Just the signal, not the noise

Hello 8bit'ers,

Beautiful things are primarily … beautiful. Beauty usually lies in the eye of the beholder, but we are certainly all in agreement that the fact, that today is a beautiful Friday, is just wonderfully beautiful. Because a potentially even more beautiful weekend lies ahead of us, to which we would like to add some dramatically beautiful topics with the following.

Without giving anything away, you gonna get some beauty in hard- and software design, a wonderful collection of technical eye-candy, two new emulators, a hack, and lots of reading material from the beloved past.

Not necessarily not beautiful. Therefore, enjoy Issue #83.


#13 – Another FPGA World

Another World FPGA Version
Imagesource: Apple App Store

In the same year that The Last Boy Scout flickered across the movie screens of the western world, a clever French developer came up with a game engine and a game that would shape an entire generation. (My personal Bruce Willis of gaming history.) 32 years later – in July of this year – there was a release for this game that pretty much nobody would have expected.

Another World, also known as Out of this World, might have been one of the most influential games of the 90s. The cinematic platformer, designed by Eric Chahi and released by Delphine Software International, is renowned for its unique art style, cutscenes, minimalistic controls and particularly its – for the time – phenomenal vector graphics as well as the underlying, cleverly designed virtual machine, which made porting the game quite straightforward.

Over the years, it has become a cult classic, and it's probably difficult to find a platform that it hasn't been ported to. So, what's left to do?

Sylvain Lefebvre, known online as @sylefeb, approached the game from an entirely different angle. He implemented Eric Chahi's VM directly in hardware! That's right - no standard CPU, but a truly native hardware version of the Another World VM, blitter, and rasterizer. 😱

No CPU emulation here. Nope. He has successfully adapted the entire VM directly for the FPGAs IceBreaker, MCH2022, and ULX3S.

For those who don't currently have the hardware available, you can install his even more impressive project, Silice. Silice is his very own HDL, and for those who have been at odds with Verilog and VHDL, this might finally provide a gateway into the world of FPGAs.

Here are two fantastic projects that you could easily spend the entire summer exploring. Enjoy! ☀️

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#14 – Electronic Sliderule

Electronic Sliderule
Imagesource: https://sarahkmarr.com/

And because summer, especially July, traditionally brings a bit more free time, a developer came up with a project that was initially inconspicuous but turned out to be a real hit.

The HP-35, introduced in 1972 by Hewlett-Packard, was the first handheld calculator to offer transcendental functions, sparking the era of scientific pocket calculators. The HP-45 was an upgraded version, boasting additional features such as trigonometric, logarithmic, and exponential functions. The HP-80 was HP's first business calculator, pioneering financial functions, including loan calculations, interest rates, and standard deviation, making it a popular tool among finance professionals and business people.

Computer science at its finest. 😍 And for those who can't resist the allure of 8-bit systems, they're likely drawn to these machines as well.

There are quite a few reimplementations of these calculators, but a genuine homage not only to the hardware and software but also to the era itself came from Sarah K. Marr, aka @sarahkmarr.

Her HP1973 not only features the original ROMs of the machines, incredible documentation, and authentic functionality. No, Sarah has perfectly captured the spirit of these little computation workhorses in a UI that not only comes in seven stunning themes but also makes the inner workings of the machine visible from the outside.

The download is more than worth it, and along with the source code (Thank you!), there are standalone versions for Mac and Windows.

This is retrocomputing at its best! 🙌

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A brief History of Computers

A Brief History of Computers
Imagesource: https://unsplash.com/

Every now and then, someone comes along who unfurls the entire history of computers from a fresh or not-so-fresh perspective, starting from the very beginning.

Boring? Perhaps.

Even though I used my history classes in the 80s more for dozing and sleeping 😴, I personally can't escape the history of these lovely machines. How far we've come in just the last 40 years is more than astounding — considering that the fundamental ideas were first formulated in the middle of the 19th century, current developments seem like magic. 🪄

Regardless, if you share an interest in the past and enjoy reading well-composed essays on the subject, then you should definitely not miss the write-up by Adam Zerner aka @adamzerner.

A brief history of computers looks back to George Bool and Charles Babbage, moves through Turing, transistors, and Von Neumann architecture, and arrives at modern chips and of course the internet.

A great read for when you have a moment — if that moment is more than just three minutes.

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PET Emulator
Imagesource: https://www.masswerk.at/

The PET is the PET, is the PET. Commodore's early personal computer was launched back in 1977, and if you're a tad bit older than the C64 generation, you likely owned or still own one of these devices. (Congrats!)

The PET was one of the first fully integrated computer systems, including a keyboard, monitor, and tape drive all in a single metal enclosure, and was powered by — of course — the MOS 6502. It became popular in the educational market and significantly contributed to the acceptance of personal computers in the late 70s and early 80s.

In my case, it didn't have to contribute much, since my eyes were only captivated by a television that was directly connected to a C64 via a wonderful cable from the antenna socket years later ... but that's another story, one that's still underscored in my memory with the title melody from Gianna Sisters. Oh, memories. 👯

Back to the PET: Norbert Landsteiner aka @mass_werk is a well-known name to pretty much anyone who's ever tinkered with MOS's flagship 6502 or any of its subsequent derivatives. Norbert, under his label mass:werk, has once again upped the ante, providing a wonderful emulator for the PET.

In addition to the emulator itself, Norbert also offers a small (🤧) library of programs. And since the whole thing runs directly in the browser, there's no installation standing in your way.

So there are no excuses. Let's go!

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Compucolor II Emu

Compucolor II Emulator
Imagesource: http://compucolor.org/

Ever heard of the Compucolor II? No? That's okay.

