Trello for the Apple II

September 18th, 2017 10:08 AM
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When I started at my current day job two years ago, I asked my Apple II friends for some good team-based project management tools. My quest was made more difficult by me not knowing what I was looking for, as I'd never used any such software.

Still, even though Trello came highly recommended, I found it inscrutable: it seemed to be just a series of lists in which items could be dragged from one column to another. How was this not simply a cloud-based, collaborative spreadsheet — like Google Sheets? I didn't understand how to make it work for me and my team.

Maybe I should given Trello another try, as it's recently proven its heart is in the right place. Their latest commercial is bookended with homages to our favorite classic computer:

Whenever I see the Apple II appear in unexpected places, I wonder how it got there. Who on the Trello team decided that a callback to a 39-year-old Apple computer was the proper frame for their latest advertisement? Where did they get the hardware used in the video? And what's going to become of it?

It may not be a story for the next issue of Juiced.GS… but it's one that puts a smile on my face.

(Hat tip to Eric Shepherd)

Developing Retro Roundup

September 11th, 2017 12:11 PM
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Last week, I officially launched Retro Roundup, a curated RSS aggregator of retrocomputing news.
Retro Roundup banner
Or rather, re-launched: Retro Roundup was founded in 2005 by Kevin Savetz, who approached me this past February about taking over the site. While keeping the same purpose and logo, I rebuilt the site in WordPress, adding taxonomies, email subscriptions, and more. After several months in development, it was finally ready to demo during the KansasFest 2017 lightning talks.

Those talks were two months ago, yet the press release announcing Retro Roundup was published just last week. What took so long?

The problem was that Retro Roundup didn't have a defined end state. Unlike Juiced.GS, which has concrete deadlines resulting in a finished quarterly product, Retro Roundup will never stop growing. The more RSS feeds I add to it, the more content it will publish. How many feeds and how much content are enough to launch a website?

I was reminded of the development of Duke Nukem Forever, a video game that took 15 years to publish. The developers didn't have a roadmap for what the game would look like when it was done; as a result, they kept adding new levels and features and scrapping old ones to be current with the latest technology, which was advancing apace with the game. But every product is outdated by the time it launches — at some point, you just have to declare that it's met its goal and release it.

In my case, I thought I was done Retro Roundup in April — until I showed it to my librarian friend, Michele DeFilippo. She suggested I add "facet searches", which was not a term I'd ever heard, though I was familiar with the functionality: almost every e-commerce website offers parameters and filters to narrow search results. Adding this feature to Retro Roundup made the site infinitely more useful and usable.

Then I thought I was done — until a month later, when I attended WordCamp Portland, and met Scott Tirrell, a fan of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, on which I'm an occasional guest. I showed him the site, and he enthusiastically offered many more suggestions — from adding a search box to including YouTube channels among the site's feeds.

With such great feedback, I could've kept working on Retro Roundup indefinitely. What pushed me to finally release the site was Kevin plugging it on episode #45 of the ANTIC podcast (38:51–41:53). Listeners of that podcast immediately flocked to Retro Roundup and began submitting RSS feeds. Even before I knew how they'd discovered the site, I realized that I couldn't keep this cat in the bag any longer. So I spent a day off from work adding dozens more feeds to the site, many of which I'd solicited months ago on Facebook, before deciding I'd met some arbitrary, minimum quantity of content.

Despite this milestone, there are still more feeds and features to add. Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop was the first to use the "submit an advertisement" form, which I'd somehow overlooked in my testing. I was appalled by the results; an hour of my Friday night was spent bringing it up to spec. And a developer who contributed essential functionality to the a2.click tool is even now working on code that will make Retro Roundup even more usable.

Before last week, I had only two retrocomputing websites: Apple II Bits and Juiced.GS. I hope the former entertains its readers, but it's primarily a personal outlet; while the latter is in support of an offline product. Retro Roundup is the first retrocomputing website I've built that I would call a resource for the community. I've learned scads about WordPress and project management during its development. I hope it is found equally rewarding for its users, who will discover new sources for retrocomputing content, and for publishers, who will see new visitors being sent to their site from Retro Roundup.

Bento Lab vs. the Apple II

September 4th, 2017 10:01 AM
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Bento Lab, a portable DNA analysis kit that was funded on Kickstarter in 2015 and 2016, was recently profiled in The Boston Globe. At a tenth the cost of a traditional lab setup, Bento Lab kits "represent a cracking open of a once-cloistered field of knowledge" and a democratization of the life sciences. "What can be achieved with Bento Lab is largely limited by the user’s imagination and ability," writes reporter Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.

Like most readers of this blog, my scientific interests stray more toward the technological than the organic. But the article bridges that gap with this apt metaphor:

[Harvard University genetic biologist George] Church described Bento Lab as "an Apple II moment." The Apple II, among the first personal computers made for the masses, changed computing in ways that are so fundamental that we can hardly appreciate them. "There were computers before the Apple I or the Apple II, cheap computers, but they were really geeky, they had wires hanging out of them. They didn’t have the right form factor or ease of use," he explained. "This, I think, is that moment."

