Nuclear floppy

November 4th, 2019 12:08 PM
by
Filed under Happenings;
no comments yet.

Every semester that I teach at Emerson College, I start with a lesson on the history of computers and the Internet. This lesson employs several props, including a variety of floppy disk sizes.

"How many of you remember these?" I say, holding up a 3.5" disk. When I started asking that question seven years ago, every hand went up; now, only half do. And when I ask the same question of 5.25" disks, half the hands used to go up; now, none do.

The one constant over the years is that nobody remembers 8" disks. And that's fair: they debuted in 1972, twenty-five years before my students were born. As this was also well before the arrival of personal computers, I infer this floppy size was used primarily in business and industrial settings.

One industry that lingered with the 8" floppy was the United States government — but even they have decided to move on. Reported last month by Engadget is that our country's military will no longer reply on floppy disks to coordinate the launch of nuclear missiles, replacing them with a "highly-secure solid state digital storage solution".

This is not just a transfer of media; the underlying software must be changing as well. The storage capacity of 8" floppies maxed out at 1.2 megabytes, whereas SSD storage usually holds a minimum of several gigabytes. What would that antiquated nuclear system do with all that extra space? Likely we are upgrading to a more complex and bloated system. It reminds me of the sequel to WarGames, where (spoiler) the original JOSHUA software is uploaded to a modern mainframe to do battle with its more modern counterpart. Would an 8" floppy stand the test of time?

It possibly could, as the floppy medium had its advantages. When I interviewed author R.A. Salvatore back in 2002 about his official novelization of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he said that the book was being written on a computer with no access to the Internet, making it impenetrable except by physical means. Likewise, the US government once defended their choice of 8" floppies: "You can't hack something that doesn't have an IP address. It's a very unique system — it is old and it is very good." Hard to repair and maintain, perhaps, but otherwise reliable.

So farewell to a last bastion of 8" floppies. Like my A2Central.com t-shirt says: It's not obsolete; it's proven technology.

(Hat tip to Eric Reimann)

Lego Ideas floppy disk

January 14th, 2019 2:42 PM
by
Filed under Mainstream coverage, Musings;
Comments Off on Lego Ideas floppy disk

Like many kids, I grew up playing with Lego. I loved following the instructions and turning small bricks into large ideas that looked exactly as envisioned on the box. But I rarely went beyond that prescribed route and into the realm of possibility: I had no interest in modifying the castles and spaceships into something original. That way lay chaos, whereas what I needed to instill in my life was order.

Lego has since extended into such media as movies and video games, but the physical bricks are still as popular as ever. They've even learned to crowdsource their designs in a way that young Ken almost certainly would not have taken advantage of: submit your own design for consideration to be made into an official set!

A recent submission to this Lego Ideas process is "The Disk", a floppy disk composed of Lego pieces. It's the first creation from a seven-year-old account and was submitted on January 2, 2019. It received 100 votes by January 7, adding 365 days to its original voting period of 60 days — but will it meet its goal by the new deadline of March 2, 2020?

Lego floppy disk

Everything I know about the Lego Ideas crowdfunding site comes from my friend Maia Weinstock, who created the Women of NASA Lego set. From an interview with Maia on Space.com: "Each set submitted to the program first goes through a public vetting process, in which the set must receive 10,000 votes from the public before being considered by the company." Her set met that threshold, was positively received by the powers that be, and is now an official Lego set.

It wasn't easy for Maia to reach that goal, nor was it her first attempt. Her first Lego proposal was the Legal Justice League, later revised to the Legal Justice Team, which earned 4,026 votes. Her media blitz to get out the vote included recruiting me and my podcast co-host Sabriel Mastin to stage a photo shoot:

Even with that effort, 4,026 votes still fell shy of the necessary 10,000. I suspect more people are familiar with the Supreme Court than they are floppy disks, so by comparison, "The Disk" seems too niche to reach the voting minimum and then be approved by Lego. Both floppy disks and the Women of NASA are broadly in the category of tech history, but I see more cultural, historical value in the Women of NASA. Until floppy disks get their own Hidden Figures moment, it seems likely that children playing with Lego today will know floppy disks only as the save icon in Microsoft Word; to build their own, they'll have to get creative and see what's possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)

Burning floppies

April 6th, 2015 6:26 PM
by
Filed under Happenings;
Comments Off on Burning floppies

Attending the Different Games conference in New York City this past weekend gave me plenty of opportunity to catch up with Juiced.GS staff writer (and frequent Apple II Bits blog subject) Ivan Drucker. While waiting for registration for KansasFest 2015 to open, we reminisced about our favorite moments of last year's event — Ivan's sixth KansasFest, and my 17th.

