Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Holiday shopping on eBay

November 27th, 2016 10:14 AM
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My family never learned thrift; if something was old or worn, we'd replace it instead of repair it. And if used items weren't good enough for us, they were certainly not good enough to give as gifts. Every Christmas, we'd bestow and accept shiny, shrinkwrapped goods, representing the latest merchandise that retail had to offer.

That's a shame, because so many Apple II products can no longer be had new. There's a growing market of original or replicated hardware, to be sure — but if I want something vintage, the only way to affordably acquire it is used. As a result, no one from my family will ever think to shop for my Christmas gift on eBay.

The Retro Computing Roundtable podcast has a gift guide that they update with each biweekly episode. There's plenty of new and retro tech in there, but my favorite suggestion to come from this group was when the hosts collaborated on a Juiced.GS gift guide. In that article, Carrington Vanston had the brilliant idea to give someone a subscription to a classic Apple II magazine, such as Nibble or inCider/A+. Though those publications have been out of print for decades, old issues can be acquired from eBay or AbeBooks, then individually mailed to the gift's intended recipient on a monthly basis.

Apple II magazines, books, and periodicals

Used Apple II magazines, books, and periodicals abound, as seen at KansasFest 2016.

I love this idea. The first and only Apple II magazine I've ever subscribed to is Juiced.GS, which I haven't received in the mail since June 2007. I miss finding Apple II news, reviews, and interviews in my mailbox. The only way to make it happen is to plunder the bounty of years gone by, salvaging previously read issues from the stores of eBay.

That sounds better than finding anything new under my Christmas tree.

Quarterly work on Juiced.GS

November 21st, 2016 1:08 PM
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Juiced.GS is an Apple II print magazine that magically arrives in subscribers' mailboxes every quarter. The time in between each issue might seem restful before the staff makes a mad dash to the finish line. But the reality is that Juiced.GS production occurs in every month of the year.

Each issue gets three months, and each month gets put to good use:

  1. Write the articles.
  2. Edit and lay out the articles.
  3. Publish the magazine.

There is some overlap between issues — for example, assignments for the December issue are usually doled out in August or September, so that once the September issue ships, writers can immediately start working toward the next deadline.

For next month's issue, writers were given a deadline of Friday, November 11. I intended to read their submissions while on the ten-hour round-trip bus ride between Boston and New York City, where I was attending GaymerX East. Unfortunately, that mode of transit didn't prove conductive to editing, pushing my work out to the following weekend.

So, this past Saturday, I finally read six Juiced.GS articles. Each one took about an hour to undergo this process:

  1. Print the article in hardcopy.
  2. Read it once without touching my pen so that I can focus on large questions: Did the writer understand the assignment? Does he answer the questions the article set out to address? Does one section flow naturally into the next?
  3. Read it again with red pen, addressing mechanics (word choice, punctuation) and scribbling questions into the margins.
  4. Transcribe all annotations into Microsoft Word using Track Changes.
  5. If there are still questions or areas that need revision, send back to the author for a second draft, due one week later.
  6. Upon receiving the second draft, or if the first draft had no questions, send the article to Andy Molloy for a second edit.

Once I get Andy's revisions, I lay the content out in the Juiced.GS template using Pages v4.1. Once I have a few articles done, I send a PDF to the entire staff for review and commentary. After incorporating their feedback, I then send each article to its respective author for one last review, to ensure no errors were introduced during editing or layout.

Once all content is in place, it's off to the printshop. If I deliver the PDF by Tuesday morning, I can pick up my order Wednesday night. Some friends and I have a stuffing party, with the assembled magazines being mailed Thursday morning.

But I need to prepare more than just the magazine for that party; the mailing envelopes are their own beast. So this weekend, I checked my supply of catalog envelopes and Avery labels; if I was short on either, I'd order more from Amazon.com. If I needed more return address labels, I'd order those, too. All this needs to be done a month in advance, to allow time for shipping to my house.

I also need to get stamps. At the time of this writing, an issue mailed within the USA costs $1.36, or two 68¢ stamps; to Canada or Mexico, it's $2.71, which is $2 + 68¢ + 3¢; everywhere else, it's $4.16, or $2 + $2 + 10¢ + 5¢ + 1¢. I need so many of each that many post offices don't appreciate me clearing out their supply, sometimes outright refusing to fulfill my shopping list, despite having the stock with which to do so. This weekend, for the first time, I ordered the stamps online. (Except the 5¢ stamps, for which the online minimum order is 10,000 stamps. Juiced.GS's subscriber base is somewhere south of that.)

Once all that's assembled, I recruit friends or relatives to a labeling party, where we combine the envelopes, address labels, return address labels, stamps, and "DO NOT BEND" rubber stamp.

And all that is just what's happening on the editing and publishing side; it doesn't take into account the research and wordsmithing that all the writers, both staff and freelance, do.

But it's all worth it. This past September, I took a draft of Juiced.GS with me on a weekend getaway. As I read the brilliance that so many community members had volunteered to share in our magazine's pages, I stopped and said aloud: "I'm so lucky I get to do this."

Juiced.GS is a lot of work — and a lot of fun.