I'm reminded of seven years ago, when World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov declared the Apple II as "the last technology that could be thought of as revolutionary". Whether it's biology, artificial intelligence, or personal computing, the Apple II continues to be an era-defining invention, demarcating a line in history before or after which everything came.

While its place in history is unquestionable, the Apple II shouldn't be unique in being considered a technological revolution. There other innovations that have done as much, if not more, than the Apple II to increase access and affordability to technology. Bicycles greatly expanded access to resources and job opportunities and continue to do so even today in third-world countries. (Even Steve Jobs called the computer "a bicycle for the mind") Radio and the telephone allowed the verbal exchange of ideas across great distances. Airplanes opened up the world to travel and tourism, allowing unprecedented access to new peoples, cultures, and environments. (And yes, while air travel is expensive, it's no more so than the Apple II was when it was first released.) The World Wide Web democratized publishing, giving voice to everyone's opinions and expertise. I'm not talking life-saving technologies, but life-changing. Some of these creations came before the Apple II; others came after, built on its foundation. Yet would we feel silly comparing the Bento Lab to the World Wide Web, in that one is a tangible product and the other is not?

That metaphor may be flawed, but I'm emboldened to make it by the comparison of the Apple II to a portable DNA kit. The Apple II started as an esoteric hobby and went on to revolutionize multiple industries. The Bento Lab, with its much more specialized function, will likely be praised within certain circles but remain unheard-of otherwise. But a more apt comparison might be difficult to draw, as any product similar to the Bento Lab has, by its nature, not drawn attention outside its target audience — unlike the Apple II.

I'm always intrigued by the contexts in which the Apple II turns up. When I first read about the Bento Lab, I thought of Amazon.com and e-books, which made agents and editors into optional gatekeepers that anyone could bypass. Amazon didn't invent e-books any more than Apple invented computers, but both made these platforms more affordable and accessible. In that sense, Bento Lab has succeeded — but it's no more an Apple II than it is an airplane or the World Wide Web.

The first game I ever played

August 28th, 2017 10:23 AM
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While VisiCalc and AppleWorks may've been system-sellers that established the Apple II in the business marketplace, they're not the programs we have fondest memories of. What really got us hooked on these machines and which built communities, demo parties, and more, were the games.

Tapping that trove of memories, the staff of PC Gamer recently asked each other: "What was the first PC game you played?" The answers are fun and diverse: Full Throttle, Rogue, Lemmings, X-Wings, and more, on such systems as the Atari ST, Magnavox Odyssey II, and Windows 95. Only one Apple II game made the list, that being Choplifter.

I don't remember the first Apple II game I ever played. There were so many in that era: not only Choplifter, but also Conan, Castle Wolfenstein, Microzine, Spy's Demise, and many others.

But the game I wrote about in a similar fashion to PC Gamer was Lode Runner. In 2008, when I was still on staff at Computerworld magazine, my fellow editors and I were asked the question: "What was the first personal computer you ever owned?" I answered:

1983: Growing up Apple

I don't remember ever not having the Apple IIe that I grew up with; it must've been delivered about the same time I was.

My family upgraded to an Apple IIgs in 1988. We still have that machine, as well as another IIgs that ran a dial-up BBS for four years.

Over the years, we tricked it out with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed — making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

The original IIgs machine is still at my father's house, where he occasionally depends on it for the family business accounting. Though my current computer is a MacBook Pro, it has all the Apple II programs and files I accumulated over the years. I access them with the Sweet16 emulator, which turns my Macintosh into an Apple II laptop.

Emulating has allowed me to have used the same word-processing software, AppleWorks Classic, for the past 20 years, for everything from a 4th grade science paper on the whooping crane to my 100-page college thesis to all my Computerworld articles. All this history fills up only 3MB of my hard drive. Most recently, I created a quick-and-dirty Apple II program to convert 700 blog posts for importing into WordPress — a huge timesaver over doing it manually.

I just wrote a story about Dan Budiac, a guy who paid $2,600 on eBay to get back an old Apple IIc. Why not do what I did and just never stop using it in the first place?

These are just a few of my memories of the Apple II. What about you — what was your first game? Do you even remember?

The gift of AfterWork

August 21st, 2017 9:38 AM
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Last week was my dad's birthday, and someone asked me: had I ever gotten him a gift for the Apple II?

In fact, I had! It was one Christmas in the 1990s, and Dad was in his second decade of using AppleWorks on the Apple II to run the family business. We'd just upgraded our version of AppleWorks — one of many purchases we'd made from Quality Computers. Although I was still a minor at the time, it was not unusual for me to receive a QC catalog in the mail, call them to order something, and tell them to charge it to dad's credit card, which they had on file. If the purchase was a game or something else that couldn't be written off as a business expense, I would reimburse my parents from my allowance.

Even at that age, I'd already caught up to and surpassed my father's familiarity with the Apple II and its capabilities. I thought I should use that experience to benefit his AppleWorks experience, so I bought AfterWork, a screen saver specifically for AppleWorks.

