Archive for the ‘Mainstream coverage’ Category

The Apple II is everywhere, as evidenced by these reports.

Affordable — unlike the Apple II

April 15th, 2019 9:46 AM
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The Apple II was a turning point in the computer revolution, making spreadsheets and games available in an attractive, accessible fashion to
professionals and students everywhere. Garry Kasparaov called it "the last technological revolution", and many entrepreneurs and innovators have since tried to recapture that magic. But they aim is sometimes off in identifying what made the Apple II special.

Project BLUE is a robotic arm being developed in UC Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab as part of the answer to the question, "How can AI change the robot design paradigm?"

After a three year effort across a multidisciplinary team of more than 15 researchers, we’ve designed, built, and tested BLUE — the Berkeley robot for Learning in Unstructured Environments. BLUE is a low-cost, high-performance robot that is intrinsically safe, developed from the ground up with ever-increasing Artificial Intelligence capabilities in mind.

MIT Technology Review reported news of BLUE's development, focusing on its affordable, low-cost nature. The headline for that story was "This may be the Apple II of AI-driven robot arms". The headline is derived from UC Berkeley postdoc Stephen McKinley saying, "Without a low-cost platform— an Apple II-type device— experimentation, trial and error, and productive research will continue to move slowly."

But the Apple II was never affordable. When it was first revealed 42 years ago, it cost $1,298 — the equivalent of $5,445 today. Compare that to the Commodore 64, which cost $595 in 1982, or $1,567 today. A consumder could buy almost four Commodore 64 computers for the cost of one Apple II — a leading factor why the Commodore 64 sold 12.5–17 million units, compared to the Apple II's 5–6 million.

Burt Ratan had it more accurate when he compared space tourism to the Apple II: something that affluent early adopters bought into. Whether it's a trip to the space station, a personal computer, or a robotic arm, investment in any early technology will pave the way for more affordable and innovative products. But when shooting to replicate the success of the Apple II, don't pretend that affordability is something your product it has in common.

Razer's Min-Liang Tan

April 1st, 2019 12:20 PM
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Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are well-known developers of game consoles — but some players prefer to interface with those devices with third-party peripherals. When they do, Razer is one of the go-to manufacturers of controllers, keyboards, and mice. Razer is also yet another modern game company that might not exist if not for the Apple II, which got 41-year-old Razer founder Min-Liang Tan hooked on gaming. He waxed eloquent about these classic games in this recent interview with Abacus News.

Tan got his start on Lode Runner and Rescue Raiders, but he specifically called out Ultima IV's virtue system as being groundbreaking. "All of a sudden, it wasn't just about hack and slash and killing everything. You need some kind of a moral code."

I'm not familiar with the Apple II's adoption rate in Tan's native Singapore, but it apparently made its way into Tan's hands when it mattered most. As far as I know, Tan never developed hardware or software for the Apple II, unlike Steve Chiang, the current Executive Vice President of Worldwide Production and Studios at Warner Bros. Games. But that he remembers those classic titles all these decades later and cites them among his favorites is a testament to the influence and staying power of Apple II games.

Maybe we'll see Razer developing new Apple II joysticks next!

Where is Carmen Sandiego? On Netflix!

January 28th, 2019 10:50 AM
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I like to say that I got my start as a professional writer in the print industry, working for such publications as The Boston Herald and various MediaNews daily papers. But even before then, my first freelance writing assignment was for the Gamers Forum on CompuServe, whose sysop gave me a review copy of a Carmen Sandiego game for the Apple II.

I was still a preteen and was utterly unschooled in how to conduct a professional review. All I knew was that I'd been given a computer game for free, which for a kid was like Christmas in July! The resulting review was gushing, which I thought was a fair exchange for this bounty I'd been given. Between my amateurish writing and my lack of context for the review — I'd never played any DOS / Windows games and didn't know how the Apple II compared — the editor ultimately killed the review. I was more embarrassed by the experience than I was grateful that I got to keep the game.

Nonetheless, Carmen Sandiego has a soft spot in my heart: whatever factors may've unduly influenced my review, I did sincerely enjoy the puzzle-solving and using the reference book the game came with to decipher the history and geography of our country and world. It was nerdy and neat and actually educational in a way that Oregon Trail rarely was.

So my interest was absolutely piqued when I discovered Netflix was premiering a new Carmen Sandiego animated series.

This is not the scarlet thief's first appearance on television. First was the 1991 game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, perhaps most memorable for its Rockapella theme song, followed by the 1996 game show Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? In between, there was the 1994 animated series Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?. Of the three, I'd seen only the original game show, and even that only in passing; once again, I'm lacking context.

But the biggest change seems to be that Carmen Sandiego is now the protagonist. Whereas the original cartoon had her defecting from ACME Detective Agency to work for the Villains' International League of Evil, Netflix's series flips that: this young, teenaged Carmen Sandiego has defected from V.I.L.E. and now travels the world stealing back that which her former colleagues have stolen from their rightful owners. In both, Carmen communicates with "Player" — but whereas the original Player was an invisible, live-action character, here, he's a white-hat hacker who remotely partners with Carmen to get her past security intended to keep her out.

I've watched the first two of eight episodes, and I've liked what I've seen: Sandiego is a moral character who values teammates and teamwork but will stand up to her friends to be true to herself. I'm told there are homages, actors, and recurring characters from other Carmen Sandiego media, but I've not yet seen anything that references her Apple II roots.

Even if the new cartoon doesn't directly acknowledge the character's origins, it's still great to see the our favorite retrocomputer's legacy continue to this day. Where on Earth would Carmen Sandiego be without the Apple II?

… Just don't ask me to review it.

