Wherein Retrocomputaria interviews Quinn “Blondihacks” Dunki

Dunki(NOTA: A versão em português desta entrevista foi publicada na Revista Jogos 80 de Dezembro de 2014)

The geeky exploits of Quinn Dunki have made an impact on the Brazilian retro community. When my friend Marcus Garrett asked me (and others) to write an article for the upcoming issue of Jogos 80, the online magazine he edits, I knew exactly where to turn to. To my delight, Quinn agreed to answer my fanboyish questions…

Retrocomputaria+: Hello, Quinn! To absolutely no one’s surprise, I’m gonna start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself. A Cliff’s Notes bio.

Quinn Do-RightQuinn Dunki: Well, I’m a Canadian, living in California, trying to keep all my projects under control. By day I’m a freelance software engineer, developing everything from games to applications to mobile apps. My motto is, Any Language, Any Platform. Any piece of software someone needs written, whether it’s pathfinding AI for a game engine, or a GPU-based barrel distortion correction algorithm for a computational photography app, I’m your gal. By night, I build whatever crazy things come to mind, I write games, I work on my house, I race cars, and otherwise try to get in as much trouble as possible.

R+: When did you catch the hack-bug? Was there a defining moment where you realized fudging with computers was something you’d like to do forever?

QD: I’ve always wanted to build, break, and fix things. That much goes back farther than I can remember. For computers, my “aha” moment was when I was six years old and my parents brought home an Apple ][+ computer. I knew the moment I turned it on that this was “My Thing”. This was what I was going to do with myself for the next 50 or 60 years.

R+: What kinds of computers, if any, you wish you had had a chance to tinker with but never did?

QD: There’s been a few. I always wanted to play with an Amiga. That was a computer that, at the time, was so mind-blowing (and still is!). I was an Apple ][ person all the way into the 1990s, but I secretly coveted the Amiga for many of those years. I do intend to pick one up one of these days to play with, now that they cost so little to get, but I have too many projects as it is! Aside from the Amiga, I wouldn’t mind spending more time with the Commodore 64 as well. I always found that machine interesting, though I never really wanted to own one. The terribly slow disk drives and poor text rendering would drive me crazy.

Veronica-KFest-ThumbR+: Your trip to KansasFest seems to have reawakened the Apple II Bug in you. After the really handy development environment you set up, do you plan to do hardware hacking on it too?

QD: Yes, I have big plans for hardware hacking the Apple ][ as well. Apple ][s (and all these 1980s computers) are like Arduinos on steroids. All the stuff I’ve thought about doing with a microcontroller or modern development board is more fun with these old computers. I don’t want to announce any projects just yet, since I don’t know which of my ideas will work and which won’t, but suffice it to say there are things in the pipeline.

R+: There’s really no need to ask about Veronica’s story (you extensively documented all of her life) but I am going to ask about her future: what now? Expansions? Changes? Have Vince Briel sell it as a kit? Make her a little sister? All or more than one of the above? Or something completely unexpected?

QD: I do have more plans for hardware in Veronica. She needs mass storage- that’s the main thing preventing useful software development. So, something like an SD card interface or Compact Flash. People have suggested I make a floppy disk interface, but those are really complex and the software is very difficult to get right. It’s a lot of work, and nobody in 1980 would have done it if there were easier options to get cheap mass storage. Nowadays, we have all kinds of better options that are WAY easier to interface with.

I don’t foresee a Veronica kit, honestly. Because it’s my first attempt to make a computer, it’s really not very good in some fundamental technical ways. There are much better homebrew computer kits out there made by actual computer engineers, so people should buy those instead if that’s what they want. For me, the journey was the point, not the destination. Now that Veronica can write and run code, and play some games, there’s not a whole lot more I want to do with it.

A Veronica II is not out of the question. I learned so much doing this, that a sequel could made much better in a lot less time. That’s always how it goes with things like this. There’s a reason the Apple ][ made Woz rich, instead of the Apple I or his Cream Soda Computer. The third attempt was where he got everything right.

