Ben Heck's Apple-1

November 24th, 2014 10:31 AM
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Back in 2008, engineer and hardware hacker Ben Heckendorn made headlines in the Apple II world when he built an Apple IIGS in a laptop form factor. Although his first computer was an Atari 800, not an Apple II, the same wistfulness applies to many of Ben Heck's projects. In an interview for Juiced.GS and Computerworld, he told me:

People go to the junkyard, get an old car, and fix it up. There's really no point to that, but people do it because they like the car. Computers are a lot like old cars. "I grew up with this, my dad drove me around in this" — it's the same thing with old computers: I programmed my first program on this old computer, it's such a great memory, now I can remember it… expensively. I think that's what it is, almost a car culture with computers. It's a different object, but the same kind of nostalgia.

Heck insisted the interview be conducted over the phone, not email, so as to better capture his personality. Other media outlets have since recognized that same spark and have given Heck his own web series, The Ben Heck Show, in which he builds and tears down a variety of unusual hardware in zany style.

In his latest project, Heck returns to that IIGS laptop's roots and tackles designing his own Apple-1 clone. Instead of buying Replica 1 from Briel Computers, he assembles and builds his own components from DreamBoard. Over three episodes and 56 minutes that aired Nov 7–21, he demonstrates how anyone with the proper equipment and soldering skill can build their own original Apple.

Heck ends by providing his Apple-1 something the original never had: a case. Keeping in mind the aesthetic of 1977, he designed a wooden frame for his machine.

Ben Heck's Apple-1

Grandpa? Is that you?

As someone who'd never soldered before Vince Briel showed me how at KansasFest 2009, Heck's tutorial is beyond my ken. But among today's retrocomputing enthusiasts, I'm unusual in my lack of hardware familiarity, and I suspect many hardcore fans will enjoy not his step-by-step instructions and energetic delivery.

(Hat tip to Joyniece Kirkland)

Woz's modern optimization of the Apple II

November 17th, 2014 10:58 AM
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I've never been a hardware hacker, but I have enough programming experience to appreciate optimized code. I've written some programs that were serviceable but kludgy; had they been meant for widespread distribution and deployment, I would've taken more time to reduce the number of lines and variables, and hence, the execution time. It's one of the challenges I love most about the Apple II: doing as much as possible with as little as possible.

Nowhere is that principle more effectively demonstrated than in the designs of Steve Wozniak. Before he co-founded Apple, he took Atari's BREAKOUT coin-op and reduced the number of chips by fifty. The brain that mastered this design is still at work, as evidenced by a recent email exchange.

Apple-1 cloner and Vintage Computer Festival East alumnus Mike Willegal recently had some questions about the Apple-1 power supply — so he emailed Woz. Tacked onto the end of Woz's reply was this remark:

I awoke one night in Quito, Ecuador, this year and came up with a way to save a chip or two from the Apple II, and a trivial way to have the 2 grays of the Apple II be different (light gray and dark gray) but it's 38 years too late. It did give me a good smile, since I know how hard it is to improve on that design.

How much different a world would the Apple II community be, if this minor change had been made? Probably not very. But it's good to know that, while many of us are preoccupied grafting modern USB and Ethernet ports onto the Apple II, the original genius is still contemplating how he could've laid for us a stronger foundation.

(Hat tips to Luke Dormehl and Greg Kumparak)

Oregon Trail Live

November 10th, 2014 9:42 AM
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At KansasFest 2014, I brought a text adventure to life, courtesy Parsely. It was an interactive, real-world, technology-free experience based on Apple II games of the 1970s — and it wasn't the first or only such game to get such a treatment.

Oregon Trail, that classic edutainment title of frontier survival, has since 2012 been leaping off the screen to educate us about the hardship of early America. Adapted by Kelly Williams Brown, Oregon Trail Live is played not in schools, but by visitors to the Willamette Heritage Center of Salem, Oregon. Emily Grosvenor writes for The Atlantic:

Oregon Trail LiveOn the trail, as in the game, if you killed a bison, you could only carry 200 pounds of meat with you. In the live-action game, participants face the task of pushing 200 pounds of meat up a hill—in this case, a 200 pound man in a wagon regaling the crowd with meat facts. In our case, it was a local butcher dressed like a cow, who later tested us on the names of cuts of a side of beef.

At every turn the live action game converts the computerized saga into a real life obstacle. Die on the real trail—and 50 percent of travelers did in the trail's first years—and you're good ole dead. Perish in the computer game—of dysentery, cannibalism, drowning, cholera, typhoid, measles, or snakebite—and you get to see your own epitaph. Kick it in the live—action game and your friends must compose a dirge to sing at your funeral.