The Compucolor II was an early home computer introduced by the Compucolor Corporation in 1977, succeeding the original Compucolor computer. This system was unique in that it featured a built-in color monitor (🤯) and a disk drive that utilized 8-inch floppy disks, all packaged into a single integrated unit.

Despite its innovative features, this novel machine faced tough competition from other more robust and well-supported devices of the era, which led to the company's bankruptcy in 1983. Quite a tragedy.

But fear not: Jim Battle to the rescue! 🛟

His project, the Compucolor II Emulator, was last updated in 2021 and is a few years old, but it's fully functional. The emulator runs directly in your browser, so if you're feeling adventurous, you can start programming in BASIC straight away or get drawn into one of the 13 captivating board-busting games available.

Pro Tip: If your Caps Lock key isn't remapped to Esc, it will be your best friend in BASIC. 🤫

Lunar Lander, here I come. 🛸

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Beauty of Computing

The Beauty of Computing
Imagesource: https://www.docubyte.com/

Dieter Rams' Ten Principles for Good Design is a seminal work and should legally be required in every bookshelf — and, of course, be read and studied.

From the 60s to the 80s, Dieter Rams was responsible for creating an array of product design icons, which still rank among the finest in industrial design and are continually replicated. To what extent his work has influenced the following projects is probably a bit challenging to ascertain today. However, it is undeniable that what James Ball aka @Docubyte has compiled here is simply gorgeous.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so decide for yourself:

Guide to Computing is a collection of the most epoch-making machines of the last 75 years. James has photographed these and then significantly enhanced their appearance through digital retouching.

What's left is pure eye candy. 🍭 Enjoy!

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Mad Pascal

In the summer of 1994, I spent my summer vacation using my newfound knowledge of vector math to derive a set of three formulas that allowed the rotation of three non-coplanar unit vectors around their respective moving X, Y, and Z axes.

Back then, this was (at least for methe-hottest-shit™ because the subsequent scalar multiplication of pre-recorded points in space, as well as the simple drawing of lines between these points using the graph unit, was indeed feasible even at 8Mhz on a PC. My very own 3-D engine. 🫡

This mathematical masterpiece took me six weeks of my life (and subsequently secured my math graduation) but was then completely overshadowed by another student who had typed a piece of assembly code from a magazine that displayed a realistic flame animation on the screen. 🔥

This life-changing defeat still haunts me to this day — a psychological damage that might explain quite a few things in my life 😄.

But what also remains is my love for the language we used to program all of this back then: Borland Turbo Pascal.

That's why I was so delighted about the release of Mad Pascal. What Tomasz Biela known as tebe6502 delivers here is a Pascal compiler that generates code for the Atari XE/XLC64Plus4, and outputs binaries compatible with Free Pascal. Nice one!

The only thing missing is my old code and the data array, in which I had the coordinates of a Tie Fighter whose dimensions I had measured by hand on graph paper … boy, times have changed.

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Understanding Computers

Understanding Computers
Imagesource: https://cpu.land/

You know how a processor works. You've designed your 8-bit bolide as well as the corresponding ISA yourself. Wow! Next step, a fully functional and especially sensibly designed operating system that should be capable of multitasking, comes with an MMU and supports interrupts.

And there they were again, the knowledge gaps and the you-don't-know-what-you-don't-know problem.

Help comes in a truly wonderful way from an unknown hacker only known as Kognise.

Her tutorial Putting the You in CPU, created in cooperation with the Hack Club, straightforwardly covers everything from instruction set architecture to execution, the ELF Format, paging to process forking, and guides the interested reader into the topic in a competent and entertaining way.

You don't need a lot of time, you'll get through the 7 chapters and the bonus track relatively quickly, and afterwards, you'll be significantly smarter.

Great mini course! 👩‍🎓

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Hacking Amiga LCP

Hacking Little Computer People
Imagesource: http://www.jaruzel.com/

Little Computer People was a technically groundbreaking simulation game developed and published by Activision back in 1985. It was about interacting with a small virtual person living in a computerized house, who could be communicated with via typed commands. The game probably laid the foundation for later virtual life and pet games and, as history has it, acted as an ideation blueprint for the mega hit The Sims.

That was apparently enough motivation for Matt Owen aka @MattOwen_UK, to dedicate himself to the Amiga version of the game, and to hack it open.

Matt turned his attention to the game's data files, and with manual brute force, he identified some of the fundamental parameters of the LCP. But since POKEing of values in DMA systems is considered hacking, it can certainly be allowed to use this precious term in this case as well.

What's cool is that Matt has written a tool to adjust a quite a bit of the configuration options, that allows the game to be manipulated in real time. This way, you can kick out the current LCP and let a new one move in, configure your own LCP yourself, reset the personality, and reset the health status.

Matt has documented his path in detail here, and it's fun to read.

All in all, it's a nice exercise and a successful tool, which by the way also runs smoothly in the various UAE variants.

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All beautiful things must come to an end. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to distinguish the difference between beauty and it's opposite. But since we are neither Nietzsche nor Kant, we better leave this topic and focus on what we can do.

And that is to work on Issue #84. Help is always welcome. Do you have a project, or know someone who knows someone who has a project? Feel free to send us a short message, we are always happy about material for the upcoming issue.

And one more thing: Our plans for world domination are not shelved. We are fighting hard for the reintroduction of 8-bit technology and need every new reader for that. Can you think of someone? Simply materialize this email in her or his inbox, and the rest will run auto-magically.

We will hit your inbox again in 2 weeks. Until then – build something, and speak about it.

Jan & Bastian

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