The Debut of the Apple Disk II, Ambiguous Terminology, and the Effects of Memory: Digging Deeper into an Anecdote from Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

The first Apple Disk II and controller card hand wired by Wozniak. Photo taken at the Apple Pop-Up Museum in Roswell, GA.
The first Apple Disk II and controller card hand wired by Wozniak. Photo taken at the Apple Pop-Up Museum in Roswell, GA.

Matthew Kirschenbaum constructs a compelling and interesting argument in his book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008). He argues that while new media and computer software might seem ephemeral and intangible, it has in fact physicality, a many-layered history, and emerging archaeological protocols (developed by Kirschenbaum and many others).

However, one section titled “Coda: CTRL-D, CTRL-Z” attracted my attention, because its use of the term “recover” in a story about the debut of the Apple Disk II seemed to imply computer disk data recovery instead of what historically happened, which was the manual rewriting of the software that had been accidentally overwritten during a botched disk copy operation.

Kirschenbaum uses the story of Steve Wozniak and Randy Wigginton’s development of software to control the reading and writing of data to Apple’s Disk II, which was based on Shugart’s 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive, before its unveiling at the 1978 CES in Las Vegas to establish an analogy: “Nowadays we toggle the CTRL-D and CTRL-Z shortcuts, deleting content and undoing the act at a whim. Gone and then back again, the keyboard-chorded Fort and Da of contemporary knowledge work” (Kirschenbaum 69). The idea is that computer facilitate a kind of gone and back again play as described by Freud. Of course, the keyboard shortcuts that he refers to are not universal across platforms or software, but the concept is pervasive. Nevertheless, my focus is not on that concept per se but instead on the Apple Disk II debut anecdote, the terminology surrounding what actually happened, and how that relates to the kinds of work that we do in new media archaeology.

After introducing the story of the Apple Disk II’s debut at CES, Kirschenbaum cites a passage from Steven Weyhrich’s Apple II History website:

“When they got to Las Vegas they helped to set up the booth, and then returned to working on the disk drive. They stayed up all night, and by six in the morning they had a functioning demonstration disk. Randy suggested making a copy of the disk, so they would have a backup if something went wrong. They copied the disk, track by track. When they were done, they found that they had copied the blank disk on top of their working demo! By 7:30 am they had recovered the lost information and went on to display the new disk drive at the show.” (Weyhrich par. 13, qtd. in Kirschenbaum 69).

First, it should be noted that Weyhrich uses the term “recovered” to describe the way that the “lost information” was brought back from the brink of the overwritten disk. Then, Kirschenbaum reads Weyhrich’s account above in the following way:

“Thus the disk handling routines that took the nascent personal computer industry by storm were accidentally overwritten on the very morning of their public debut–but recovered and restored again almost as quickly by those who had intimate knowledge of the disk’s low-level formatting and geometry” (Kirschenbaum 69).

Weyhrich uses the term “recovered” to refer to the software Wozniak and Wigginton had lost during the bad copy operation. Kirschenbaum borrows Weyhrich’s “recovered” and adds “restored” to describe the final state of the software on Wozniak and Wigginton’s floppy disks for use on the CES show floor. When I first read Kirschenbaum’s book, his reading seemed unncessarily ambiguous. On the one hand, Kirschenbaum does not directly say that the two Apple engineers used their knowledge of controlling the disk drive and reading low-level information on the floppy disks to “recover” the lost data–i.e., use the drive and disk technology to salvage, rescue, or retrieve what remains on the disk but otherwise might seem lost to someone with less advanced knowledge. On the other hand, Kirschenbaum’s reading of the incident–“recovered and restored again almost as quickly”–is implicitly aligned with his own project of the physicality of data stored on new media storage devices. One could mistakenly believe that Wozniak and Wigginton had restored the lost data from the overwritten floppy disk.

Steven Wozniak writes about this episode in his autobiography, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon (2006). Before turning to Wozniak’s later recall of this event in 1978, I would like to look at the two sources that Weyhrich cites on the passage that Kirschenbaum cites in his argument.

