California Typewriter

February 19th, 2018 8:18 PM
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This weekend, I watched California Typewriter, a 2016 documentary about the professional and hobbyist communities surrounding typewriters. A narrative thread weaves through the titular California Typewriter, a family-owned shop in Berkeley, California — but the film's scope encompasses many other typewriter enthusiasts, including Tom Hanks, who's collected over 250 typewriters and who has lent his name to the typewriter-inspired iOS app Hanx Writer.

Typewriters were an essential step in the evolutionary history of personal computers, establishing such standards as the QWERTY keyboard. As a retrocomputing enthusiast, I appreciated the veneration these collectors feel for these classic machines. Offering a dedicated environment in which to focus on one's writing, free from distraction, notifications, or multitasking, is something typewriters and the Apple II have in common.

But I must disagree with a few qualities of the typewriter that were touted as strengths compared to personal computers. I didn't take notes during my viewing, so I'll paraphrase Tom Hanks who said that a personal, typed letter is more likely to survive the ravages of time. He cited an example of a thank-you note that playwright Noel Coward sent in the 1940s and which is now framed and preserved. Hanks pointed out that it's easy to delete an email, and if Coward had been able to send something via that medium, it would've been unlikely to have survived to present day.

But the best way to preserve something isn't to put it in one medium over another — it's to put it in as many hands as possible. Coward's letter is unique and singular; should anything happen to it, there are no copies or means by which to reproduce it. By contrast, something that is digital in origin or which is scanned into a digital format will almost always exist somewhere. Observe the history of Hewlett-Packard, meticulously recorded in hardcopy only and then lost in a fire this past October. Those documents were as irreplaceable as Coward's letter; had they been digitized, they likely would've lasted as long as that letter, too.

The movie also featured musician John Mayer's multiple complaints against electronic documents. First, that they showed no record of how something was created; apparently he's never heard of version control and incremental backups. Second, while he acknowledged that digital files will last forever, he likened it to a trash pile: yes, the files exist, but no one ever goes through them or sees them again.

His statement is likely based on personal experience and is likely true for most individuals: I still have every email I sent in college but haven't looked at them in twenty years. But when it comes to famous individuals or archaelogical artifacts — as both are the case with Ted Nelson — such "trash piles" hold at least as much historical value as a playwright's thank-you note.

I appreciate typewriters and those who admire them, and the California Typewriter documentary drove home their kinship with retrocomputing enthusiasts. Both typewriters and personal computers such as the Apple II have unique strengths that needn't come at each other's weaknesses.

As a bonus, I learned that, just as floppy drives and ImageWriters can be played as musical instruments, so too can typewriters! Witness the Boston Typewriter Orchestra:

Roger Wagner to keynote KansasFest 2018

February 12th, 2018 10:32 AM
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Over the last twenty KansasFests, I've listened to many keynote speeches. Some have been elaborate affairs with thoughtfully designed slides; others have been more freewheeling strolls down memory lane. My favorites have been those delivered by Randy Wigginton (2013), John Romero (2012), and Jason Scott (2009). The alternating historical luminaries and modern historians has provided a variety of perspectives on the current and historical aspects of the Apple II and its community.

After hosting the long-running Apple II development team Brutal Deluxe in 2017, KansasFest returns to the past with Roger Wagner, whose last gave the keynotes in 1991 and 1995. Not only do those years predate my first attendance at KansasFest 1998, but it also predates my peak years as an Apple IIGS power user. Wagner is most famous for the invention of HyperStudio, which bore many functional similarities to the World Wide Web, which Sir Tim Berners-Lee would not invent until two years later. Sadly, I to this day have never used HyperStudio; in fact, I can't even find a reference in the Juiced.GS index to any article that has covered it specifically.

