Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Storage Studies

So one of the things Mechanisms tries to do is make the case for storage, the ugly duckling in the new media ecology. (Storage is boring. What can one possibly say about it?) In the book, I spend one chapter on developing a "grammatology" of hard drives, and another conducting a protracted forensic walkthrough of a disk image of the old Apple II game Mystery House. (And here I just cannot believe this thing isn't shooting to the top of the bestseller lists, folks.) Anyway, courtesy of Jeremy Douglass, comes this remarkable entry on Oldskooler Ramblings, entitled "The diskette that blew Trixter's mind."

We join the story as our hero, Trixter, is rummaging through some recent antiquarian acquisitions for games to archive in his collection and comes across something strange:
. . . and it was when I got to Mental Blocks that I ran into something I’d never seen before: The manual for Mental Blocks claims that, for both C64 and IBM, you put the diskette in label-side up. I thought that had to be a typo, since every single mixed C64/IBM or Apple/IBM diskette I have ever seen is a “flippy” disk where one side is IBM and the other side is C64 or Apple — until I looked at the FAT12 for the disk and saw that tons of sectors in an interleaved pattern were marked as BAD — very strange usage.

Basically, each sector on the diskette is formatted for either the C64 or IBM, in an interleaved pattern; in other words, it's "a mixed-format, mixed-architecture, mixed-sided diskette." (The screenshot of the diskette's FAT on the Oldskool blog is pretty jaw-dropping.) Trixter goes on to muse:
I think I need to go on a mission to discover who built the disk format(s) by hand to see what he was thinking. Did he work on it for weeks, feverishly trying to figure out how to meet the publisher’s demands? Or was he so brilliant that he did it all in a day or so, not thinking too much about it other than it was just another facet of his job? Fascinating stuff!

Indeed. The desire to get inside this guy's head (assuming it was a guy) speaks volumes about the allure of what I've once or twice called, new media tongue-firmly-in-cheek, "storage studies." What really interests me is that it's marker of how much the material affordances of computing have changed in the last two decades, since this kind of physical consideration of the geometry of the diskette and its low-level formatting would be unthinkable in an era of terabyte drives. There's also something wonderfully analogous to the codex, "an acknowledgment of the extent to which efficient inscription demands the rationalization of the writing space, regardless of medium" (80-1) as I put it in the hard drive chapter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Condensed, pragmatic usage of time,material and production cost- sounds like a Berkeley, CA thing. Dawn of the Info age, guys were trying anything just to see if it could be done.