Archive for May, 2011

Best computer games from the '80s

May 30th, 2011 2:45 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage, Software showcase;
22 comments.

Awhile back, TIME.com produced a list of the best computer games from the 1980s. Lists may be quick and easy ways to generate pageviews, but they're also enjoyable opportunities to reminisce and debate.

Time's list, which did not limit itself to the Apple II (see Retro Gamer for that list), consisted of the following apparently unranked one dozen games:

  • • California Games
  • • Ghostbusters
  • • Quest for Glory
  • • SimCity
  • • Prince of Persia
  • • Police Quest

I haven't actually played many of those games, or at least on their native platforms. But it does inspire me to jog my memory by consulting Wikipedia's list of Apple II games and list of Apple IIGS games to see which would make my must-play list. Here are my candidates:

And that's not even counting non-commercial games, such as GShisen or Silvern Castle.

What games top your memories of the Apple II?

Spelunking the history of Adventure

May 26th, 2011 10:25 AM
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Get Lamp, Jason Scott's documentary on the history of text adventures is interactive fiction, is comprehensive, spanning two DVDs and multiple episodes.

But it doesn't cover everything, nor should it: any published work has to retain its focus or else spiral out of control, losing everyone's interest along the way. Fortunately, as with everything else in life, for that which we want to know more about, there's the Internet.

Most impressive is Julian Dibbell's 5,000+ words dissertation on the life and times of Stephen Bishop, a slave in pre-Civil War Kentucky. That doesn't sound like a text adventure tale, but it is in fact the origin of Colossal Cave. Bishop was assigned the role of tour guide of Mammoth Cave, the cavern that served as the basis for the original text adventure. Bishop wasn't merely a spelunker, though, but an imaginative and empathetic storyteller who brought the cave to life with the creative names and yarns he spun for his tourists. Consider this example:

Bishop made the most of this ability to size people up, making sure all comers got the spectacle they felt they'd paid for. Most were easily satisfied; others came hungry to explore uncharted cave. Bishop catered to them all, at times bringing the more adventurous along with him on his discoveries — at others, apparently, letting them think they were discovering territory he had in fact already surveyed. As expert as he was in exploring, in other words, he was expert, too, in delivering what was then a novel sort of product but is now known familiarly (to students of latemodern marketing culture, anyway) as the commodified experience.

A map of the entire Colossal Cave, courtesy Mari Michaelis.Those qualities could be just as easily ascribed to Will Crowther, who, almost 150 years later, also brought people to Colossal Cave, except in digital form. Having previously been married to the woman with whom he'd explored Mammoth Cave, the place naturally held memories that made it difficult to revisit after the divorce. With his introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, Crowther thought he might meld his two pastimes into a new game he could play with his children. Thus was born Colossal Cave.

Dibbell's work is a brilliant and sweeping narrative, reminding us of the recurring themes of exploration and imagination throughout humanity's history, how unrelated threads can weave together, and how much older are stories are than we often realize. It's well worth the time of any gamer or historian — or just anyone who can appreciate an engrossing story.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Moving forward with retro goals

May 23rd, 2011 12:21 PM
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Filed under Musings;
4 comments.

Earlier this month, Mike Maginnis outlined some of his Apple II goals. It was an excellent call to action for Apple II users to outline what they want to accomplish with or contribute to the Apple II. It was a reminder for me to look at the bigger picture, as I otherwise find it easy to get lost in the day-to-day concerns of my neverending goals:

  • • Write one blog post every Monday and Thursday for Apple II Bits
  • • Produce one episode a month of the Open Apple podcast
  • • Publish one issue per quarter of the last remaining Apple II publication in print, Juiced.GS
  • • Help organize (and, ideally, present at) Apple II convention KansasFest annually

Having recently completed a master's degree, I should now find myself with copious free time, right? For the moment, let's assume there's some truth to that theory. My ambitions should thus fill it with the following goals, listed in order of their relevance to the Apple II:

Convert the Juiced.GS index to Zoho
Last July saw the online release of a comprehensive index of Juiced.GS's back issues, with every volume, issue, article, and author cataloged by Mike Maginnis. The tool used to present this data is wonderfully powerful and versatile, but it was not designed to handle this quantity of data and is already straining under the issues published thus far.

As we move forward, it will become more important to migrate this index to something like Zoho Creator, a free tool that I've experienced expertly handling Computerworld's review database. Unfortunately, the interface for designing such a database is arcane and has resisted my initial attempts at deciphering.

Learn PHP
I enjoyed programming on the Apple II but rarely since; languages such as C++ and JavaScript just haven't proven as fun or accessible as Applesoft. I still retain knowledge of programming concepts and structures, though, which has proven useful, especially in my blogging career.

I currently run sixteen WordPress sites, not counting various testbeds, all of which are built in PHP. I've been able to modify that code as necessary, but to actually understand the language and even write original code and plugins would prove immensely useful, allowing me to publish about the Apple II and other topics with more freedom and rigor.

Besides, PHP is a useful, modern asset to have in one's portfolio. Through my participation in the Boston WordPress Meetup group, grad school, and even community theater, I've been offered multiple Web design projects in the last three months, despite having never marketed my services in that area. It could be potentially lucrative to professionally develop those skills further.

