Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

Jury-rigging the Apple II, either in reality or concept.

Apple IIc at BostonFIG

October 1st, 2018 7:03 AM
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One of my favorite annual traditions is the Boston Festival of Indie Games, or BostonFIG. Currently in its seventh year, this one-day event held at MIT is an opportunity for independent game developers to exhibit their works in progress and new releases. I love the creativity on display, where game designers who are not beholden to major studios can demonstrate original game ideas and concepts, be they commercially viable or simply interesting.

Interactive fiction has made appearances at BostonFIG before, and this year's festival was no exception. The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is based out of Boston, and their booth this year showed off everything from Infocom games (perhaps not indie, but Boston-based!) to the more recent Hadean Lands (whose Kickstarter I supported way back in 2010!). The IFTF is such a staple of BostonFIG that I was chatting with its organizers for a minute before I realized something new right in front of me.

Apple IIc at BostonFIG

An Apple IIc… at BostonFIG!

I always thought it would be fun to bring an indie game like Lawless Legends to BostonFIG, but the IFTF beat me to it by using an Apple IIc to show off classic Infocom games. They were running off the original floppies, as opposed to 4am's newer Pitch Dark GUI. The table was manned by Andrew Plotkin, who I interviewed for Juiced.GS's cover story about interactive fiction seven years ago; and the Apple IIc was provided by Nick Montfort, an MIT professor whose book, Twisty Little Passages, Juiced.GS reviewed nine years ago.

So as to not block the table from interested festival-goers who might not already have heard the good word of interactive fiction, I didn't linger at the table. But I was very glad to see this precedent set, and I hope to see the Apple II at future BostonFIGs.

Chris McVeigh's LEGO Apple II

August 20th, 2018 8:48 AM
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Last week, I wrote about Charles Mangin, who's known for his 3D-printed miniature Apple computers. But polymer resin and filaments aren't the only building blocks of computer models: long before 3D printers, we had LEGO. And just as Charles Mangin is to 3D printers, so too is Chris McVeigh to LEGO.

McVeigh made headlines four years ago with his portfolio of LEGO constructs, including TIE fighters, televisions, and Atari consoles. Favoriting our favorite retrocomputer, his offerings also included an Apple IIe and Apple IIc — or as they're known by names less likely to incur copyright infringement, My First Computer: Binary Edition and Seed Edition, respectively. Each model has a free online guide for assembling your own LEGO Apple II.

My First Computer: Binary Edition

1 computer. 8 bits. 353 blocks.

McVeigh introduced the IIe model in 2014 and released v2.0 in October 2016. I emailed him recently to ask what the differences were. He explained:

I usually revise a product for one of two reasons: (1) I am no longer able to source an important part (for example, if the part has gone out of production) or (2) newly available parts allow me to improve upon the original design.

The revision of My First Computer: Binary Edition was prompted by the reintroduction of large flat tiles in tan, but I took the opportunity to give it a full overhaul. The most obvious changes are to the computer’s internals (in the original design, they were more abstract) and the external disk drives (which were completely redesigned).

McVeigh isn't the first or only one to interpret the Apple II as a LEGO construct; in 2013, CK Tsang built his own model retrocomputer. But unlike many online creators, McVeigh doesn't just show you how he did it — he'll also provide you with everything you need to do it yourself. If you don't have all 353 LEGO pieces necessary to assemble the IIe, you can order them from McVeigh. This kit is currently sold out but is expected to be back in stock this Wednesday, August 22, for the cost of $87.50 + $15 shipping within the USA. That's only 29¢ per LEGO piece!

I love that there are so many artistic interpretations of the Apple II — though this one is perhaps the blockiest, stealing the award from Minecraft. What other Apple II products and peripherals do you think McVeigh should design next?

(Hat tips to Michael Mulhern and Derek Ngai)

Speech synthesis on the Apple II

July 23rd, 2018 9:16 AM
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Earlier this year, I interviewed Joseph Bein of Out of Sight Games. As a visually impaired gamer, Joseph finds some games more accessible than others; but as a game developer, he encounters other challenges I'd never even considered. Are game development tools themselves accessible? How do we make them so?

Interviewing Joseph made it apparent that computers can cause problems for those seeking easy access to technology and media — but another podcast showcased how they can also solve a lot of problems. The Apple II was one of the pioneers in that department, courtesy the Echo II speech synthesis expansion card. One early beneficiary of the Echo II was Dr. Robert Carter, a podcaster who himself was recently interviewed on the podcast Background Mode, a publication of The Mac Observer.

From the show notes:

Dr. Robert Carter is a Ph.D. Psychologist at Texas A&M, a long-time Apple enthusiast, and the co-host of the Tech Doctor podcast. He's very well versed in assistive technologies, having been blind since birth. Robert tells an amazing story about he's coped with his disability through the years. It started with using a portable typewriter in grade school, discovering the Apple II at age 18 and a speech synthesizer plug-in card, and ultimately using Apple's extraordinary VoiceOver technology on the Mac—and now iPhone.

The Apple II connections in this podcast extend to both sides of the mic: host John Martellaro was the editor and publisher of Peelings II, "The Magazine of Apple Software Evaluation", back in the early 1980s.

I'd love to examine the accessibility features of the Apple II — both historical and modern — in a future issue of Juiced.GS. After listening to this podcast, I'm adding Dr. Carter to my list of primary resources!

Apple II Wii

July 16th, 2018 9:12 AM
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I'm not one to hack, crack, or jailbreak; I tend to use products as they were designed. One notable exception was the Nintendo Wii, a video game console released in 2006. Its innovative point-and-click interface made possible a variety of console game genres and experiences that were previously impossible. I wanted to see what hobbyists and enthusiasts could do with these tools, so I installed the Homebrew Channel.

