“The Error Message as a bourgeois construct”

If you try to run the (unmodified) BASIC code for Oregon Trail (1975) on PDP-8 BASIC, you get this:

 DI 30
 XC 45
 XC 205
…
 IF 700
 NM 730
… (many, many more lines …)

I thought at first it was a stack trace, but nope — it’s error messages! You need to dig through your trusty language manual, and on page 132 it has a table to explain:

DI ERROR IN DIM STATEMENT
IF ERROR IN IF STATEMENT
NM MISSING LINE NUMBER
XC CHARS AFTER END OF LINE

(and yes, they’re in all-caps. Mixed case? Mixed feelings!)

So whenever Python throws a tantrum (or as it calls it, an exception) and wails at length about its problems, remember PDP-8 BASIC: Two letters + a line number. That’s all.

The Pocket DEC Pretender (PDP) Zero

PDP (Pocket DEC Pretender) Zero: lettering came out a bit more, um,  artisanal than I’d hoped …

Digital (aka DEC) used to make some very solid minicomputers back when a minicomputer was fridge-sized and people were still building nuclear power stations to be controlled by them. The Raspberry Pi Zero is a very mini computer indeed, and in USB gadget mode running SimH it makes a nice little emulation platform.

The case is from Thingiverse: One Piece Raspberry Pi Zero + Camera Case (with GPIO) by Superrei, but with the DEC PDP logo in relief on the top.

DEC minis were famous for their arrays of blinkenlights. The Pocket DEC Pretender, not so much: it has one tiny green light that flickers a bit now and again:

PDP (Pocket DEC Pretender) Zero: case open, very few blinkenlights

But it’s a genuinely useful (for my values of useful) emulation platform. Here it is pretending to be a PDP-8, running BASIC under OS-8:

PDP (Pocket DEC Pretender) Zero: PDP-8 BASIC!

(background in case pictures woven in Toronto by Deftly Weft)

Apple II on Raspberry Pi

C’mon let’s all die of dysentery on the Oregon Trail!

Building and installing the linapple-pie Apple IIe emulator is relatively easy on the Raspberry Pi:

sudo apt install libcurl4-openssl-dev libzip-dev zlib1g-dev libsdl1.2-dev libsdl-gfx1.2-dev libsdl-image1.2-dev libsdl-sound1.2-dev build-essential git
git clone https://github.com/dabonetn/linapple-pie.git
cd linapple-pie/src
make
sudo make install

This also works on an x86_64 Ubuntu machine. It does also install on a PocketCHIP (even if it takes a really long time) but I can’t get the display resolution to fit correctly.

Fun things you learn from old computers …

The program on the left is running on the decimal interpreter, the one on the right the regular one

Microsoft used to supply two versions of its BASIC for Macintosh. One used decimal mathematics for precise tallying of small amounts. The other used the more familiar floating point mathematics, rounding errors and all. I don’t know what floating point library Microsoft used for sure — perhaps Motorola’s 32-bit Fast Floating Point system — but it introduces rounding errors pretty quickly. Modern routines don’t start displaying oddly until after 15 decimal places.

Consider this simple program:

10 LET x=36/10
20 LET a$="## #.#"
30 FOR n%=1 TO 18
40 PRINT USING a$; n%; x
50 LET a$=a$+"#"
60 NEXT n%
70 END

Along with the number of decimal places, it should print 3.6, 3.60, 3.600, 3.6000, … with an increasing line of zeroes after the 3.6. Bas makes a valiant but typical attempt:

 1 3.6
 2 3.60
 3 3.600
 4 3.6000
 5 3.60000
 6 3.600000
 7 3.6000000
 8 3.60000000
 9 3.600000000
10 3.6000000000
11 3.60000000000
12 3.600000000000
13 3.6000000000000
14 3.60000000000000
15 3.600000000000000
16 3.6000000000000001
17 3.60000000000000009
18 3.600000000000000089

Oddly enough, good old Locomotive BASIC on the Amstrad CPC does it more correctly somehow:

So the variables, they vary.

Spectrum is Green!

My previous adventures with my Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K in Canada were not resounding successes. I couldn’t get the display to work, and tapes wouldn’t load well, so I’d been using Fuse while the hardware sulked in a cupboard.

I’d previously got a proper power supply (9 V DC, ≥ 1.4 A, centre negative) and bypassed the PAL UHF modulator to give composite video. No television, monitor or converter box that I had tried seemed to give a useful display.

Back in May, Walter Miraglia brought a tiny 7″ composite colour monitor to TPUG‘s Retrocomputing Night. He let me try it with the Spectrum, and it worked very well. Walter said it was an extension monitor for a car DVD player.

I dug around, and found that local surplus clearout store Tech Source Canada had the Philips 7″ portable DVD Player PD7016/37 for $60. This gives you two identical DVD players with composite input. I think my other one will be destined for a Raspberry Pi project somewhere.

To get these monitors running, you’ll need:

  • a 9–12 V DC power supply able to give ≥ 1 A. I use a regulated supply that gives 9.1 V open circuit and is rated at 2 A. Note that the power connector is slightly smaller than the common 2.1 mm barrel, so you may have to order this one, unless you can solder something up.
  • A cable like this 3.5mm Stereo to Composite Video + Audio Cable (3 RCA). These are sometimes just called camcorder cables. They use a 3½ mm TRRS jack, and can also — if you don’t mind not quite having the connectors in the right order — work with the composite/audio output of more recent Raspberry Pis. Tech Source had these for under $5.

Connect it up , and — success! Well, slightly qualified success. The screens do not have the greatest resolution, so pixels are slightly smeared together. The screens do have a decently fast refresh, and the whole look is just right. With its colour clash and dot crawl, nobody ever expected great video from the Speccy anyway.

