Speech synthesis on the Apple II

July 23rd, 2018 9:16 AM
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Earlier this year, I interviewed Joseph Bein of Out of Sight Games. As a visually impaired gamer, Joseph finds some games more accessible than others; but as a game developer, he encounters other challenges I'd never even considered. Are game development tools themselves accessible? How do we make them so?

Interviewing Joseph made it apparent that computers can cause problems for those seeking easy access to technology and media — but another podcast showcased how they can also solve a lot of problems. The Apple II was one of the pioneers in that department, courtesy the Echo II speech synthesis expansion card. One early beneficiary of the Echo II was Dr. Robert Carter, a podcaster who himself was recently interviewed on the podcast Background Mode, a publication of The Mac Observer.

From the show notes:

Dr. Robert Carter is a Ph.D. Psychologist at Texas A&M, a long-time Apple enthusiast, and the co-host of the Tech Doctor podcast. He's very well versed in assistive technologies, having been blind since birth. Robert tells an amazing story about he's coped with his disability through the years. It started with using a portable typewriter in grade school, discovering the Apple II at age 18 and a speech synthesizer plug-in card, and ultimately using Apple's extraordinary VoiceOver technology on the Mac—and now iPhone.

The Apple II connections in this podcast extend to both sides of the mic: host John Martellaro was the editor and publisher of Peelings II, "The Magazine of Apple Software Evaluation", back in the early 1980s.

I'd love to examine the accessibility features of the Apple II — both historical and modern — in a future issue of Juiced.GS. After listening to this podcast, I'm adding Dr. Carter to my list of primary resources!

Happy birthday, 1 MHz

May 7th, 2018 9:46 AM
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When Ryan Suenaga launched the A2Unplugged podcast on August 8, 2006, he declared it the world's first Apple II podcast. He quickly discovered that someone who'd never been to KansasFest, subscribed to GEnie, or read Juiced.GS had beaten him to the punch by only three months and a day: on May 7 of that year, Carrington Vanston debuted 1 MHz — originally "the Apple II podcast", soon "an Apple II podcast".

1 MHz podcast

Free as in beer, and free as in freedom.

Over six years and sixteen episodes, Carrington played 8-bit Apple II games both popular and obscure: Wasteland, Bureaucracy, Archon, Apple Panic, and more. Almost a decade before podcasts like New Game Plus and Do You Want to Keep Playing? made "retro game of the week" their schtick, 1 MHz was plumbing the depths of classic adventures, putting them in historical context and gushing over their feelies, exhibiting an enthusiasm normally reserved for someone discovering these games for the first time.

What Carrington had in quality, he made up for in lack of quantity. Sixteen episodes over 75 months is not frequent — it's roughly one every five months. The shortest span between episodes was four weeks; and the longest was two years, eight months. At that rate, it became an event when a new episode debuted, with my friends hurriedly texting me, "Did you hear? A new episode of 1 MHz is out!!"

1 MHz is not the only show to have fluctuated the Apple II airwaves. After four years of broadcasting, A2Unplugged aired its 36th and final episode in July 2010; host Ryan Suenaga passed away nine months later, in April 2011. But he lived to hear the debut of Open Apple, a show Mike Maginnis and I created to do what no other Apple II podcast was doing: interviewing the voices that constitute this amazing community. I departed that show after three years, but despite occasional hiatuses, Open Apple continues to this day, with Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I guest-appearing on the latest episode, #76.

Meanwhile, in the last four years, traditional episodes of 1 MHz have been absent — but Carrington has not been silent. His rambunctious style of podcasting can be heard today not only on the Retro Computing Roundtable but on Eaten by a Grue, a game review podcast in the style of 1 MHz that Carrington co-hosts with Kevin Savetz. Last month, episode #17 aired, making it a more prolific podcast than 1 MHz.

But the great thing about retrocomputing podcasts is that they're never outdated: by covering topics that aren't contemporary, the podcasts themselves become timeless. So to celebrate the 12th anniversary of 1 MHz's premiere, I've ensured that Carrington's show will never be lost to the tides of time, and I've uploaded it to the Internet Archive.

Here's to ensuring a long life for the first — and one of the best — Apple II podcasts!

