Public libraries aren't archives

April 22nd, 2013 12:25 PM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
8 comments.

I ardently support public libraries: I consciously opt to get my movies from their collections rather than Netflix, so as to increase their circulation numbers and thus their budget; I've written letters to the editor in support of these democratic institutions; I even dabbled in the education necessary to work in the field. There's little that public libraries aren't good for.

Once upon a time, libraries were even a source of Apple II software. In those days, there were so many computing platforms that it was unlikely an underfunded library would support any one, especially since computers in general were still so limited in their accessibility and penetration. But with educational institutions being one of the few that could afford such an investment, the software you were likely to find at libraries were edutainment titles such as Microzine. Even more rarely, you might find software of a more diversionary nature.

I thought that's what recently happened to me as I prepared the March issue of Juiced.GS, for which Andy Molloy submitted a review of Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia. Curious as to the availability of this book to our readers, I did a quick search for all materials by Mechner in any public library that's recognized by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Though I was looking for paperbacks, I was stunned to find a copy of Karateka, right here in Massachusetts!

Recycled library card catalogEver think to look for computer games at your local library?
TOO LATE NOW.

Unfortunately, though this title was listed in OCLC's WorldCat, I could not find a matching listing in the catalog specific to the holding library system, the North of Boston Library Exchange (NOBLE). I emailed a librarian to ask about the discrepancy. Assuming I didn't realize the lateness of my request, she replied:

If you look closely at the record copied below, you will see that it is a 5 1/4 disk for computer (Apple II+)! I do not believe that a library today would have any equipment able to use one of these now "prehistoric" disks!

It's disappointing but unsurprising that the library would not have kept its Apple II software on file. With the limited budget and space afforded to public libraries, they must dispose of those items with limited circulation to make room for new materials. It's doubtful anyone had requested an 8-bit 5.25" floppy disk in years, if not decades, so away it went. To where, we may never know — a good home, I hope.

Interested in locating libraries in your area that may be holding onto these artifacts? OCLC lets you conduct a search for computer files published 1977–1992, which reveals 17,759 hits. But without a means to sort by location or vicinity, finding the disks near you is hopeless. It was only by chance that I thought I'd found Karateka in my own backyard.

Libraries make available materials that the general population may never otherwise have access to. But libraries are not archives or museums. As I discovered when I archived hardcopies of Juiced.GS, there are organizations around the world who will accept such materials, from academic institutions to the Computer History Museum. These non-profits are the proper places to consider donating your historical hardware and software. But Apple II software in public libraries? It's time not to check in, but to check out.

Memories of floppy sleeves

May 28th, 2012 2:56 PM
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Filed under History;
3 comments.

Jason Scott says it's too late to start saving floppy disks. But we can sure as heck remember them — and especially the sleeves they came in.

Just as a flash drive can be modeled after an Apple II, giving it a cool aesthetic without changing its functionality, so too were floppy disk brands identified by the colorful sleeves in which they arrived.

Kevin D. Clark assembled a small tribute to Elephant Memory Systems, a brand of floppy disk out of Westboro, Massachusetts, just a few miles from where Juiced.GS is now published. Its colorful packaging contributed it to it being one of the leading storage media in an otherwise staid, professional field. The site has not been updated in six years but still offers a dozen or so scans of sleeves, advertisements, and other unforgettable Elephant memories.

Elephant Memory Systems

Elephants never forget.

Up until recently, you could also get a floppy fix via the Twitter account FloppySleeve. Starting last November and lasting one month, the account tweeted 46 links to individual floppy sleeves. There was no Web site associated with the account, so following the links on Twitter was the only way to find the media.

More specific to the Apple II, who could forget Beagle Bros? Their warnings against all kinds of unlikely behavior ensured that their disks were never inserted into toasters or alligators. The Beagle Bros Software Repository, part of Call-A.P.P.L.E.'s archives, has a small collection of these sleeves' images.

Most comprehensive is The Original Disc Sleeve Archive. The site and its blog feature 619 sleeves collected since 1997. There appears to be neither a search mechanism nor a structure other than alphabetical or chronological by submission, so finding a particular sleeve from your past may be challenging. But chances are, if it's anywhere, it's here.

What unique brands of floppy leap out of your collection or memories — or has the CFFA3000 banished any recollection of such limited media?

Recovering the code of Prince of Persia

March 29th, 2012 10:18 PM
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Filed under Game trail, History, Mainstream coverage, People;
3 comments.

Jordan Mechner, rockstar programmer responsible for Prince of Persia and Karateka and keynote speaker of next week's PAX East convention, published a comprehensive journal of the making of Prince of Persia. In the book and on Mechner's Web site are notes, sketches, concept art, demo videos, and more — a wealth of information he preserved from decades ago.

Yet for all that time, there was one vital piece of data he was missing: the original source code. Whether it had been overwritten, lent or donated, mistakenly or purposely trashed, or simply lost remained unknown to Mechner, despite his best efforts.

This week, that long-lost treasure fell in his lap when his father mailed him a box of assorted unidentified floppies. Contained therein was Prince of Persia in its rawest form.

It never occurred to me that Mechner didn't already have PoP's source code. Given that PoP has appeared on platforms as recent as the Xbox 360, I wonder what version or fork they were basing that port on. It makes even more recent independent ports all the more impressive.

Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal followed his role as Mechner's Prince of Persia
with the lead in
Source Code... coincidence?!

Mechner's next task is to verify the integrity of the floppies and migrate the data off them. New hardware like the FC5025 and Kyroflux are miracle workers in our ability to access vintage media via a modern operating system, but the fact remains that the floppy disk is a magnetic medium whose charge is dying. I started (but did not finish) my own floppy migration two years ago. It's easy to dismiss it as a low-priority project compared to ongoing and more demanding tasks, but it will be all too soon that I'll have put it off too long.