R+: If there wasn’t such a thing as the 6502, which other 30+ year old processor would you base Veronica on?

QD: Well, the 6800 and 6809 are pretty great chips. The later 68000 chip is arguably my favorite CPU of all time. The 68000 is a really beautiful chip and a joy to program assembly for. I did consider using it for Veronica, but it’s substantially more complex than a 6502, and I wisely aimed a little lower for my first attempt to make a computer. The Z80 also has huge fans, but I don’t really know much about it. I’m sure it’s a good chip as well. It’s a good thing there is a 6502, though, because it’s an incredible design. It’s just wonderful.

R+: Darkest Hour question: did you ever end up destroying something while hacking that you really REALLY regret?

QD: One of my earliest attempts at a really big programming project ended like that. It was on the Apple IIgs, and I was building an elaborate space combat game. It was going really well, until the floppy disk holding my source code went bad. I had no backup. Cruelly, the executable survived, so I could run the partially completed game, but could no longer work on it. Hundreds of hours of assembly language code, gone in an instant. It was gutting. Since that day, I keep multiple backups of everything I do, and have never had a serious loss of data since.

There were some pretty dark hours while working on Veronica’s video generator as well. I was in over my head a bit in terms of the electrical engineering knowledge required to work on video signals, and for about a year I very nearly gave up on it. I kept getting new ideas for how to fix things though, and I kept hammering away at it. I learned a LOT in the process, as well. The secret to a perfect project is to pick something that is JUST outside your current ability. If it’s too easy, you won’t learn much. If it’s too hard, you’ll give up and never finish it.

R+: I lied. I am going to ask you something about Veronica’s childhood: the enclosure. No, I’m not questioning the choice of using a vintage tube radio because the coolness of that is self-evident. But why Philco and not some of the other gazillion brands of radio there was in that Wild West era of electronics?

QD: No reason, honestly. When I think “old radio”, I think Philco. Plus, they made dozens of models through the early 20th century, so it was easy to find one that was the right size, and wasn’t rare or valuable. I didn’t want to cut up something special to vintage radio collectors, and I also needed it to be cheap. The model I used is a very common model that isn’t sought after, and it was very broken. It was missing so many parts it wouldn’t have been worth restoring anyway.

Quinn the Racing BrideR+: A tiny detour to another of your cool activities: auto racing. Do you hack cars with as much gusto as you hack computers?

QD: Definitely. Cars are great for hacking, and racecars in particular, because you don’t have all those pesky traffic laws to worry about. It’s also a way to learn new skills like welding and metal fabrication. Of course, I’m the resident electrical expert on the team, so mostly I end up working on that. I’ve wired three cars from scratch now, and that’s always a fun project. Car electrical systems are very different than hobby electronics, not least because they have to survive far more punishment than an Arduino will ever see. Especially a racecar- every nut, bolt, and wire has to be bulletproof. We do 24-hour endurance racing, and the winner is the team that breaks down the least, usually.

Endurance racing is absolutely brutal on cars (and people), so it’s a real test of how well you can build and fix things. It also pushes the people to the limit. It’s like trying to do calculus in your head while running a marathon when you haven’t slept for two days. Especially at night. Around 3am on a racetrack, your mind starts to mess with you. But you have to keep it together, because you’re still going 100mph inches away from dozens of other cars- only now you’re doing it in the dark.

R+: Do you have advice to other individuals not having a Y chromosome what to do if some sexist jackass questions their choice of endeavor or is condescending about it?

QD: Don’t be friends with that person, I guess. Honestly, the barrage of sexism that any woman will receive for doing stuff like this is so constant that there’s really nothing you can do about it. It’s men who have to fix the problem (and I hope they do soon). Women just have to find the strength to keep going in the face of it. I would ask men to listen to women when they tell you sexism exists. My experience is that most men just don’t believe you.

R+: Thank for agreeing to talk with us of the Brazilian retro community. You’re amazeballs!

QD: Aw, shucks. I just like to build stuff.

(You can see more of Quinn’s cool stuff at http://www.quinndunki.com — particularly http://www.quinndunki.com/blondihacks.)

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