Weyhrich’s first of two footnotes on his passage points to page 168 of Gregg Williams and Rob Moore’s 1985 interview with Steve Wozniak titled, “The Apple Story, Part 2: More History And The Apple III” in the January 1985 issue of Byte magazine. In the interview, Wozniak tells them:

“We worked all night the day before we had to show it [the disk drive] at CES. At about six in the morning it was ready to demonstrate. Randy thought we ought to back it up, so we copied the disk, track by track. When we were done, he looked down at them in his hands and said, “Oh, no! I wrote on the wrong one!” We managed to recover it and actually demonstrated it at CES” (Williams and Moore 168).

In this primary source, we see Wozniak using  the term “recover” to indicate that they were able to get the demonstration operational in time for CES that day, but what form the “recovery” took place is not explained. Was it data recovery in the technical sense or data recovery in the hard work sense of re-writing the code?

Weyrich’s second footnote on his passage points to Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine’s “Fire In The Valley, Part Two (Book Excerpt)” in the January 1985 issue of A+ Magazine. While I have been unable to find a copy of this magazine, I did refer to the book that this excerpt was taken from: Freiberger and Swaine’s Fire in the Valley (1984). On page 286, they write in regard to Wozniak and Wigginton’s disk dilemma at CES:

“Wigginton and Woz arrived in Las Vegas the evening before the event. They helped set up the booth that night and went back to work on the drive and the demo program. They planned to have it done when the show opened in the morning even if they had to go without sleep. Staying up all night is no novelty in Las Vegas, and that’s what they did, taking periodic breaks from programming to inspect the craps tables. Wigginton, 17, was elated when he won $35 at craps, but a little later back in the room, his spirits were dashed when he accidentally erased a disk they had been working on. Woz patiently helped him reconstruct all the information. They tried to take a nap at 7:30 that morning, but both were too keyed up” (Freiberger and Swaine 286).

Unlike Wozniak’s “recover” in the Williams and Moore interview above, Freiberger and Swaine use the term “reconstruct” in their narrative about the pre-CES development of the Disk II demonstration software. Unlike the term recover, which means to regain what is lost, reconstruct means to build something again that has been destroyed. Freiberger and Swaine’s selection of this term seems more accurate when considering what Wozniak says about this episode in his autobiography:

“We set up in our booth and worked until about 6 a.m., finally getting everything working. At that point I did one very smart thing. I was so tired and wanted some sleep but knew it was worth backing up our one good floppy disk, with all the right data. . . . But when I finished this backup, I looked at the two unlabeled floppy disks and got a sinking feeling that I’d followed a rote pattern but accidentally copied the bad floppy to the good one, erasing all the good data. A quick test determined that this is what happened. You do things like that when you are extremely tired. So my smart idea had led to a dumb and unfortunate result. . . . We went back to the Villa Roma motel and slept. At about 10 a.m. I woke up and got to work. I wanted to try to rebuild the whole thing. The code was all in my head, anyways. I managed to get the good program reestablished by noon and took it to our booth. There we attached the floppy and started showing it” (Wozniak and Smith 218-219).

In this account, Wozniak says that he is responsible for overwriting the good disk with the bad (as opposed to what he said to Williams and Moore for the 1985 Byte magazine interview), but most important is the terms that he uses to describe how he made things right: “I wanted to try to rebuild the whole thing.” He “reestablished” the program by reentering “the code . . . in [his] head” into the computer that they had on-hand. Wozniak’s word choice and description makes it clearer than in his earlier interview that he had to remake the program from memory instead of attempting to “recover” it from the overwritten media itself. While, it might have been theoretically possible for someone as well versed in the mechanism that by that point he had had a significant hand in redesigning from the original Shugart drive mechanism and controller card and of course his development with Wigginton of the software that controlled the hardware to read and write floppy disks in the Apple Disk II system (computer-controller card-disk drive), Wozniak, who reports throughout his autobiography as an engineer who works things out in head meticulously before putting his designs into hardware or software, took the easiest path to the solution of this new media problem: write out the software again from memory.

