Unboxing & Let's Play Retro Fever

March 10th, 2014 1:01 PM
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In November 2012, I stumbled into success on YouTube when I posted an unboxing video. It's a genre I discovered during my six years at Computerworld: point the camera at a new tech product and narrate as you open its packaging and dissect its contents. A month later, I delved into another genre, this one introduced to me by the narrator of Open Apple: Let's Play videos, in which gameplay footage is captured and combined with running commentary.

Yes — people actually watch me open boxes and play video games on YouTube, such that humanity has spent an aggregate of fifty years on my channel.

I don't understand it, but if the interest is there, I'm happy to bring it to bear on the Apple II. I applied these two video styles last year to Zéphyr, the 1987 action game recently published by Brutal Deluxe. Today, I bring my attention to Retro Fever, a new game from budding programmer Brian Picchi.

An unboxing video of a new Apple II product may be even more pointless than the average unboxing. Says PBS of the genre, "[Unboxing] videos show what the products ARE, without the annoying filter of marketing." Yet almost no Apple II product has a marketing budget to begin with, allowing for a more WYSIWYG experience from conception to purchase.

Nonetheless, there you have it: my first experience with the first Apple II game to be published in 2014. Get your own copy for free or in hardcopy, or play it online, at Brian Picchi's website — and learn more about how he became the programmer he is today in the March 2014 issue of Juiced.GS.

Eye of the Dot Matrix Tiger

March 2nd, 2014 10:49 PM
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We already know that storage media are musical instruments, with floppy disks playing the Star Wars theme and hard drives producing a rendition of the Imperial March. Now printers are getting in on the orchestral action. Behold as a dot matrix printer plays "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky:

Such magic is a combination of custom hardware and software. Says the video's creator on how you too can produce this tune:

Learn about electronics, reverse engineering, embedded software development, maybe some hardware description language, the MIDI protocol and some music theory (how notes relate to frequencies). Then take your printer apart, find out how it works, disconnect the original processor from everything you need and add your custom built electronics…

The MIDI files have to be edited a bit to be played on the printer: some channels need to be disabled (percussion stuff), some are transposed to avoid exceeding the frequency limit. Also the volume of the individual instruments never fits when the original settings are used.

Get started with the MIDI file that was adapted to this purpose; it's available for download.

(Hat tip to Geekologie via Colin Druce-McFadden, Geeks Are Sexy, Brendan Robert, and Mark LaPlante)

Teaching computer classes to seniors

February 24th, 2014 11:23 AM
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A year ago this month, the Gulf Coast News of Baldwin County, Alabama, reported how Anne Hinrichs, 74, got her start on the Apple II; now she's helping other seniors get their start with modern computing.:

As a typist in the 70s, she realized computers and word processing were the future of her profession. Anne bought an Apple II computer in 1977 right after she accepted a job typing for a court reporter.

"I took the computer apart and put it back together again so I would know the ins and outs of it," she said.

Anne's interest in computers grew quickly. It became a hobby that soon turned into a job. In addition to typing, she contracted with Olensky Brothers in Mobile, setting up computer systems in offices and teaching people how to use them.

As computer technology became more and more complex, Anne immersed herself in learning. Instead of reading novels, she read computer books. And she never gave up on something challenging, like learning computer languages.

Hinrichs may no longer be teaching on the Apple II, but she still has her original machine:

Anne Hinrichs

Photo by Jill Clair Gentry of the Gulf Coast Today staff.

Alas, her students are not learning on the Apple II, but it makes me wonder if certain demographics would cotton better to that platform, given that kids at the Joseph Sears School in Illinois are playing on retrocomputers. A common stereotype is that today's kids have a natural affinity for technology, since they have grown up alongside it. Is learning the Apple II therefore easier for them? Or is it more challenging, since they are accustomed to GUI interfaces and mobile devices, neither of which the 8-bit Apple II naturally accommodates? How easily do they transfer what they learn on the Apple II to a modern platform — or are these skills transferable at all?

Likewise, would seniors do best with older computers and then graduate to modern platforms, just as Hinrichs did? Or does it make more sense for them to jump right into today's machinery, with no background or context?

