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Snow White Case Experiments

It’s been a few months since I experimented with some alternative laser-cut and 3D printed case designs for the Floppy Emu disk emulator. The most popular case concept was the Snow White design, intended to complement the design style and color of mid-1980’s Apple computers. I’ve continued to experiment with the Snow White design as time permitted, and have finally arrived at a laser-cut Snow White case that I’m mostly happy with.

The laser-cut case is constructed from the same matte white acrylic that I used in the last prototype, which is about as close to vintage Apple coloring as I can get. But instead of subtle engraving for the case lines and other details, they’re now cut-outs that go all the way through. It’s hard to see in the photos, but the matte acrylic also has a slight texture to it. This creates a look that’s quite different from the smooth gloss normally associated with acrylic. I like it a lot.

With this prototype, I also tweaked the button plunger size very slightly, which should help give the buttons a tighter feel.

A question to readers: What do you think about the single grooves on the lower part of the sides? Good or bad? I was trying to echo the design of the top plate’s lines, but I’m not sure if plain solid sides would be better.

   

   

   

Working with a friend, I also did a few more experiments with 3D printed cases. These look attractive and are quick to assemble, but I concluded they’re just too slow and expensive to manufacture. I won’t be making any more 3D printed cases, but the remaining 3D printed prototype cases are available for sale if anyone would like one.

   

My goal is to create a polished Snow White case option that I can offer as an alternative for people who prefer this style. Meanwhile, I’m also working on some refinements to the standard case… more on that soon!

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New Firmware for Floppy Emu

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After a long period of hibernation, today I’ve released a set of firmware updates for the Floppy Emu disk emulator. These updates provide a few user interface improvements taken from customer suggestions over the past year, and also fix a couple of small bugs. Enjoy!

Ellipses in Long File Names – Don’t you hate it when you’ve got several disk images with very similar names, like Operating System Install Disk 1.dsk, Operating System Install Disk 2.dsk, and Operating System Install Disk 3.dsk? On the Floppy Emu’s built-in display, while browsing the contents of your SD card, the end of those long filenames were all cut off. You couldn’t tell which one was which when selecting a disk image from the menu. With today’s firmware update, the middle of those long filenames will now be replaced with an ellipsis, retaining the beginning and end of the name. Several people have been asking me for this feature for at least a year, so here you go.

Obvious Errors for Unsupported Disk Image Types – The Floppy Emu is always running in a specific emulation mode, like Apple II 5.25 Inch mode or Macintosh HD20 Hard Disk mode. When you’re browsing the contents of your SD card, the Emu knows which disk images are supported by the current mode, and which aren’t. The old behavior was to only display supported disk images and hide the others, but this seems to have confused everybody and left them wondering why their files disappeared. The new behavior is to list (mostly) all the files on the SD card, then show an error if the user selects something that isn’t a disk image supported by the current mode. In this case, you’ll see “disk image type is not supported in the current emu mode”.

Emulation Mode Highlight – Speaking of emulation modes, many people didn’t seem to realize that they exist, resulting in confusion when using the wrong mode or not knowing how to change modes. I can ask them to RTFM, but it would be nice if the UI made it more obvious. I’ve changed the Emu’s startup screen to display the current emulation mode right at the top, in inverse text, so hopefully it will now be impossible to overlook. I also fixed a subtle problem that affected people who switched from the Apple II firmware to the Mac/Lisa firmware: the Emu was defaulting to Lisa 3.5 Floppy mode after the firmware update. Quite a few people didn’t notice, and then couldn’t understand why floppy emulation didn’t work with their Macintosh. I’ve changed the behavior so it will now default to Macintosh 3.5 Floppy mode after the firmware update.

 
Get the new firmware here:

Macintosh and Lisa, for all Floppy Emu models: hd20-0.7G-F14.5
Apple II firmware, for Floppy Emu Model B: apple-ii-0.1R-F8
Apple II firmware, for Floppy Emu Model A: apple-ii-0.1R-F6

With any firmware update, there’s always a chance that I’ll accidentally break something, so please give me your feedback on whether these new versions work for you.

