Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

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.

Apple's prediction for the future

August 25th, 2014 9:54 AM
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Noted historian Steve Weyhrich once took to speculative fiction to answer the question: What if the Apple II line had been allowed to evolve in the same way as the Macintosh line has been evolving over the past ten years? The resulting alternative history is a fascinating look at what might've been.

As it turns out, Apple had their own fantasy for a world in which support for the Apple II continued. In 1987, makeup was applied to age key employees, including Steve Wozniak and John Sculley, casting them as their 1997 selves for this video reflecting on the past decade of Apple:

The video is unintentionally hilarious, not so much in the bad acting as in the misplaced optimism. The news anchors report, "Almost all the growth in the last decade happened in one place: the desktop. And of course, that means Apple." Yet the years 1987–1997 saw Apple's market share dwindle under the leadership of several lackluster CEOs.

But you have to admire Apple's intended dedication to our favorite computing platform. "This being 1997, some people feel the Apple II concept is getting old. We don't agree. [Introducing] the Apple II V.S.O.P. (Very Smooth Old Processor) — the computer for the new millennium!" As the video was shot three years after the release of the Macintosh, I have to wonder if Apple really did see a future for the separate product line of the Apple II, or if they were just tweaking their audience with this prediction.

Another augury: "A computer that talks is no big deal. A computer that really listens — that's a breakthrough. Apple computers have always been friendly, but we've gone from friendly to understanding." Siri listens, but we're still ages from machines that actually understand human speech. I discussed in my review of the Joaquin Phoenix film Her: "Accents, background noise, and sentence structures that don't conform to expected inputs can all derail such interactions. Even when Watson competed on Jeopardy, although it could interpret natural language, that input was typed, not spoken."

But the video was worth it for two lines that had me laugh out loud: at 3:43, a Mac diagnoses a PICNIC error; and this zinger: "In other news, Jack Tramiel opened a new restaurant today."

For more historical predictions of technology's future — some of which have come true, but not quite as expected — see the 2009 blog post, "AT&T predicted the future. Can Microsoft?"

(Hat tip to Daniela Hernandez of Wired)

Maniac Mansion design notes

August 11th, 2014 11:34 AM
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Despite growing up an avid gamer, I didn't play many commercial games for the Apple II. (No, I didn't pirate them, either.) We had the Atari 2600 before we had an Apple, and from there, our console collection grew to include every Nintendo system. It was there, on the 8-bit NES, that I encountered many classics that had been ported from the Apple II: Ultima, Archon — and Maniac Mansion.

That last title was a point-and-click adventure developed at LucasFilm Games. Players chose two of six characters to accompany primary protagonist Dave on his exploration of a mad scientist's home to rescue Dave's girlfriend, Sandy. Along the way, gamers encounter a sentient meteor, a disembodied tentacle, an explodable hamster, and one of the first instances of video game cutscenes. Maniac Mansion garnered a cult following, spawning both a sequel and a television series.

The writer, director, artist and programmer responsible for Maniac Mansion was Ron Gilbert, who later wrote several of the Monkey Island games on the Mac, all of which used the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine. Although Gilbert has moved past these titles and tools, he hasn't forgotten his roots, as evidenced by recent posts to his blog, Grumpy Gamer:

While cleaning out my storage unit in Seattle, I came across a treasure trove of original documents and backup disks from the early days of Lucasfilm Games and Humongous Entertainment. I hadn't been to the unit in over 10 years and had no idea what was waiting for me.

Here is the original pitch document Gary and I used for Maniac Mansion. Gary had done some quick concepts, but we didn't have a real design, screen shots or any code. This was before I realized coding the whole game in 6502 was nuts and began working on the SCUMM system.

If this document… say[s] anything, it's how much ideas change from initial concept to finished game. And that's a good thing. Never be afraid to change your ideas. Refine and edit. If your finished game looks just like your initial idea, then you haven't pushed and challenged yourself hard enough.

His first batch of scanned Maniac Mansion design notes showcases UI mockups, a map of a mansion that never would've fit into 320K, and puzzle ideas that didn't make the cut until 25 years later. A second batch of notes demonstrates the logic and code behind SCUMM.

