Archive for October, 2011

Halloween on the Oregon Trail

October 31st, 2011 11:37 AM
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Oregon Trail is one of the seminal computer games, making an indelible impact not only on the education of an entire generation, but also on the development of the interactive fiction genre. But a game that was fun thirty years ago could sometimes stand a little updating to make it more relevant.

With everything from romance to comedy having been infused with the pop culture phenomenon of zombies, and today being Halloween, what better time to bring the undead to the Oregon Trail? Courtesy The Men Who Wear Many Hats comes Organ Trail, the game that challenges you to survive a trek across the country in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. It's a brilliant romp with allusions to other undead manifestations, such as Resident Evil 4.

Organ Trail

It's the end of the world as we know it — let's head west!
Click to play.

Organ Trail isn't the first time MECC's classic game has been adapted to a free, online Flash format. Thule Road Trip eschews many of the embellishments of Organ Trail, instead opting to update the game to a modern setting with few other changes.

But the innovation and timeliness of Organ Trail ranks it among my favorite recreations of my youth. This time around, you have bigger concerns than dysentery! Enjoy!

Steve Jobs '95

October 27th, 2011 12:24 PM
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Filed under History, Steve Jobs;
1 comment.

When Steve Jobs passed away, a flurry of media was published about his life and times, his wisdom and accomplishments, his successes and failures. It's easy for any one piece to have gotten lost in that maelstrom — but one in particular deserves to not be missed.

In 1995, Steve Jobs sat down with Daniel Morrow of the Computerworld Honors program for a 75-minute interview, conducted in conjunction with the Smithsonian. The transcript of that interview was published the day after Jobs' passing — but something far more fascinating has since been unearthed.

As of this morning, the original video of that interview is now available. It's a fascinating and candid look at the man who was, at that point in his career (40 years old), still at NeXT and two years away from his return to Apple. Across the 16 chapters into which the interview has been divided, he talks about his early encounters with authority, the parallel between computing and artistry, and his hopes for NeXT, Pixar, and even Apple.

Steve Jobs in 1995

Steve Jobs in 1995. Screen capture from a Computerworld video.

The aforementioned transcript makes it easy to identify the passages where the Apple II is discussed. I could find only a handful of such moments, the first being in chapter six, where Jobs identifies the quality of his computers (both the hits and the flops) in which he held the most pride:

The things I'm most proud about at Apple is where the technical and the humanistic came together … The Macintosh basically revolutionized publishing and printing. The typographic artistry coupled with the technical understanding and excellence to implement that electronically — those two things came together and empowered people to use the computer without having to understand arcane computer commands. It was the combination of those two things that I'm the most proud of. It happened on the Apple II and it happened on the Lisa … and then it happened again big time on the Macintosh.

The next occurrence is in chapter nine, when he draws a comparison with Apple's competitors:

With IBM taking over the world with the PC, with DOS out there; it was far worse than the Apple II. They tried to copy the Apple II and they had done a pretty bad job.

One of the things that built Apple II's was schools buying Apple II's; but even so there was about only 10% of the schools that even had one computer in them in 1979 I think it was.

AFAIK, this Computerworld gallery marks the first time this interview has been made publicly available. I encourage anyone interested in a candid, unscripted, and in-depth conversation with Steve Jobs to take a look.

[Full disclosure: I was responsible for the layout of this gallery and participated in the editing, production, and promotion of it.]

The music of Silas Warner

October 24th, 2011 1:05 PM
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Apple II users are, almost by definition, a talented lot. We take rudimentary materials and turn them into tools of wonderful self-expression, producing works of art that are beautiful technically, visually, and aurally. This artistic value often carries over into other media as well, though we rarely have the opportunity to share that side of our lives with other Apple II users — save the rare scenario where Stan Marks pulls out his guitar at KansasFest to sing about growing up on the Mississippi delta, or the Shepherds happen to be in Boston the same weekend I'm performing in Kiss Me, Kate.

It was with some surprise that I recently stumbled across historical evidence of a renowned Apple II user's musical talent. The late Silas Warner, best known as the creator of the classic Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein, was also "a published author and talented musician and composer in the classical European style", says Wikipedia. No links to his published writings are provided, but a pair of his musical works is available for download: the original composition "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)"; and Warner's arrangement of "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation".

Although I was eager to experience this side of the programmer, I was stymied by the files being available only in NWC format, used by the musical composition software NoteWorthy. I had neither the commercial product nor a Windows environment in which to try its free player, and my quest for alternatives or converters proved fruitless.

