Monday 26 October 2020


Lately I have used more reference images and/or nostalgia in my PETSCII graphics. Perhaps it's easier to judge the success of the image as it is based on something.

But I've also found there's a kind of "digital history consciousness" theme going on. Let's see.

Although Neuromancer came out in 1984, it's unlikely most "kids" heard about cyberpunk until very late 1980s. So in a sense, Max Headroom was way ahead of its time, an "avatar living inside the television set", an image that I knew was cool without knowing really why. The faked computer graphics enabled this 1980s figure to false start the 1990s.

This PETSCII of Max Headroom (AKA Catch the Wave) is the closest I've ever come to simply translating a photograph, although I did use multiple images for reference and not just one. Even then it's quite challenging to fit it into character graphics. The likeness is not 100% spot-on but I did not want to use sunglasses to cover the eyes.

The two-part "comic strip" below was done for the physical Kuti magazine #57. (Go check it here) Apart from my dabblings, the issue features other PETSCII works too. Below is the original export from Marq's PETSCII editor, with a height of two C64 screens. The print/digi-version has slightly different appearance.
Maher's book about Amiga reminded me of the Warhol/Debbie Harry promotional event. I was surprised to learn that Warhol actually dabbled in Amiga graphics even after this promotion. And why not, there was scarcely anything else he could have used at the time.

I initially hoped to do a full spread, with 4 or more panels, with a vague notion of connecting different themes in a 'surreal' or diagrammatic way to this event. But I focused on two images and threw away any surrealism, simply relating the 'historical' event in a somewhat comical way. Did Warhol do a PETSCII after all?

PETSCII Non Stop. This is another recreation, but not from a fake CGI head but a real one. I mean, not from an actor posing as a 3D head. It gets confusing. I occasionally take up on "technical" challenges, such as wireframe graphics with a character set. A still from the famous music video Musique Non Stop served as a starting point for this head.

The result does not probably resemble any one Kraftwerk member but approximates the idea.

Winampscii. Now, the recreation of the Winamp basic theme on C64 is old in itself (there's a few on C64 that actually play something), but I haven't come across one that is full PETSCII.

Thanks for Marq for pointing out the nostalgic winamp skin website and suggesting the Winampscii theme. I did try to make it somewhat more SID-specific. Supposing you have two sound chips (a real possibility), the Dual mode might make sense and in theory a pan-slider could be used.

This was done rather quickly and in hindsight I might have changed a few characters here and there.

And the rest

There's a couple of recent works that do not really fit into the above "digi-conscious" theme.

Advanced Pet Dragons. Although this looks like an "animation" it actually has a couple of code effects, significantly a primitive ray-caster. The material could have been crammed into an animation, too.

Since I made Digiloi, I have sometimes toyed around with other PETSCII game ideas. These days they tend to result in small-ish demos rather than full games, but that's better than nothing I guess.

The history with the Advanced Pet Dragons is that I had a somewhat ambitious game in the works, that in the end could not be reasonably completed. So I simply picked up and modified the ray-caster routine to draw dungeon animations.

PETSCII Gunship, to put it simply, is a recreation of the intro screen of Microprose game Gunship (1986).

I saw the screen could be turned into a PETSCII with very little loss. Seeing this opportunity pushed me to do a rendition. 

Although the Commodore 64 version was the starting point I also had a glance at the Amiga and PC versions. For example for the nose I deviated from the C64 source as it didn't look nice.

Hard Eagle, Floppy Disc is a quick and jokey re-imagining.

Ok, it tends towards the digi-consciousness theme, as it is yet another version of the Eagle Soft Inc. crack intro picture, burned into the retinas of a generation of Commodore 64 users. 

This relates to a small scene drama not worth discussing here, suffice to say PETSCII art was under attack too. I felt a need to do a something humorous and have the ever so serious Sam the Eagle to play the part.

Post script

In the past I've been a bit negative about recreating already existing images on PETSCII or pixels. But now I've found it quite educational and become a bit more accepting about using references for building images. 

