Without Me You're Nothing

September 17th, 2018 11:11 AM
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The spice must flow… as must the electrons. After Frank Herbert wrote the seminal science-fiction novel Dune in 1965, he shifted his sights from the far future to the near future, with the goal of demystifying a new technological arrival: the personal computer. The non-fiction result was Without Me You're Nothing: The Essential Guide to Home Computers.

Written by Herbert with assistance from Max Barnard, "a computer professional who handles both machines and programming and who designed Herbert's own home system", the book is a platform-agnostic guide to the basic functions of computer hardware, software, and programming. For example, the book breaks down the foreign vocabulary of information technology into more familiar concepts. Terms such as "input", "output", "CPU", and "memory" are instead referred to as "information", "action", "switching", and "storage", respectively. "Use the funny words if you must," says Herbert.

Without Me You're Nothing (is that Herbert talking to the computer — or to the readers?) was published in 1980 in hardcover (ISBN 0671412876) and a year later in paperback (ISBN 0671439642), both of which are readily available from libraries, Amazon.com, and eBay. Another paperback edition was released under the name The Home Computer Handbook in 1981 (ISBN 057503050X) and 1985 (ISBN 0450056317). These computer books form two of the six non-fiction books Herbert wrote in his lifetime.

Despite the multiple editions, I had never heard of this book until a friend introduced me to it. I was astonished that a science fiction author would branch out to something so practical and no-nonsense. William Touponce, author of the 1988 book Frank Herbert, made the connection:

[Herbert's] dominant intellectual impulse was not to mystify or set himself up as a prophet, but the opposite – to turn what powers of analysis he had (and they were considerable) over to his audience. And this impulse is as manifest in Dune… as it is in his computer book, Without Me You're Nothing.

Being nonspecific about what computers the reader uses, the book makes little to no reference about the Apple II specifically. The exception is a black-and-white photo of the Apple II opening Chapter 3: Meet Your New Machine — followed immediately by a photo of the Atari 400.

Of additional historical reference value are Appendix D, which includes the names and mailing addresses of the era's computer magazines (Byte in Peterborough, NH; Digital Design in Brookline, MA; ROM of Hampton, CT); and Appendix E: Microcomputer Accessories and Manufacturers, listing everything from Apple (770 Welch Road in Palo Alto) to Data General Corp (Southborough, MA) to Radio Shack (Fort Worth, TX).

I haven't read the book in-depth — to be honest, I wasn't a big fan of Dune — but it's nonetheless a fascinating artifact of how early computers were perceived and deciphered by early users, grounding even someone accustomed to looking among the stars.

Ready Player One's Richard Garriott inspiration

June 11th, 2018 1:01 PM
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Ready Player One was my favorite novel of 2011, providing a dystopian cyberpunk adventure targeted at geeks who grew up immersed in 1980s pop culture. I've since recognized the book's problematic elements with gatekeeping, transphobia, and fan service without substance … yet I still can't help but be fascinated by all the elements author Ernest Cline wove into his narrative.

With Ready Player One's recent adaptation to film, audiences are discovering anew the Oasis, the fictional virtual world created by James Halliday (played by Sir Mark Rylance), a virtuoso computer programmer who sets himself up as the massively multiplayer online role-playing game's benevolent (but absent) god. Many of Halliday's (and thus Cline's) favorite games make appearances in Ready Player One, and in this new WIRED interview, Cline details each and every game in the movie — with one in particular being of interest to Apple II users.

Turns out one of the Apple II's own played a major role in the story:

Akalabeth is one of the first attempts by a computer programmer to translate the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons into a computer game. It was created by Richard Garriott, who also helped serve as the inspiration for James Halliday. Richard Garriot is a famous video game designer from Austin, Texas, where I live, who has an alter-ego: his Dungeons & Dragons and game avatar called Lord British. He would dress up as Lord British in public at press events and things. He eventually ended up using his video-game money to travel into space and go on the International Space Station. He was really an inspiration to me as like a geek with unlimited funds and what could be accomplished. So he and Howard Hughes helped inspire James Halliday in my book. And his game, Akalabeth, and the games that followed it: Ultima I, II, III, IV, and then Ultima Online, the first MMO, those all helped inspire the Oasis in my novel.

