Archive for the ‘hardware’ Category

More on intended uses

March 26, 2018

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I heard some anarchists had some feedback my post about intended uses of technologies. They disagreed with my claim that we don’t know the original intentions of Facebook. So let me expand a bit on the previous post.

I have this slightly mystical idea that humans can’t fully and perfectly understand what a certain media is (following Kittler). So I don’t think we should go all anthropocentric and claim that we know exactly what this is, like objectively dude. Maybe aliens know it better? Eh, for example. Our understanding of something as “simple” as a Commodore 64 clearly changes over time, as we discover previously unknown details. So we should at least be a bit humble and keep an open mind about the media’s substance.

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That is not to that say some media aren’t made with specific intentions from its human inventors, which might be obscured from the end user. It’s a very important discussion too, but a somewhat different one. Maybe Facebook was intended to become what it is today already from the beginning, as these anarchists claim to know, but how can we be sure? Spotify is easier to speculate about, because we know that it didn’t start with the idea of streaming music. They wanted to stream something. Whatever. Peer-to-peer something. But they knew that they wanted to sell ads. So maybe that was the original intention?

We can and should speculate about these things. Especially when we talk about the politics of media. After all, Spotify becomes something else when its history doesn’t start with “let’s revolutionize the music industry in our underwear” but instead “let’s sell ads by streaming stuff” (in Swedish). But I’m not sure that we should put too much focus on the origin.

In the end, it feels like a particularly Western thing to look for an “original intention”. A singular origin. The “one man, one idea” kind of thing (yeah, those stories are mostly about men). It’s probably more complex than that, right? Lots of people involved, economic interests, unexpected events, failures, power struggles, ideology, and so on. Even if we can define one point of origin, it seems pretty unlikely that any intended uses would be so firmly embedded in an object or in a company that it would withstand the pressure from decades of political and economical changes. Or, you know, from your friend Steve who turns your computer company into a walled garden.

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To me it seems fairly obvious that a human-made object can take on a “life” of its own that the inventors cannot anticipate or explain, and that the inventors don’t own. And it’s also fairly obvious that there are psychopath inventors and structures that don’t care/know about what they destroy.

Gif from Black Flags by William Forsythe. Just-in-case disclaimer: I don’t dislike anarchists.

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Who decides what “intended uses” are?

March 18, 2018

For the last year or so, there has been a growing mainstream critique of social media. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors are raising their concerns about what Facebook and other cyber gangs are doing to society. See for example the Center for Humane Technology. The recent concerns are often embedded in a discourse that “Russia” has abused Facebook to influence voting. But did they really abuse it? Or did they merely use it, as an article in WIRED recently put it?

It’s an important distinction, which has everything to do with how we talk about chip music and low-tech art. I’m doing a talk in Utrecht this summer, which has brought me back to these ideas. And they feel highly relevant now, with discussions about what social media are and how they should or should not be used.

Once upon a time the App Store rejected a Commodore 64 emulator because its BASIC interpreter could be used to program stuff. That was unacceptable at the time, but these policies later changed to allow the fierce power of C64 BASIC. It makes the point clear enough: what the iPhone and other iOS-devices can do is not just conditioned by its hardware. The possibilities of a programmable computer are there, only hidden or obscured. But there are ways to get around it.

And this is true for all kinds of hardware. Maybe today it’s even true for cars, buildings and pacemakers. There are possibilities that have not yet been discovered. We rarely have a complete understanding of what a platform is. My talk in Utrecht will focus on how the chip- and demoscenes over time have unfolded the platforms that they use. What is possible today was not possible yesterday. Even though the platforms are physically the same, our understanding – and “objective definitions” of them change. And it almost seems like the emulators will never be complete?

With a less object-oriented definition of these platforms, it’s reasonable to define the 8-bit platforms not only as the platform itself, but as an assemblage of SD-card readers, emulators and other more-or-less standard gadgets for contemporary artists and coders. The Gameboy, for example, might have been an inter-passive commodity at first, but after development kits were released, it changed. It used to be really difficult or expensive to get access to its guts, but now it’s relatively easy. So it might be time to stop framing Gameboy music – and most other chip music – as something subversive; something that goes against the “intended uses” of the platforms.

Sure, the Gameboy was probably not designed for this, in the beginning. And Facebook was probably not designed to leak data, influence elections, and make people feel like shit. But that’s not really the point. These possibilities were always there, and they always will be. But perhaps the Center for Humane Technology will push such materialist mumbo jumbo to the side, and re-convince people of the “awesomeness” of social media.