Still, I've not followed images very slavishly. But even converting an image is a way to learn and discover, as the source image pushes you to try character combinations you might not otherwise use.

The task is also bit like translating. I could try to copy the bitmap image and then ignore positions that cannot be done. But it is more to important to get the sense of the original and even add detail that's not really there.

I didn't bother to build individual links to csdb, but these works and others can be found from under

Sunday 18 October 2020

Book: Tom Lean: Electronic Dreams

I recently skimmed through bunch of early 1980s ZX Spectrum magazines from the archives. The period seemed markedly different from the later games-oriented 1980s culture, so I wondered if there was literature about it. Turns out there is a British book about the home computer boom in the early days, called Eletronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2016)

The book was exactly spot on for me, as it does make notes on the early computer press in UK, even before the Spectrum days. It also provides some insight into the national zeitgeist and political background that the reading of early Spectrum magazines hinted at, but would not explain. 

The magazines really took upon themselves to educate people about computing and its uses, as a preparatory step to the future. Where and why did such a national fervour originate?

This is less a review of the book and perhaps more about the thoughts it inspired.

The book is prefaced by a concise history of the development of the computer and explaining the distinction between an eletronically-stored program computer with its predecessors. The emphasis on the UK and also the hobbyist angle in US and UK. There is a strong reminder that the UK had the lead on computer technology in various times and sported many "firsts", but lacked resources to keep ahead.

As the heavy industry was on the brink of collapsing, computers looked like a way into renewing the country, and for a short while the bespectacled teens from the suburbs of abandoned steel mill towns became the unlikely icons of this new opportunity.

Here comes the Sinclair

The significance of the low cost of Sinclair's ZX81 is greatly emphasised. Although the Apple II was a complete system for home, it was an import and the price was still prohibitive for an everyman. Magazines like PCW listed various computers systems for the UK market in late 1970s, but often with prices in excess of 2000 pounds.

It is now often too easy to look at just the specs of the old computers and put them into a top 10 list or something. It was the cheap price, marketing, penetration to the high street stores and a national rhetoric that drew ordinary people to buy a computer, not the specifications per se. ZX81 opened the gates for this.

The BBC computers are fairly unknown in Finland, so the story was less familiar to me, although I've known it in connection with Sinclair. As a kid I took it granted that computers came out of UK, but in hindsight it is a bit surprising it would be such a hotspot for the micro era. The Ferranti ULA chip appears to have been a great enabler there.

As an aside, BBC was one of the few 8-bit micros that were made with computing speed in mind. General users did not really discuss processing speed, and had it become a criteria more people might have wanted the Beeb. Look at BBC's Elite to see how it was meant to be. The structured BASIC is indeed pretty fast. Sinclair QL's SuperBASIC, although powerful, was jaw-droppingly slow in comparison. 

Even if most of buyers just dumped their cheap computers after the novelty wore off, the huge numbers and the timing meant a movement, or a cultural wave had been generated. Perhaps this Bit-lemania did not result in a Bit-ish Invasion, but nevertheless it had become something widely known and commented on. 

Although in Finland the Commodore 64 is now recognized as a 1980s cultural artifact of some importance, its reception at the time still pales in comparison to how the Brits loved their Speccies back in the day.

In this telling, Sinclair appears to have been less antagonistic towards games than some narratives have suggested. Spectrum was already designed with games in mind. And it's obvious from the early lineup that included polished games such as Flight Simulation and Chequered Flag, not to speak of Chess, Othello and Backgammon. All of these were relatively high-brow and "educational" and the Spectrum still did not come with a joystick port.

I'm thinking if the Spectrum was nothing more than a packaging of the features the 3rd parties offered for the ZX81: extra memory, better keyboard, pixel graphics. Even the simplest analysis for the uses of ZX81 would reveal that games were popular.

Still, the book maintains the high proportion of games and the whole gaming culture that emerged, came as something of a surprise.

