Reflecting on my past & do-overs

October 12th, 2015 10:23 AM
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After a six-month hiatus, I recently resumed guest-appearing on the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast. As always, this multi-platform show leaves this Apple II-only guy little to contribute, but I'm happy to listen and pipe up when called upon — as in episode #106, when host Earl Evans asked: what do you wish you'd done differently in your history with computers, and is it too late to do so now?

I really had to think about that one! There are so many things I don't regret that stretch back so far: going to KansasFest every year since 1998; being editor of Juiced.GS for a decade; subscribing to Softdisk GS until the end. I made some mistakes in those years, often surrounding business transactions that went foul, but the loss of a few dollars or some minor hardware didn't ultimately have any significant, long-term repercussions.

In the grand scheme of things, the only regret I may have is not pursuing a minor in computer science. I'd started my undergraduate career as a CS major, but after two years, I switched to technical, scientific, and professional communications (TSPC), or what the school now calls professional writing (PW). The only career I felt qualified to pursue with that degree was one in tech writing, which I believed meant documentation. In fact, I nearly got a contract to write the manual for a cell phone, and later interviewed for a documentation position at Mozilla, neither of which in hindsight would've been that scintillating.

It wasn't until I got to Computerworld that I married my TSPC degree with my concentration in CS. As a Computerworld editor (and then as a freelancer), I wrote about enterprise IT and other technical subjects for an audience that was focused on CIOs and CTOs but which could include software developers, helpdesk technicians, and curious consumers.

Still, at some point in my career, not having any formal degree or certificate in computer science felt like an oversight — and while my undergraduate school's name carries weight in the local IT industry, having the words "Computer Science" on my actual degree would help solidify my strength and in that area.

But, as Earl pointed out, its absence didn't stop me from ending up at Computerworld — and I now have a portfolio that speaks for itself. Perhaps a minor wouldn't add much to my credentials. Even at the time I switched majors all those years ago, I was so disillusioned with CS that I never wanted to take another course; pursuing a minor might've been intolerable at the time.

So maybe I did make the right decision, after all.

Thanks for helping me come to peace with my past, Earl and RCR!

Charlie Kellner of alphaSyntauri

October 5th, 2015 1:37 PM
Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Software showcase;
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Were it not for the Apple II, Apple would've made no other machines; consequently, when telling the story of the Macintosh, historians often include segments of interest to the Apple II user. Such was the case with the 2008 documentary Welcome to Macintosh, which showed enough interest in the Apple II (including an interview with Vince Briel) that it was reviewed in Apple II magazine Juiced.GS.

Now the identically named but unrelated podcast Welcome to Macintosh has another serving of Apple II goodness — one that ties in with one of my all-time favorite movies: TRON. I knew the Apple II had played a role in other films of the era, such as WarGames, but I didn't realize it'd also contributed to the soundtrack of TRON — or that the software with which it did so was played by its developer at Steve Wozniak's wedding.

It's all courtesy Charlie Kellner, inventor of alphaSyntauri, one of the first digital music synthesizers.

Welcome to Macintosh host Mark Bramhill interviewed Kellner about how he created the synthesizer not as a commercial product, but as something he wanted for himself. It nonetheless then caught the interest of Apple, musicians such as Stevie Wonder, the Dolphin Research Center, and more. At a time when personal computers were new and their functions not yet widely understood, Kellner successfully demonstrated the Apple II's utility to a diverse range of professionals in a variety of fields.

Although the interview focuses on this particular application, Kellner likely has many more stories from the dawn of personal computing. His résumé reads like a who's-who of developers and publishers: Apple, Lucasfilm, Epyx, and Isix in the 1980s; in later decades, Viacom, Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast, and Nintendo. But you can find out about his earliest success by downloading the interview in your favorite podcatcher, or streaming it below:

Sean's Garage Giveaway on GoFundMe

September 28th, 2015 9:51 AM
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When I attended my first KansasFest in 1998, fellow attendee and Kansas resident Sean Fahey invited us to his nearby home, where we were welcome to any of the Apple II hardware and software he had amassed there. We were doing him a favor by helping clean out his garage.

But no matter how hard we tried, Sean's collection grew; for every floppy drive someone left with, two took its place. Sean suffers from the same problem I do: the pain of seeing perfectly good equipment being thrown away just because the owner didn't know of or couldn't look for a better home. Sean altruistically saved many such lots from the garbage, storing it in the short term so that he might find a home for it in the long term.

