Wednesday 18 April 2012

My mis-spent 8-bit youth

As a member of the 8-bit generation, it's worth my while to note that Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore Business Machines, has passed away at the age of 83. Tramiel himself was a flawed genius, especially with his later efforts at post-crash Atari, but no-one can deny that he kept his word when he said that computers should be "for the masses, not the classes".

When I started primary school, the Commodore 64 was the first computer I ever set my hands on, paving the way for a lifelong interest in the new phenomenon of home computing. I even once drew an accurate picture of our new machine and took it to school to show to the teacher, which was probably an early sign of high-functioning autism. It was also the time I grew up listening to the Second British Invasion, but that's for another post.

Unlike other home computers of its time, the C64 featured the 3-channel SID sound chip, designed by Bob Yannes, who had a background in synthesiser engineering. Musicians like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway composed or otherwise rearranged many memorable tunes on the SID. It'd be interesting to hear them rearranged with real instruments, although Galway is on record saying his tunes wouldn't sound right if they were remade with them.

The C64's VIC-II sprite system also eclipsed others of its type, although its closest rivals, the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro and Apple IIe still outdid it in vector graphics. Much has been said of the 8-bit home computer rivalry, but from past experience that seemed mostly a British and American thing.

Among the first games I was introduced to were the C64 port of Wizard of Wor, Archon, M.U.L.E. and Summer Games, which guaranteed we never got bored. Early on, as did many other users, we had issues with the external power supply overheating, which caused the TV to go black from time to time.

Not long after, we got the famous Soft-Aid charity tape, which was basically the gaming equivalent of Bob Geldof's Band-Aid. It featured a whole host of games, including Gumshoe, Gilligan's Gold (a knock-off of Bagman), Beamrider, and Flak (a Xevious clone). Back then, the long tape loading times and moving horizontal line art was well worth it, so long as the games actually worked - half the games didn't even start, probably due to a poor duplication process.

The record for the longest tape load would have to go to Pit Stop II, one of the first ever racing games with a split screen à la John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix:

Further down the track, we finally got a disk drive, which sped up the loading times greatly. No more 'PRESS PLAY ON TAPE' and 'VERIFY', it was now 'LOAD "*",8,1'. And we got to save the world from a mad scientist with a nuke.

The disk drive also made it a lot easier to share and copy stuff. My elder brother shared large measures of cracked software with his eccentric computer ace friend, who went on to become a Google engineer at Mountain View headquarters, and has since come back to NZ to set up a beach-head. How much of an ace? Well, he managed to push the C64 platform way beyond its original boundaries, and when he came over to our place it was always fun to watch. In Europe it was taken to a whole new level with the 'demo scene'.

Type-in programs from the likes of COMPUTE!'s Gazette were also worth the tedium of keying in all the alpha-numeric codes and commands.

Eventually our original C64 succumbed to increasingly unresponsive keys, among other gremlins. We replaced it with a next-generation C64C, which had a more modern design like the C128 and the Amiga 500, even though beige was still the only colour available. That, in turn, suffered a static zap which it never fully recovered from. And I still remember which game I was playing at that fateful moment.

Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, after the Amiga 1200 and CD32 did not prove to be the life-savers Commodore hoped them to be. It also suffered from popular perceptions in its later years that it was strictly a maker of gamer's machines, in a world where the IBM clone was clearly in the ascendancy.

After migrating to Windows 3.1 and later 95, my past interest in the C64 was rekindled with the nascent emulation scene - and the advent of Netscape and the World Wide Web. After a few false starts, including an underpowered 80386 CPU, I was able to play, once again, many of the games that I never got to finish in my childhood.

In short, the Commodore 64 eventually made me the professional warranty-voider that I am today. Rust in peace, Jack.

Sunday 8 April 2012

SKY's net, part 2

Following on from an earlier post about the state of broadcasting in NZ, I hereby announce SKYNET v0.5, which made its first appearance in a PAS thread about the Kim Dotcom Bust.

And I'm encouraged by the responses so far, including that of fellow blogger Zippy Gonzales, who's already aped my words on the pokies-for-convention-centre pork barrelling. The avowedly pro-business Fran O'Sullivan and Dominon Post have also hit out at the blatant cronyism at work.

SKYNET. Coming soon to a T-shirt near you.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Press Release: NZ To Host US ICBM Defence Shield

Sunday, 1 April, 2012
Press Release: New Zealand Government

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman has announced that New Zealand is to host a number of United States-built inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) across the country.

"We welcome New Zealand's moves to solidify its homefront defence and military allegiances, as well as the economic benefits it brings," said Mr Coleman.

The ICBMs to be based in New Zealand are likely to be based on a variant of the W80-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles that are currently carried by the US Navy, and are believed to be the first land-based examples. Likely launch sites include the Far North, the East Cape, Opotiki, Turangi, and Kawerau. In addition, feasibility studies have also been carried out for a nuclear testing site in the Urewera Ranges.

Lemmy Newcomb, a spokesman for Raytheon, the manufacturer of the warheads, says the decision to host the ICBMs is a win-win situation. "With the rise of the Dragon's Teeth and North Korea's nuclear programme, no one can be too careful in these uncertain times."