Grosvenor's additional photos from the event make it look like a ton of fun, with players creating characters, inhabiting roles, and working toward a common goal. Although she doesn't use the term, this take on Oregon Trail could be considered a LARP — a Live-Action Role-Playing Game. LARPs are normally associate with Dungeons & Dragons-style settings, as most humorously demonstrated in the film Knights of Badassdom, but it's not a stretch to see similar characteristics manifesting itself in Oregon Trail. What's next — a reality TV series, equipping contestants with little more than a covered wagon and some mules with which to survive a cross-country trek?

Grosvenor's coverage is of the most recent Oregon Trail Live, an annual event, with the fourth OTL to be held Saturday, September 19, 2015. Can't wait until then? Other Oregon Trail adaptations abound, including a trailer for a feature-length movie. Sadly, a full movie was never intended to be completed, but The Homesman, opening in theaters November 14 and starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, looks to come close to the idea:

(Hat tip to Christopher Curley)

The SCOTTeVEST of Ken & Woz

November 3rd, 2014 12:39 PM
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Filed under Musings, Steve Wozniak;
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For about 18 years, I wore the same winter coat. It may have gone out of style, but it served two more important functions: it kept me warm; and it had pockets.

Pockets! I love being able to carry everything in pockets, from an iPod to a novel to a pack of tissues to a pen — I want to be equipped for any situation, and this coat accommodated.

But in 2013, as I underwent a life reboot, even I had to admit it was time to be out with the old and in with the new. But how could I ever replace such fabulous apparel? A friend I met at an 8-Bit Weapon concert recommended the SCOTTEVEST brand, which looked promising — but I wasn't sold until I found another endorsement: Steve Wozniak himself.

Woz is a big fan of SCOTTEVEST, having been recorded wearing them in a variety of cinematic-inspired scenarios, from Star Wars to The Matrix:

I was sold. The first SCOTTeVEST coat I bought was the Brad Thor Alpha — and while it did have a lot of pockets, they weren't labeled for items I was likely to use: passport… dagger… gun?!? I emailed their customer support and asked if all their products were this — tactical. No, they said. This coat is modeled after the thriller novels of author Brad Thor, who was not previously on my radar. I then picked up a Revolution Plus, which boasts 26 pockets for things I'd actually use: wallet, keys, iPad (!), water bottle, eyeglasses, and more. Almost all pockets are labeled, and if you consistently use them for their indicated purpose, you'll quickly develop a muscle memory of what goes wear, eliminating the need to pat yourself down to find your things.

Speaking of pat-downs, SCOTTeVEST coats are great when being subjected to TSA searches, too. When you get to the airport, just keep everything in your coat pockets instead of your pants or purse. Then just take off your coat and send it through the X-ray scanner. No need to use those plastic dishes, where anyone can grab your stuff.

SCOTTeVESTs also come with permanently affixed cleaning cloths for your glasses and a carabiner for your keys. All pockets are evenly distributed so that you won't be listing to one side.

Most important, the Revolution Plus is possibly the warmest winter coat I've ever owned. It does a great job protecting my torso when deep in a cold New England winter.

I've since added a SeV Sterling Jacket to my wardrobe for use in the spring and fall. I had two issues with his coat. First is that the zipper sometimes gets stuck, which customer service addressed by pointing me to their official zipper lubrication video. Second, some of the pockets open up into the coat's lining, resulting in items slipping out of their pockets and disappearing to somewhere in the coat — you can feel it's in there somewhere, but you have no idea how to get at it! Customer service responded:

Due to a sophisticated internal pocket design, we have given the name the "Secret Pocket" to a compartment in our vests and jackets where some items may get 'lost'. This pocket is accessible but not necessarily meant for use. Our items are designed with that internal inning so that weight is distributed evenly, you can wire your garment (PAN), and so that the internal pocketing layout is separated. I know it might seem confusing, however it's a must for our design and technical team when putting together these complex garments.

Otherwise, I've been very satisfied with SCOTTeVEST's customer service. Since the coats are sold online only and can't be tried on prior to purchase, they make it easy to buy multiple sizes and return the one that doesn't fit. And when one of my coats had a slight tear, SCOTTeVEST will reimburse up to $30 in repairs by your local tailor or seamstress — wow!

The coats are expensive, ranging from $150–200, but a coupon will knock 20% off a new customer's first order. If it's good enough for Woz, it's good enough for us — but if you're not convinced, listen to Open Apple #33 starting at timestamp 1:30:24:

or check out the photo gallery below:

(Photo "Autumn" by Barbara)

The music of Silas Warner, part deux

October 27th, 2014 1:57 PM
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Three years ago, I published music by the late Silas Warner, creator of MUSE Software's Castle Wolfenstein. By taking obscure NoteWorthy files and converting them to the more accessible MP3 format, I hoped to not only preserve Warner's legacy, but expose a side of him that hadn't gained him fame, but of which he was doubtless proud.

