Archive for July, 2010

A Rogue kestrel

July 29th, 2010 3:45 PM
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Retro Gamer magazine is so densely packed with fascinating content that, despite issue #79 having just hit store shelves, I'm still reading issue #76. It's there that I found a four-page article on Rogue, one of my favorite computer RPGs. Rogue was first published for Unix in 1980 and was eventually ported to practically every platform, including the Apple IIGS, made possible by its graphically simple interface. The top-down display is drawn entirely in ASCII, leaving a vast space in which players could imagine themselves and the dungeon.

The game is mercilessly difficult, with the the Rog-O-Matic, a program that plays Rogue, is reported to have played 10,000 games in four hours and have won only six times. The challenge arises despite the presence of food, magic, weapons, and armor, as the monsters (all represented by letters, remember!) stalk and assault you well before you make it to the dungeon's last level.

Although I cannot at this time remember what ASCII character represents the kestrel — it wasn't 'K', those were kobolds — I do remember them being common foes, especially early in the game, where most adventurers meet an early demise. So imagine my shock to find myself being threatened by such a creature on a recent trip to the Omaha Zoo:

A kestrel is a bird. Nothing else. Not a fantastical monster or a ravaging beast. Just a plain old bird. I guess your imagination supplies the rest.

Besides Retro Gamer, the book Vintage Games by Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton (the latter whose book Dungeons and Desktops Andy Molloy reviewed for Juiced.GS) also delves into the history of Rogue. That particular chapter is available for free online at Gamasutra.

To play the game for yourself, download the Apple IIGS version as a GZIPped BINSCIIed file.

Grilling Jason Scott

July 26th, 2010 12:07 PM
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I heard of BBS: The Documentary before I knew of Jason Scott. I reviewed the film for my first issue as editor of Apple II publication Juiced.GS and thought a good follow-up would be to interview its creator. My first interview with Jason ran in December 2006, though it wasn't until the inaugural ROFLCon in April 2008 that I got to meet the man himself. I found him colorful, knowledgeable, opinionated — and, most of all, passionate. He's somebody I found worth keeping tabs on, which is why Computerworld publishes my second interview with him today, the week that his second film, GET LAMP, debuts. Less than half of what Jason and I discussed fit into Computerworld's print edition, just like the "PAX cut" of his film shown at KansasFest was only an excerpt of his larger work. Fortunately in the latter case, the final product will be shipped free to all KansasFest 2010 attendees by the end of next month. I can't wait to review Jason's latest accomplishment for Juiced.GS.

Jason Scott at KansasFest 2009

It is actually not typical for this keynote speaker to put his audience to sleep.

I have not sought to complete my familiarity with Jason's non-cinematic productions, so it was by happenstance that I recently stumbled across an MP3 recording of "Apple II Pirate Lore", a presentation he gave in 2003:

[This is an] overview of the Apple II Piracy Community of the early to mid 1980's, presented at the 5th Rubi-Con Conference in Detroit Michigan. Subjects covered include the unique aspects of the Apple II microcomputer architecture and culture, the methods of removing copy protection from software packages of the Apple II, and a very large helping of trivia. To illustrate some aspects of the "crack screens" and other Apple II graphics, an Apple II clone and several programs were provided. Speech delivered on March 29, 2003.

The file is almost exactly 46 minutes in length and discusses the stratification and traditions of early computer users and hackers. What generalizations can we make about Apple II users, and what motivated some of its users to become hackers? What language and practices existed within that subset of users? Jason delivers his speech eloquently while using but not relying on visuals, making his presentation surprisingly effective as an audio-only recording.

Most important to me, this presentation clarifies why Jason made a great keynote speaker at KansasFest 2009. Sure, Apple II users are part of a broader retrocomputing community of which Jason is a member — but his experience with the Apple II is personal and memorable. This small bit of knowledge quickly transformed my perception of him from that of an outsider to that of a peer.

When interviewing Jason about GET LAMP for Computerworld, he told me, "A lot of my stuff was slow-simmering and is now coming to a boil." I'm glad to see the fruition of more of his work, because I know the Apple II community to which be belongs will benefit.

KansasFest 2010 begins

July 22nd, 2010 11:00 AM
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This week marks the 21st annual KansasFest, a week-long computer convention dedicated to the Apple II. My first year in attendance was 1998, making this my lucky 13th consecutive KFest. And boy, am I lucky!

