A modem handshake visualized

November 19th, 2018 9:49 AM
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If you're reading this blog, you remember this sound:

Whether your Apple II was dialing into CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, or a BBS, the sound of two modems connecting heralded something magical: an entry into a world, or a part of the world, where you might find faces and files new and familiar. For many, this cacophonous screech welcomed us to a place we could relax, abandon pretenses, and be ourselves — or whatever version of ourselves we wished to present that day.

The lingo of that connection is nearly lost to me now: 8N1 vs. 7E1, RTS / CTS, full duplex. But almost all of it is represented in that same dial-up soundtrack. Not just an unfortunate and inadvertent consequence of data being modulated and demodulated, the sound of dialup embodies the phases of negotiation before two modems can settle into a digital rapport.

These stages can now be visualized in "The Sound of the Dialup Explained",a 42-megapixel poster crafted by Helsinki's Oona Räisänen. Detailing one point in the poster, she writes on her blog:

[The modems] put their data through a special scrambling formula before transmission to make its power distribution more even and to make sure there are no patterns that are suboptimal for transfer. They listen to each other sending a series of binary 1's and adjust their equalizers to optimally shape the incoming signal. Soon after this, the modem speaker will go silent and data can be put through the connection.

Modem handshake visualization

I can almost hear it.

The poster is available from Redbubble in three sizes, from two to four feet wide.

We may not often hear these sounds anymore — but we can always have this poster to remind us of that raucous gauntlet we'd once endure as passageway into cyberspace.

(Hat tip to Jesse Rebel)

Unboxing Hayes Smartmodem

December 18th, 2017 2:40 PM
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Like most Apple II users, my first modem was a revelation, connecting me to people and resources I'd never imagined. For me, that modem was the Apple Personal Modem, a 1200-baud brick that connected me to CompuServe, where I "met" such folks as Loren Damewood, Tony Ward, and Ray Merlin. It wasn't until I'd attend KansasFest more than a decade later that I'd finally put faces to these names.

Sometimes, the introduction works the other way. At recent KansasFests, I've had the pleasure to getting to know Justin Scott, who I was recently surprised to discover has his own YouTube series, "Modem Monday". The first video I watched was Justin's sixth, which focused on connecting the Apple II to a Hayes Smartmodem.

It's been a long time since I used a dial-up modem on an Apple II, so to see Justin doing it today brought a big smile to my face. It made me recall connecting to Tymnet nodes and local BBSes, such as the one Justin telnets to in this video in 40-column monochromatic glory.

Beyond the content, I also enjoyed the production of the video itself. I've done a few Apple II unboxing videos myself, and I wish I had a setup like Justin's: except for one out-of-focus shot, the videography and lighting are excellent. It also seems Justin rehearses or scripts his dialogue while still sounding natural, as he brings a bevy of insights and trivia to each product he examines. When he pries open the Smartmodem case, we get live narration of each step as he's doing it. This is unlike earlier parts of the video, where the camera's audio is muted and the dialogue dubbed in later. In those scenes, I missed hearing the sound effects of the box being opened and the manual being flipped.

As a YouTube creator myself, I know how time-consuming these productions can be. If you like Justin's videos, you can support production of future Modem Mondays on his Patreon.

(Hat tip to Justin on Facebook)

The BBS you can't telnet home to

October 22nd, 2012 1:22 PM
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Earlier this month, I received an email that BBSmates was resuming operation as of October 4. I had to read the full email to figure out what this meant, as apparently BBSmates had been out of commission long enough for me to have forgotten signing up for this email list in the first place! It is a telnet-based bulletin board system in the style of old-school dial-up BBSs that offers one of the most attractive features of that pre-Internet networking landscape: door games.

Legend of the Red DragonThese multiplayer online games were often played asynchronously, much like today's mobile apps such as Draw Something and Words With Friends. Since many dial-up BBSs had only one phone line, gameplay was limited to one player at a time. Gamers would log in, use up their allotted daily turns (in any number of text-based environments from a medieval forest to a futuristic space station), then log off and wait 24 hours to see what happens next. BBSmates offers plenty of classics — Legend Of The Red Dragon (LORD), Food Fight, Trade Wars, Usurper — playable by telnetting to the service or using a Web-based Flash interface.

I was excited to learn about BBSmates, as I was heavily into running and using BBSs from 1992 to 1997. Door games could make or break a caller's experience, and my favorite was Space Ship of Death, available for Commodore 64 and PC BBSs (and, once upon a time, playable on the Web at MurderMotel.com). I enjoyed it so much, I ported it to the Apple II for the Warp Six BBS software. Despite being only 624 lines of Applesoft BASIC code, it stands as the most complicated program I've written to date.

Despite these fond memories, I started wondering: can one truly go back again? I'd already tried once before — three years ago, when Zork was reimagined as a graphical Web-based game that ran from April 1, 2009, to May 31, 2011. I played it for the first two months, and the daily allotment of turns both reminded of the experience of early BBS games and encouraged me to play regularly. But ultimately, I fell off the wagon because I realized I wasn't connecting with the game. There were two factors missing.

One was a sense of community, which wasn't surprising, given the new Zork's its global audience. By contrast, access to a dial-up BBS was restricted by finances — only if you could afford long-distance charges was the world your oyster — so though I didn't know the people I was playing Trade Wars against, I knew they were nearby. Even that unexpressed commonality was enough to bring us together. I was fighting with and against potential neighbors, classmates, and citizens; on the Internet, I'm fighting the unknown world.

The second absent quality was a sense of investment. As prohibitive as those telephone charges were, it also gave the dial-up connection an intrinsic value. Time spent online was quantifiable at an hourly rate, which subconsciously trickled down to the actions and interactions one experienced on the service. Whether I played Zork or not, I wasn't at risk of losing anything; I had no stake in the experience.

I don't mean to disparage telnet BBSs in general or BBSmates specifically — door games still have the potential to be fun and need to be preserved and made accessible, both for those who enjoy them and for those curious for a hands-on experience with telecommunications history. In the latter category, BBSmates offers other valuable features, such as a BBS index, similar to Jason Scott's TEXTFILES.COM list but more searchable. (Yup, I'm in there!). And if it's just the games you want, BBSmates is not alone in offering a retro experience via telnet; The BBS Corner indexes over 350 such services still in operation — still a shadow of the peak in 1994 of 45,000 dial-up services.

Wherever you telnet to, if you want to go home again, the software is there to let you. It just may not be the home you remember.