Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

Codes that changed the world

April 20th, 2015 10:40 AM
by
Filed under History;
no comments yet.

Growing up with the Apple II, I learned to program in BASIC. Its line numbers, GOTOs and GOSUBs, and spaghetti code were unlike anything I would encounter later in my education. Perhaps for that reason, I never mastered a language like I did BASIC. While I was able to grasp Prolog and FORTRAN, the "pointers" of C++ were so incomprehensible to me that I eventually had to change majors to get away from it.

Had I continued down that programming path, I doubtless would've faced many other challenging concepts as I attempted to master yet more languages, like C Sharp, Perl, PHP, Ruby, and more. By some estimates, there are over 20,000 languages in existence, only a fraction of which I ever could've learned on the Apple II. Some are more practical than others, while others are of more historical significance.

The BBC attempts to scratch the surface of those historical languages in a recent limited-run podcast series, Codes that Changed the World, hosted by Aleks Krotoski.

Codes that Changed the World

The podcast, which debuted this month and ran for all of five episodes, covers four languages: FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, and Java, with a fifth episode discussing how so many different languages are able to coexist.

Of course, you can't discuss the rise of BASIC without the role the Apple II played, and vice versa:

BASIC enabled computing as we understand it today. When Apple was a two-man band building this thing called the Apple II, there were no other computers out there like it. So they had to put something on it that would allow individuals to program it themselves. Apple just wouldn't exist without BASIC. And Microsoft! The first thing that Microsoft did as a company was selling BASIC to run on other people's computers. The two biggest names in modern computing, Apple and Microsoft, both wouldn't've happened if it wasn't for BASIC.

BASIC celebrated its 50th birthday last year, earning it a cover story in Juiced.GS:
Juiced.GS Volume 19 Issue 2

While researching that story, author Steve Weyhrich (who also pointed me to this podcast) delved into the resources available at Dartmouth College, where BASIC was invented. As part of its "BASIC at 50" commemoration, Dartmouth produced a free 38-minute documentary, Birth of BASIC:

If you want to learn more about other programming languages, Codes that Changed the World is available in iTunes. While it's unreasonable to expect all 20,000 languages to be covered, I do lament that the podcast's scope was limited to only five episodes, as I rather enjoyed these 15-minute encapsulations of technical topics for a lay audience. If the BBC or Krotoski ever produce more, I'll be first in line to listen!

Kids can't wait

March 30th, 2015 8:44 AM
by
Filed under History, Steve Jobs;
no comments yet.

Education? I'm a fan. I taught at the high school level for several years and have been a college instructor for twice that. Teaching kids not what to think, but how to think, is the best investment I know to make in our future.

Turns out Steve Jobs was of a similar mindset. In a 1995 interview with Daniel Morrow of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Jobs related his drive to ensure other kids had the same opportunities he did:

When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer… I fell in love with it. And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.

Jobs investigated what it would cost to donate a single Apple II computer to every K-12 school in the United States. The cost was prohibitive for such a fledging company, but made economical and affordable with various tax incentives and deductions. Jobs lobbied for even more flexibility, getting as far as landing the Computer Equipment Contribution Act of 1982 on the floor of the Senate, after sailing it through Congress. Alas, it never made it past that point. In the end, Jobs' outreach was limited to California, where each of over 9,000 schools benefitted from Apple's generosity.

Audrey Watters over at Hack Education has more details and links, including to InfoWorld's and Creative Computing's reports of that era. It's a fascinating look at the marketing and financial strategy by which Apple came to dominate the classroom.

9 myths about the Oregon Trail

March 16th, 2015 10:15 AM
by
Filed under Game trail, History;
2 comments.

At a recent PAX East 2015 panel on empathy games, I asked: "Since empathy games are often based in reality, do developers of such games hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of being authentic — as opposed to a more fictional game world, which doesn't purport to represent a real-life situation?"

Perhaps it was unfair of me to suggest empathy games are alone in this higher standard, as games have been founded in reality for as long as there have been games. Oregon Trail was based on a 2,200-mile route travelled by 400,000 settlers in 1846–1869. No work of fiction, the game is the product of some serious research and was widely used in classrooms as an early form of edutainment.

But, like many grade-school history lessons, some of the details weren't quite right. Phil Edwards recently did some historical research of his own and determined 9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail. The article is a fun and fascinating read, with far more details than these succinct headlines:

  1. Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.
  2. Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds
  3. You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40-foot-deep river
  4. You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo
  5. Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline
  6. No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died
  7. Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters
  8. The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane
  9. Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

References to a rafting trip don't ring a bell for me, so I suspect the article is based on a version of the game that didn't appear on the Apple II — likely the 1990 MS-DOS edition. Still, it's fun to see where fiction diverges from fact.

But what if it went the other way, and instead of a game or book based on reality, we had reality based on a game? It'd probably end up looking like the Oregon Trail movie trailer (Oregon Trailer?), which I originally shared on this blog five (!) years ago:

Fortunately, fan films aren't the only media we have to rely on. Any armchair historian can learn more about this unique expansion of early American settlements in The California and Oregon trail, a 1901 book by Trail veteran Francis Parkman.

Or you can just play the game.

(Hat tip to Inside.com via VideoGames)

Preserving Bob Bishop's legacy

February 2nd, 2015 9:26 AM
by
Filed under History;
no comments yet.

