Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Electronic publishing overview

February 9th, 2015 11:36 AM
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Last month, I began my fourth semester teaching an undergraduate course in electronic publishing. I always start with an overview of computer history — not for "you kids don't know how good you have it" reasons, like when I taught high school students to use Visicalc, but because I consider it valuable for students to have a basic understanding of how the machinery and environment they'll be working came into being, and the decisions that were made decades ago that will affect their workflows and livelihoods.

We start with what might be considered ancient history, reviewing key figures in computing's history: Charles Babbage, Paul Baran, Tim Berners Lee. I suspected this might be the first semester in which the name Alan Turing might prove familiar. I was right: Benedict Cumberbatch's turn in that role had drawn my students to see The Imitation Game. We had a brief but fun discussion about how Turing's already dramatic tale had been further dramatized for the silver screen, before returning to the topic at hand: learning to count in binary.

As part of this lecture, I employ plenty of props from my Apple II, including a 5.25" floppy disk and floppy disk notcher. It's always interesting to see how the students respond to these artifacts. Spring 2014 was the first semester where none of my students had used a 5.25" floppy before. I figured I'd passed a tipping point: students born in 1992 didn't grow up with this media. So I was pleasantly surprised when this year's students recognized the disk fondly. And I, of course, got a kick out of wondering, "Can you believe that we used to ship software on these things?" holding up the Lawless Legends demo I received from Martin Haye at KansasFest 2014.

My favorite exercise of the evening involves publishing — which is their major, after all, not computer science. It's 2015 and you want to distribute software to your print magazine's subscribers. How can you do so? A link, a QR code, a Steam code, even a CD — these are all viable delivery mechanisms… and none of them were applicable in 1986. Sure, you could maybe include a 5.25" disk in your magazine — but who does that? Instead I hand out an issue of Nibble magazine and let the students peruse it, until it finally registers what they're looking at — at which point their eyes get big and they ask, "Did they actually print the entire program in the magazine and ask people to type it in??"

Okay… so maybe I do want my students to know how good they have it.

The SCOTTeVEST of Ken & Woz

November 3rd, 2014 12:39 PM
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For about 18 years, I wore the same winter coat. It may have gone out of style, but it served two more important functions: it kept me warm; and it had pockets.

Pockets! I love being able to carry everything in pockets, from an iPod to a novel to a pack of tissues to a pen — I want to be equipped for any situation, and this coat accommodated.

But in 2013, as I underwent a life reboot, even I had to admit it was time to be out with the old and in with the new. But how could I ever replace such fabulous apparel? A friend I met at an 8-Bit Weapon concert recommended the SCOTTEVEST brand, which looked promising — but I wasn't sold until I found another endorsement: Steve Wozniak himself.

Woz is a big fan of SCOTTEVEST, having been recorded wearing them in a variety of cinematic-inspired scenarios, from Star Wars to The Matrix:

I was sold. The first SCOTTeVEST coat I bought was the Brad Thor Alpha — and while it did have a lot of pockets, they weren't labeled for items I was likely to use: passport… dagger… gun?!? I emailed their customer support and asked if all their products were this — tactical. No, they said. This coat is modeled after the thriller novels of author Brad Thor, who was not previously on my radar. I then picked up a Revolution Plus, which boasts 26 pockets for things I'd actually use: wallet, keys, iPad (!), water bottle, eyeglasses, and more. Almost all pockets are labeled, and if you consistently use them for their indicated purpose, you'll quickly develop a muscle memory of what goes wear, eliminating the need to pat yourself down to find your things.

Speaking of pat-downs, SCOTTeVEST coats are great when being subjected to TSA searches, too. When you get to the airport, just keep everything in your coat pockets instead of your pants or purse. Then just take off your coat and send it through the X-ray scanner. No need to use those plastic dishes, where anyone can grab your stuff.

SCOTTeVESTs also come with permanently affixed cleaning cloths for your glasses and a carabiner for your keys. All pockets are evenly distributed so that you won't be listing to one side.

Most important, the Revolution Plus is possibly the warmest winter coat I've ever owned. It does a great job protecting my torso when deep in a cold New England winter.

I've since added a SeV Sterling Jacket to my wardrobe for use in the spring and fall. I had two issues with his coat. First is that the zipper sometimes gets stuck, which customer service addressed by pointing me to their official zipper lubrication video. Second, some of the pockets open up into the coat's lining, resulting in items slipping out of their pockets and disappearing to somewhere in the coat — you can feel it's in there somewhere, but you have no idea how to get at it! Customer service responded:

Due to a sophisticated internal pocket design, we have given the name the "Secret Pocket" to a compartment in our vests and jackets where some items may get 'lost'. This pocket is accessible but not necessarily meant for use. Our items are designed with that internal inning so that weight is distributed evenly, you can wire your garment (PAN), and so that the internal pocketing layout is separated. I know it might seem confusing, however it's a must for our design and technical team when putting together these complex garments.

