in front of them is undoubtedly different for everyone. Some people simply enjoy the fact that, as masters of complexity, they can program the machine using a well-defined language. Others take pleasure in plain Excel tables, write all sorts of texts, and use the machone for productive tasks.

But let's not forget the art – beautiful things for the ear, eyes and the brain.

Eye candy, brilliant designs, colorful digital art, and current generative art all have one thing in common. They started putting on their childhood shoes with the advent of the first computers in the early 1950s (or even a bit before), and they learned to walk.

The history behind what we can call computer art is more than just interesting. Amy Goodchild, aka @amygoodchild, initially wanted to span the arc from the 1950s to the present day, but she found so much material that she decided to focus primarily on the 50s and 60s.

The result is a fantastic article that may not necessarily fit into our 8-bit mantra, but whose developments ultimately led to the graphic capabilities of our beloved 8-bit machines.

More than worth the read.

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CMOS History

CMOS History
Imagesource: https://unsplash.com/

Do you know the history of CMOS? 🤔

The path to this technology was anything but direct. PMOS, NMOS, and other fundamental architectural approaches ultimately led to the development that became the basis for chips like Zilog Z80, MOS6502, Intel 4004, 8008, and all their successors.

Fancy a short excursion into history? If so, then Paul McLellan, aka @paulmclellan, is your guide for a brief 9-minute read that will certainly not make you any less knowledgeable.

Nothing groundbreaking, but even for the trained retro enthusiast, it's certainly interesting if the development of CMOS is one of the few gaps in your knowledge.

The cherry on top... uh, sorry, on the article: A look into the future. And considering that Cadence, for which Paul writes in his article, is next to Synopsis the largest IP Core provider in the world, it offers a truly exciting outlook into the coming years of chip manufacturing.

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C64 Floppy Extension

C64 Floppy Extension
Imagesource: https://8bitnews.io/

174,848 bytes. That's it. That's what the specification says when it comes to the data density of a 5.25-inch floppy disk, read and written by the Commodore 1541 disk drive.

But is that really the limit? If you adhere to the spec, you learn that the 1541 can write on the magnetic disk encased in plastic in exactly 35 tracks. In total, there is room for 683 blocks, but only 664 can be written by the user. That leaves 169,984 bytes remaining - just under 170kB.

And how do you double this capacity? With a pair of scissors and a daring cut, so that you can simply rotate the disk by 180 degrees and entrust it to the 1541 to write on the second side as well.

But is this the limit then? Depending on the hardware and software used, the answer is: No. There's more to it. And the more is not so little at all.

Michael Steil, aka mist64 on GitHub, has dissected the topic and delves more than just deeply into it. It's interesting when you learn that (provided you're using more modern floppies) 42 tracks can be written instead of the usual ones. And that's not all.

For anyone who's become curious now - Michael's article leaves no questions unanswered.

An intriguing read.

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Memory Management

Memory Management
Imagesource: https://samwho.dev/

Solving complex problems with the help of high-level languages can be a fun affair. It's something you're probably familiar with, otherwise you wouldn't be reading these lines right now. But what about the fundamentals underneath?

Perhaps you've worked your way through Don Knuth's TOACP and simply skipped the memory management chapter. Maybe you were sleeping in the university at that time. Or perhaps memory management was already considered a solved problem when you first sat in front of a machine with computing capabilities.

All of this is very likely, but it doesn't matter. Because the topic – as dry as it may initially sound – is incredibly demanding and interesting. And anyone who has done more than just a few attempts at low-level assembly has certainly come across the actual problem.

But how do you solve it? What are the subclasses of the problem? Who am I? And if so, how many? 🤪

But back to the point: Sam Rose, aka @samwhoo, has not only revisited the topic but also completely refreshed it. His wonderfully readable article is brilliantly interactive, so you get a dynamic graphical representation of your Memory Consumption while reading.

Even if you don't plan to implement malloc and mfree yourself anytime soon, Sam's article is highly recommended. It's a marvel.

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Imagesource: https://xxiivv.com/

Looking for a challenge? One that sprang from the mind of the late John Conway?

How about a deep dive into Fractran?

FRACTRAN was introduced by Conway in 1987 at a special workshop on problems in communication and computation. Although not a major open problem in the field, FRACTRAN was noted for its uniqueness as it could yield all possible computations by operating on a set of numbers in a specific way​.

What is certain, however, is that you'll need to twist your brain a couple of notches further for FRACTRAN, and as a result, you'll definitely learn something new.