Ironically, my favorite use of the channel was the SCUMM emulator: once this tool was installed, I could play classic LucasArts games. I owned a legal copy of Day of the Tentacle, but it required a version of Classic Mac OS that I didn't have. By copying its files to an SD card, I was able to play it on the Wii's ScummVM. It remains the only way I've ever played this game, despite its 2016 remastering and release for modern systems such as Mac OS X, iOS, and PlayStation 4.

I deleted the Homebrew Channel before migrating my data to the Wii U in 2012, and it's only now that I realize what an opportunity I missed: the original Wii could emulate not only SCUMM, but also the Apple II. Christian Simpson explores this feature on a recent episode of his YouTube series, Retro Recipes:

The video is more an overview of the Wii's many emulation modes; we don't get to see the Apple II until 5:36 into the video. At that point, we discover the emulator, WiiApple, is a port of AppleWin/LinApple — neat! But the only game we see it play is Frogger — not more popular or original games like Choplifter, Lode Runner, Prince of Persia, or King's Quest.

WiiApple is a nine-year-old emulator running on a twelve-year-old console. Nintendo has since released the Wii U (2012) and Switch (2017), but Apple II emulators for either have not yet surfaced. If you want to emulate the Apple II on a home game console, Simpson's video shows you what's still the best way.

(Hat tip to Christian on Google+)

Apple Personal Modem rescue

April 16th, 2018 11:32 AM
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When I recall my first dial-up connection, I think about the Apple II and CompuServe. But I often overlook the piece of hardware that connected the two: the Apple Personal Modem.

The Apple Personal Modem was a first-party peripheral, matching the color palette and design aesthetic of the Apple IIe I used it with. The modem maxed out at a whopping 1200 bps, which, if I recall, was roughly reading speed — perfect for the all-text interface of CompuServe. The modem dutifully granted me access to the Academic American Encyclopedia (GO AAE), an invaluable resource for my secondary education.

When we moved houses and upgraded to an Apple IIGS, many other upgrades followed, among them more RAM, a SCSI card, and a faster modem, and then still a faster modem. These years later, I can't tell you the brand or model of those later modems that enabled me to download such games as Plunder and Bouncin' Ferno — but the Apple Personal Modem has remained memorable for its heft, handheld-sized form factor, and unusual power supply, eschewing a power cord or brick in favor of plugging directly into a wall outlet. In fact, it wasn't until I watched this unboxing video that I discovered there was another model that did not have the inbuilt prong but instead used a more traditional power cord.

I don't know what happened to my Apple Personal Modem; I haven't seen it in decades. Rather than it being buried somewhere in my collection, it more likely was disposed of as soon as it was no longer of practical value.

Recently, a friend who was visiting Apple Rescue of Denver asked me if there was anything I wanted salvaged. Of everything in the store's inventory, I don't know what drew me to the Apple Personal Modem, but as soon as I saw it, I knew we needed to be reunited.

Since I still have those faster modems and even an Uthernet II card, the Apple Personal Modem remains more a curiosity than the connection to the online world that it once represented. But for the reasonable fee of $15, I'm glad to again own this pioneering peripheral.

Now if only I could remember the name of the telecom software I used with it…

Keyboard latency

January 29th, 2018 10:15 AM
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Having just started working at Automattic, I'm anticipating a future where I'll spend even more time than ever sitting at a keyboard. Computers have been where I've spent most of my career, but they've always been interrupted by presentations, meetings, and the like. With even those now being done at a keyboard, I'm investigating ways to improve efficiency, such as switching to a DVORAK or Colemak layout.

Blogger and programmer Dan Luu recently identified another potential area of keyboard efficiency: latency. Regardless of the keyboard's layout, the actual time between keypress and result can also vary among brands and models — and even eras.

Turns out keyboard latency is one area in which our Apple II computer excels. Writes Luu: "… computers from the 70s and 80s commonly have keypress-to-screen-update latencies in the 30ms to 50ms range out of the box, whereas modern computers are often in the 100ms to 200ms range when you press a key in a terminal."

The author elaborates that modern keyboards themselves often have more, faster circuitry than an entire computer from the 1977 — yet, perhaps due to that simplicity, older keyboards are still faster:

consider that an Apple 2 has 3500 transistors running at 1MHz and an Atmel employee estimates that the core used in a number of high-end keyboards today has 80k transistors running at 16MHz. That’s 20x the transistors running at 16x the clock speed – keyboards are often more powerful than entire computers from the 70s and 80s! And yet, the median keyboard today adds as much latency as the entire end-to-end pipeline as a fast machine from the 70s.

Naturally, that led me to thinking that the best way to reduce my latency would be to replace my laptop's inbuilt keyboard, or even its external USB or Bluetooth keyboard, with an Apple II keyboard — a connection made possible by Charles Mangin of Retroconnector's keyboard shield. But, suspecting more steps between the keyboard and the computer would negate any improvement, I reached out to Charles for additional insight. He confirmed:

It would definitely add to the latency. The processor in the Arduino is running at 16mhz, and takes several cycles to register each switch state change. That is translated to the proper keypress, then it has to send that result as a USB signal, which takes more time. At best, it would be equivalent to a normal USB keyboard, but likely slower due to the Arduino overhead.

Alas, while the Apple II remains king of keyboard latency, that benefit is firmly tied to its classic architecture.

… The answer: replace my entire Automattic machine with an Apple II!

(Hat tip to mmphosis!)