Say goodbye to Tekserve

May 23rd, 2016 8:56 AM
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When my father brought home our first Apple II, it came from Computer Systems & Software, an authorized Apple dealer. Back then, this was one of the only ways to get an Apple product: there was no online ordering, few mail-order opportunities, and definitely no Apple Stores, which didn't debut until 2001.

When Apple opened its first retail stores, doing so cut out the middleman — small businessmen such as the proprietor of Computer Systems & Software. That competition, combined with the advent of Internet sales, made it difficult for mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar shops to stay in business. It was unpleasant but unexpected when CS&S closed up shop some time ago.

The next victim appears to be one of CS&S's contemporaries. Tekserve has served New York City since 1987, providing sales and service to consumers and businesses alike. And while Tekserve will continue to exist, its quaint retail outlet — featuring not only classic computers, but "ancient radios, an antique Coke machine… massive old RCA microphones… and a stereoscope with hundreds of photographs" may soon be closing shop.

As reported by Jeremiah Moss, Tekserve will be reducing or eliminating its consumer retail presence this fall. They will continue to sell and service products for small- and medium-sized business clients, so the company as a whole is not going away. But a lot of employees, services, and artifacts are likely to disappear as a result of this transition.

I visited Tekserve in 2012 and received a behind-the-scenes tour, resulting in the below photo gallery. It's a damn fine place with a heritage of and respect for Apple products — including the Apple II — that you don't often find. If you can visit the store before their September transition, please do.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Oregon Trail Hall of Fame

May 16th, 2016 8:47 AM
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The International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play recently inducted the 2016 class of the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Back in January, I encouraged readers to submit nominations to correct the oversight made in 2015 when no native Apple II games were inducted into the inaugural class.

We had better luck in 2016, with Oregon Trail now being recognized as one of the most important video games of all time. Granted, the game may not have debuted on the Apple II, but it's inarguable that it's on the Apple II that Oregon Trail found its place in history.

And how fitting that should be, given that it's a game about history! One of the game's original creators, Don Rawitsch, recently hosted a reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). He addressed everything about what was cut from the original version, to the iOS remake, to his views on gamification, to his favorite parody of Oregon Trail (that being Organ Trail).

The conversation also unearthed this 2011 gem: a one-hour presentation by Rawitsch on the history of Oregon Trail.

But what about the history not of Oregon Trail, but the Oregon Trail — the grueling, 2,170-mile route on which so many pioneers died? We may think it was an adventure filled with dysentery and bison, but the truth is that many travellers lost their lives making that trek. "The R-rated Oregon Trail" is, despite its name, not a snuff film, but an unfiltered look at the challenges faced by those settlers for whom the Oregon Trail was not a game:

The AMA, two of the three above videos, and the Hall of Fame induction all happened in this calendar year. Oregon Trail has always been a popular source of nostalgia, but especially lately, it seems our sights are set firmly to the west. Wagons, ho!

(Hat tips to Javier A. Rivera and Tony Diaz)

Retro-style iMac

May 9th, 2016 10:35 AM
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Apple makes it hard to associate their current products with their legacy products: from abandoning the rainbow logo to rewriting history in their press releases, Apple Inc. rarely wants to acknowledge the Apple II. But some new after-market modifications make it easier to draw a direct line from our favorite retrocomputer to its modern descendant.

Marketing and branding company ColorWare specializes in a variety of cosmetic alterations to consumer electronics, from iPhones to Xboxes to PlayStation controllers. But instead of sending your own hardware to be modified, you buy it originally from ColorWare. Following the success of their iPhone mods, they've now set their sights on Apple's desktop, introducing retro-themed Macintosh computers and peripherals. Each replaces the default aluminum color with beige, in the style of the original Apple IIe.

Expect to pay more for these devices than you would an unmodified original. The keyboard and mouse combo go for $399, or get them with a 27-inch iMac (3.3GHz processor, 8GB 1867MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 2TB Fusion Drive, AMD Radeon R9 M395 with 2GB) for $3,799. That may sound like a lot of money — and it is: the same iMac direct from Apple is $2,299, representing a $1,500 markup, or 65% more than the MSRP. Further, it looks like there'll be only a limited run of 25 of these retro machines, with both the price and the quantity marking it as exclusive.

When we have our original Apple II computers prominently displayed and regularly used, it's hard to justify spending this much money on a faux Apple II.

Still, it is pretty.

