No Time To Play
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Weekly Links #40

This is the second time in just a few weeks that I almost didn't have a newsletter, so I'm going to ramble a little more than usual about the couple of topics I do have. First is that the little toy I've been working on is nearly ready for release (in fact I've been sending review copies already). And yes, I tried using the system look and feel this time, just for kicks. Looks surprisingly good.

But what is VoxelDesc, exactly? It's a voxel painting application, except instead of being mouse-driven as you might expect, everything is done via a command line backed by a powerful scripting language -- Javascript for now, because that's the default in Java 6/7. I came up with the idea after noticing how tedious other voxel editors are: you need to click your mouse, very precisely, a lot of times, in order to make the simplest object. My experience with POV-Ray suggested that a declarative, procedural approach should be a lot more effective.

This is hardly unprecedented; perhaps the most notorious piece of software based on the same concept is AutoCAD. The difference is that VoxelDesc won't have mouse commands for anything apart from the few GUI elements. Speaking of which: I deliberately kept the GUI spartan, having prior experience with Swing, and it's still a fractal of tiny little things that need to be implemented, yet when you do, several more pop up. This isn't purism, believe me; it's self-preservation.

In any event, so far it all seems to work out reasonably well. The scripting API is fairly expressive despite being still sketchy, and well-suited for both interactive and batch mode. I'm yet to try making more complex scenes, mostly for lack of ideas, but I trust my beta-testers with that part. Hopefully I'll be ready to publish a first version on No Time To Play's page soon. Stay tuned.

In unrelated news, the Digital Antiquarian's history of narrative computer games has reached the point when computer clones started to appear. And that reminded me of something.

My first computer was a Cobra, a ZX Spectrum clone assembled by local college students out of Russian components, likely based on unofficial schematics that must have circulated at the time; there were certainly shops able to fix the machines as well. Each Cobra was slightly different because of that. More advanced models for example had function keys, a software monitor, built-in assembler and so on. Mine was merely overclocked (I don’t know how much), so that some of the most interesting games were unplayable. And yes, I suspect the ROM was simply copied bit-by-bit from the original. But by then (1992 or so) the original was already on the way out, and who was Sinclair supposed to shake down, some poor students from a country just out of Communism?

There were less artisanal clones in Romania as well: my Cobra was housed in the case and keyboard from an HC-85, a factory-made clone of the Speccy -- Bucharest manufacturer ICE Felix even cloned the later +2/+3 models. By the time they moved on to PC clones though, they could no longer offer competitive prices (likely due to obsolete assembly lines), and folded a few years later. And prices had to be competitive, the country being quite poor at the time.

My second machine wasn't a computer but a console: a Chinese-made NES clone. These were fairly diverse too at the time. Some came in a keyboard form factor, with an included lightgun and whatnot. Mine, again, was among the cheapest: even the controllers were soldered in directly. Luckily it was possible to unscrew them open and clean up the electrical contacts manually. As for the games, they ranged from pirated copies of official Nintendo titles to all kinds of mods and hacks. One I remember clearly was that unofficial Prince of Persia with the alternate (and very difficult) level set made by a fan.

Now, my second computer was an actual ICE Felix product, a Junior 86 built like a tank and compatible with the IBM PC/XT. It shipped with 640K of RAM, a 10-inch green screen (not a big loss considering the CGA adapter) and sadly no HDD. But the 5.25″ floppies were remarkably robust. I had to pay someone to install me a serial port expansion though, so I could use a mouse. Which I even learned how to program!

After that, of course, I just had ordinary PCs like everyone else. But yeah, I owe my very first machines to the practice of cloning, and it means a lot to me. Thank you for reminding me, Jimmy.

Last but not least, since we're in retro mode anyway, I'd like to highlight yet another computer that wants to remind people of the way things were: the Micromite Companion, a product with a very 80es name and capabilities, based entirely on open source hardware, which is rare. It does require rather specific peripherals (where am I supposed to find an SD card of only 2 gigs nowadays?) but it's good to see not everyone is obsessed with hardware power for the sake of it.

And that's really all for today. Thanks for reading.