Since then, blog reader Andrew Monti generously volunteered to contribute to that effort. He emailed me to say:

Wonderful site! I didn't realize that [Silas Warner] was a musician as well. I knew you did what you could to extract the audio from NoteWorthy, but the built-in sound on the NoteWorthy player is painful! I managed to convert the original NoteWorthy file to Logic, where I used the Steinway Grand Hall piano sample kit. I also cleaned-up the tempo and applied a few other changes, and voila – a new, better-sounding stereo mix of this lovely piece.

Monti's modifications raise some philosophical issues: how did Warner intend for his music to be heard? If NoteWorthy's inbuilt sound is awful, is that how he heard it when he wrote it? If so, does adapting it to other formats or sample kits distort the artist's intention? This is the same question at the root of how emulators play sound. Few emulators manifest the original software's audio as it was intended to be heard, instead settling for a best approximation. Do Monti's improvements similarly reinterpret the past — or is using today's tools to enable Warner to overcome the limitations of his era? Are these edits any different from my previous release of the songs in MP3, a format that didn't exist in Warner's time?

Such questions are not for me to answer, and in this case where the original files are still available, any answer isn't likely to be particularly weighty. Monti's MP3s do not replace the ones I previously published, so I offer the updated ones at the bottom of this post, which Monti produced via these steps:

  1. Find someone with a 'real' copy of NoteWorthy. In this case, my PC-based producer friend Keith fit the bill.
  2. From within NoteWorthy, export the file as MIDI.
  3. In Logic, import the MIDI file.
  4. Unfortunately, not all MIDI parameters made the trip; I had to manually set the tempo and time signatures at the appropriate parts in the score based on the original NoteWorthy file. There were also a few obvious 'spurious' notes that had to be reigned in after the conversion. These were mostly between the tempo transitions.
  5. I applied a stereo mix to the track based on Logic's Steinway Grand software keyboard based on what the performer would hear (high frequencies in the right ear, etc.).
  6. Lastly, I exported the track as a WAV file and compressed it though a high-quality Steinberg MP3 encoder.

The result is a new rendition of "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)", by Silas Warner:

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

For that latter piece, Monti acknowledges that "string sections are tough without either special software or inordinate amounts of time in Logic to map the instruments to legato, pizzicato, bowing direction and speed, etc. when required… Personally, I don't think it's much better than the built-in MIDI sounds in NoteWorthy, but I may just be picky."

I'll let listeners decide how these songs should be heard.

Appearing on RCR

October 20th, 2014 12:20 PM
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This past winter, I waxed nostalgically about the Open Apple podcast's third birthday, tracing the six-month gestation period of the Apple II community's first and only monthly and co-hosted podcast. Absent from that timeline was a significant milestone: the debut of the Retro Computing Roundtable. For another retrocomputing show to scoop Open Apple was discouraging, but I'm glad we persevered, as the two shows have evolved very different formats and content. Whereas Open Apple features a new guest every month in a polished, edited show that takes hours to produce, RCR rotates among a stable of familiar voices, producing a raw, more organic episode every two weeks.

With RCR turning four years old this month, I was honored to join the shows cast and crew for a guest appearance in episode #85. Although good friends and Juiced.GS contributors Carrington Vanston and Steve Weyhrich were absent from this episode, it was a pleasure to chat with fellow Boston resident Paul Hagstrom, Retrobits host Earl Evans, and fellow fundraising cyclist Michael Mulhern, with whom I'd previously communicated via email only.
Retro Computing Roundtable logoIt was also a bit intimidating! The first half-hour of the show was spent discussing the Atari 520ST, Commodore 128, and other computers of 1985. While I do not denigrate non-Apple II machines, neither do I have any interest in them, mostly due to lack of exposure at a time when I was still too young to appreciate them. Rather than open my mouth and prove myself a fool, I wisely kept quiet; if you were to tune in at any point in that discussion, you wouldn't even know I was there.

But perhaps I need to work on my conversational skills, as I've found, both in RCR and during my recent appearance on the Pixel Pizza podcast , that I tend to wait for a topic I'm passionate about to arise, then engage in a lengthy monologue on the subject. Perhaps the lack of a co-host on my three other podcasts — Polygamer, IndieSider, and The Pubcast — has trained me to fill the silence with my own voice, as I did on RCR in extended discourses about GEnie, feminism, and RadioShack. Maybe my ego needs to be reminded that other people have something to say, too.

Nonetheless, I had a good time on RCR, and I much appreciated their invitation and patience. I hope I added to their listeners' experience more than I detracted from it. Lest I wear out my welcome, I don't expect to be a frequent guest of this show, but it is comforting to know that my retrocomputer podcasting days aren't behind me.