Archive for June, 2011

Friends for life

June 30th, 2011 10:01 AM
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As I faced one of life's challenges, someone told me, "[I] am glad that you have some very good friends to help." Although it was a sincere sentiment, I was nonetheless amused at its obviousness: the comment came from an Apple II user — and "being an Apple II user" and "having very good friends" go hand-in-hand, making any challenge surmountable.

When Ryan Suenaga passed away … as strange as those words still are to type … the community grieved. Sentiments from his best friends to those who had met him only once were universal in their sympathy and support. One person who never had the pleasure of meeting my favorite Hawaiian even commented, "It's easy to see that he was a great person and meant a lot to everyone." Knowing how much Ryan meant to everyone accentuates his loss, but it also affirms the value of the life he led and his contributions to our community.

It's not just empathy that communities are valuable for; it's providing a critical mass with which to turn that emotion into action. It's how the @rsuenaga scholarship fund was established. And it's an attribute I took advantage of in my own recent challenge.
road forks clingman ave
I lately found myself paralyzed at a crossroads, one that I knew would not impact my ability to participate in and enjoy the Apple II community, but one which nonetheless would significantly define my immediate future. I had to take action, but before I could, I did what anyone would do: I turned to friends. I called KansasFest attendees I'd never called before. I emailed Juiced.GS staff writers, asking if we could swap our professional relationship for a personal one, just long enough for me to get some advice. I identified people throughout the community whose previous challenges, sense of adventure, long friendships, or plain old geography would give them unique and applicable insights into my situation.

To a one, no Apple II user let me down. The support and feedback I got from each was more helpful than any of the three spreadsheets I compiled that outlined the variables, importance, and consequences of my decision. (What else would you expect a geek to do?) Every friend listened patiently to my blathering. Some listened; some asked questions; others gave answers. Some even offered to rearrange their lives to help me rearrange mine. All helped me choose a direction and start moving.

You'll say that this is just what friends do, and you're right: not everyone who helped me was an Apple II user or was even able to comprehend our fascination with this archaic machine. But for all the years a person can spend making friendships through school, work, dating, or sports, few friendships have proven as immediate or durable as those which come from being an Apple II user.

You guys are the best.

A world without BASIC

June 27th, 2011 10:16 AM
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Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
6 comments.

The computers that Apple II users grew up with were nowhere near as user-friendly as today's machines. They had unintuitive interfaces, inscrutable error messages, and limited capabilities.

But those same limitations also made them an excellent tool for learning such important concepts as problem-solving, game design, and especially programming.

The Apple II was especially practical for that last function, as it came with BASIC in ROM. Without any other software, a user could turn on her machine and start building a virtual world of her own design. The lack of advanced features meant that the user was playing in a sandbox of conceivable limits yet infinite possibilities.

Yet by 1997, when I started college as a computer science major, I was getting laughed out of the classroom by using BASIC where other students were relying on Java and C++, as I related in Juiced.GS. Today, BASIC is almost nowhere to be found, as detailed in the leading item on Computerworld.com last Thursday "How are students learning programming in a post-Basic world?"

The story is an interesting look at the variety of languages with which to introduce modern students to programming. For some parents and teachers, the old methods work best; "My son's math textbooks contained exercises in Basic, but we could not do the problems until we bought an old Commodore 64 online," said David Brin, author of "Why Johnny Can't Code". Others prefer more popular scripting languages, such as Python; still others use a language designed more for educational than practical use, such as MIT's Scratch, the language of choice of the computer science teacher where I used to teach. She's offering a camp this summer to introduce 13- and 14-year-olds to programming, using a different format from last year's camp: "I changed the language from Alice to Scratch. Alice was too glitchy for me. Scratch is easy to pick up, and hopefully will be fun for middle schoolers."

But none of these languages will offer the same experience as learning BASIC. Author Lamont Wood had once dabbled in BASIC programming but had fallen out of practice until his recent experiment with Python:

The thrill was not the same as in 1979; it hadn't taken months to get the hardware to work, and it sure ran quieter … with Basic, I felt like I was rummaging through a small box containing a few crude tools. With Python, I felt I had pushed open the door to a massive but unlit tool warehouse and was darting in to grab the few that I could see.

I learned BASIC by doing: I was running a Warp Six BBS and needed to make modifications. Eventually, I was inspired to write my own door game, though since it was a port, I had to concern myself only with the coding, not the design. In either case, I always had either the code or design to work with; I never had to conceive and build entirely from scratch (no pun intended).

My challenge in adapting those BASIC programming skills to a modern environment is not so much choosing a language as it is choosing an instruction method. Just as I learned BASIC to run a BBS, I've set a goal of learning PHP to help me run WordPress, a modern equivalent of an online community. But elementary concepts such as functions and arrays seem more confusing than they did twenty years ago.

