Codes that changed the world

April 20th, 2015 10:40 AM
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Growing up with the Apple II, I learned to program in BASIC. Its line numbers, GOTOs and GOSUBs, and spaghetti code were unlike anything I would encounter later in my education. Perhaps for that reason, I never mastered a language like I did BASIC. While I was able to grasp Prolog and FORTRAN, the "pointers" of C++ were so incomprehensible to me that I eventually had to change majors to get away from it.

Had I continued down that programming path, I doubtless would've faced many other challenging concepts as I attempted to master yet more languages, like C Sharp, Perl, PHP, Ruby, and more. By some estimates, there are over 20,000 languages in existence, only a fraction of which I ever could've learned on the Apple II. Some are more practical than others, while others are of more historical significance.

The BBC attempts to scratch the surface of those historical languages in a recent limited-run podcast series, Codes that Changed the World, hosted by Aleks Krotoski.

Codes that Changed the World

The podcast, which debuted this month and ran for all of five episodes, covers four languages: FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, and Java, with a fifth episode discussing how so many different languages are able to coexist.

Of course, you can't discuss the rise of BASIC without the role the Apple II played, and vice versa:

BASIC enabled computing as we understand it today. When Apple was a two-man band building this thing called the Apple II, there were no other computers out there like it. So they had to put something on it that would allow individuals to program it themselves. Apple just wouldn't exist without BASIC. And Microsoft! The first thing that Microsoft did as a company was selling BASIC to run on other people's computers. The two biggest names in modern computing, Apple and Microsoft, both wouldn't've happened if it wasn't for BASIC.

BASIC celebrated its 50th birthday last year, earning it a cover story in Juiced.GS:
Juiced.GS Volume 19 Issue 2

While researching that story, author Steve Weyhrich (who also pointed me to this podcast) delved into the resources available at Dartmouth College, where BASIC was invented. As part of its "BASIC at 50" commemoration, Dartmouth produced a free 38-minute documentary, Birth of BASIC:

If you want to learn more about other programming languages, Codes that Changed the World is available in iTunes. While it's unreasonable to expect all 20,000 languages to be covered, I do lament that the podcast's scope was limited to only five episodes, as I rather enjoyed these 15-minute encapsulations of technical topics for a lay audience. If the BBC or Krotoski ever produce more, I'll be first in line to listen!

Remembering the Apple II Watch

April 13th, 2015 9:40 AM
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Even though everyone has seen it by now — it's been reblogged everywhere — I would be remiss to not also feature it on Apple II Bits. And so, ladies and gentlemen and all others, I present: the Apple II Watch.

This video showcases an actual, wearable piece of technology with all the features demonstrated therein. Twenty-four-year-old DJ Harrigan, aka Aleator777, offers detailed instructions for 3D printing and assembling your own device:

The design would be a working device, heavily inspired by the form factor of the full size computer, but it would also be an imaginative exploration of a wearable tech world that began long before we had the technology to do so in a meaningful way. Calculator watches are already, by definition, a wrist-worn computer, and are pretty neat, but there's just something so appealing about the idea a tiny wrist-worn CRT. I also wanted to push my new 3D modeling skills as well, so building a reasonable complicated enclosure was a fun challenge.

He doesn't give an estimate of the total cost of assembling such a device, but he does list all the parts needed, including a Teensy Arduino as the main processor. All the schematics are available for download, as are some fun byproducts of the design, such as little floppy-shaped stickers.

My thanks to this hardware hacker for producing such a fun, creative project that caught the public's attention and imagination! His work has been shared by the likes of Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo, The Daily Beast, Mashable, TechCrunch, NPR, Macworld, Lifehacker, Tech Times, IGN, and Dan Kottke — and was shared directly with me by several people, including Dan Muse, former editor-in-chief of inCider/A+. Even Steve Wozniak commented on the instructions: "This is incredible and has great significance to the maker community. I would buy this over the Apple watch and would wear it too! It would go well with my nixie watch."
Closed the developer:

This was a really enjoyable project to build and I certainly gained a lot of respect for the fine engineers who do this for real products. I'm definitely in the mood of creating even more anachronistic devices in the future. I would also love to see someone build on this and make a fully featured "smart watch" using a retro computer design and true OS. If you have any ideas for similar projects, I'd love to know. Thanks for reading!

Burning floppies

April 6th, 2015 6:26 PM
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Attending the Different Games conference in New York City this past weekend gave me plenty of opportunity to catch up with Juiced.GS staff writer (and frequent Apple II Bits blog subject) Ivan Drucker. While waiting for registration for KansasFest 2015 to open, we reminisced about our favorite moments of last year's event — Ivan's sixth KansasFest, and my 17th.