The collection grew to the point that salvaging equipment, storing it between KansasFests, and transporting it to Rockhurst became expensive. The handful of Apple II users who had the privilege of attending KansasFest contributed to defray the costs, but that wasn't enough — Sean and cohorts such as James Littlejohn were still saddled with the majority of the expenses.

But the value of Sean's service extends beyond KansasFest, and Sean has graciously given the wider community the opportunity to contribute by creating a GoFundMe campaign. Unlike Kickstarter, GoFundMe has no limits or deadlines, allowing its organizers to benefit from any and all fundraising. Any amount is appreciated — up to, including, and past the goal of $3,500. In the first four days, the crowdfunding campaign had already reached 55% of its goal. (Full disclosure: Juiced.GS contributed $100.)
Sean Fahey's GoFundMe
No new Apple II computers are being made, so it behooves us to save the ones we have — not just as historical artifacts, but as living entities for us to continue using and enjoying. Every computer Sean saves is one that may end up in the hands of a teacher, programmer, or hacker who could help create the next great Apple II user, emulator, or expansion. My thanks to the organizers of Sean's Garage Giveaway, and to everyone who's now ensuring it continues well into the future.

UPDATE (Oct 8, 2015): Thank you to everyone who helped put this campaign over its goal! Sean Fahey wrote on Facebook:

I want to thank everyone for their generosity. I hope the next 3 Garage Giveaways are worthy of the trust and investment you've placed in us. We've got enough to cover the next 2 years of storage ($2000+) and to also cover the expenses for an upcoming trip to Florida to acquire a large collection. We're flying down, renting a truck and driving it back — that trips budget is approximately $1350 for James Littlejohn and myself. It covers plane tickets, truck rental, gas, hotel and meals. Javier A. Rivera is planning to come up and help us with the loading. We may kidnap him and bring him back for the unloading part, but he's really fast on his feet and hard to catch. Again, a heartfelt thanks to my friends in the Apple II and KansasFest communities for your help. Apple II Forever!

The Marriage of Figaro to the Apple II

September 21st, 2015 9:48 AM
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Steve Jobs may be getting his own opera — but that's not the only connection opera has to the Apple II.

In June of 2007, I was in a production of The Marriage of Figaro. Among the 28 theatre productions I performed in during my seven years after undergraduate, this show was memorable for two backstage events: the breaking of my PowerBook; and meeting the lead actor. Unlike some shows I've been in, Figaro's stars and chorus mingled, disregarding any theatrical hierarchy. Given that it was June, I was probably spending my offstage time editing drafts of the year's second quarterly issue of Juiced.GS. I suspect the actor playing Figaro asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he got excited, telling me he still had his original Apple IIGS! Although it was no longer his primary computer, he remembered quite fondly and accurately the software and hardware he'd added to it throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As soon as the show was over, Figaro the actor was off to New York City for another role. When I joined Facebook a year later, we reconnected, allowing me to offer an annual wish for a happy birthday spent playing Apple II games. But other than that, our personal and theatrical lives did not cross again.

Until this month! I received an email from Figaro that he was moving to Europe and had plenty of material possessions he wished to neither move, keep, or store. Would I be willing to take his Apple II?

What an honor! Of course I would. Figaro drove to my house and dropped off three boxes of hardware and software — a collection he confessed used to be bigger but which had dwindled with each move over the years. I didn't find much rare or unique among his donation, but the opportunity to spend an hour chatting with him about the Apple II was fun. He prompted as much of the discussion as I did, as he'd kept abreast of the community enough to ask me how my recent trip to KansasFest went. I was happy for the opportunity to show him some of the products of today's lively Apple II community, such as the Replica 1 and a Raspberry Pi case, or to pull out artifacts he'd remember, such as issues of Nibble magazine.

I'm grateful to have received this bounty; although such salvage operations are the norm for likes of Sean Fahey and James Littlejohn, it's a rare occurrence for me. Here is a photo gallery of my new property:

What do I do with this IIGS now that I have it? It came gratis with no strings attached: I can keep it or find a good home for it, though I wouldn't allow myself to sell it. But I know what my inclination is. As Figaro and I chatted about the Apple II and he saw how much fun people were still having with it, I could see him beginning to regret having to let go of his childhood computer. I'd love to hold onto it until Figaro returns from Europe in 18 months; maybe then, he can be reunited with the machine and rediscover it, as so many of us have, after a long absence.

After a first act of introduction and a second act of separation, a third act with a happy reunion seems only fitting.

