Steve Wozniak's Formative AMA

March 21st, 2016 11:39 AM
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Steve Wozniak may be a rambling storyteller, but he still has stories to tell. All he needs is structure and editing — which social news site reddit recently provided when Woz participated in their original video series:

FORMATIVE aims to explore one defining moment in a person’s life. We’ll sit down with eight creators utilizing technology: travel back in time to when that moment occurred, hear about the circumstances surrounding it in their own words, then return to present day and see how it has influenced their lives.

As part of a series of origin stories, Formative focuses on Woz's early partnership with Steve Jobs, debunking the myth that Apple was founded in a garage but also relating the passion and enthusiasm he had for digital computing. I never knew that Woz didn't see his future in this field — not due to lack of interest or confidence, but because the field was so new, he didn't know it could be anything more than a hobby. It was inspiring to know that one of our heroes found his passion before it became his career.

Complementing the release of the video, Woz hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA), which uses the reddit message board as a live chat wherein anyone can submit questions for the host. Over the course of a few hours, Woz answered nearly two dozen questions, ranging from the FBI-Apple encryption dispute to "Outback vs In-n-out?" Two of my favorites:

Q: Even though you left in 1985, what was your relationship with the company like after, and how has that changed compared to now? Are you, for example, allowed to go and visit any colleagues that still work there or are you simply another outsider?

A: … I always was on good terms with Apple and they always liked me, I'm always welcome. I could come by, Steve Jobs would always make sure I had a badge that could get me into any building. I didn't use it much, but I can go there. The only trouble is I'll get mobbed.

Q: Who was the first person to call you 'Woz'?

A: … I found out later in life that almost every Wozniak gets the nickname Woz over time. Their friends just start calling them that. My uncle is Uncle Woz. My son, his friends call him Woz, and I turn to my kid and I realize they’re talking to Gary instead. So it goes back. It's just nice.

Among the more fun answers were also some meatier ones open to analysis. Minda Zetlin of Inc. interpreted one of Woz's responses as him being out of touch with what makes modern-day Apple. Inc so great: "Woz is an uber-geek, and there's a common mistake most geeks make: They think technological capability is all that matters. They don't care about design, usability, or marketing — three areas where Steve Jobs's genius really shone through."

No wonder Woz is a hero to the Apple II community: design is important, but we're more hackers than consumers, interested on what's inside than in how it looks.

Between the video and the AMA, there's a lot of insightful, focused, original commentary from Apple's legendary co-founder. As much as we think we know everything about Woz, he always has something new to share.

Plangman on IndieSider

March 14th, 2016 11:03 AM
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Candidates for my biweekly IndieSider podcast can be difficult to come by. The show looks behind the scenes at the development of indie (self-published) computer and video games, of which there are many — the indie tag on software distribution platform Steam currently lists 7,391 titles, with more being added every day.

But I limit IndieSider to games that I like, so as to avoid an awkward conversation with a developer of "Why does your game suck?" I instead look for games that offer original experiences and progressive gameplay in genres that I like: action, adventure, puzzle, narrative. There's then an evaluation period where I test a game to determine if it'll be a good fit for the show.

The latest episode of IndieSider features a game that bypassed that evaluation entirely. No game has hit my sweet spot as neatly as Plangman, which caught my attention in the first two seconds of its trailer:

A platform game with the puzzle elements of Hangman and featuring what appeared to be the runner from Microsoft's Olympic Decathlon as the protagonist? Was this game somehow made for me?!

I was quick to get developer Ehren von Lehe on the phone for episode #39 of IndieSider. Through Facebook and Juiced.GS, I thought I knew almost all the major Apple II players out there. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Ehren's interest in the Apple II is as alive and well as any retrocomputing enthusiast. Plangman was inspired by watching his daughter play with his own Apple II, recently taken out of mothballs. The playable character is based on Captain Goodnight, not the Olympic decathlete. Ehren mentioned an Infocom documentary also played a role. Aha! Another fan of Jason Scott's GET LAMP. When I added that Jason had been the keynote speaker at an annual Apple II convention, Ehren asked, "Is that KansasFest?" It was almost as if Ehren and I had been members of the same community for years and had never met!