Memory, of course, is another tricky element of this story. It was my memory of Wozniak’s exploits that drew me to this passage in Kirschenbaum’s book. My memory of Kirschenbaum’s argument informed the way that I interpreted what I thought Kirschenbaum meant by using this episode as a way of making his Fort-Da computer analogy. Kirschenbaum’s memory of the episode as it had been interpreted secondhand in Weyhrich’s history of the Apple II informed how he applied it to his argument. Wozniak’s own memory is illustrated as pliable through the subtle differences in his story as evidenced in the 1985 Byte magazine interview and twenty-one years later in his 2006 autobiography.

Ultimately, the episode as I read it in Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms was caught in an ambiguous use of language. The use of certain terms to describe the work that we do in new media–in its development, implementation, or daily use–relies on the terminology that we use to describe the work that is done to others–lay audience or otherwise. Due to the kind of ambiguity illustrated here, we have to strive to select terms that accurately and explicitly describe what it is we are talking about. Of course, primary and secondary accounts contribute to the possibility of ambiguity, confusion, or inaccuracy. Sometimes, we have to dig more deeply through the layers of new media history to uncover the fact that illuminates the other layers or triangulate between differing accounts to establish a best educated guess about the topic at hand.

Works Cited

Freiberger, Paul and Michael Swaine. Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Weyhrich, Steven. “The Disk II.” Apple II History. Apple II History, n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Williams, Gregg, and Rob Moore. “The Apple Story, Part 2: More History And The Apple III”, Byte, Jan 1985: 167-180. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Wozniak, Steve and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

My SFRA 2015 Conference Presentation: The Cyberspace Deck as a Mechanism: Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy as a Voyager Expanded Book

The presentation that I will be giving tomorrow afternoon at 1:00PM at the annual Science Fiction Research Association Conference (this year at Stony Brook University on June 25-27, 2015) will be nothing like the title and abstract that I submitted earlier this year, but that’s a good thing. Over the past several months, my reading and research has focused on one small corner of that original abstract: The Voyager Company’s Expanded Book Edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1992). I began to see the cyberspace deck as an important image and mechanism connecting Gibson’s fictional world with our contemporary shift from written to digital culture.

Above,  you can watch a demo video that will accompany my presentation as a backdrop to my talk, and below, you can find my paper’s abstract, useful links, and my works cited list for reference. I will have handouts of this information available at the session tomorrow, too.

Title:

The Cyberspace Deck as a Mechanism: Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy as a Voyager Expanded Book

Abstract:

Instead of focusing on the epistemology or ontology of cyberspace, this paper explores the cyberspace deck in William Gibson’s fictions as a mechanism of inscription. It does this by charting Gibson’s inspiration in the Apple IIc, his comparison of it to the first Apple PowerBooks, and the publication of his cyberspace deck-infused fictions as the Voyager Company Expanded Book edition in 1992. Through discussing these connections, it addresses other issues of importance for the current shift from written culture to digital culture, such as the effect of reading on screens as opposed to print, and the effect of digital culture on the human brain.

Useful Links:

Conference Demo Video (embedded above): http://youtu.be/fU8K2DuTfeE

Google Glass, iPad, PowerBook 145 Demo Video: https://youtu.be/-XrIqLdx3EU

Mini vMac Emulation Software: http://gryphel.com/c/minivmac/index.html

Emaculation Emulation Community: http://www.emaculation.com/doku.php

Works Cited

Casimir, Jon. “Voyager Seeks to Improve Thinking.” Sydney Morning Herald (23 May 1995): n.p. Web. 18 May 2015.

DeStefano, Diana and Jo-Anne LeFebre. “Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review.” Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007): 1616-1641. Web. 22 June 2015.

Gibson, William. “Afterword.” Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. n.p. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

—. Burning Chrome. New York: EOS, 2003. Print.

—. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1987. Print.

—. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1989. Print.

—. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.

—. Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

—. Package. Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Markley, Robert. “Boundaries: Mathematics, Alientation, and the Metaphysics of Cyberspace.” Configurations 2.3 (1994): 485-507. Web. 23 June 2015.

Matazzoni, Joe. “Books in a New Light.” Publish (October 1992): 16-21. Print.

Mazlish, Bruce. The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print.

