Friday, September 02, 2005

Software Archeology, or Metal Machine Music (Part I)

Software is notoriously short-lived. Like baby sea turtles making their way to the sea, most software projects are doomed to die very early in their lives. Those projects that survive to maturity are often defective disappointments, like Paris Hilton, doomed to be quickly forgotten, unlike Paris Hilton.

Even if software survives its birth and lasts for a while, the odds are still stacked against it in the long term. Platforms change. Formats change. Storage media deteriorate and fail (some people are addressing these problems, fortunately).

A few years ago I stumbled upon a technological find in the unfinished basement of a home located in South Central Indiana. It was a box of 5 1/4" floppies, items that are not so common in this century. They were in a case made of fake wood with a transparent (and broken) top. They had not been stored in ideal conditions, and I didn't have much hope for them.

In the same building, in an upstairs closet, I found not one but two 1541 disk drives. These items can fetch up to $20 on eBay, but in the interest of science, I held on to mine.

It was hard to read the labels of the diskettes, as the writing seemed to be the work of a chimp with cerebral palsy. There appeared to be several games that were popular in the mid-80's (including that precursor to internet porn, Strip Poker) plus some code written by the aforementioned chimp, who has since gone on to write software for a number of other platforms and organizations.

There are plenty of free programs out there that emulate the Commodore 64, but most computers these days do not have 5 1/4" floppy drives, so there was still the problem of getting the data from the disks to my PC.

Fortunately, the internet brings together nerds with obscure obsessions. So one can obtain (or make your own) XM1541 or XA1541 cable allowing you to connect an ancient 1541 to the parallel port on your circa 1995 Pentium (whoa, one step at a time, can't jump to the present all at once) which runs Linux. There's software you can use that allows your computer to communicate with these relics. (There's software for Windows, too).

Once you have your cable and you've installed your software, you can start reading the disks to .d64 images. This is what I did, and to my surprise, out of the box of 20 or so disks, all but 3 were readable. I had to slow down partway through the process, though, as the drive soon got so hot I worried if I put a disk in it it would melt (I would later find out that many 1541s have found an ignoble end-of-life niche serving as hot plates in flophouses).

At this point I was very pleased, and after digging old C-64 commands like LOAD "*",8,1 out of my memory, I was up and running. It was a real Dr. Chandra plugs HAL back in moment (Good Morning Dr. Chandra. I am a HAL 9000 Series computer. Would you like to play a game of Strip Poker?).

Tune in next time for part II, which will include embarassing ancient BASIC code listings from both myself and Bill Gates.

1 comment:

DocBushwell said...

Ah, the Commodore 64! Does that, and the rest of your archeological software unearthings, ever take me back to the days of yore...

My first brush with computers occurred when I accompanied my brother to one of the computational facilties at a large midwestern university (home o' HAL, actually) where he was a grad student. This was in the late 60s/early 70s. He worked the second shift at one of the mainframes on campus. He had to change the reels of tape, and otherwise monitor the machine. The whole feel of that big room with the whirling reels and blinking monitors was really moderne and almost Star Trekky. My laptop has far more computing power than that old mainframe did, but at the time, well, it was very impressive.

Fast forward to undergrad where I took Fortran and used punchcards for my pathetic attempts at programming. In grad school, I used punchcards again to fit my data to a non-linear regression algorithm, but then, lo and behold, my advisor bought a stopped flow spectrophotometer which had a North Star computer to acquire the data and run the instrument. This was one of the first "personal computers." There I learned something called ZBASIC. My advisor loved it, and entered in all the equations we needed for our research. It sure beat the hell out of those punchcards and having to find a reader to run them through it, then walking over to the CompSci building to get the results, only to find I'd misplaced a card or a data point. Yep, if only to avoid those sad incidents, that NorthStar was great! The figures in my thesis were drawn using a Jurrasic Age version of ChemDraw on a Mac 512ke. The figures were then sent to an ink plotter at the CompSci building.

Jesus with an Atari, am I ever old...