Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Foreign languages

August 29th, 2016 10:13 AM
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In my freshman year at a predominantly male tech college, our glee club trekked to a liberal arts women's college for a joint concert. As the two choirs mingled, our high school experiences and summer travels still fresh in our minds, I overheard a young woman ask one of my classmates, "What languages do you know?"

Unabashedly, he answered, "Oh — C, C++, Java…"

He was being utterly sincere and unironic: even if he didn't suss that his ladyfriend was more interested in tongues than code, his enthusiasm for computer programming was something he was eager to share.

Since starting college and discovering the world doesn't run on BASIC, I've not shared my classmate's confidence. I approach programming with an understanding of the fundamentals but with uncertainty that what I input will result in the desired output. I've not learned many language since my first seven:

Last week introduced me to a situation I'd never before been in: speaking French to a native French speaker. I've never learned any of the Romance languages, leaving me sure of only my ability to mangle them. For several minutes before launching Skype, I rehearsed: "Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?" I realized a person would be more forgiving than a computer, but I was still uncertain of the output: what if the answer was "Non"? Would I, like a nervous 9-year-old, hang up the phone?

Paris 2013 - Eiffel Tower
I found the whole prospect intimidating.

Hesitating for several moments, I finally dialed. The other end picked up and greeted me in French — words that came so swiftly and surely that I found them incomprehensible and intimidating. I nonetheless steeled myself and in my best American accent responded: "Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?"

There was a moment's silence, during which I imagined a computer terminal processing my command before deciding whether to accept it or return with a syntax error. Then, much to my relief, I heard the sound of a successful reboot into a more familiar environment: "Yes, sir. How may I help you?"

Whether it's FORTH or French, I doubt I'll ever be as fluent with a foreign language as my college classmate was, or that I'll be able to speak to someone in or about other languages with the confidence he did. But perhaps, as with my attempt to major in computer science, my grasp of the fundamentals will be enough to get me by.

The Terminator runs on 6502

July 18th, 2016 12:48 PM
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Apple II user Rino Mardo recently shared on Facebook a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Terminator. This 1984 classic with Arnold Schwarzenegger stars a T-800 Model 101 cybernetic organism sent from the future to assassinate Sarah Connor. Despite a nuclear holocaust and the rise of sentient artificial intelligence, Skynet, the computer that created the T-800, still relied on proven, pre-apocalyptic technology to design its chrono-displaced robot: its CPU is a 6502, running assembly programming published in Nibble Magazine.

The Terminator

This Easter Egg isn't news: it was already well-known by the Apple II community even before Nibble founding editor David Szetela mentioned it during his KansasFest 2007 keynote speech. I then wrote about it a few months later in a blog post for Computerworld, a job I started just a few months before Szetela's speech.

The Terminator is one of only many movies that the Apple II has graced with an appearance. Starring the Computer, James Carter's impressive database of computers in movies, lists every Apple II model and the movies and television shows in which is featured. It includes such notable titles as TRON (which turned 34 this month), Hackers (reviewed in Juiced.GS in June 2006), Explorers, Kindergarten Cop, and Lost.

Although that filmography extends to films as recent as Iron Man, the Apple II's modern cinematic career is mostly limited to historical coverage — such as Welcome to Macintosh, the 2008 documentary reviewed in Juiced.GS and now available to view in full for free online:

What are some of your favorite Apple II cameos on the silver screen?

How to leave a YouTube comment

June 6th, 2016 10:27 AM
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One of the first rules for interacting with online media and communities is don't read the comments. It's terrible advice, actually, with some notable exceptions — such as when you're the one responsible for managing a community and cultivating a safe, welcoming environment.

I consider that to be one of the responsibilities that comes with being a YouTube content creator. In the last 3.5 years, I've read roughly 34,152 comments that have been posted to my channel's 600 videos. (My most popular video currently has 10,767 comments.) Wanting anyone who comes to my channel to know that they can leave feedback without fear of threats or reprimands, I reply to as many comments as I can — and, just as important, I delete those comments I deem inappropriate.