Sellen, Abigail J. and Richard H.R. Harper. The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Virshup, Amy. “The Teachings of Bob Stein.” Wired (April 2007): n.p. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Personal Reflection and Improved Battery Life on iPhone 4S with iOS 8 (Hint: It’s about Twitter and Technology Use)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dynamicsubspace/15304145945

I really liked my iPhone 4S after I received it on October 14, 2011. It had tremendously long battery life (2-3 days between charges initially), and it had a lot of get-up-and-go for apps, games, and online activities supported by my then-unlimited AT&T data plan. However, my attitude towards my phone soured after 12-18 months. It began needing recharging more frequently and it lost its speed as the years past, new versions of iOS were installed, and new apps were updated.

I long thought that two things were conspiring against my iPhone 4S’s battery life. First, as iOS matured, it increased in complexity and became more feature-rich. Also, it seemed apparent that Apple was optimizing new iOS releases for correspondingly new iDevice hardware and CPUs. Put another way, my iPhone 4S’s A5 processor was not as efficient as the newer CPUs appearing in the iPhone 5, 5S, and 6. Unfortunately, Apple does not make it easy for its phone’s owners to choose which compatible operating system to run on their phone. After a brief period following a new iOS’s release, you cannot downgrade to an earlier version of iOS. This means that after the biggest jump in my experience–upgrading from iOS 6 to 7–was not reversible, because I waited too long to downgrade my iPhone 4S.

The other issue had to do with the nature of lithium-ion batteries. While they are tremendously better than older battery technologies, they suffer from the same problem as those older batteries: the maximum storage capacity of the battery decreases over time due to the number of recharge cycles. I thought that after two years, perhaps my battery needed to be replaced. By this point, I was having to recharge my phone once a day, so it seemed that its battery’s maximum capacity had been depleted. I purchased a battery replacement kit from iFixit.com, but after installing it, I did not see any improved battery life.

In my search for a technological solution to my iPhone 4S’s battery life problem, I was ignoring a bigger piece of the puzzle: my behavior. It occurred to me after uninstalling the Twitter app on my iPhone 4S about a week ago that my iPhone seemed to return to its halcyon days of needing a recharge about every two days! At first, I wondered if it had been the Twitter app that had been sucking the battery dry, but then, I reflecting on what I had been doing during the day differently when I had the Twitter app installed.

Around the time that I got the iPhone 4S, I began using Twitter more than I had in the past. When I used Twitter, I usually accessed it on my phone many times each day. Each time that I would check Twitter, I had to activate my phone (turn on the screen), unlock it, open the app, download data (wifi/less power draw or cellular/more power draw), send a tweet, take a photo occasionally to attach to a tweet, etc. Essentially, I was using my phone more often and the things that I was using it for was drawing a lot of power from the batter (data use, screen brightness high if outside, using the camera).

While I still seem to use my phone a lot (text messaging, web browsing, phone calls, other app use), taking my behavior and phone use as a Twitter user out of the equation seems to have significantly improved my phone’s battery life. Additionally, it has helped me refocus my attention on more important (at least to me) work and reading.

Of course, someone might point out the obviousness of using your phone less will prolong its battery life. However, as we use these technologies (mobile computing and social networking) more as a part of our daily practices, it is easy to miss how the pattern of our use might have changed over time. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that I am using this technology the same now as I did one or two years ago when that believe might not be supported by empirical evidence.

This is why I recommend reflecting on your behavior as a technology user before assuming that there is a technological problem involved in depleted battery life. While we shouldn’t rule out hardware or software sources as the root cause of a quickly discharged battery, my experience reveals how significant our behavior and use patterns (and how those patterns imperceptibly change over time) impact the battery life of our rechargeable devices.

Furthermore, we should all reflect on our technology use for non-technical reasons; meaning that we should reflect on how we use these technologies, what effect our use of these technologies have on our lives and interpersonal relationships, and how do these technologies effect our learning, critical thinking, and decision making abilities. Taking a time out to reflect might improve our human capacity to avoid “plugging in” as often as our devices might require.

Second Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab: Power Macintosh 8500

Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.
Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.

