About a week ago, Linus Torvalds made a software commit which has an air about it of the end of an era. The code in question contains a few patches to the driver for native floppy disc controllers. What makes it worthy of note is that he remarks that the floppy driver is now orphaned. Its maintainer no longer has working floppy hardware upon which to test the software, and Linus remarks that “I think the driver can be considered pretty much dead from an actual hardware standpoint“, though he does point out that active support remains for USB floppy drives.
It’s a very reasonable view to have arrived at because outside the realm of retrocomputing the physical rather than virtual floppy disk has all but disappeared. It’s well over a decade since they ceased to be fitted to desktop and laptop computers, and where once they were a staple of any office they now exist only in the “save” icon on your wordprocessor. The floppy is dead, and has been for a long time.
Still, Linus’ quiet announcement comes as a minor jolt to anyone of A Certain Age for whom the floppy disk and the computer were once inseparable. When your digital life resided not in your phone or on the cloud but in a plastic box of floppies, those disks meant something. There was a social impact to the floppy as well as a technological one, they were a physical token that could contain your treasured ephemeral possessions, a modern-day keepsake locket for the digital age. We may have stopped using them over a decade ago, but somehow they are still a part of our computing DNA.
So while for some of you the Retrotechtacular series is about rare and unusual technology from years past, it’s time to take a look at something ubiquitous that we all think we know. Where did the floppy disk come from, where is it still with us, and aside from that save icon what legacies has it bestowed upon us?
The average motorist has a lot to keep track of these days. Whether its how much fuel is left in the tank, how much charge is left in the battery, or whether or not the cop behind noticed them checking Twitter, there’s a lot on a driver’s mind. One thing they’re not thinking about is tires, theirs or anyone else’s for that matter. It a testament to the state of tire technology, they just work and for quite a long time before replacements are needed.
If you stay up to date with niche software news, your ears may recently have twitched at the release of a new programming language: V. New hobby-project programming languages are released all the time, you would correctly argue; what makes this one special? The answer is a number of design choices which promote speed and safety: V is tiny and very fast. It’s also in a self-proclaimed alpha state, and though it’s already been used to build some interesting projects, is still at an early stage.
A massive power outage in South America last month left most of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay in the dark and may also have impacted small portions of Chile and Brazil. It’s estimated that 48 million people were affected and as of this writing there has still been no official explanation of how a blackout of this magnitude occurred.
While blackouts of some form or another are virtually guaranteed on any power grid, whether it’s from weather events, accidental damage to power lines and equipment, lightning, or equipment malfunctioning, every grid will eventually see small outages from time to time. The scope of this one, however, was much larger than it should have been, but isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility for systems that are this complex.
Initial reports on June 17th cite vague, nondescript possible causes but seem to focus on transmission lines connecting population centers with the hydroelectric power plant at Yacyretá Dam on the border of Argentina and Paraguay, as well as some ongoing issues with the power grid itself. Problems with the transmission line system caused this power generation facility to become separated from the rest of the grid, which seems to have cascaded to a massive power failure. One positive note was that the power was restored in less than a day, suggesting at least that the cause of the blackout was not physical damage to the grid. (Presumably major physical damage would take longer to repair.) Officials also downplayed the possibility of cyber attack, which is in line with the short length of time that the blackout lasted as well, although not completely out of the realm of possibility.
This incident is exceptionally interesting from a technical point-of-view as well. Once we rule out physical damage and cyber attack, what remains is a complete failure of the grid’s largely automatic protective system. This automation can be a force for good, where grid outages can be restored quickly in most cases, but it can also be a weakness when the automation is poorly understood, implemented, or maintained. A closer look at some protective devices and strategies is warranted, and will give us greater insight into this problem and grid issues in general. Join me after the break for a look at some of the grid equipment that is involved in this system.
