Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

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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Cliff Spohn's Art of Apple

April 3rd, 2017 9:47 AM
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Like many of my generation, I got my start in gaming on an Atari console. The Atari 2600 was home to countless classic games, from Adventure to Indiana Jones to the notorious E.T. Whereas my Apple II had games that came on unremarkably labeled floppy disks, Atari's games sported works of art on their boxes and labels, evoking worlds of excitement and intrigue far beyond the console's ability to render.

The history, process, and impact of this art is detailed in a new book, The Art of Atari, released in October 2016. This hardcover coffee-table book features gorgeous blow-ups of published Atari creations, as well as concept art and early drafts. Many of the original artists were interviewed about their inspirations and workflows.

One such artist is Cliff Spohn, who gets a two-page profile on pages 70–71. Accompanying this spread is a piece of art that is decidedly un-Atari. Its caption: "Spohn's illustration for an early Apple Computer manual. His artwork was personally commissioned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs."

I'm unsure where this art would've originally been published; the only references to it that I can find on Google refer back to this very book. According to Spohn's website, he "also did Apple's first one or two instruction booklet covers", but I don't recall having seen this artwork before, either.

UPDATE: Will Scullin cites this art as appearing on Jef Raskin's Apple II BASIC Programming Manual, and Sean McNamara has proof:

Nonetheless, Spohn's legacy could be felt even in recent years of Apple media. Spohn writes that "demand for my kind of illustration was and is slowly disappearing". But Apple II enthusiasts may remember that the style of Spohn and his contemporaries inspired the art for the Jason Scott documentary GET LAMP, as illustrated by Lukas Ketner.

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

Atari was the proving ground for many early computer pioneers, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Let's remember the geniuses like Cliff Spohn that made them look good, too.

(Hat tip to Susan Arendt)

Juiced.GS ships early!

February 27th, 2017 1:00 PM
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As I write this blog post, I am simultaneously proud, relieved, and shocked. The reason: I just delivered the March 2017 issue of Juiced.GS to the printshop.

Note: it is not March.

On all 84 issues of Juiced.GS that have been published to date, every cover has displayed the date of publication. In the 44 issues I've edited, only four of the year's 12 months have been represented on the cover: March, June, September, and December, aligning with the end of each quarter.

I took those months to be the deadline by which I had to deliver the issue to the post office. Sometimes this meant mailing an issue on March 31, with it not arriving in readers' hands until April.

But if you look back at earlier issues of Juiced.GS, you'll see different dates on the cover: February, May, August, and November. Former editor-in-chief Ryan Suenaga published midway through each quarter so as to avoid conflicting with other crunch periods, such as the holidays. I tried to follow his example, but on my very first issue, I slipped a month and never regained it.

But this year, the first issue of 2017 presented the opportunity to get back on track. One article held back from December gave us a head start, but it wasn't just that. I don't normally assign articles until after the previous issue has shipped — but I was able to solicit the author of this month's cover story, Mike Whalen, last fall, and he diligently worked through the holidays so that his submission would be ready as soon as we began work on the March issue. Our other staff and freelance writers, including Chris Torrence and Ivan Drucker, were also very timely with their contributions.

It all added up to us being able to print the magazine with a February date: as long as I got the magazine to the post office before Wednesday, we could accurately say the magazine shipped in February. But it still wouldn't be delivered until March, and although I've cut it close before, this approach felt dishonest, somehow.

So we're sticking with our traditional March date by shipping the issue on March 1. Honestly, it seems the best of both worlds: for possibly the first time ever, every subscriber should receive the issue in the same calendar month, without the staff rushing to meet an end-of-month deadline, whatever month that is.

Will shipping on the first of the month become the new standard? I don't know. At the least, it presents our staff with some leeway — a one-month buffer with which to get the June issue published.

Regardless of what this spells for the future, it's a relief to look forward to a month that's full of conventions, vacations, presentations, and milestones, knowing that I've already given Juiced.GS my full attention.

An Apple II appearance in Beep!

February 13th, 2017 12:48 PM
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I have a growing collection of documentaries in my watch queue, many of them springing from Kickstarter. If I see a topic I like, I can't help but throw $15 at it — especially if it'll get me a digital copy of the movie, years down the road.