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Floppy Emu on the Apple III

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The poor sad Apple III never gets much love. It wasn’t popular in its time, and had a short lifespan, but today it’s a sought after collector’s item. My Floppy Emu disk emulator for vintage Apple computers supports just about every machine Apple ever made except the Apple III – or does it? The enterprising Patrick Longinotti reports his success using the Floppy Emu to boot and run his Apple III system, using a custom cable and the stock Apple II firmware on the Emu.

How is this possible? The Apple III uses a 26-pin rectangular disk connector that’s physically incompatible with the 20-pin rectangular connector of other vintage Apple computers. But it turns out that Apple didn’t innovate much in their Disk III design, and the leftmost 20 pins on the Apple III disk connector are the same as the 20 pins of the standard Disk II connector (the remaining 6 pins are used for daisy chaining and auto-sense). All that’s necessary is an appropriate 20-to-26 pin adapter cable, and this guy on Tindie will make it for you!

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Patrick reports that he’s been successful patching in the Floppy Emu as the Apple III’s internal drive, as well as using it as the sole external drive, and also daisy chaining it behind another Disk III external drive. It can be set up as drive 1 and boot the Apple III without any real floppy media, or set up as a higher numbered drive, and used after booting the Apple III from a real floppy in drive 1. According to Patrick, there occasionally will be errors, because the Disk III drives were either slower or faster than Disk II, but for the most part it works with very little issue. (Can anyone confirm this? I thought the drives were the same speed.)

Lots of Apple III software is available at apple3.org.

The only tricky part is getting the correct gender of connector on your adapter. I’ll admit that I’m confused by the Tindie seller’s description of the gender on his adapters, because they seem backwards to me. Maybe he’s referring to the gender of the connector shroud, which is the opposite of the actual pins? To be clear, this is what I mean by a female connector:

20-pin-female

And this is a male connector:

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The 26-pin connector on the Apple III logic board is male, as are the 26-pin daisy chain connectors on the Disk III drives. The Floppy Emu has a 20-pin male connector on its PCB. With a 26-pin female to 20-pin female adapter cable, you’ll be all set. The Tindie seller has these.

The female-to-female adapter cable isn’t necessarily the most convenient solution, however. Reaching the 26-pin male connector on the Apple III logic board is a major pain, because it involves taking apart the case, and removing the entire internal drive just to get access to the port. A simpler alternative is to disconnect the existing 26-pin cable from the internal Disk III, and then attach that cable to a 26-pin male to 20-pin female adapter cable to reach the Floppy Emu. The Tindie seller has these, but they’re only a couple of inches long.

A third alternative is a very short 26-pin male to 20-pin male adapter, combined with the existing 26-pin cable from the internal Disk III, and with the 20-pin cable that ships with the Floppy Emu. But nobody sells these.

In the end, you might need to make your own cable adapters. It’s not difficult, but if you experiment with homemade adapters, please be careful not to release the magic smoke from your valuable electronics!

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Falling into an Email Blacklist with DreamHost

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A blacklist can be a powerful tool for identifying spam email senders, but if you find yourself unfairly blacklisted, it’s maddening. Since sometime last September, roughly 30% of all my outbound customer-related emails have been rejected by the destination email server. Most of these are order confirmations or shipment notifications, and when they go missing, I get lots of frustrated inquiries from customers wondering why they never heard anything after placing an order. The rejections from the destination email server typically look like this:

<xxxxxx@provisoire.fr>: host mail.provisoire.fr[50.87.141.14] said:
550-“JunkMail rejected – pdx1-shared-relay1.dreamhost.com
[66.33.200.130]:40663 550-is in an RBL on rbl.unified-contact.com, see
Blocked – see 550 http://psbl.surriel.com/listing?ip=66.33.200.130” (in
reply to RCPT TO command)
Reporting-MTA: dns; pdx1-shared-relay1.dreamhost.com
X-Postfix-Queue-ID: D4C0A30000327
X-Postfix-Sender: rfc822; steve@bigmessowires.com
Arrival-Date: Mon, 9 Jan 2017 14:07:03 -0800 (PST)

