Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

First reactions to Jobs movie trailer

June 24th, 2013 2:59 PM
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Filed under History, Mainstream coverage, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak;
2 comments.

There was an occasion last year where I wrote a blog post for Apple II Bits but, prior to clicking "publish", realized the subject had a broader appeal. The same thing happened today when I started writing about the new trailer for the Steve Jobs film. Previously we saw only a clip of the movie, resulting in mixed receptions. Now that a two-minute trailer garnered two million views over the weekend, has public reception to the movie changed?

Find out by reading my Computerworld blog — but you can watch the trailer here, or see the film in theaters on August 16.

The Apple events of June 10

June 10th, 2013 8:25 PM
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Filed under History;
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Today is a big day for Apple — and not just because iOS 7 was announced this afternoon (with an oddly familiar rainbow logo, at that!). Although Apple's future will be determined by the announcements and decisions made today, it is their past, and thus their existence, that is defined by the events of June 10.

Although there is some disagreement as to the exact date, the authorities of the Computer History Museum and Steve Weyhrich's Apple II History site indicate it was today in 1977 that the first Apple II computer shipped. The Apple II, of course, was the first official product of the newly minted Apple Computer Inc. Its success enabled the company to survive and thrive, going on to innovate, create new products, and redefine entire industries.

If not for today, we wouldn't have iOS, or iPhones, or iPads, or Macs — or the many creations, connections, conventions, and collaborations they have made possible.

Happy birthday to Apple's greatest success. May there be many more to come!

May 25 - Retirement

(Hat tip to ThinkGeek)

My elementary education with the Apple II

June 3rd, 2013 12:36 PM
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Filed under History;
2 comments.

My household was an early adopter of personal computers, at least compared to the rest of my grade school. Whereas I had access to the family Apple IIe whenever I wanted, for most of my classmates, their only exposure to that computer came from our weekly computer lab, which was not what I would call rigorous. The instructor was Sister Theresa, and she didn't know the first thing about programming or educational software. Too many classes would start this way: "Turn on the computer. Type NEW, return, RUN, return, HOME return, GR, return. Now draw the Nativity." And that was it: we'd be left to our own devices for the rest of class. Since our work was never checked, no one attempted the project she'd assigned us. On rare occasions, we'd be given textbooks of BASIC program listings and could type one in, but neither instruction nor comprehension occurred regarding what these commands did or how they resulted in the program we'd run.

Instead, my mastery of the Apple II occurred at home. I would pull apart Applesoft programs to see how they worked, then I'd modify them or write my own, sometimes recreating the work during class to show off to my classmates. (The result could be seen less in their admiration and more in their bullying.) I later wondered why the class couldn't be more productive. Did the administration think Sr. Theresa was the best person for this job? Or was the convent looking for a position for this old nun, and this was all that was available? Was it worth it to make her feel useful at the expense of all those computers being wasted? Having now been an educator myself, I'd be keen to see what the mission statement, classroom goals, or rubric were for that class. I suspect the syllabus was blank.

Regardless, I did enjoy these classes and the special permission Sr. Theresa gave me to borrow from her archive of Scholastic Microzine on Friday afternoons to bring home for the weekend. I would wake up early every Saturday to play this trove of new games I'd been bequeathed, both before my three older brothers would wake up and before the Microzine would have to go back to school on Monday morning. I was likely the only student who ever went to see Sr. Theresa outside our designated lab time, and we grew friendly. But my education had taught me to never question authority, so despite our relationship, it never occurred to me to suggest that her class could be run in any other way.

St. Leo's SchoolI don't know how much that aspect of the school has changed since then. I remember hearing in the early- to mid-nineties that they were "upgrading" all their IIe computers to IIc's. Whatever expert they hired for that advice steered them wrong, as the Apple II line was nearing the end of its official support by then, and switching to Macs or PCs would've been a more long-term investment. I wonder what came of their Apple IIe or IIc labs — no one called me when they disposed of either. Maybe they're still there, teaching modern students the fine art of retrocomputing.

Can a quick Google search tell us for sure? Visiting the St. Leo's School Web site — which is running on a five-year-old version of Joomla — I see that "computer" is one of the required classes, and that "Computers are incorporated into daily classes, starting in Pre-Kindergarten." Not the most detailed curriculum outline.

