So Many Things music video

February 18th, 2019 11:10 AM
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More than a decade ago, I found myself wishing the Apple II community had a music video as cool as Comic Bakery's Commodore 64 song.

In recent years, Steve Weyhrich has amply filled that niche with his numerous KansasFest parody music videos. But somehow, another contender flew under my radar.

Joe Strosnider hosts Joe's Computer Museum, a lively YouTube channel filled with reviews of Apple II peripherals, repair tutorials, and tribute videos. Joe — whose license plate happens to be "6502" — in also an active member of the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook, where I missed his September 2016 post debuting a unique and creative addition to his videography: the music video "So Many Things".

This original composition is a tour de force of everything we love about the Apple II and all the amazing things it can do. It even features callouts to the Facebook group and to KansasFest (though, to the best of my knowledge, Joe's not yet made that annual sojourn). Full tech specs and lyrics are listed in the video's description.

Shoutout to Joe for this awesome contribution to the Apple II's music video library! Take that, Commodore 64.

TimeOut Spellcheck's 5L bug

February 11th, 2019 11:50 AM
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A few months ago, I detailed the "unliprobablyo" bug in AppleWorks Classic's TimeOut Grammar module. But there's another bug that's even more inscrutable. Although I've never personally encountered it, it is such a strange an inexplicable phenomenon that the revelation of its existence has stuck with me for decades.

For many, AppleWorks was their first access to a spellchecker. Although an imperfect tool that often lacked context and was unable to differentiate homonyms, it still introduced an unprecedented level of quality assurance to all writing, from simple to complex.

To this day, I've never encountered a spellcheck with a more efficient and intuitive interface, allowing me to select misspelled words from an alphabetical list instead of going through the document and forcing me to take action on each suspect word. This approach allows me to quickly skip over proper names, acronyms, and abbreviations.

But there was one abbreviation that, in a very specific context, could bring the whole house tumbling down. To the best of my knowledge, it was first reported by Tony Diaz on GEnie on November 1, 1996, as captured in GenieLamp:

I think I have stumbled on something here, and quite frankly, I for the life of me, just do not get it. Some history: I am starting to catagorize my Apple II Collection, I decided to start on paperwork. With the intention of eventually putting major portions of the list into an html table for posting on my Apple II Information web site. That is why I chose to just use the word processor instead of a data base file for this particular part of it, (some of you may say, why not use the database after I describe what lead me up to this.) I have my file boxes (Hanging folder cardboard boxes) labeled 1-12 at this point and the folders A-Z within. The stuff is in no particular order at this point which is why I just figured I'll make a quick list, save it as a TAB delimited format, import it into a database later and swap stuff around, alphabetize/catagorize it… I sure wish I started that way and then I would have had this mess.

Here is an example what I was doing.

 Name                                           What       Box/Folder
 --------------------------------------------------------------------
 Wico Joystick Dealer Kit                       Hardware           1A
 Titan Technologies Dealer Kit                  Hardware           3C
 Analytical Engines Saybrook 68000 Fliers/Kit   Hardware           4H
 Sweetmicro Systems Dealer Kit (Mockingboard)   Hardware           5L

I decided to spellcheck it so I could add some more words to my custom dictionary… and that was the end of that.

I after a long mess of 'WTF!?@@@>#$%' is going on here, I said.. ok, it's choking on something… Lord knows what, no disk access had happened yet. I ditched the (thank god for Macros) the Box/Folder catagory and it worked. To make a long story short, 5L Locked up AppleWorks.

What a completely and utterly SILLY and stupid bug.

Harold Hislop took up the investigation, responding with his own findings:

As far as I have been able to tell, after an extensive amount of trying different things, the lockup only occurs on IIgs machines, and only when a RamFast SCSI card is installed. . . and it does not seem to matter if any volume that is attached to the RamFast has been accessed or not. … I can find -NO- reason for the lockup in this firmware… I =strongly suspect= (but have NOT proved!) that the problem is really in AppleWorks itself, and most likely related to it's use of some 6502/65C02 opcode that does not execute in quite the same manner on a 65C816 processor.

I don't have the resources to test if this bug persists in that specific environment, or if later versions of AppleWorks or the RamFAST firmware resolved it.