That's not to say I haven't felt Wagner's influence. Four years ago, Chris Torrence collaborated with Wagner to compile all 33 installments of his Softalk column, "Assembly Lines" into a book that he made available in print and for free online. Many Apple II developers have since cited it as an invaluable resource, not only in long-term projects such as Nox Archaist but also short sprints such as the HackFest project Kaverns of KFest.

So instead of being unimpressed by the committee's selection of keynote speaker, I'm instead eager to finally meet the visionary who laid the foundation for the World Wide Web and who continues to inspire generations of Apple II developers. Here's to Wagner's third and best keynote speech!

Oregon Trail IRL

February 5th, 2018 12:59 PM
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As art imitates life, so too does life occasionally imitate art. Such is the case with Oregon Trail, a 2,170-mile wagon route that became the basis for a timeless Apple II game. The edutainment software has in turn been adapted to real-life interactive events, as with Oregon Trail Live, an annual event in Salem, Oregon, that will next be held on Saturday, September 8.

But for those in Colorado who didn't want to wait that long, the non-profit History Colorado recently hosted Oregon Trail IRL, a one-day event officially sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

Relive your childhood, as the vintage The Oregon Trail video game becomes a live-action experience set throughout the museum. Test your pioneering skills as you hunt for food, ford a river in a human hamster ball, play the original game in our '90s throwback library computer lab, plus so much more. Finish your immersive experience in our graveyard lounge with cash bar and music.

Colorado itself has few ties to the historical Oregon Trail; according to Wikipedia, "A branch of the Oregon trail crossed the very northeast corner of Colorado if they followed the South Platte River to one of its last crossings." But the state does lay claim to Chris Torrence, renowned Apple II blogger and videographer. The latest episode of video podcast series, Assembly Lines, features his expedition to the sold-out Oregon Trail IRL.

Oregon Trail IRL looks just like the game it's based on: both fun and educational. My thanks to Chris for capturing this experience for the rest of us!

(Full disclosure: I support Chris on Patreon.)

Keyboard latency

January 29th, 2018 10:15 AM
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Having just started working at Automattic, I'm anticipating a future where I'll spend even more time than ever sitting at a keyboard. Computers have been where I've spent most of my career, but they've always been interrupted by presentations, meetings, and the like. With even those now being done at a keyboard, I'm investigating ways to improve efficiency, such as switching to a DVORAK or Colemak layout.

Blogger and programmer Dan Luu recently identified another potential area of keyboard efficiency: latency. Regardless of the keyboard's layout, the actual time between keypress and result can also vary among brands and models — and even eras.

Turns out keyboard latency is one area in which our Apple II computer excels. Writes Luu: "… computers from the 70s and 80s commonly have keypress-to-screen-update latencies in the 30ms to 50ms range out of the box, whereas modern computers are often in the 100ms to 200ms range when you press a key in a terminal."

The author elaborates that modern keyboards themselves often have more, faster circuitry than an entire computer from the 1977 — yet, perhaps due to that simplicity, older keyboards are still faster:

consider that an Apple 2 has 3500 transistors running at 1MHz and an Atmel employee estimates that the core used in a number of high-end keyboards today has 80k transistors running at 16MHz. That’s 20x the transistors running at 16x the clock speed – keyboards are often more powerful than entire computers from the 70s and 80s! And yet, the median keyboard today adds as much latency as the entire end-to-end pipeline as a fast machine from the 70s.

Naturally, that led me to thinking that the best way to reduce my latency would be to replace my laptop's inbuilt keyboard, or even its external USB or Bluetooth keyboard, with an Apple II keyboard — a connection made possible by Charles Mangin of Retroconnector's keyboard shield. But, suspecting more steps between the keyboard and the computer would negate any improvement, I reached out to Charles for additional insight. He confirmed:

It would definitely add to the latency. The processor in the Arduino is running at 16mhz, and takes several cycles to register each switch state change. That is translated to the proper keypress, then it has to send that result as a USB signal, which takes more time. At best, it would be equivalent to a normal USB keyboard, but likely slower due to the Arduino overhead.

