Archive for December, 2010

The Price Is Right

December 30th, 2010 1:24 PM
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Courtesy Mike Maginnis's interview with Bob Bishop (currently available in a free sample issue of Juiced.GS), everyone knows that it was nine Apple II computers that powered the television game show Tic Tac Dough. For some readers, this information comes thirty years after the fact, lending the Apple II a status as something of an unsung hero, working behind the scenes to power an industry. Did it ever get the recognition it deserved?

As a matter of fact, it did. The Apple II was not just an invisible workhorse but was also occasionally the grand prize. In this April 1981 episode of The Price Is Right, one of the many rewards offered to competitors was Steve Wozniak's most famous personal computer:

The pilot episode of Starcade, one of the first organized video game competitions, also featured an Apple II alongside an Asteroids Deluxe coin-op arcade machine as the ultimate prizes.

Other combinations of this hardware and genre also existed: game shows for the Apple II. Here's an example of the Apple II version of Wheel of Fortune:

Jeopardy was also released for the Apple II, but I always thought there were many more such opportunities than were realized. Twenty-five years ago, I would've liked to have seen an Apple II adaptation of Press Your Luck, for example.

Where else have you seen the Apple II intersect the game show industry?

A review of the Apple IIGS

December 27th, 2010 11:45 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods;
6 comments.

Brian Picchi, who sometimes goes by the Star Trek-inspired handle TanruNomad, was surfing YouTube recently when he noticed a dearth of reviews of the Apple IIGS. With all the other videos the site hosts, from bad dancing to drying paint, Brian was surprised at this obvious oversight — so he set out to correct it.

This is a great and succinct introduction to the Apple IIGS. The part of Brian's review I enjoyed most was the software showcase, which includes several action games I'd forgotten or had never seen. As Brian notes, "It's hard to believe those kind of graphics and sound are coming from a computer made in 1986!"

There's more to the Apple II than games, though, and I suspect a full-fledged review would require more than the seven minutes Brian allocated himself. I would like to see a comparative analysis of the Apple II and its contemporaries; personal memories of favorite software; and unique hardware features. But then, such a comprehensive review could go on for hours, so Brian's survey of the computer's history and most notable features, as well as what separated it from its 8-bit predecessors, may be the best approach.

The only point I question is that Apple II accelerator cards of the early 1990s cost in excess of a thousand dollars. I bought two of these cards sometime between 1988 and 1996, which I never could've done had they cost more than a few hundred each — though given theses cards' modern rarity, I wouldn't be surprised if Brian's estimate was simply ahead of its time!

Brian has accomplish his goal of plugging a hole in YouTube's library: his review currently shows up on the first page of search results for "Apple IIGS review".

A review with higher production values is available as part of Matt's Macintosh video podcast. Matt Pearce's review focuses on the 8-bit models and even references the Apple III technologies they incorporated — a topic that Juiced.GS recently published an entire feature about. However, I find it to be more historically oriented and less opinionated than Brian's review, as the only software Matt demonstrates is BASIC. It's possible that his interest lies with the titular Macintosh and that he has no personal experience with the Apple II, making it difficult to offer much more than a factual overview.

What other new videos about the Apple II would you like to see produced?

(Hat tip to the Vintage Computer Forums)

Baby Boomer inventions that changed the world

December 23rd, 2010 10:26 AM
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Many amazing technologies have been invented over the past hundred years, allowing humanity to travel and communicate in ways and at speeds unprecedented. Yet the people behind these developments have not yet made it into our history books. While today's students learn about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, they're more likely to know pop culture stars like Steve Jobs than they are modern inventors like Steve Wozniak.

The Web site SecondAct.com recently compiled a list that offers long-overdue acknowledgement to 25 such geniuses and their inventions. The list includes not only geek icons such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, and Dean Kamen and his Segway transportation device and his portable dialysis machine, but also lesser-known heroes such as Gail Naughton and her synthetic skin products, and Sally Fox's Foxfibre naturally colored cotton.

It should be no surprise that the Apple II, considered by some to be our last technological revolution, made the list, as did its responsible parties:

Steve Wozniak, who was born in 1950, and his future partner Steve Jobs, born in 1955, both grew up in the San Francisco area and got to know each other as summer interns at electronics manufacturer Hewlett-Packard. Though neither finished college, they helped launch a technological revolution that transformed our culture. In 1977, they created and marketed the Apple II personal computer, which included color graphics, a sound card, expansion slots, and other features that made it the earliest machine to resemble today's PCs. It arguably did more than any other product to usher in an age in which computers would become as ubiquitous as TVs and telephones.

It's an honor just to be nominated — though had SecondAct.com presented these inventors and inventions in order of importance instead of seemingly randomly, the inclusion of the Apple II would be questionable, or at least laughable: it's sandwiched between bacterial cement and Sildenafil (not named here by its more common moniker so as to not trigger spam filters). I suppose all three keep people indoors, and a few may've even prompted some late nights.

Most of these inventions had humble beginnings; many have since become household names. Few of its creators have enjoyed similar fame. Thanks to SecondAct.com for its steps to rectify that situation.