Though every year's KansasFest brings with it different attendees, sessions, and opportunities, it is never any less a blast year to year. We're missing the physical presence of regulars Ryan, Sheppy, and Bruce, among others — but in their stead, we have six first-time attendees, including Krue, who I previously met at last month's demoparty, as well as our keynote speaker, Mark Simonsen. Each person is obviously thrilled to be here, and the enthusiasm they have for the platform and community bring much to the KansasFest experience.

KansasFest 2010 unloading

By plane, train, or automobile, get yourself and your hardware to KansasFest 2010!

For better or worse, many of us are spending as much time working as we are socializing. The two dozen sessions on this year's schedule require much preparation for which we found little time on our pre-KFest lives. I was scheduled to give four sessions this year and offered to fill an empty slot with a silly fifth — all in addition to video-recording all other sessions, and emceeing the annual dinner banquet with an activity recommended to me by KFest committee member Andy Molloy. There's much material for me to prepare, memorize, and test.

But in the end, it's worth it. KansasFest comes but once a year and is every Apple II enthusiast's opportunity to recharge their retrocomputing batteries for another year. The more people who invest in KFest, the greater the return on the investment. With all the contributions to KFest 2010 from people on-site and off, I'm looking forward to this year's event keeping me going for awhile to come.

Reading at 300 Baud

July 19th, 2010 10:50 AM
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As a member of the magazine industry, I've watched many storied print publications diminish in size and circulation until they disappear altogether, which bodes ill for nascent ones. Publishing veterans tell me it'd be madness to pitch a new print magazine in a day when everything is going digital.

Yet magazines serve many audiences, and when a niche goes unserved, an enterprising and passionate team can't help but hope the market will support its vision. I was encouraged to see this had happened to the retrocomputing community when I learned of the existence of 300 Baud, a new publication aimed at the growing number retrocomputing enthusiasts.

I discovered 300 Baud too late to partake of the limited run of its first issue; PDFs may be available eventually, but for now, the print edition is a rare commodity. I instead ordered the second issue (no multi-issue subscription plan is currently offered) for $6, which includes shipping within North America ($8 elsewhere). The Web site states that orders may take 4–6 weeks to be delivered. My order was placed on June 15, mailed on June 28, and delivered on July 6 — a pretty efficient turnaround, given the expectation.

300 Baud envelope

Even the envelope was rockin' the retro font. Click for actual size.

The magazine's first two qualities to surprise me were in its actual format. First, it is about the size of an instruction manual, measuring roughly 5.75" wide and 9.5" tall. It makes for a compact travelling companion but also decreases the number of words per page, resulting in more flipping among its 40 unnumbered pages. Second, the issue appears to be printed fully in color. Although most images appear in black and white, color appears either as the occasional splash or as a full-page image. I imagine this decision must've raised production costs immensely, making $6 for the issue a bargain.

300 Baud bills itself as "a periodical journal of retrocomputing"; as such, the second issue's eight articles aim at a broad readership of indeterminate platform preference. The content can be broadly broken down into three categories: telecommunications, programming, and hardware.

True to the magazine's title, the first article looks at the early era of telecommunications, with a focus on CompuServe and BBSs. The article is written with a mix of factual history and personal anecdotes, offering a more relatable perspective than the by-the-numbers history of online services I researched last summer. A later piece on the rise, fall, and longevity of the gopher protocol is fun, detailing the needs it addressed and the support it has to this day, while a third article relates the experience of a former dial-up bulletin board denizen discovering the survival of the BBS as a telnet service.

300 Baud #2In the programming category is an overview of how graphics are handled from BASIC on the Apple, Atari, and IBM, with a brief mention of Commodore and Tandy models. It's an interesting survey that doesn't go into the depth of a how-to. Similarly, "Hack the Mac" is an introduction to the programming languages available for classic Macs and how they compare in requirements and difficulty, but not necessarily robustness. Retro Mac fans should appreciate this piece more than I did, as the oldest Mac I've ever used was from 1997. I thought an article on something called OS-9 might be closer to my era, yet it is not the Mac's Classic environment, but an operating system for Tandy's CoCo computer.

Likewise, not being a hardware hacker, I skipped the article on hardware hacking and interfacing. An article on "pen computing" puts the recent launch of the iPad in a historical perspective, casting Apple's revolutionary device as the latest in a long line of mobile computers with touch displays.

