Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Editorials and other thoughts about the Apple II and its community.

CaptionBot fails to recognize the Apple II

May 2nd, 2016 8:35 AM
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At KansasFest, you'll discover software and hardware you're unlikely to see anywhere else — yet diehard retrocomputing enthusiasts will no doubt recognize the floppy disks and circuit boards, identifiable by their unique schematics and labels. By contrast, a modern computer is more ubiquitous and even more powerful, but it's unlikely to be able to identify what makes the Apple II special… or even what the Apple II is.

That's a theory I put to the test with CaptionBot, Microsoft's online tool that accepts image uploads and attempts to describe their contents. Is it a group of people posing for a photo? Someone holding a book? CaptionBot is surprisingly good at recognizing people and their daily activities.

What it's not so good at is recognizing hardware and software. As a test, I threw at it some photos from the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and found the results laughably terrible. So for this blog post, I more extensively trolled my KansasFest 2002–2015 photo archives to see what other guesses CaptionBot might get wrong. Here's what it thought we see and do in Kansas City:

Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess — but we're still one up on visual recognition. Let's see what we can capture at KansasFest 2016 to stymy Microsoft's latest attempt to bring about the singularity.

(Hat tip to Andy Hartup at GamesRadar+ for the inspiration!)

Get your kicks in year six of Apple II Bits

April 25th, 2016 9:22 AM
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The best course I took in grad school was Jeff Seglin's column-writing class. The opening exercise was to go to the local bookstore, choose several magazines, and draft pitches for articles to each. Early in the semester, I found this assignment challenging — but when we revisited it a few months later, the ideas flowed. I'm not sure what potential Seglin tapped, but he somehow got me seeing stories everywhere. Since then, I've rarely been short of ideas for Apple II Bits, Juiced.GS, Polygamer, or The Moth.

KansasFest 2015 really got those creative juices flowing, though again, I can't pinpoint the inspirational moment. All I know is, when I got back from that annual convention, Apple II Bits blog posts were flowing fast and furious, until I had up to two months of weekly columns queued in advance. It was a great relief to be able to table that Sunday night scurry for an idea.

I sometimes wonder when I'll run out of ideas and have to stop writing this blog altogether. But with all the activity of the Apple II community to inspire me, and with Seglin having given me the tools to recognize the stories therein, I don't think it'll be a lack of ideas that will be as challenging as finding the time and energy to keep up with it all.

In the meantime, I've made it six years of writing Apple II Bits, with the first post having gone live on April 29, 2010. I wrote two posts a week for the first two years — 104 posts a year! — and once a week for the four years since then, for a total of 419 posts. If Seglin had sent me to the book store with the assignment to pick one magazine and come up with 419 pitches, I would've failed his course. Yet Apple II Bits continues chugging along.

Six apples in two rows

My thanks to everyone who has inspired this blog's articles and to all the readers who have taken the time to mull their words, publicly or privately. I still have a few more years in me; I hope you'll come along.

In the meantime, here are some numbers by which to quantify the site's content and evolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

A curious crisis of computer science

February 8th, 2016 9:16 AM
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I frequently hear from programmers born earlier than 1980 that today's kids don't know how to code. Matt Hellinger gave a great talk on the subject at KansasFest 2013, which he followed up with a Juiced.GS article on the subject. Other outlets have opined similarly, such as Simon Bisson pointing to the skills and technology of the past to power today's Internet of Things, and John Martellaro proposing that a revamped iPad could be the ideal learning environment.

There's plenty of truth to what these pundits say. The Raspberry Pi, which is often seen as a modern yet affordable equivalent to the Apple II in terms of easy access to the underlying hardware and software, is a powerful alternative to today's closed environments. My own experiences would suggest that's the way to go: opening up my Apple II, plugging in expansion cards, booting into BASIC, and writing my own code is how I taught myself to fall in love with computers.

The Apple II's impact extends beyond these personal anecdotes, influencing careers and industries for a generation. "The peak in computer-science degrees, in 1985, came about four years after the introduction of IBM's first personal computer and during the heyday of the Apple II, which very likely led to increased interest in getting a computer-science degree," writes Jonah Newman for The Chronicle of Higher Education in "Is There a Crisis in Computer-Science Education?" Had I started with an OS X or Windows machine, I wouldn't know where to begin peeling away the pretty GUI surface and getting at the roots of the machine.

But how has interest in computer science developed since then, paralleling the rise in ubiquity of computers, smartphones, and other closed devices?

University of Washington in Seattle CS enrollment

"The chart above tells quite a story. That blue line — the one that looks like a hockey stick — shows how interest in computer science from freshmen at the University of Washington in Seattle has skyrocketed since 2010 compared with other engineering fields," writes Taylor Soper for GeekWire.

While that's a very small data set, a larger one suggests computer science enrollment is on the upswing. "After the 1985–1986 peak in CS majors, demand declined again through most of the 1990s, before increasing in the 2000s and dropping back down again in recent years… Even though there are proportionally fewer graduates now than there were in 1985, this may be a cyclical trend that's actually beginning to reverse," says Elizabeth Dye for Sparkroom in an analysis of The Chronicle of Higher Education's blog post. The job market plays a large role in that, with bubbles (such as the dot-com of 1997–2000) encouraging higher interest and enrollment in computer science.