Such is the case with Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound. This movie, crowdfunded in 2014, chronicles the evolution of audio composition technology in the interactive entertainment industry, featuring interviews with composers for such classic games as Marble Madness. A variety of hardware platforms and sound processors are featured, especially the Commodore 64 and its infamous SID chip — but disappointingly, at no point did I hear mention of the Apple II.

But I did see it! In two scenes, the narrators' commentary is overlaid with B-roll footage of convention-goers (perhaps at MAGFest?) using classic computers. At 25:19, the machine on-screen is very obviously an Apple IIGS, though the exact software being demoed is indeterminable; minutes later, at 32:44, an Apple RGB monitor — perhaps the same one previously featured, but from a different angle — can be seen in the background.

Playing an Apple IIGS in Beep documentary

Apple IIGS monitor in background of Beep documentary

Given the breadth and depth that Beep set out to cover, it's unsurprising that they wouldn't have the opportunity to focus on our favorite retrocomputer. But the Apple IIGS's Ensoniq chip was one of the platform's hallmark features, warranting acknowledgement right in the model's name — the 'S' stands for "sound", after all. At least it had its cameo.

For more opinion about Beep, read my review on Gamebits.

Canned food on the Oregon Trail

December 19th, 2016 8:36 AM
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I've seen Apple II software take a variety of forms: be it original, emulated, or interpreted, the computer's iconic palette and icons have shown up on televisions, subway murals, 404 pages, theatrical stages, and more.

But this one is new to me. Even though I've heard of programming "on the metal", I didn't know the metal could be aluminum:

Canstruction

This Rev. 0 Apple II playing Oregon Trail is the product of a recent fundraiser in Texas. From the event page:

Using only canned food items, Canstruction participants are challenged to create innovative structures that will be displayed in a giant art exhibition throughout the 2016 State Fair. Canstruction is a unique charity that hosts competitions across the nation to showcase colossal canned masterpieces. At the end of the competition, all canned food will be donated to the North Texas Food Bank.

Writes the AG&E Structural Engenuity team:

The iconic Apple IIe was the first computer experience for millions of students, educators and professionals. This canstructure aims to capture the style of the machine, along with the Oregon Trail software that made players think about issues that faced 19th century American settlers—including disease, extreme weather and hunger.

Although this particular team didn't raise any funds, their contribution nonetheless calls attention to an important issue. As these artists stated, "Society has come a long way [since the Oregon Trail], but hunger is still an age-old problem that we must continually address." Despite what some critics may say, food banks serve a vital function in our communities, especially during this cold holiday season. Find and support your local food bank — preferably with cash, not canned food.

(Hat tip to Bob Minteer via Open Apple)

Holiday shopping on eBay

November 27th, 2016 10:14 AM
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My family never learned thrift; if something was old or worn, we'd replace it instead of repair it. And if used items weren't good enough for us, they were certainly not good enough to give as gifts. Every Christmas, we'd bestow and accept shiny, shrinkwrapped goods, representing the latest merchandise that retail had to offer.

That's a shame, because so many Apple II products can no longer be had new. There's a growing market of original or replicated hardware, to be sure — but if I want something vintage, the only way to affordably acquire it is used. As a result, no one from my family will ever think to shop for my Christmas gift on eBay.

The Retro Computing Roundtable podcast has a gift guide that they update with each biweekly episode. There's plenty of new and retro tech in there, but my favorite suggestion to come from this group was when the hosts collaborated on a Juiced.GS gift guide. In that article, Carrington Vanston had the brilliant idea to give someone a subscription to a classic Apple II magazine, such as Nibble or inCider/A+. Though those publications have been out of print for decades, old issues can be acquired from eBay or AbeBooks, then individually mailed to the gift's intended recipient on a monthly basis.

Apple II magazines, books, and periodicals

Used Apple II magazines, books, and periodicals abound, as seen at KansasFest 2016.

I love this idea. The first and only Apple II magazine I've ever subscribed to is Juiced.GS, which I haven't received in the mail since June 2007. I miss finding Apple II news, reviews, and interviews in my mailbox. The only way to make it happen is to plunder the bounty of years gone by, salvaging previously read issues from the stores of eBay.

That sounds better than finding anything new under my Christmas tree.