The resulting conversation can be heard in this audio podcast:

or this video

It's not unusual for my gaming pursuits to introduce me to people who got their start on the Apple II and who remember the platform fondly. It's unprecedented for me to encounter in that course someone who's actively keeping the Apple II alive through modern software development. If you want a retro aesthetic in a new game, I highly recommend you check out Plangman.

(Hat tip to Javy Gwaltney)

Dinner with Woz

March 7th, 2016 12:22 PM
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Steve Wozniak is a helluva nice guy. He'll share the same anecdotes in a stream of consciousness, but he'll rarely say a bad word about anyone or anything. He is also, as you know, a complete and utter genius, without whom there'd be no Apple Inc., Apple-1, Apple II, KansasFest, or Juiced.GS.

How much would you pay to spend an hour in the company of such a person — not just to hear him speak on stage at a conference, but to have his ear and his wisdom for an hour?

The current bid is $5,100 in this eBay auction for dinner with Woz. If you can get yourself and three friends to Silicon Valley, you can have the opportunity to dine with the co-founder of Apple.

It's not unusual for celebrities to donate their time and talent to charities. In this case, Woz is doing it as a favor for his friend, Matt Spergel: "The proceeds of this auction will benefit East Bay Live Music, a new type of live music promotional service which aspires to provide musicians with an easier way to make a living doing what they love. Once funds are raised, it will be taken to market."

But wait — there's more!

ChampagneWinning bidder will also receive a one-of-a-kind unopened bottle of wine from the Apple IPO party which can be signed at dinner by Woz. This bottle was originally given to Marty Spergel by Steve Jobs, a business partner of Apple Computer in its early history. Winner must be at least 21 years of age to receive this bottle.

This auction is a bit rich for my blood — it's already more than twice than what the Castle Wolfenstein painting, which I bid on, went for. But I hope whoever wins makes it an evening to remember!

(Hat tip to David Pierini)

Tim Schafer's Ball Blazer piracy

February 29th, 2016 9:28 AM
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Tim Schafer, whose Double Fine Adventure blew the roof off Kickstarter, has been in the video game industry for nearly 30 years, having worked on such adventure games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. But the launch of his career was nearly torpedoed by an inadvertent admission of youthful piracy.

In 1989, 22-year-old Schafer was applying for his first job. Atari and Hewlett-Packard, which had been the proving ground for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, respectively, both turned down the aspiring game designer. The first glimmer of hope shone when he netted a phone interview with David Fox of Lucasfilm Games, the group responsible for not only the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, but also several original properties. Schafer gushed over his love for the company's games:

I called David Fox right away and scribbled all the notes you see while I was talking to him. I told him how much I wanted to work at Lucasfilm, not because of Star Wars, but because I loved, "Ball Blaster."

"Ball Blaster, eh?" he said.

"Yeah! I love Ball Blaster!" I said. It was true. I had broken a joystick playing that game on my Atari 800.

"Well, the name of the game is Ball Blazer." Mr. Fox said, curtly. "It was only called Ball Blaster in the pirated version."

Gulp.

Totally busted. It was true — I had played the pirated version. There, I said it. Now, if you’ve ever pirated one of my games you don't need to feel bad, because I did it to Lucasfilm Games when I was in high school. Of course, if you’ve pirated two or more of my games, that's a different story.

Fortunately, Schafer recovered from this stumble: he busted out his Koala Pad and designed a résumé in the style of a graphic adventure game — a ballsy move, appropriately enough. It worked, earning him a job offer as Assistant Designer / Programmer with an annual salary of $27,000 in 1989 dollars. (For comparison, my first salary after college was $25,300, fifteen years after Schafer was making $27K. In 2016 dollars, my first job paid $34,239 while Schafer was making $51,587. Perhaps crime does pay.)