The sooner kids have the opportunity not just to use computers, but to program them, the earlier they'll develop an interest in a career in computer science. From the Apple II to the Raspberry Pi, there are many opportunities for young programmers to have that experience working with low-level hardware and software. But the platform they have access to is just one variable in a complex equation, and their childhood is only one window in which they can develop these skills. When I started college as a computer science major in the mid-1990s, I had a classmate who had never written a program before, yet she'd chosen to major in CS; almost two decades later, she's still employed in that industry. The important thing may not be to give our children the same experiences we had, but to spark their curiosity. That quality, regardless of what field they pursue, will be of lifelong value.

(Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich)

Ivan Drucker's BASIC to Python

January 18th, 2016 9:41 AM
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Ivan Drucker is an unsung hero of the Apple II community. His line of programming utilities, networking tools, and Raspberry Pi applications might pigeonhole him as a software savant, but his contributions to the Apple II community extend across multiple media, including KansasFest presentations and Juiced.GS cover stories.

It's no surprise, then, that someone so prolific would be comfortable in many programming languages. His latest contribution to the community is a Python translation of an Applesoft BASIC program:

This is a line-for-line conversion of an edited version of CLOCK.PATCH from the System Tools 2 disk in GS/OS 6.0.1. It's not good Python, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise. In general I have tried replicate each line as closely to BASIC as possible.

For those of us who never learned a programming language that doesn't have line numbers, this Rosetta stone of classic and modern languages is fascinating. Since each translation performs the same function, seeing how similar concepts are expressed in different environments makes it easy for someone unversed in one language to follow the other.

Applesoft & Python

I don't know the practical value of this exercise, but that's what makes Ivan so great: he pursues goals he's passionate about because he finds them cool and fun. That's the epitome of the retrocomputing enthusiast.

Solo climbers

November 30th, 2015 9:58 AM
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Most Apple historians know the name Jean-Louis Gassée: former Director of European Operations at Apple Computer, founder of Be Inc., and the mysterious informant who told John Sculley not to get on a plane to China, lest he be ousted by Steve Jobs.

But Gassée's contributions to technology don't end in the 1980s or even 1990s: he writes a fascinating blog at The Monday Note, drawing upon his experiences and perspectives in the industry. This past summer, he penned a post of particular relevance to Apple II users. "A Salute To Solo Programmers" pays homage to the days when a single developer could create an entire program:

Once upon a time, we were awestruck by the "solo climber", the programmer who could single-handedly write a magnum opus on a barebones machine such as the Apple ][ with its 64 kilobytes of memory (yes, kilo — not mega, let alone gigabytes), and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz (again, mega not giga).

Gassée goes on to offer examples of , Bill Budge, Dan Bricklin, and Paul Lutus, who worked independently to create programs that changed the world. It's a phenomenon that's unlikely today:

Operating systems have become so sophisticated, so tentacular that a single human being can’t possibly internalize their workings and write application code that keeps us users walking on water. There’s no place for a 2015 Paul Lutus.

I encountered a similar sentiment at KansasFest 2013 when I interviewed Eric Shepherd, former senior technical writer for Be Inc.:

I don't know how much of this is just wistful reminiscing for simpler times. As Gassée later acknowledges, modern computers are not only capable of greater feats of engineering, but they still offer wonderful opportunities for solo development. Access to programming tools and resources is unprecedented, with classes being offered for free at local libraries, universities, and makerspaces, including to underserved communities and demographics. Motivated parties can build anything as simple as a Twitter bot to as complex as as a best-selling video game with a team of one.

I don't believe development has outgrown the boundaries of the Apple II — it's expanded them. But the time when "solo climbers" were the rule rather than the exception was unique, and we have much to thank those pioneers who led the way.

(Hat tip to Thomas Compter)

Reflecting on my past & do-overs

October 12th, 2015 10:23 AM
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After a six-month hiatus, I recently resumed guest-appearing on the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast. As always, this multi-platform show leaves this Apple II-only guy little to contribute, but I'm happy to listen and pipe up when called upon — as in episode #106, when host Earl Evans asked: what do you wish you'd done differently in your history with computers, and is it too late to do so now?

I really had to think about that one! There are so many things I don't regret that stretch back so far: going to KansasFest every year since 1998; being editor of Juiced.GS for a decade; subscribing to Softdisk GS until the end. I made some mistakes in those years, often surrounding business transactions that went foul, but the loss of a few dollars or some minor hardware didn't ultimately have any significant, long-term repercussions.

In the grand scheme of things, the only regret I may have is not pursuing a minor in computer science. I'd started my undergraduate career as a CS major, but after two years, I switched to technical, scientific, and professional communications (TSPC), or what the school now calls professional writing (PW). The only career I felt qualified to pursue with that degree was one in tech writing, which I believed meant documentation. In fact, I nearly got a contract to write the manual for a cell phone, and later interviewed for a documentation position at Mozilla, neither of which in hindsight would've been that scintillating.

It wasn't until I got to Computerworld that I married my TSPC degree with my concentration in CS. As a Computerworld editor (and then as a freelancer), I wrote about enterprise IT and other technical subjects for an audience that was focused on CIOs and CTOs but which could include software developers, helpdesk technicians, and curious consumers.

Still, at some point in my career, not having any formal degree or certificate in computer science felt like an oversight — and while my undergraduate school's name carries weight in the local IT industry, having the words "Computer Science" on my actual degree would help solidify my strength and in that area.

But, as Earl pointed out, its absence didn't stop me from ending up at Computerworld — and I now have a portfolio that speaks for itself. Perhaps a minor wouldn't add much to my credentials. Even at the time I switched majors all those years ago, I was so disillusioned with CS that I never wanted to take another course; pursuing a minor might've been intolerable at the time.

So maybe I did make the right decision, after all.

Thanks for helping me come to peace with my past, Earl and RCR!