 

The Truth Behind E.T + Something a Lot More Disturbing

May 2, 2014

In case you missed it – for the past week the internetz has been going bananas about Microsoft digging out tons of Atari cartridges in a desert in USA. Microsoft? Yeah, they are sponsoring a documentary about the “urban myth” that Atari’s game E.T was so bad that they buried it in a desert in USA in 1983. And now they’ve dug it out, and revealed the truth! Well…

1. It’s not news. It’s always been known that they buried cartridges (New York Times from 1983). Wikipedia even claims that kids looted the site to find not only E.T-carts but also Raiders of the Lost Ark, Defender, and Bezerk.

2. The E.T game was an experiment made in a few weeks. Whether the game is crap or not is up for debate, but it was a bold move in a flood of boring.

3. Atari made bad business choices and market predictions. They over-produced and over-priced their games, under pressure from their owner Warner. This was one of the factors of the North American video game crisis. It wasn’t about one single bad game. It was a bubble that burst. And it took years before it would inflate again, when Nintendo stepped up to show it’s done…

4. We now know for sure that it wasn’t only E.T in there, but several other games. In total more than 700,000 cartridges.

It’s going to be interesting to see the documentary, I guess. But the reporting of BREAKING! single game actually buried in the ground wow! is just wrong. The true story is more like a tech-bubble leading to tons of crap in the desert, which pissed off the locals living there. And that is actually not so far from how it works today. Only a lot more toxic, on a much larger scale, and completely normalized.

Planned obsolescence and “e-trash” commerce makes sure that tons of toxic tech-stuff  is shipped to e.g Africa and China to kill the kids who work with it. It’s a tech bubble – since both the production and disposal of consumer tech is ecologically and socially unsustainable – only this bubble is out of sight, and way more serious. Hey, maybe that could be topic of your next documentary on Xbox, Microsoft?

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Toxics e-waste documentation (China : 2005)

Soundchips as Modular Synthesizers

January 16, 2014

I recently found the SID Guts rack, which turns the SID into a rack unit for modular composing. It seems to be really interesting to work with, and follows in the footsteps of eg POKEY.synth and myriads of DIY-projects. Long before that there was the Sidstation that made commercial synthesizers from the SID-chip. We’ll probably see more of this in the future, seeing that modular synthesizers is getting popular again.

So far, these platforms lack features (and bugs) that you get when working with these chips on a computer. With the original setups you could do multi-speed, sample playback, new waveforms, etc. To put it differently: you can’t use these systems to play the original chipmusic files, which rely heavily on various software trickeries.

Good riddance, maybe. To me, these rack units detach the soundchips from a context that has been tormenting them for decades: cheap and simple, nostalgic and videogamey, and used more for “programming than playing”, if you know what I mean.

Working with modular units means that you can have sounds/electricity affect eachother in complex setups. This is something that trackers are really bad at, because they work according to a linear logic, from top to bottom or vice versa. With these new machines, you can work in a more chaotic way, setting up systems that will play new music forever.

Or you know, “music”. Of course, it often turns into noise/drone/ambient which is a lot more introvert than the dance/pop aesthetics of the chip- and demoscenes. It seems to come with the territory. But anyway. These new gadget show two things that I think is important:

1. Soundchips are not as different from synthesizers as many people think. In fact, some of the early “synth music” like Cindy Electronium (1959) sounds very much like chipmusic. But in the 1990s these sounds were hi-jacked by 8-bit references, instead of being called analogue.

2. Even if you can technically make “any music” with a computer+soundchip+tracker, the music made with the rack interfaces are very different. For one, the cultural contexts crave for different music. The chipscene has been pretty obsessed with dance music, and modular synth geeks are … not. Secondly, the interfaces affect the way you compose. Trackers influence you to make music in certain ways. And I think this is an important point, which I was reaching for in my thesis. But if you want to make music, it might be a good idea to stay away from that topic…

Media Convergence as Bubble-Bubble

April 22, 2013

I’ve complained about Bruce Sterling before, and now I’m about to do it again. The reaon is this chart of platform convergence by Gary Hayes that he posted on Wired. It argues that we’re moving towards one device that can play everything. But here’s the thing:

No device can play everything. That’s just common sense, right? You can digitize a VHS-tape and convert it into a format that modern media players can understand. But then it’s not a VHS-tape anymore. Everything that is special about VHS has been removed. It’s a bleak imitation, at best. Sure, the difference is less if you discuss, uhm, Real Audio or executable files. But it’s still the same principle. The juicy materiality (hard- or softwareal) has been stripped away.

