Monday, 20 March 2023

George Dyson: Turing's Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe from 2012 begins at an unlikely point in history, of William Penn and the US revolutionary war. The narrative choice leads eventually to the Olden Farm, Princeton, where the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) would be established.

This historical prelude also leads the author to compare the explosion of the computing capacity to that of a nuclear reaction—both significant "revolutions" for the 20th century, their histories intertwined.

The book from George (Son-of-Freeman) Dyson is already much heavier than some of those "airport books" I've recently read, but it's still not exceedingly academic.

The IAS era becomes repeatedly sectioned from the angles of different personalities and computational topics, and the invention of ENIAC and EDVAC. The scale of the narrative at times focuses on details of a chosen vacuum tube solution, at other times expanding to the connections and conflicts between personalities and faculties.

Some of the heavy-hitters here are John Von Neumann, Alan Turing, Stanislaw Ulam, Nils Barricelli, Norbert Wiener, Julian Bigelow...  Women feature less, but at least Klára Von Neumann gets credit for being one of the "first coders", and not uninformed of the code's substance either.

An image emerges of a nascent digital world. A time when people with experience of using actual digital electronic computers could still be counted in dozens. A bunch of intellectuals gravitated to the topic, their thoughts projecting far ahead of what the computers could actually do.

Computers at War

It is not new to say that war was related to computation in many ways. But it is interesting to read in more detail about the people involved and how the first computers connected to these tasks.

Automated computational approaches were needed for many brute force-calculations, such as firing tables, the nuclear fusion and its optimization, and the development of thermonuclear bombs. Cybernetics arose from the problem of how to predict the airplane motions from the perspective of air defense.

To some extent the topic of weather prediction also connects to war and the choice of the moment of attack. The initial successes led to optimism about predicting weather for longer timescales and to use the knowledge for large-scale weather control. Other themes followed the same pattern: thinking machines, machine life, self-replicating machines, all seemed to portend even more radical changes to human life, all just around the corner.

Clashes emerged from the pure mathematicians' and logicians' attitudes towards engineering sciences and practical problems, which the real tubes-and-steel computers concretely represented. Despite, or because of, these difficulties, a sort of "golden age" of computers took place at the IAS during the war.

“The war had scrambled the origins of new inventions as completely as a message passing through an Enigma machine. Radar, cryptanalysis, antiaircraft fire control, computers, and nuclear weapons were all secret wartime projects that, behind the security barriers, enjoyed the benefit of free exchange of ideas, without concern for individual authorship or peer review.” (258-259)

War also muddled of the issue of who did what in relation to the first practical computers, as they were also war secrets. In case of Turing and the Brits, this took decades. Von Neumann's "First draft of a report on the EDVAC" turned out to be an influential paper, and IAS became a kind of distribution point for others to build their own "clones" in the ENIAC/EDVAC mould.

The invention of computer is a matter that can be sliced in different ways. Forgetting Leibniz and Babbage, here we follow the thread of one of the Hilbert's mathematical challenges, the Entscheidungsproblem. An extension to, or an alternative interpretation of Kurt Gödel's refutation, resulted in the Turing/Church hypothesis.

Turing's paper provided the proof of an universal (logic) machine, which through Von Neumann gained an architecture for actually building something like it in reality. It's hinted that the way Von Neumann's brain worked, with perfect recall of texts read years before, also influenced the idea of this superior digital brain.

Eckert and Mauchly were significant in getting ENIAC actually functioning, and nowadays more fully credited with the achievement. While the Von Neumanns of this world were lauded, much of Eckert-Mauchly work remained obscured behind war secrecy and its supposed practicality. (I recall Joel Shurkin's "Engines of the Mind" is a book that explored this point specifically).

The British developments included the Manchester Baby and Mark I, involving Max Newman and Turing from the cast of characters here, although they didn't design the computers. People in the US could only suspect why and how the Brits had such a good head start on the topic.

The work led to the later commercialized Ferranti Mark I. To bring this all down to the measly level of my personal experience and the themes of my blog, I can only remind that Ferranti is a familiar name from the ULA chip that drives the visuals of ZX Spectrum and various other 8-bit computers.

The digital explosion

Turing's Cathedral gives an intriguing view into history, showing that the germ of many currently hot topics in computers were already at least in the thoughts of the great minds of the 1940s and 1950s. For example, the insight that infallible machines might not be intelligent, and that machines should instead make mistakes and learn, is not a new one. Later it turned out to be a crucial insight when using neural nets to have computers "self-learn".

Given the book was out in 2012, this is actually quite insightful, but some things have advanced quite fast since then, so the author's extrapolations look like dismissing decades of "lesser" research in the areas of machine intelligence and autonomous agents.

Interestingly, Dyson says that Turing’s O-machine does not get much attention, even if it is closer to what we now understand with machine “intelligence”. The O-machine is in fact somewhat tricky to understand, but I supposed it could be considered a Turing-machine with a non-Turing component, the "Oracle". The author again extrapolates, that in Internet we sort of have a giant machine, linking answers to questions. The human clicks represent the Oracle, and in time the "machine" grows up, a massive analog computer, existing in its own right. 

Whether this now works in an internet now further divided into platforms, distorted by commercial interests and app ecosystems, I'm not so sure.

Machine life is explored from various angles. Nils Barricelli was concerned with life-games inside the computer and modelling evolution. DNA had been only just discovered, and it was perhaps attractive to see thought parallels between atoms of life and bits in the digital world. In the limited space of the early computer memory, his critters largely "died". 

Barricelli's research in hindsight pointed towards ideas about future AI and possibly at the significance of horizontal gene transfer. For Dyson, this provides another vision about how series of numbers necessarily live and die inside computer systems and on the internet, in symbiosis with humans. Whether inside a program that's perceived as useful or within a pornographic image, survive they must. (I'm paraphrasing a lot here.)

It all does have its dark side, which is also explored in the book. The calculations needed for the nuclear bombs were machine-led, and the insights were made by people orbiting around the first digital computers. Von Neumann contributed to understanding of shock waves, the implosion method of detonating nuclear weapons, and optimizing the altitude of airburst nuclear explosions.

When it comes to describing the lifestyle and practices at the IAU, the book appears to send a clear message: The brightest mathematical and logical minds of their generation needed their own space, free from direct obligations such as administration and teaching undergraduate studies.