Apple II companies are people

November 14th, 2016 3:15 PM
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I engage in as much online commerce as I do offline. Whether I'm buying a hot chocolate at the local coffee shop or going to the movies to see the latest Marvel movie, or I'm buying a book on Amazon.com or a mobile app from Apple, I don't personally know the people handling my transaction. We're polite to each other and treat each other with respect — as any decent human being should — but we don't take the time to address each other by name or inquire as to each other's wellbeing. Once the transaction is complete, the interaction is concluded and the relationship ends.

The Apple II industry is different. The size of each company is proportionate to the size of the community — that is, small. While my credit card receipts may show me to have patronized such companies as RetroConnector, a2RetroSystems, and Manila Gear (to name a few), I never saw it that way. Rather, I was supporting Charles Mangin, Glenn Jones, and Jon Co & John Valdezco. Each of these technical geniuses have long been members of the Apple II community, supporting it not just with their inventions (off which they rarely, if ever, profit), but with their camaraderie on IRC and Twitter and at KansasFest. Through their long commitment to the platform and their people, they've earned our trust, friendship, and patronage.

This reputation isn't reserved to the privileged few who are able to make their way to KansasFest and meet these vendors; for example, Glenn Jones and Jon Co have yet to make their way from Canada and Australia to our Midwest convention. Given our geographic diversity, a lot of community-building is instead accomplished online. For my part, it's not enough to let the Juiced.GS store's automatic receipts be a new customer's first impression. I personally email each new subscriber to ask them how they came to our publication and what their history with the Apple II is. You can say that I'm doing so to build customer retention or to scout potential content contributors — and you wouldn't be wrong. But that alone would not be enough. I cherish my quarterly mailing parties where I get to see the name on each mailing label and recall the stories of each person this community has introduced me to.

I've grown so accustomed to these personal interactions that, when I have the opposite experience within the Apple II community, it's noticeable and jarring. Such is the case with 8bitdo's recent Kickstarter to create the AP40, an Apple II-themed game controller with Apple II-compatible wireless receiver. While I was excited by the prospects of the hardware, I was surprised to see it come from an organization our community had never heard of. I've since exchanged several emails with the AP40's creators, but I never once had my inquisitiveness or enthusiasm reciprocated. When I mentioned possibly reviewing their hardware for Juiced.GS, they glossed over it; their emails are always signed with their company's name, not an individual's; the campaign had few progress updates; and the pitch video featured none of the talent responsible for the product. They seem utterly uninterested in the Apple II community or being a part of it.

If this were Amazon.com, a coffee shop, or Apple, I wouldn't bat an eye at such behavior; it'd be expected. But in the Apple II community, AP40's outsider status and indifference is unmistakeable. I was so disappointed and dissatisfied that I ultimately requested that my Kickstarter pledge be cancelled [see comments below for more details]. Maybe I'm a snob for refusing to associate with those outside some Apple II "inner circle". But I was always taught to "support those who support the Apple II" — and support takes many forms.

Encrypting the web for retrocomputers

October 24th, 2016 11:53 AM
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Earlier this month, for only the second time ever, I took the helm as host of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast.

Whoever hosts an episode of RCR must come to the table with an opening topic: some issue that the co-hosts can debate and articulate in the show's first ten minutes. For this episode, I raised an issue inspired by this very website: should we support emerging web standards at the cost of backward compatibility with retrocomputers?

This matter landed on my radar when my two web hosts, DreamHost and WP Engine, started supporting Let's Encrypt, a source for free Secure Socket Layer certificates that would otherwise cost tens or hundreds of dollars per domain per year. SSL ensures that a user's online experience was secure, which historically has been important for sites trading in e-commerce, healthcare, and other confidential consumer data. But now, Google is giving a search engine ranking boost to any website that uses SSL, whether or not the site's contents and transactions would benefit from it. Since SSL certificates are now free and every site benefits from having one, there was nothing stopping me from applying them to all my WordPress blogs.
Let's Encrypt
I stopped short on Apple II Bits, though. This is a website about 8-bit and 16-bit computers, and the only browsers I know of for those machines — Contiki and Spectrum Internet Suite — support only websites that begin with HTTP, only HTTPS. Enabling SSL on Apple II Bits would mean that the website would no longer be accessible by the very computer the website is about.

How much should this concern me? Very little, suggested the hosts of RCR, arguing that few people surf the Web from their Apple II computers except as an amusement. Google Analytics supports this notion: examining the list of browsers used to access this website in the last year, I see 28 different browsers, from Chrome, Firefox, and Safari down to BlackBerry, Nintendo, PlayStation 3, Sony Vita, Amazon Silk, and even Cốc Cốc. But out of 13,520 sessions, I don't see a single one from a browser that identifies itself as running on an Apple II.

Besides, content can be intended for Apple II users without being accessible from an Apple II. The Retro Computing Roundtable is distributed as an MP3, and Juiced.GS is published in hardcopy; neither can be downloaded and consumed using an Apple II.

The World Wide Web is an evolving medium with emerging standards; thanks to the W3C, we rest assured that most modern browsers will comply with these standards, producing a uniform user experience. If webmasters make their best effort to comply with these standards, then we mustn't put the onus on them to accommodate browsers that do not or cannot meet these standards. Sadly, that may mean excluding the Apple II; fortunately, it's a price to be paid by no one visiting this site.

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?