Emulators are not the same thing as the original machine. They are not worse or better – they are just different. One example is the C64-emulator for iPhone that wasn’t allowed to include BASIC. Coding is not something that the iPhone should support. So the C64 became yet another boring gaming device, in iWorld. Btw, that follows the logic of the chart, that places the C64 just before … XBOX! Lol! The point is: every remediation & convergence both adds and subtracts. Things disappear. For good and bad.

Media convergence is obviously something that’s going on, in many different ways. And when I think about it – perhaps Sterling and his crew are right. There will be a machine in the future that can do everything. Yeah. I’m pretty sure there will be. Because we already had that machine so many times before. The magical device that can delete the material constraints and make your dreams come true instantly and without friction. Remember virtual reality in the 1990’s? Or home computers in the 1980’s? Or … I don’t know, beamers and wheel chairs and jet paks?

Silly comparison? Maybe a little. But we have to accept that these interface fantasies are cultural constructions that were as “real” or relevant in the 80’s as they are today. In 30 years people will patronize our fantasies just like we do today.

And when you think about it… A touch screen that you can use some fingers on? No keyboard? Unprogrammable systems, automatic surveillance, distribution monopolies… I mean. Eh?

This convergence is just a bubble-bubble. It’s not some unavoidable teleological future. Seems more like a temporary phase before we move towards divergence and paint that in terms of progress and optimism. Just like we did with the 1980’s computer market, for example. Seems pretty likely to me.

Al Warka and the Iraqi Home Computer Scene

May 1, 2012

The history of home computer hacking seems to be very centered around Europe, US and Australia. But it’s important to not forget other regions. I’ve previously written about C64 cracking in Argentina, but there’s lots more to research about e.g Asia, Africa and the Middle East. After reading this blogpost I got in touch with Salwan Asaad, who told me more about the early days of home computing in Basrah, Iraq. As it turns out, it was similar to what I grew up with: platform wars, competitions, floppy swapping and meetings. Salwan:

Annual school competition on a local and national level in students developed demos [..] Gaming circles: I met many enthusiasts back then at the arcades, we used to gather up and go to arcades to play, talk, and exchange floppies. The last such gathering took place around 2001

While other arabic countries settled for the MSX-computers, which Salwaan refers to as “the enemy”, Iraq developed a unique series of computers called Al-Warkaa (or Al-Warka), named after an ancient babylonian city in Iraq. There were two popular models, which were both based on Japanese home computers. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any photos of them but Salwan told me that it looked like the NEC-ones, but in white instead of black. (photo from old-computers.com)

The Al-Warkaa PC-6002 was the Iraqi version of the Japanese NEC PC-6001 Mk2 SR. Soundwise, it used the the common AY-soundchip but I found a similar model that had a built-in speech synthesis (yeah!). It was probably the first home computer that could sing (my YouTube-playlist).

The Al-Warkaa, unfortunately, didn’t have this feature. Instead, it offered an extra soundchip (probably FM, judging from what Salwan says) with 3 voices. It had 12 preset sounds and also the ability to make custom sounds. A home computer with both FM and PSG built in! It seems that the NEC also was able to combine FM and PSG, just look at this great demo!

The Al-Warkaa PC-6002 had seven different BASIC-versions built in. One of them (mode 7) was the Arabic text mode – a complete arabic text editor with abilities like searching, replacing, printing, and could even format floppies, according to Salwaan.

Unfortunately, Salwan doesn’t know of any text art on the Al Warkaa. I haven’t seen much arabic text-mode stuff at all, actually (if you know of any, please get in touch). To get an idea of the possibilities though, here’s a chart showing how the characters looked in the MSX-computers (copied from msxblue).

The platform battle in Iraq was between MSX and Al Warka. Atari also released arabic computers (and ROM-upgrades for hebrew), like the rare Najm 65XE from which the first picture is from. The most popular MSX-version in Arabia was the MSX 170 which was called Al-Sakhr (“the rock”). While MSX was popular in many different countries, the Al Warkaa was mostly found in Iraq. MSX-users had professional Arabic manuals at hand, but the Warkaa’ers relied on photo-copied English manuals that were mostly focused on BASIC. Salwaan writes:

That’s kinda how Warka guys ended up losing in most head-to-head competitions to MSX guys, the best we can do is draw stuff using BASIC commands and may be binary-load an image from disk to accelerate displaying bitmaps a little. They were doing hardware-sprites and full-motion graphics…

If anyone reading has more knowledge about arabic demos or text-mode things, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail info at goto80 dot com. Finally, a big thanks to Salwan Asaad for sharing this!