Opus ][ and Juiced.GS

September 14th, 2015 8:43 AM
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I attended my first KansasFest in 1998. It was the year that GSoft BASIC debuted from The Byte Works, and also the year that Eric Shepherd founded the HackFest contest. I married the two and attempted to write a Boggle game in GSoft BASIC while at KansasFest. It didn't go well, but I was encouraged by The Byte Works president and fellow attendee Mike Westerfield, who made changes to GSoft BASIC in response to my experience and feedback. It meant a lot to me, KansasFest 1998's youngest attendee, so receive that kind of support from a community luminary.

This past July, Mike posted to Facebook:

I know people have had trouble recently getting some of the old Byte Works products. I'm looking at a number of options, and wanted to gauge interest.

All of our products that were produced at the Byte Works, and thus the ones we have clear copyright to, are on a CD called Opus ][. This includes ORCA/C, ORCA/Pascal, ORCA/M, and all of the support programs and so forth, but not ORCA/Modula 2. There are two disks, one with the executables and another with the source. These have been selling for $99 each or $195 for the set.

I'm considering offering these as downloads. They would be one-off sales, which would take some of my time for each one, so I would need to charge for them. I was thinking $25 each or $40 for the pair. You would have to move the individual files to your Apple IIGS or Apple II yourself.

This would mean the only way to get an individual language would be to buy the entire CD, but then, the CD would cost no more than the individual languages do now, anyway.

So, is this interesting to anyone, or does it really matter anymore?

I emailed Mike that same day, offering the Juiced.GS online store as a vehicle for distributing Opus ][. It wouldn't be the magazine's first collaboration with The Byte Works: our December 1998 issue (Volume 3, Issue 4) included a 3.5" floppy disk containing a free trial version of GSoft BASIC, allowing readers to follow along with Eric Shepherd's six-part GSoft tutorial that debuted in that issue.

To my delight, Mike was enthusiastic about revisiting that collaboration. The only hesitation was on my end: how do we make this product a natural fit for the Juiced.GS store? The magazine had no history of selling software or other people's products. How could we make Opus ][ a good fit?

Our Concentrate line had the answer. These PDFs collect thematically related content from past issues of Juiced.GS into a single file. With transcription help from Ewen Wannop and Paul Zaleski, I'd begun producing out a PDF of Sheppy's six-part series back in 2011 — but the effort of laying out 49 pages of code was daunting… especially when The Byte Works' own Learn to Program in GSoft BASIC was available for free. The opportunity to work with Mike was the incentive I needed to revisit and finally finish that project, which is now available for free with the purchase of Opus ][: The Software or Opus ][: The Source.

Since releasing these products on September 1, sales have been strong, with dozens of customers buying the compilations in download, CD, and USB formats. The demand for these products is evidence of a vibrant and supportive Apple II community, even so many years after Opus' original release 15 years ago.

It's an honor to work with so esteemed and storied a developer as The Byte Works and to release a product desired by so many. Juiced.GS and I look forward to many more opportunities to serve the community!

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

September 7th, 2015 1:24 PM
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Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine debuted last Friday. While lacking the marketing and star power of next month's Aaron Sorkin dramatization featuring Michael Fassbender, this documentary offers a more authentic look at the life Apple's co-founder.

That's not to say that documentaries are inherently accurate and unbiased; King of Kong proved otherwise. But I appreciated this film's take on Steve Jobs, even if it took me two viewings. The first time around, I saw it merely as a presentation of facts, none of which were new to me: having been a life-long Apple user, read Walter Isaacson's biography, and seen the Ashton Kutcher film, there's little about Jobs' life that would surprise me. But some additional perspectives granted me new insight into the film. Those views came from Dave Ross, whom I previously quoted for my Halt and Catch Fire review; and Steve Weyhrich, whom I quoted in my 2008 story about an Apple IIc unboxing. Each are bonafide retrocomputing experts, without whom I likely would've produced a much more critical — and boring — review.

The resulting article, "New Jobs movie: A quieter, more authentic portrait", was my first for Computerworld in 2015. I applied my usual editing process of printing out my draft, reviewing the hardcopy, then soliciting feedback of the edited version from a few friends (in this case, Steve and Dave) before submitting the final copy.

Draft of Steve Jobs documentary review

The more red I see on my drafts, the happier I am with the final copy.

With Juiced.GS's launch of Opus ][ just the day before my Computerworld deadline, and the beginning of the academic semester the day after, it was a stressful week — but everything turned out excellently.

It's a good film, too — perhaps a bit long at two hours, but there's plenty of good material in there. Here's my favorite scene:

And here are some additional stills that were submitted to, but not used by, Computerworld:

Lest I overdose on Jobs, I'm inclined to skip Fassbender's interpretation of the character… but I doubt I'll be able to keep myself away. Stay tuned.