When I met with Georgia Tech Library Archives’ Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to donate three vintage computers (a Dell Dimension 4100, Apple Performa 550, and Apple iMac) and other computing hardware a week and a half ago, I noticed that they had room for one more computer, so I pitched them the idea of my making another donation to fill the gap between the Performa 550’s 68030 processor and the iMac’s G3 processor:  an Apple Power Macintosh 8500/120. They agreed to accept, so I set about preparing the computer for them.

IMG_5166

My Power Macintosh 8500 was in very good shape, but like many vintage computers with persistent clocks, it needed a new lithium battery.

To replace the Power Macintosh 8500's on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.
To replace the Power Macintosh 8500’s on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.

I replaced the battery, installed Mac OS 7.5.5, a number of different software titles (including Apple’s Plaintalk Speech Recognition–I threw in a Plaintalk powered microphone, Project X/Hot Sauce, and Cyberdog). I discovered that the plastic inside the case did not age well. The PowerMac 8500 has a lot of plastic components that are held together with flexible tabs or clips. When I applied a small amoung of pressure on the tip of these clips to release them, most of them would break. Luckily, the case ties together very well, so I only had to piece some parts back together with clear tape (the power button/light assembly) and metal duct tape (one drive plate cover on the front of the case). To help dissipate heat, I  added a rear slot fan made by Antec.

I made a video demoing the finalized system, which I’m including embedded below (I apologize for the flicker, but my digital camera doesn’t have enough adjustment features to match the refresh rate on the Apple 14″ Color Display).

In addition to the Power Macintosh 8500, I gave the Archives a box full of software and late-1990s/early-2000s video games for Macintosh. These might help facilitate more connections around campus (Computer Science, Media Studies, and Game Studies).

As I’m leaving soon for City Tech, I believe that we can do more together in our work with vintage computing. I floated the idea of a symposium, conference, or some other kind of connected project. Also, from what little I have learned so far, there’s a lot of investment and interest in computer technology in NYC (and Brooklyn in particular). I am looking forward to making new connections with others studying retrocomputing and New Media. I know that many opportunities await.

Inaugural Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab

Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.
Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of making the first donation of three computers to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, which is launching its own Retrocomputing Lab for scholars and students to use. The Georgia Tech Library Archives is already well-known for its significant Georgia Tech Science Fiction Collection and other holdings.

I met with Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to setup the three computers and talk about each machine’s provenance and current operation. We set the computers up on the right side as you enter the Georgia Tech Library Archives. This is a temporary location as the Archives makes plans for their use in Archives for the time being and possibly more in the future as part of the on-going Georgia Tech Library renovation project.

Apple Performa 550 and iMac.
Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

From my personal collection–which I am having to cull before moving to Brooklyn for my new job at City Tech, I donated three computers: an Apple Performa 550 (1994), Apple iMac (1999), and Dell Dimension 4100 (2001). Before donating the computers, I refurbished each to be in as factory-fresh condition as possible.

For the Peforma 550, I installed a PDS ethernet NIC and replaced the SCSI hard drive with one that was less noisy than its original one. Then, I installed Mac OS 7.6.1 and some software including the AfterDark Star Trek: The Next Generation screensaver and ClarisWorks, and utilities for working with files and disk images.

For the slot-loading, DV iMac, I replaced the motherboard battery and performed a fresh install of Mac OS 9.2.1. The optical drive suffers from a weak ejection mechanism. I made sure that the bottom plastic bezel fit properly, but reseated it had no effect on improving the drive’s ability to eject discs correctly. I warned the librarians about this, and recommended buying an external, Firewire optical drive and using the paperclip ejection method in the meantime.

Dell Dimension 4100.
Dell Dimension 4100.

For the Dell Dimension 4100, I installed a 3Com NIC donated by Mark Warbington. I installed Windows 98 Second Edition and painstakingly installed the drivers for the components in the Dell (this was a laborious process, because despite having the Service Tag number, some recommended drivers did not work on all of the components).

I provided two sets of speakers–one for the Performa 550 (it’s internal speakers had stopped working about a year ago) and one for the Dell Dimension 4100. In the event of future hardware problems, I gave them spare AGP video cards, optical drives, a 3.5″ floppy disk drive.

Also, I gave them some spare motherboards, controller cards, and hard drives that might be useful for displays in the Library.

