A modem handshake visualized

November 19th, 2018 9:49 AM
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If you're reading this blog, you remember this sound:

Whether your Apple II was dialing into CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, or a BBS, the sound of two modems connecting heralded something magical: an entry into a world, or a part of the world, where you might find faces and files new and familiar. For many, this cacophonous screech welcomed us to a place we could relax, abandon pretenses, and be ourselves — or whatever version of ourselves we wished to present that day.

The lingo of that connection is nearly lost to me now: 8N1 vs. 7E1, RTS / CTS, full duplex. But almost all of it is represented in that same dial-up soundtrack. Not just an unfortunate and inadvertent consequence of data being modulated and demodulated, the sound of dialup embodies the phases of negotiation before two modems can settle into a digital rapport.

These stages can now be visualized in "The Sound of the Dialup Explained",a 42-megapixel poster crafted by Helsinki's Oona Räisänen. Detailing one point in the poster, she writes on her blog:

[The modems] put their data through a special scrambling formula before transmission to make its power distribution more even and to make sure there are no patterns that are suboptimal for transfer. They listen to each other sending a series of binary 1's and adjust their equalizers to optimally shape the incoming signal. Soon after this, the modem speaker will go silent and data can be put through the connection.

Modem handshake visualization

I can almost hear it.

The poster is available from Redbubble in three sizes, from two to four feet wide.

We may not often hear these sounds anymore — but we can always have this poster to remind us of that raucous gauntlet we'd once endure as passageway into cyberspace.

(Hat tip to Jesse Rebel)

Apple II in flight

November 12th, 2018 10:50 AM
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Once upon a time, before airlines had Wi-Fi, commercial flights were a disconnected oasis where passengers could not be reached by the outside world. It was the perfect time to put away the laptops and catch up on books, magazines, or even handheld games.

Now our computers are with us on every flight — a trend begun in 1983 by Jack McCornack, who put an Apple II on his ultralight aircraft.

"No brakes, no license, no parachute… What is there in this barebones aircraft to hang on to for even the least sense of security? It was designed with the help of an Apple II," writes Melissa Milich in Softalk Volume 3, Issue 5 (Jan 1983).

Jack McCornack of Pterodactyl in flight

Most of the article details how McCornack uses VisiCalc and Apple Writer to run his aviation company, much like any entrepreneur or businessperson might. But on page 125 is a sidebar in which Milich dives into the details of the above photo:

That's an Apple II Plus, monitor, disk drive, and Apple Juice power supply bolted to a wooden mount with foot-long bolts and protective pads. On the two-seater Pterodactyl pictured, the Apple sits where the passenger normally would. The control stick for the canard and winglets is managed with the right hand while the pilot reaches over with the left hand to type on the keyboard.

This sidebar is a fascinating look at the early integration between aviation and digital technology — not only to provide data that pilots and on-ground personnel can use to make decisions, but to actually control the flight mechanics themselves:

In a normal plane, ailerons are controlled by the stick and the rudders are controlled by foot pedals… McCornack is working toward a version of the two-seater in which you can control ailerons with a joystick hooked to the Apple. The computer would control servo motors that activate the ailerons.

Going for a theme, this same issue of Softalk has a similar article on pages 48–54: David Hunter's piece "Exec SubLogic: On Course and Flying High". It's a meandering piece about Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, two other entrepreneurs who developed the early flight simulator A2-FS1 Flight Simulator (and, later, Night Mission Pinball).

SubLogic had many other innovations in development. Decades before Steel Battalion, they envisioned more complex interaction and input devices:

Not just another joystick, this multiplexed, seven-channel contraption will give a more realistic aspect to the flight simulator, possibly including foot pedals, a steering wheel, a separate throttle, and other features.

Softalk was a great magazine, and this issue in particular was a fun look at the Apple II in flight.

(Hat tip to Paulo Alves via Garrett Meiers, with help from Laine Nooney)

Apple II at the Apple Store Genius Bar

November 5th, 2018 11:17 AM
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A once-annual tradition of KansasFest was an outing to the Apple Store. Whether it was to Country Club Plaza location, where I was tricked into buying my first iPod, or to the newly opened Leawood location, where the store manager gave us all free t-shirts, it was always fun to check out the latest Apple gear and to set all the in-store iMac's browsers to A2Central.com.

I often fantasized what the reaction would be if it weren't just Apple II convention-goers who arrived at the store, but the Apple II itself. Let's bring our ancient Apple computers and see if it'd be recognized by the even younger store employees. Better yet, let's schedule a Genius Bar appointment to get help installing GS/OS!

I'm not the only one to daydream this scenario: Bryan Villados, Forrest Hodges, and Steve Chamberlin have proposed the same gag. But it was Luke Hsu who finally pulled it off when the first Apple Store opened in Taiwan.

