ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Grind a Day —

4am doesn’t suffer fools, or repetition. Or mysteries. Focused out of nowhere on tinkering with an Apple II a number of years back, they re-learned the whole of how the unique floppy disk system worked, how it could be manipulated, and then, ultimately, how legions of companies and individuals used those manipulations to “protect” commercial software.

Left to just that level of knowledge, this would store 4am in the cattle car of all the people I know of and deal with on a frequent basis. They’re the reason so many people know the penguin gets fat on the second run-through of Mario 64, or that what a fast-load cartridge actually does for a Commodore 64. Maybe not enough, probably too much.

But 4am is an engineer, and also a documentation writer, and also the aforementioned resister of dumb and deja vu, so not only did we end up with examples of crack writeups that rival a 1930s pulp story for adventures and twists, but also a series of increasingly complex and intense tools for the simple goal of removing the protection from Apple II software.

Somewhere in the middle of this journey, now well into the realm of a decade, came John Keoni Morris and Applesauce, itself an overengineered-for-the-purpose multi-tool that started with doing flux readings of Apple-only floppies and then expanded out into masses of other related systems and setups, and all allowing us to be broken free from chains.

To my great delight, the two creators of these projects don’t entirely hate each other, and share very similar goals, and listen to each other within reason.

The result is that years in, there are literally thousands of floppy disks that are definitively captured digitally, remixed or presented as packs of files, and offered without crushing pre-requisites or unseen gatekeeping. It’s all just… happening. If you’ve not paid attention (and you are quite welcome to not have been doing so) let me assure you that Apple II disk preservation has been flying at a speed and quality that almost no other platform enjoys, except Commodore 64, and C64’s surpassing comprehensiveness has come at great unpleasant costs.

As collections and piles of floppies have turned up, an amateur army of Applesauce owners (including 4am) have absorbed these plastic squares and turned them into files, literally rescuing them from oblivion. The to-be-expected reserves have been exhausted years ago, and we’re in the realm of the rare, the newly discovered, and the open hailing frequencies letting previously-unaware people know there’s a home for their boxes of floppies to be turned digital from the merely magnetic.

This all to say, the result of this set of happy accidents and personalities combined with the strange alure of this commercial computer platform and the relative sturdiness of the engineering has resulted in a renaissance of access to the old software. My small contribution has been to ensure that the old software has a permanent-as-possible home.

4am, however, rises to the top again and again.

Sitting at the Internet Archive, is the 4AM Collection, an Apple II collection of cracked software (cracked “silently”, meaning no title screens or destruction of function in the name of getting it out the doors), that numbers past 3,000 individual titles. And because we have an emulation system in place, you can click on almost all of them and begin interacting with them immediately, often instantly.

The pure existence of this collection, that it actually works and is available all the time and people use it by the thousands, also stands as a perfect example of what I’ve come to realize: Accomplishments fade, to the accomplished. People who are in the business of getting things done take very little time to wander out to the veranda to look down among their completed tasks and not move, quietly jiggling a beverage. They’re back inside working on the next thing, or trying to shore up a devastating (to them) flaw in their work they glanced at the last time they ever looked back at it.

Meanwhile, this collection (still growing) represents a foundational location to some audience, the size of which I can’t easily discern, who are just living in a world where thousands of Apple II software packages are ready to go at the slightest itch to make it happen.

The use of Passport and Applesauce means that when 4am gets new floppies, either by purchase or donation, they enter a well-oiled machine and process, which reads the disks, cracks them (or asks for help cracking them, before they are then cracked and everything else like them will be cracked in the future), and uploads the new ones to the Archive. There’s a lot less time to get bored, find it repetitive, and get a hold of the inevitable excuses to do anything else.

There’s lessons in all this but I’m not convinced they’ll reach the right people.

Speaking of lessons, the point of all this congratulatory fog of words is to bring out a hard lesson I learned due to a secondary 4am project: WOZ A DAY.

Applesauce pushes out three general types of disk images in its work. Fluxes, which are to-the-bit accurate portrayals of the magnetic flux of the floppy disks. Files that are just the data inside the floppies, and a third type, WOZ format.

Flux reads are huge, owing to how they’re being done, and can be 20 megabytes for a single floppy which would normally be 144 kilobytes. The files of JUST the data are usually the exact same, that is, 144 kilobyes.

But WOZ files are another beast all together. They shift; they are different sizes for the different unique aspects of that floppy disk images. WOZ, in other words, is a standard disk image but with an entire additional layer of information about the layout of the floppies and additional data shoved into them for the purposes of copy projection.

In the context of the end user, a WOZ file, booting inside a WOZ-enabled emulator, will boot with not a single solitary byte changed in the name of preservation, or a single solitary microsecond mistimed in execution and speed from the original hardware booking the original magnetic black square.

