Dust cover

September 12th, 2016 8:49 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods;
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I'm someone who likes to keep his Apple II at the ready: you never know when you'll need to convert a disk image, access an old document, or just chill with a round of Oregon Trail. At my last two day jobs, I had easy access to my IIGS, with it occupying a position of prominence on my office desk, right next to my work-supplied machine. It was a great diversion, conversation piece, and point of pride.

Sadly, my current workplace has not yet been graced by my favorite retrocomputer. Bringing outside, unmanaged machines into a HIPAA-compliant environment is always frowned upon; that and other factors have compounded to leave my Apple IIGS at home, where it's kept in storage.

Fortunately, I recently cleaned and reorganized my unfinished basement such that my Apple II gear now has a dedicated workspace. It's not convenient, but at least it's neat, visible, and easy to find.

Still, a basement is a basement, and all the dust and other particles from elsewhere in the house will eventually settle there. Wanting to keep my Apple II clean from falling particulates but lacking the rolltop desk of my childhood, I asked on Facebook's Apple II Enthusiasts group, "Any recommendations for a dust cover?"

I was surprised by many of the answers I received, which included Saran wrap, garbage bags, and pillow cases. All these affordable, makeshift approaches were offered sincerely, but they didn't strike me as particularly retro or especially classy — an Apple II doesn't deserve to ever be placed in a garbage bag!!

Sean Fahey of A2Central.com to the rescue: he pointed me to an eBay listing for a "Heavy Duty Clear Vinyl Waterproof Desktop Computer Monitor & Keyboard Dust Cover". The well-rated seller has hundreds of the item available for only $14.90 each with free shipping within the USA. The product arrived 48 hours after I ordered it and came with two separate covers: one each for the computer and the keyboard. The computer case is clear, sturdy, and spacious rather than form-fitting (measuring 19" tall, 17" wide and 16" deep). In this photo, you can see it enveloping the Apple II with room to spare:

Dust cover

Bubble computer.

Since the cover is hardly touching the Apple II itself, it comes off easy, making for easy access to the machine, which might not have been the case with a garbage bag or plastic wrap. (While those would be good for a computer in storage, I can't imagine them facilitating use of the protected Apple II.)

So thanks, Sean, for steering me to a product that meets both my functional and aesthetic needs!

Pittsburgh Dad plays Oregon Trail

September 5th, 2016 10:51 AM
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Members of the Apple II community can at times express a certain "get off my lawn!" mentality, railing against today's youth and their new-fangled computers. Fortunately, this behavior is often in good fun: while a reasoned critique comparing old and new computers and enthusiasts can be well-founded, any actual castigation against a younger generation is often more self-effacing, tinged with a note of jealousy of how much better and easier things are now.

Actor Curt Wootton has made such parody his entire schtick with his YouTube series, "Pittsburgh Dad". His one-man, five-minute episodes offer a crotchety perspective on modern media and conveniences, including Pokémon GO, iPhones, and Captain America.

In the latest episode, Pittsburgh Dad plays Oregon Trail:

It's funny to see this behavior from someone just four months older than me. And yet, it's hard to imagine anyone I know from KansasFest playing Oregon Trail with this attitude. We tend to be enthusiastic evangelists for our niche hobby, and beating someone else over the head with it isn't going to convert them to our cause. I suppose that's why it's parody, eh?

(Also, I wonder if Dad knew that the malapropistic floppy label "Organ Trail" represents an actual game?)

For more of Pittsburgh Dad's takes on retro technology, check out the episode where he replaced his kids' Grand Theft Auto game with E.T. for the Atari 2600.

(Hat tip to Cat Morgan)

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.

Gaming at @party

August 22nd, 2016 12:57 PM
Filed under Game trail, Happenings;
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It's not often I get to evangelize the Apple II outside our own community — KansasFest, Juiced.GS, and the Retro Computing Roundtable are preaching to the choir, essentially. When I do get to speak to other audiences, it's usually those who "get" retrocomputing but may not know the details of this specific platform.

Such was the case in 2012 at @party, a demoparty held annually here in Boston. It's a venue for programmers of any and all retrocomputers to strut their stuff by creating the most complex, elaborate, and impressive graphical and aural demos in the most constrained spaces. Despite not being a programmer, I attended the founding event in 2010 and was invited back in 2012 to represent the Apple II community.

My favorite anecdote of that day came when I bumped into another attendee outside the event venue. The front door was locked, and while we waited to be buzzed in, we introduced ourselves by first names. I asked what Mike's interest was in the demoscene, after which he asked why I was attending. I said I was one of several people invited to represent various communities. Mike asked what community I was representing, and I said the Apple II.

At which point he stopped, looked at me, and exclaimed, "You're Ken Gagne!" Who knew Mike Erwin was an Open Apple listener?

