Apple's return to education

January 23rd, 2012 1:51 PM
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Last week, Apple announced iBooks textbooks and iBooks author, two iPad applications designed to redefine education.

Although I still favor physical literature for leisure reading, the elimination of physical textbooks in favor of e-books has been a long time coming, as outlined in this 2009 column by Mike Elgan who proposed that "education reform should begin by burning all the textbooks." And Apple may be just the company to get the ball rolling. Some pundits are seeing this move as a return to Apple's origin: the iPhone and iPad, which have been aimed at consumers and the enterprise, overlooked that "schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II", writes Ryan Faas for Computerworld.

Others are less optimistic, saying that Apple's methodology is fundamentally flawed by being based on false assumptions and failing to address long-standing issues. Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, remembers hearing these same promises in the days of the Apple II and cites a nine-year-old study that questions the value of technology in education (in contrast to a recent pilot program by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.

Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, says that no matter how elegant the software, the problem of hardware remains the same as it has the past three decades: "There was an Apple II in my third-grade classroom. We used it to play Oregon Trail. Then it died. Therein lies the problem with iPads in high school: devices break."

iPads are expensive, and they do break. And it may be true that Apple is simply trading one set of problems (the expense, weight, and outdatedness of textbooks) for another. But much of Apple's early success was found in the education market; "Education has always been a big part of Apple's DNA," said Eddy Cue, senior VP of Internet software and services, in the above video. Millions of today's adults may not be able to tell you exactly what they learned by playing Oregon Trail, but they remember the experience and the introduction it gave them to the computers that demand familiarity from today's workforce. Don't today's students deserve the same opportunities with today's tools that my generation had with the Apple II?

Organ Trail: Director's cut

January 5th, 2012 11:57 AM
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I spent this past Halloween playing and blogging about Organ Trail, The Men Who Wear Many Hats' zombie-themed rendition of the classic Apple II edutainment title, MECC's Oregon Trail. Now that modern update is going the Kickstarter route to get funded for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android ports. Check out the trailer (contains one swear word near the end):

The campaign even comes with its own fake backstory, which includes an unfortunate and gratuitous slam:

Originally developed many years ago as a teaching tool for students, schools across America used the game to prepare children for the impending zombie apocalypse, and dysentery. But what the public doesn't know is that the released version does not follow the program director's original design. Before they tried to have him killed, he stole all the code and it has taken him 40 years to program the game in his own vision. Unfortunately no one uses the Apple-II anymore, so he's putting it on those newfangled phones.

In addition to the ports, the game will also include new features, such as a day/night cycle, the ability to converse with NPC survivors, as well as a new soundtrack.

The project ends after thirty days on Thursday, January 19, at 1:20 PM EST, but by the time I discovered it on Facebook, it already had 91 backers and $4,417 of the requested $3,000.

I've nonetheless pledged $20, though what they'll do with these excess funds, I'm unsure; their promise of "If we reach $5k, we will add an Android and iPad version of the game to the preorder options" seems a sure bet. So I offer this challenge — and incentive: I will multiply my donation 12.5-fold if The Men Who Wear Many Hats offer a reward of an Apple II version of their game. Their fundraising video states that they're making Organ Trail to look like an Apple II game. Why not go the extra step and port it?

Halloween on the Oregon Trail

October 31st, 2011 11:37 AM
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Oregon Trail is one of the seminal computer games, making an indelible impact not only on the education of an entire generation, but also on the development of the interactive fiction genre. But a game that was fun thirty years ago could sometimes stand a little updating to make it more relevant.

With everything from romance to comedy having been infused with the pop culture phenomenon of zombies, and today being Halloween, what better time to bring the undead to the Oregon Trail? Courtesy The Men Who Wear Many Hats comes Organ Trail, the game that challenges you to survive a trek across the country in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. It's a brilliant romp with allusions to other undead manifestations, such as Resident Evil 4.

Organ Trail

It's the end of the world as we know it — let's head west!
Click to play.

Organ Trail isn't the first time MECC's classic game has been adapted to a free, online Flash format. Thule Road Trip eschews many of the embellishments of Organ Trail, instead opting to update the game to a modern setting with few other changes.