Once the code is recovered, I wonder what Mechner will do with it? It's still copyrighted material, so will he continue to keep it a secret — or will he publish it under Creative Commons, allowing a variety of variations and ports?

All this reminds me: David X. Cohen, co-creator of the television show Futurama, reported almost five years ago that he too had programmed an Apple II game that needed rescuing from floppies. I wonder what ever came of that?

UPDATE (Mar 30): Jason Scott tells me, "You'll be delighted to know I am leading this expedition."

(Hat tip to Sean Fahey)

A generational hardware gap

January 10th, 2011 12:10 PM
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Filed under History;
1 comment.

Anyone who has been using computers for a few decades has the questionable pleasure of reflecting on how far technology has come. We remember the massive leap forward 3.5" floppy disks represented over the old, which makes us appreciate the volume and affordability of modern storage all the more.

Newcomers to technology don't have that historical context — but rather than berate them for not knowing how good they have it, Montreal journalist Jean-Christophe Laurence brought them face-to-face with hardware older than they are. He presented several kids with such equipment as a Nintendo Game Boy, an LP record, several floppy disks, and more. With nary a hint as to their purpose, the children were tasked with determining the nature of the enigmatic tech. He recorded the results, which are presented in French with English subtitles:

It's a creative scenario, as it doesn't try to impress upon the students how different this stuff is from what they know: when they guessed an LP was like a CD, nobody said "Yes, but it holds this much less data, and has this much slower access times." It's more a matter of function and design than of better or worse, which is likely to be more educational and thus make them better appreciate (and familiar with) what's come before. (Maybe they'll learn the other by being taught programming on retrocomputers.)

It's also similar to what older generations have to do when confronted with new technology. We've heard those old chestnuts of newbies mistaking a CD-ROM tray for a cup holder, or a mouse for a foot pedal or a TV remote. Those mistakes happen because users are familiar with cup holders and channel changers, so they bring those analogues to their new experiences. It's impressive how spot-on many of the above children's guesses are, especially when they have to use modern metaphors to make their guesses. Although it's useful to have a frame of reference by which to learn new skills, as they demonstrated when confronted with a 3.5" floppy, it's also occasionally necessary to abandon old ideas to grasp new ones.

What do you think? Should these kids have been able to identify these objects? Would you have been able to?

(Hat tip to Genevieve Koski)

Floppy disk sticky notes

December 9th, 2010 2:05 PM
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Filed under Hacks & mods;
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Shopping for the Apple II user in your life? For less than $100, you can get a Uthernet network card, a Focus IDE interface card, every issue of Softdisk G-S ever. Each of these is a significant and invaluable gift — but you may want to pick up something smaller and simpler from a mainstream retail outlet to stuff in a stocking.

For that need, I recommend floppy disk sticky notes.

Floppy disk sticky notes

Image courtesy Burak Kaynak

This unique stationery is designed Burak Kanyak with attention to authentic detail. Whereas standard Post-it notes measure 3" square, these pads, like actual floppy disks, measure 3.625" tall and 3.5" wide, replicating the look and feel of when being able to hold 800K of data meant not needing three 5.25" disks. Each of the pack's three pads has fifty sheets, providing ample opportunity to leave 150 floppy notes and labels in your home, work, vehicle, or wherever a gentle reminder is needed, at an average cost of less than ten cents each (plus shipping).

For a retrocomputing enthusiast who still relies on this ancient medium, these notes are the perfect gift — as long as they don't end up accidentally inserted into a floppy drive!

(Hat tip to TheDieline.com and Jason Scott)

Floppy preservation

July 8th, 2010 12:31 PM
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Filed under History;
7 comments.

There seems to be an emerging number of technologies for salvaging old data — not only the recent FC5025, as reviewed in the latest issue of Juiced.GS, but other methods that continue to enjoy developer support, such as ADTPro. I first used ADTPro after setting up an Apple IIGS in my office and wanted to make backups of its aging hard drive. Having done so, it's now occurred to me that I have overlooked a trove of much older data.

Box of floppies

So much data, yearning to be preserved!

A brief perusal of the disks reveals several Apple Writer and Dazzle Draw data disks. Neither appears to be a format supported by MacLinkPlus, but the original Apple Writer is a free download courtesy the Lost Classics Project. In the worst case scenario, perhaps I can use Sweet16's text screen capture function to convert some of the text, and standard screenshots for the images.

My collection also contains several games that aren't exactly lost treasures. Every Apple II user seems familiar with the likes of Ultima or Tass Times in Tonetown, but I've never heard anyone sharing fond memories of Ardy the Aardvark — and I can find no online reference to Pylon Racer and Electra Laser. The clamshells for those latter games don't even have screen shots; I'll need to boot them in an emulator to stir my own memories.

Finally, my collection doubtless includes numerous pirated programs, as we were all younger and stupider at the dawn of the personal computer era. Though I cannot in good conscience enjoy these programs now, I am glad for the opportunity to preserve them for posterity, should legitimate copies prove extinct. With magnetic media subject to decay, now is the best time to save this data before it is too late — assuming it isn't already.

I expect to convert these programs into disk images over a period of several lunch breaks, with cataloging of their contents to come later. A disadvantage of ADTPro over the FC5025 is that it requires a working Apple II computer. But since I have that hardware, I appreciate the advantage of having access to both 3.5" and 5.25" drives connected ot the Apple II. Access to both formats from a Mac or PC is possible but require different approaches, whereas ADTPro can handle both with ease.

Who knows what lost classics of my own I might discover?

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