Generational hardware gap tres

September 3rd, 2012 12:43 PM
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Last month, the Commodore 64 turned 30 years old. Normally, that'd not be an appropriate topic for this Apple II blog; in fact, the wrong readers might take it as an opportunity to burn me in effigy, minus the effigy.

But the way in which Mat Allen chose to commemorate the occasion offers a cross-platform look at the way different generations interact with classic technology. Having seen this concept explored first in France and then in the USA, Allen invited several young Brits to play with his C64, to demonstrate that the game system of his youth was as entertaining and relevant today.


The video focuses primarily on the loading times, which is so obsolete an experience as to almost have faded from memory; I'm not surprised Allen's audience wandered away. Still, I wish he'd run a second experiment where the game was already loaded, so that the kids could provide feedback based more on interacting with the software instead of the hardware.

It was cute to hear the students couch their words to be as delicate as possible; referring to the C64's rudimentary graphics, one child commented, "For them, it must've been pretty incredible."

Steve Jobs, engineering hero?

June 16th, 2011 4:33 PM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage, Steve Jobs;
6 comments.

Last month, Steve Jobs was declared in a survey of 900 engineering undergraduates in the UK as one of the third greatest engineers of all time, taking credit for the Apple II and iPod.

Not to undermine the unbelievable heights to which Mr. Jobs has brought his fruit company, but is his engineering prowess really the quality that brought about those successes?

Steve Jobs is a salesman, for sure. But has been examined and debated on this blog, his role in the creation of many popular Apple products is questionable. Steve Wozniak (who was not on the list) invented the Apple II, and many other concepts that Apple Inc. has since popularized were first proven by other companies. It was Jobs who came up with the packaging and pitch that made these concepts into products, but he's no hands-on inventor.

But let's step back and see if this complaint is warranted. By definition, an engineer is "a person trained and skilled in the design, construction, and use of engines or machines" I think it's fair to say that Jobs is familiar and perhaps responsible with both the design and use of Apple's runaway hits. As for the construction, could he disassemble an iPhone, identify its parts, and then put it back together? I sincerely doubt it. Is two out of three qualities enough to label Jobs an engineer? Did the UK students in the survey even care, or was this more a popularity contest?

I cannot find an official publication of the survey or its methodology, but the validity of the students' results must surely be questioned, regardless of Jobs' presence or absence. The Apple co-founder ranked higher on the list than Nikola Tesla, Bill Gates, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. Those pioneers were working with truly revolutionary ideas; Steve Jobs, they were not.

(Hat tips to Ben Camm-Jones and John Brownlee)

Teaching retroprogramming

September 13th, 2010 9:09 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage, Musings;
3 comments.

The annual Beloit College Mindset List, which outlines the world in which the incoming class of college freshman grew up, indicates that for members of the class of 2014, "The first home computer they probably touched was an Apple II or Mac II; they are now in a museum."

Fortunately, for students in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, England, their experience with retrocomputers is more recent — and eminently practical. BBC News reports:

As a former teacher, I can fully get behind this classroom curriculum. It wasn't long ago that I suggested a lab of Apple II computers could be an effective and modern learning tool. Although the computers featured in this video are not Woz's brainchild, they are its contemporaries and teach many of the same lessons my proposed lab would. As one student said, "The old machines have a lot to teach us. They run a lot slower, and you can actually see the instructions executing in real-time."

What I hope the students learn is how to make the most of limited hardware and software resources, though this quotation makes me wonder if they missed that point: "It makes you a lot more efficient, and you think more about your code, because it's harder to type it all in." Although the arduousness of input can indeed be a powerful motivator against error, I don't think it's a programming environment that one need tolerate on even a classic computer. The Apple II worked around this limitation with Beagle Bros' excellent Program Writer for Applesoft BASIC. Such utilities don't encourage sloppy programming but instead improve the rate at which you can learn from your mistakes, whereas modern machines and their gluttonous resources permit sloppy programming that would never fly on a computer whose memory is measured in kilobytes.

This classroom's demographic reminds me of the demoparty I attended this summer, where most attendees were younger than the computers they were hacking. KansasFest likewise has an increasingly youthful attendance, with Apple II users still in or recently out of undergraduate programs. This next generation of retrocomputing enthusiasts has great potential to apply modern programming techniques and structure to classic design. For example, put these students into a limited-time programming contest, and you'd have HackFest. I wonder how they would fare?

I couldn't help but take umbrage when the reporter says that the student's work almost looks like a "real video game". Of course it's a real video game! Software doesn't need rockstar programmers or cutting-edge technology. The original versions of Lode Runner and Oregon Trail have more staying power than any jazzed-up modern adaptations. I wouldn't be surprised if these kids are the next programmers to recapture the fun and wonder of these classic games.

Because BBC is awesome, their story also has one of their own news reports from Oct. 17, 1986, that showcases the computers of the day, including the Apple IIGS. That video is not embeddable, so I encourage you to watch it on their site.

(Hat tip to Slashdot and Mitch Wagner)