Iconic 1977 Apple pillow at PAX East

March 25th, 2019 10:31 AM
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Last fall, I contributed to Roberto Hoyos' Kickstarter for "The Iconic Pillow Collection", which would deliver soft, plush pillows modeled after classic Apple products. Mine arrived about a month ago and is everything it was advertised to be.

It's also a great complement for my handmade, one-of-a-kind floppy pillow — though clearly there's a discrepancy in scale between the two.

A floppy disk pillow next to the Apple II pillow.

Objects in pillow may be larger than they appear.

The Apple II pillow is now on sale in the Throwboy store for $39.99. But the best outcome of this Kickstarter is still to be realized.

Every year, I attend PAX East, a massive video game convention in Boston, Massachusetts whose attendance is roughly 600 times that of KansasFest. I do my best to represent the Apple II at PAX, whether by hosting panels about classic game genres or bringing an actual Apple II to PAX.

This year, I was assembling a panel of artists who make crafts inspired by classic gaming hardware and software. It didn't take me long to realize I had just backed such an artist on Kickstarter! I reached out to Roberto Hoyos, CEO of Throwboy and co-host of the podcast That Thing You Made, and he enthusiastically answered my call.

Our collaboration will be "The Art of Craft: Inspiring Game Creations", being held Sunday, March 31, 1:30–2:30 PM in Arachnid Theatre.

Slide with panel details

Video games are art — and art imitates video games. The characters, colors, and aesthetics of our favorite digital worlds have spawned an industry of apparel and crafts that keep us warm and add a flair of the fantastic to ourselves and our homes. We'll hear from amateur, hobbyist, and professional artists and creators about the inspirations and tools they use to create, enjoy, and sell their custom clothes, jewelry, furniture, paintings, and more.

Featuring:

Follow along with the #paxcraft hashtag on Twitter, and expect Apple II pillows on display in force!!

4am's Anti-M now available

March 18th, 2019 8:55 AM
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Editing several Juiced.GS articles on copy protection and assembling them into a single PDF has given me a second-hand opportunity to learn all the ways that Apple II floppy disks could be made uncopiable. While defeating piracy is a publisher's right, copy protection can also create unnecessary and often unanticipated hurdles for legitimate software owners.

4am to the rescue. This anonymous hacker debuted on the Apple II scene five years ago last month and has since preserved hundreds of programs that might've otherwise been lost to history. Not only does 4am tackle individual disks and protection schemes; they also look for patterns that can be anticipated and automatically defeated, resulting in the cracking program Passport.

4am's latest challenge: a pre-boot program that enables floppy disks to boot on machines not yet invented when the software was published. Its prerelease name was BroderBooter.

Just a week later, the program was officially released under a different name, Anti-M.

Having never directly encountered the problem that Anti-M solves, I asked for more details. 4am patiently walked me through this program's purpose.

They wrote:

Certain early games by Broderbund and Gebelli Software failed to boot on a //e or later. They would boot partway then display an "M" error code because they were looking for a "genuine" Apple ROM and didn't recognize the //e. I wrote a program to control the boot process long enough (just patching in memory, never on disk) to disable the ROM check and allow these games to boot on any Apple II. [S]o you run my "pre-booter" program, insert your original disk (Choplifter or whatever, lots of different games supported), and press RETURN. That's it. Then the magic starts, boot tracing and patching memory. But all you'll see is your game boot and load instead of erroring out. It'll be open source and hosted on GitHub, but I won't link to it here until the big 1.0 announcement.

Twitter being what it is, even the creator of that ROM check popped into the conversation.

I'm glad we have someone like 4am watching out for those Apple II users trying to keep their machines and floppies alive!

(Hat tip to Andrew Roughan)

Mark Pelczarski & Spy's Demise

March 11th, 2019 2:07 PM
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From the IIe's release in 1983 to when I switched to the Apple IIGS in 1988, I used the Apple II primarily as a gaming machine. Many of our family's games were cracked, pirated copies, though I can't tell you where they came from — perhaps our local Apple retailer snuck them to my dad on the sly, or my older brothers were exchanging floppies on the playground. Regardless, it exposed me to many quirky titles that I may otherwise never have encountered.

One such game was Spy's Demise. As a kid growing up watching Inspector Gadget and reading Dungeons & Dragons novels such as Hero of Washington Square, I knew all about spies! (Mission: Impossible's 1988 revival and reruns of Get Smart! wouldn't come until later.) But demise? Not if I had anything to do about it!

Spy's Demise was an action game in which players navigated a spy across the horizontal floors of a building, avoiding a collision course with elevators as they vertically travel their shafts. It reminded me of Elevator Action, a Data East coin-op that my father and I would play together on family vacations.

I doubt I ever finished the game or even knew that there was an ending. Those who did get that far were presented with a hidden cryptogram and a phone number to call. What they got for their efforts, I don't know, but based on other prizes of the era offered by Nintendo or Atari, I'd guess it was a sew-on patch with the company logo.

It wasn't until researching this post that I also learned the game had a sequel, The Spy Strikes Back!, which offers a top-down view as the spy tries to avoid motion-sensing drones.

What brings these games to mind after so many years is last week's announcement of the KansasFest 2019 keynote speaker. Mark Pelczarski is the co-author of The Spy Strikes Back! and the founder of Penguin Software, the company that published both Spy games as well as many others, including Translyvania and The Coveted Mirror. Pelczarski was also a columnist for Softalk and, before that, a high-school math teacher and college instructor of computer science. His LinkedIn profile outlines his many contributions since then to education, democracy, and web development.