While Garriott was directly referenced in the book, I didn't pick up any mentions in the movie. Little did I know that an entire, integral character was based on Lord British himself!

(Hat tip to Hades Kong via WTF Dragon)

A literary Oregon Trail

June 27th, 2016 11:07 PM
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Oregon Trail has been adapted, reimagined, and rebooted more times than we can count. It's become a live-action role-playing game, a movie trailer, and a zombie apocalypse. But at no point has the real-life journey of American pioneers circa 1836 been recreated — until now.

The Oregon Trail is a hardcover book released last summer, with the paperback hitting just this month on June 7. With a title like that, I assumed it to be an ode to the computer game that introduced a generation of students to personal computers. But this book — the fifth from Rinker Buck, born in 1950 — is something far more daring. Here's an Amazon.com synopsis from Jon Foro:

Well into middle-age, Rinker Buck found himself divorced, at the edge of bankruptcy, and growing blunt through the twin demons of ennui and alcohol … On a whim, he found himself in a museum at the head of the Oregon Trail, realizing that even as a fairly serious American history buff, he knew virtually nothing about the pivotal era when 400,000 pioneers made their way West in quests for land, gold, and new lives. On a much bigger whim, Buck decided to travel the 2,000 miles of ruts and superseding highways in a mule-driven wagon on his own “crazyass” quest for a new beginning. The result is a dense-yet-entertaining mix of memoir, history and adventure, as Buck– joined by another brother, Nick, and his “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl–struggle with the mechanical, environmental, and existential challenges posed by such an unusually grueling journey. Buck is an engaging writer, and while the book pushes 500 pages, the story never lags. By the end, you’ll know more about mules than you ever thought you would (just enough, actually), and you’ll have a better perspective on the Trail, its travelers, and the role it played in shaping the modern United States. (And is Rinker Buck not a pioneer-worthy name for an tale such as this?)

The book is available now on Amazon.com. Here's an excerpt of the author reading from the audiobook:

I'm not a huge fan of history, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey hits a sweet spot by intersecting with real and digital history. Even if the book never once mentions the game, I may need to pick it up to see what Buck's experience was and how it compares to that of the early settlers after two hundred years.

Steve Jobs: Genius by Design

December 7th, 2015 12:00 PM
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In the past two years, I've reviewed three Steve Jobs films for Computerworld. While that market may be saturated, there are still other media left in which to explore the history and personality of Apple's most infamous co-founder. So, while waiting for the 2017 debut of the opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, I hit up the local library for the graphic novel Steve Jobs: Genius By Design, by Jason Quinn and Amit Tayal.

It was a fun book, and one that presented Jobs in a much more human light than many interpretations. The comic book medium affords the opportunity to visualize its characters' internal monologues through thought balloons, giving us some insight into Jobs' drive even as he's denigrating his own employees. The art and language are fairly simple, by which I mean accessible — the 104-page book is rated for ages ten and up, cementing the book as being for young adults.

Still, I sometimes question the art and word choices. The opening page shows the entire cast of characters from throughout Jobs' life all chatting together. Here, Woz makes his debut, looking rather apish with dialogue that sounds forced.

But the book is a short read and a welcome reprieve from the cinematic interpretations of Steve Jobs.

Bride of the Wizard King e-book on Kickstarter

May 11th, 2015 10:59 AM
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For artists and developers who feel constraints breed creativity, the Apple II is a perfect platform for their pursuits: games, music, even arts & crafts have been created on or inspired by the machine.

But what about books — and especially graphic novels? There are books about the Apple II — but how many were created on it?

