Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

A visit to the Media Archaeology Lab

March 4th, 2019 6:16 AM
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I've gotten to explore some fantastic computer museums in the company of Apple II users: the Boston Museum of Science with Ryan Suenaga; the Computer History Museum with Martin Haye; Living Computers: Museum + Labs with Olivier Guinart; the Strong Museum of Play with Andy Molloy. Last month, I enjoyed another such adventure, this one to the Media Archaeology Lab with Chris Torrence.

The MAL is in Boulder, Colorado, a place I briefly lived and to which I was now returning on business. I work for Automattic, a completely distributed company whose employees all work remotely. Instead of a traditional office, where everyone works together for fifty weeks a year then gets two weeks of vacation apart, Automattic flips that model: we spend only two weeks together a year, at two week-long team meetups. My first meetup of 2019 was in Boulder, giving me the perfect excuse to extend my stay for a visit to the MAL.

Another convenient synchronicity was that, just two months earlier, I'd started selling Steve Weyhrich's book, Sophistication & Simplicity. Steve permitted me to donate a few copies of his book to libraries and museums, so I emailed some historians to ask what institutions I should target. Jason Scott suggested the MAL, a museum that I was vaguely aware of from Chris Torrence volunteering there. I pitched him a donation of S&S as well as a complete collection of Juiced.GS, and he enthusiastically accepted. Instead of mailing so much heavy Apple II literature, my Automattic trip would enable me to personally deliver it, followed by a tour of the MAL!

The MAL resides in the basement of a building near the local university campus. Three rooms are accessible to the public, with the main lobby hosting one long table of operational Apple computers, and another table filled with other brands and models. Like the Living Computers museum of Seattle, Washington, MAL's artifacts are meant to be used: shelves are filled to the ceiling with classic software, mainly games, waiting to be played. I booted up an Apple IIe for a round of Oregon Trail, naming my wagonmates after fellow Apple II users, while Chris fiddled with getting BattleChess to work on the IIGS.

The back room, the second-largest room in the MAL, holds a dozen or so game consoles, all connected to CRT televisions. Chris and I rotated through several two-player Nintendo games, including Super Dodge Ball and Double Dragon II. I also tried the Vectrex, an all-in-one game console and display unit released by Milton Bradley in late 1982 and discontinued in early 1984. I was familiar with the Vectrex but had never gotten hands-on experience with one before. Its vector graphics, similar to an Asteroids coin-op, were bright and vivid — though playing the Star Trek game reminded me that this console is from an era where gameplay was not intuitive, and a thorough reading of the manual was essential.

I enjoyed my time at the MAL and wish I'd been able to stay longer. The assortment of not just digital technology, but all media, was fascinating, from computers to record players to oscilloscopes. As much as I'm a retrocomputing enthusiast, there is plenty of history and media I've still to discover. There are few places better to do so than the MAL.

So Many Things music video

February 18th, 2019 11:10 AM
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More than a decade ago, I found myself wishing the Apple II community had a music video as cool as Comic Bakery's Commodore 64 song.

In recent years, Steve Weyhrich has amply filled that niche with his numerous KansasFest parody music videos. But somehow, another contender flew under my radar.

Joe Strosnider hosts Joe's Computer Museum, a lively YouTube channel filled with reviews of Apple II peripherals, repair tutorials, and tribute videos. Joe — whose license plate happens to be "6502" — in also an active member of the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook, where I missed his September 2016 post debuting a unique and creative addition to his videography: the music video "So Many Things".

This original composition is a tour de force of everything we love about the Apple II and all the amazing things it can do. It even features callouts to the Facebook group and to KansasFest (though, to the best of my knowledge, Joe's not yet made that annual sojourn). Full tech specs and lyrics are listed in the video's description.

Shoutout to Joe for this awesome contribution to the Apple II's music video library! Take that, Commodore 64.

Lego Ideas floppy disk

January 14th, 2019 2:42 PM
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Like many kids, I grew up playing with Lego. I loved following the instructions and turning small bricks into large ideas that looked exactly as envisioned on the box. But I rarely went beyond that prescribed route and into the realm of possibility: I had no interest in modifying the castles and spaceships into something original. That way lay chaos, whereas what I needed to instill in my life was order.

Lego has since extended into such media as movies and video games, but the physical bricks are still as popular as ever. They've even learned to crowdsource their designs in a way that young Ken almost certainly would not have taken advantage of: submit your own design for consideration to be made into an official set!

A recent submission to this Lego Ideas process is "The Disk", a floppy disk composed of Lego pieces. It's the first creation from a seven-year-old account and was submitted on January 2, 2019. It received 100 votes by January 7, adding 365 days to its original voting period of 60 days — but will it meet its goal by the new deadline of March 2, 2020?

Lego floppy disk

Everything I know about the Lego Ideas crowdfunding site comes from my friend Maia Weinstock, who created the Women of NASA Lego set. From an interview with Maia on Space.com: "Each set submitted to the program first goes through a public vetting process, in which the set must receive 10,000 votes from the public before being considered by the company." Her set met that threshold, was positively received by the powers that be, and is now an official Lego set.