It's fascinating and wonderful that Gilbert saved these documents and is now making them available. He likely didn't know the place Maniac Mansion would earn in gaming history — surely there are countless other point-and-click adventures of the era that have been forgotten. But this one was not, and now the context and process by which it was created can be examined in a new light. I hope these documents (or their scans) eventually make their way to an institution such as the Strong Museum's International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

Maniac Mansion

It was a dark and clear night…

Want more Maniac Mansion history? In 2012, Gilbert gave a one-hour Maniac Mansion post-mortem at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Due to wonky embed code, the video is better viewed in the GDC Vault, but it's included below for convenience.

Read the rest of this entry »

The odd case for Motter Tektura

July 21st, 2014 12:18 PM
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When I was in high school, my computer of choice was the Apple II. I still carried a Trapper Keeper. And I probably wore Reebok shoes. I must not have had an eye for design or detail, as I never noticed until this month that all three products used the same font: Motter Tektura.

Motter Tektura

Motter Tektura. Montage courtesy Gizmodo.

Gizmodo recently reported how this font, designed by Othmar Motter (1927–2010) in 1975, defined a decade of consumer products. But I'm surprised it made its mark on Apple, given that much of what Apple has done (and still does) is proprietary. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said:

If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Apple's Susan Kare designed many of the company's fonts, such as Chicago, Geneva, and Monaco. While the Motter Tektura font's use predates her 1982 addition to the Apple staff, I can still imagine the Steve Jobs of the 1970s demanding that the Apple II be branded in a way completely inimitable. With both Kare and the Macintosh years off, maybe early Apple lacked the resources to be developing its own fonts, especially if they were for marketing purposes only and not to be used by the system software itself.

But knowing that this font was on both my favorite computer from my childhood, an organizational device that my classmates mocked, and a ratty pair of mud-caked footwear … is an odd association to make, even all these years later.

Halt and Catch Fire's take on 1983

July 14th, 2014 11:12 AM
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Last month, television channel AMC debuted the original series Halt and Catch Fire. Like their prior success, Mad Men, this show uses a specific industry and era as a backdrop — but instead of an advertising agency in the 1960s, it's a computer hardware company in 1983.

That was a magical time for Apple and the rest of the industry: IBM was making moves into consumer desktops, the Macintosh was in development, and the Apple II was riding high. Halt and Catch Fire tries to capture some of that energy and drama with its own versions of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, but with some additional variables, players, and catalysts thrown into the mix.

I reviewed the series for Computerworld.com, a former employer I'm always happy to collaborate with (and which last month went out of print). As a freelancer, I'd previously reviewed the films Jobs and Her, which were creative exercises in reminding me I was writing for Computerworld, not Cinemaworld — critiquing the cinematography and acting wouldn't cut it for this audience.

So for Halt and Catch Fire, my first professional television review, I dedicated some paragraphs to analyzing the show's tech props — details that geeks would pick up on but no one else would notice. Although it's atypical for a review to bring in outside voices, I nonetheless consulted with Dave Ross, a neighbor who happens to have also been the president of the South West Regional Association of Programmers, a Chicago-based Commodore 64 user group. Since in that era I was an Apple II user exclusively, Ross's perspective on the technology of the times was useful. Steve Weyhrich and Vince Briel also provided some insight, though without being directly quoted.

Halt and Catch Fire's Byte

A Byte from 1980? I don't think so.

I don't know if I'll continue watching the show beyond the first five episodes, but I did enjoy this assignment. On Google Plus, John Kocurek offers some projections for the show's future:

Episode 6 lays the groundwork for an interesting arc. It is set in August of 1983. Just a few months later, the Mac is introduced — which offers the possibility of the writers taking the series into a parallel universe where you have the easy-to-use Mac having an easy to use machine that also runs PC software. Assuming the writers are consistent, it would remember things about you, be able to make suggestions. Be an assistant. That would have been a game changer at the time.

Watch Halt and Catch Fire Sundays at 10 pm on AMC, or stream it live via Amazon Instant Video. For more details, read my review for Computerworld.

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977

The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87

The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.