Otherwise, I've been very satisfied with SCOTTeVEST's customer service. Since the coats are sold online only and can't be tried on prior to purchase, they make it easy to buy multiple sizes and return the one that doesn't fit. And when one of my coats had a slight tear, SCOTTeVEST will reimburse up to $30 in repairs by your local tailor or seamstress — wow!

The coats are expensive, ranging from $150–200, but a coupon will knock 20% off a new customer's first order. If it's good enough for Woz, it's good enough for us — but if you're not convinced, listen to Open Apple #33 starting at timestamp 1:30:24:

or check out the photo gallery below:

(Photo "Autumn" by Barbara)

Appearing on RCR

October 20th, 2014 12:20 PM
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This past winter, I waxed nostalgically about the Open Apple podcast's third birthday, tracing the six-month gestation period of the Apple II community's first and only monthly and co-hosted podcast. Absent from that timeline was a significant milestone: the debut of the Retro Computing Roundtable. For another retrocomputing show to scoop Open Apple was discouraging, but I'm glad we persevered, as the two shows have evolved very different formats and content. Whereas Open Apple features a new guest every month in a polished, edited show that takes hours to produce, RCR rotates among a stable of familiar voices, producing a raw, more organic episode every two weeks.

With RCR turning four years old this month, I was honored to join the shows cast and crew for a guest appearance in episode #85. Although good friends and Juiced.GS contributors Carrington Vanston and Steve Weyhrich were absent from this episode, it was a pleasure to chat with fellow Boston resident Paul Hagstrom, Retrobits host Earl Evans, and fellow fundraising cyclist Michael Mulhern, with whom I'd previously communicated via email only.
Retro Computing Roundtable logoIt was also a bit intimidating! The first half-hour of the show was spent discussing the Atari 520ST, Commodore 128, and other computers of 1985. While I do not denigrate non-Apple II machines, neither do I have any interest in them, mostly due to lack of exposure at a time when I was still too young to appreciate them. Rather than open my mouth and prove myself a fool, I wisely kept quiet; if you were to tune in at any point in that discussion, you wouldn't even know I was there.

But perhaps I need to work on my conversational skills, as I've found, both in RCR and during my recent appearance on the Pixel Pizza podcast , that I tend to wait for a topic I'm passionate about to arise, then engage in a lengthy monologue on the subject. Perhaps the lack of a co-host on my three other podcasts — Polygamer, IndieSider, and The Pubcast — has trained me to fill the silence with my own voice, as I did on RCR in extended discourses about GEnie, feminism, and RadioShack. Maybe my ego needs to be reminded that other people have something to say, too.

Nonetheless, I had a good time on RCR, and I much appreciated their invitation and patience. I hope I added to their listeners' experience more than I detracted from it. Lest I wear out my welcome, I don't expect to be a frequent guest of this show, but it is comforting to know that my retrocomputer podcasting days aren't behind me.

Internationalizing Juiced.GS

October 13th, 2014 10:09 AM
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This past weekend, a handful of Juiced.GS subscribers received a surprise in the mail: a French language edition of the September 2014 issue. The content was translated from the original English not by Google Translate, but by Antoine Vignau of Brutal Deluxe, a polyglot contributor to the magazine.

This collaboration was inspired by Andrés Lozano, who travelled from France to attend KansasFest 2014. While there, he hosted a live Google Hangout so that his fellow patriots could attend KansasFest virtually.

It was during that video chat that I spoke with Antoine Vignau, who I'd previously interviewed for an audio podcast but had never spoken to in video before. Seeing him, Andrés, and many other attendees in the chat reminded me what a presence the Apple II has in France. A few hours later, I emailed Antoine with this unsolicited proposal: "If you're willing to translate the entire September 2014 issue of Juiced.GS, I'll see about publishing it in French. Just as a one-time special — not every issue!"

The result is Juiced.FR, which shipped a week after Juiced.GS. The timing was tricky, as I had to wait until the English edition was done in its entirety before handing it to Antoine to translate. While an issue may be assembled piecemeal, it isn't until every article is laid out that the staff really pulls apart the draft, looking for typos or clarifications. I wanted to have that level of quality in place before Antoine began translating. Even then, Antoine had his work cut out for him; given the technical nature of some of the pieces, it seemed some of the content might be "untranslatable"! But Antoine persevered, producing an issue that I can't read but which I assume is excellent.