The legend of John Romero

February 26th, 2018 9:06 AM
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When I was on the KansasFest committee, I performed much of the outreach to parties outside what we commonly think of as the Apple II community. That included recruitment of keynote speakers, which was always one of the most important steps in organizing each annual convention. Once we had a keynote speaker to headline the event, we could open registration — which meant brainstorming and solicitation of speakers began very early.

While most candidates responded to our emails, not all of them were able to accept our invitations, for a variety of legitimate reasons: usually that they'd moved past the Apple II, or that we couldn't sufficiently compensate them for their time. When they did respond in the affirmative, it wasn't unusual for several rounds of questions and clarifications to occur before they'd agree to attend. None of this was unexpected or unfair; on the contrary, we recognized that an Apple II convention in the middle of the country at the height of vacation season was a hard sell.

All this made it all the more shocking when the keynote speaker we thought most likely to say no was the one whose enthusiastic acceptance arrived the fastest. Given that the sun has still not set on the legend of John Romero, I never expected such a luminary of the gaming industry to come to KansasFest. That preconceived notion served only to demonstrate how little I knew him. He was friendly, generous, timely, and delivered one of the best KansasFest keynote speeches I've ever witnessed.

More evidence of John's benevolence is apparent in the latest episode of Jason Scott's podcast, Jason Scott Talks His Way Out of It (which I back on Patreon). Over the course of Jason's 24-minute monologue, he recounts his own personal interactions with John as well as John's many contributions to gaming and the Apple II community.

I'm tempted to call John's appearance at KansasFest a homecoming. But John never left the Apple II community, celebrating it in 1998 by hosting his own reunion of renowned Apple II developers and publishers, as documented in this landmark ZDNet feature by Steven Kent. John recreated that event almost 20 years later when he and partner Brenda Romero, herself of Wizardry fame, hosted another Apple II reunion in 2015. Both events reunited John with his peers from the days well before his Doom and Quake fame, when he created such classic Softdisk and UpTime games for the Apple II as Dangerous Dave.

John Romero is one of my favorite people in the gaming industry, not only because of the software he's created but because of how he conducts himself as a person and the respect, enthusiasm, and support he shows others — such as by showing no hesitation about being an Apple II keynote speaker in Missouri in the middle of July.

Charles Babbage Institute on Juiced.GS

May 29th, 2017 11:55 AM
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In the summer of 2011, I applied for Juiced.GS to receive an International Standard Serial Number. My goal in having an industry-standard reference number was to make this quarterly publication easier to accession into libraries and archives. Once the ISSN was issued, I contacted institutions around the world to ask if they would accept a complete collection of Juiced.GS.

One such organization that was at the top of my list was the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Although perhaps not as well-known as the Computer History Museum in California or as geographically accessible as the Strong Museum of Play in New York, both of which have a tourist appeal to them, the CBI is nonetheless widely respected as a research center for history of information technology. It was an honor for Juiced.GS to be accepted into its archives.

Four years later, I was travelling en route to KansasFest 2015. I decided to fly from Boston to Fargo, North Dakota, to visit my friend Sabriel, who had been a guest on my podcast, Polygamer. Not only was I looking forward to spending time with her in a less harried environment than our usual gaming conferences, but North Dakota was one of the seven United States I'd never been to; checking it off would bring me closer to having visited all fifty.

From Fargo, there were a couple different routes to KansasFest, including driving. But the timing didn't work out to stop in Nebraska and carpool with any of the KFesters there, so I decided to fly. The only problem was that there were no direct flights from Fargo to… almost anywhere, including Kansas City. My flight would have a layover in Minneapolis.

J. Arvid Nelson, CBI curator and archivist, shows off the gem of the CBI collection.Minneapolis! That's the home of the Charles Babbage Institute! Instead of an indirect flight, Sabriel graciously drove me to Minneapolis the day before my flight. I emailed my contact there, Arvid Nelsen, to let him know we were coming, and he offered us an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour. That visit is documented on the Juiced.GS blog.

