Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Installing optional SSL

October 9th, 2017 11:48 AM
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A year ago this month, I added SSL certificates to all my websites. Be it the ease and affordability of doing via Let's Encrypt, the paranoia of avoiding unencrypted communications inspired by Snowden, or the improvement to search-engine ranking provided by Google, it was an effortless and valuable addition all my sites.

Except this one. I spoke on the Retro Computing Roundtable and wrote on this blog about how evolving Web standards sometimes mean older technology is no longer grandfathered. In this case, no Apple II computer or browser currently supports (or may even be capable of accessing) SSL-encrypted websites. Even though my Google Analytics showed no such machines were accessing Apple II Bits, I was hesitant to disconnect this blog from the computer that inspired it.

Since then, Google stepped up its incentive to offer HTTPS encryption: starting later this month, any page or site with a text field — be it a contact form or a search box — that isn't encrypted will display a warning in Google Chrome. Whether this decision is reasonable or proper can be debated, but I can't ignore its consequences. Among visitors to this site, Chrome is the most popular, constituting 45% of sessions. For thousands of users to have a negative experience so I can accommodate a potential or even nonexistent audience is foolhardy.

Fortunately, as reader mmphosis commented, it's not an either/or proposition: a website can be configured to support both HTTP and HTTPS. This weekend, that's exactly the change I made to Apple II Bits' configuration. The canonical default for this website is still HTTP, but if you type HTTPS into your browser window (or have the EFF's excellent HTTPS Everywhere browser plugin enabled), you can now access the site via HTTPS as well.

In the future, I may investigate reversing those roles and making HTTPS the default but HTTP an option. In the meantime, I hope this compromise between old and new technologies is successful at serving a modern audience of retrocomputing enthusiasts.

Developing Retro Roundup

September 11th, 2017 12:11 PM
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Last week, I officially launched Retro Roundup, a curated RSS aggregator of retrocomputing news.
Retro Roundup banner
Or rather, re-launched: Retro Roundup was founded in 2005 by Kevin Savetz, who approached me this past February about taking over the site. While keeping the same purpose and logo, I rebuilt the site in WordPress, adding taxonomies, email subscriptions, and more. After several months in development, it was finally ready to demo during the KansasFest 2017 lightning talks.

Those talks were two months ago, yet the press release announcing Retro Roundup was published just last week. What took so long?

The problem was that Retro Roundup didn't have a defined end state. Unlike Juiced.GS, which has concrete deadlines resulting in a finished quarterly product, Retro Roundup will never stop growing. The more RSS feeds I add to it, the more content it will publish. How many feeds and how much content are enough to launch a website?

I was reminded of the development of Duke Nukem Forever, a video game that took 15 years to publish. The developers didn't have a roadmap for what the game would look like when it was done; as a result, they kept adding new levels and features and scrapping old ones to be current with the latest technology, which was advancing apace with the game. But every product is outdated by the time it launches — at some point, you just have to declare that it's met its goal and release it.

In my case, I thought I was done Retro Roundup in April — until I showed it to my librarian friend, Michele DeFilippo. She suggested I add "facet searches", which was not a term I'd ever heard, though I was familiar with the functionality: almost every e-commerce website offers parameters and filters to narrow search results. Adding this feature to Retro Roundup made the site infinitely more useful and usable.

Then I thought I was done — until a month later, when I attended WordCamp Portland, and met Scott Tirrell, a fan of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, on which I'm an occasional guest. I showed him the site, and he enthusiastically offered many more suggestions — from adding a search box to including YouTube channels among the site's feeds.

With such great feedback, I could've kept working on Retro Roundup indefinitely. What pushed me to finally release the site was Kevin plugging it on episode #45 of the ANTIC podcast (38:51–41:53). Listeners of that podcast immediately flocked to Retro Roundup and began submitting RSS feeds. Even before I knew how they'd discovered the site, I realized that I couldn't keep this cat in the bag any longer. So I spent a day off from work adding dozens more feeds to the site, many of which I'd solicited months ago on Facebook, before deciding I'd met some arbitrary, minimum quantity of content.

Despite this milestone, there are still more feeds and features to add. Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop was the first to use the "submit an advertisement" form, which I'd somehow overlooked in my testing. I was appalled by the results; an hour of my Friday night was spent bringing it up to spec. And a developer who contributed essential functionality to the a2.click tool is even now working on code that will make Retro Roundup even more usable.