You're probably familiar with Reginald Braithwaite, aka Raganwald – and if you like the depth of his articles, then this one will be the perfect brain food. 🍕➡️🧠

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As small as the Raspberry Pi Pico is, the things you can implement on its basis are huge in contrast. Thanks to this little guy, numerous wet dreams came true.

Do you remember Issue #19 and the mt32-pi baremetal Midi Synthesizer? 🎼 (wet dream!)

PicoGUS is structured a bit differently, but it still brings back familiar sounds that might otherwise be lost. How, you ask?

According to Ian Scott, aka @polpo, the small device emulates ISA sound cards like the Gravis Ultrasound, AdLib OPL2 cards, the MPU-401, the Tandy 3-Voice, and the CMS/Game Blaster.

Rings a bell? 🔔 Yes?

A little money for the hardware and a git clone later, one or all of the emulations can be yours. And it's amazing how even small nuances in sounds can transport you back to a bygone era. And that's something we all need from time to time, right?

Enjoy tinkering.

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C64 Webserver

C64 Webserver
Imagesource: https://youtu.be/O2cMnxShCVQ

Have you ever played with the 6502 variant of Contiki OS on the C64? No? Then it's time. What Oliver Schmidt has ported here for 6502-based systems not only gives the little breadbin a range of interesting capabilities.

A simple but functional browser allows you to navigate through the web. A bit limited, since a 6502 is a too slow for an HTML parser, but text content is no problem. The same applies to the IRC and TELNET clients.

[Update: Oliver made some corrections to the above claim after publishing. In contrast to what we reported, the Contiki browser definitely parses HTML and is even able to support forms. The webserver comes in two flavors – one serves static files, the other one is actually able to respond with dynamically generated content. Thx for the info Oliver!]

What makes Oliver's Contiki port interesting, however, is the web server. No, I don't see racks full of 1U units of barebone C64 boards (although that would be a cool idea) but the little box can deliver static HTML content. If you connect everything via a router to the network and forward port 80, you can deliver your own webpage from your beloved breadbin.

An unknown user going by the pseudonym naDDan tried it out, and documented it with a mobile phone in hand as evidence. His video may not be produced according to primetime standards, but with this topic, that's not necessarily required.

It's fun and worth a test of your own!

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Imagesource: https://youtu.be/1yZRNt25Wdo

Finally. A good use for ChatGPT! 👹

Pitting one chatbot against another is not a new idea. (Aside from the fact that the topic is still more or less new - depending on your own point of view).

But hanging ChatGPT on one end of the line and on the other end ... ELIZA, that's a novelty. And a fun one at that. Joseph Weizenbaum is known to some, as his ELIZA caused a stir as a chatbot back in 1966.

Both bots play in the same stadium, but each in a very different league. If ChatGPT is the Premier League, then ELIZA is playing football on the playground next door - but that doesn't mean the two can't hold a conversation.

This was tested by an unknown YouTuber publishing as P-Lab. As ELIZA runs on an APPLE-I replica as is customary, you need a little ... patience. 😋

But following the conversation between the two is fun at least. The result... is not revealed here, watch the video yourself.

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26 Bit Spaceship Computer

26 Bit Spaceship Computer
Imagesource: https://youtu.be/OylMmZ54e7M

The following video may seem a bit off-topic, but anyone who has been reading our publication for a while knows that every now and then topics about space and space travel knock so loudly on our door that we simply can't ignore them.

Scott Manley aka @DJSnM became my personal super hero when he built a whole armada of crazy rocket and spaceship designs in Kerbal Space Program around 2016, and subsequently made them explode furiously. 💥

But besides KSP, you can find heaps of exactly what you're looking for (given you're a space-enthusiastic) on his channel.

Now, if you cross Space with Retrocomputing, mix in a 26-bit architecture with a 39-bit word size, and then have Scott freshly cook it all up, then the result can only be good.

And guess what: it is. In one of his latest videos, it's all about the computers that controlled the Gemini capsules. Plenty to learn, and lots of fun watching. And for those who didn't know Scott yet: you're welcome! 😘

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The penultimate issue of this year's spring has thus concluded. Done. Finished. History.

If you have material for #80, please do let us know. You can simply reply to this email, or use our Suggest Form on the website. There's no money in it, but then again, this isn't a commercial operation!

If you enjoyed the above, you might feel an irresistible urge to help us. We'd be happy to send you our bank account number, Paypal account, or Bitcoin address 😎 ... but what helps us even more is new subscribers. Why not simply forward this email to your tech-savvy friends? The rest should happen naturally.

Issue #80 is on the starting blocks and should be ready for the sprint in 14 days. Until then - build something, and speak about it.

Jan & Bastian

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