Screen savers are still ubiquitous, but primarily as an artifact of an earlier time when they served a necessary purpose. Today's LCD monitors don't run the risk of burn-in, but on a CRT monitor like the AppleColor RGB monitor on our IIGS, my dad stepping away from work for an hour to play Tetris could have disastrous results. AppleWorks 4.0 would blank the screen, but with AfterWork, fun animations would flood his display until he came back to his spreadsheets.

I don't know that my dad appreciated receiving the gift as much as I did giving it. Most of my family see computers much like I see cars: a vehicle to get you from point A to point B. They don't enjoy tinkering or playing with it or making it do fun, cool things for the sake of it. But I was nonetheless proud to give my dad something that integrated seamlessly into his workflow. I wasn't trying to get him to use the Apple II in a different or "better" way — I just wanted his work day to be a little more amusing, and to give back to him a small part of the wonder and joy he'd given me by getting me into the Apple II in the fist place.

It's been decades since I've seen AfterWork in action: I don't have it installed in Sweet16, and there appear to be no screenshots or YouTube videos of it. What I can find online is a 1995 review of AppleWorks 5.0 by now-Juiced.GS staff writer Andrew Roughan, in which he states, "AppleWorks now includes the AfterWork screen saver and five sample modules. The full AfterWork package which has 21 modules is available separately." I'm left uncertain which Christmas I bought AfterWork or for what version of AppleWorks. But I'll always remember it as a gift that represented something my dad and I had in common.

KansasFest at Rockhurst

August 14th, 2017 9:20 AM
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Those feeling the withdrawal of KansasFest 2017 now have something to look forward to, as the dates and venue for KansasFest 2018 have been announced: the world's largest and longest-running annual Apple II convention returns to Rockhurst University next July 16–22.

There has been much unsolicited, unofficial discourse on the KansasFest email list about whether Rockhurst should remain the venue for KansasFest. Those hoping for a change in 2018 shouldn't be surprised: executing an event like KansasFest takes almost an entire year of preparation, and pivoting to a new venue more quickly than that should occur only when no alternative is available, as when Avila decided to stop hosting KansasFest after 2004.

That doesn't mean the debate is over. For KansasFest 2019 and beyind, there are plenty of compelling opinions about where the event should be held. In the pro-Rockhurst camp:

  • • Rockhurst is exceedingly cheap — only a few hundred dollars for five nights, eleven meals, and conference registration makes it an incredibly affordable vacation.
  • • There are few other retrocomputing conventions where attendees stay right where the event is, making for a 24-hour event. Rockhurst enables this.
  • • The dormitory setting encourages socializing both in lounge areas and in private rooms with open doors.
  • • For the duration of KansasFest, the Corcoran student hall is exclusive to us, without needing to be shared by other guests, students, or events.
  • • After 13 years of hosting us, Rockhurst and KansasFest have developed an amicable working relationship and can anticipate each other's needs and expectations.

Those proposing we move to a hotel make the following points:

  • • Many attendees are at a point in their lives where they can afford nicer accommodations.
  • • A hotel is likely to have a more robust dining menu, accommodating more diverse tastes and diets.
  • • Hotels have larger, more comfortable beds.
  • • Hotel rooms have private bathrooms and showers.
  • • Hotels wouldn't cap attendance at 100 people.

As a former member of the KansasFest committee, I have no weight or authority beyond that of any other attendee. I, like 92 other attendees of KansasFest 2017, am happy to pay my cheap dues and enjoy a week of camaraderie with no responsibilities. If I am able to engage in that spirit of the event, then the trappings matter little.

To that end, it seems moving from Rockhurst wouldn't benefit the event itself, but its creature comforts. I've read no concerns about Rockhurst's ability to host the convention aspect: the presentation hall, the space for Sean's Garage Giveaway, and the Internet bandwidth have all suited our needs, and I've yet to encounter suggestions to the contrary. It's better room and board accommodations that folks want.

But I'm okay with the way things are. Sleeping and eating are two things I don't spend a lot of time doing at KansasFest; they're certainly not why I go. I've lived in college dorms before, and while I'm not nostalgic for those conditions, I can tolerate them for a week.

Rockhurst dormitory in 2006

Rockhurst in 2006. It's even nicer now.

But better accommodations may be more than KansasFest can afford, costing us both money and attendees. It's been said that if you're not turning people away, then you're not charging enough. With KansasFest hitting its attendee cap of 100 in 2017, perhaps we could charge more. But that would reduce the number of people can afford to attend KansasFest, negating the benefit of moving to a venue with no attendance cap.

And besides, do we want more than 100 people attending? I say this not out of elitism, but because I like the intimate scope of KansasFest as it is now. As we approach Dunbar's number, the ability to meet and get to know every attendee diminishes. I prefer quality time with a smaller number of people, which I find harder to achieve with more attendees.

I recall the multiple years of dwindling attendance, with each KansasFest leaving us wondering if it would be the last. It seems impossible that we've quadrupled our numbers since those pessimistic years of just a decade ago. Perhaps we've grown to the point where we've outgrown Rockhurst. From my perspective as an attendee, that doesn't seem the case. I'm happy to continue returning to its familiar campus for as long as the committee decides we should.