Wait Wait Don't Tell Woz

December 20th, 2010 8:08 AM
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Steve Wozniak certainly does get around! First he appeared on a geek trading card. Then he showed up in London for Christie's Apple-1 auction before flying back to California to give a press tour of the Computer History Museum. After all that, he still had time to call into National Public Radio's quiz show, Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!

Rather than appear in the studio, Woz dialed into the December 11th episode of the show for a quick interview, in which he discussed why he created the Apple-1, what he thought computers would be used for, and how their many intended applications have surprised him. He then skipped ahead three decades from Apple's origins to his love affair with their current products, explaining why he has three iPhones and what he uses each one for. Part of it is for redundancy, as Woz observed, "Everything that has a computer in it will fail — from a watch to a car to a radio to an iPhone. It'll fail if it has a computer in it." His suggestion for how to fix the situation will have you howling!

Woz was then quizzed under the auspices of the game "Not My Job", with a set of questions grouped under the heading "This Apple Doesn't Need No Genius Bar". Three trivia questions about real, fruity apples demonstrated Woz's ability to think his way out of any puzzle, be it technological or agrarian.

Here's the clip:

You can download the MP3 from NPR's Web site, which also offers a transcript. Or you can download the entire 47-minute episode from iTunes, in which Woz's appearance can be found at time indices 18:11 – 28:48.

(Hat tip to mono of Say Cheese!)

Real-life TRON

December 16th, 2010 11:52 AM
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Tomorrow sees the release of TRON Legacy, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. TRON, released in 1982, is a film that has pervaded all aspects of my professional and personal lives: I've written about it extensively, including for Juiced.GS; I included it in the curriculum for a film-studies course I taught; I even interviewed the creator of Photoshop, now of Industrial Light & Magic, on the impact the film had on Hollywood special effects.

TRON tank

A classic drawing of a classic film.

Why has this film captivated me so? Maybe because it took a silly concept — being digitized to play computer games — and treated it seriously. Flynn's journey to defeat the MCP has all the elements of a great tale: action, oppression, character development, heroism. When computers were new and often seen as nothing more than toys, TRON dared to show the power that programmers and their creations could wield.

One of my favorite scenes is one that demonstrates both intensity and teamwork: the light cycle duel. The high-speed game in which Flynn is sentenced to compete ends when he and his friends escape from the sanctioned playing area, proceeding to roam free where no program is allowed to tread.

As it turns out, such instances are not just the stuff of Hollywood. Software developer Daniel Wellman had a similar experience many decades ago.

On his blog, where more common topics of discussion are Java and Ruby programming, Wellman relates a youthful endeavor to create an Apple IIGS version of the light-cycle battle:

One day, when Marco and I were playing against two computer opponents, we forced one of the AI cycles to trap itself between its own walls and the bottom game border. Sensing an impending crash, it fired a missile, just like it always did whenever it was trapped. But this time was different —instead of firing at another trail, it fired at the game border, which looked like any other light cycle trail as far as the computer was concerned. The missile impacted with the border, leaving a cycle-sized hole, and the computer promptly took the exit and left the main playing field. Puzzled, we watched as the cycle drove through the scoring display at the bottom of the screen. It easily avoided the score digits and then drove off the screen altogether.

Shortly after, the system crashed.

Our minds reeled as we tried to understand what we had just seen. The computer had found a way to get out of the game. When a cycle left the game screen, it escaped into computer memory — just like in the movie.

Wellman goes on to explain the technical cause for this glitch and the advancements in computing technology that would make it unrepeatable today. It's a great tale that harkens back to the age of discovery, when computers were new and still somewhat mysterious.

Although Wellman's Apple II version of the game is not available for download, Eric Shepherd's adaptation, Trailblazers!, is. For a more modern take, TRON Evolution, the video-game tie-in to TRON Legacy, is available for most computer and game console platforms. And for something less virtual and more physical, you can buy a remote-controlled light cycle — or take a ride on a real light cycle.

With so much infiltration of TRON into pop culture, one can't help but wonder if perhaps these digital avatars did indeed escape the game grid — into our own world.

Quality Computers on Vimeo

December 13th, 2010 9:54 AM
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Just a brief note today to point out that both the Quality Computers videos I previously digitized and made available via YouTube — those being the Q-Drive care & feeding video and the System 6.0.1 introduction — are now available on Vimeo.

Quality Computers Q-Drive care & feeding video from Ken Gagne on Vimeo.

Quality Computers System 6.0.1 video from Ken Gagne on Vimeo.

I started using Vimeo in conjunction with KansasFest 2010, which marked the first official effort to create a video record of the event. Having previously uploaded Quality Computers videos to YouTube, I knew that the service's ten-minute maximum movie length imposed on standard users would be a significant barrier to publishing multiple and lengthy KansasFest videos. Vimeo has no such limits, and its premium service offers high-definition videos and downloadable source files. True, it's easy enough to download YouTube videos with Safari, but Vimeo makes the process that much more transparent.

So although the content of each Quality Computers video is unchanged from YouTube to Vimeo, you can now watch each in one segment instead of seven, and you can download it at such for your own archives as well — making the history of the Apple II all that much easier to access and preserve.