Not insignificantly, through his person and in his position, Von Neumann was a kind of major node between many other intellectuals, directing people to examine the work and findings of others. Von Neumann's political opinions arose from having a first-row seat to the nuclear developments, and these views could be rather brash. The nukes had to be built, as "they" would certainly build them.

Sweet beginnings and bitter endings

Von Neumann's death seems like a passing of a small universe, leaving the mystery whether the singular thinker had something still in his sleeve or if the ideas had been exhausted. Turing's contributions for the war and other hidden developments were recognized much later.

With Von Neumann gone, the high energy collaboration and the mixing of fields in the IAS also diminished rapidly. Many saw their personal interest projects dwindling into obscurity, to be re-invented by others after more practical developments caught up and made possible the reassessment of their original thought. 

The widespread computer architecture remained as a child of Turing and Von Neumann. The author is asking why wasn't this more strongly questioned afterwards? It could be considered a massive "legacy" choice that impinges itself on every new platform.

The concepts of writing and reading were influential towards inventing the universal computer. Also, the idea of an "un-erring scribe" was already a component of philosophical debate in mathematics and logic. Practically, data was usually tabulated and inspected piecemeal by human "computers". The digitalization of this task resulted in the electronic computer. 

As the author notes, memory cells are largely passive, whereas a super-fast read/write head parses the memory contents one by one. Such computers would already be at some disadvantage when examining photographs. Perhaps multi-threading and recent GPUs have begun to erode the outlines of this architecture, with graphics memory being able to perform operations on itself.

The question is then what definition of "universal" is required—one based on late 19th century understanding of mathematical logic? Or are the other understandings of universality? What is life, what is complexity, and how does it travel across the universe? Are they little green men? Or code, a cypher to be unraveled, so to speak? Where do aliens hide in anyway?

The early days of computing was followed by the task of taming computers into banal office assistants. The book gives some feel about the motivations and lives of these people who worked on and with computers when it was still a highly academic topic and suggestive of a parallel, unlimited alien intelligence.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Cheating in Wordle

A few years back, I used Processing to examine palindromes in 5-letter English words, in order to explore the Sator Square.

Weird that even random things like that might have re-uses.

Evil uses, that is! Muahahaha!

The popular daily word guessing game Wordle uses 5-letter words, and I already had a ~10000 word dictionary for generating those squares.

You know that annoying moment when there's a couple of letters in place, but alternate words don't come into mind. (Wordle doesn't allow words outside its dictionary.)

Sometimes I cop out and suggest words that already have letters known not to belong to the solution.

But occasionally I can't even come up with a valid English word to fit! All this variety in such a small game is what makes it exciting, I guess.

The "Cheat"

I have no motive to extensively cheat in Wordle, but found it interesting enough to try. I bet there are already similar articles and blog posts elsewhere.

In Wordle, you have to guess the word of the day in five guesses. After typing a suggestion, the app will tell you if correct letters were in correct position (green), or a correct letter was in a wrong position (yellow), and any incorrect letters (grey).

The keyboard view is also updated to reflect the situation, so you'll always see which letters have been used.

Here I have guessed LOWER; then CLIMB, which is stupid as L was already known. Also, at 4th step I forgot that A should feature.

First I make a genuine guess or two, to get an idea what letters there are, what positions they are in, and importantly, which letters are unused. 

There's some common sense about which words are more likely, but as the words are chosen by humans they can also go other ways. It's still usually worth to pick a starting word with no repeating letters. Exhausting the common vowels in two first words might also help.

If the second guess has a correct letter, this together with the bunch of not-present letters, can narrow the possible words in my dictionary to about 10.

If the second guess only reveals a letter, but no location, the list can be still quite long.

I solved the word KIOSK on 19.2.2023, SWEAT on 20.2.2023, RIPER on 22.2.2023 and VAGUE on 23.2.203, improving the program a little each time. SYRUP, WORSE, MOOSE, ABOVE and TREND followed.

Example: Solving VAGUE

On 23rd of February, 2023, I started my guess with TUNES.

I learned that U and E are present but at incorrect positions.
My next guess was IMBUE, showing U and E are at the end.

This was already good enough to run the first routines with.

I set the used letters string as "tnsimb" and word filter at "***ue"

The dictionary is run through so that the word has to match the filter, but not contain any of the used letters. Used letter list doesn't include discovered letters, because the word may have more of these.

This gave me:


Deque and roque I suspect would not be plausible Wordle solutions, despite being perfectly cromulent words.

I went with ROGUE as I like Rogue-likes.

This wasn't correct, but gave me G at correct position, so I revised the used letter string to "tnsimbro" and word filter to "**gue".

My dictionary only had these two to offer:


...from which I picked VAGUE which was correct at step 4. Even if had been incorrect, I would have been right at step 5.


I thought at first the filter could be improved by checking how a consonant or vowel can't exist at a particular location. But this probably wouldn't achieve anything, as the dictionary only contains valid words anyway.

A simpler and better addition was to exclude words with letters at positions where they are known not to be, and a requirement for the dictionary words to have these known letters.

Even then the puzzle doesn't become a total pushover, because the first two guesses might not yield anything conclusive and the suggestion list is quite long with dozens of words. Often the way forward is to prefer probable Wordle-style candidates and ignore really obscure words (like the above degue).

Generally the solution is found in the 4th or 5th guess.

After about 10 solved puzzles I was satisfied and stopped doing this.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

ChatGPT bandwagon: recommend 1990s games

The ChatGPT bot has a good reputation for making lists and summarizing things, so I asked it to make lists of 1990s computer and video games.

First question

"Give me a recommendation of important 1990s video games, including computer games. Make a balanced list between games from Japan, Europe and the United states. Use popularity and influence as a metric, how well known the games were and how much they influenced later game design. The list could include 20 games."