Before last week, I had only two retrocomputing websites: Apple II Bits and Juiced.GS. I hope the former entertains its readers, but it's primarily a personal outlet; while the latter is in support of an offline product. Retro Roundup is the first retrocomputing website I've built that I would call a resource for the community. I've learned scads about WordPress and project management during its development. I hope it is found equally rewarding for its users, who will discover new sources for retrocomputing content, and for publishers, who will see new visitors being sent to their site from Retro Roundup.

Choosing content for Juiced.GS

June 12th, 2017 5:50 PM
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Another Juiced.GS has been delivered to the printshop, though not without enduring some challenges. I once again had to struggle with a wonderful problem: too much content.

Each print issue of Juiced.GS has to be a number of pages divisible by 4. (That's what you get when you print on both sides of an 11" x 17" piece of paper then fold it in half.) We've decided that the minimum number of pages is 20, and the maximum (which we've achieved only once in our 86 issues) is 28. So most issues are either 20 or 24 pages.

The geography of the magazine is such that many pages are already spoken for: the front and back cover, my editorial, and DumplinGS, for example. That can account for as much as 25% of an issue, with the remainder filled with roughly six articles.

Some of those articles, I pitch to staff writers or freelancers; other articles are pitched to me. Unless it's something we've already covered, I rarely turn down a pitch. Some articles are short one-pagers; others require multiple diagrams that span five or six pages.

And that's what happened this issue: we had so many great pitches of substantial content that, by the time everything was loaded in, the issue was clocking in at 29 pages. I had to delete 1, 5, or 9 pages to get this issue to work.

Making that decision means asking, "What articles must run this issue?" Some topics are time-sensitive, whether they're reviews of new software, coverage of recent events, lead-ups to KansasFest, or series that need to conclude before year's end. Once I answered that question, it became apparent that we had six articles that had to be published in June, and four that could wait until September, resulting in a 24-page issue.

Of course, I could've run some of that "extra" content in June, making for another massive 28-page issue. But there are two downsides to doing so: it bumps the magazine into another postage class, requiring additional stamps; and it leaves less content for us to publish in the fall. By holding content back until September, there's that much less work to do in the short month between when KansasFest ends and when school begins.

There's one other consideration when making content decisions: the writers. How will they feel when their articles, which I gave them deadlines for, are not published when promised? Fortunately, I have never once encountered any tension or pushback. Every Juiced.GS contributor has attached no ego to their publication date, recognizing that these decisions in no way reflect the quality of their submissions. I am grateful for how fully they understand and cooperate.

I don't expect this issue to be the last time I have to make those decisions: with KansasFest 2017 being sold out, our community is growing, and with it, the number of helpers and contributors. I don't see a need to change our format or processes to compensate — to put it in KansasFest terms, we don't need a new venue with a bigger capacity. Instead, we can promise that we'll continue to be curators who work with writers of all experiences and skill levels to deliver the best content we can find.

Enjoy the issue — it hits the USPS on Wednesday!

Learning HTML at A2 University

May 15th, 2017 12:00 PM
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I just finished my sixth semester of teaching at Emerson College. My course is an overview of all forms of electronic publishing: websites, e-books, podcasts, crowdfunding, and more. But we ground all these lessons in the basics: HTML and CSS.

Learning hypertext markup language might today be equivalent to learning cursive writing: it's a nice skill to have, but for the average user, one that computers have made obsolete. Rich-text editors (RTE) and WYSIWYG editors have enabled the composition of text, tables, and inline images without ever seeing any HTML code. Only developers and theme designers may ever need to delve into a site's source.

But I feel it's important to understand what's happening underneath the hood, so to speak. If a student can't get a page layout just right, eliminating the middleman of an RTE and manipulating the code directly is the best way to ensure the realization of one's intentions.

When I learned HTML, we didn't have to choose between those two options: with the possible exception of WebWorks GS, there was no intermediary between an Apple II user and their code. All HTML was crafted by hand. And since HTML is inherently text, it made sense that I learned it in a text environment: GEnie.

The Apple II RoundTable on the GEnie online service had as one its services the Apple II University, run by Charlie Hartley. Members could sign up for free courses in a variety of topics based on or tangential to the Apple II. Unlike today's Lynda or Udemy courses, A2U courses were taught in real-time with a live instructor who set the pace and evaluated the homework. It was through this process that I first learned HTML.