Learn Inform 7
Text adventures are in vogue these days, spurred in part by Jason Scott's documentary on the subject, Get Lamp. More directly, I enjoyed presenting a Parsely adventure at KanasFest 2011, and then attending a PAX East session on programming in interactive fiction. The presenters of the latter, Jason McIntosh and Andrew Plotkin, made the language of Inform 7 seem an easy an intuitive way to write original text adventures, so I picked up a book on the subject. Even if I don't learn the language well enough, or lack the creativity, to write the next award-winning IF, I hope to at least be able to knowledgeably present on the subject at KansasFest 2012.

That's my to-do list. What's yours?

Engadget Woz

May 19th, 2011 11:48 AM
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Another podcast I finally caught up on this past weekend was Engadget's interview with Steve Wozniak, which debuted this past January. It had taken this long for me to listen because the episode is available as an MP4 video only. I eventually stripped the audio and put it on a portable player I could listen to on my way home from VCF.

I've featured plenty of interviews with the Woz, but this one has to be my favorite. Unlike his brief appearance on NPR last December, it was nice and lengthy, running more than a half-hour. Given so much time, he was able to pontificate on a variety of topics. The tricks he'd played in his youth have been well-reported, but this was the first time I'd heard of him extending that mischief to his encounters with the government. It was also one of the rare times I heard Woz talk about his role with, and the future of, storage and memory company Fusion-io, which is soon to make an IPO. And with a moderator to guide Woz, he was less rambling yet more interesting than his recent appearance at the American Humanist Association.

The interview starts just a few minutes into the episode and runs until 40:51, followed by some live chiptune music by Zen Albatross. You can download the show from iTunes or watch it here:

Personal data lineage

May 16th, 2011 11:19 AM
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Filed under Musings;
1 comment.

The many hours of driving that composed my weekend were filled with podcasts. Among them were This Week in Tech's interviews with first Bob Frankston and then Dan Bricklin, creators of VisiCalc. The two pioneers must've been happy to finally talk about something other than their spreadsheet, as there was nary a mention of the Apple II to be found.

But around time index 34:03, Bricklin said something to which I can relate:

Every time I get a new hard disk with a new machine, I take everything I used to have from that old, huge 300 gigabyte, and put it the corner of the new drive, and then take that and put it in the corner of a new drive. I've been doing that for years. You always make copies.

This passage describes my practice perfectly. Although I occasionally clean my computer of any unused applications and extensions, the data is persistent, migrating with me from one machine to the next. As a result, I can at a moment's notice access any email I've sent in the last 14 years, or any school paper I've written in the last 23. All this data takes up less than one gigabyte. By 8-bit standards, that's staggering; by today's, having the output of an entire era fit on 0.2% of my current computer's capacity is humbling.

Other Apple II users are likely also inclined to be digital packrats — but what shape does that take? Have you converted your data to disk images? Do you keep your Apple II up and running, able to access the data in its original environment? Or are your hard drives long disconnected, waiting to be archived before it's too late?

VisiCalc demoed today in 1979

May 12th, 2011 11:42 AM
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I love VisiCalc. The world's first electronic spreadsheet was also one of my first computer games. Although an Apple II booted without a floppy still had access to Applesoft BASIC, that environment expected precise input, rewarding creativity with SYNTAX ERROR. Cursor movement was also limited, with text appearing on consecutive lines only. VisiCalc, by contrast, not only let me type words and numbers, but I could put them anywhere on the screen! It was a great introduction to the power of personal computing.

The world was introduced to that potential 32 years ago today, when VisiCalc received its first public demonstration at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. It set the accounting world on fire and is often considered one of the first "killer apps", warranting the Apple II a place in business. Reports I Programmer: "People bought personal computer simply to run VisiCalc. At its peak, it sold 2 million copies at $150 per copy in 12 months."

VisiCalc

Image courtesy Apple II History

Although not viable as a modern business tool, VisiCalc continues to be used and discussed. A Windows-compatible version, available as a free download from Dan Bricklin's Web site, allowed me to introduce this revolutionary program to a new generation when I, as a high school teacher, spent an hour teaching a class of 16-year-olds how to use it. There were many utterances of frustration as they struggled to understand why the mouse — which didn't exist for the Apple II when VisiCalc debuted — wouldn't work.

Aside from the program, the man behind the machine, Dan Bricklin, also remains a visible entity. His history is as fascinating as the modern insights he offers on the evolution and changes in personal computing. In this recent ITworld follow-up to Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, he offers several reflections, such as on the evolution of programming:

People are writing their own programs. Anybody who uses a spreadsheet is writing their own programs; it's just that the language is different now…. We're just making the users do more and more of the programming themselves, but they don't know it. Using different style sheets with Microsoft Word is doing programming; using spreadsheets is doing programming.

Those interested in seeing where Dan Bricklin has taken software development in the last 32 years can check out his iPad application, Note Taker HD, courtesy his company, the Software Garden, or watch him on Triangulation tonight at 7 PM EDT.

(Hat tip to Mitch Wagner)