Sure, here are 20 important video games from the 1990s, grouped by country of origin:


  • Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990, Nintendo)
  • Street Fighter II (1991, Capcom)
  • Final Fantasy VII (1997, Square)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo)
  • Metal Gear Solid (1998, Konami)


  • Lemmings (1991, DMA Design)
  • Worms (1995, Team17)
  • Theme Park (1994, Bullfrog Productions)
  • Tomb Raider (1996, Core Design)
  • Championship Manager 2 (1995, Sports Interactive)

United States

  • Doom (1993, id Software)
  • Myst (1993, Cyan)
  • SimCity 2000 (1994, Maxis)
  • Half-Life (1998, Valve)
  • Starcraft (1998, Blizzard Entertainment)


  • Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Sega)
  • Pokémon Red and Green (1996, Game Freak)
  • Resident Evil (1996, Capcom)
  • Shenmue (1999, Sega-AM2)
  • Gran Turismo (1997, Polyphony Digital)

These games were all highly popular and influential, and helped shape the gaming industry as we know it today. Each one has had a lasting impact on game design and player experiences, and many of them are still beloved by gamers today.

My observations:

A nice list, not sure why there's an additional Japan/Europe grouping.

I feel the games are well chosen for both popularity and being prime examples of works that helped establish a genre. There were many significant JRPGs before Final Fantasy VII, but it is the game that cemented the popularity of the series also in the west. Tomb Raider made third-person 3D action games interesting, and so on and on.

"Game Freak" is listed as publisher for Pokémon, although "Nintendo" could have been used.

Championship Manager 2 sounds weird to me, but then again I don't know the genre and its significance at all. Trust the bot with this one?

Second question:

"Please also make a list of obscure computer and video games from 1990s, that many do not know yet still shaped the industry."

Certainly, here are 10 relatively obscure computer and video games from the 1990s that had a significant impact on the industry:

  • System Shock (1994, Looking Glass Technologies): A first-person action-adventure game that pioneered many gameplay mechanics still used in modern games, such as audio diaries and RPG-like character progression.
  • Thief: The Dark Project (1998, Looking Glass Technologies): A first-person stealth game that introduced many now-standard stealth gameplay mechanics, such as hiding in shadows, leaning around corners, and pickpocketing.
  • Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992, Looking Glass Technologies): A first-person action-RPG that was one of the first games to feature fully 3D environments and non-linear gameplay.
  • Syndicate (1993, Bullfrog Productions): A real-time tactical game that popularized the concept of controlling multiple characters simultaneously and the use of cyberpunk themes.
  • Betrayal at Krondor (1993, Dynamix): A role-playing game that featured a complex story and well-developed characters, and was one of the first games to use 3D graphics for its world map.
  • Grim Fandango (1998, LucasArts): A classic adventure game that used a unique art style and a combination of 3D and 2D graphics to create a memorable, film noir-inspired world.
  • Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993, Sierra On-Line): A point-and-click adventure game that blended horror, mystery, and history into a compelling story, and featured some of the best writing and voice acting of its time.
  • Descent (1995, Parallax Software): A 6-degree-of-freedom first-person shooter that allowed full 3D movement and was a technical marvel for its time.
  • Battlezone (1998, Activision): A hybrid first-person shooter and real-time strategy game that used a unique blend of tank combat and base building.
  • Star Control II (1992, Toys for Bob): A sci-fi adventure game that combined space exploration, combat, and role-playing elements to create an immersive and unforgettable experience.

These games may not be as well-known as some of the more mainstream titles from the 1990s, but they all had a significant impact on the industry and helped shape the future of gaming in their own unique ways.

My observations:

These were actually well known games at their time, but I wouldn't except younger people to know these now. I like how the first list included some brands and franchises widely known even now by "non-gamers", whereas none of the same games appear here. The list has become exclusively about PC games.

Interesting that the bot remembers some of my qualifiers from the first question, but chose not to give a Japan/Europe/USA balance here.

I'm maybe less qualified to say whether all these games were both obscure and influential. System Shock and Ultima Underworld alone were portents of things to come, even though the ideas in them were largely abandoned in favor of simpler games like Doom and Tomb Raider.

I didn't check the release years one by one, but I can see the bot gives publishers for some entries and developers for others, a mismatch that one could easily make when compiling such lists.

I'm not sure why I needed to say "please" here.

Third Question:

"Now, one more list with really non-commercial, public domain, fringe and cult computer and video games from the 1990s that were not sold in high street stores."


Sure, here are 10 really obscure, public domain, fringe and cult computer and video games from the 1990s that were not sold in high street stores:

  • ZZT (1991, Tim Sweeney): A shareware game that allowed players to create their own levels and stories using a built-in text editor and simple graphics.
  • ADRIFT (1995, Campbell Wild): A text adventure game creation system that allowed users to create their own interactive fiction games using a simple interface.
  • Captain Blood (1990, Exxos): A surreal and trippy adventure game that takes place in a strange alien universe.
  • The 7th Guest (1993, Trilobyte): A puzzle game with live-action video sequences and a horror theme, which was one of the first games to be released exclusively on CD-ROM.
  • Bolo (1993, Stuart Cheshire): A real-time strategy game that focused on tank combat and was one of the earliest games to support multiplayer over a network.
  • Angband (1990, Alex Cutler): A roguelike game that features randomly generated levels and permadeath, and is still actively developed and played today.
  • Slime Volleyball (1998, Quin Pendragon): A simple and addictive one-on-one volleyball game featuring blobs of slime.
  • WinTrek (1995, Dan Baker): A multiplayer game that allows players to command their own starship and engage in battles with other players over the internet.
  • Nethack (1993, The NetHack DevTeam): A classic roguelike game that features randomly generated levels and a vast array of items, spells, and enemies.
  • The Incredible Machine (1993, Kevin Ryan and Jeff Tunnell): A puzzle game that challenges players to use various everyday objects to create Rube Goldberg-style machines to complete a goal.

These games were not sold in high street stores and are relatively unknown to most people, but they still had a significant impact on the gaming industry and helped inspire future generations of game developers.

My observations:

Ok, that's pretty obscure and included also games I haven't heard of. Still, the "not sold in high street stores" part was not taken very strongly, because Captain Blood and The Incredible Machine were commercial games.

The bot may have considered the categories as broadly inclusive, because certainly Captain Blood is a cult game.

Here I felt the need to actually check the list entries.

One entry I consider a full error. ADRIFT appears to be an adventure-authoring system, and not a game as such. Besides, it was released in 2002 according to Wikipedia. I didn't challenge the bot about it, but presumable it would argue the author already was working on it in the 1990s.

Captain Blood was, according to many sources, released in 1988.