Luke didn't mention any interaction with or reaction from Apple Store employees, though. But we may have a hook to try staging this scene again soon: Apple will be implementing a "Repair Vintage Apple Products Pilot". The program will service products dating back to 2011 only, but the trial is deemed successful, perhaps we can expect that window to reach even further back in Apple's history — and thus, with the Apple II being fully expected and supported at the Genius Bar, the gag will be entirely ruined.

(Hat tip to Alan Martin)

Narrative choice in Law of the West

October 29th, 2018 1:01 PM
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The console gaming world is in a tizzy over this past week's release of Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), an open-world adventure game set in the Old West. To commemorate the occasion, Rhain Radford-Burns of OnlySP (Single Player) produced a historical chronicle, "The Origins of Virtual Gunslinging — History of Western Games (Part One: 1971–1994)" (a timeline that would exclude Lawless Legends). The hunting scenes in Oregon Trail earned a mention, of course — but so did another game I'd never heard of: Accolade’s Law of the West.

Law of the West (which can be played online in the Internet Archive) features four settings from a frontier town: the bank, the saloon, the Wells Fargo wagon, and the train depot, each populated by cowboys, teachers, deputies, desperadoes, and more. Each scene introduces a character who interacts with the sheriff and then departs. After eleven of these vignettes, the player is given a score based on community relations, crimes prevented, and romantic success.

Most notable is how the player engages with the townsfolk. While some gunslinging does occur, this action takes a backseat to dialogue. For each line a citizen delivers, the sheriff chooses from one of four responses, resulting in a branching dialogue tree. This plot device is common in modern adventure games — not only in indie titles developed in the Twine game engine such as Depression Quest, but also mainstream games from BioWare's Mass Effect to Telltale's The Walking Dead to Dontnod's Life Is Strange.

But according to Wikipedia, this gameplay mechanic was unprecedented at the time (emphasis mine):

The actual gameplay mostly concerns the Sheriff discussing with the various characters via a selection menu similar to those in contemporary graphical adventures. For each line the other character says, the game offers a selection of four different responses, and the discussion progresses depending on the chosen response. Law of the West marks the first use of this now-common interaction style.

If true, then it's fascinating to discover that such a well-known narrative device debuted in 1985 on the Apple II from a company that went defunct in 2000. To this day, the choice to engage with non-player characters instead of blindly shooting them is something players yearn for. In Chris Plante's review of RDR2 for Polygon, he describes one scene:

A crowd watches a public hanging. After the execution, the crowd disperses, and I find the victim's mother weeping in the mud. I want to console her, but for whatever reason, the game won't let me "greet" or "antagonize" the distraught mother. The only option it gives me is to pull a gun on her.

Maybe someone at Rockstar should've studied their history and learned the Law of the West.

Oregon Trail Blazers

October 22nd, 2018 1:57 PM
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I've never been one for competitive sports. I enjoy heading to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game every few years, but I've never been to a Patriots, Celtics, or Bruins game. Perhaps this stems from an ancient schoolyard rivalry, where my geeky hobbies were never deemed good enough for the jocks. They always tried forcing their pastimes on me without being similarly open to my passions.

Decades later, maybe those barriers are finally starting to erode. The Portland Trail Blazers are an NBA team whose name shares a word with with classic Apple II edutainment title Oregon Trail. In the lead-up to the official start of basketball season last week, this Oregon team released a video portmanteau of their name and the game's: Oregon Trail Blazers.

This reel consists primarily of traveling from one city to another; with the exception of a brief hunting scene, we don't see any of the riveting decisions that are the hallmark of Oregon Trail. Should the team ford the river? Trade with locals? What happens if someone breaks an arm? We may never know!!

Though the video is simple, the pixel art and chiptune soundtrack showcase a sincere affinity for Oregon Trail. It's great to see these two pastimes playing well together.

(Hat tip to Cat Morgan)

The needlepoint of Glenda Adams

October 15th, 2018 11:45 AM
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I've never been a particularly crafty person (except perhaps in the mwahaha sense). Knitting, crocheting, quilting, or even basic sewing are arts I've never taken the time to learn, let alone master. Even if I did grasp the basics, I doubt I would have the creativity to design anything terribly impressive — unless I had the right inspiration.

What inspires artist and iOS developer Glenda Adams is the Apple II. She's taken the 8-bit computer and used it as a basis for a impressive variety of needlework. From Karateka to Ultima and more, she has painstakingly adapted these iconic images into her own miniature tapestries, currently on display in her home and on her Twitter.

Adams, a games developer since 1988, has a savvy and relevant social media feed, tweeting on the occasion of KansasFest and demonstrating a wicked sense of humor in line with Apple Inc.'s latest developments.

Although her work is currently not for sale (nor is she accepting commissions), you can check out her #nerdstitch hashtag for more examples of her work, which expands beyond the Apple II to include Mac software and classic arcade games. Read more about her creative process at Cult of Mac.