Archive for October, 2010

Capturing KansasFest

October 28th, 2010 1:46 PM
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I'm a moviegoer and a video gamer, but I generally enjoy those media as a consumer, not a producer. If I had to choose one medium as my all-around favorite, it'd be literature: as described in GET LAMP, there is no means of communication that speaks so directly to the imagination. Accordingly, most of the content I publish for the Apple II takes the form not of software or hardware, but the written word, as evidenced by my multiple blogs and by Juiced.GS.

But when Jason Scott gave his KansasFest 2009 keynote speech, I realized that his presentation could not have been delivered by anyone but him: the content and the delivery were inseparable. A historian, Scott usually records his own speeches, but his travel arrangements had left him without his recording devices. Fortunately, Sean Fahey grabbed his Flip camera and saved the day, but I determined then and there that a more conscious effort had to be made to preserve KansasFest 2010's moments.

After consulting with my workplace's multimedia guy, videoblogger Steve Garfield, and a professional photographer who happens to be my uncle, I had an idea of the hardware I'd need. I bought a Kodak Zi8 digital video camera, Manfrotto tripod, and two external microphones (the Audio Technica ATR3350 and Sony ECM-DS70P). I could've gotten much better, but only for much more money — and at this point, the Apple II is still a hobby with the appropriate budget.

Recording the sessions was rather effortless. The resulting files were trimmed in QuickTime 7 Pro. If the video needed further editing, it was imported into iMovie; for audio, Audacity. The files were then converted from MOV using MPEG Streamclip, per Vimeo's guidelines, and uploaded them into a KansasFest 2010 album. I chose that video service instead of YouTube because of the ease with which high-definition movies longer than ten minutes can be posted and even made available for download. I bought a one-month premium account that could accommodate the multiple gigabytes I needed to upload in a short amount of time; when that month was up, I renewed for a year, lasting me through KansasFest 2011.

All was well and good — except that most of these videos are longer than the average viewer's attention span. When I needed to rewatch Mark Simonsen's keynote speech, I exported the audio to my iPod and listened to it in the car. Steve Weyhrich mentioned his wish for the same ability to listen to the speech en route to work, instead of sitting at his computer for 90 minutes straight, so I set out to make this option available to others.

Echoes of KFestAs I'd ended up using the Zi8's inbuilt microphone instead of either of the external mics I'd brought to KFest 2010, the video's audio captured the background noise of the complex in which the sessions were held. I used Audacity further to remove as much static as I could, via a combination of the noise removal, amplify, and bass boost functions. I then uploaded them to the KansasFest Web site and, upon the recommendation of the event's former logo designer, used the Blubrry plugin for WordPress to make the files available for streaming and to iTunes. The latter, ironically, required an episode to be published before it would accept the podcast submission — but I wanted an iTunes subscription option to be available for the initial announcement of the podcast's availability. I worked around this chicken-and-the-egg scenario by backdating an episode so that nobody but iTunes would notice its publication. The result is the Echoes of KFest — technically more an audio archive than a podcast, but still only the third podcast (after 1 MHz and A2Unplugged) to ever be dedicated to the Apple II.

Since Echoes of KFest was an afterthought not conceived of until after the recordings were made, the audio is one area that's obvious to improve. For KansasFest 2011, I will be investing in a Azden WMS-PRO external microphone. I've also ordered the latest version of iLife for use with non-Apple II projects — experience which I hope will translate back to KansasFest.

I've learned much by stepping into the multimedia realm; now I can say confidently that I really do prefer text! The number of technical steps to get all this media merely presentable meant that further refinement to make it truly professional was beyond me. I don't want to dismiss the flaws of this work by saying "It's better than nothing," but I do hope its audience (if any) will recognize that my methodology is a work in progress and is attempted with the best of intentions.

