Subliminal Extacy #03
01 апреля 2001

Project: Describe Your Disk Interface

Project: Describe Your Disk Interface
             Project: Describe Your Disk Interface
                         By Mac Buster

More and more  I'm hearing strange  things about  'those  stupid
Russians  who  are doing   their games    and demos   for  "Beta
128" disk interface,  all releases are  "protected" and so  they
don't care about other disk systems'.

Why am I thinking  this is  strange ?  Well, first of  all  it's
strange that  most   of  you who  say this  don't  know that the
former Soviet Union included over 180 different nations, most of
these nations dislike it  when  you call them   "Russians",  but
you don't notice this and so you're insulting them.

The  Soviet  Union   united 15   countries,  most   of them  are
independent now, some wanted  to stay a part of Russia.   Almost
ten  years passed since the  dismissal of the Soviet Union,  you
had enough time to learn  where each country is and    what it's
nation's name  is. Second  thing is  these "protected"  loaders.
This is not true!  Only  ~5% of  releases are really  protected,
others  are  just  compiled  under  the  "monoloader"    scheme.
"Protected"    and "monoloader" aren't the same thing.

"Protected"  means  use  of  "hack-stop"  techniques  to prevent
hacking   and changing    something in   original  release (some
strange people  like to change  original text and   insert their
own names  into releases when  they did nothing).  Some of these
protected  loaders use  some very  interesting  and   unexpected
ways, e.g.  using of  sound-coprocessor and  FDC registers which
will clear its  contents if it   was not read back in a  defined
amount of t-states.

The  "monoloader"   scheme  has    nothing  to   do  with   real
protection.  Why   use   it  then?  Because   TR-DOS   (the disk
operating system in the EPROM of the "Beta 128" disk  interface)
is very SLOW  when working with  separate files one-by-one.  Let
me explain what a  monoloader is and  how it works. TR-DOS takes
about 1  to 3  seconds  to   locate and   start reading a  files
contents. Not  because of  complex FAT  or BAM  (there's nothing
similar  to  these things  in  TR-DOS  at   all,  all files  are
sequential,  and this is one  of  things which made  monoloaders
possible),  it's just  because of   one  very  long  delay   for
compatibility  with  very old disk drives (remember - "Beta 128"
was made in UK in  1986).  If you have more than three   or four
files  to load  then the  whole process  may  take  up  to   one
minute which  is five   times longer  than sequentally   reading
the same amount  of sectors  from  disk  to memory.  Monoloaders
became   available   thanks  to  TR-DOS   which  loads  only the
amount of   bytes written   in the  BASIC  length  field  of the
file descriptor into memory and doesn't care  about the rest  of
the  data. You  may write  the BASIC   part  of  your   program
(there   must  be a  machine-code   loader  in  it   because the
monoloader  can't   be processed  from  BASIC), a picture   file
(compressed),  the  main  code  (compressed),  and   some  other
data, one  after  another  on  the disk, and  then just   change
the 'file  length in   sectors' field of file  descriptor.  Copy
the first file    to another disk   and so  you  have just  made
the   monoloader. TR-DOS  will load   only the BASIC bytes  from
disk and  start  it  as  a BASIC   program. The BASIC  part will
start the machine-code  part  which  loads  and     decompresses
the picture, the  main code,  and  any other data   if there are
any.  By this  way we're saving up   to 3 seconds   on each part
of data! Another advantage of  monoloaders is the  reduction  of
the amount  of needed spare  file entries in the root  directory
on   the disk (TR-DOS    can see only the  first 128 files on  a
disk), and saving  time which is  required to copy  this program
to  another disk.  Also there's   no way to forget  an important
file   when   you're   copying   this program to another    disk
in  hurry.    Games  usually   save  their   state  inside   the
monoloader  file,  there are   several parts  of  sectors, which
are not  used, to  store  file data (several  bytes  at the  end
of the last  sector of  each  block of data).  Some  loaders use
special 'turbo loaders'   to  reduce the  time  needed to   load
data. They work  on the direct  FDC access principle.  This cuts
out the whole  pointless  'delay cycle'  present  in  the TR-DOS
code,  and increases   loading  speed  by  2  to 4  times.  But
again - this is not protection.  That was my answer to 'why  use

Now lets talk about 'why "Beta 128"-only?'. In 1988 a scheme  of
the Soviet clone "Beta  128"  disk interface was  released. This
interface   is very  cheap  and  easy to  make, and  - the  most
important thing  - it was the ONLY  disk interface  there was at
the  time! People  started to  use it alot.  And more and   more
programs with   "Beta   128"  support appeared   (games mainly).
Sure  we  knew there  are  other disk   interfaces   (FDDЗO00 in
Poland, +3  and  MGT in  other  countries). But nobody owned  it
here and nobody knew how so support it.