The exact message varies, but it usually mentions being on a realtime blacklist, or simply says my email was suspended, blocked, or refused. Other mail hosts such as Yahoo and Outlook.com take a passive-aggressive approach, and just drop the connection when I try to send email to one of their customers:

<xxxxxxxxx@yahoo.com>: delivery temporarily suspended: lost connection with
mta6.am0.yahoodns.net[66.196.118.34] while sending RCPT TO
Reporting-MTA: dns; pdx1-shared-relay2.dreamhost.com
X-Postfix-Queue-ID: B795D38088EC2
X-Postfix-Sender: rfc822; steve@bigmessowires.com
Arrival-Date: Wed, 4 Jan 2017 15:51:07 -0800 (PST)

I haven’t tested it thoroughly enough to be certain, but I believe the problem only occurs for auto-generated emails from the BMOW store, and not for customer support emails that I compose manually – even though both are sent through mail.bigmessowires.com to the same destination email server.

 
Identifying a Spammer

So how did I get on these blacklists? It turns out it has nothing to do with the content of my own emails, but is entirely due to my web and email hosting provider, DreamHost. They offer cheap and convenient hosting, which doubtless attracts a few people using their servers for evil purposes, sending spam. This causes the DreamHost email relay server to be placed on multiple blacklists, affecting all the other DreamHost customers who share that relay. While I only started to notice the problem last fall, this forum discussion reveals it’s been happening since at least 2013.

I’ve contacted DreamHost customer support several times about this issue. At first, they said the problem was resolved, and they had confirmed with all major blacklist providers that the block on the affected relay had been removed. And the situation did seem to improve temporarily, though it was never completely resolved. When the blocks grew more frequent again, I contacted DreamHost a second time on December 8 and received this reply:

The IP that’s showing up as blocked is actually a load balancer used for
sending mail, and it is used by hundreds of individual users. …
Over the last week, we have experienced a surge of compromised customer
SMTP users that were being used to send out malicious emails. Although we
monitor outgoing mail traffic closely and were able to stop these
compromised domains quickly, enough email managed to get through to cause
several blocklist providers to block a percentage of our email servers.
Many providers have already delisted the IP, but some holdouts do remain,
with whom we are actively working to fully resolve the block. If these
rejection notices continue for more than about 48 hours, please don’t
hesitate to let us know.

Sorry, we’re working on it, everything will be back to normal soon. But unfortunately it didn’t go back to normal, and a few weeks later I contacted them a third time. I received a detailed technical reply that focused primarily on a specific provider named 1&1. Apparently 1&1 doesn’t like the way DreamHost mail servers identify themselves when communicating – an issue related to reverse lookups involving a load balancer – so the DreamHost servers get blacklisted regardless of the content of the email. It wasn’t clear if a solution to this identification problem was imminent, or even possible. Customer support also mentioned that it can take up to a month to be removed from a blacklist:

some blacklist providers (Mostly European providers such as UCEProtect,
Backscatter, and LashBack), provide a paid “express” delisting, while
imposing an unreasonable long wait for manual or automated delisting (In
the case of LashBack, they autodelist after a month). As this amounts to
extortion, it is Dreamhost policy not to utilize paid delisting services
(they provide no added benefit to customers, encourage “bad behavior”,
and are generally a sign of an overzealous mail system administrator).

It seems unlikely that 1&1 is the only remaining problem, since my emails to domains like Yahoo and Outlook.com are also being rejected. As far as I’m aware, these are unaffiliated with 1&1.

