Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

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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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.