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)

Apple Personal Modem rescue

April 16th, 2018 11:32 AM
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When I recall my first dial-up connection, I think about the Apple II and CompuServe. But I often overlook the piece of hardware that connected the two: the Apple Personal Modem.

The Apple Personal Modem was a first-party peripheral, matching the color palette and design aesthetic of the Apple IIe I used it with. The modem maxed out at a whopping 1200 bps, which, if I recall, was roughly reading speed — perfect for the all-text interface of CompuServe. The modem dutifully granted me access to the Academic American Encyclopedia (GO AAE), an invaluable resource for my secondary education.

When we moved houses and upgraded to an Apple IIGS, many other upgrades followed, among them more RAM, a SCSI card, and a faster modem, and then still a faster modem. These years later, I can't tell you the brand or model of those later modems that enabled me to download such games as Plunder and Bouncin' Ferno — but the Apple Personal Modem has remained memorable for its heft, handheld-sized form factor, and unusual power supply, eschewing a power cord or brick in favor of plugging directly into a wall outlet. In fact, it wasn't until I watched this unboxing video that I discovered there was another model that did not have the inbuilt prong but instead used a more traditional power cord.

I don't know what happened to my Apple Personal Modem; I haven't seen it in decades. Rather than it being buried somewhere in my collection, it more likely was disposed of as soon as it was no longer of practical value.

Recently, a friend who was visiting Apple Rescue of Denver asked me if there was anything I wanted salvaged. Of everything in the store's inventory, I don't know what drew me to the Apple Personal Modem, but as soon as I saw it, I knew we needed to be reunited.

Since I still have those faster modems and even an Uthernet II card, the Apple Personal Modem remains more a curiosity than the connection to the online world that it once represented. But for the reasonable fee of $15, I'm glad to again own this pioneering peripheral.

Now if only I could remember the name of the telecom software I used with it…

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)