The Georgia Tech Library Archives have big plans for making digital archival work and learning an integral component of what they do. If you have functional and working computer hardware or software, you should consider donating it to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, or if you have technical skills for working on older hardware and software, you can donate your expertise and time, too. Contact Jody and Wendy by email or phone here: Georgia Tech Library Archives contact information here.

UPDATE: I made these four Google Glass videos while working on the iMac DV:

Retrocomputing Lab Page Launch

DSC01810-bw-TITLE2

Over the weekend, I launched a new page under the “Research” menu on DynamicSubspace.net for my Retrocomputing Lab.

I use the Retrocomputing Lab’s hardware and software resources in my continuing research on human-computer interaction, human-computer experiences, and human-computer co-influence. So far, its primary focus is on the shift from the pre-Internet, early-1990s to the post-Internet, late-1990s and early-2000s.

During that time, technological and cultural production seems to accelerate. Imagine all of the stories yet to be recovered from that time. How do we untangling of the long shadow of that time from the innovations and disruptions of the present passing into future?

The computer hardware includes Macs and PCs. There are laptops and desktops. There are different add-on cards and peripherals to enhance and change experiences. There are 3.5″ floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and DVDs. There are many different kinds of software ranging from games to interactive encyclopedias to operating systems to word processors. There are different motherboards that can be swapped out in various computer cases (AT and ATX). The machines can be temperamental, but each configuration reveals its own indelible soul (for lack of a better word, but it is a word that I quite like in this context).

My research focuses on reading on screens, depictions of electronic-facilitated reading, and the cognitive effects of reading on screens (of course, there are a multitude of screens and interfaces–a worthy complication) as opposed to other forms of non-digital media (and their multitude).

The Retrocomputing Lab continues to grow and new research possibilities abound. If you are interested in collaborating on a project with Retrocomputing Lab resources, drop me a line at jason dot ellis at lmc dot gatech dot edu.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Present Technology, Airport Express, Oct 28, 2004

This is the twelfth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In the next few Recovered Writing posts, I will present my major assignments from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s LCC 3314 Technologies of Representation class at Georgia Tech. LCC 3314 is taught in many different ways by the faculty of the Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, but I consider myself fortunate to have experienced Professor Knoespel’s approach to the course during the last phase of my undergraduate tenure. The ideas that we discussed in his class continue to inform my professional and personal thinking. Also, I found Professor Knoespel a great ally, who helped me along my path to graduation with side projects and independent studies.

This is another example of a WOVEN multimodal essay assignment. In it, I used WVE/written, visual, electronic modes to discuss a specific technology. These essays (focused on past, present, and future technologies) gave me a chance to use technology to explore the meaning behind and impact of technologies. The next essay will focus on a future technology of my own design.

In this essay assignment, we were tasked with exploring an example of a present technology. I chose to write about Apple’s Airport Express, which my roommate Perry Merier had recently purchased. At the time, the idea of an extremely small computing/routing/audio device was new and innovative. Also, it was incredibly useful.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC3314 – Technologies of Representation

October 28, 2004

Artifact of the Present – Apple Airport Express

Apple Airport Express (Image from Apple Computer)
Apple Airport Express (Image from Apple Computer)

The Artifact

The Apple Airport Express is a multifunction wireless Internet router (i.e., base station) that first hit shelves in June 2004.  It can serve as a wireless Internet base station, extend the range of an existing wireless network, receive streaming music and transfer that to a home stereo, and share a USB printer on a wireless network.  It can do all of these things and yet its small rectangular shape can be inscribed in the circumference of an audio CD.

Description

The Airport Express is only 3.7 inches tall, 2.95 inches wide, and 1.12 inches deep.  It is about the size of a Powerbook G4’s power brick (AC to DC converter).  If you do not need the included power cord extender, then the Airport Express is completely self-contained.  Unlike most other wireless routers, the Airport Express has its power converter built-in.  The electronics that allow it to juggle all of its functions lie within the glossy white plastic housing.