Some commenters come specifically to troll — not in the "online abuse" sense, but by intending to be argumentative and disrupt conversation. The modern Apple II community is fairly free of such pests, fortunately: as a niche hobby, it's just not worth someone's time to get involved only to annoy so few.

But what if the two communities intersected, and trolls used Apple II computers to leave provocative YouTube comments? YouTube artist Techmoan crafted a video demonstrating that exact hypothetical scenario in "How to Write A YouTube Comment in 10 Steps":

Why this puppet is using an Apple IIc of all computers is a mystery, but Techmoan has demonstrated himself a fan of old technology in other videos, such as when he made an iPad dock out of a Mac Classic. I haven't seen the IIc show up elsewhere in his channel, but this one appearance has made its mark. A couple of great animated GIFs, perfect for embedding on social media, have been produced from this video:

This look inside a troll's mind reminds me of another classic, Bernard Smith's 2007 music video, "YouTube Is My Life":

I'm glad the Apple II community is above such behavior — I get enough of it from my "fans" on YouTube!

(Hat tip to Lisa Anne Allyn)

CaptionBot fails to recognize the Apple II

May 2nd, 2016 8:35 AM
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At KansasFest, you'll discover software and hardware you're unlikely to see anywhere else — yet diehard retrocomputing enthusiasts will no doubt recognize the floppy disks and circuit boards, identifiable by their unique schematics and labels. By contrast, a modern computer is more ubiquitous and even more powerful, but it's unlikely to be able to identify what makes the Apple II special… or even what the Apple II is.

That's a theory I put to the test with CaptionBot, Microsoft's online tool that accepts image uploads and attempts to describe their contents. Is it a group of people posing for a photo? Someone holding a book? CaptionBot is surprisingly good at recognizing people and their daily activities.

What it's not so good at is recognizing hardware and software. As a test, I threw at it some photos from the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook and found the results laughably terrible. So for this blog post, I more extensively trolled my KansasFest 2002–2015 photo archives to see what other guesses CaptionBot might get wrong. Here's what it thought we see and do in Kansas City:

Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess — but we're still one up on visual recognition. Let's see what we can capture at KansasFest 2016 to stymy Microsoft's latest attempt to bring about the singularity.

(Hat tip to Andy Hartup at GamesRadar+ for the inspiration!)

Get your kicks in year six of Apple II Bits

April 25th, 2016 9:22 AM
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The best course I took in grad school was Jeff Seglin's column-writing class. The opening exercise was to go to the local bookstore, choose several magazines, and draft pitches for articles to each. Early in the semester, I found this assignment challenging — but when we revisited it a few months later, the ideas flowed. I'm not sure what potential Seglin tapped, but he somehow got me seeing stories everywhere. Since then, I've rarely been short of ideas for Apple II Bits, Juiced.GS, Polygamer, or The Moth.

KansasFest 2015 really got those creative juices flowing, though again, I can't pinpoint the inspirational moment. All I know is, when I got back from that annual convention, Apple II Bits blog posts were flowing fast and furious, until I had up to two months of weekly columns queued in advance. It was a great relief to be able to table that Sunday night scurry for an idea.

I sometimes wonder when I'll run out of ideas and have to stop writing this blog altogether. But with all the activity of the Apple II community to inspire me, and with Seglin having given me the tools to recognize the stories therein, I don't think it'll be a lack of ideas that will be as challenging as finding the time and energy to keep up with it all.

In the meantime, I've made it six years of writing Apple II Bits, with the first post having gone live on April 29, 2010. I wrote two posts a week for the first two years — 104 posts a year! — and once a week for the four years since then, for a total of 419 posts. If Seglin had sent me to the book store with the assignment to pick one magazine and come up with 419 pitches, I would've failed his course. Yet Apple II Bits continues chugging along.

Six apples in two rows

My thanks to everyone who has inspired this blog's articles and to all the readers who have taken the time to mull their words, publicly or privately. I still have a few more years in me; I hope you'll come along.

In the meantime, here are some numbers by which to quantify the site's content and evolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

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)