Bolo might have been originally released in 1987, but I'll give the bot a pass as the later Macintosh version is probably the more significant one.

Angband probably has more credits than "Alex Cutler".

According to sources I could find, Wintrek was not authored by Dan Baker but by Joseph Jaworski in 1992.

Slime Volleyball has apparently a somewhat contested authorship and year of release.


The bot did a good job in my opinion, it mostly didn't invent bullshit or non-existing products, kept in 1990s almost entirely, and made relevant suggestions. For the last category, there seem to be more uncertainty about authors and release years.

I didn't ask for game descriptions, but these were actually relevant for the less known games and as far as I see they are quite correct too.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Multipaint 2023

With no Multipaint "yearly" release for 2021 and 2022, I thought it was high time to get a version out.

The hiatus was at least partly because of Covid. But maybe not in the way one would expect. You see, for some reason 2020-2021 was at first a time for ambitious new ideas and concentrating on hobbies. This led me to create a huge internal overhaul for Multipaint that eventually became something of a burden, locking me out of a release for a long while.

Often it was like "It would be nice to get that pan tool feature out, but the script features are far from being finished!"

GUI and functions

Indeed from the user point of view one of the biggest additions is the pan tool. In magnify, you can either use the "hand" icon, or hold down the middle mouse button to drag the view.

In the full screen view the pan tool doesn't do anything, which is not that intuitive. Programs like GIMP allow you to drag the full image around, which is kind of useful when preparing to zoom in.

The Multipaint viewport may need rethinking in the future, but I would also like to preserve the 8-bit/16-bit style "full screen" drawing.

The text in menus and buttons now also uses both upper and lower case, which I hope is slightly more readable than the past UPPER-CASE menus. The characters were tweaked a little too, but as it's a monospace, there are always some compromises.

Multipaint 2020 scaled the contents of the window depending on how the full screen fit into the application window. Resizing the window switches between 1-3x scales. Now it's also possible to force one of the scales from the Other menu.

This can be helpful for some situations where you need to fit Multipaint to a low resolution laptop screen. The viewport may overlap the tool palettes, which I didn't fix for now. Using the forced scales, the user is responsible for setting the window size anyway.

The file selector caused some problems for Windows users, which I already knew from Marq's PETSCII editor. Instead of revamping the themed file selector code I disabled it for Windows altogether, which according to one test helped enough. From prefs.txt it is possible to force it back on, in case someone wants to test if the slightly better file selector works.

I adjusted the grid terminology a little. I had happily used "8x8" grid for what was technically a "4x8" grid in wide pixel modes, now it ought to be more consistent.

New Modes

A kind of Amiga mode has been "unofficially" part of Multipaint for a while. However, Multipaint 2023 finally has a resizable, bitplane-adjustable mode that I could properly call Amiga.

Currently it only exports IFF, and cannot load it in, as I found it to be somewhat complex. What kind of IFF would I support? Possibly a Deluxe Paint 3 output would be enough.

Obviously it can handle the Multipaint "*.bin" project format and png load/save, so it's not something to worry too much.

The resize-function is still rather limited, and there's an invisible memory limit to which the mode has to fit into. I consider this an Amiga "low resolution" mode although you can use 1 bitplane and create a 640x400 bitmap.

I guess this would also work as an Atari STE mode, although I haven't written a Degas exporter specific for this mode.

Why even do an Amiga or Atari ST? I no longer remember. Multipaint originally concentrated on 8-bit modes, and it might have been good to hold onto this constraint. For a while, Sinclair QL was my favorite retro machine, resulting in a new mode. Then Atari ST was done as it could be done just as well, and then I began to think what an Amiga mode needed.

VIC-20 hires and multicolor modes were a late addition. I have wanted VIC-20 modes for a long time, but was always somewhat confused with the different implementations, some of which required extra memory and even extra hardware. Aleksi Eeben (thank you!) supplied practically a white paper with specs and examples and a format that could make most out of the unexpanded VIC. I could not resist adding the modes.

Extras Menu

I added an Extras dialogue in the File menu for running less complete, experimental or non-standard modes. I couldn't live with the idea the main platform selector was cluttered with these, but I still wanted more easy access to them for the user. In the future I may revamp the platform selector and again combine the menus somehow.

One of these is the ULAplus direct mode, which is like ZX ULAplus, but the mode doesn't attempt the notorious "live" palette adjustments of the original mode. So it's bit like working on a normal ZX Spectrum with 64 color adjustable palette.

If you turn over to the real ULAplus mode, Multipaint will then convert the image to the real platform limits. Although I've allowed 64 colors, I'd recommend using maximum of about 16, especially because there seems to be something a little wonky about the internal conversion still.

I added a C64 multicolor free mode, similar to the C64 hires free mode. This is meant for experimentation with non-standard C64 ideas, such as mock-up sprites or border effects, or create larger than screen-size bitmaps. Or make pretend you are in a FLI or some such mode.

I also enabled the resize-function for these two modes. Admittedly Multipaint is currently not very good at handling larger screens. I have some ideas about how to expand the usefulness of these modes.

I was asked to add an Amstrad GX4000/plus mode, and it turned out so easy to create I put it to the Extras. This computer enjoyed some popularity in France, but it is not well known for the rest of the world. I do remember it was advertised in Finland. The mode is 160x200 with 16 colors out of 4096 maximum.


The biggest change to Multipaint is not really visible to the user at all, the external script functionality.

All the export/import functions were previously written inside the Multipaint source code. Although I could reuse components, this approach began to look like a growing problem if I were to add more modes. Likewise, the component-approach meant that if something broke it could affect multiple other modes. The text exporter was also getting to be a little messy.

Now, Multipaint loads a boot.txt script that defines what other scripts are attached to the current platform File menu and what role they are to play. These scripts in turn use a primitive BASIC-like language to convert the Multipaint internal format into an 8-bit format or executable.

Of course the interpreter takes room in the Multipaint source, but adding new import/export scripts doesn't clutter the source and each platform has a self-contained script. Well, the Amstrad CPC disk baker uses two layers of scripts which I don't like, but it was necessary.

I also encountered the fact that a lazy implementation of a script interpreter isn't especially fast in Java/Processing as the string appending, clipping and concatenation can be costly there. Making it faster took some while, and I can only hope the export/imports are rapid enough.