On the back edge of the Airport Express there is a fold-out AC power connector.  The power prongs fold back into the unit so that it is easily carried in a bag without snagging on anything.  The bottom edge has three connectors.  The first is the ethernet RJ-45 connector.  This can be connected to a DSL or cable modem so that the Airport Express can wirelessly transmit Internet access to computers with wireless capabilities that are within range.  Next is the USB connector.  This can be hooked to a USB printer so that the printer can be shared with anyone on the wireless network.  The last connector is an audio mini-jack that supports both digital and optical audio output.  This can be connected to a home stereo so that music can be streamed from a computer running iTunes to the Airport Express.  In the event of a lockup, there is a small reset button on the bottom of the device.  The front edge of the device has an LED.  This LED lights up as amber or green.  The color of the LED and its state (i.e., on, off, blinking) can indicate different things about the status of the Airport Express.

Airport Express Connectors (left) and Airport Express Plugged-In (right)(Images from Apple Computer)
Airport Express Connectors (left) and Airport Express Plugged-In (right) (Images from Apple Computer)

The components inside the Airport Express are tightly packed.  A good deal of engineering had to go into making function follow form in this artifact.  Home wireless routers are usually two or three times the size of the Airport Express and they have an external power brick (that may be the same size as the Airport Express).  This device has to contain a power converter, wireless networking components, wired networking components, network routing components, USB printing components, and audio components.  Some of these parts are combined on a single piece of silicon to save space on the circuit board.

Airport Express split in half.  Note the circuit boards on the left and power converter on the right.  (Image from ipodding.com)
Airport Express split in half. Note the circuit boards on the left and power converter on the right. (Image from ipodding.com)

Social Significance

Apple Computer introduced its Airport technology in July 1999.  The choice to use the name “Airport” was a deliberate one.  It is easy to remember and it evokes certain images of what the technology is able to do.  The bits of data seem to fly through the air on invisible radio waves.  Airport technology is the place where these bits take off and land–from the base station to the computer and vice versa.  Speed, travel, and mobility are some of the images that Apple intended the Airport Extreme to conjure for potential buyers.

The Airport Express uses the two most widely adopted wireless networking standards:  802.11b and 802.11g.  A working group within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) established those standards.  The IEEE 802 standards committee develops the standards for local area networks as well as for metropolitan area networks.  Work group 11 focuses on wireless networking standards.  Publicly available standards such as these are part of the success of computer and networking hardware.  Standards allow for components manufactured by different companies to be interoperable.  Because the Airport Express uses several open standards it will work along side other wireless hardware and it will work with Macs as well as PCs.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regulate the radio frequency spectrum.  The NTIA is part of the Executive Branch of the US Government that “manages the Federal government’s use of the spectrum” while the FCC is an “independent agency” that “regulates the private use of the spectrum” (NTIA).  The 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networking standards are approved by the FCC to use the 2.4GHz radio band for transmitting and receiving bits of data carried on radio waves.

The US Radio Spectrum Frequency Allocations.  The red ellipse approximately marks where in the spectrum 802.11b and 802.11g operate. (Image from NTIA)
The US Radio Spectrum Frequency Allocations. The red ellipse approximately marks where in the spectrum 802.11b and 802.11g operate. (Image from NTIA)

Each person with a computer with wireless capability, a copy of iTunes, a stereo, and an Airport Express is in effect a one-person radio station.  Music can be streamed from the computer to the Airport Express which passes it along to the home stereo via an audio cable.  Digital music is now freed from the computer and transferred back to the home stereo.  This capability points to one of the Airport Express’ weaknesses.  Music streaming from a computer can only be played on one Airport Express at a time.  There is no technology barrier keeping more than one Airport Express from receiving the streaming music so there is some reason that Apple restricted this capability on the Airport Express.  If this were enabled customers would buy more than one Airport Express so that they could stream music to multiple rooms.