If you start up Choplifter! as a WOZ, you will experience Choplifter! exactly as you’d have booting something you picked up at the local computer store. For people who might have only played cracked versions, modified towards being copyable and easily transferred over modems, it might sometimes come off as the program being “wrong”. But no, it is you who is at fault; you remember something else, a simulacrum of what Choplifter was at the time.

The aforementioned process and automation on the part of 4am has resulted in WOZ-A-DAY holding over 1,500 individual commercially released programs in its collection. This number is astounding; for most individuals with a glancing and maybe even deep knowledge of Apple II software lore, they will be very hard pressed indeed to recall any program they bought in a store (or wished they had), or to find any commercial product advertised inside a magazine, and not bump into it among the hundreds contained here.

It is among the high crimes within my personal penal code when someone hears tangentially of a major project like this, spanning years, and coming back with “Well, call me when they have ______” without even checking, thinking they’ve added anything of value to the discussion. What they generally have done is withdraw another 15-45 seconds of my life to tell them that yes, this collection has Prince of Persia, Apple Galaxian, or Copy II Plus among its stacks. It has so many more, not just games but utilities, applications, educational and genres yet undefined.

Walking these exhibits myself, as I’ve done over the years, it feels like we’re looking at both a memorial and a testimony condensed into an object. After all, to know how amazing a game like Dung Beetles is, and being able to point to that specific URL to instantly play it, seems like a high watermark. It shouldn’t just be a simple case of the name and year of the program and then you play it – surely we can do more.

Already, WOZ A DAY and the other 4am collections stand as the kind of puffery discussed at a game convention or around a table on the second day of a tech meet, a wishful thinking of “someday” that could exist. I’ve sat in on those conversations, and yet here, absolutely, is the real thing.

But it’s thin. You are told a game exists here, you can click on it and play it. You do not get context, documentation, links to magazine articles and ads and all the other pieces of a program’s life that came through the world as it was sold.

Worst of all, the Internet Archive is absolutely brimming with the information I’m talking about – digitized magazines, flyers, books and recordings discussing these very items.

So, at one point, I decided it was time to do something about it.

It failed and I wanted to talk about why.

To understand what I was going for, I put in the time for Hard Hat Mack, a pretty straightforward platformer game from 1983, which has gotten the WOZ A DAY treatment. I spent time and tried to pull up everything about this game – write-ups, interviews, reviews, announcements, alternate versions and trivia. I created an item that would reveal Hard Hat Mack’s full spectrum of information and allow someone who played the game to also enjoy the world it was part of. Or, conversely, for a student or researcher to grab footholds in the history of the game.

If this sub-project started and ended with a handful of items, it’d be a success.

But there’s a lot of items.

After spending some weeks rounding up people to contribute entries in the same style of depth, tracking contributions and sharing the duties, only a handful ever got the treatment. I have mostly shut the whole thing down at this point.

So, what exactly happened?

Well, it comes down to a rather tricky situation – there are jobs/tasks that will only bring in fanatics if by fanatics you mean people being paid for their time. And those jobs/tasks will likely never get any sort of funding to do so.

They’re the worst of both worlds – profoundly boring, utterly necessary. No amount of rah-rah work, no reframing of the whole thing as a competition, “do it for the good of it” situation will obscure the fact that it is very difficult effort that should be compensated.

4am happened upon the secret – write code to do the boring parts, then make more and more parts boring; figure them out utterly, until there were no choices to make, and then code that followed those no-choice journeys thousands of times. But rich, interesting descriptions and lists of tangents are not the province of automation, yet, and so the WOZ A DAY remains as, simply, a spectacular selection of Apple II software, much of it rare as can be in the form it exists.

I could cook up some other schemes to get an army of people to do this work – fundraisers, “hackathons” and livestreams come to mind. But at the moment, things are stable, and I tried to do the experiment and have a lot of data about what worked and didn’t work in the process. We got a handful of nice items updated with their history, and I learned a lesson.

Maybe, sometimes, we take the lesson, and move on.

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  1. Eric Jung says:

    > But rich, interesting descriptions and lists of tangents are not the province of automation, yet

    Why not train a LLM AI on the magazines, newsletters, documentation, etc, and have it generate the descriptions based on prompts?

  2. lucid phreak says:

    great story… love all of the work you have done going all the way back to your BBS..

  3. a2fan says:

    I greatly appreciate you Jason and 4am, qkumba and Keoni for accomplishing so much. Our heroes don’t wear capes, but sometimes whimsical top hats and whisper their lore in hexadecimal and binary.

  4. ralphw says:

    I am on a quest for the “Micro-Dynamo” software for the Apple II, System Dynamics software from the early 1980s.

    I appreciate you all for making it possible to archive, all I lack is the physical media

    Thank you, Jason, 4am, qkumba and Keoni!