All you need is 1K

The resounding question was "what is it for?" It is repeatedly pointed out that home computers were pushed onto the market without a clear concept what the home needed them for. 

The book strongly points out the educational and computer literacy project was consciously kickstarted in the UK, and this engaged both public imagination and suggested opportunities for private sector.

And it turns out the early 1980s reason truly was "programming", not recipes or games. Therefore the answer the author presents is actually quite clear: From a political and social perspective, home micros were a literacy and educational project, a head start towards things to come.

As much as no one figured you should really type on the computer, it becomes understandable many cheap computers did not have advanced keyboards. If you were expected to write a BASIC program that tops at 1K, you could write it on any moldy log.

The book gives a convincing case of the home micro era as a short exploratory period where the purpose of computing of home was being teased out, paving way for the more task-oriented workstations, "personal computers". Just about then the persistent killer applications for home turned out to be word processing, and in hindsight, spreadsheets, for which the 8-bit micros were somewhat inadequate.

Against this backdrop it is not so surprising that Sinclair would attempt something of a "home business" computer with the QL. As the micros were on the way out something new was needed. Rather than being ignorant of what was happening, Sinclair was simply looking at what the existing uses pointed at, followed his previous formula, placed his bets and lost.

The book is also an important reminder that the rhetoric that pushes "coding" for young people, already existed in the 1970s UK if not earlier. "If you don't teach your kids programming, they will be the losers in the future. If the nation doesn't upgrade itself, it will be a loser among nations."

The author ends the telling with the 2010s perspective, when the "new BBC micro", the Raspberry Pi became a hit. And it's true there is a certain amount of industry and new learning that has spawned around platforms like the Pi and (unmentioned) Arduino. The emphasis is more on learning digital electronics and embedded systems, but it's also possible the Pi is devolving into a cheap "2nd desk computer".

I'm rather wondering if 2010s smartphones and tablets should also be compared with the original home micro boom. At first, many companies rush to the market with devices with poor ecosystems and few standards, producing an industry of gadgets and fixes to problems that might not even exist. A few random people become rich by creating software and games for the new environment, before big business and the logic of the marketplace makes it impossible but for the most dedicated teams. 

Let it Bit

The home micro era was a roughly 5-year period of time sandwiched between the professional, industrial and scientific computers of the 1970s and the personal computer era heralded by 16-bits like the Macintosh, Archimedes, Amiga and the Atari ST.

Whereas the home micros period was marked by self-programming, exploration and learning, the new personal computers were based on launching ready-made applications, with already identified tasks such as word processing and games driving the design.

Although the home micro "paradigm" wasn't sustainable, it had certain important repercussions. As an immediate result Amstrad managed to extend the life of the micro by bundling it anew and also had success at packaging the PC for Europeans. People at Acorn pioneered the ARM processor. The UK games industry was born out of the home micro era. 

To me, Electronic Dreams has an additional subtext. Here newspaper snippets, hobbyist magazines and television programs from an era are used to create the picture of the public reception of the computer.

At the same time these were the medias most people still got their information from in the 1980s. Even the UK had only three TV channels and the BBC shows about chips and computers were seen and discussed by huge number of people.

The depicted age is therefore doubly nostalgic. Now all possible binaries, experiences and facts about old home micros are retrospectively regurgitated on the internet (ahem), but part of the charm is the relative isolation of the 1980s computer hobby and the openings into a wider world that the magazines, clubs, books and the occasional TV program would puncture. 

The book does go through quite a lot of widely known things and anecdotes, which can put off a reader who has already read many computer histories. Yet the landscape painted using these smaller stories is not yet too often seen, and the attempt at somewhat wider picture is very welcome.

Tiny mistakes are unavoidable. The QL did not have a 256-color palette initially (but 8) and the multitasking had to wait a bit too.

The book strikes a balance between a more general history of computing and the often too narrowly focused books that celebrate a single computer platform.  It is an unashamedly British-centric book, a  slice of history from a time and place when the notion of a "home computer" was still exciting and about the future.