C64-storage: uIEC

January 18, 2012

Storage is a problematic thing with the C-64 and most other 8-bitters. Floppies are great, but drives are heavy. That’s why I got the 1541U last year and my whole body was satisfied with it. But at 130 euros, it’s a bit pricey. The uIEC is roughly half price and lets you browse the memory card just like with a floppy disk. It was developed by Jim Brain, one of the titans of the Commodore world. Although it doesn’t work with all software, it’s still a great substitute for a disk drive.

The uIEC comes with no documentation whatsoever, which is kind of nice, but there’s actually not so much info online either. For the hardcore nerds that’s not a problem of course. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably insert it upside down. Like I did. But bloggers like Ilesj are helpful, and I wanted to do something similar. Please comment if you find any mistakes or have suggestions.

tl;dr. /// GOOD: cheap, doesn’t require d64-files, good-looking. /// BAD: tricky interface, no casing, no manual. /// TRICKS: buy with daughter card, update the firmware, use with Final Cartridge. /// I THINK it’s a good gadget for gigs – just put all your stuff on a memory card and avoid all that D64-confusion on stage.

The speed. The uIEC is just as slow as a normal disk drive, unless you use its built-in JiffyDOS fastloader. You can use it either by installing a piece of hardware in your C-64, or use e.g the SJLOAD-software. When you have it on the memory card, simply add a !* before the filename (LOAD”!*PROGRAM”,10,1). It loads very fast. However, SJLOAD doesn’t support shortcuts to enter directories, copy files, etc. To enter a D64-file for example, you have to write OPEN1,8,15,”CD//:ACIDBURGER.D64″:CLOSE1. So we need more interface.

The interface. I’m a bit lost with this, admittedly. Would be great with a simple support for short commands, but not sure if it exists. With programs like FB64 you can move around the memory card and load files from directories and D64-files. Also, the SJLOAD stays active if you loaded FB64 with it. Also, there’s software like CBM-Command to transfer files between D64/floppy/cards, etc. If you like that Norton Commander thing.

The loaders. The uIEC generally doesn’t work with software that tries to run code on the drive. So games and demos with many files and custom fastloaders probably won’t work. I noticed that SJLOAD caused some problems – like not being able to load files in the music software I use. So hopefully something better than SJLOAD will appear (or did it already?). There are a few fastloaders supported, such as Final Cartridge (couldn’t find mine to test with though). Also, plenty of the tools I use didn’t work until I updated the firmware.

The firmware. I had to update the firmware to be able to run software from folders or D64:s. No big deal though, just put the files on the memory card and it manages on its own.

Btw, good to know:

– The uIEC is device 10 by default. To show the directory you write LOAD”$”,10 instead of the normal LOAD”$”,8.

– If you buy the uIEC with daughterboard, you don’t have to fix your own power supply. Then it uses the cassette port for power.

– uIEC is based on the SD2IEC that grew out of the 1541-III. Other options are e.g. IEC-ATA and MMC2IEC.

– You can build an uIEC into a nice external box if you want to. Check out this one by Rik Magers for example:

1.000.000 soundchips you never heard about

November 7, 2011

Except for computers and consoles, there are many other machines with real or mimicked soundchips inside. The recent DCM8 drum machine and the amazing Droid3 are examples of the latter, while Sidstation and POKEY.synth contain actual soundchips. But these are all sort of retrospective projects from the past decade or so. But what kind of soundchip-machines was around in the 80’s?

The most obvious example is the YM-soundchips. It’s a confusing field but, basically, Yamaha made these chips for both consoles, computers, keyboards and synthesizers. They mostly used FM-synthesis, which was a big part of the sound of 1980’s (and early 90’s bedroom electronica like µ-ziq). Yamaha synthesizers like DX-21, DX-100 and FB-01 used soundchips that a few years later were found in consumer products like X68000, some MSX-models and plenty of keyboards (ABA-88 lol). Later on, similar chips were also found in soundcards and mobile phones. *

The Remco Electronic Sound FX machine from 1979 was quite the noise maker. It was built on the SN76477-chip, which was popular for arcade games like Space Invaders but also used in ABC80 and Gakken EX. There are a few semi-recent DIY-projects, but I haven’t been able to find old consumer products with this chip. Recently, Panzer Party released a vinyl composed only with the Remco machine though.

