Carmack's Apple II inspires son — and reddit

March 9th, 2015 11:29 AM
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As reported by the Cult of Mac, id co-founder John Carmack recently tweeted a photo of his son learning to program on an Apple IIc:

This looks like the same IIc that Carmack received as a Christmas gift in 2012:

The Apple II and education go hand-in-glove — this post is the site's 18th to be tagged "education". However, the two sentences of the Cult of Mac's story that struck me have little to do with education. First is this detail of Carmack's origin story: "As a kid at Shawnee Mission East public school (one of the first in his family's part of Kansas to get a computer lab), Carmack taught himself BASIC on an Apple II." Shawnee Mission is only 12 miles from Rockhurst University, home of KansasFest; might it be a homecoming to invite Carmack to be the event's keynote speaker, joining his former colleague John Romero among the speaker alumni?

That paragraph's next sentence is a wonderful example of unintended consequences: "Later on, [Carmack] bought an Apple IIGS to start his game-making career, as revealed in the fantastic book Masters of Doom." And it was that 2003 book book by David Kushner that inspired the 2005 founding of social news website reddit, as detailed by co-founder Alexis Ohanian:

… this book convinced me to consider starting a company. It just seemed like so much damn fun. Granted, we didn't end up starting a gaming company (well, I guess we had 'gamification' before that was a buzzword: karma, leaderboards, awards, etc) but the idea a few friends could get together in a house and start building something the world had never seen before — having a lot of fun in the process — got me hooked.

Would reddit and its AMAs exist without Carmack and Romero — and thus without the Apple II? Likely not!

Who knows what the next generation of programmers will create and inspire, thanks to the Apple II?

(Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich)

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977
The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87
The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

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!

An elementary Apple museum

January 6th, 2014 11:25 AM
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Fifteen miles north of downtown Chicago, Illinois, is an Apple museum you've never heard of. It's not open to the public, but it is nonetheless being put to good use: students of Kenilworth's Joseph Sears School are learning what computers of yesteryear were capable of and how they evolved into the machines we use today.

In the Wilmette Sun-Times article "Apple display both time travel and education for Sears students", library technology services director Elisabeth LeBris and former school computer coordinator Matt Brackett discuss how they "agreed to keep one of each Apple computer model used in the school (which has a long history of Apple use) even as each made way for successor machines". Students then use these artifacts to research how they compare to today's machines as part of their expository writing classes. The students' work is exhibited as a series of narrated slideshows summarizing the models' capabilities and places in history.

Several of the students' findings will bring a smile to an Apple II user's face: "[The Apple II] could not reach the Internet, because the Internet was not invented until WAY after the Apple II's time", for example. It's true the World Wide Web, which is often confused for the Internet, wasn't developed until a few years after the last model of Apple II was released in 1989, but the Internet was certainly something early Apple II users were connecting to — more so now, thanks to the Uthernet card. I'm also intrigued to know the calculations that led to statements such as this: "A modern 16-gigabyte smart phone has as much computing capability as 3.4 million Apple IIe computers." Despite being dwarfed by modern processors, one student admitted, "I was surprised at how much [the IIGS] could do, and how many parts there were." It's another great example of how classic technology, from Ultima to the BBC Micro, can be used in a modern education environment.

I emailed RJ Bialk, technology facilitator at Kenilworth School District #38, to ask if the video slideshows could be made available in an embeddable, shareable format, such as YouTube. There's been no response to that email of December 10, but I'm hopeful once the holidays are past and school is back in session, something might come of it. In the meantime, check out the article and videos for yourself and see what today's students are learning.

Apple-inspired Emerson education

November 25th, 2013 10:59 PM
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Here in the States, it's Thanksgiving week, for which I'm thankful for a break from school. Even us teachers need time off now and then.

My undergraduate course in electronic publishing has completed 12 of its 14 weeks, with the remaining two dedicated to lab work and presentations. As I look back over this, my second semester teaching the course, I smile to consider how influenced it's been by my Apple II connections.

I always open the first night of class with a lecture on the history of the Internet — not because I want my students, born in 1992, to appreciate how good they have it, but because it's important to recognize that we didn't just wake up one day and the Internet existed: it evolved for reasons, to serve specific purposes. Props for the evening include punch cards and a Replica-1.