While Juiced.GS again met its deadline of shipping in the month listed on the cover, French subscribers' issues were not mailed until a week later, in October. I felt bad about delaying the receipt of their product, but the feedback I've gotten so far is that it was worth the wait.

I don't expect to repeat this promotion in French or other languages — it was a fun but unique experiment, akin to the 5.25" demo disk of Drift that we shipped two years back. It might be fun to translate each issue of a volume into a different language and then package it as the "Babel Bundle", but the audience for such a product would be small.

If you are a French speaker who isn't a subscriber to Juiced.GS, or you're someone who just wants to practice a foreign tongue, you can buy this individual issue of Juiced.FR. We've never sold single issues before, and I expect this one will never be back in print after the original run is sold out, making it a truly limited edition. Show Antoine your appreciation by making sure we sell out!

RadioShack's inevitable demise

October 6th, 2014 1:41 PM
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I became an Apple II user in 1983, but it wasn't until 1990 or so that I started becoming a power user. The APPUSER Forum on CompuServe had so many great games that I couldn't play due to my IIGS not having enough RAM or a hard drive. SysOp Loren Damewood and game developer Scott Everts encouraged me to call Quality Computers to make one upgrade, then another. Before I knew it, I had a juiced GS.

But sometimes, things didn't work quite as expected, and I'd need a trivial adapter for which I didn't want to wait a week for mail order to deliver. Or I needed speakers or some other generic part that wasn't specific to the Apple II. For those times, my father would drive me to local strip mall known as the John Fitch Highway, home of the nearest RadioShack. I became such a regular there that one of the clerks even invited me to his weekly D&D game.

Now, for better or worse, RadioShack's days are numbered. The anachronistically named retail stores may soon follow former parent company Tandy Corporation's TRS-80 into the realm of defunct technology.

Long-time hobbyists and hackers may not mourn RadioShack's passing, as the store has long since transitioned from catering to our needs to competing with big box stores like Best Buy. Walk into any RadioShack today to buy electronic parts and components, and you'll never get the attention of a sales clerk eager to make a commission on a more expensive iPhone or HDTV. Some may say that RadioShack's inventory has simply mirrored a larger shift to a disposable society, where computers are locked down and unable to be tinkered with. But the emergence of the popular Raspberry Pi suggests otherwise. Did you know you can buy the Pi at RadioShack? Maybe if, like the Apple Store, RadioShack held various classes and workshops for working with their products, this might've been a larger market for them.

Yet even that shift alone might not have saved RadioShack. "Call it death by a thousand cuts," said one marketing professor, citing many other changes that have made RadioShack obsolete. For example, as much as RadioShack hawks its cell phones, those very products may also be killing the store. Almost everything RadioShack sold in 1991 can now be done with cell phone apps. Why buy a dozen bulky gadgets when several 99-cent digital widgets can perform the same functions?

Regardless of the chain's current worth, it's always sad to see an old friend go — especially one that, for Apple II users, is still a useful source for batteries and cassette players. It seems unlikely RadioShack can reverse their downward spiral. But we'll always have memories of their years of value to the community.

(Hat tip to Bryan Villados)

The logo everyone carries

September 29th, 2014 11:49 AM
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Ever since I left Computerworld for a new job in Boston, my daily commute has included public transit. Although some people may prefer the agency and solitude of driving to work, I enjoy letting someone else drive while I kick back for a relaxing ride.

Not being a smartphone owner, I'm not much for passing the time with calls, texts, games, or apps. Since my eyes aren't glued to a pocket-sized screen, I've done plenty of people-watching in my two years on the bus and subway. It's hard to ignore how smartphones have proliferated into everyone's hands — most days, I see more digital diversions than the print publications I still enjoy. As someone whose career was founded in print, I feel a bit sad about its demise.

But on a completely different track, I also feel heartened when I see everyone holding not just smartphones, but iPhones. These devices are a far cry from the machine we celebrate on Open Apple and in Juiced.GS — yet from those humble beginnings sprang an empire that has worked its way into the lives of millions. I look around the sybway and see in everyone's hands and pockets the same logo that was on the computer on which I learned to program, to write, and to game.

Subway iPhone

Image courtesy Jens Schott Knudsen.

As a college instructor, I've had plenty of students who have never used an Apple II or don't even know what one is. And in a way, that's okay, because some part of the Apple II has survived to today. The scrappy company born in a garage was so successful in marketing a product to me and my contemporaries that they grew beyond our wildest dreams.

Every morning, I see more Apple users on the subway than I've ever seen at KansasFest. To the makers of that smartphone, I think, "Well done, guys" — and to the people using them, I think, "You're welcome."