Here are some screen shots taken with my phone, and a couple of pixel-sharp screenshots from Fuse to compare:

Moon Cresta - complete with authentic weird language
Moon Cresta – complete with authentic weird language
Moon Cresta — the same screen from Fuse
Moon Cresta — the same screen from Fuse
Moon Cresta - nice loading screen
Moon Cresta – nice loading screen
Manic Miner — a game I am not good at
Manic Miner — a game I am not good at
Manic Miner - perhaps the (deliberately?) worst game music ever
Manic Miner – perhaps the (deliberately?) worst game music ever
3D Death Chase — OH NOES A TREE!!!!1!!
Deathchase — OH NOES A TREE!!!!1!! Looks like the Riders of the Big Bikes just lost another member
Knight Lore
Knight Lore
Chuckie Egg
Chuckie Egg
Chuckie Egg from Fuse. We can't do anything about the attribute clash
Chuckie Egg from Fuse. We can’t do anything about the attribute clash

So I can now definitely view the screens. Huge thanks to Walter for tipping me off to these DVD players.

[Incidentally, the screens are designed for car use, so don’t stand up properly unless you get creative with some supports. I laser-cut these out of 3 mm plywood:

mini screen feet for 3 mm ply
mini screen feet for 3 mm ply. Cutting template PDF is linked underneath this image

Glue the little sticks on to the flat ends, and they’ll fit into the slots in the back of the monitor. Here are the feet with the sticks fitted:

screen feet with sticks glued in place
screen feet with sticks glued in place

There are better-designed feet than these, but they work, mostly.]

I was still having game loading problems. Try as I might, I couldn’t get anything to load reliably. Retrocomputing Stack Exchange came to the rescue, in the shape of mcleod_ideafix’s very helpful answer.  If your audio player is running from batteries and you can use a stereo cable, you can convert the normal mono loading audio into stereo with one channel inverted. This gives you effectively double the volume, and works quite well with my audio player, an old Edirol R-1*.

Inverted stereo loading data, showing 4000/8000 Hz speedload tones
Inverted stereo (or differential) loading data, showing 4000/8000 Hz speed-load tones

This audio will not load into an emulator, or work with a mono cable. Some audio players even render it as silence.

Here’s a script to take monophonic loading data and convert it to this faux-differential stereo format using Sox:

#!/bin/bash
# wav2differential.sh - convert mono game tape audio to 2× stereo
# usage:   wav2differential.sh infile.wav
#          (creates  infile-differential.wav)
# scruss - 2016-06-07
# method by ‘mcleod_ideafix’; many thanks / greetz
#   — https://retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/a/774/439

base="${1%.wav}"
sox -q --norm=-3 "$1" -b 16 "${base}-n.wav"
sox -q  "${base}-n.wav" "${base}-ni.wav" vol -1.0
sox -q  --norm=-0.1 -M -c 1 "${base}-n.wav" -c 1 "${base}-ni.wav" -c 2 -b 8 "${base}-differential.wav"
rm -f  "${base}-n.wav" "${base}-ni.wav"

If you want to check your audio levels, sox can also create the 800 Hz header tone used by the Spectrum. Run the output of the command below through the script above, load it onto your audio player and fiddle with the volume until the border flickers steadily:

sox -n -b 8 -r 8000 800hz-header.wav synth 30 square 800
Lovely loading bars ...
Lovely loading bars …

I was also looking for the games to load fairly quickly. Tapes used to take over three minutes to load, and while retrogaming all is about the experience, I haven’t got time for that. Fuse has some utility programs which will convert a .Z80 game snapshot into an audio file that loads in about 1¼ minutes.

To convert the snapshot to a speed-load TZX tape image:

snap2tzx -o game.tzx -s 3 game.z80

To convert that virtual tape image into audio:

tape2wav -r 16000 game.tzx game.wav

You can then run that WAV file through the stereo/differential script I listed above. Have fun!

LibreOffice brings the old

Twenty-two years ago, I wrote a thesis. It wasn’t a very good thesis, but it did what it needed to do. For years, its model files have been unreadable, because the spreadsheets were written in a ~1992 version of Microsoft Works. These are old files:

1993-04-21 03:19 newmodel.wks
1993-04-21 03:19 newmodel.wk1
1993-04-08 06:29 pr_fa.wks

Quite recently, LibreOffice realized that there are old files out there that (unlike my thesis models) could still be useful. As they have no commercial requirement to only support the latest and greatest, LibreOffice added the ability to read these ancient works. So my old stuff lives again:

ms works files from 1993

I found a screen dump that I used back in ’93 to illustrate the layout. The display was colour, but here it is brought back to life with a little bit of antialiasing:

'93 print stylee

LibreOffice can also read old AppleWorks files. Although Works 6 still runs on Catherine‘s Mac, it looks a bit … dated:

appleworks

Thanks, LibreOffice! It’s sometimes easy to forget (like right after updated to Ubuntu 15.04, which decided that BlueTooth support was kinda optional unless you jumped through hoops …) that people do write software just to be more useful.

The shell of dead media lives on

You have to be of a certain age to recognize this:

… not just as an artist’s travel palette, but as a repurposed case for a 9-track tape spool. While tape drives were iconic for mainframe computers (so much so, there’s a Unicode glyph for them: ✇), the last drives and tapes came off the line a decade ago. They’re not truly dead until everybody forgets what these cases were originally for.

Amstrad CPC INKEY codes

 

Ganked from the CPC 6128 manual. You’re welcome …

Note that non-printing keys (like SHIFT) are really hard to emulate on modern machines. The CPC scanned them as if they were any printing key, but modern machines handle them like key modifiers.