Perhaps not many — and that's what Australian author Myles Stonecutter is looking to fix. His 90-page children's book The Bride of the Wizard King is illustrated entirely on an Apple IIe using the Blazing Paddles software. The book is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter:

Although a fascinating concept, two elements seem to be lacking from the Kickstarter pitch. First, it's not entirely clear what format the book will take. Two sizes of hardcovers as well as an e-book are listed among the rewards — but will the e-book be a PDF, ePub, Mobi, Kindle, iBook, or something else? If it's an app, will it feature any interactivity or other features not found in traditional printed books? Second, it's unclear what the funding — $9,386 USD, or $12,000 AUD — will be used for. "The creative work is completed," says the project description. "Thus far I have looked at Lulu, Blurb and Snapfish as likely online print-on-demand companies to get the initial printing done." Does the print-on-demand route require such a large up-front investment? I'm unsure.

Although the project still has more than three weeks to go, it seems unlikely that it will meet its goal, having achieved only 5% of its desired crowdfunding in the first week. Should the Kickstarter fall flat, I hope Stonecutter finds another way to get his completed work into the hands of the masses.

(Hat tip to Seth Sternberger)

Replaying the founding of Apple

June 2nd, 2014 9:35 AM
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Gender Inclusive Game Design by Sheri Granar RayAfter recently finishing the Austin Grossman novel You, which featured many references to classic computers such as the Apple II and Commodore 64, I moved onto the 1986 novel Replay, a time travel tale by Ken Grimwood. It's a bit like Groundhog Day, except instead of the main character repeating the same day, he's reliving the same 25 years. As in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, he naturally uses his future knowledge to ensure his financial security — except where Biff Tannen relied solely on sporting events, Jeff Winston also plays the stock market, making investments in companies he knows are bound to succeed.

At one point, his wife laments to him a recent business meeting:

"Hippies, that's all they were. That tall boy was barefoot, for God's sake, and the other one looked like a…a Neanderthal!"

"Their idea has a lot of potential; it doesn't matter what they looked like."

"Well, somebody ought to tell them the sixties are over, if they want to do anything with that silly idea of theirs. I just don't believe you fell for it, and gave them all that money!"

He couldn't really blame her for the way she'd reacted; without benefit of foresight, the two young men and their garageful of secondhand electronic components would indeed seem unlikely candidates for a spot on the Fortune 500. But within five years that garage in Cupertino, California would be famous, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would prove to be the soundest investment of 1976. Jeff had given them half a million dollars, insisted they follow the advice of a retired young marketing executive from Intel they had recently met, and told them to make whatever they wanted as long as they continued to call it "Apple." He had let them keep forty-nine percent of the new enterprise.

"Who in the world would want a computer in their house? And what makes you think those scruffy boys really know how to make one, anyway?"

The ability of Grimwood's protagonist to meddle with history is inconsistent. In this particular 25-year bounce, all the hero's investments accomplish is to funnel various companies' profits into his bank account. But Steve Weyhrich of Sophistication & Simplicity points out how dramatically the above cash influx would alter Apple's evolution: "This person who invested $500,000 in Apple before Mike Markkula came around would potentially have made it unnecessary for Markkula, regardless of this investor’s recommendation. Markkula's personal involvement in the company would possibly have been diluted, since it was not his cash that was at risk. The outcome of the early days of Apple could have been quite different with a large, non-Markkula-based capital investment. Jobs would probably have decided he didn’'t need some old-school business person telling him what to do, which could have removed the adult supervision they needed in those early days."

However, Steve and I disagree over whether such startup capital would've even been welcome. Mike Markkula had invested $250,000 in Apple in exchange for becoming a one-third owner of Apple, this being after Ron Wayne had temporarily owned 10% of the company. In neither case did Jobs or Wozniak relinquish majority control of their fledgling company. Last summer's Jobs film suggested Jobs was a shrewd businessman in his negotiations with Markkula, and while I suspect that particular scene was exaggerated, I absolutely believe Jobs as a man insisting on being in control. For him to settle for keeping only 49% of his company, even in exchange for a half-million dollars, is unbelievable.

But Steve points out, "Remember that before Markkula came along to invest, Jobs was willing to sell the Apple II to Chuck Peddle and Jack Tramiel of Commodore in exchange for jobs with that company and a specific salary. With an offer of $500,000, he would have probably been willing to [settle for a] 49% or less share."

What do you think? Would Woz and Jobs have taken this offer? And, if so, how would it have affected Apple's development?