Though lacking a table of contents, the issue is easy to read. The text is presented in typical blog format, with double carriage returns between paragraph breaks and no indentation. Although I'm still not accustomed to this style in print, it's more a matter of personal taste that doesn't affect readability.

Most of the issue's images are used for visual variety and not do demonstrate concepts or principles found in the text. Unfortunately, I could find no credits for any of the art or images in the issue. Some of them are positively retro, which makes me wonder who holds the copyright. When I sought the rights for a similar picture for my own use, I found permission was easily obtained from the Computer History Museum, but I saw no such disclaimer in 300 Baud.

In addition to a diverse stable of writers, the magazine has an impressive pedigree: its editor is William Dale Goodfellow, and layout, printing, and shipping is handled by Simon Williams, whose Web server is an Apple II and who brings us the annual Retro Challenge. I didn't recognize any of this issue's other contributors, though that speaks more of my own lack of awareness of the retrocomputing scene outside my own Apple II community.

Given the economics of today's print industry, 300 Baud is wise to appeal to as broad a potential reader base as possible. At the same time, not every article will appeal to every reader. I confess to not having dove into each one, and I'll accept if that makes me unqualified to offer an informed review. It all depends on how narrow your interests are and how willing you are to broaden them.

Whatever your retrocomputing area of expertise, 300 Baud is a rare and bold effort to speak to us esoteric hobbyists, and it deserves the support it needs to warrant the future issues I intend to buy.

AppleWorks in the Hot Tub Time Machine

July 15th, 2010 2:00 PM
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Some movies make strong first impressions that don't always prove accurate. Hot Tub Time Machine's name and trailer led me to believe it was an immature, over-the-top guy flick. Imagine my surprise when it actually received good reviews. Its quick release on DVD gave me the opportunity to try it at no cost, courtesy the local library, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found: an immature, over-the-top guy flick that was actually fun, funny, and clever. But that's not all I found.

When the four main characters first time-travel from present day back to 1986, they're unaware of their situation. It's only when they step into a ski lodge and are assaulted with the memorabilia and styles of the era that they begin to grasp what has happened. It's a very quick montage in which they are presented with leg warmers, tape decks, Ronald Reagan, and…

Wait, what's that?!

Faster than someone reaching for the mute button during a vuvuzela concert, I rewound and paused the film and engaged in a slow-motion crawl through the scene. Sure enough, I spotted the object of my desire:

Hot Tub Time Machine

What says the Eighties like an Apple II?

Behold: this ski lodge is powered by an Apple IIc with a missing key and a copy of AppleWorks. What version of the software is in use and what the files and timestamps are, I can't tell without a higher resolution look at the scene. But we can see that word processor, database, and spreadsheet files are all in evidence.

I wonder what production crew member dug into his archives and volunteered this hardware to appear on the silver screen? What a fun interview that would be!

Quality Computers System 6.0.1 video

July 12th, 2010 11:48 AM
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Two months ago, I digitized and uploaded a Quality Computers VHS video. Permission to do so was provided in a csa2 post started by Donald Jordan, who was looking to convert and preserve Quality Computer's video about the System 6.0.1 operating system. Though his quest had opened the door for all Quality Computers videos to be converted, I was curious if he'd achieved that goal with the specific video he had in mind.

I emailed Donald and learned that he had indeed converted his video — from VHS to DVD, using the Sony RDR-VXD655 VHS/DVD combo unit. His needs were met, but I was interested in distributing the video to a larger audience. Donald graciously donated a copy of his DVD to me for that purpose.

Once I had the DVD, I used MacTheRipper to save it to my hard drive; then, per Tony Diaz's suggestion, I used HandBrake to convert the DVD format to an MPEG-4 video file. Then, using QuickTime Player 7 Pro, I chopped the 57-minute video into seven separate MOV files that would accommodate YouTube's ten-minute upload limit. Here is the resulting playlist:


Q/Vision, a division of Quality Computers, presents this introduction to System 6.0.1, the last official Apple IIGS operating system released by Apple Computer Inc. This video was originally presented in six parts: previews of other Quality Computers products; an overview of System 6.0.1 and the Bonus Pack; preparation; installation; the Apple desktop; and the IIGS Finder. Starring QC employee Walker Archer, this 1992 video was converted from VHS to DVD by Donald Jordan and is posted here with his permission and cooperation, as well as that of copyright holder Joe Gleason.