Nuclear floppy

November 4th, 2019 12:08 PM
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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)

Fallout 3 terminal emulator

April 18th, 2016 11:51 AM
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I'm a fan of both retro and modern video games, and I love to see the lines blur between the two — whether that's a new game like Plangman that has a classic feel, or a modern game like Halo that's ported to a classic console such as the Atari 2600.

Falling into the latter camp is the work of thewheelman282, a fan of the action-RPGs Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, released in 2008 and 2010, respectively. This franchise is set in the 21st century that arose after nuclear war broke out in the 1950s, impeding the advancement of technology beyond a Cold War state. In this fictional future, players use monochromatic computer terminals that wouldn't look out of place in an Apple II user's collection.

thewheelman282 brought that connection to its logical conclusion by porting the Fallout 3 terminal software to the Apple II. He gives a demo starting at 2:55 in this video, which uses the Agat emulator:

I've never played Fallout 3 so would have no idea how to use this program without the above tutorial, as the software comes with no documentation or inline help that I can find. However, it does appear to function quite similarly to the source material:

This program was written to perform a specific function and doesn't allow the input of new commands or programs, recreating a utility instead of an environment. I think it'd therefore be more accurate to call it a simulator instead of an emulator. Regardless, it's an impressive work of 958 lines of Applesoft BASIC code, which you can download in disk image format. I converted that source code to a text file, which is available here.

I originally thought thewheelman282 was going to demonstrate piping Fallout 3 output to an Apple II, similar to what Joshua Bell did with Second Life. While that too is an impressive hack, it's been done before, and eight years ago at that. To see something original and which is further available for us to download and play with is pretty cool. Thanks, thewheelman282!

(Hat tip to Robert Rivard)

Nuclear Apple

October 4th, 2010 11:05 AM
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On Mar. 29, 1955, the United States' Los Alamos National Laboratory detonated a 14-kiloton nuclear bomb in Nye County of southern Nevada, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Codenamed "Apple", this test was the the eighth of 18 nuclear tests the government would conduct that calendar year.

Five weeks later, on May 5, 1955, another bomb was detonated in the same space. Unlike the previous low-yield weapon, this one measured in the intermediate range at 29 kilotons. It used its predecessor's naming convention for the codename: "Apple-2".

Apple-2 nuclear test.

As Apple II historian Steve Weyhrich wrote, "[I] never realized what a hot commodity we've been dealing with over the past 30 years."

That groaner aside, it's a fascinating to know the coincidental history of the Apple II name. Although the weapon of mass destruction presumably did not inspire the personal microcomputer (nor, obviously, vice versa), nuclear warfare would ultimately have a bearing on the development of the platform. The USA's first-ever nuclear weapon test, conducted on July 16, 1945, was codenamed "Trinity", which became the name of Infocom's post-apocalyptic text adventure, whose feelie was a comic book entitled The Illustrated Story of the Atom Bomb.

Two years later, in 1988, the Apple II revisited the horror of nuclear armageddon with Electronic Arts' role-playing game, Wasteland, the spiritual origin for the extremely popular modern-day RPG series, Fallout.

The Apple II and the nuclear bomb: both incredibly powerful tools — one for creation, the other for destruction — yet sharing the same name. A brilliant team of well-funded scientists can change the world as much as a lone genius in a garage. If only all creations left as positive a legacy as Steve Wozniak's.

(Hat tip to David Gewirtz)