Leaping into the Lion's den

October 25th, 2010 2:35 PM
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Those who learn history may help us avoid it, but sometimes, the details escape prediction. When I interviewed Jason Scott for Computerworld, I asked him about closed systems like Facebook and the iPad. His response:

People think Facebook is an unstoppable juggernaut … and we have to fight, because if we don't, it'll always be like this … It's really bad to flip out, as if this were life and death. We're doing the same thing with the iPad, all this crapola of closed system vs open system, with people rooting for companies like they're sports teams. At the same time there was the Altair and the Atari 800 and the Apple II, we still had the Atari 2600 and the NES — two completely closed systems that worked dependably. We lived with it, it was fine, and now they're gone and there are other things. So yeah, Facebook is pretty terrible with privacy, and I'm bothered by the number of people who happily defend ease over freedom, but Facebook won't survive more than another five years in their current form. You won't recognize them in five years, they'll be something completely different. They can't survive as they are. Look at MySpace or Friendster or Orkut. There's a lot of space in the ecosystem. I'm not too worried. We won't even be thinking about it by October.

If Scott was referring to Facebook, then he may've been right, as there hasn't been nearly as much discussion about the social network's privacy controls lately as there was in the spring. But if he meant the iPad, well — I guess he didn't see Lion coming.

Apple's next Macintosh operating system will feature an inbuilt App Store, similar to what iTunes already offers for iOS devices. Already, alarmists are asking: is this the end of the Mac as an open platform?

I don't believe it is, but Apple isn't alone in moving toward more closed architectures — almost everything today's consumer uses is meant to be used as its designer intended. This approach may be more elegant for the end user, but it's also more restrictive, prohibiting innovative workflows and custom solutions to individual problems. At KansasFest 2010, I moderated a panel on this very topic, after being inspired by an article Ivan Drucker wrote for Juiced.GS.

Closed systems aren't just frustrating for end users. Such proprietary natures discourage curiosity and learning — essential skills for any future programmer or artist, as recently noted by Wil Wheaton in a Geek a Week podcast interview (time indices 16:21–19:36). The former Star Trek star reminisced about fiddling with shortwave radios and how easy it was for kids to take things apart and learn how they worked. "It's a shame that so many things are so closed down and locked down these days," said Wheaton. "That kid that 25 years ago would be inspired by reverse-engineering a game on their Apple IIe is going to have a lot more difficult time doing the same thing today."

The emergent popularity of computer science has given many more students and at many more ages the opportunity to learn computer programming, but those formal structures are far different from the self-taught programmers of a previous generation who could LIST their favorite software, study it, and even modify it. Doing so on a modern Mac is already nearly impossible, and I don't see the Mac App Store worsening the situation. But it does suggest a continuing formalization of the relationship between vendor and user, and a further demarcation between user and programmer.

The year 2010 began with the unveiling of the Apple iPad and ended with the potential diminishment of the Mac as an open platform. Neither digital historian nor Starfleet ensign can see the future these announcements will usher.

The career-shaping Apple II

October 21st, 2010 12:05 PM
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Some of my favorite Juiced.GS articles are the anthologies. Roughly annually, the staff and I choose an Apple II-related topic and solicit community members to contribute brief essays that I assemble into a single collage. I love the variety of perspectives and voices, and the collaborative nature of being able to work with such a diverse yet ephemeral team.

In my time as editor of the magazine, I've overseen four such articles: where were you when the Apple IIGS was released; favorite memories of KansasFest; how did the Apple II influence your career; and favorite memories of Joe Kohn. (Naturally, that last one was the least enjoyable; I would've preferred not to have needed to publish it at all.) My favorite of those was how the Apple II impacted our jobs:

Wherever you live, no matter your age, today's economy is a difficult one in which to either find or keep a job. Fortunately, the Apple II has long served as a strong foundation, teaching its users programming languages and critical thinking skills that have shaped their professional careers. We asked Juiced.GS subscribers, "How did the Apple II bring you to the career you have today?"

The answers were nothing short of inspiring. When else could Juiced.GS readers find Australian mainframes, digital libraries, and chicken coops, all in one article?

More mundanely, the Apple II also led me to my current job at Computerworld. In return, I try to bring my hobby to my workplace, not only by setting up the actual machine in my cubicle, but by covering the retrocomputing scene for Computerworld's readers. Although I'm careful to not be pigeonholed as "the Apple II guy", my editors are have been pleasantly surprised by my stories proving major traffic drivers for the site each of the last two Augusts.