The rest, as they say, is history. You can get the full story on Schafer's blog, where, in 2009, in the twentieth anniversary of that first job offer, he related the whole affair, with scans of his applications, rejections, and offers.

(Hat tip to Jonathon Myers via Anna Megill)

Volkswagen's EPA source code

February 22nd, 2016 9:21 AM
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A year ago, Jalopnik published the story "Autonomous Cars Will Rob Us Of Our Freedom To Be Unproductive", showing a motorist using an Apple II behind the wheel. The unlikely choice of computer could be attributed to the article's author, Jason Torchinsky, a well-known Apple II enthusiast. If you can work any computer into your writing, why not choose your favorite?

This past October, Jason upped his game. "The EPA May Have Found A Second Secret Defeat Device In Diesel VWs" revealed that Volkswagen may have rigged their vehicles to past certain environmental quality tests. Here's the picture Jason used, Apple III and all:

Volkswagen EPA hack

But Jason took it one step further by revealing the source code Volkswagen used to cheat the Environmental Protection Agency:


10 REM SECRET CHEAT CODE #2 STARTS HERE
20 PR#2: REM SET OUTPUT TO INTERNAL CENTER STACK SCREEN
30 PRINT "ARE YOU CURRENTLY TESTING EMISSIONS FOR THE EPA? HIT HORN FOR 'YES', TAP BRAKE FOR 'NO'" : INPUT A$
40 IF A$="HORN" THEN EM$="YES"
50 IF A$="BRAKE" THEN EM$="NO"
60 IF EM$="YES" THEN POKE 232, 64: REM TURNS CLEAN EMISSIONS ON
70 IF EM$="NO" THEN POKE 232, 0: REM GO AHEAD AND RUN IT DIRTY
80 END

Not only are the cars dirty, but so's the code: a more elegant hack could be written in half as many lines. But given that it's likely been decades since any Jalopnik reader saw Applesoft BASIC, it's impressive that Jason got away with including any code at all!

(Hat tip to Jayson Elliot)

Europe's first Apple II

February 15th, 2016 8:03 AM
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Despite the impressive portfolios of such groups as Brutal Deluxe, the FTA, and French Touch, the Apple II was not as big in Europe and especially the United Kingdom as it was in the United States. Domestic machines, such as the BBC Micro or ZX Spectrum, had more inroads into the European personal computer market.

But were it not for Stephen Brewer, the Apple II's overseas footprint might've been even smaller, or completely nonexistent. John Kennedy at the Silicon Republic reports:

After learning about the first Macintosh computers, Brewer and his brother Michael sold everything they had, raised £400,000 and flew to a computer trade show in New York to meet Steve Jobs. After convincing Jobs to give them the first distributorship for Apple Computer in the UK, the Brewer brothers built up a thriving computer business called Microsense that, at its zenith, had a turnover of more than £20m before Apple acquired the company, and Brewer joined the board of Apple during its pivotal early growth years.

That story is told in this interview:

But it wasn't strictly a business relationship. Brewer has this surprising recollection of Steve Jobs:

"He was a good guy. I remember, I think it was June, 1979, I arrived in Cupertino, and he said, 'Stephen, I hope you haven't got have any plans for tonight, because we're having a barbecue for your birthday.' He was that sort of guy, and I feel that successful people are often like that: they care about the individual."

From this interview and anecdote, both Brewer and Jobs come across as transatlantic counterparts: kind, thoughtful individuals with a passion to bring personal computing to the masses. That description, being the opposite impression of the ruthless businessman needed to succeed in Silicon Valley, doesn't fit with what we know of Steve Jobs. Perhaps he had his moments of grace.

Regardless, this partnership helped spread the Apple II's influence across the globe, making for what remains to this day a global community — one that still enjoys its barbecues.

KFest Kookout

Kirk Mitchell at KansasFest 2005