Spectrum's origins

May 8th, 2017 8:27 AM
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Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
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I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately. He's the one who introduced me to the Apple II and enabled (if not supported) my BBS and CompuServe habit when I was in grade school. I made those online connections with ProTERM, which was 8-bit, but I was eager to switch to an application that took advantage of our Apple IIGS. I eventually got it when, after many delays, Seven Hills Software released Spectrum.

My dad didn't use the telecommunications aspects of our computer; his only application was AppleWorks Classic, with which he maintained the financial records of the family business. All he knew about Spectrum came from whatever I mentioned.

One day, my dad asked me if I knew that Spectrum was based out of our home state of Massachusetts? I was bewildered by this remark: Spectrum was a product, not a company, and it was developed by a European programmer. I doubt my dad was referring to Seven Hills Software, the Florida publisher whose name I'd had no reason to mention to him and which I doubt he would've remembered from the credit card bill. But Dad insisted that, while driving through the next town over, he'd seen a billboard advertising Spectrum.

Once he mentioned the billboard, I knew what he was talking about: Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts-based organization that offers counseling and recovery services. Sure enough, they had advertisements in some of the rougher parts of town.

Spectrum Health Systems

My dad had an odd sense of humor that often relied on teasing or on playing dumb to mislead people. I never found out if he sincerely thought my Apple II program had come, out of all the places in the world, from a nearby city, and that he would be the one to inform me of it — or if he was playing some harmless but humorless joke.

It's not something I ever begrudged my dad, but it was such a weird exchange that, even decades later, it's left me wondering: what was he thinking??

Digital Den launch party

October 28th, 2013 10:59 AM
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Filed under Happenings, Mainstream coverage;
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Mary Hopper began making waves this August when she announced her intention to found a computer history museum in Boston. News of the Digital Den was picked up by Open Apple, the Retro Computing Roundtable, the Boston Globe, and Apple II Bits.

The museum continues to evolve into a extant institution, as evidenced by the launch party held on October 20. As a backer of the museum's Indiegogo campaign, I received an invitation to the event, where I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Dr. Hopper, Adam Rosen of the Vintage Mac Museum, and Ian S. King of the Living Computer Museum, as well as catch up with fellow retrocomputing enthusiast Dave Ross. On-hand were classic computers such as the Apple II, TI-99, and Nintendo Entertainment System, as well as newer tech like the Oculus Rift. It was an encouraging occasion for a museum that continues to seek a permanent home.

My photos from the event are posted below and are available under a CC-BY-NC license. The book featured below, Gordon Bell's Out of a Closet: The Early Years of The Computer [x]* Museum, is available online as a PDF. For more photos from the event, including a silly one of me by Rus Gant, see the Digital Den's first exhibit photos.

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A computer history museum returns to Boston

September 2nd, 2013 6:41 PM
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Eight years ago, I took Ryan Suenaga to the Boston Museum of Science, whose "ComputerPlace" exhibit featured an Apple II with a copy of VisiCalc. Although exciting to see, this one display was the extent of Boston's preservation of computer history. The Computer History Museum, now a Silicon Valley landmark, had its humble beginnings in Boston, where it lived for 15 years. Upon its relocation to Mountain View, California, no similar establishment remained in Boston.

Northeastern University lecturer Mary Hopper aims to rectify that. As the Boston Globe reports, when the Computer History Museum left Boston, Hopper started collecting computer artifacts (including an Apple II Plus), waiting for the day she could donate them to whatever local institution took the CHM's place. With that not having happened, she's now setting out to establish her own computer museum: the Digital Den. To do so, she's turned to crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $25,000 by September 23. She's presently at 6% of her goal.

How this project got so far under the radar baffles me. I asked local representatives of @party, the Artisan's Asylum, and KansasFest, and nobody had heard of this endeavor. I'm also concerned about how vast an enterprise Hopper is undertaking — there's more to starting a museum than having an inventory. However, a visit to the Den by local retrocomputing enthusiast Dave Ross resulted in an encouraging report:

Mary is every bit as impressive as her bio makes her out to be. She's done some impressive work and has been involved with making sure her work and the work of those around her were preserved well before they could be considered "history".

She's also been talking to lawyers and other museums to get a sense of what she can legally do for fundraising and what kind of donations she can accept. It's refreshing to see that kind of due diligence.

If Hopper can accomplish what no one else has tried in more than a decade, then I will do what I can to support her — and already have, thanks to Indiegogo. I look forward to visiting the Den for myself!

My elementary education with the Apple II

June 3rd, 2013 12:36 PM
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My household was an early adopter of personal computers, at least compared to the rest of my grade school. Whereas I had access to the family Apple IIe whenever I wanted, for most of my classmates, their only exposure to that computer came from our weekly computer lab, which was not what I would call rigorous. The instructor was Sister Theresa, and she didn't know the first thing about programming or educational software. Too many classes would start this way: "Turn on the computer. Type NEW, return, RUN, return, HOME return, GR, return. Now draw the Nativity." And that was it: we'd be left to our own devices for the rest of class. Since our work was never checked, no one attempted the project she'd assigned us. On rare occasions, we'd be given textbooks of BASIC program listings and could type one in, but neither instruction nor comprehension occurred regarding what these commands did or how they resulted in the program we'd run.