Recently, another professional who is where he is today because of the Apple II had a run-in with Computerworld, though this time, it was one of our dozens of international counterparts. Computerworld Australia this week published an interview with Mr. Simon Hackett, founder of both telecommunications carrier Agile Communications and Internet service provider (ISP) Internode. Staff writer James Hutchinson's very first question to Mr. Hackett, "What caused you to get into telecommunications in the first place?", produced an answer that would've been right at home in Juiced.GS:

While I was at high school, around 1981, an Apple II turned up on loan from the Angle Park Computing Centre (an SA Government initiative which was a catalyst for a number of future IT Entrepreneurs in South Australia). Other students started playing with it to see what games it seemed to come with. But I picked up the book that arrived with the machine, containing the ROM Monitor manual and 6502 assembly language guide, and started writing little programs in machine code for fun. It seemed easy, because nobody had told me that it was supposed to be hard.

Some years later, I took on a job at Adelaide University right when AARNet (the university precursor to the commercial internet in Australia) was being created by the university sector. It was the first (and last) job interview I've ever had with anyone! As part of that team of people, I picked up the way the internet and TCP/IP worked just as I had picked up Apple II machine code — by rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty and just… doing it.

It became clear to me that my professional future was going to be intertwined with the use of networks to get computers to do useful things for people in the real world.

Practically on the other side of the planet from where Steve Wozniak cobbled together his brainchild, a career was shaped and made manifest. How many others learned from the Apple II the foundational skills and knowledge that they transferred and applied to their dreams? How many other careers, from enterprise IT entrepreneur to iPhone programmer to helpdesk technician to tech writer, have been influenced by this 8-bit machine?

How have you?

Collectible Woz

October 18th, 2010 12:27 PM
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Like every Apple II user alive, I think the world of Steve Wozniak. He deserves every award, accolade, honor, and recognition the world can bestow upon him.

Thanks to the art of Len Peralta of Jawbone Radio and the humor of Paul and Storm, Woz is one step closer to that rightful immortality. He now has what every superstar hopes and dreams for: a trading card.

Geek A Week Challenge: #27: Steve WozniakBy the time the year-long Geek A Week project wraps up in March 2011, it will have honored 52 geeks with trading cards, featuring an original illustration and writeup. Woz, pictured to the right, has on the back of his card the following bio:

Flux capacitor? Child's play! That is to say, he invented it as a child, in 2063. That afternoon he affixed it to his AirSegway, rocketed off, and quickly found himself stranded in the 1960s after the prototype device burned out. With spare time on his hands, he went on to assemble the first successful personal computer at the "suggestion" of his new friend, Steve Jobs. They formed Apple Computer in 1976, and when the company went public in 1980 they both became millionaires, enabling The Woz to purchase the plutonium he needed to continue his well-documented travels. Of course he constantly checks in on our timeline, fostering technological innovation and spreading goodwill with each landing.

The complete set of trading cards is a who's-who of geekdom, counting among its honorees Star Trek alumnus Wil Wheaton, musicians Jonathan Coulton and MC Frontalot (the latter whom was featured on Get Lamp), actors Felicia Day and "Hi, I'm a PC" John Hodgman, author John Scalzi, MST3K alumni teams RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, creative genius Weird Al Yankovic, astronomer and skeptic Phil Plait, and gamer Major Nelson.

In addition to the downloadable cards, Mr. Peralta has also produced a podcast in which he speaks with each of the featured geeks. The episodes are available from the project's Web site or from iTunes. Woz's interview is episode #23.

Where do I sign up to reserve a physical edition of the complete set of cards?

(Hat tip to Ann Hoevel)

The questionable role of Steve Jobs

October 14th, 2010 1:58 PM
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When I was a teacher, I asked my 11th-grade students who founded what was then called Apple Computer Inc. "Steve Jobs!" they confidently replied. I prompted them, "Yes, he was one of two Steves. Who was the other?" I died a little bit inside at their blank stares, then showed them G4's special on the Apple II to rectify the matter. (They were, surprisingly, impressed by Wozniak's wizardry as demonstrated in that show.)

Sadly, it is not just the next generation whose reality has been distorted. Whatever Apple's origin, Steve Jobs has attained a popular culture ranking greater than his counterpart and will go down in history as having had more impact on the company. But does that belief reflect historical truth?