During that tour, Arvid and I discovered that we both had an interest in the diversity of the tech industry, both modern and historical. I was only a year into my Polygamer podcast back then, but when I got home, I emailed him to see if he'd like to be a guest. It took awhile to coordinate, but two years later, that interview with Arvid and current CBI archivist Amanda Wick finally happened in last week's podcast.

It's not uncommon for my gaming interests to lead to Juiced.GS stories: my attendance at MAGFest resulted in a Juiced.GS cover story about Al Lowe, creator of Leisure Suit Larry; and my IndieSider podcast interview with the creator of Shadowgate similarly led an another cover story.

But this is the first time I can think of that the Apple II led to an episode of Polygamer. Having attended the last nineteen KansasFests, I've observed that we tend to be a fairly homogenous population, which wouldn't normally be a good fit for a podcast about diversity. I'm delighted that the Apple II and the Charles Babbage Institute nonetheless resulted in a fascinating conversation about history, diversity, and archiving. Please do visit the CBI, either online or in-person as I have, and listen to our podcast.

Apple II on Retronauts podcast

March 6th, 2017 12:29 PM
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There are a lot of great podcasts about the Apple II where you can get a weekly, biweekly, or monthly fix of classic computing news and camaraderie. But there are many other shows that cover retrocomputing more broadly, where the Apple II is only an occasional guest.

Such is the case with episode #87 of Retronauts. This weekly show focuses on console and handheld platforms, such as Nintendo and Game Boy, and their games, such as Mario and Castlevania. But this past week, they invited retrocomputing scribe Benj Edwards to review the milestones of the Apple II's gaming history.

Familiar titles such as Choplifter and Castle Wolfenstein got plenty of mentions, but what most caught my attention was the glowing praise for Temple of Apshai. The Retronauts crew elevated this game to the same pantheon shared by ADVENT and Akalabeth — yet I'd never heard of it. The first a trilogy that was later released as part of the Dunjonquest bundle, Temple of Apshai was awarded "Best Computer Game of 1980", being notable for its graphics and complexity upon its original release in August 1979.

I can't find any YouTube footage of the Apple II version of Temple of Apshai, but it is playable on the Internet Archive.

The rest of the podcast serves as an introduction to the Apple II for listeners who aren't accustomed to hearing about it in their other podcasts. As such, it doesn't cover a lot of ground that readers of this blog would consider new. But it is a fun listen and an opportunity to hear the voices of writers whose bylines you may recognize.

As a bonus, if you choose to support Retronauts on Patreon for at least $3/month, you'll get an exclusive Apple II-themed wallpaper.

Thanks for covering the Apple II, Retronauts! I hope to hear more topics and guests from our community in future episodes.

Full disclosure: I support Benj Edwards on Patreon.

Story Collider: Diphtheria on the Oregon Trail

January 2nd, 2017 11:57 AM
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If anyone has heard of dysentery, it's likely because they contracted it on the Oregon Trail. A variety of ailments struck players in MECC's classic edutainment title, and though dysentery was the most iconic, it was not the only killer: cholera, snake bites, measles, and typhoid fever were all rampant.

Many of these conditions are now easily avoid or immunized against using modern medicine, as detailed in the Mental Floss article "Where Are They Now? Diseases That Killed You in Oregon Trail". But our lack of familiarity with these conditions only leaves us more susceptible to their ravages, should they be unleashed upon an unsuspecting population.

That's exactly what happened to neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman, who, one night while working in her lab, accidentally injected herself with a syringe full of diphtheria toxin. Diphtheria is more than just a catchy word to use in headlines such as "Sally Has Diphtheria: Is Oregon Trail the Greatest Video Game of All Time?". It's an airborne bacterial disease that can cause nerve damage, organ failure, paralysis, or death. Fortunately, Dr. Brachman has not suffered those worst of fates — at least, not yet. She has thus far lived to share her story on the Story Collider podcast:

It's a horrific tale that demonstrates not just how bureaucracy has made inaccessible our most effective antitoxins, even for those who most urgently need them. It also underscores the even fewer chances that travelers along the historical Oregon Trail had. We've made a game of settlers who gambled against natural hazards with no immunizations, antidotes, or even hospitals to cure them — it's shocking that anyone survived the journey to Willamette Valley.