That wasn't the only revelation of the day. The presentation I gave, "The Apple II Lives! KansasFest And Beyond", a variation on a presentation I'd given to the Denver Apple Pi users group the previous summer, cited many examples of games that had made the Apple II both popular and memorable. My goal was to not only demonstrate the impact that the machine had had on the computing landscape of the 1980s, but to appeal to the nostalgia of the audience's non-Apple II users who may've nonetheless encountered these franchises on other platforms.

The presentation (executed in Prezi) was well-received, but the most surprising response came from someone who had used the Apple II solely as a productivity machine. Her experience had been limited to VisiCalc, AppleWorks, and Dazzle Draw, completely omitting such classics as Lode Runner, Choplifter, Ultima, and King's Quest.

I was sad that anyone would come so close to such a great gaming machine and have overlooked what made it great to me — not everyone is a gamer, but I know this person to be, and while her background with the Apple II was as valid as my own, I couldn't help but feel like she'd missed something wonderful. But I was also glad for the opportunity @party presented me to give a more complete picture of the Apple II's legacy and livelihood. It's never too late to discover the Apple II's library of games!

Pokémon GO

August 15th, 2016 9:24 AM
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On July 6, 2016, Pokémon GO was released for iOS and Android.

This mobile game in the 20-year-old franchise throws good UX/UI design and traditional social engagement out the window — yet it's quickly garnered more users and engagement than Twitter, Tinder, Snapchat, and Instagram. Not only that, but it released fewer than two weeks before KansasFest.

While at Rockhurst University, roommate Andy Molloy and I took an evening stroll around campus, finding and capturing the infamous pocket monsters while I introduced him to the game's mechanics. Only a week earlier, Kevin Savetz and I had been learning the basics ourselves as we explored downtown Portland, Oregon.

It wasn't Pokémon that brought me, Kevin, and Andy together in the first place, of course — it was the Apple II. And just like with Kerbal Space Program, we're not above porting our favorite games back to our favorite machine.

What would Pokémon GO look like on the Apple II? Charles Mangin tried but failed to conceive of such a thing:

Pokémon GO

Meanwhile, Steve Weyhrich, a long-time gamer, "gets" Pokémon GO and how to adapt it to the Apple II — if not programmatically, then thematically:

OK, game programmers, here is a concept for you to work on:

"Retro Go", a game in which Professor Woz sends you out on a quest to "catch 'em all"! You start with an Apple II, a TRS 80, or Commodore PET and then set off on your journey.

Along the way, you will see various retro computers, peripherals, or software appear in your path. When you see them, frisbee-throw a floppy disk to capture it for your collection.

When you capture enough retro equipment, take it to the user group meeting to battle it out between the various platforms and level up. Apple II versus Macintosh! Atari versus C64! ZX spectrum against IBM PCjr!

Don't let retro arguments be battled out in terms of rational platform performance – see how a level 124 TRS 80 Model 100 with the power of "LCD dazzle" fares against a level 80 Atari 800 with with modem and its "ANTIC smash" attack!

Don't spend REAL money on eBay- use this game to collect every Apple II model "in the wild" and put it on display in your retro bag. Earns the respect of Professor Woz as the greatest retro trainer of them all!

I'd catch that!

For more on Pokémon GO, listen to my podcast interview with Serenity Caldwell on Polygamer #49:

Apple IIe vs iMac throwdown

August 8th, 2016 9:22 AM
Filed under Mainstream coverage;
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In 2010, the Apple iPad was brand new, having just been released that past April. At the time, I was an editor at Computerworld, where I provided annual coverage of KansasFest, the world's premiere Apple II convention. Unlike Juiced.GS magazine, whose readers are retrocomputing enthusiasts, Computerworld's website had a more general audience, requiring I connect our favorite 8-bit machine to something more modern and relevant — such as the iPad.

Thanks to the loan of Loren Damewood's iPad and Tony Diaz's Apple Graphics Tablet, I produced the photo gallery "Face-off: 1979 Apple Graphics Tablet vs. 2010 Apple iPad". Comparing a drawing tablet to a tablet computer was, of course, ridiculous; a fairer comparison would've been to compare the Apple Graphics Tablet to a Wacom tablet. But where's the fun in a fair fight?

The esteemed WIRED magazine adopted a similar philosophy when they recently pit ancient technology against new. They took an Apple IIe and an iMac — coincidentally, my father's first and last computers — and compared their specs, dimensions, expansibility, and more. The resulting smackdown is this two-minute video:

When I bought my first Macintosh in 1997, I did so begrudgingly, to comply with the requirements of my university. At the time, I felt my Apple IIGS could still do everything I needed from a modern machine. Times have changed, of course, and an Apple II is no longer a viable primary computer for someone who wants to engage in mainstream multimedia, gaming, and social networking. But it's fun to see WIRED still acknowledge some of the foresight Apple had in designing their first machines, giving it strengths that modern computers lack.

Today's computers may be more powerful — but that doesn't necessarily make them "better".

(Hat tip to David Schmenk)