Doubtless much of Apple's success has been attributed to Jobs. Last month's Juiced.GS cited Carmine Gallo's book The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, which outlines seven principles Jobs has used to attain success:

  1. Do what you love. Think differently about your career.
  2. Put a dent in the universe. Think differently about your vision.
  3. Kickstart your brain. Think differently about how you think.
  4. Sell dreams, not products. Think differently about your customers.
  5. Say no to 1,000 things. Think differently about design.
  6. Create insanely great expectations. Think differently about your brand experience.
  7. Master the message. Think differently about your story.

Gallo's book is not the first to define these concepts. The Cult of Mac recently interviewed John Sculley, CEO of Apple 1983–1993. In that lengthy transcript (8,321 words!), the former sugar water salesman affirms several of the above points, including #4:

[Jobs] always looked at things from the perspective of what was the user's experience going to be? But unlike a lot of people in product marketing in those days, who would go out and do consumer testing, asking people, "What did they want?" Steve didn’t believe in that.

He said, "How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before." He believed that showing someone a calculator, for example, would not give them any indication as to where the computer was going to go because it was just too big a leap.

And #5:

What makes Steve's methodology different from everyone else's is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do — but the things that you decide not to do. He's a minimalist.

But are Jobs' philosophies truly what drove Apple to success? In Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, an interview with the late Jef Raskin, a former Apple employeee, offers a different perspective:

If Jobs would only take credit for what he really did for the industry, that would be more than enough. But he also insists on taking credit away from everyone else for what they did … He has not designed a single product. Woz designed the Apple II. Ken Rothmuller and others designed Lisa. My team and I designed the Macintosh. Wendell Sanders designed the Apple III. What did Jobs design? Nothing.

Andy Hertzfeld offers an opposing view of who can be considered the father of the Macintosh, but that computer is just one example. Mike Maginnis brings the above product line up to speed by amending it with the iPod, the design of which should be credited to companies PortalPlayer and Pixo. So what has Steve Jobs actually designed Apple Inc.? "Probably not as much as Jobs would like you to think," Maginnis suggests.

But as far as our favorite computer is concerned, there is one story that most sources agree on — one quoted in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and retold in Sculley's recent interview:

If you go back to the Apple II, Steve was the first one to put a computer into a plastic case, which was called ABS plastic in those days, and actually put the keyboard into the computer. It seems like a pretty simple idea today, looking back at it, but even at the time when he created the first Apple II, in 1977 — that was the beginning of the Jobs methodology. And it showed up in the Macintosh and showed up with his NeXT computer. And it showed up with the future Macs, the iMacs, the iPods and the iPhones.

Jobs may not be the design genius he's made out to be, but his marketing genius is significant. Last month made 25 years since he was ousted from Apple; compare the decade without Jobs to the years since his return in 1996, and you'll find the company has been revitalized and made significantly more profitable.

It was during Jobs' absence from the company he founded that the last Apple II, the template for all that was to come from Apple Inc., rolled off the production line. He may have been responsible for the commercial success of the computer, but he cannot be directly blamed for its death. In the end, what else matters?

A mathematical problem

October 11th, 2010 11:11 AM
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One problem with using a computer as old as the Apple II is that most of its software was released more than two decades ago. Finding and preserving that data is a never-ending quest, but we are sometimes stymied at the very first step: remembering what the programs were! A chance encounter with a random program when we were half the age we are now is a difficult one to pin down, as the software's function and interface often stick with us longer than its title screen, which is its most historically identifying feature.

Faced with this exact problem, gaming cartoonist Philip Armstrong recently explored this issue in the most descriptive manner he knows: comic strips. He drew three illustrated stories in which the main character, Oat the Retronaut, reminisces about "a series of forgotten edutainment titles that are the Apple II [equivalent] to Professor Layton[, Nintendo's series of handheld puzzle games]." Here's an excerpt:

Retronauts comic strip

Despite attending a grade school with a lab of Apple II computers, I grew up with little edutainment software. With the exceptions of Scholastic Microzine and Oregon Trail, I missed out on many classics like Number Munchers. I therefore have no recollection with which to help Mr. Armstrong find the games in question. The same goes for Asi Lang, who wrote to Juiced.GS with a similar request.

Can the Apple II community help either of these gentlemen reunite with their youth?