(Hat tips to TV Guide and Mashable via Susan Arendt and Sabriel Mastin)

Lego Ideas floppy disk

January 14th, 2019 2:42 PM
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Like many kids, I grew up playing with Lego. I loved following the instructions and turning small bricks into large ideas that looked exactly as envisioned on the box. But I rarely went beyond that prescribed route and into the realm of possibility: I had no interest in modifying the castles and spaceships into something original. That way lay chaos, whereas what I needed to instill in my life was order.

Lego has since extended into such media as movies and video games, but the physical bricks are still as popular as ever. They've even learned to crowdsource their designs in a way that young Ken almost certainly would not have taken advantage of: submit your own design for consideration to be made into an official set!

A recent submission to this Lego Ideas process is "The Disk", a floppy disk composed of Lego pieces. It's the first creation from a seven-year-old account and was submitted on January 2, 2019. It received 100 votes by January 7, adding 365 days to its original voting period of 60 days — but will it meet its goal by the new deadline of March 2, 2020?

Lego floppy disk

Everything I know about the Lego Ideas crowdfunding site comes from my friend Maia Weinstock, who created the Women of NASA Lego set. From an interview with Maia on Space.com: "Each set submitted to the program first goes through a public vetting process, in which the set must receive 10,000 votes from the public before being considered by the company." Her set met that threshold, was positively received by the powers that be, and is now an official Lego set.

It wasn't easy for Maia to reach that goal, nor was it her first attempt. Her first Lego proposal was the Legal Justice League, later revised to the Legal Justice Team, which earned 4,026 votes. Her media blitz to get out the vote included recruiting me and my podcast co-host Sabriel Mastin to stage a photo shoot:

Even with that effort, 4,026 votes still fell shy of the necessary 10,000. I suspect more people are familiar with the Supreme Court than they are floppy disks, so by comparison, "The Disk" seems too niche to reach the voting minimum and then be approved by Lego. Both floppy disks and the Women of NASA are broadly in the category of tech history, but I see more cultural, historical value in the Women of NASA. Until floppy disks get their own Hidden Figures moment, it seems likely that children playing with Lego today will know floppy disks only as the save icon in Microsoft Word; to build their own, they'll have to get creative and see what's possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)

Steves manga on Kickstarter

December 3rd, 2018 9:45 AM
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Movie, documentary, graphic novel, opera — the story of Steve Jobs has been adapted to multiple media. Rarely does his counterpart, Steve Wozniak, share that top billing, despite having played as essential a role (if not more so) in the founding and success of Apple. But in 2014, one publication not only corrected that oversight; they also brought Apple's story to an entirely new format.

Steves is a six-volume manga, introducing us to the founders of Apple in a quintessentially Japanese style. The author, Keiichi Matsunaga, has a long history with the Apple brand: "I was pulled into this world when I saw the beautiful computer, the Apple II, in Akihabara when I was a student," he writes. His version of the Apple story is based on true events but is highly fictionalized and dramatized, as is typical of anime and manga.

A page from volume 1

Remember, manga is read right-to-left.

The only problem for us Western readers: the book was published in Japanese. Fortunately, there's now a Kickstarter to translate Steves into English.

All eight chapters of the first volume, which spans the invention of the Apple II through the introduction of Mike Markkula, have already been translated and are available online for free through December 18. I read the first chapter and enjoyed the dramatic retelling of various historical anecdotes, chuckling aloud at Woz's brilliance and Jobs' arrogance.

Getting the remaining volumes in English is no cheap affair: the Kickstarter offers no physical editions, and the entry point for getting them digitally starts at $60. The most affordable reward is $10 for the first digital volume, which, as mentioned, is already free. In the creators' reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), they were asked, "Do you have any plan of hard copy option for this Kickstarter project?" Their answer: "Most unfortunately, we do not at this time. If you know any publishers who might be interested in printing it please give us a shout!"

At the time of this blog post, the Kickstarter campaign has raised about 28% of its goal and has less than half its fundraising period left. The website Kicktraq says the project is trending toward only 47% of its goal by the December 17 deadline. I hope this project succeeds, but if they don't, I encourage them to research alternative publication and distribution methods and return to Kickstarter with more attractive rewards.

Woz and Jobs walk into the sunset

(Hat tip to Anime News Network)

Apple IIc at BostonFIG

October 1st, 2018 7:03 AM
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One of my favorite annual traditions is the Boston Festival of Indie Games, or BostonFIG. Currently in its seventh year, this one-day event held at MIT is an opportunity for independent game developers to exhibit their works in progress and new releases. I love the creativity on display, where game designers who are not beholden to major studios can demonstrate original game ideas and concepts, be they commercially viable or simply interesting.

Interactive fiction has made appearances at BostonFIG before, and this year's festival was no exception. The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is based out of Boston, and their booth this year showed off everything from Infocom games (perhaps not indie, but Boston-based!) to the more recent Hadean Lands (whose Kickstarter I supported way back in 2010!). The IFTF is such a staple of BostonFIG that I was chatting with its organizers for a minute before I realized something new right in front of me.

Apple IIc at BostonFIG

An Apple IIc… at BostonFIG!

I always thought it would be fun to bring an indie game like Lawless Legends to BostonFIG, but the IFTF beat me to it by using an Apple IIc to show off classic Infocom games. They were running off the original floppies, as opposed to 4am's newer Pitch Dark GUI. The table was manned by Andrew Plotkin, who I interviewed for Juiced.GS's cover story about interactive fiction seven years ago; and the Apple IIc was provided by Nick Montfort, an MIT professor whose book, Twisty Little Passages, Juiced.GS reviewed nine years ago.

So as to not block the table from interested festival-goers who might not already have heard the good word of interactive fiction, I didn't linger at the table. But I was very glad to see this precedent set, and I hope to see the Apple II at future BostonFIGs.