I've never had to teach computer literacy so don't know where I would begin. But whatever her platform of choice, I'm glad Hinrichs hasn't stopped!

KansasFest 2014 teaser

February 17th, 2014 2:15 PM
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Today, the KansasFest committee released this image:
KansasFest 2014 teaser

The blog post had no title (-20 to SEO), no body (-10), no ALT or TITLE tags (-5), and no informative filename (kfest2014.png) or slug (kfest-2014-teaser) — that is to say, no hidden clues.

But that isn't to say we can't make some inferences. Today is not the first time the KansasFest committee issued a teaser in advance of announcing the keynote speaker. In 2012, they posted this image to their Web site:

Quake logo

Three guesses who's coming to KansasFest 2012 — and the first two don't count.


The image made no attempt at being obtuse: gamers quickly recognized it as the logo of Quake, a quintessential first-person shooter from id software, original creators of the Apple IIGS game Wolfenstein 3D. Early id employees included Softdisk alumni John Romero and John Carmack, as well as former KansasFest keynote speaker Lane Roathe. Carmack still has a streak of the retrocomputing enthusiast in him:


Given Carmack's commitments to id and Oculus, it seemed unlikely he was available to speak at an Apple II convention. That left only John Romero — who was confirmed only hours later with an official press release.

So what can we learn from this latest image out of KansasFest? It features an entirely different style from the logos used for KansasFests 2006–2013. Presuming this teaser image is in fact the 2014 logo, and that its departure from tradition is not merely for aesthetic purposes, we should investigate its influences.

Fortunately, the committee has made this part easy. The logo was posted to not only the KansasFest blog, but also various social media sites, including the Softalk Forever group on Facebook. There, KansasFest publicist Peter Neubauer confirmed that this logo was designed in collaboration with committee chair Tony Diaz, who "created a new font using letters captured from original issues."

Softalk #1

The debut issue of Softalk.


I'm not a former reader of Softalk, so I read Steve Weyhrich's history of the publication. Of the names that were associated with the magazine over the years, two stand out. According to Wikipedia, "Softalk along with founder/editor Margot Comstock and founder/publisher Al Tommervik are named as pioneers of the microcomputer industry in the Smithsonian Institution." Of the two, Comstock is an active participant in the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook. She has also collaborated with Mike Maginnis on providing material to the Apple II Scans project.

Perhaps Comstock is too obvious a choice for this year's keynote speaker — after all, the committee has done an excellent job in recent years of bringing unexpected celebrities out of the woodwork, such as John Romero, Mark Simonsen, David Szetela, and Randy Wigginton. But who else associated with Softalk would fit in the impressive lineup of past speakers?

No matter what, I'll be at KansasFest 2014. But for an opening act? My money's on Comstock.

Open Apple turns three

February 10th, 2014 12:44 PM
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Last week marked a significant milestone: the third anniversary of Open Apple. The monthly Apple II podcast launched on February 7, 2011, giving me pause to reflect how this adventure began.

Open AppleI first had the idea for an Apple II podcast on Sunday, April 12, 2009, while listening to the TrekCast. If there could be a podcast about Star Trek, a show that's been off the air for four years, why not one about a computer that's not been manufactured for 16? I had the topic, but no structure — I thought Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I could just spitball news and memories for a few hours, break it up into some monthly episodes, and see what happened. But nothing did.

Fast forward to August 12, 2010, when I started compiling a list of domain names that would be attractive to an Apple II user. I shared that list with some fellow KansasFest attendees, prompting Mike Maginnis to identify himself as the owner of open-apple.net, a domain I'd investigated and found to be held by a private registrant. I asked him what he was planning to do with the domain, and he said he'd been thinking of launching a podcast — a marvelous synchronicity! Given my previous enthusiasm for the idea, I asked if I could could piggyback on his initiative. He, Andy, and I started brainstorming what the show would sound like. We chatted with the hosts of the RetroMacCast for technical suggestions, built a Web site, and recorded some practice sessions (there exists a complete, unaired "episode zero").

