Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

In ten years I'll be cool

August 24th, 2015 9:07 AM
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I don't remember ever not having an Apple II in my house — and our early acquaintance made for a rough childhood. My very small elementary school class was composed primarily of jocks who didn't take kindly to bookworms and computer nerds, producing an unwelcoming environment, to say the least. I often wondered, would it ever get better?

I didn't have to wait long to find out. Ten years after middle school, I was in a college where computer prowess was lauded; ten years after that, the things I was into as a kid were mainstream and cool.

So if you ever wonder if things get better, just wait ten years — that's the time in which geeks become hip, as detailed in H.P. Mendoza's music video, "In Ten Years", off the 2004 album Everything Is Pop:

And yep, that's an Apple II in the first shot — or at least, it appears to be. Says Charles Mangin, "It looks like a II or II Plus with the badge on the cover removed, or a close clone. The drive certainly looks like a Disk II with the Apple logo removed or covered." The first game of the video being King's Quest (with Sir Graham later getting jiggy) seems to cement the theory.

We shouldn't be surprised. Of course Apple II users are cool! Wil Wheaton would agree: it's awesome to be a nerd.

(Hat tip to Infamous Quests, with whom I appeared on a panel this past spring about point-and-click adventure games!)

The personal touch

June 15th, 2015 8:35 AM
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I love the Internet and social media: email, Twitter, and Facebook have made it possible to reach people who'd never otherwise be accessible, and easier than ever to remain in contact with friends and family near and far.

But there's still something to be said for taking our communications offline. KansasFest is the most obvious example, when we get to welcome new users to our community and catch up with long-time attendees. Newcomers who think this event is a one-time affair to check off their bucket list are often discover the energy and camaraderie they find there is addicting, requiring the event become an annual staple in their calendar.

But for those who can't make it to KansasFest, it doesn't take much to let them know they're remembered. Eight years ago in the September 2007 issue of Juiced.GS, Peter Watson of MUG! fame wrote:

In 1992, I was fortunate enough to attend KansasFest in its heyday when it was still run by Tom Weishaar at Avila College… Unfortunately I haven't been able to make it back since… But every year I read all the plans and wish I could win a lottery so I could attend…

Today that vicarious KFest experience came a little closer and a little less "imaginary" when a postcard from Kansas City arrived in the mail … I read the greetings from many of the other attendees at KFest as well, and I can honestly say I was touched. Heck, "blown away" might be a better description!

I'd just like to say "Thank you!" to the people who took the time to sign the card. It would have taken seconds of your time, but it's created a memory for me that will last much, much longer!

The Apple II was and is a special computer partly because of the people that were attracted to it, and who stayed. I've seen another example of those people today.

I'm reminded of this gesture by Steve Wozniak, who recently spoke at the University of Buffalo. Despite his affinity for technology, Woz was once reminded of the power of not letting machines express express his gratitude for him:

When Wozniak was on Dancing with the Stars in 2009, he figured he would be voted off the show right away, so he should buy gifts for all the cast early on. He made gifts for all the cast with joke books, $2 bills, business cards and computerized letters about what a great time had and how to contact him.

"And then I thought, like education when I was giving computers to schools, it you have a lot of money, it's easy to give money away but not to give yourself," Wozniak said. "That's why I started teaching. If you really have it in your heart, it's got to be more than words."

He decided to just write handwritten letters to all 26 members of the celebrity and professional dance crew.

Woz gave us the tools and infrastructure that brought us together and keeps us together; we should never discount their utility. But let us remember the significance of occasionally disconnecting and using other means to let our fellow community members know they are thought of and appreciated.

Bride of the Wizard King e-book on Kickstarter

May 11th, 2015 10:59 AM
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For artists and developers who feel constraints breed creativity, the Apple II is a perfect platform for their pursuits: games, music, even arts & crafts have been created on or inspired by the machine.

But what about books — and especially graphic novels? There are books about the Apple II — but how many were created on it?