Today, his roles include "consulting regarding software, data mining and integrity, and web security". No doubt this expertise in online security and cryptography originated with leaving clues and secrets for early Apple II spies. I look forward to meeting the secret agent who sent me on so many missions!

A visit to the Media Archaeology Lab

March 4th, 2019 6:16 AM
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I've gotten to explore some fantastic computer museums in the company of Apple II users: the Boston Museum of Science with Ryan Suenaga; the Computer History Museum with Martin Haye; Living Computers: Museum + Labs with Olivier Guinart; the Strong Museum of Play with Andy Molloy. Last month, I enjoyed another such adventure, this one to the Media Archaeology Lab with Chris Torrence.

The MAL is in Boulder, Colorado, a place I briefly lived and to which I was now returning on business. I work for Automattic, a completely distributed company whose employees all work remotely. Instead of a traditional office, where everyone works together for fifty weeks a year then gets two weeks of vacation apart, Automattic flips that model: we spend only two weeks together a year, at two week-long team meetups. My first meetup of 2019 was in Boulder, giving me the perfect excuse to extend my stay for a visit to the MAL.

Another convenient synchronicity was that, just two months earlier, I'd started selling Steve Weyhrich's book, Sophistication & Simplicity. Steve permitted me to donate a few copies of his book to libraries and museums, so I emailed some historians to ask what institutions I should target. Jason Scott suggested the MAL, a museum that I was vaguely aware of from Chris Torrence volunteering there. I pitched him a donation of S&S as well as a complete collection of Juiced.GS, and he enthusiastically accepted. Instead of mailing so much heavy Apple II literature, my Automattic trip would enable me to personally deliver it, followed by a tour of the MAL!

The MAL resides in the basement of a building near the local university campus. Three rooms are accessible to the public, with the main lobby hosting one long table of operational Apple computers, and another table filled with other brands and models. Like the Living Computers museum of Seattle, Washington, MAL's artifacts are meant to be used: shelves are filled to the ceiling with classic software, mainly games, waiting to be played. I booted up an Apple IIe for a round of Oregon Trail, naming my wagonmates after fellow Apple II users, while Chris fiddled with getting BattleChess to work on the IIGS.

The back room, the second-largest room in the MAL, holds a dozen or so game consoles, all connected to CRT televisions. Chris and I rotated through several two-player Nintendo games, including Super Dodge Ball and Double Dragon II. I also tried the Vectrex, an all-in-one game console and display unit released by Milton Bradley in late 1982 and discontinued in early 1984. I was familiar with the Vectrex but had never gotten hands-on experience with one before. Its vector graphics, similar to an Asteroids coin-op, were bright and vivid — though playing the Star Trek game reminded me that this console is from an era where gameplay was not intuitive, and a thorough reading of the manual was essential.

I enjoyed my time at the MAL and wish I'd been able to stay longer. The assortment of not just digital technology, but all media, was fascinating, from computers to record players to oscilloscopes. As much as I'm a retrocomputing enthusiast, there is plenty of history and media I've still to discover. There are few places better to do so than the MAL.

Commander Keen & Softdisk PC in the news

February 25th, 2019 2:49 PM
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Ever since game consoles started featuring Internet connectivity and online stores, the number of downloadable games to choose from has exploded. With no need to manufacture or distribute expensive physical units, almost any indie developer can publish a game online. Often, these are small, indie titles with almost no marketing or name recognition flooding the online catalog. But while recently browsing the Nintendo Switch's eShop, I saw a old familiar name that caught my eye: Commander Keen, in his original adventure.

That name may not ring a bell to Apple II users, as Commander Keen was originally released in 1990 for MS-DOS only, with a Game Boy Color sequel arriving over a decade later. But look behind the scenes of this franchise from id Software, and you'll find a familiar lineage: Tom Hall, John Carmack, John Romero, and Adrian Carmack. These four creators founded id Software specifically to publish Commander Keen after originally developing the game while working at Softdisk. It was at Softdisk that Romero and company also created such memorable Apple II titles as Dangerous Dave.

So what's behind this sudden revival of Commander Keen? Once again, LoadingReadyRun has the full story in the latest CheckPoint:

Just like how John Carmack still loves his Apple II, and John Romero ported Dangerous Dave to iOS, it's great to know that former id Software creative director Tom Hall is still passionate about his classic games. Even if we'll never see an Apple II port, let's hope Commander Keen's Switch release is a sign of things to come.

So Many Things music video

February 18th, 2019 11:10 AM
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More than a decade ago, I found myself wishing the Apple II community had a music video as cool as Comic Bakery's Commodore 64 song.

In recent years, Steve Weyhrich has amply filled that niche with his numerous KansasFest parody music videos. But somehow, another contender flew under my radar.

Joe Strosnider hosts Joe's Computer Museum, a lively YouTube channel filled with reviews of Apple II peripherals, repair tutorials, and tribute videos. Joe — whose license plate happens to be "6502" — in also an active member of the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook, where I missed his September 2016 post debuting a unique and creative addition to his videography: the music video "So Many Things".

This original composition is a tour de force of everything we love about the Apple II and all the amazing things it can do. It even features callouts to the Facebook group and to KansasFest (though, to the best of my knowledge, Joe's not yet made that annual sojourn). Full tech specs and lyrics are listed in the video's description.

Shoutout to Joe for this awesome contribution to the Apple II's music video library! Take that, Commodore 64.