Finally, on February 5, 2011, Andy and I crowded into the Computerworld recording studio, called Mike on Skype, and recorded our first episode… twice, due to technical difficulties. Two days later, we put the first episode online. Until that day, only the three of us were aware Open Apple was launching; it came as a complete surprise to everyone else.

Now it's three years later, and we just aired our 35th episodeactually our 41st, due to some inconsistent episode numbering. In total, the show has produced 59 hours and 39 minutes of airtime about the Apple II. If Open Apple were a sitcom, it would've been running for 162 episodes, or eight seasons.

It's amazing how effective Mike and Andy have been at turning a concept into reality. Every month, they keep the show moving by scouring the Web for news and guests, booking recording times, and getting the word out that we are the only monthly Apple II podcast, and the only co-hosted podcast. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, of course — there are several other excellent retrocomputing podcasts out there. But just as the podcasts support each other, so too do the crew of Open Apple, making real what no one person could've done.

My thanks to everyone who's built and supported this wonderful community outlet, from the hosts to the guests to the listeners. Here's to many more years on the air!

Also read my co-host's more thoughtful and detailed reflection on our podcast's history.

Wizard of Id

February 3rd, 2014 1:32 PM
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Although I am not and have never been a reader of newspapers, I grew up in a household that purchased five every day. I would abscond with the only section that mattered to me: the comic strips.

Although online publishing has granted us an abundance of exclusive content in the form of webcomics, I still enjoy the old standbys originally found in print. I read my daily funnies via GoComics.com — some of which are new to me (Heavenly Nostrils), others because they remind me of old favorites (The Argyle Sweater), and others because, despite often not being funny, they are old, familiar friends.

In that last category is Wizard of Id, launched in 1964, which follows the king, wizard, and soldiers of the medieval Kingdom of Id and its Idiots. The strip frequently makes anachronistic jokes and references — a recent one, as Bill Loguidice documented, is a reference to the strip's appearance on the Apple II.

In 1984, Sierra On-Line, publisher of landmark point-and-click adventure games such as King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry, also put out two games based on the Wizard of Id. With the Apple II being popular in education, it made sense to shoehorn this license into a pair of edutainment titles. One was Wizard of Id's WizType:

The game is broken into two sections: The first section pits players as the Wiz, matching wits against the Evil Spirit, an apparition that lives in the Wizard's vat. The Wizard must quickly type out the words that the Evil Spirit gives him in order to diminish the Spirit and win the round. Failure to spell words properly, or taking too long to spell results in the Evil Spirit morphing into a dragon, and singing the Wizard to a crisp.

The second part of the game has the player trying to keep up with Bung the Jester. In this segment, players must type out a pre-written paragraph in order to keep pace with Bung, who is hopping along the words on a pogo stick.

The other was Wizard of Id's Wizmath:

Spook needs to escape from the King of Id's dungeons. He slips out but Turnkey is in pursuit. He needs to solve math problems to open the way to his escape.

Wizard of Id's WizMath is an educational game to teach mathematics. Using your joystick, you must move blocks into place so they complete a correct math problem and answer. If you push against a block, you will send it flying until it hits a wall or another block. You can also face a block and hold down the button. While keeping the button down, you can then slide the block as needed. There is a sixty second time limit and you are being pursued by Turnkey. Early levels require only one math problem to exit but later levels require two or more.

Early in the game, you can select a floor on an elevator. The higher the floor, the more difficult the math problems. The game also asks your age. The older you say you are, the higher a floor it tries to start you on, although you can select a lower floor.

Whereas WizType was published for the Apple II, Commdore 64, Atari, and DOS, MobyGames indicates Wizmath was released for only C64 and the video game console ColecoVision.

Edutainment titles don't have much appeal beyond their young demographic, but a point-and-click adventure might've aged well. That's the parody that Loguidice recently shared. Why this strip just recently posted a reflection on life in 1984, I'm unsure — unless they were tying into the 30-year anniversary of the release of the Apple Macintosh, even though that platform didn't have a corner on the adventure game market. Still, it's a fun opportunity to reflect on not just the early history of licensed games, but the adventure genre that is making a comeback, courtesy multiple Kickstarter revivals.

UPDATE (Mar 5, 2014): There was also at least one B.C. game for the Apple II — Quest for Tires!