What's the best computer and language to teach programming — and where does one go from there?

Orchestral Apples

June 23rd, 2011 11:17 AM
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In case you haven't already seen it on A2Central.com, Engadget, TUAW, or Make, I'll do my bit to spread the word: Jason Torchinsky is assembling Los Angeles-based Apple II users into an orchestra, with their beloved retrocomputers as the sole instrument. Their debut concert will be in just two days, at 8 PM on June 25. How much more impressive this performance might be than the works of established chiptune musicians such as 8 Bit Weapon is to be determined, but audience members can judge for themselves by watching a live stream of the proceedings, or the tape-delayed recording of same.

What hasn't been reported elsewhere is that this effort will be reproduced next month in Minnesota, at the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis. If you miss this opportunity to participate in a live concert of Apple II hardware, you'll get another chance soon.

Finally, the image that the Machine Project is using to promote this event? That's from an advertisement for the ALF Music Card. The featured guitarist is Bill Fickas, who found this blog a few months back and emailed me the details behind that photo. Now that's a full-fledged interview waiting to happen!

Conflicting birthdays for the Apple II

June 20th, 2011 3:50 PM
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Filed under History;
3 comments.

Some important dates to observe this month:

  • • June  5, 1977: Apple ships the first Apple II. (Wired)
  • • June 10, 1977: Apple ships the first Apple II. (Geekazine.com)
  • • June 11, 1977: Apple ships the first Apple II. (Juiced.GS)
  • • June 20, 1977: Apple ships the first Apple II. (Berkeley Heights Patch)

The Juiced.GS date I know to be false; it was given on a wall calendar that came with an insert indicating some dates were marked as estimates, accurate to the year and month but not the day. The sources for the other three dates are a mystery to me.

On the most recent episode of the Retro Computing Roundtable, Carrington Vanston observed how strange it is to see history disappearing within our own lifetimes. We have enough living history that this shouldn't be happening. Who can confirm when the first Apple II shipped?

Steve Jobs, engineering hero?

June 16th, 2011 4:33 PM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage, Steve Jobs;
6 comments.

Last month, Steve Jobs was declared in a survey of 900 engineering undergraduates in the UK as one of the third greatest engineers of all time, taking credit for the Apple II and iPod.

Not to undermine the unbelievable heights to which Mr. Jobs has brought his fruit company, but is his engineering prowess really the quality that brought about those successes?

Steve Jobs is a salesman, for sure. But has been examined and debated on this blog, his role in the creation of many popular Apple products is questionable. Steve Wozniak (who was not on the list) invented the Apple II, and many other concepts that Apple Inc. has since popularized were first proven by other companies. It was Jobs who came up with the packaging and pitch that made these concepts into products, but he's no hands-on inventor.

But let's step back and see if this complaint is warranted. By definition, an engineer is "a person trained and skilled in the design, construction, and use of engines or machines" I think it's fair to say that Jobs is familiar and perhaps responsible with both the design and use of Apple's runaway hits. As for the construction, could he disassemble an iPhone, identify its parts, and then put it back together? I sincerely doubt it. Is two out of three qualities enough to label Jobs an engineer? Did the UK students in the survey even care, or was this more a popularity contest?

I cannot find an official publication of the survey or its methodology, but the validity of the students' results must surely be questioned, regardless of Jobs' presence or absence. The Apple co-founder ranked higher on the list than Nikola Tesla, Bill Gates, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. Those pioneers were working with truly revolutionary ideas; Steve Jobs, they were not.

(Hat tips to Ben Camm-Jones and John Brownlee)

Apple II invented the Microsoft Kinect

June 13th, 2011 2:50 PM
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The annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, was held last week in Los Angeles. This convention invites members of the electronic entertainment industry to bear witness to the innovations that will grace home computers and consoles in the coming year.

The Kinect, a peripheral released for the Microsoft Xbox 360 last November, is proving a versatile platform for playing games without any contact or manipulation of a physical controller — "Your body is the controller", says the advertising. Here's a recent tech demo from E3:

Although the particular application and technology of Kinect may be new, the concept is not. Thirty years before Microsoft set out to redefine gaming, Tom DeWitt had demonstrated a similar tool, Pantomation:

According to astrosmash, "The mini-computer they talk about in this video is the PDP-8/L, not an Apple II, although the system was later ported to Apple II in the early 80s."

Although Pantomation may not have made it out of the lab and into consumer applications, it's still a fascinating (and unsurprising!) example of the potential of the Apple II to redefine history.

(Hat tip to timothy)