Alas, while the Apple II remains king of keyboard latency, that benefit is firmly tied to its classic architecture.

… The answer: replace my entire Automattic machine with an Apple II!

(Hat tip to mmphosis!)

iMac Pro memory comparison

January 22nd, 2018 2:26 PM
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Last week was the beginning of the semester at Emerson College, where I teach a graduate course on electronic publishing. To give my students context, I start each semester with a history of computers, the Internet, and data storage. That last aspect includes a brief mathematics lesson about binary, bits, and bytes, as well as how they scale to kilo, mega, giga, tera, and beyond.

Sometimes, even I need a reminder of just how massive the difference is in the scale between the Apple II and modern computers. The latest model of iMac Pro debuted last month, and with 11 times more memory than an Apple II, said one Twitter user. That's not surprising: early models of Apple II shipped with 48K of RAM, so 11 times that would be only 528K, or a bit more than half a megabyte.

But what Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, Apple employee #66, was referring to wasn't a comparison of a single Apple II to a single iMac Pro — but every Apple II ever, combined:

It's an impressive comparison — but is it true? Let's check the math. Six million Apple II computers at 48K each is 288,000,000 kilobytes of RAM, or 281,250 megabytes, or 274 gigabytes. Hmm… that's not quite right. Let's work backwards: 64 gigabytes is 67,108,864 kilobytes, divided by six million is 11 kilobytes each.

I don't have a precise number for the average amount of stock memory shipped over the lifespan of the Apple II and its various models, but I would guess it was more than 11K. Perhaps Tog is taking into account other factors, like SSD storage… but it still doesn't seem an Apples-to-Apples comparison.

But I appreciate Tog's intent, which may be more applicable to that hard drive. 4TB of storage is equal to 15,339,168 double-sided, 5.25;" 140K floppy disks. That's a lot of disks! I wonder how many floppy disks were ever made?

I'd love to get an unusual yet mathematically sound comparison of these two platforms' attributes that would help my students understand how far we've come. Please leave a comment with your suggestions!

(Hat tip to Luke Dormehl; featured image courtesy ReActiveMicro)

What Remains of Edith Finch

January 15th, 2018 10:29 AM
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After investing hundreds of hours playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I needed something smaller and more narrative-driven to cleanse the palate. A game I'd long had on my to-play list was What Remains of Edith Finch, an indie game that takes only 2–3 hours to complete. My friend Susan had called it one of her favorite games of 2017, so I booted my PlayStation 4 and played it through.

The game is a series of vignettes told from the first-person perspective of various ancestors in the Finch family across the last century. As such, it is set in different eras, and their house is redecorated each time to match the period. Naturally, this put me on the lookout for an Apple II computer, which can be an obvious visual signifier of one's setting. And although I did find a desktop computer, it was an unidentifiable, generic machine.

I finished the game sad for this missed opportunity and watched the credits crawl.

But wait — what was that?!

What Remains of Edith Finch

Each developer is represented in the credits by an actual photo from their childhood… and lead artist Brandon Martynowicz is featured with his Apple II! I thought it might be a IIe, which would've been era-appropriate: looking at Martynowicz's LinkedIn résumé, I'd estimate him to have been born around 1982, and he appears 2–2½ years old in this photo, putting it at 1985, two years after the IIe's debut. But Steve Weyhrich clarified: "The badge should be on the left if it was a IIe. They keyboard is much more Apple II/II Plus-ish, particularly the power light by itself on the left. My guess would be either a II/II Plus with some other sticker to the left of the regular badge, or a clone with a different badge."

Sadly, Martynowicz left Edith Finch developer Giant Sparrow in February 2017, two months before the game's debut. He now works at Riot Games, developer of the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game League of Legends, inspired by Warcraft III. It's unlikely we'll see his Apple II in that fantasy setting… but I'm glad he worked it into as fitting a game as Edith Finch!