So  why  spend time   supporting something  which  nobody  used,
especially when you don't know  HOW to support it? But   this is
just the first  half  of "why",   let me  tell  you about second
half. Since  the end  of 1992   when  we  almost lost connection
with   Speccy   software   importers     in   other    countries
(because production of Speccy  software  was stopped by   99% of
the software  houses) we thought that  only citizens   of Russia
and other  countries of former Soviet Union where using Speccy.

It was  a great  shock to  see that  in 1995  someone still uses
Speccy in Europe. This was the time when Internet access  became
cheaper. We started  uploading  our files   to  sites and   then
the most interesting thing happened - someone for the first time
asked us   why  we're  doing programs  for  "Beta  128" and  not
doing support   for other  disk systems.  Note   -  "asked why",
but not explained    "how"! Five years  passed  since then   but
we're all at the same  point - one part  asks "why", instead  of
tell us  "how". Sounds   funny  ?   I don't  think  so.  Strange
"genetic  creatures"  even    thought  that    this  was    done
especially  and started   releasing "anti-Beta-128"   protection
releases.   So, who is  stupid ?  I do  not know  how to  answer
this  question.  I  tried to change  the situation  and  explain
"why"  and  "what   for", and   asked  about   "how",  but   not
many  of  those   who I  asked  tried to  understand  it nor did
they try to help.

And even  to this  day I  still haven't  had much success, still
lots of  people are  talking about  'those stupid  Russians' and
'stupid BETA 128 loaders'.

   Now I've got one question to YOU. Yes, to YOU dear reader.

What have YOU personally done to  change the situation, to  help
us make our games,  demos and  utils  work on your  disk  (tape,
HDD, CD, Flash  card,  Other media)  interface?  I bet  YOU  did
nothing.  The  only  team  who  really  tried  to  help  us  was
RAMSoft. They  released a  very nice  document about programming
the  MGT  DISCiPLE  and   Plus  D  interfaces.   The  only thing
missing  in   their  document   was   examples   which  can   be
cut'n'pasted into  our own assembler source  codes to allow  you
play games  and  watch demos without the need  to spend  several
minutes or even  hours  to  convert it for  your interface.  But
doesn't this look strange - there are   over 40 different   disk
interfaces  and    only  ONE  description  available?!?!    I've
released documents   about  "Beta 128" programming    and TR-DOS
system variables,   but that's  not enough. Where's  YOUR  help?
So  what   do you  want? A  reason  to  talk  about  how  stupid
those who  made  productions for "Beta 128"  only really are? Or
you  really do want   to see forthcoming productions  working on
your interface?  Have you chosen the first option? If so, excuse
me, but  this looks like  you   have something wrong with   your
mind. If  you  choose the second  option, then,  please,    find
all   your   old   programmers   manuals and  references related
to your   disk interface   and type-in/scan them! Take care with
translating them  into english  if they   aren't translated  yet
(ask a friend  who is native  english -speaking to  fix it)  and
send  them  to  any Speccy related site to  be published.  Don't
have  enough  time   to do  that? I   understand you,  sometimes
it's really   hard to   find enough   free  time   to  do   even
really  important  and  urgent things. Just send  your documents
to  someone who can  do   this instead of you.  Contact  someone
who  has connections to  people who are releasing  popular  disk
magazines in  former Soviet  Union and ask them to  publish your
document.  This will be a real help  for all of us, believe me.

So how exactly can you help  and what should you do? Here   is a
small list of things which are needed to be described:  

 * What is the EXACT name and version of the interface you own,  
   including the Disk Operating System (DOS) name and version.  
 * Who made it?  
 - When did you buy it?  
 - Why you bought this one, and not another interface?
 - Features of this disk interface:
 - disk capacity  
 - amount of files that can be stored on a disk
 - disk access speed (how fast 48k program gets loaded)  
 - how many disk drives may be used  
 - limitations (48k RAM use, etc)  
 - Was/is there any community for this disk interface?
 - Was/is there any newsletters published for it?  
 - Do you have copies of such news letters still?
 * Do you have users/programmers manual?
 - How much software support is there for this interface?
 * How to detect that program was started from this interface?
 * What is the disk format of this interface:
  - disk sides   
  - tracks per side
  - sectors per track
  - standard sector length in bytes
  - universal signature (how  to detect that  this disk  is for
    your disk system, not for another one)   
  - root directory descriptor   
  - sub-directory descriptor   
  - file descriptor   
  - file allocation table structure (if exists)  
  - Which FDC is used in your disk interface?
 * How to have access to disk functions from BASIC?
  - examples (load/save/cat/delete)
 * How to have access to disk functions from machine-code?
  - examples (ready-to-use examples if possible)
 - How much RAM disk interface has and how to page it in/out?
  - example  
 - How much ROM disk interface has and how to page it in/out?
  - example  
 - How to have direct FDC access?
  - example  
 -  How  to  read  disks  of  this  format  on  other  machines

