Archive for January, 2011

A generational hardware gap

January 10th, 2011 12:10 PM
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Anyone who has been using computers for a few decades has the questionable pleasure of reflecting on how far technology has come. We remember the massive leap forward 3.5" floppy disks represented over the old, which makes us appreciate the volume and affordability of modern storage all the more.

Newcomers to technology don't have that historical context — but rather than berate them for not knowing how good they have it, Montreal journalist Jean-Christophe Laurence brought them face-to-face with hardware older than they are. He presented several kids with such equipment as a Nintendo Game Boy, an LP record, several floppy disks, and more. With nary a hint as to their purpose, the children were tasked with determining the nature of the enigmatic tech. He recorded the results, which are presented in French with English subtitles:

It's a creative scenario, as it doesn't try to impress upon the students how different this stuff is from what they know: when they guessed an LP was like a CD, nobody said "Yes, but it holds this much less data, and has this much slower access times." It's more a matter of function and design than of better or worse, which is likely to be more educational and thus make them better appreciate (and familiar with) what's come before. (Maybe they'll learn the other by being taught programming on retrocomputers.)

It's also similar to what older generations have to do when confronted with new technology. We've heard those old chestnuts of newbies mistaking a CD-ROM tray for a cup holder, or a mouse for a foot pedal or a TV remote. Those mistakes happen because users are familiar with cup holders and channel changers, so they bring those analogues to their new experiences. It's impressive how spot-on many of the above children's guesses are, especially when they have to use modern metaphors to make their guesses. Although it's useful to have a frame of reference by which to learn new skills, as they demonstrated when confronted with a 3.5" floppy, it's also occasionally necessary to abandon old ideas to grasp new ones.

What do you think? Should these kids have been able to identify these objects? Would you have been able to?

(Hat tip to Genevieve Koski)

RetroChallenge Winter Warmup commences

January 6th, 2011 9:57 AM
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One of my favorite KansasFest activities is the HackFest, which challenges KFest attendees to write the coolest Apple II program possible within the time constraints of the convention. My programming skills are meager, I found that creativity counted for more than technical accomplishment. I used Applesoft, GSoft, or Spectrum scripting to place in many consecutive competitions, until finally my I tapped dry my well of ideas and switched over to the judging panel.

HackFest continues to be a popular feature of KansasFest, though some have called for it to be less stringent in its rules. "Why should someone have to be at KansasFest to compete in HackFest?" I've been asked. Partly it's for the contestants' benefit: the synergy and inspiration abound at KFest, with contestants often working alongside each other, advising them on particular programming challenges. Such was the case with my own now-infamous Maxster, which I believe placed second to my roommate Geoff Weiss's Taipan script.

Nonetheless, it remains true that, although everyone should attend KansasFest, not everyone can. For them, there is an alternative: the RetroChallenge. This competition is held every summer and is not restricted to the Apple II. RetroChallenge occasionally is held in the winter as well, to keep everyone's programming skills current. Courtesy volunteer urbancamo (filling in for traditional host Simon Williams), the RetroChallenge 2011 Winter Warmup is now underway. From the event's Web site:

In a nutshell, the RetroChallenge is a loosely disorganised gathering of RetroComputing enthusiasts who collectively do stuff with old computers for a month.

The event is very much open to interpretation: individuals set [their] own challenges, which can range from programming to multimedia work; hardware restoration to exploring legacy networking — or just plain [messing] around. It really doesn't matter what you do, just so long as you do it.

While the RetroChallenge has its competitive side, it's not really a contest — it's more like global thermonuclear war: everyone can play, but no [one person] really wins.

Come on — give it a go!

The rules aren't quite as stringent as HackFest's and permit the use of any 20th-century pre-Pentium computer, including game consoles and PDAs. Check out the event's discussion forum and Twitter feed for more details.

I won't be able to participate this year, focused as I am on retrocomputing multimedia projects that require no programming — but I encourage all programmers, both budding and veteran, to get out there and represent the Apple II!

A predictive interview with Bert Kersey

January 3rd, 2011 12:25 PM
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The KansasFest 2010 keynote speaker was Mark Simonsen, who regaled his audience with tales of his days at Beagle Bros. In that speech, which is now available as both a podcast and a video, he recalls many Apple II luminaries whose paths he crossed, including Beagle Bros founder Bert Kersey.

Although Mr. Kersey is not one for public speaking, preferring instead to focus on barn owls, he nonetheless recently gave an interview with The Setup, a Web site that looks at the tools and strategies of geniuses across a variety of professions by asking them four questions:

  • Who are you, and what do you do?
  • What hardware do you use?
  • And what software?
  • What would be your dream setup?

Bert Kersey's interview, published in March 2010, is a brief one — only 431 words, including questions. The answers to what technology he uses are rather nondescript; "nothing unusual", he says. But in his answer to the final question, Mr. Kersey engages in a bit of tangential prognostication:

In 1982, I was interviewed by Softalk magazine and I was asked what a dream setup might be for the future. I went out on a limb and imagined:

  1. Smaller, less fragile floppy disks (smaller than 5-1/4 inches)
  2. The ability to do typesetting on my desktop.
  3. Movies on the printed page.

#1 was introduced in 1984 with the Mac. #2 became a reality in 1986 with the LaserWriter. As for #3, I guess the internet is the next best thing.

Developments that align with these predictions continue to be developed. Removable media transitioned from 5.25" floppies to 3.5" disks, as Mr. Kersey notes, but from there to USB thumb drives that hold thousands of times more data than Beagle Bros ever knew, for a fraction of the price. Typesetting, layout, and almost all other aspects of publishing have been redefined by computers. And while movies on the "printed page" are not yet a reality, I believe that combinations of E Ink, flexible plastic, and OLED displays may lead to something far closer to what Mr. Kersey has imagined.

It's no surprise to me that someone with the creativity and innovation to build an industry out of the Apple II should so accurately see what the future might bring.

(Hat tips to Mr. Guilt and Steve Weyhrich)