It wasn't easy for Maia to reach that goal, nor was it her first attempt. Her first Lego proposal was the Legal Justice League, later revised to the Legal Justice Team, which earned 4,026 votes. Her media blitz to get out the vote included recruiting me and my podcast co-host Sabriel Mastin to stage a photo shoot:

Even with that effort, 4,026 votes still fell shy of the necessary 10,000. I suspect more people are familiar with the Supreme Court than they are floppy disks, so by comparison, "The Disk" seems too niche to reach the voting minimum and then be approved by Lego. Both floppy disks and the Women of NASA are broadly in the category of tech history, but I see more cultural, historical value in the Women of NASA. Until floppy disks get their own Hidden Figures moment, it seems likely that children playing with Lego today will know floppy disks only as the save icon in Microsoft Word; to build their own, they'll have to get creative and see what's possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)

And Then You Die of Dysentery

December 24th, 2018 10:00 AM
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I'm a weekly patron of my local library, often taking advantage of its interlibrary loans to borrow books that I might not otherwise get my hands on. That's how I came to find myself recently reading …And Then You Die of Dysentery: Lessons in Adulting from the Oregon Trail, a book by Lauren Reeves published this October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (ISBN 9781328624390).

Similar to the Juiced.GS article I co-authored with Sheppy back in 2005, "Everything I ever really needed to know I learned from the Apple II", this book is a collection of bullet points and pithy sentences connecting 8-bit technology to modern life. But what was a single page in Juiced.GS has been stretched out to 100 pages here. Each individual piece of sage insight has its own dedicated page on the right, complemented on the left with an original pixel art drawing by Jude Buffum, for 50 witticisms in total.

Some of the images are plays on social media memes, such as "Distracted Boyfriend":

Jealous girlfriend meme

Or modern technology, like fitness trackers:

Fitbit tracker

Others are more of a stretch. This illustration of Angry Birds is meant to suggest that "It's important to play games along the trail to keep yourself entertainted." But I don't remember that happening when I played Oregon Trail. Other than hunting (which was essential for survival and not just a distraction), what mini-games abounded in Oregon Trail?

Angry Birds

The art is lovely and humorous, but most of the lessons are a stretch, being unrelated to Oregon Trail and thus failing to connect with the supposed target audience. There is also a political joke that could be funny, but it lacks context or intent — and as the only joke of that sort in the book, it seems out of place.

Having written stories similar to And Then You Die of Dysentery myself, I wasn't disappointed in the overall format of the book. But I think it would've been better as a series of short essays. Reeves' humor shines best in her introduction, where she's afforded the space to string sentences into full paragraphs. I don't doubt she has more substance to share about MECC's classic survival game — just not when limited to a single sentence per page.

For better or worse, the entire book can be read in 15 minutes. For a $15 book, that's an expensive investment, but a perfect fit for a library loan. I suggest giving …And Then You Die of Dysentery a flip and getting a few chuckles before reshelving.

(Hat tip to Chris Torrence)

Negotiating deals at KansasFest

November 26th, 2018 3:36 PM
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It's Cyber Monday, and Juiced.GS is selling Sophistication & Simplicity, Dr. Steve Weyhrich's definitive history of the Apple II. I sang this book's praises upon its December 2013 release, even going so far as to shoot an unboxing video:

What brought this book to the Juiced.GS store five years later is a random confluence of events. This past summer marked my 21st time attending KansasFest, the annual Apple II expo held in Kansas City. But for the first time in over a decade, my traditional roommate of Andy Molloy was not in attendance. I asked Steve Weyhrich if I could crash in his dorm room instead.

It was during one evening of cohabitation that my roommate and I got to chatting, the conversation wandering among all aspects of the Apple II community. What I discovered that evening was that not only had Steve received a few complimentary copies of his book, as every author is owed; he also had several dozen extra copies in storage.

If this had come to light 4–5 years ago, I would not have been in a position to do anything about it. But in the last three years, Juiced.GS has become a publisher and reseller for other Apple II entities, such as The Byte Works and Kelvin Sherlock. When I asked Steve if he'd be interested in being the third person to engage in such a collaboration by allowing Juiced.GS to distribute his book, he happily agreed.

What followed were months of emails between Steve, me, publisher Variant Press, the Juiced.GS staff, and other parties. The result was our ability to bring autographed copies of this book to Juiced.GS customers at an all-time low price — all because Steve and I were KansasFest roommates.

The Apple II community at large has long benefitted from the fruits of KansasFest, with collaborative products such as Marinetti having been born there. I'm delighted that Steve and I are the latest instrument of such happenstance.

A modem handshake visualized

November 19th, 2018 9:49 AM
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If you're reading this blog, you remember this sound:

Whether your Apple II was dialing into CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, or a BBS, the sound of two modems connecting heralded something magical: an entry into a world, or a part of the world, where you might find faces and files new and familiar. For many, this cacophonous screech welcomed us to a place we could relax, abandon pretenses, and be ourselves — or whatever version of ourselves we wished to present that day.

The lingo of that connection is nearly lost to me now: 8N1 vs. 7E1, RTS / CTS, full duplex. But almost all of it is represented in that same dial-up soundtrack. Not just an unfortunate and inadvertent consequence of data being modulated and demodulated, the sound of dialup embodies the phases of negotiation before two modems can settle into a digital rapport.

These stages can now be visualized in "The Sound of the Dialup Explained",a 42-megapixel poster crafted by Helsinki's Oona Räisänen. Detailing one point in the poster, she writes on her blog:

[The modems] put their data through a special scrambling formula before transmission to make its power distribution more even and to make sure there are no patterns that are suboptimal for transfer. They listen to each other sending a series of binary 1's and adjust their equalizers to optimally shape the incoming signal. Soon after this, the modem speaker will go silent and data can be put through the connection.

Modem handshake visualization

I can almost hear it.

The poster is available from Redbubble in three sizes, from two to four feet wide.

We may not often hear these sounds anymore — but we can always have this poster to remind us of that raucous gauntlet we'd once endure as passageway into cyberspace.

(Hat tip to Jesse Rebel)