Choices matter. You’ve only got one shot to fulfill the objective. A single coordinated effort is required to defuse the bomb, release the hostages, or outlast the opposition. Fail, and there’s no telling when you’ll get your next shot. This is the world that Counter-Strike presented to PC players in 1999, and the paradigm shift it presented was greater than it’s deceptively simple namesake would suggest.
The reckless push forward mantra of Unreal Tournament coupled with the unrelenting speed of Quake dominated the PC FPS mind-share back then. Deathmatch with a side of CTF (capture the flag) was all anyone really played. With blazing fast respawns and rocket launchers featured as standard kit, there was little thought put towards conservative play tactics. The same sumo clash of combatants over the ever-so inconveniently placed power weapon played out time and again; while frag counts came in mega/ultra/monster-sized stacks. It was all easy come, easy go.
Counter-Strike didn’t follow the quick frag, wipe, repeat model. Counter-Strike wasn’t concerned with creating fantastical weaponry from the future. Counter-Strike was grounded in reality. Military counter terrorist forces seek to undermine an opposing terrorist team. Each side has their own objectives and weapon sets, and the in-game economy can swing the battle wildly at the start of each new round. What began as a fun project for a couple of college kids went on to become one of the most influential multiplayer games ever, and after twenty years it’s still leaving the competition in the de_dust(2).
Even if you’ve never camped with an AWP, the story of Counter-Strike is a story of an open platform that invited creative modifications and community-driven development. Not only is Counter-Strike an amazing game, it’s an amazing story.
Throughout the history of America’s human spaceflight program, there’s been an alternating pattern in regards to abort systems. From Alan Shepard’s first flight in 1961 on, every Mercury capsule was equipped with a Launch Escape System (LES) tower that could pull the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning rocket. But by the first operational flight of the Gemini program in 1965, the LES tower had been deleted in favor of ejection seats. Just three years later, the LES tower returned for the first manned flight of the Apollo program.
With the Space Shuttle, things got more complicated. There was no safe way to separate the Orbiter from the rest of the stack, so when Columbia made its first test flight in 1981, NASA returned again to ejection seats, this time pulled from an SR-71 Blackbird. But once flight tests were complete, the ejector seats were removed; leaving Columbia and all subsequent Orbiters without any form of LES. At the time, NASA believed the Space Shuttle was so reliable that there was no need for an emergency escape system.
In the post-Shuttle era, NASA has made it clear that maintaining abort capability from liftoff to orbital insertion is a critical requirement. Their own Orion spacecraft has this ability, and they demand the same from commercial partners such as SpaceX and Boeing. But while all three vehicles are absolutely bristling with high-tech wizardry, their abort systems are not far removed from what we were using in the 1960’s.
Let’s take a look at the Launch Escape Systems for America’s next three capsules, and see where historical experience helped guide the design of these state-of-the-art spacecraft.
There’s a story that goes back to the 1980s or so about an engineering professor who laid down a challenge to the students of his automation class: design a robot to perform the most mundane of household tasks — washing the dishes. The students divided up into groups, batted ideas around, and presented their designs. Every group came up with something impressive, all variations on a theme with cameras and sensors and articulated arms to move the plates around. The professor watched the presentations respectfully, and when they were done he got up and said, “Nice work. But didn’t any of you idiots realize you can buy a robot that does dishes for $300 from any Sears in the country?”
The story may be apocryphal, but it’s certainly plausible, and it’s definitely instructive. The cultural impression of robotics as a field has a lot of ballast on it, thanks to decades of training that leads us to believe that robots will always be at least partially anthropomorphic. At first it was science fiction giving us Robbie the Robot and C3PO; now that we’re living in the future, Boston Dynamics and the like are doing their best to give us an updated view of what robots must be.
But all this training to expect bots built in the image of humans or animals only covers a narrow range of use cases, and leaves behind the hundreds or thousands of other applications that could prove just as interesting. One use case that appears to be coming to market hearkens back to that professor’s dishwashing throwdown, and if manufacturers have their way, robotic dishwashers might well be a thing in the near future.