RamFAST SCSI manual cover

Were you the culprit, RamFAST?… Or was it AppleWorks?

But I still remember around 2002, telling one programmer-type friend: "If you ran AppleWorks spellcheck on an Apple II with a RamFAST SCSI card installed, and the document contained '5L', it would crash."

I don't think I've ever seen that friend laugh so hard.

Another World comes to Apple II & Switch

February 4th, 2019 8:46 PM
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When I first encountered Out of This World for the Super Nintendo, I was absolutely fascinated. I'd never played Prince of Persia before, so the realistic art enabled by rotoscoping was new and amazing to me. The puzzles were also nearly inscrutable: playing as a human transported to an alien world, I had a language barrier that left me with few clues, countless deaths, endless experimentation, and victorious jubilation. My only disappointment was that the game was too short: a speedrun takes only 10–15 minutes.

Since the Super NES and the Apple IIGS share the same processor, the game eventually made its way to the IIGS, largely because the developer was told it wasn't possible:

If a conversion to a 16-bit Apple II seemed impossible, Vince Weaver, aka "deater", has kicked it up (or down?) a notch with his 8-bit demake:

Like his previous ports of Portal and Kerbal Space Program, Weaver's version of Out of This World is incomplete, consisting of only the first two levels and deaths. But even this limited proof of concept is fun and and impressive, which you can see for yourself by downloading the disk image and source code from his website. The game runs on any Apple II with at least 16K of RAM.

Out of This World, under its original title of Another World, has been ported to many other platforms and is now enjoying historic re-releases. The 20th anniversary edition first appeared on consoles in 2014; in 2018, it landed on the current generation, that being the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, available as downloads only.

Despite having the original SNES cartridge, I've nonetheless plunked down USD$29.99 + S&H on the upcoming physical, retail copy of the Switch edition, courtesy Limited Run Games. It was just too good an opportunity to own this game again — be it on floppy disk, disk image, or cartridge. After more than two decades, I'm sure its puzzles will again take me longer than 15 minutes to solve!

Where is Carmen Sandiego? On Netflix!

January 28th, 2019 10:50 AM
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I like to say that I got my start as a professional writer in the print industry, working for such publications as The Boston Herald and various MediaNews daily papers. But even before then, my first freelance writing assignment was for the Gamers Forum on CompuServe, whose sysop gave me a review copy of a Carmen Sandiego game for the Apple II.

I was still a preteen and was utterly unschooled in how to conduct a professional review. All I knew was that I'd been given a computer game for free, which for a kid was like Christmas in July! The resulting review was gushing, which I thought was a fair exchange for this bounty I'd been given. Between my amateurish writing and my lack of context for the review — I'd never played any DOS / Windows games and didn't know how the Apple II compared — the editor ultimately killed the review. I was more embarrassed by the experience than I was grateful that I got to keep the game.

Nonetheless, Carmen Sandiego has a soft spot in my heart: whatever factors may've unduly influenced my review, I did sincerely enjoy the puzzle-solving and using the reference book the game came with to decipher the history and geography of our country and world. It was nerdy and neat and actually educational in a way that Oregon Trail rarely was.

So my interest was absolutely piqued when I discovered Netflix was premiering a new Carmen Sandiego animated series.

This is not the scarlet thief's first appearance on television. First was the 1991 game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, perhaps most memorable for its Rockapella theme song, followed by the 1996 game show Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? In between, there was the 1994 animated series Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?. Of the three, I'd seen only the original game show, and even that only in passing; once again, I'm lacking context.

But the biggest change seems to be that Carmen Sandiego is now the protagonist. Whereas the original cartoon had her defecting from ACME Detective Agency to work for the Villains' International League of Evil, Netflix's series flips that: this young, teenaged Carmen Sandiego has defected from V.I.L.E. and now travels the world stealing back that which her former colleagues have stolen from their rightful owners. In both, Carmen communicates with "Player" — but whereas the original Player was an invisible, live-action character, here, he's a white-hat hacker who remotely partners with Carmen to get her past security intended to keep her out.

