Lego Ideas floppy disk

January 14th, 2019 2:42 PM
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Like many kids, I grew up playing with Lego. I loved following the instructions and turning small bricks into large ideas that looked exactly as envisioned on the box. But I rarely went beyond that prescribed route and into the realm of possibility: I had no interest in modifying the castles and spaceships into something original. That way lay chaos, whereas what I needed to instill in my life was order.

Lego has since extended into such media as movies and video games, but the physical bricks are still as popular as ever. They've even learned to crowdsource their designs in a way that young Ken almost certainly would not have taken advantage of: submit your own design for consideration to be made into an official set!

A recent submission to this Lego Ideas process is "The Disk", a floppy disk composed of Lego pieces. It's the first creation from a seven-year-old account and was submitted on January 2, 2019. It received 100 votes by January 7, adding 365 days to its original voting period of 60 days — but will it meet its goal by the new deadline of March 2, 2020?

Lego floppy disk

Everything I know about the Lego Ideas crowdfunding site comes from my friend Maia Weinstock, who created the Women of NASA Lego set. From an interview with Maia on Space.com: "Each set submitted to the program first goes through a public vetting process, in which the set must receive 10,000 votes from the public before being considered by the company." Her set met that threshold, was positively received by the powers that be, and is now an official Lego set.

It wasn't easy for Maia to reach that goal, nor was it her first attempt. Her first Lego proposal was the Legal Justice League, later revised to the Legal Justice Team, which earned 4,026 votes. Her media blitz to get out the vote included recruiting me and my podcast co-host Sabriel Mastin to stage a photo shoot:

Even with that effort, 4,026 votes still fell shy of the necessary 10,000. I suspect more people are familiar with the Supreme Court than they are floppy disks, so by comparison, "The Disk" seems too niche to reach the voting minimum and then be approved by Lego. Both floppy disks and the Women of NASA are broadly in the category of tech history, but I see more cultural, historical value in the Women of NASA. Until floppy disks get their own Hidden Figures moment, it seems likely that children playing with Lego today will know floppy disks only as the save icon in Microsoft Word; to build their own, they'll have to get creative and see what's possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)

Let's Play Prince of Persia Escape

January 7th, 2019 10:53 AM
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Karateka and its spiritual successor, Prince of Persia, have enjoyed diverse incarnations on mobile devices. Karateka saw a re-invention as a rhythmic fighting game, spurring interest in the later release of Karateka Classic. Likewise, the original Prince of Persia was released as Prince Retro but never updated for iOS 11; what took its place in iOS 12 was Prince of Persia Classic HD, which updated the graphics until they're unrecognizable from their Apple II origins.

Now there's a new Prince of Persia for iOS and Android, and it's in the sub-genre of platformers known as a runner. Here, the Prince runs to the right side of the screen while dodging obstacles, but never combating foes or solving puzzles. He moves left and right and jumps at the player's discretion, but beyond that, there's little variety.

That didn't sound like much fun to me, but it seemed an easy Let's Play video to record, so I took the free version of the game for a spin. Spoiler: it's not much fun. But at least I worked some Apple II graphics into the background and outro.

Judging from other Let's Play videos of this game, the level design doesn't get more diverse in the first fifty stages, either. And some reports indicate the game has 500+ levels. Who has time for that?

It's not unreasonable for classic licenses to be reincarnated in new genres. Sometimes it works well: I felt more positive about the similar adaptation of Super Mario to the running genre. Prince of Persia Escape doesn't inspire any strong feelings either way, but if it makes enough profit to keep the Prince alive, then I look forward to seeing his next reinvention.

Retailing the Apple II

December 31st, 2018 2:29 PM
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There's a lot to say about the history of the Apple II — and, thanks to writers like Steve Weyhrich, much of it has already been said. Some of it even originates in my own backyard, such as the creation of genre-defining software titles VisiCalc in Zork, which happened right in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to MIT and Harvard.

But what about the local names that don't make the history books? Especially retailers? They're the ones who directly made computers available to the masses, equipping homes and offices with these new inventions. What was it like to be one of those early salespeople who had to convince customers of the utility of a machine that was entirely without precedent?

That's a bigger question than can be answered in a humble weekly blog post — but it's one that's brought to mind after stumbling across this photo, taken exactly forty years ago last month:

B&W photo of businessman in store holding Apple II peripheral

I originally found this photo published with this caption:

Joel Skolnick computer store manager in Cambridge, Mass., displays a memory board of one of the many functions an Apple II computer can do which is shown on screen. November 15, 1978 (AP Photo / David Tenenbaum).

That's not a very descriptive title: "computer store manager". But it turns out Mr. Skolnick is still alive and well in the area, and a quick visit to his LinkedIn profile reveals that he was the vice president of finance for a business called… Computer Store. Huh.

The history of Apple II retail is a potential Juiced.GS article in the making, and one for which Mr. Skolnick would certainly be a primary source. In the meantime, enjoy this photo of Computer Store of four decades ago.

And Then You Die of Dysentery

December 24th, 2018 10:00 AM
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I'm a weekly patron of my local library, often taking advantage of its interlibrary loans to borrow books that I might not otherwise get my hands on. That's how I came to find myself recently reading …And Then You Die of Dysentery: Lessons in Adulting from the Oregon Trail, a book by Lauren Reeves published this October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (ISBN 9781328624390).

Similar to the Juiced.GS article I co-authored with Sheppy back in 2005, "Everything I ever really needed to know I learned from the Apple II", this book is a collection of bullet points and pithy sentences connecting 8-bit technology to modern life. But what was a single page in Juiced.GS has been stretched out to 100 pages here. Each individual piece of sage insight has its own dedicated page on the right, complemented on the left with an original pixel art drawing by Jude Buffum, for 50 witticisms in total.