It’s surprising that so few soundchips were used for both games and instruments. They continue to be two quite different fields. One consequence of that is that computer/console-based chipmusic was always separated from those who used soundchip-keyboards. For example, the techno-centrics of chipmusic (‘a soundchip is an instrument/medium’) wouldn’t categorize a DX-21 song as chipmusic.

Another consequence is an apparent gap in soundchip research. Many soundchips were never used for computer/game stuff and are (therefore?) not so well documented. Chips like M114SCEM3394 or MC-3 2191 were found in keyboards, arcade games, toys and synthesizers. Some chips were found in speech devices, domestic robots, mobile phones and other thingies. Afaik, there is no thorough lists of such chips. There might not be 1.000.000, but who knows?

Well, there is Cyberyogi of course. He has an impressive collection of old keyboards that he also circuit bends (and makes squarewave music, not chipmusic). Describing the sounds, he often references POKEY (Simba – My MusicWorld, Hing Hon) and SID (Letron, PSS-100) but the hardware inside was either analogue or had obscure chips. There are probably people similar to him around the web, right?

(As some kind of consolation cross-over between synthesizers & computers, check out the HxC floppy disk emulator)

* I haven’t listened a lot to FM-music but to me it’s striking how different these chips were used by pop music producers and game composers. Virt argues that since FM-synthesis was difficult to grasp and had a crappy interface, most pop producers settled with using the preset sounds. (Reminds me a bit of how the TB-303 suffered from bad manuals and interface aswell.) Game composers though, were making far more complex things – sonically and musically. Was that because they were usually Japanese, and FM was very popular there, and they are better at enjoying unpredictable machines?

Winning Printers

November 2, 2011

Printers are the future! Like Apple’s new CEO said. According to … the Onion.

So it was a joke, but there is definitely something strangely futuristic about printers. It’s probably the most invisible post-digital thing around, and with DIY 3D-printers like reprap they might get some love soon again.

Or perhaps they already did? I’ve come across many printers with a strong character lately. They seem really fun to experiment with. The spraycan-based Near Tag Quality makes me think about an unthinkable mixture between beamers and blu (or?). Time Print Machine bleeds ink on paper, which creates round “pixels” of various sizes. Kind of like the LEGO printer and the human printer, but with more interesting results.

Electronic Instant Camera by Niklas Roy

But the Electronic Instant Camera by Niklas Roy is the reason for writing this post, really. Great work. Like a slow-fi Polaroid. A mixture of Gameboy Camera, Anton Perich’s painting machine from 1979, and the waterfall screen. I hope that it sounds good too. Printers are good music instruments

Anton Perich's Painting Machine

Finally, the TXT-PRINTER. It’s an official Philips TV from 1984 that contains a printer for outputting teletext pages. One at a time. I actually have one of these, and I can’t believe it didn’t get more popular! Photo taken from this page.

Amiga Apes and LSDj in Libraries

April 6, 2011

Archeopterix lives in Marseille and collects old hardware. Plenty of computers and consoles but also video cameras, keyboards, etc. I visited him after the Micromusic #5 festival and hung out with him a bit.

This photo is from the Game Heroes exhibition at Mars à L’Alcazar in Marseille, which he organized. The gorilla (built by Mégalo) is built from plastic guns, and his head is playing Amiga 600 games. The human ape is VJ Kissdub with his amazing PXL-2000 video camera that uses cassettes.

Monsieur Archeopterix also told me that he gave a Gameboy with LSDj to the library, so now people can go there and borrow it just like a book. I really like this idea, and he is trying to expand this to the rest of France. Let’s see if LSDj-Johan will file a massive law suit to destroy all libraries in France!

What seems to separate Archeopterix from other computer collectors is that he’s casual and playful and messy. Things just happen. He’s happy to share things and there’s nothing mainstream or academic about him. His place is more like a flea market than a museum, and you sort of just stumble across BASIC 1.0 for TO-7 or an Intellivision music keyboard or some strange storage media.

It makes me remember how the chipmusic scene was 10 years ago, before people had started to build fancy peripherals, research and reflect on the tools and cultures (like I do) and well, be very serious about things in general. Before it became infected by the standard tricks of art, pop and science. Maybe it’s time to GO APE again! Or Archeopterix.