I've watched the first two of eight episodes, and I've liked what I've seen: Sandiego is a moral character who values teammates and teamwork but will stand up to her friends to be true to herself. I'm told there are homages, actors, and recurring characters from other Carmen Sandiego media, but I've not yet seen anything that references her Apple II roots.

Even if the new cartoon doesn't directly acknowledge the character's origins, it's still great to see the our favorite retrocomputer's legacy continue to this day. Where on Earth would Carmen Sandiego be without the Apple II?

… Just don't ask me to review it.

(Hat tips to TV Guide and Mashable via Susan Arendt and Sabriel Mastin)

No More Heroes: Apple Strikes Again

January 21st, 2019 11:29 AM
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If I had to say what my brand was, it'd be a mix of Apple II, video games, Star Trek, and WordPress. Of them, those first two are the likeliest to intersect — but even I am sometimes late to catch those crossovers.

One recent video game I overlooked is Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, a Nintendo Switch exclusive released just three days ago, on January 18, 2019, and the latest in the No More Heroes franchise that started on the Wii in 2007. I've not played any games in this series and wasn't planning to start now. But then the Australian video game website Vooks made this passing remark in their review of the game: "The cutscenes … [are] handled through a visual novel with an Apple II filter."

I wondered what "an Apple II filter" was, suspecting it was just lazy shorthand for pixel art or some other retro aesthetic. Some searching on YouTube revealed that Vooks was in fact quite accurate in its description.

It's not a perfect match for the Apple II: the resolution is a bit too high and the font is off, to name a few. (Another review called it a "Apple II / TRS-80 style"; maybe that's the influence.) Regardless, if I were to see these cutscenes without context, the Apple II would probably be the first thing I thought of, too — either that or Plangman, another modern game with an Apple II vibe.

I continued poking into the history of the No More Heroes franchise and discovered this sequel is not the first to reference the Apple II. The original 2007 game featured the Orange II, "a retractable, cleaver-esque beam katana model designed by Orange Computer… The name is a parody of Apple Computers and its first computer sold for public use, the Apple II."

I apparently need to add Travis Strikes Again to my gaming backlog!

Lego Ideas floppy disk

January 14th, 2019 2:42 PM
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Like many kids, I grew up playing with Lego. I loved following the instructions and turning small bricks into large ideas that looked exactly as envisioned on the box. But I rarely went beyond that prescribed route and into the realm of possibility: I had no interest in modifying the castles and spaceships into something original. That way lay chaos, whereas what I needed to instill in my life was order.

Lego has since extended into such media as movies and video games, but the physical bricks are still as popular as ever. They've even learned to crowdsource their designs in a way that young Ken almost certainly would not have taken advantage of: submit your own design for consideration to be made into an official set!

A recent submission to this Lego Ideas process is "The Disk", a floppy disk composed of Lego pieces. It's the first creation from a seven-year-old account and was submitted on January 2, 2019. It received 100 votes by January 7, adding 365 days to its original voting period of 60 days — but will it meet its goal by the new deadline of March 2, 2020?

Lego floppy disk

Everything I know about the Lego Ideas crowdfunding site comes from my friend Maia Weinstock, who created the Women of NASA Lego set. From an interview with Maia on Space.com: "Each set submitted to the program first goes through a public vetting process, in which the set must receive 10,000 votes from the public before being considered by the company." Her set met that threshold, was positively received by the powers that be, and is now an official Lego set.

It wasn't easy for Maia to reach that goal, nor was it her first attempt. Her first Lego proposal was the Legal Justice League, later revised to the Legal Justice Team, which earned 4,026 votes. Her media blitz to get out the vote included recruiting me and my podcast co-host Sabriel Mastin to stage a photo shoot:

Even with that effort, 4,026 votes still fell shy of the necessary 10,000. I suspect more people are familiar with the Supreme Court than they are floppy disks, so by comparison, "The Disk" seems too niche to reach the voting minimum and then be approved by Lego. Both floppy disks and the Women of NASA are broadly in the category of tech history, but I see more cultural, historical value in the Women of NASA. Until floppy disks get their own Hidden Figures moment, it seems likely that children playing with Lego today will know floppy disks only as the save icon in Microsoft Word; to build their own, they'll have to get creative and see what's possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)