I was delighted to discover Ivan had not previously stumbled upon Kevin Savetz's video capture of a unique moment: Martin Haye, having just demoed 8-bit Western RPG Lawless Legends, burned the game to disk and declared it ready to ship.

For those archivists who thought it was too late to preserve floppies: Martin's making sure of that!

For an equally entertaining pyrotechnic display, try burning an actual compact disc:

Ken Gagne, Gamebits, Apple II Bits, and Martin Haye offer no assurances, guarantees, or warranties, express or implied, regarding the safety of you or your hardware, software, or other property or loved ones as a result of information received or linked to from this or any other website.

Happy burning!

Kids can't wait

March 30th, 2015 8:44 AM
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Education? I'm a fan. I taught at the high school level for several years and have been a college instructor for twice that. Teaching kids not what to think, but how to think, is the best investment I know to make in our future.

Turns out Steve Jobs was of a similar mindset. In a 1995 interview with Daniel Morrow of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Jobs related his drive to ensure other kids had the same opportunities he did:

When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer… I fell in love with it. And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.

Jobs investigated what it would cost to donate a single Apple II computer to every K-12 school in the United States. The cost was prohibitive for such a fledging company, but made economical and affordable with various tax incentives and deductions. Jobs lobbied for even more flexibility, getting as far as landing the Computer Equipment Contribution Act of 1982 on the floor of the Senate, after sailing it through Congress. Alas, it never made it past that point. In the end, Jobs' outreach was limited to California, where each of over 9,000 schools benefitted from Apple's generosity.

Audrey Watters over at Hack Education has more details and links, including to InfoWorld's and Creative Computing's reports of that era. It's a fascinating look at the marketing and financial strategy by which Apple came to dominate the classroom.

A reason to reference the Apple II

March 23rd, 2015 9:20 PM
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Jalopnik recently published an article entitled "Autonomous Cars Will Rob Us Of Our Freedom To Be Unproductive", which discusses one of the unconsidered tragedies of self-driving cars. It's not the worst-case scenario, wherein computers take over from humans, as Woz predicts. No, Jalopnik is more concerned about being able to take your eyes off the road and do work — the same reason I lament the advent of in-flight Wi-Fi.

It's an interesting point, and one that has nothing to do with the Apple II. So why the plug on this blog? Because of this image the author chose to represent this productive future:

Self-driving cars

I… what?

It seems an incongruent choice of visual — until you consider the source. The author of this blog is Jalopnik associate editor Jason Torchinsky, who previously appeared on Apple II Bits back in June 2011, when he organized a concert of Apple II musicians. That a writer would work a reference to his favorite computer into an unrelated article is not without precedent: I snuck the Apple II onto the homepage of Computerworld.com last summer when they published my review of WordPress 4.0.

So kudos to Jason for being true to his roots! I look forward to your next Apple II adventure.

(Hat tip to Paul Hagstrom)

9 myths about the Oregon Trail

March 16th, 2015 10:15 AM
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Filed under Game trail, History;
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At a recent PAX East 2015 panel on empathy games, I asked: "Since empathy games are often based in reality, do developers of such games hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of being authentic — as opposed to a more fictional game world, which doesn't purport to represent a real-life situation?"

Perhaps it was unfair of me to suggest empathy games are alone in this higher standard, as games have been founded in reality for as long as there have been games. Oregon Trail was based on a 2,200-mile route travelled by 400,000 settlers in 1846–1869. No work of fiction, the game is the product of some serious research and was widely used in classrooms as an early form of edutainment.

But, like many grade-school history lessons, some of the details weren't quite right. Phil Edwards recently did some historical research of his own and determined 9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail. The article is a fun and fascinating read, with far more details than these succinct headlines:

  1. Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.
  2. Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds
  3. You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40-foot-deep river
  4. You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo
  5. Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline
  6. No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died
  7. Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters
  8. The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane
  9. Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

References to a rafting trip don't ring a bell for me, so I suspect the article is based on a version of the game that didn't appear on the Apple II — likely the 1990 MS-DOS edition. Still, it's fun to see where fiction diverges from fact.

But what if it went the other way, and instead of a game or book based on reality, we had reality based on a game? It'd probably end up looking like the Oregon Trail movie trailer (Oregon Trailer?), which I originally shared on this blog five (!) years ago:

Fortunately, fan films aren't the only media we have to rely on. Any armchair historian can learn more about this unique expansion of early American settlements in The California and Oregon trail, a 1901 book by Trail veteran Francis Parkman.

Or you can just play the game.

(Hat tip to Inside.com via VideoGames)