 
Getting Past the Block

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DreamHost’s responses have all been apologetic, giving the impression that service should be back to normal soon. Maybe I should just be patient and wait, but it’s been three more weeks since that last customer support response, and the situation hasn’t improved. The 2013 forum discussion complaining of this same problem proves it’s not a one-time occurrence. And I received no reply to my most recent CS inquiry asking for a status update or work-around suggestions.

Maybe I should move bigmessowires.com to a Virtual Private Server with a unique IP, instead of relying on shared hosting. I’d consider that if I were confident it would fix the problem, but that’s exactly what the 2013 forum poster tried and complained didn’t work. It’s unclear to me whether that was his fault or DreamHost’s. Even if I knew it would solve the email problem, I’m a little reluctant to jump to a VPS due to the extra server admin hassles it would involve. I really like the convenience of shared hosting, where I focus entirely on the content and leave the server administration to someone else.

Perhaps it’s time to migrate the whole site to another hosting provider, but I don’t think so. I expect most other shared hosting providers will have similar issues, and possibly worse service. During the 13 years I’ve been with DreamHost, their customer support has been excellent. This email blacklist problem is the first time I’ve felt let down by their service.

The best option I’ve come up with is to move BMOW’s email functions to a more “trusted” provider, while leaving the web site and store with DreamHost. That would mean monkeying with DNS entries to relocate mail.bigmessowires.com and a few others, or else simply using a different domain like bmowmail.com for all email. Zoho looks like it might fit my needs, and it would be free for my level of usage. I need to dig into the technical details to confirm it would do what I think it does, and would actually solve the blacklist problem.

If you’ve ever dealt with an email blacklist dilemma, or have any other suggestions on how I might resolve this one, please leave your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

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Laser-Cut Case Experiments

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While I continue experimenting with 3D-printed case designs for Floppy Emu, I’ve also been working on revisions to the existing laser-cut case design. These new laser-cut cases retain the same overall mechanical “box” as the original, but use a variety of materials, engraving, and opening cuts to give them new styles. Maybe one of these will become the new standard case, or an optional alternative. I’m interested to hear from readers about their opinions on these, so please leave a note in the comments below.

First, let’s review the existing case design that’s included in the Floppy Emu “deluxe bundle”. It’s transparent acrylic, and is great if you want to showcase the Emu’s inner chips and circuits. It looks like something an electronics fan would use with an Arduino or Raspberry Pi. The opening for the SD card is rounded, so you can reach in with your thumb and index finger to extract the micro SD card. The overall style is pretty spiffy, if I do say so myself.

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One drawback of the clear acrylic case is that it’s practically invisible. It’s 100% transparent, like looking through glass, so the etchings on the case appear superimposed on the contents inside, creating a visual mash-up that’s sometimes hard on the eyes. It’s not a huge problem, but maybe a modestly-tinted acrylic case would be better than full transparent. This one is about 25% gray tinted, which is fairly subtle. The tint is obvious when it’s placed side-by-side with the clear case, but less noticeable when viewed by itself. The opening for the SD card on the tinted case is also slightly different, with a more squared-off look.

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The clear and tinted cases both have a gloss finish, giving them a sort of future-tech look. Unfortunately the gloss finish also makes fingerprints stand out clearly, which is a bit annoying. But even if you don’t mind a few fingerprints, not everyone loves the see-through look. If you enjoy showing off the geeky internals, it’s great, but some people prefer a functional case that looks more like a standard peripheral than a science exhibit. To that end, I made two more case designs using matte acrylic that’s mostly or completely opaque.

The first of these is built from a “matte clear” material, which really isn’t clear at all. It’s like frosted glass, and you can vaguely see a blur of color through it, but no details. If hiding the internals is what you’re after, this will do it. The matte material has a very pleasing texture, and doesn’t show fingerprints at all, so the case always looks clean. This case uses the same squared-off opening for the SD card.