I'm not yet prepared to say it's a good idea to create your own scripts, but it is possible, they are located in the data folder just as the prefs.txt is.

Into the future

There's actually a bunch of to-do ideas hanging around for a long while, yet I didn't get them into this release version. Now that the scripting idea works I could consider some more lightweight additions.

One future idea is to enable user-creation of modes that are similar to the already existing ones. For example, Amstrad GX4000 was basically a combination of already existing modes and palette selector definition. Almost anyone could have added the mode, except the Multipaint source is so convoluted only I know my way around it.

However, the VIC-20 modes, despite seemingly based on similar concepts as other modes, still required quite a lot of tweaking. So, who knows.

I probably need to look into Processing 4, just to keep up with the official developments.

Multipaint web site:

Sunday, 5 February 2023

Jill Lepore: IF THEN

I was lured in by the initial impression this book would have stories of old-timey punch card computers and their operation. Not really. This is more of a political story revolving around computers and their application in behavioral science-led questions. And all the better for that I think.

If Then: How One Data Company Invented The Future, from the historian Jill Lepore, weaves together politics, university life, zeitgeist and popular culture, in an attempt to explain how computer prediction and data analysis came to impact on politics and public perception in the 1960s.

The prologue and backdrop is the famous event of televising the 1952 presidential election, doubled with a televised UNIVAC prediction of the outcome. For some inventive minds, the event suggested that instead of using computer to report vote results faster, a computer might influence who could get elected.


Through the era of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Jonhson, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, emerges an unlikely narrative of the Simulmatics Corporation, a company that used behavioral science-based computer modelling to predict people's actions. A "people machine". 

The Kennedy election in 1960 was followed by a bold claim from Simulmatics that their reports, based on number crunching and 480 voter types, resulted in policy suggestions that landed Kennedy the presidency. Through mist of assertions, denials, counter-denials, fiction and non-fiction, it is probably impossible to say what the real impact was.

Among the cast of characters, the author details the involvement of Eugene Burdick, now a largely forgotten Hollywood-celebrity author of political thrillers with a sci-fi bent. His book The 480, was a fictional account of Simulmatics, and not from a neutral perspective either. 

Although the claimed influence resulted in a sort of a scandal in itself, the novel probably ignited more debate and public opinion about computers than anything else. The fear of computers predicting what people will do and government reacting to it before people themselves knew what they were about to do, seemed to become real rather soon. Whatever the truth, the idea of a candidate led by a computer entered into the popular culture big time, reducing voters into punch-card caricatures with no agency of their own.

Simulmatics banged their drum with the Kennedy report, also basking in the (somewhat indirect) infamy of The 480, but didn't have it easy with subsequent clients. Politicians and the administration were understandably not too keen to rely on the company, and other industries didn't have that great data or didn't want to give it away. 

Rather quickly, advertisement companies with long history and large databases could do their own computing, and Simulmatics was left in the sidelines in the field they helped create.

Vietnam war provided a life extension for Simulmatics, as they set up shop in Saigon and attempted to collect data for predicting insurgencies and find opportunities for propaganda and soft warfare. Simulmatics was hardly alone in this, but at least in this telling it looks theirs was the most incompetent and shoddy research setup, an exemplary of how not to conduct social research in another country.

In meantime, administration had changed and Nixon hardly had use for an outside predictor company, as voter segmenting and balancing segment responses to policy changes with estimated votes, were already old hat. (It's unclear whether Simulmatics offered to politics anything new in the first place, except more speed and "real time".)

The book then continues exploring the latter days of Simulmatics, its entanglement to the civil right questions and the black vote issue, a supposed linchpin of the Simulmatics report for Kennedy. Back in USA, Simulmatics engaged in predicting not rural insurgencies in another country, but riots in the urban areas. In fact it seems "predicting riots" was something of an ongoing sub-genre in the area of behavioral science applications.

The author is then able to weave and knot the story of the corporation to the moment when the two political parties began to polarize in the way we now recognize. This is perhaps more zeitgeist represented by the story of Simulmatics, rather than Simulmatics or computers being a direct root cause for it.

What strikes as both funny and terrifying is the unprincipled nature, even corruptness of it all. In absence of data, Simulmatics would cobble up some, patch it with educated guesses, then present results to clients. Again, this speaks likely more about the time than about Simulmatics or the field of computer-based behavioral science. But I can’t avoid having flashbacks to university innovation and research activity.

Of the central cast, to me the only relatively familiar figure is Ithiel de Sola Pool, whose name became tarnished through the Simulmatics/Vietnam association. MIT students protested vocally against defense funding of research projects. The opposition was even extended to the openly presented and rather innocent Arpanet, the consequences of which hardly anyone understood at the time.

Here these two developments at least touch each other in history. Simulmatics, representing the more graspable idea of government control over people through mainframes, and "reducing people into punchcards", was still a name brand at these debates. It was soon forgotten from history whereas the developments that grew out of Arpanet grew into global importance.

Later, Pool was able to predict in great accuracy the consequences of a world-wide internet: in principle anyone can have personalized newfeeds and therefore live in reality-bubbles of their own, or get behind fringe ideas by networking in ways that were impossible before.

Recounting the legacy of Simulmatics, Lepore appears to liken Media Lab as a continuation of the practice of milking government money for grand promises of technical revolutions, a "Simulmatics scheme" of sorts. Not sure if I got this correctly, or perhaps this is a case of Harvard bashing MIT or something.

Looking Back

The book makes the always gleeful and enjoyable demonstration that a technology we thought was new, was actually used a long time ago and largely abandoned. Perhaps even for moral and ethical reasons. And then as time passed it came to be done anyway, by the Cambridge Analyticas and the Facebooks of our age.

This requires the insight that the mainframe-a-predictor, and the large-scale internet practices of user data manipulation can be juxtaposed, and to make say something about each other. What could have been a historical footnote becomes more important through the lens of the present.

Apart from mentioning IBM computer models and bit about FORTRAN and punch card tech, the hardware is not meticulously explored. The algorithms are simplified into kind of IF-THEN evaluations (hence the title), so as not to confuse the more casual reader. Then again, the US election system is not explained in any great accuracy either, so the text is able to cast an overview of a web of events without boring anyone greatly.