In mid-November, John Romero shared with the Apple II community some sad news: Bob Bishop, co-founder of Apple's R&D department and KansasFest 2011 keynote speaker, had passed away. The news came in time for me to include Bishop in my Computerworld slideshow of tech luminaries we lost in 2014; along with Patrick McGovern and Ralph Baer, Bishop was one of three luminaries I'd had the honor of meeting among the 23 in the article.

It is all well and good to honor the legacy of those who have gone before, but it takes more than mere platitudes to ensure their contributions are not buried with them. Thankfully, Romero was more than the bearer of bad news, as this past weekend, after a tip from on a tip from Gary Koffler, Romero had an encouraging update to share on Facebook:

Prepare for a mindblast. Today my wife and I went to the late Bob Bishop's estate to rescue whatever we could from the giant dumpster outside the house — everything will be thrown away today (Saturday). We were able to save all historical items of note.

One of the items we got was this black Apple II+ which you will note is NOT a Bell & Howell. We believe it is the prototype for that edition. The lid easily pops off like normal, and the date is 1979. Bob also had an Apple II serial number 13. The family will be auctioning that one off.

We filled our van full of stuff. I can't believe the amazing amount of stuff we got that's collectible.

… To clarify, there was no dumpster diving involved. The dumpster sat silent and empty, waiting for today when everything left in Bob's houses would be tossed in. We went through all the rooms of his houses and picked everything of value we could find.

Bob Bishop's Bell & Howell

The resulting thread is extensive, with postulations as to the nature and origin of some of Bishop's rarer hardware, and questions of where similar collections might be found or donated. The Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California, and the Strong Museum of Rochester, New York, were frequently cited, with a representative of the latter chiming into the thread. I can vouch for both institutions, as both are actively archiving Juiced.GS for scholars and future generations of retrocomputing enthusiasts to reference.

There are many components to preserving our digital legacies: ensuring software for legacy computers can still be executed; preserving the original hardware; making our personal digital data collections accessible. I'm grateful that we have people like John Romero and Jason Scott, and institutions like the CHM and the Strong, actively working to keep alive the memory and accomplishments of heroes like Bob Bishop.

Keeping Stanford's football statistics

January 12th, 2015 10:34 AM
by
Filed under History, Mainstream coverage;
1 comment.

Stanford University's athletics department recently produced a piece of investigative journalism that I'm jealous didn't appear in Juiced.GS. By focusing on a niche intersection of industries, author David Kiefer has made a bold claim: the Apple II was the first computer used to track football statistics.

In 1980, Stanford football statistician Ken Lorell was seeking a solution to a problem, and the result was a revolutionary way of keeping stats … on a computer. This had never been done before.

Apple Computer was founded in 1976 and a year later released the Apple II, the first successful mass-produced microcomputer. Lorell saw the computer’s value in statkeeping, especially as offenses became more complex — with passing attacks becoming more sophisticated and the run and shoot opening up the world of hurry-up attacks.

After the 1979 season, Lorell approached the Stanford athletic department about the idea of purchasing a personal computer for statistical purposes. It was a tough sell, especially because the Apple II was originally retailing for $1,298 with 4 KB of RAM, and $2,638 for the maximum 48 KB.

Lorell nonetheless got the funding and had the machine up and running in time for the next season. But a minor hardware glitch would delay its successful debut.

On Sept. 6, 1980, it was ready for a trial run. Stanford opened at Oregon and Lorell and the Cardinal stat crew gathered at Lorell's Palo Alto home. The team would assemble the stats as if it were a home game, with some of the crew acting as spotters while watching on television. The television was used for visuals only while the sound and descriptions were created by the radio commentary of Don Klein and Bob Murphy.

All was well until someone tripped over the power cord. The data for the entire first half was lost.

Fortunately, one of the crew had kept the play-by-play on paper as a backup. Because the stats did not have to be compiled in order, the data was reconstructed by the end of halftime. Later, the Oregon stats were discovered to have an error. The computerized stats were more accurate.

"We did it," Lorell said. "We were so happy this thing worked."

Computerized stats made their official debut on Sept. 13, 1980, in Stanford’s 19–13 victory over visiting Tulane. And they’ve been there ever since.

This means that the Apple II appeared in football well before football appeared on the Apple II — the popular John Madden video game franchise, which continues to this day, didn't debut until 1988.

Nor was this the last appearance of the Apple II at Stanford University. Not only did the school once offer a course called "History of Computer Game Design", which perforce includes the Apple II, but Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously delivered their 2005 commencement speech.

But where has the Apple II been at Stanford since then — specifically, the one that made this groundbreaking appearance in sports statistics?

As for the Apple II, Lorell had to return it to the Stanford athletic department. No telling if it still exists.

"It literally is a museum piece," said Lorell, 70, who is now retired. "It is one of the historic, iconic products from the early days of Silicon Valley. The iPhones we have in our pockets are a thousand times more powerful."

At the time, it was a revolution that Lorell and Stanford played a role in. It may not be told in the annals of Silicon Valley innovation, but it remains an achievement with a lasting legacy – in every football stadium in the country.

The music of Silas Warner, part deux

October 27th, 2014 1:57 PM
by
Filed under History, People;
Comments Off

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.