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The final case is built from a matte white material, and is my attempt to create something that looks more like a miniature Apple disk drive, using Apple’s “Snow White” design cues. It has a series of parallel grooves on the top plate, like the Apple IIc and IIGS and the Apple 3.5 inch external drive. The front opening even has a fake status LED and disk eject hole engraved in it, to make it resemble the front face of a real external floppy drive. The squared-off opening for the SD card is intended to give the feeling of the drive door from a 5 1/4 inch drive. This matte white case does a pretty good job of matching the style of the 3D-printed cases I posted last time, but is much faster and cheaper to make.

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The major drawback of the matte white case is that the engraved areas are difficult to see. It’s white engraving on a slightly different shade of white background. You can see from the photos how subtle the grooves and other engraved details are. Depending on the angle of the light, they may be slightly more or less visible, but they never really stand out. The title photo displaying all four cases was actually photoshopped to make the top grooves stand out better, but the other images of the matte white case were not retouched. Overall I think it’s still a direction worth pursuing, but I definitely wish there were a way to give those engraved areas more contrast.

An alternative that just occurred to me is to actually cut the grooves and fake front details all the way through the material, instead of engraving them. This would certainly make them visible, but then you’d be able to see through to the Emu board inside. That’s not really accurate – you can’t see the Apple IIc logic board through the grooves in its case, for example, because there’s a second layer of plastic under each groove. Hmmm.

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3D Printed Floppy Emu Case Experiment

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My clear acrylic laser-cut case design for Floppy Emu looks sharp, but doesn’t match the visual style of classic Apple II or Macintosh systems. It’s also a bit tedious to assemble. A few people have suggested a Floppy Emu case that looks more like a retro 3.5 or 5.25 inch Apple drive, with Apple design details and a beige/white color. In that spirit, my friend Allan recently did some experiments with a 3D printed white case for the Floppy Emu, and the results look promising.

3D printing has the advantage of making any shape possible, instead of being constrained to interlocking 2D pieces with laser cutting. This enables the case to be built as just two pieces, rather than the six pieces needed for the laser-cut version. It also enables the button plungers to be built directly into the top plate, so they can’t fall out, making the whole thing easy to assemble. If you’ve struggled with the button plungers in the laser cut case, then you’ll appreciate this.

With 3D printing, it’s also possible to approach the appearance of a retro computer accessory. The case can be matte white, instead of glossy acrylic. 3D grooves and other small details can be modeled directly into the case, instead of being limited to 2D etching. Nobody will confuse it with a 1984 Apple peripheral, but at least it will be a lot closer.

I’ve mostly avoided 3D printing until now, because I’ve found it to be slow, expensive, and imprecise. Each one of these test prints required many hours of printer time and baby-sitting. The large time sink wouldn’t an issue if I used a commercial 3D printing service instead of home printing, but initial estimates are that a 3D printed case would cost perhaps 3x as much to manufacture as the current laser-cut case design. Maybe that would still be OK if the improved appearance and ease of assembly made it worth the extra cost to customers, but it’s a lot to ask.

Imprecision has been my biggest concern with 3D printing. Using my own budget printer, it seems half the prints I make come out badly deformed. Even the “good” prints always have a smooshed corner or deformed detail or other minor problem. It’s not terrible if you’re making a prototype for self-use, but I’m not sure it would be acceptable if making hundreds of them for sale to customers. Allan’s first case experiments showed some of the same types of deformities, although he was able to improve it somewhat in later iterations by making adjustments to his printer settings. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

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Note how some of the grooves at left aren’t clean and even, and there’s a diagonal texturing across the whole surface that’s visible in some areas but not others. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the text and icons also have a slightly uneven appearance.

What surprised me was a test print made in Allan’s friend’s high-end 3D printer: it’s much more professional-looking, with very consistent print appearance across the whole case. That’s the print you see in the title photo above. I don’t know exactly what model of printer it was, or the cost, but I’ll try to find out. Here’s a close-up of the case from the better 3D printer, for comparison (click the image to see a high-resolution version).

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A question to readers: would a 3D printed “retro-style” Floppy Emu case interest you? What features do you think would be most important? What do you think would be a fair price for something like this?

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