From today’s perspective, Simulmatics was a fledgling attempt at best, and would seem naive if it wasn't acted out against the backdrop of presidential campaigns, civil right questions, the Vietnam war, and a world on brink of nuclear destruction. Certainly the story is a precursor to the data analytics practices later embraced by any large-scale commercial or political internet operation.

It's also darkly funny, this story of the would-be Merlins in Kennedy's collapsed Camelot. The writing is infectious, making me feel like I'm suddenly an expert in areas I had no knowledge of prior to reading this book. Perhaps the author also borrowed a leaf from Eugene Burdick's supposedly lurid and unsubtle prose, as if to show the pen is mightier than the punch-card after all.

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Giana Sisters 2D/DS

I played Giana Sisters 2D through Proton/Steam on Linux, and on the force of love for the C64 original I could complete the game and even enjoy it in parts.

In concept it's not that different to the original Great Giana Sisters, jump and run your way to the end of the level and collect diamonds as you go along.

With this PC version it's just that the graphics are vector-based and more mobile-like, and somehow I felt the general level of polish is not as high as it could be.

As this is a re-versioning of a 2009 Nintendo DS game, I became curious enough to order the game off eBay and borrowed a Nintendo DS hand held console to see how this really plays.

Let's dive in.

It was more easy to take screenshots from the "2D" version.

New Coke, New Giana

For the new Giana, the designers made an important streamlining. When becoming "punk", Giana gains both the head-butting ability and the fireball. You can also shoot multiple fireballs, importantly the power acts as a kind of one-hit shield so Giana does not instantly lose a life.

There are no additional bonuses for creating reflecting missiles, homing missiles or the one-off bonuses found in the original game. This means it isn't so devastating to loose your "punk", as the next bonus will bring it all back and there's nothing further to build. Admittedly some nuance is lost here, but this change helps make Giana Sisters more playable on the long run.

From the start we see the game can scroll vertically too, and although many of the initial levels are horizontal they can be traveled back-and-forth, unlike the C64 game. Later the levels expand to all directions, steering away from the original level styles, but admittedly they bring some needed variety.

Part of the World Map

One central new idea is the occasional red diamond found among the usual diamonds. This is not only a nod to the Amiga version which had red diamonds, they are special jewels. Collect all from one level, and you have cleared it perfectly. Clear all levels in a world to perfection, and you can access a bonus level of that world.

The red jewel is also why some levels are worth exploring forwards and backwards, up and down. Later it will become increasingly hard to discover all the red jewels. You can play a level again if you didn't clear it perfectly the first time around. This adds some replay value as I just didn't care when sweeping the levels on the PC 2D version.

The red jewel is also a likely reason for why the time counter for levels is extremely generous. You can leisurely explore the whole area searching for those hidden jewels. Still, I got the feeling no-one really tested meticulously what would be a good amount of time for any given level, so they just gave a bunch.


There are also two additional tools for Giana. First, it's possible to get a bubblegum or a soda from a dispenser. The former allows Giana to float in a balloon, whereas the soda produces a Turrican-style beam of water that can be rotated momentarily around Giana. 


Here some of my problems begin, at least on the PC version. Floating on a balloon, avoiding sprites, is something that I could have cooked up as a C64 BASIC game in the 1980s and the movement is just as sluggish. And of course there has to be at least one hell-hole of a level that requires the player to navigate the balloon in a corridor of spikes and flames and bees. The 8-8 level particularly can F.O.

The DS version at least has better controls and Giana doesn't jank around in the bubble when flying. It still doesn't become my favorite part of the game. There's an option to use the microphone to blow the balloon upwards, but I shudder even to think of this.

The Soda gimmick is mostly just a "key" to open areas, as it washes out breakable walls and obviously blows out any flames. It's said to push monsters too, but at least the crabs didn't seem to care much about it and I ended up losing a life because of this misinformation.

Splosh. Also, the inevitable glitch.

The two extra items didn't do much to the Giana experience, but as a way to open bonus areas they are more inventive than just plain keys or warp items. On the DS, having to press the touch screen to activate the bubble gum does not add much, or actually nothing. 

The game doesn't make much use of the double screen anyway. The information and world map is at the bottom screen, which means you have to slide your eyes there to check if you have all the red diamonds. So, it's one area where the PC version could be said to be better.

Both versions have a look up and look down function, which in theory adds to the process of searching secrets on some levels. It tends to be a bit useless, although fortunately not too distracting.

Levels and difficulty

Part of the main game levels are clearly based on the original Giana Sisters material, and I enjoyed these the most. Although it also felt like visiting the ruins of a partly abandoned gianaverse. These tribute levels have no warp tiles, and although the spaces for the spider and the dragon bosses are there, the bosses do not appear.

Instead the Dragon, now somewhat flatulent, makes an appearance in a separate sub-level, where you need to jump on top of the dragon to kill it. In the Nintendo DS version, the Dragon is more formidable. It moves faster and swoops down on you on the first instance. With the PC game, I felt that nearly all the dragons were quite simple up until the last one or two. We don't get to see the giant spider.


The difficulty ramp is one of the more annoying aspects of the game, at least on the PC version. With DS I can't say much because I'm in effect playing the same levels again with better controls. Although at times the small screen makes things harder to see than on the PC.

The PC experience was that for a long while the game is mind-numbingly simple, playing lazily I still had 10+ lives at my disposal. Suddenly it becomes significantly harder and not always in the way I'd hope for. The typical way to die is to bump your head at a thing you didn't properly understand, ending up in a chasm instead.

On Nintendo DS I had 20+ lives at one point. It's possible the balancing of the game and the amount of content is not exactly on par with best console jumping games, but it's a Giana game alright. It may be that as I spent some time in summer to complete the C64 version, the new game felt comparatively easy.

One more detail about the version differences. When the bouncing spiky balls are first introduced on PC, I thought I would have to jump over them much like the similar opponents in the original game. No way this could be done, and I lost many lives trying it. Then I realized I have to go under them instead. Funnily enough in the DS version these spike-balls jump considerably higher and it is more obvious you can pass under them. Hmm.

On the Nintendo DS

The prize for least welcome new enemies are the ghosts, as they simply float around in broad circles larger than the screen, and disregard the physical world around them. They also figure into the "avoid sprite" game mechanic territory which feels a little out of place. I don't think there is a precedent for them in the Giana lore either! My opinion didn't change much on the DS, as added vileness they are maybe even less easy to see.