Instead, my mastery of the Apple II occurred at home. I would pull apart Applesoft programs to see how they worked, then I'd modify them or write my own, sometimes recreating the work during class to show off to my classmates. (The result could be seen less in their admiration and more in their bullying.) I later wondered why the class couldn't be more productive. Did the administration think Sr. Theresa was the best person for this job? Or was the convent looking for a position for this old nun, and this was all that was available? Was it worth it to make her feel useful at the expense of all those computers being wasted? Having now been an educator myself, I'd be keen to see what the mission statement, classroom goals, or rubric were for that class. I suspect the syllabus was blank.

Regardless, I did enjoy these classes and the special permission Sr. Theresa gave me to borrow from her archive of Scholastic Microzine on Friday afternoons to bring home for the weekend. I would wake up early every Saturday to play this trove of new games I'd been bequeathed, both before my three older brothers would wake up and before the Microzine would have to go back to school on Monday morning. I was likely the only student who ever went to see Sr. Theresa outside our designated lab time, and we grew friendly. But my education had taught me to never question authority, so despite our relationship, it never occurred to me to suggest that her class could be run in any other way.

St. Leo's SchoolI don't know how much that aspect of the school has changed since then. I remember hearing in the early- to mid-nineties that they were "upgrading" all their IIe computers to IIc's. Whatever expert they hired for that advice steered them wrong, as the Apple II line was nearing the end of its official support by then, and switching to Macs or PCs would've been a more long-term investment. I wonder what came of their Apple IIe or IIc labs — no one called me when they disposed of either. Maybe they're still there, teaching modern students the fine art of retrocomputing.

Can a quick Google search tell us for sure? Visiting the St. Leo's School Web site — which is running on a five-year-old version of Joomla — I see that "computer" is one of the required classes, and that "Computers are incorporated into daily classes, starting in Pre-Kindergarten." Not the most detailed curriculum outline.

Granted, this is a grade school in suburban Leominster, Massachusetts. At that age and with the resources available, it may be more reasonable to expect the students to focus on the basics: "Religion, Mathematics, Reading — Literature, Language Arts". But computers can be tools by which to inspire creativity in all those areas and more. Think of all the lessons, exercises, and tools that computers could be bringing to the classroom: Programming! Applesoft BASIC! iBooks! Game-playing! Game design! And more!

The issue, in many ways, is academic, as it will be a long time before a grade school's curriculum again has direct influence on my family. But whenever I do evaluate a school's academic rigor for its ability to inspire a generation of creative and competitive professionals, I'll be sure of three things: that computer literacy is as much a priority as other "core" areas; that there is a passionate, knowledgeable teacher in charge of executing that mission; and that she be willing to share her library of Microzines.

The Apple II goes to work

March 4th, 2013 11:27 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Musings;
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It's been almost two months since my Apple IIgs and I left Computerworld. It's been almost as long that I've been in my new position — the first one ever to afford me an office with windows. As much as I love the view, it seems empty without a certain rainbow Apple logo somewhere in the room.

I wasn't sure how long I should be at the new place before making a request to move in my own personal desktop computer. But my easygoing boss had no problems with such a setup, as long as I ran it past our IT department, to be politic. All that accomplished was a remark about how "that Mac must be older than you, Ken!" — two false statements in one, both designed to set me on edge. But I focused on the fact that they had no objections and thus visited my office on a weekend to set up my machine.

My Apple II seems quite happy in its new home. Other than turning the IIgs on to ensure it survived the disassembly and setup processes, I've not had the opportunity to use it — nor have I determined if this institution's network will accommodate my Uthernet interface, which is my preferred configuration for ADTPro.

Although that functionality is essential for certain projects, for now, I'm just happy that my office is beginning to feel like mine.

Apple II license plate poll results

December 12th, 2011 1:18 PM
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Thank you to everyone who voted in the poll to help me choose a Massachusetts license plate that best invokes the Apple II! The path toward the most popular choice has now concluded.

In the first round, I proposed eight candidates, and from reader comments added 36 more. I put those 44 up for vote, allowing each person to choose their favorite five. Eighty votes were cast, narrowing the pool from 44 to nine that had received five votes or more each:

  • AAPL2
  • APLIIE
  • APLTWO
  • ATEBIT
  • IIGS
  • JUCDGS
  • KFEST
  • ONEMHZ
  • PRODOS

ATEBIT was actually too late a submission to make it into this final round, but I included it for what I saw as its broad appeal. I grew up playing games more on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) than on the Apple II, and I still consider myself something of a retrogamer, with frequent visits to the American Classic Arcade Museum. ATEBIT can apply as much to that interest as it does to the Apple II, making it more of a proud label and less of an inside joke.

I put those nine options up and asked you to choose just one. I didn't vote, but I would've been quite comfortable ruling out options like AAPL2 (where's the extra 'A' come from, other than Apple's stock ticker?), APLIIE (I'm more of a GS man myself), and ONEMHZ (better for Carrington's show than my own.

I didn't vote in this round, leaving it to you, the readers, to decide. Thirty-eight votes later, here are the results…

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