Some of the images are plays on social media memes, such as "Distracted Boyfriend":

Jealous girlfriend meme

Or modern technology, like fitness trackers:

Fitbit tracker

Others are more of a stretch. This illustration of Angry Birds is meant to suggest that "It's important to play games along the trail to keep yourself entertainted." But I don't remember that happening when I played Oregon Trail. Other than hunting (which was essential for survival and not just a distraction), what mini-games abounded in Oregon Trail?

Angry Birds

The art is lovely and humorous, but most of the lessons are a stretch, being unrelated to Oregon Trail and thus failing to connect with the supposed target audience. There is also a political joke that could be funny, but it lacks context or intent — and as the only joke of that sort in the book, it seems out of place.

Having written stories similar to And Then You Die of Dysentery myself, I wasn't disappointed in the overall format of the book. But I think it would've been better as a series of short essays. Reeves' humor shines best in her introduction, where she's afforded the space to string sentences into full paragraphs. I don't doubt she has more substance to share about MECC's classic survival game — just not when limited to a single sentence per page.

For better or worse, the entire book can be read in 15 minutes. For a $15 book, that's an expensive investment, but a perfect fit for a library loan. I suggest giving …And Then You Die of Dysentery a flip and getting a few chuckles before reshelving.

(Hat tip to Chris Torrence)

Puma shoes for the Apple II

December 17th, 2018 8:37 AM
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Activity trackers are all the rage, from Fitbit wristbands to Oura Rings to Apple's Health app. They all vary in what they record, from sleep to biorhythms to flights of stairs, but almost all measure one basic metric: steps — putting one foot in front of the other.

Why not get closer to the source of that data by moving the sensor off your hands and onto your feet? That's what Wired predicted six years ago:

The next generation of athletic shoes will feature radio frequency identification tags, motion sensors and accelerometers that will allow you to customize the look, fit and responsiveness of your kicks. The shoes of tomorrow also will transmit data to the cloud, allowing you to fine-tune your workout and brag about your accomplishments on Facebook or Twitter.

This is not a new idea: Puma took the first step in this direction more than three decades ago when it released the RS-Computer, a running shoe stuffed with tech that estimated your mileage and calories. Data could be downloaded off the shoe onto an Apple II or Commodore 64. You might think RS stands for Recommended Standard, as in the RS232 port, but RS was short for Running System.

Now those shoes have been revived with no ports at all, RS or otherwise. Last week, Puma released 86 pairs of a reimagined RS-Computer shoe, with Bluetooth connectivity and USB charging. It's not backward-compatible, unfortunately, and can't connect to the Apple II. But Puma hasn't entirely forgotten its roots: the accompanying iOS and Android app, listed as "PUMA RS Computer Shoe" still uses an 8-bit interface and even includes a free retro-themed game. The only downside to the app: Puma has chosen to model this UI after the C64.

I downloaded the iOS app but, with only 86 pairs of shoes in the world, there were none near enough to me to advance the app past the initial "Searching…" screen. I'm amazed that Puma would bother developing an app for such a niche audience… unless the shoes are to be mass-produced at a later date.

Still, these shoes and this app are an interesting piece of history revisited, and one that may spur further interest in and knowledge of Apple's role in their ancient origin.

(Hat tips to Jon Fingas, Andrew Liszewski, and Ivan Jovin)

AppleWorks & TimeOut Grammar

December 10th, 2018 11:46 AM
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I was working on a particularly complex Juiced.GS article recently, so I did something I hadn't done in awhile: I loaded it into AppleWorks Classic and ran it through TimeOut Grammar. It's a tool that has served me well for decades.

For much of my academic career starting in fourth grade and continuing at least through undergraduate, AppleWorks was my primary word processor. It wasn't just habit or nostalgia: its plain-text nature let me focus on the words and their meaning, and its spellcheck function's interface was more efficient than any I've seen to this day.

But just as important was TimeOut Grammar (copyright 1992 by Dan Verkade; published by Beagle Bros Inc. and Quality Computers). This add-on module was, like most grammar checkers even today, simply a dictionary of search/replace patterns: phrases that are often used incorrectly or which can be more succinctly replaced with other phrases. TimeOut Grammar rarely understood context: gender-specific pronouns could be decried as "sexist", even when I was writing about religions or eras that have very gender-specific roles. But more often than not, it helpfully taught me to be concise and accurate, avoiding language that was wordy ("in order to"), vague ("nice"), cliché ("the fact is"), and redundant ("very").

I learned to write so that TimeOut Grammar's first pass would find as few errors as possible. When I mentioned this habit to a fellow teacher, he laughed, "That's scary!" Perhaps a computer teaching someone to write didn't sit well with him — especially when the computer, as mentioned, lacked the nuance and frame of reference that a human writer or editor does.

But not only did TimeOut Grammar never force a rewrite; it also occasionally reminded me just how smart it wasn't. My favorite idiosyncrasy is one I previously related on Syndicomm Online, as captured in the March 2005 issue of The Lamp!:

Appleworks SPEAKS SPANISH?
""""""""""""""""""""""""""
One of my favorite AppleWorks quirks: try grammar checking "not likely to", and accept all suggested corrections. The result will be "unliprobablyo".

I didn't know AppleWorks knew Spanish! :-)

-Ken

(KGAGNE, Cat 9, Top 20, Msg 18)

TimeOut Grammar must've stored a copy of the original document in its memory — a copy that wasn't aware of the module's own substitutions. So when "not likely" got replaced by "unlikely", it didn't stop Grammar from continuing to see the original "likely" and wanting to replace it with "probably".

Writing is quirky and creative — something you don't necessarily want your computer programs to be. But when used in moderation and with discretion, TimeOut Grammar was a wonderful tool that helped me along my way.