Granted, this is a grade school in suburban Leominster, Massachusetts. At that age and with the resources available, it may be more reasonable to expect the students to focus on the basics: "Religion, Mathematics, Reading — Literature, Language Arts". But computers can be tools by which to inspire creativity in all those areas and more. Think of all the lessons, exercises, and tools that computers could be bringing to the classroom: Programming! Applesoft BASIC! iBooks! Game-playing! Game design! And more!

The issue, in many ways, is academic, as it will be a long time before a grade school's curriculum again has direct influence on my family. But whenever I do evaluate a school's academic rigor for its ability to inspire a generation of creative and competitive professionals, I'll be sure of three things: that computer literacy is as much a priority as other "core" areas; that there is a passionate, knowledgeable teacher in charge of executing that mission; and that she be willing to share her library of Microzines.

Public libraries aren't archives

April 22nd, 2013 12:25 PM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
8 comments.

I ardently support public libraries: I consciously opt to get my movies from their collections rather than Netflix, so as to increase their circulation numbers and thus their budget; I've written letters to the editor in support of these democratic institutions; I even dabbled in the education necessary to work in the field. There's little that public libraries aren't good for.

Once upon a time, libraries were even a source of Apple II software. In those days, there were so many computing platforms that it was unlikely an underfunded library would support any one, especially since computers in general were still so limited in their accessibility and penetration. But with educational institutions being one of the few that could afford such an investment, the software you were likely to find at libraries were edutainment titles such as Microzine. Even more rarely, you might find software of a more diversionary nature.

I thought that's what recently happened to me as I prepared the March issue of Juiced.GS, for which Andy Molloy submitted a review of Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia. Curious as to the availability of this book to our readers, I did a quick search for all materials by Mechner in any public library that's recognized by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Though I was looking for paperbacks, I was stunned to find a copy of Karateka, right here in Massachusetts!

Recycled library card catalogEver think to look for computer games at your local library?
TOO LATE NOW.

Unfortunately, though this title was listed in OCLC's WorldCat, I could not find a matching listing in the catalog specific to the holding library system, the North of Boston Library Exchange (NOBLE). I emailed a librarian to ask about the discrepancy. Assuming I didn't realize the lateness of my request, she replied:

If you look closely at the record copied below, you will see that it is a 5 1/4 disk for computer (Apple II+)! I do not believe that a library today would have any equipment able to use one of these now "prehistoric" disks!

It's disappointing but unsurprising that the library would not have kept its Apple II software on file. With the limited budget and space afforded to public libraries, they must dispose of those items with limited circulation to make room for new materials. It's doubtful anyone had requested an 8-bit 5.25" floppy disk in years, if not decades, so away it went. To where, we may never know — a good home, I hope.

Interested in locating libraries in your area that may be holding onto these artifacts? OCLC lets you conduct a search for computer files published 1977–1992, which reveals 17,759 hits. But without a means to sort by location or vicinity, finding the disks near you is hopeless. It was only by chance that I thought I'd found Karateka in my own backyard.

Libraries make available materials that the general population may never otherwise have access to. But libraries are not archives or museums. As I discovered when I archived hardcopies of Juiced.GS, there are organizations around the world who will accept such materials, from academic institutions to the Computer History Museum. These non-profits are the proper places to consider donating your historical hardware and software. But Apple II software in public libraries? It's time not to check in, but to check out.

Remembering the Apple II

April 8th, 2013 9:28 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Mainstream coverage;
2 comments.

A recent CNET story has popularized the unearthing of design schematics for the Disk ][ floppy drive and the contract that outsourced its operating system. This story has been a Big Deal, having been picked up by TUAW, Slashdot, A2Central.com, and others.

This story is also an opportunity to consider the scale and scope of computer history. We Apple II users have gobbled up this news, but I suspect it hasn't achieved awareness outside the small circles of retrocomputing enthusiasts and computer historians. After all, what relevancy does the Apple II have to the Apple Inc. of today, whose foundation lies not in desktop or even laptop computers, but in cell phones, tablets, and MP3 players?