 - Are you ready to help with testing?
The most important information is  marked with a "*" symbol.  Of
course this is  just  an approximate   list,  not complete.  You
may  add everything  which will help  those who will  try to add
support of your interface to their own software and to those who
will try  emulating your  disk interface.   Please, do   not  be
aggressive    to   those    who   don't    make   support,  it's
very  probably   that   they    just  don't    know   about your
system. Contact  them  and   explain  how  to   add  support for
your  disk interface. Do not   shout how stupid   they are, this
will not change the situation   -  in  most  cases  you'll   set
people  into an aggressive  mood   and  will  lose the hope   to
change  situation _forever_.

Why tested and working examples  are needed? Let me  tell you  a
story, it may   sound funny now, but not back then. In 1995    I
was  asked  to   join  a  team  of developers  who   made a MIDI
interface   for   Speccy.   They   gave   me   several   hundred
pages  of  photocopied      sheets     of      paper      titled
"technical information/programmer's reference",   and shown  how
it works. That was the first time when I saw and heard MIDI.  It
was  very  impressive.    So I    agreed  to    work and   asked
exactly what to do. They  told  me that I  had to do  everything
what will make a live musicial easier.  Finally,  it must be the
greatest  MIDI  sequencer for  an  8-bit machine,   and  a small
control   program  to  edit/save/load/send to/from   synthesizer
state.   I  asked   for  this   MIDI   interface   and   for the
simplest  synthesizer but  it wasn't  supplied, because  any of
those   devices,  even  the  simplest  synthesizer,  was    very
expensive for   them, and  attaching a  MIDI interface  required
some hardware  work,  which  isn't a  very well known  thing for
me.  So I told them  to  buy a modem  for  Speccy and  told them
that this  will save a lot  of my money, because  I'm not  going
to spend an  hour in one  way when I  need to  test  how well my
program  works on  real hardware.  They agreed.    Three months
later, the first simple version  of the GUI and a  small utility
to set the  synthesizer's preferences editor  was made. Here  is
where the most fun thing happened.   I   phoned  the   man   who
had   both  the MIDI  interface  and  the Synthesizer,    and of
course  he  had a   modem. After transferring my  program to him
and testing it, he  told  me that everything is very   nice, but
some  improvements need to be  done. I did what he wanted in two
weeks. Again everything worked fine on his   machine,   but   he
asked me  make   something   to   make a musician's life easier.
Over  half a  year we  were working  in this  way: I  write new
features or improve something and  then send it to him  where he
tests it and tells me what  to fix and  what to  add.  But  then
one day  he  asked to add support for  another  MIDI protocol. I
did it and here started something very strange.

The  synthesizer received  a WRONG value,  nothing which I  sent
from the control program. I asked 'can I have the MIDI interface
and the synthesizer now?'  He said  'no', also  he told me  that
it isn't possible to visit him now because he is very busy   and
it is almost impossible to catch  him at home. He also asked  me
to trace what's  wrong   in  my   control  program   because  he
did everything correctly.

Four months  I spent  trying to  fix it,  without any success. I
came to a madness border.  Imagine it yourself: you   have  five
commands which  send   data   to a  port  and   something   goes
wrong   there  because the  synthesizer    receives number    99
instead   of 253!   After four months  you're  looking at  these
commands, changing  them in  a different  way, totally rewriting
them, etc. But  nothing helps! Until one day when the man phoned
me and told me that he has found the problem - he just forgot to
switch   the  transfer  protocol!   So  I  broke  the   contract
immediately after I  heard his words,   because  earlier in  the
contract the whole developers team   told me that I'm a very bad
coder if  can't write    a sequencer    which can    control the
synthesizer.  That's it.  I spent   almost one  year working  on
that project... That's  how it looks  when  you don't  have  the
device but  have to write    support  for  it.  So   please  add
tested  and working examples!
                       (c) 2000 Mac Buster^Extreme Entertainment

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