Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

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!

Sean's Garage Giveaway on GoFundMe

September 28th, 2015 9:51 AM
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When I attended my first KansasFest in 1998, fellow attendee and Kansas resident Sean Fahey invited us to his nearby home, where we were welcome to any of the Apple II hardware and software he had amassed there. We were doing him a favor by helping clean out his garage.

But no matter how hard we tried, Sean's collection grew; for every floppy drive someone left with, two took its place. Sean suffers from the same problem I do: the pain of seeing perfectly good equipment being thrown away just because the owner didn't know of or couldn't look for a better home. Sean altruistically saved many such lots from the garbage, storing it in the short term so that he might find a home for it in the long term.

The collection grew to the point that salvaging equipment, storing it between KansasFests, and transporting it to Rockhurst became expensive. The handful of Apple II users who had the privilege of attending KansasFest contributed to defray the costs, but that wasn't enough — Sean and cohorts such as James Littlejohn were still saddled with the majority of the expenses.

But the value of Sean's service extends beyond KansasFest, and Sean has graciously given the wider community the opportunity to contribute by creating a GoFundMe campaign. Unlike Kickstarter, GoFundMe has no limits or deadlines, allowing its organizers to benefit from any and all fundraising. Any amount is appreciated — up to, including, and past the goal of $3,500. In the first four days, the crowdfunding campaign had already reached 55% of its goal. (Full disclosure: Juiced.GS contributed $100.)
Sean Fahey's GoFundMe
No new Apple II computers are being made, so it behooves us to save the ones we have — not just as historical artifacts, but as living entities for us to continue using and enjoying. Every computer Sean saves is one that may end up in the hands of a teacher, programmer, or hacker who could help create the next great Apple II user, emulator, or expansion. My thanks to the organizers of Sean's Garage Giveaway, and to everyone who's now ensuring it continues well into the future.

UPDATE (Oct 8, 2015): Thank you to everyone who helped put this campaign over its goal! Sean Fahey wrote on Facebook:

I want to thank everyone for their generosity. I hope the next 3 Garage Giveaways are worthy of the trust and investment you've placed in us. We've got enough to cover the next 2 years of storage ($2000+) and to also cover the expenses for an upcoming trip to Florida to acquire a large collection. We're flying down, renting a truck and driving it back — that trips budget is approximately $1350 for James Littlejohn and myself. It covers plane tickets, truck rental, gas, hotel and meals. Javier A. Rivera is planning to come up and help us with the loading. We may kidnap him and bring him back for the unloading part, but he's really fast on his feet and hard to catch. Again, a heartfelt thanks to my friends in the Apple II and KansasFest communities for your help. Apple II Forever!

The Marriage of Figaro to the Apple II

September 21st, 2015 9:48 AM
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Steve Jobs may be getting his own opera — but that's not the only connection opera has to the Apple II.

In June of 2007, I was in a production of The Marriage of Figaro. Among the 28 theatre productions I performed in during my seven years after undergraduate, this show was memorable for two backstage events: the breaking of my PowerBook; and meeting the lead actor. Unlike some shows I've been in, Figaro's stars and chorus mingled, disregarding any theatrical hierarchy. Given that it was June, I was probably spending my offstage time editing drafts of the year's second quarterly issue of Juiced.GS. I suspect the actor playing Figaro asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he got excited, telling me he still had his original Apple IIGS! Although it was no longer his primary computer, he remembered quite fondly and accurately the software and hardware he'd added to it throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As soon as the show was over, Figaro the actor was off to New York City for another role. When I joined Facebook a year later, we reconnected, allowing me to offer an annual wish for a happy birthday spent playing Apple II games. But other than that, our personal and theatrical lives did not cross again.

Until this month! I received an email from Figaro that he was moving to Europe and had plenty of material possessions he wished to neither move, keep, or store. Would I be willing to take his Apple II?

What an honor! Of course I would. Figaro drove to my house and dropped off three boxes of hardware and software — a collection he confessed used to be bigger but which had dwindled with each move over the years. I didn't find much rare or unique among his donation, but the opportunity to spend an hour chatting with him about the Apple II was fun. He prompted as much of the discussion as I did, as he'd kept abreast of the community enough to ask me how my recent trip to KansasFest went. I was happy for the opportunity to show him some of the products of today's lively Apple II community, such as the Replica 1 and a Raspberry Pi case, or to pull out artifacts he'd remember, such as issues of Nibble magazine.

I'm grateful to have received this bounty; although such salvage operations are the norm for likes of Sean Fahey and James Littlejohn, it's a rare occurrence for me. Here is a photo gallery of my new property:

What do I do with this IIGS now that I have it? It came gratis with no strings attached: I can keep it or find a good home for it, though I wouldn't allow myself to sell it. But I know what my inclination is. As Figaro and I chatted about the Apple II and he saw how much fun people were still having with it, I could see him beginning to regret having to let go of his childhood computer. I'd love to hold onto it until Figaro returns from Europe in 18 months; maybe then, he can be reunited with the machine and rediscover it, as so many of us have, after a long absence.

After a first act of introduction and a second act of separation, a third act with a happy reunion seems only fitting.