I was delighted to discover Ivan had not previously stumbled upon Kevin Savetz's video capture of a unique moment: Martin Haye, having just demoed 8-bit Western RPG Lawless Legends, burned the game to disk and declared it ready to ship.

For those archivists who thought it was too late to preserve floppies: Martin's making sure of that!

For an equally entertaining pyrotechnic display, try burning an actual compact disc:

Ken Gagne, Gamebits, Apple II Bits, and Martin Haye offer no assurances, guarantees, or warranties, express or implied, regarding the safety of you or your hardware, software, or other property or loved ones as a result of information received or linked to from this or any other website.

Happy burning!

Electronic publishing overview

February 9th, 2015 11:36 AM
by
Filed under Musings;
2 comments.

Last month, I began my fourth semester teaching an undergraduate course in electronic publishing. I always start with an overview of computer history — not for "you kids don't know how good you have it" reasons, like when I taught high school students to use Visicalc, but because I consider it valuable for students to have a basic understanding of how the machinery and environment they'll be working came into being, and the decisions that were made decades ago that will affect their workflows and livelihoods.

We start with what might be considered ancient history, reviewing key figures in computing's history: Charles Babbage, Paul Baran, Tim Berners Lee. I suspected this might be the first semester in which the name Alan Turing might prove familiar. I was right: Benedict Cumberbatch's turn in that role had drawn my students to see The Imitation Game. We had a brief but fun discussion about how Turing's already dramatic tale had been further dramatized for the silver screen, before returning to the topic at hand: learning to count in binary.

As part of this lecture, I employ plenty of props from my Apple II, including a 5.25" floppy disk and floppy disk notcher. It's always interesting to see how the students respond to these artifacts. Spring 2014 was the first semester where none of my students had used a 5.25" floppy before. I figured I'd passed a tipping point: students born in 1992 didn't grow up with this media. So I was pleasantly surprised when this year's students recognized the disk fondly. And I, of course, got a kick out of wondering, "Can you believe that we used to ship software on these things?" holding up the Lawless Legends demo I received from Martin Haye at KansasFest 2014.

My favorite exercise of the evening involves publishing — which is their major, after all, not computer science. It's 2015 and you want to distribute software to your print magazine's subscribers. How can you do so? A link, a QR code, a Steam code, even a CD — these are all viable delivery mechanisms… and none of them were applicable in 1986. Sure, you could maybe include a 5.25" disk in your magazine — but who does that? Instead I hand out an issue of Nibble magazine and let the students peruse it, until it finally registers what they're looking at — at which point their eyes get big and they ask, "Did they actually print the entire program in the magazine and ask people to type it in??"

Okay… so maybe I do want my students to know how good they have it.

Memories of floppy sleeves

May 28th, 2012 2:56 PM
by
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?

Floppy disk Star Wars

December 29th, 2011 3:29 PM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods;
1 comment.

Chiptune music is the art of using classic computing hardware to make original tunes. Usually, there's software involved, such as DMS Drummer, and the result is emitted from the device's inbuilt speakers.

Such is not always the case. Over the past few years, I've posted several videos of hard drives and printers making music, from Bohemian Rhapsody to "A Simple Text File". I also once posted a hard drive playing the "Imperial March", which proved popular enough on Digg to shut down my site. I don't think that'll happen this time, though, so please enjoy a floppy disk rendition of the march:

The artist's Web site describes the method for producing this video:

The sound comes from a magnetic head moved by stepper motor. To make a specific sound, head must be moved with appropriate frequency… To move the head you need to activate the drive by pulling the DRVSB0 or 1 (depends on the cable you have and the connector – notice the crossover on the FDD ribbon cable) pin low and then falling edge on STEP pin makes the head move one step in direction dependent on DIR pin state. An ATMega microcontroller is generating those frequencies and it makes the drives play music.

Another variation is demonstrated on the Amiga using a seemingly different method:

Listen to Amiga floppy drive playing a simple music, however, not with the step motor which moves the head, but with the motor which spins the disk. This means that disk must be inserted to hear music. And there is no fear that floppy will break like with the step motor music!

I've yet to find any such musical demonstrations that feature an Apple II floppy disk. Do you have some? Let me know!

(Hat tip to Paul DeFilippo)