Perhaps not many — and that's what Australian author Myles Stonecutter is looking to fix. His 90-page children's book The Bride of the Wizard King is illustrated entirely on an Apple IIe using the Blazing Paddles software. The book is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter:

Although a fascinating concept, two elements seem to be lacking from the Kickstarter pitch. First, it's not entirely clear what format the book will take. Two sizes of hardcovers as well as an e-book are listed among the rewards — but will the e-book be a PDF, ePub, Mobi, Kindle, iBook, or something else? If it's an app, will it feature any interactivity or other features not found in traditional printed books? Second, it's unclear what the funding — $9,386 USD, or $12,000 AUD — will be used for. "The creative work is completed," says the project description. "Thus far I have looked at Lulu, Blurb and Snapfish as likely online print-on-demand companies to get the initial printing done." Does the print-on-demand route require such a large up-front investment? I'm unsure.

Although the project still has more than three weeks to go, it seems unlikely that it will meet its goal, having achieved only 5% of its desired crowdfunding in the first week. Should the Kickstarter fall flat, I hope Stonecutter finds another way to get his completed work into the hands of the masses.

(Hat tip to Seth Sternberger)

A half-decade of Apple II blogging

April 27th, 2015 7:49 AM
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When I joined the Juiced.GS staff in 2002 as associate editor, I was given a quarterly column in which to ruminate about whatever Apple II topic I wanted. Over the next 16 issues, I wrote about exploring Boston with Ryan Suenaga, the passing of Gary Utter, BASIC programming, and more. The freedom write about whatever struck my fancy, combined with the structure of writing on a quarterly schedule, was enjoyable and inspiring.

Starting with volume 11, I become editor-in-chief of Juiced.GS and handed my column to Eric Shepherd. I still had my own column in the form of the quarterly editorial, but this one was a lengthier and a bit more formal and on-topic to the magazine. I've enjoyed writing it for ten years — but halfway through that run, I decided I wanted something more. I decided a blog would not only give me more options in what content to write and how to present it, such as the embedding of photos and video; it would also be timelier than a quarterly print pub could be, allowing pieces that were shorter but more relevant to everything that happens between issues of Juiced.GS.

Thus was born Apple II Bits, which turns five years old this Wednesday. A twice-weekly column for the first two years, and "only" weekly for the next three, it's now produced 367 posts — which, at Juiced.GS's publication rate, would've taken me 92 years to write.

Friends outside the retrocomputing community are baffled how I can find something new to say about the Apple II every week. While there are times that it can be challenging, finding a topic generally isn't all that hard: there's always someone releasing a new game, or developing hardware, or publishing a podcast to keep the Apple II alive and well. I enjoy this regular opportunity to be creative and hone my writing on the topic that made me a writer in the first place. My thanks to all the creators and readers that make this blog possible.

For a less fascinating and more quantitative look at this site's growth since last year, continue reading.

  • • As of today, the site hosts 367 posts (52 more than this time last year), 1823 tags (+186), 441 comments (+31) from 133 readers (+4), and 1 blogger. With the exception of the number of posts, each of these numbers is growing more slowly year-over-year.
  • • Year-to-year, our pageviews were down 8% and unique visitors down 8% in our fifth year. This is the second consecutive year of decline in traffic.
  • • Our busiest day was August 1, 2014. I have no idea what people were doing here that day.
  • • Our top posts three in the past year were all from 2011:"Selling to Pawn Stars", "Best computer games from the '80s", and "Taking the Apple II online with Uthernet". These were our top three posts the previous year, too. Correspondingly, the top search terms leading visitors to this site are "chris espinosa net worth" and "best apple ii games".
  • • Our top referrals were from A2Central.com, Twitter, and Facebook. This is the first time StumbleUpon did not break the top three and Facebook did.
  • • Traffic from mobile devices was up 10%, and from tablets, down 7%
  • • In the past year, we blocked 18,590 pieces of spam, down from 121,301 the previous year — WOW! More than half of all that spam came in October and November 2014 alone.

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)