ColorWare iMac

(Hat tip to Julie Lasky via Tim Locke)

CaptionBot fails to recognize the Apple II

May 2nd, 2016 8:35 AM
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At KansasFest, you'll discover software and hardware you're unlikely to see anywhere else — yet diehard retrocomputing enthusiasts will no doubt recognize the floppy disks and circuit boards, identifiable by their unique schematics and labels. By contrast, a modern computer is more ubiquitous and even more powerful, but it's unlikely to be able to identify what makes the Apple II special… or even what the Apple II is.

That's a theory I put to the test with CaptionBot, Microsoft's online tool that accepts image uploads and attempts to describe their contents. Is it a group of people posing for a photo? Someone holding a book? CaptionBot is surprisingly good at recognizing people and their daily activities.

What it's not so good at is recognizing hardware and software. As a test, I threw at it some photos from the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and found the results laughably terrible. So for this blog post, I more extensively trolled my KansasFest 2002–2015 photo archives to see what other guesses CaptionBot might get wrong. Here's what it thought we see and do in Kansas City:

Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess — but we're still one up on visual recognition. Let's see what we can capture at KansasFest 2016 to stymy Microsoft's latest attempt to bring about the singularity.

(Hat tip to Andy Hartup at GamesRadar+ for the inspiration!)

Get your kicks in year six of Apple II Bits

April 25th, 2016 9:22 AM
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The best course I took in grad school was Jeff Seglin's column-writing class. The opening exercise was to go to the local bookstore, choose several magazines, and draft pitches for articles to each. Early in the semester, I found this assignment challenging — but when we revisited it a few months later, the ideas flowed. I'm not sure what potential Seglin tapped, but he somehow got me seeing stories everywhere. Since then, I've rarely been short of ideas for Apple II Bits, Juiced.GS, Polygamer, or The Moth.

KansasFest 2015 really got those creative juices flowing, though again, I can't pinpoint the inspirational moment. All I know is, when I got back from that annual convention, Apple II Bits blog posts were flowing fast and furious, until I had up to two months of weekly columns queued in advance. It was a great relief to be able to table that Sunday night scurry for an idea.

I sometimes wonder when I'll run out of ideas and have to stop writing this blog altogether. But with all the activity of the Apple II community to inspire me, and with Seglin having given me the tools to recognize the stories therein, I don't think it'll be a lack of ideas that will be as challenging as finding the time and energy to keep up with it all.

In the meantime, I've made it six years of writing Apple II Bits, with the first post having gone live on April 29, 2010. I wrote two posts a week for the first two years — 104 posts a year! — and once a week for the four years since then, for a total of 419 posts. If Seglin had sent me to the book store with the assignment to pick one magazine and come up with 419 pitches, I would've failed his course. Yet Apple II Bits continues chugging along.

Six apples in two rows

My thanks to everyone who has inspired this blog's articles and to all the readers who have taken the time to mull their words, publicly or privately. I still have a few more years in me; I hope you'll come along.

In the meantime, here are some numbers by which to quantify the site's content and evolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fallout 3 terminal emulator

April 18th, 2016 11:51 AM
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I'm a fan of both retro and modern video games, and I love to see the lines blur between the two — whether that's a new game like Plangman that has a classic feel, or a modern game like Halo that's ported to a classic console such as the Atari 2600.

Falling into the latter camp is the work of thewheelman282, a fan of the action-RPGs Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, released in 2008 and 2010, respectively. This franchise is set in the 21st century that arose after nuclear war broke out in the 1950s, impeding the advancement of technology beyond a Cold War state. In this fictional future, players use monochromatic computer terminals that wouldn't look out of place in an Apple II user's collection.

thewheelman282 brought that connection to its logical conclusion by porting the Fallout 3 terminal software to the Apple II. He gives a demo starting at 2:55 in this video, which uses the Agat emulator:

I've never played Fallout 3 so would have no idea how to use this program without the above tutorial, as the software comes with no documentation or inline help that I can find. However, it does appear to function quite similarly to the source material:

This program was written to perform a specific function and doesn't allow the input of new commands or programs, recreating a utility instead of an environment. I think it'd therefore be more accurate to call it a simulator instead of an emulator. Regardless, it's an impressive work of 958 lines of Applesoft BASIC code, which you can download in disk image format. I converted that source code to a text file, which is available here.

I originally thought thewheelman282 was going to demonstrate piping Fallout 3 output to an Apple II, similar to what Joshua Bell did with Second Life. While that too is an impressive hack, it's been done before, and eight years ago at that. To see something original and which is further available for us to download and play with is pretty cool. Thanks, thewheelman282!

(Hat tip to Robert Rivard)