It wouldn't be the first time the Apple II has failed to penetrate the public awareness. When I presented the history of the Apple II to the Denver Apple Pi users group, the audience was eager and receptive — with one exception. When one person learned the topic of my speech would be the computer that Apple made before the Macintosh, her response was, "Apple made computers before the Macintosh?" She didn't see the relevancy in this archaic machine and chose not to stay for the presentation.

Similarly, when I recruited Jason Scott as a guest speaker for my college course, he asked my students the loaded question, "How many of you would agree with me if I said Nintendo is thirty years old?" Nintendo was in fact founded in 1889 and dabbled in many industries, from playing cards to hotels to taxi services, before landing in electronic entertainment. Home video games are just a blip in the timeline of the company that set the standard.

These are just two examples of modern consumers being ignorant or uncaring of the lineage behind their everyday tech. I don't know that this oversight is necessarily evil so much as it is the product of irrelevance. Is it one we need to change? I would presume that awareness of the existence of pre-Macintosh computers has improved since the passing of Steve Jobs, but my experience is that just as many people as ever respond to my stories of the Apple II with a comment such as "That was my first Mac!"

The Apple II was sold for 16 years, 1977–1993. Sixteen years ago this year, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. That second era has achieved historical notoriety, both for the metaphoric prodigal son's return and for the reinvention of Apple Computer Inc. as a profitable company. Yet what was long the flagship product of the company's first 16 years seems to have fallen from public consciousness. Is all tech history susceptible to the vagaries of time? Or is the popularity of computer history directly proportionate the penetration of that era's computers? Since 1970s computers were not widely adopted by the mass market, is their history similarly of limited appeal? Do we need to improve the Apple II's public image — not just for the health of our retrocomputing hobby, but for the annals of time? If so, how?

I welcome your historical perspective on this matter!

Conflicting personalities in jOBS movie

January 28th, 2013 10:33 AM
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Filed under History, Mainstream coverage, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak;
1 comment.

Last week, Gizmodo posted a clip from jOBS, a biopic of the life of Steve Jobs. In this scene, we see Ashton Kutcher of That '70s Show as Steve Jobs and Josh Gad of The Book of Mormon at Steve Wozniak.

Like Gizmodo reporter Jesus Diaz, I had an initially positive reaction to this clip. I liked his disparate the personalities were, with Woz taking the time to greet a co-worker while Jobs is more interested in furthering an agenda. I liked that only one of them had an inkling of the revolution they were about to launch. And I liked that Jobs appeared to be taking advantage of Woz, which struck me as consistent with what I know of Jobs.

With that in mind, I shared the post on Facebook. It wasn't long before other Apple II enthusiasts shared observations I'd overlooked. "Kutcher isn't trying to pick up any vocal mannerisms… I'm sure the script is great, I liked the dialogue I heard in the clip above. I just think the actors they got are sub par in their delivery," wrote Marty Goldberg of the Electronic Entertainment Museum. Added Atari historian Curt Vendel, "If they are going to do something based on real characters, then they should actually try to nail it down better… I think iJobs is going to crash and burn because of the lacking of strong character portrayal." Even Apple II veterans Mark Simonsen and Don Worth were unimpressed.

One of my favorite comments came from Apple II game reviewer and programmer Brian Picchi, who suggested the best person to play the role of Woz is Woz. Gizmodo must've agreed that Woz would have some insight into Gad's character, as they published a follow-up with Woz's thoughts on this one clip. He was quick to point out that the scene featured in this clip never happened, though he points out such factual accuracy is unnecessary — the film is a dramatization, after all. More important is how untruthful the personalities are:

Personalities and where the ideas of computers affecting society did not come from Jobs… A more accurate portrayal would be myself in the Homebrew Computer Club (with Steve Jobs up in another state and not aware of it) being inspired by liberal humanist academics from Berkeley and Stanford and other places speaking of these high social goals. I decided then and there to help them reach those goals by designing a computer that was affordable. I gave it away to members of this club to help them. My goal was not money or power. In fact, when Steve came down and came to the club and saw the interest, he did not propose making a computer.

Will the film fail as fully as Vendel suggests? Probably not, I think. As Jason Scott added in the Facebook thread, "Spoiler Alert: This movie is not for vintage computing nerds."

jOBS — which has official presences online, on Facebook, and on Twitter — comes out April 19 from Open Road Films. It is not to be confused with Sony Pictures' bigger-budget adaptation of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.