But the innovation and timeliness of Organ Trail ranks it among my favorite recreations of my youth. This time around, you have bigger concerns than dysentery! Enjoy!

Travelling soundtrack

September 5th, 2011 1:27 PM
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While at the CIO100 last month, I attended a keynote speech by Tom Peck, CIO of Levi Strauss. One of the videos he presented was a subtle advertisement for his company's products, and also a really neat work of filmography:

I immediately appreciated the video for the clever effects and also the sense of adventure and wanderlust such artistry inspires in me (see: Where The Hell Is Matt?). But when I got home and watched the video again on my own, I noticed a nearly subliminal aspect that appealed specifically to the retrocomputing enthusiast in me: the soundtrack. The video is set to the song "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Recognize it? No reason you shouldn't, right?

I realized it's the same song used in the Oregon Trailer that debuted last August — another video about traversing this great land!

Oregon Trailer

I think this connection is a neat example of the personal influence of the Apple II on one's perceptions and reactions. "Home" (a BASIC reference?) can be found on their MySpace page or in iTunes on their album Up From Below.

Alderaan Trail

September 20th, 2010 1:23 PM
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Oregon Trail, having recently enjoyed a successful film adaptation, is now being adapted to a variety of other media. The first is a mashup with another storied film franchise:

Alderaan Trail Shoppe
But I was going to Tosche Station for some power converters!
Image copyright Matt Marchini.

Sadly, this is one of several pictures that are not screen shots from an actual game, but mockups of a theoretical one. From the photo album's description:

A long time ago in a galaxy pretty far away… As a galactic civil war rages on, the escalating violence in your system has reached new heights. Seeking a better life you and a small band of compatriots set out on a perilous journey to find a new home. Alderaan, a small blue planet know for it's civility ( it is said by many that they have no weapons) would make the perfect retreat for your loved ones hoping to avoid Imperial entanglements. Untold danger awaits you on… THE ALDERAAN TRAIL.

A version that's closer to the original in setting but a far cry in genre is So Long, Oregon! for iOS. Here's a trailer for this side-scrolling shooter:

Also available for the iPhone is Oregon Trail itself, which was reviewed in the March 2010 issue of Juiced.GS. More affordably, if you want to play a modern retelling, check out Thule Road Trip online, as detailed in my KansasFest 2009 presentation.

In whatever era or medium you play this classic game, you'll likely find it harder than you remember. Rather than mourn your inevitable failure, celebrate that you were able to experience even a fraction of the glorious Oregon Trail:

epic fail photos - Cake WIN

(Hat tip to Bob's House of Video Games)

A Digg at the Oregon Trail

September 2nd, 2010 12:03 PM
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If you follow social media, you may be aware that Digg, the social news site founded in 2004, launched the fourth iteration of its Web site last week. The previous incarnation had been around long enough to attract a devout following of users who voted stories up and down, determining what news would make the site's front page and which stories would be buried. It was an inexact science, but it seemed to work.

As with any change to an established system, the new Digg is being widely criticized, with developers responding by fast-tracking several changes and additional resources to accommodate its new audience. In the meantime, it's not unusual for the site to experience outages. Just as Twitter has the fail whale, Digg has its own custom error message:

Digg error message

Due to the colors and extreme pixelation of this image, I originally suspected this picture was derived from a version of Oregon Trail more primitive than the Apple II edition. But when compared to a screen shot from that game, I realized that what had thrown me was the size of the image. Digg has blown the picture up to more than 300% of its original resolution, creating its blocky appearance. For comparison, here's an animated GIF I composed of the original picture and Digg's take:

Digg error message (animated GIF)

That still leaves one puzzle, though: the meaning of the number of Diggs trailing behind the wagon. They would seem to be years, but I can't discern their significance. Oregon Trail has had many versions (the first Apple II version was released in 1978) but none of them were published in 1984, according to Wikipedia. The game's fictional family makes their way across the country in 1848, nearly a half-century before 1889. And 1955? What could that mean?