Before Google, There Was The Reference Librarian

I know it is a common stereotype for an old guy to complain about how good the kids have it today. I, however, will take a little different approach: We have it so much better today when it comes to access to information than we did even a few decades ago. Imagine if I asked you the following questions:

  • Where can you have a custom Peltier device built?
  • What is the safest chemical to use when etching glass?
  • What does an LM1812 IC do?
  • Who sells AWG 12 wire with Teflon insulation?

You could probably answer all of these trivially with a quick query on your favorite search engine. But it hasn’t always been that way. In the old days, we had to make friends with three key people: the reference librarian, the vendor representative, and the old guy who seemed to know everything. In roughly that order. Continue reading “Before Google, There Was The Reference Librarian”

Chain Link Clock Drags Time Along

When it comes to building quirky clocks that also double up as beautiful animated sculptures, [Ekaggrat Singh Kalsi] is a master par excellence. His latest offering is the Getula, a time piece inspired by an old, discarded bicycle chain, while the name seems inspired by the chain kingsnake — Lampropeltis getula – due to its snake like movements. Getula shows time by manipulating eight short pieces of chain to show four digits representing hours and minutes. But wrangling a flexible piece of chain to morph in to numerals turned out to be a far more complex endeavour than he bargained for, and he had to settle for a few compromises along the way.

He could not use real bicycle chains because they are too flexible and heavy, which made it impossible for them to hold the shapes he desired. Instead, he designed custom 3D printed chains similar to drag link chains used for cable management. For rigidity, he added O-rings in the chain joints to increase friction. But even this was not sufficient to completely form each digit using a single piece of chain.

The compromise was to use two pieces of chain per digit, which results in a more artistic expression of time keeping. Each piece of chain is pushed or pulled using stepper motors, and bent in to shape using servos. The end result is a mesmerising dance of chain links, steppers and servos every minute, around the clock.

Designing the clock was no trivial exercise, so [Ekaggrat] improved it over a couple of iterations. There are four modular blocks working in synchronism — each consisting of an Arduino Nano, two stepper motor drives with motors and two servos. Each chain has an embedded magnet at its start, which is sensed by a hall sensor to initialise the chain to a known position. A DS1307 RTC module provides timekeeping. The project is still work in progress, and [Ekaggrat] has managed to finish off just one module out of four — giving us a tantalizing glimpse of Getula welcoming 2021.

If you’d prefer something more shiny, check out his Unique Clock that finally unites Hackers and Sequins, while some of his other creations, such as the Edgytokei Clock and the Torlo Clock feature beautiful and intricate 3D printed mechanisms.

Continue reading “Chain Link Clock Drags Time Along”

Reconstructing Data From A Corrupt Apple ][ Floppy Disk

Back in 1990 [Benjamin Zotto] wrote – while in elementary school – a dog racing game called Wonderland 2. The BASIC source code and images for the game were stored on a single ProDOS formatted, soft-sectored 5.25″ floppy disk. Fast-forward thirty years to today and [Benjamin] found to his dismay that ProDOS could no longer read the floppy, giving an I/O error. Not deterred, he set about to recover the data, as documented in this Twitter thread.

Applesauce visualization of the patterns on the corrupted disk, with soft-sectoring spiral arms.

The gist of the story is that the floppy disk’s surface could still be scanned with help from the aptly named Applesauce Floppy Drive Controller, which got the following visualization of the magnetic patterns on the disk surface:

This data could then be analyzed sector by sector, with the bad sectors and the cause for ProDOS flaking out with its reading attempts here marked in red.

Checking the data recovered so far confirmed that it was a ProDOS disk. It also confirmed that the sector containing the directory listing was shot. This required diving into the technical reference manual for ProDOS and its filesystem to figure out how to reconstruct the directory layout. This required figuring out the offsets and sizes of the files, assisted by knowing what was likely on the disk, and having some bits and pieces of the original volume listing still intact. This allowed for the directory volume to be rebuilt, one byte at a time.

Sectors on the disk, with bad sectors in red.

At the end of that arduous and highly educational journey success waited, and [Benjamin] was once again able to relive his memories of 1990s BASIC and hand-drawn bitmap graphics.