Looks and feels

The PC version has a "retro" Giana level set, which remixes the original game levels more consistently, but with the new controls and monsters. And a remix it is by necessity, not all the monster types are reproduced, the secret cave logic isn't the same, and so on and on. The DS version doesn't have this game option as far as I know.

The vectorizing of elements on the PC has not been always successful but there have been a few bright ideas here and there. For example, using an airbrushed look for some of the graphics, harking back to that weird Giana Sisters Amiga game cover and loading screen. Then again some of the grass splotches and plants look horribly ill-defined.

Squish those eyes

I'm glad the game is not pumped up with some kind of between-level narrative or text, although for some people this might be a minus. After playing further it's apparent Giana Sisters DS/2D is not a very complex or content-rich game. In this way it further reminds me of the Commodore 64 days.

On Nintendo DS, it is even more apparent how close this actually is to the Commodore 64 game, especially the early levels. The pixel graphics and the atmosphere are spot on, the controls are similar but smoother.

On the other hand, the DS screen is very tiny and not super-high quality. In a perfect world I could somehow play this exact DS version on a CRT monitor.

The DS has nicer looking Giana sprite, and the "punk" version has better attitude and animation than the PC 2D. Truth be told not all the levels look very grand on the Nintendo either, some underground tunnel levels are not on par with the best outdoor ones.


If I'm generous and have my nostalgia lens on, I could see Giana Nintendo DS as a 8/10 game. The PC "2D" version could be a 6 or 7/10 -ish, it still gives enjoyment especially if you're on some kind of Giana binge.

Giana timeline:

1987: The Great Giana Sisters

2009: Giana Sisters DS

2012: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

2015: Giana Sisters 2D

2015: Giana Sisters: Dream Runners

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Karl Bartos:The Sound of the Machine

I had a German language edition of this 2017 book already a few years back, but after struggling through few pages I gave it up. Now I'm holding the 2022 English edition in my hands.

Although this is an artist autobiography of Karl Bartos, it also tells the story of Kraftwerk from his perspective, and how it befell on him to join Ralf and Florian's project as an electronic percussionist.

As the story goes, Autobahn became a hit in the US, and the band embarked on a tour over the Atlantic. This likely provided them with a great bonding experience that helped establish Bartos (and Wolfgang Flür) as regulars in the lineup. Perhaps it also convinced the foursome that Kraftwerk had a future at all.

Bartos shared writing credits in many songs during the productive era, so this book could potentially shed light on how the works were created.

Starting the machine

About fifth of the book is dedicated to pre-Kraftwerk days, starting from childhood and tracking Karl's increasing musical competence and diversity. At one moment he could be doing pop and rock covers and backing work with the Jokers on a national level, then playing a vibraphone at a classical concert. The main message here is that Bartos not only had experience as a practical musician but was really the only "theoretically" trained musician in the line-up. The story of applying to the conservatory is amusing, as it doesn't sound very formal.

This background allows him to assess that Ralf and Florian were not big on music theory. More importantly, they instead applied a kind of minimalist art sensibility to sound, arising from the growing kraut/cosmic/psychedelia scene doing rounds in galleries and other unlikely venues.

This is not to say Ralf and Florian were "ordinary" people, as they were embedded in the cultural scene of Düsseldorf, and apparently had more money than most of their experimental contemporaries. Bartos describes Ralf as having a keen entrepreneurial eye over the Kraftwerk project, perhaps for both better and worse.

Whatever the reasons, Kraftwerk achieved a remarkably consistent "European" interpretation of pop-sound, stripped of blues and rock influences, even shedding the psychedelic/cosmic aura in the process. If Kraftwerk did anything "first", it was perhaps this consistent portrayal of themselves as a synth-only band, producing album after album of quality music, paving way to a future where electronic music was no longer esoteric or one-off novelty.

The Magic formula

As the book turns to the Kraftwerk years, the narrative becomes a chronology of events using the album releases as milestones, examining individual songs. A common structure in Kraftwerk literature, however having Karl Bartos recollect it makes it more interesting. The book doesn't really try to explain how Kraftwerk came to be, but he gives a summary of the earlier days.

It is instantly clear that Bartos won't explore all songs in great detail. On occasions there are interesting recollections about how the songs were put together and who did what, whereas some are passed over almost completely. For example, he has nothing to say about the Paul Hindemith melody quote in Tour de France, glossing it over as "film music".

Possibly Karl doesn't want to fabricate things where he suspects his memory wouldn't serve him right, but at times I felt the book could have been a little more colorful when describing encounters with other artists. Instead, Bartos occasionally digresses into historical sidetracks, explaining the origins of electronic music, musique concrète, the presence of onomatopoeia in classical music and the life and times of Wernher von Braun.

I don't mind, these add tapestry to what could have been a very one-dimensional autobiography. But for example, an even more accurate description of their studio and song-making processes could have been of interest.

Bartos interprets the "golden years" of Kraftwerk as resulting from the equilateral triangle of Ralf, Florian and Karl himself working creatively and informally in a state of flow in the Kling Klang studio at Mintropstraße. Whereas the initial concepts, melodies and lyrics could be brought to the table by Ralf, Karl would work from his experience from both classical and pop worlds. This was not limited to percussion. Florian would tinker with sound effects, vocoders and speech synthesis–not a small part of the band's signature sound.

Karl attributes a lot of the development of the late 1970s Kraftwerk sound to sequencers, for example the Triggersumme and Synthanorma, which could handle increasingly complex loops in those pre-MIDI times. It is then not surprising the band would continue to follow new technical trends in order to rejuvenate their interest in music-making.

Somewhat closer to my blog themes, from the late 1980s MIDI-era Karl mentions Sequencer Plus (Voyetra) as his software of choice, an early graphical and mouse-compatible MS-DOS sequencer, yet based on the text mode. In an interview from 1998, available on the SoundOnSound website, he discusses his "little Yamaha C1 music computer" with 8 MIDI out ports, which he still used 10 years after its release with the same software running in it. I didn't know Yamaha had another go at the Music Computer concept after the CX5M MSX.