The music travels wirelessly to the Airport Express and then to the stereo via wires.  (Image from Apple Computer)
The music travels wirelessly to the Airport Express and then to the stereo via wires. (Image from Apple Computer)

The Airport Express’ limitations might be due to pressure from the music industry.  Apple gives the music playing software, iTunes, away for free.  It can play CDs, MP3s, and it can access Apple’s Online Music store.  This software can copy (i.e., rip) CDs that may or may not be owned by the iTunes user.  Additionally, iTunes will play legitimate MP3s as well as those that are obtained in violation of current copyright law.  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and some music recording artists find this unacceptable.  Apple has tried to work on the side of the consumer, but they have to appease the music industry as well.  To do this Apple has integrated special encryption in music downloaded from the Apple Online Music Store so that only the authorized buyer can play those MP3s.  Additionally, iTunes establishes a secure connection to the Airport Express by encrypting the music stream with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption, which is in turn protected by RSA encryption.  This prevents others from recording an iTunes music stream.

Encryption is also employed to protect the wireless users on the Airport Extreme’s network.  Part of this protection comes from encrypting the wireless network traffic and the other part comes from the built-in firewall.  The older encryption is called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and the newer security is called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).  WPA was built to supercede WEP.  The built-in firewall uses network address translation (NAT) to create a network that uses private IP addresses instead of public (and thus directly connected to the Internet) IP addresses.  NAT exchanges data between the public world and the private network.  Generally, only the NAT server can directly connect to the computer on its private network and not a computer in the outside world.

Security and privacy is a growing concern for people in a more wired world.  Identify theft is becoming a boon for some (e.g., the thieves, private investigators, lawyers, politicians) and a bust for others (i.e., the person whose identity is stolen).  One way that a person’s private identifying information is stolen is by an individual “sniffing” a wireless network’s data traffic for that precious information.  New industries and groups have grown out of this problem of identity theft.  Wireless devices like the Airport Express need to have protections built-in so that a user’s private information will be better protected.

The physical construction of the Airport Express involves electrical engineering, computer engineering, and industrial design.  Electrical engineering and computer engineering overlap in a project such as this.  Custom chips have to be designed and built that handle data traffic, digital-analog conversion of sound, configuration software, controlling of a radio transmitter/receiver, and print control software.  Simplicity and elegance of design are demanded in order to fit such a feature rich artifact into a very small package.  Apple has a history of taking an artifact that is assumed to look or work in a particular way and transforming its appearance into something new and fresh (e.g., the original Macintosh, iMac, and iPod).  Airport Express works similarly to any other wireless router, but it pushes the elements of design (both as a physical artifact and with the internal circuits and chips) so that it is identified by the user as something more than its function.

Sleek and new shapes also reinforce the perception of speed.  Airplanes are fast and this artifact is the Airport (sending and receiving these fast airplanes of data) Express (quick, fast, simple).  Computer technology has been a long progression of speed.  How fast does this computer perform the tasks that I will be using it for?  Can it play Doom 3?  The same is true for networking technologies.  Wired networking is hands down the fastest networking technology so wireless has to compete with wires in speed, but it can distinguish itself by its convenience.

(Photo by John M. Dibbs.)
(Photo by John M. Dibbs.)

These new designs effect a change in the way people think about their computer technology.  Soft colors, translucent plastics, curves and gentle transitions give technology a friendlier “face.”  It isn’t imposing and the technology can now fit into a color scheme in your home.  Computer technology shifts from utility to lifestyle.  Apple brings together these networks of technology, government oversight, music industry muscle, and industrial design principles so as to provide customers with the technology desired but in a package that makes it less technical and more like a streamlined appliance.

Works Cited

“Airport Express Gallery.”  Ipodding.com.  2004.  October 26, 2004           <http://ipodding.com/modules.php?set_albumName=album10&op=modload&na            me=gallery&file=index&include=view_album.php>.

“Apple – Airport Express.”  Apple Computer, Inc..  2004.  October 26, 2004 <http://www.apple.com/airportexpress/&gt;.

“Apple – Support – Airport Express.”  Apple Computer, Inc..  2004.  October 26, 2004 <http://www.apple.com/support/airportexpress/&gt;.

Dibbs, John M..  “Concorde Takeoff.”  Planepix.com.  October 26, 2004    <http://www.planepix.com/pp/servlet/template/Detail.vm/id/2940&gt;.

“Myths vs. Reality.”  National Telecommunications and Information Administration.       October 14, 2004.  October 26, 2004             <http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/myths.html&gt;.