I don't have any of the lessons I received or or homework I produced in that course — perhaps they're available as part of the "Time in a Bottle" (TiaB) CD archive of GEnie assets. But I do proudly retain my certificate of completion, earned 21 years ago yesterday:

Apple II University

While this accomplishment might not carry much weight in today's developer and designer circles, I do recall bringing it to at least one job interview, where its longevity and legacy carried more weight than its academic value. HTML has changed a lot since 1996, but being able to say I first learned HTML just five years after the World Wide Web became publicly available demonstrates a foundational, historical knowledge that can't be taught in today's classroom.

Spectrum's origins

May 8th, 2017 8:27 AM
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I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately. He's the one who introduced me to the Apple II and enabled (if not supported) my BBS and CompuServe habit when I was in grade school. I made those online connections with ProTERM, which was 8-bit, but I was eager to switch to an application that took advantage of our Apple IIGS. I eventually got it when, after many delays, Seven Hills Software released Spectrum.

My dad didn't use the telecommunications aspects of our computer; his only application was AppleWorks Classic, with which he maintained the financial records of the family business. All he knew about Spectrum came from whatever I mentioned.

One day, my dad asked me if I knew that Spectrum was based out of our home state of Massachusetts? I was bewildered by this remark: Spectrum was a product, not a company, and it was developed by a European programmer. I doubt my dad was referring to Seven Hills Software, the Florida publisher whose name I'd had no reason to mention to him and which I doubt he would've remembered from the credit card bill. But Dad insisted that, while driving through the next town over, he'd seen a billboard advertising Spectrum.

Once he mentioned the billboard, I knew what he was talking about: Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts-based organization that offers counseling and recovery services. Sure enough, they had advertisements in some of the rougher parts of town.

Spectrum Health Systems

My dad had an odd sense of humor that often relied on teasing or on playing dumb to mislead people. I never found out if he sincerely thought my Apple II program had come, out of all the places in the world, from a nearby city, and that he would be the one to inform me of it — or if he was playing some harmless but humorless joke.

It's not something I ever begrudged my dad, but it was such a weird exchange that, even decades later, it's left me wondering: what was he thinking??

Apple II Bits' seven-year itch

April 24th, 2017 10:00 AM
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The seven-year itch isn't just a classic Marilyn Monroe film; it's also a predictor for the shelf life of my own hobbies. It's after that period of time that I tend to find myself growing weary of a particular pursuit and begin looking for new interests. For seven years, 1997–2004, I wrote video game reviews; 2001–2008, I performed in community theater; 2004–2011, I taught at a high school or worked toward a master's degree, each satisfying my desire to be involved in education.

But I find the Apple II bucks this trend. This summer will make my twentieth consecutive KansasFest; this year makes my eleventh volume of Juiced.GS. And this month marks my seventh year of writing this weekly blog. I don't see myself discontinuing any of these pastimes anytime soon.

Seven apples

Each year kinda snuck up on me.

What is it about the Apple II computer and community that manages to hold my interest? Perhaps it's the nostalgia factor, dating back to my childhood in a way that writing, acting, and teaching do not. Maybe it's that it serves as a safe space in which to develop new talents — it was editing Juiced.GS that put me on the path to getting a master's degree in publishing, and Open Apple was where I honed the skills for my two current podcasts. It could be that, despite the discontinued nature of the Apple II, it continues to produce remarkably unique experiences: every KansasFest attracts a new crowd with whom to form new bonds and new memories.

While all those factors are true, perhaps the most compelling reason is the continued challenge. I lose interest in something when I find I can't get any better at it — not to say I've mastered it, but that I've reached the limits of my own ability to excel. After writing three hundred video game reviews, the process had become rote and formulaic; after 28 community theater productions, I no longer worried about forgetting my lines, any more than I believed myself capable of achieving a starring role.

But every issue of Juiced.GS is like none other, both in assembling the content and in marketing the publication. I've tried many new ideas to grow the magazine — some worked, some didn't. But the result is a net gain, with the subscriber base having quintupled in the last eleven years, and the magazine on the cusp of publishing its one thousandth piece of editorial content.

I have abandoned many hobbies after seven years. I don't have a fear of commitment; I have a fear of complacency. And the one place I don't have to worry about growing complacent is, ironically, the community and creations surrounding a 40-year-old computer.

So happy 40th birthday to the Apple II, and happy 7th birthday to Apple II Bits. Forget the seven-year itch — this is just the seventh-inning stretch!

Marilyn Monroe on subway grate

Here's to many more.

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