Without Karl really saying so, the various technical apparatuses might be considered the "fifth" member of Kraftwerk. Obviously there were a number of important sound engineers and associates that could also fit in that role. The currently touring personnel Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz emerge from these positions and have in fact been associated with the band for a rather long time. Emil Schult, despite (or because) being a visual artist, could also have a claim of being a 'werker, and he also shared songwriting credits.

Oh, and although Kraftwerk had bespoke gear and the impressive Kling Klang studio set, they didn't really "build their own synths".

As is usual in Kraftwerk literature, the album Electric Café is cited as a failure. Bartos is perhaps more entitled to say this than most, and I can understand it from an artist's point of view: Five years were spent tinkering on the record and it barely visited the charts.

Karl gives a lengthy interpretation of the album's failure as a combination of forgetting the aforementioned music-making methodology that led to the successful albums, the poorly thought out renovation of the Kling Klang studio which also encouraged working in a detached way, and the insistence on trying to replicate or improve on the synth sound now ubiquitous in the charts. Bartos also feels that the increased focus on dancefloor music was harmful to the developments.

To me, even if a commercial and critical failure, the album perhaps aged better than many contemporaries. In an age when the "warmth of analogue sound" has become a saturated cliché, this cold and stark echo-chamber of digitalized musical ideas feels novel in comparison.

Later Years

Karl Bartos was hungry to do more musical work, with or without Kraftwerk, but as Ralf and Florian put an embargo to any solo projects, he felt he had to leave the band behind. It happened surprisingly late considering how problematic Bartos saw the situation already in the early 1980s.

It is astonishing that the band did not do concerts for almost ten years, at a time that appears in retrospect as the peak of their creativity. But as Bartos tells Kraftwerk didn't get huge audiences with their early 1980s gigs, and considering the amount of bulky gear they had the motivation to tour must have been low. After the success of The Model there might have been more demand, but apparently Ralf refused to tour.

How could anyone have known that months would turn to years, and years into a decade. A decade that sported an isolated single and a strained album release, culminating into the retrospective self-remix album The Mix. In some ways, the process of "cataloguing" the Kraftwerk sound had already begun in mid-1980s.

After leaving Kraftwerk, Bartos has done a surprisingly large number of projects, solo albums, remixes, production work and other appearances. For those who didn't actively follow the "ex-kraftwerker" career, this output was likely not very visible.

But even I was aware of Elektric Music, the project between Bartos and Lothar Manteuffel of Rheingold fame. Esperanto was a good straightforward electro-pop album in the vein of OMD and Depeche Mode, decked with a recognizable Emil Schult cover design.

Despite having material towards a second album, the project broke up. Considering how much Bartos discusses the dysfunctionalities within Kraftwerk, it's a pity the closing of this chapter is not explored in more detail.

The solo album Communication from 2003 was unfortunate in that it co-incided with Kraftwerk's Tour de France Soundtracks. Bartos laments the timing and being overshadowed by his former band. Although the album is solid, I felt it was burdened with the somewhat heavy vocoder/robot sound.

The book doesn't discuss Wolfgang Flür that much, possibly allowing his story to live in his own autobiography "I was a Robot" from 2000. In this telling it even looks like Flür didn't so much "leave" Kraftwerk, but simply did not bother to come back when his playing was required, instead preferring to focus on his interior design work. I've sometimes wondered why Bartos and Flür did not subsequently collaborate, and the book gives no answer to that.

I am slightly worried that Karl's voice in this book isn't as determined as in some of his past interviews, where he might discuss gear and events in more detail. Has he "bought" the commonly accepted narrative about Kraftwerk, and fills the gaps of his memory and notes with it? How reliable is this narrator?

Much like that Wolfgang Flür outing, this book gives just one piece of a larger puzzle. Anyone interested in Kraftwerk needs to read it. But the ultimate mystery of Kraftwerk, if there really is one, does not become really closer to being revealed. Ralf Hütter's public utterings are repetitions of past and mostly intentional riddles anyway, Florian Schneider is dead and can no longer answer questions. Possibly the long-time collaborating sound engineers, touring currently, could add their say.

For a few years, Kraftwerk had a playing field largely to themselves, but as others caught up, many of their ideas could be replicated with world-class engineering and equipment the band themselves lacked. Kraftwerk tried to rise to defend the small hill they so far had occupied, but, the way Bartos sees it, were mistaken about their goals and purpose.

Now Karl is critical of the latest trends in music distribution, which can be difficult for a musician with a 1970s conception of the recording industry. If music becomes ubiquitous, he argues, it is in danger of losing meaning. Such is the price of democratizing the means of sound generation, distribution and listening! Karl's love of music is tied forever to the moment when a person came from over the channel and put a physical disc of Beatles' Hard Day's Night on the turntable.

Off the Record, on record

I also acquired the Karl Bartos album Off the Record, from 2013. Back then I felt no great compulsion to buy the album. After reading the book I had a bigger motive, trying to see the album as a complementary piece to the retrospective writing.

As a tiny tribute to his thinking, I chose to play the disc from start to finish on a CD player, instead of habitually ripping the tracks over to the computer.

The album plays heavily into the idea of Bartos as a former Kraftwerker, an identity he has variously distanced himself from. The backstory of a "secret audio diary" gives the tantalizing prospect that here might be some material from the golden age of Kraftwerk. Yet these are no lost tapes, but new songs based on concepts and material from over the years, an "autobiography in sound".

Glancing at some reviews and comments, some apparently feel Karl's solo output sounds the same as Kraftwerk. I tend to disagree. Although there are Kraftwerk quotes here, to me this is still an extension of the personal sound Bartos developed after leaving the band. 

Yes, it's surely part of the same genealogy and almost immune to any recent trends in the myriads of genres of electronic pop music. Nowadays the idea of equating progress with electronic music appears problematic, so it is not surprising the album does not attempt to innovate but to simply move on.

I felt that listening to the record as a whole makes the music stronger than trying to concentrate on the merits of any individual songs. The more beautiful and intriguing spots are distributed evenly across the album, no one song becomes a real stand-out piece.

Beatles was a revelation to Bartos. To me Kraftwerk was perhaps a similar turning point, something that made me appreciate any music at all, really. But it may be that instead of music, to me computers and TV games were more miraculous and a "lights-on" moment, the "voice of my generation". Encountering Kraftwerk's music and visuals was more an extension of that experience.