Almost every week of class includes a different guest lecturer, so continuing the theme of history, I brought in Jason Scott, an alumnus of both KansasFest and the school at which I teach. Rather than any prepared material, Jason hosted 90 minutes of Q&A about Wikipedia, Archive.org, Sockington, and more. His Mythapedia presentation was required listening, and the first chapter of BBS: The Documentary was optional viewing.

In the following weeks, the students had their first remote presenter: Kevin Savetz, another KansasFest alumnus, video chatting with us from his home on the West Coast. In another hour of Q&A, he shared with students his transition from writer to publisher (as also detailed in his memoir, Terrible Nerd), how Amazon.com has democratized print publishing in much the way the Web opened up online publishing, and how Kickstarter is doing the same thing for artists and inventors. I was intrigued that my students were most fascinated by Kevin's work archiving classic computer magazines. I discovered several of my students are considering careers in library science!

Another guest speaker was Chris Lackey, who is not an Apple II user but who designed the foundation for the modern KansasFest logo and appeared on one of the first episodes of Open Apple — a show that likely inspired me to incorporate podcasting as an exercise in my class. You can hear my students' work on The Pubcast, a weekly interview series.

The guest speaker lineup concluded on a high note with a detailed overview of how to use social media to promote and humanize a product or brand. The presenter, Annie Lynsen, has no Apple II connection — except I was introduced to her at a festival I was attending to hear chiptune artist 8 Bit Weapon perform.

The first wave of survivors of an Apple II educator.

The first wave of survivors of an Apple II educator.

Although graduates of my class will not have used an actual Apple II or done any research into vintage computers, they will nonetheless have indirectly been educated by the experiences and lessons that this early personal computer conferred upon a generation of the intellectually curious. My thanks to the many talented professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to my class, and for the Apple II that introduced us to make such academic collaborations possible.

Computer literacy begins at home

August 5th, 2013 4:59 PM
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KansasFest 2013 is now a week behind us, and I'm still absorbing everything I saw, learned, and experienced. Moments such as interviewing Steve Wozniak and other unscripted events are memories that will last a lifetime. But of those events that stuck to the schedule — that is, the daytime presentations and official sessions — but one that really caught my attention was "Teach U.S. Kids to Program" by attendee Matt Hellinger.

Hellinger's talk was prompted by "Teach U.S. kids to write computer code", a December 2012 article by Douglas Rushkoff, digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com, a tool I use in my own classroom. Rushkoff outlined ten reasons why programming must be an essential part of any student's curriculum, given how pervasive computers have become in modern culture and industry. The article focused on how we passively use computers, allowing ourselves to be the passenger to tools that drive our lives. Hellinger in turn reflected on the golden age of the Apple II, when users and programmers were one in the same, putting us in the driver's seat. Can that experience be replicated for today's youth?

His proposal stems from more than some nostalgic desire for his kids to grow up the same way he did. Hellinger made a compelling argument that computers have become so powerful and complex as to be impenetrable, transforming them from tool to crutch. He suggested bringing them down a notch to again make them accessible to students, providing them with an environment where they can write original programs in fifty lines of code instead of a thousand. The Apple II is just such a machine.

But there's more to that equation than the classroom. Hellinger and I approach the topic from very different perspectives: he as an IT professional and parent; I as childfree educator. Although I'll happily expose other people's children to retroprogramming, as is already happening in Milton Keynes, those lessons have to be reinforced in the home. To that end, Hellinger proposed taking away the tablet, replacing or completing the desktop with a Raspberry Pi, and limiting Internet access.

I challenged Hellinger on these potentially draconian measures — not out of opposition but curiosity, to better assess the rigor of the stance. I asked what Johnny should do when he comes home from playing Xbox 360 and surfing Facebook at his classmates' homes. Hellinger said those exceptions are no different from expecting a child to obey other house rules: different parents make different allowances for their kids. Later I followed up via email: what about when the disagreement isn't between homes, but between home and classroom? What if the student is using an iPad at school and needs one to complete his homework? Again, Hellinger made it a simpler matter than I imagined, pointing back to his basic tenets. "I would definitely recommend restricting usage (as if the kid had brought home a video game to research)," he wrote. "Disabling Wi-Fi in the house would go a long way toward resolving unfettered use."

Overall, I was pleased and intrigued by Hellinger's proposal. I hope for opportunities to test and practice his ideas in the classroom, just as he is doing so in his own household. If you want to see his theories for yourself, he has generously allowed me to embed his original slides in this blog. Watch for them to eventually be added to the KansasFest file archive.