Site icon

The Northern Spy: memory and storage


By Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy (metaphorically) pens this on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Those two are the most commonly misspelled and mispronounced words on the calendar. That’s English for you, though. After all there are more than twenty correct pronunciations of the letter combination “ough” in English. No wonder students from other countries have such a tough time learning what we native North Americans absorb and store in our memories from infancy.

Memory and storage have come a long way from the industry’s early halcyon days. Students today have never seen a punch card, have no concept of the days when “punch card machine operator” was one of the most sought after skills. The Spy was a somewhat subversive student. He persuaded the computing science department to put one punch machine in the student area, outside the sanctum of the white robed high priests who took our coding sheets, had them punched, ran the programs, and returned our error printouts a week later.

Given access, he showed everyone how to duplicate a deck, and started an honour system of subroutines filed in boxes on the shelf above the machine. Before long, we were getting one program to run per two to three days, instead of taking weeks. The next semester, all the punch card machines were in the student lobby, and we no longer used coding sheets. The cards were of course used for data input as well as code, and therefore represented users’ only memory access. You very much didn’t want to spill coffee or pop on a box of precious cards.

When the small computer revolution began, early machines had 4-16K of internal memory, and programs were stored and read from punched paper tape–the same as used in telegraph offices, where the Spy learned to read ASCII by holes, as no other characters were printed on the tape.

The early Apple II machines could, with a chip alteration take 48K of memory (and with another and a jumper wire use lower case characters). Printed output was via using the wiring diagram in the manual to connect to a TTY machine. Moreover, by connecting a tape recorder (what’s that Grandpa? Is it like the thing you call a typewriter?) to the sound ports, dropping into the monitor and typing commands to read from the port into memory (or vice-versa) programs could be stored and loaded from cassette tapes. Early shipments of these machines to Canada (the Spy had one with a serial number under 100) came with a few games on cassettes. (Well, it sure beat entering programs anew every time with front panel switches as we did in the homebrew kits prior to that.)

Early floppy disk storage solutions were sold by Heathkit, and the 5 1/4 inch disks held just over 60K of data. Apple’s version stored 113.5K and was the least expensive such drive yet produced. This Disk II floppy Disk Subsystem was later increased to 140K with more efficient data coding in DOS 3.3 that allowed 16 sectors per track rather than 13. It was about this time the Spy wrote Ampermanager, which used the & hook into Applesoft to add over seventy commands to Applesoft and DOS 3.3, using only 4K of memory to do so.

One of these utilities was “RELETE” which undeleted files, provided their sectors had not physically been overwritten. An early success of this was the recovery of a colleague’s Doctoral dissertation. Ahem.

3.5-inch floppies with a metal centre and hard case came next. Initially these were one-sided and stored 400K, but soon were made double sided and capacity. Apple brought out ProDos at this time, noting that the new drives could not be used with the old DOS 3.3 as the sector size was now doubled and the FAT (File Allocation Table) could not index the larger capacity. The Spy, who used a disassembled DOS to create his utilities said “that’s not right, Apple’s engineers don’t know their own code” and produced DOS 3.3.5–a thirty-or-so byte $5 shareware utility that modified DOS by doubling the buffer size and reinterpreting the FAT accordingly on disks with his 3.3.5 flag set. Each side of the disk was its own volume, but it worked. He still occasionally gets $5 for this.

Apple’s first hard drive stored 5M (The Spy has an original packing box still), but this capacity was very quickly increased over the next few years, and today we can buy 6T+ capacity mechanical drives, and 1T+ solid state “drives” (really, external memory). CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray disks followed, each increasing the available storage. Apple never did adopt Blu-Ray, and no longer includes any optical drives in its systems, shifting all software installation and update to its massive banks of online servers.

User storage has to an extent gone the same way, with increasing numbers of cloud services offering storage touted as secure. The Spy uses the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive, and Apple’s iCloud) for sharing non-confidential files such as slide presentations and non-mission-critical documents, but would never trust confidential or other sensitive documents to systems over whose security and integrity he has no control. They all can be and will eventually be hacked, so no thanks.

The end of glass storage

Some are calling Jan. 27, 2017 “the day the music died in Canada” for on that date HMV, Canada’s last large retail chain of music and video disks went into bankruptcy and began liquidating inventory in all 102 stores. With Rogers long gone from the business, no such chains remain. Music and video have effectively already switched to the on-line streaming sphere, so money can no longer be made on physical media, except, paradoxically on vinyl records, which have made a temporary nostalgic comeback.

The Spy could, he supposes, rip his large library of classical, Christian, and Christmas music, and play it from stored copies, but the task would be daunting. Howumso’er, it appears Apple was indeed anticipating the curve in pronouncing glass storage dead. Music and video on glass will henceforth be available from online retailers (for a while) but will eventually vanish altogether, though current streaming services (Apple, Netflix, and Roku included) are far from cheap, convenient or comprehensive.

New technologies

SSDs will of course eventually altogether displace spinning platters. All that keeps the latter in production now is cost per terabyte, and that gap is narrowing rapidly.

What else is there, or can there be? In his fiction, the Spy posits a technology where the basic memory unit is a dit-Decimal dIgiT, that is a storage location that can either latch ten values or read ten voltage ranges, instead of two. This could increase storage per volume by nearly an order of magnitude. Storage based on quantum states also has promise for reducing the physical size and increasing storage capacity of. He some time ago envisioned a one-cm glass cube capable of holding at least 10T. Memory could also be printed inside and be part of computer cases, effectively occupying no additional volume beyond the structure of the case itself.

Alternatively, with small enough data cubes or cards, several slots externally accessible could supply all the memory capacity anyone could need. Were there still stores to sell them, these could also become the medium for distributing commercial content, but that train has left the station and won’t be back.

Indeed, more production of consumer goods of all kinds will switch to made-to-order” with stores becoming showrooms for samples rather than filled with racks of actual sale goods. The HMV departure is therefore only the latest harbinger of the end of retailing as we have known it.

Next to go–printed books. Been a while coming, but the demise of bookstores is accelerating. There are few left, and soon will be none. Biggest obstacle–the lack of a really useable textbook reader–though they are getting better. The Spy recalls commenting to Tim Cook at the 2003 WWDC that the first company to perfect the textbook reader would wipe out the whole inefficient paper text publishing industry overnight. His reply: “We at Apple haven’t figured out how to do that right yet, and until we do, we won’t do it at all.” Well, Tim? Isn’t it about time?

Remember when nostalgia was so different?

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns or Rick’s SF? Check out the Arjay blog at

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises:

The Northern Spy Home Page: http: //www. TheNorthernSpy. com
opundo : http: //opundo. com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http: //sheaves. org
WebNameHost : http: //www. WebNameHost. net
WebNameSource : http: //www. WebNameSource. net
nameman : http: //nameman. net

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books:

Author Site: http: //www. arjay. ca
Publisher’s Site: http: //www. writers-exchange. com/Richard-Sutcliffe. html
The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http: //www. arjay. bc. ca/EthTech/Text/index. html

URLs for resources mentioned in this column

Exit mobile version