Finally, classifying this as an Apple II project, I turned to my fellow techies for help. Kelvin Sherlock was the first to respond: "I found this python script which can convert [NoteWorthy files] to lilypond format (lilypond is used for generating music scores but it can also generate MIDI files). Sadly, lilypond complains about a handful of errors in the converted file."

Andy Molloy then spoke up with a less technical but more effective workflow which he has generously outlined here:

  1. Download and install the free Noteworthy Composer Viewer for Windows.
  2. Run the Viewer, click File > Open and select the NWC file. Don't press play until you have Audacity ready to go.
  3. Download and install the free Audacity 1.3.13 beta for Windows.
  4. Download the LAME MP3 encoder plugin for Audacity and follow the instructions for installation. This will let you export an Audacity recording as an MP3.
  5. Run Audacity and follow the instructions to configure it to capture streaming audio. Since I was running Windows 7, I also had to first follow the Control Panel instructions.
  6. On the Audacity Device ToolBar, I set the Output Device drop down box to 'Digital Output' and the Input Device box to 'Stereo Mix'.
  7. Push the record button in Audacity, and switch back to Noteworthy Composer Viewer and push the play button.
  8. As the piece plays, you should see Audacity start to record the track.
  9. When Noteworthy finishes playing, press the stop button in Audacity.
  10. Save the MP3 in Audacity by clicking File > Export and change the 'Save As Type' to MP3.

Andy has provided the output of his efforts for embedding here. Published in a widely accessible format for perhaps the first time ever, it is an honor to present Silas Warner's "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)":

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

Rest in peace, Silas Warner. It's a pleasure to hear your notes again.

UPDATE (27-Oct-14): Alternative versions of these songs are now available, courtesy Andrew Monti.

Buy Richard Garriott's house

October 20th, 2011 12:58 PM
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3 comments.

Britannia may be the fictional setting of the Ultima game series, but that shouldn't stop you from buying property there. For the cool sum of $4.1 million USD, Brittania Manor, the home of Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, can be yours.

Located at 8207 Two Coves Drive in Austin, Texas, the 5,900-square-foot mansion, currently for sale through RE/MAX, features all the essential amenities, including a pool, an observatory, a grotto, a waterfall, a sauna, a gazebo, and a five-car garage. The castle, built in 1987, appears to be in an excellent state of upkeep.

Britannia Manor is famous for its biennial haunted mansions, for which Mr. Garriott spared no expense. But assuming the house isn't truly haunted, it raises the question: why is the house for sale? Surely someone who can afford a trip to outer space isn't hurting for money. Maybe Mr. Garriott needs to fund his geocaching adventures?

(Hat tip to Jason Scott and Nathan Bernier)

Prince of Persia 64

October 17th, 2011 11:41 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
6 comments.

There's long been a rivalry (friendly and otherwise) between the Apple II and Commodore 64 communities. But there's much goodwill, too, with software and hardware being adapted from one to the other. The latest such example is Prince of Persia, the classic platform game that debuted on the Apple II in 1989; Mr. SID, a programmer from the Netherlands, has now ported it to the C64, with the result available for free and immediate download. Here's a sample of the gameplay:

Wired's Duncan Geere reported that the game was "painstakingly recreated the game from scratch using the original Apple II code." That seemed an unlikely contradiction: was it made from scratch, or did it use Jordan Mechner's original code? If the latter, from where was that non-open-source code obtained?

A more careful reading of the developer's blog reveals that the Apple II version's graphics and level data were indeed used, but the game engine came from Freeprince's Princed Project, a reverse-engineering of the Apple II game:

The Princed Project is the sum of many sub-projects related to Prince of Persia. Such software includes level editors, graphic and sound editors, resource extractors, and a new open source engine for the game. All the software in this website is Free Software, and is also available for several platforms.

Is this piracy? IANAL, but even from an ethical perspective, it's hard to say. As I opined in Open Apple, the effort and passion that drives an unauthorized port honors the original and pays it homage. And since there is no alternative to playing this game on the Commodore 64, this port does not detract from sales of the original, mitigating the damage. But none of this changes the fact that it is unauthorized and likely infringes on the original author's rights. It's a gray area.

Regardless, Mr. SID's accomplishment is remarkable, and I applaud him for spreading the Apple II love.

UPDATE: Jordan Mechner himself commented on the developer's blog:

That's crazy! Back in 1989, when I was making POP on the Apple II, I couldn't get anyone interested in doing a C64 port… because it was too old a system :)

Hat tip to Wesley Yin-Poole, by way of Edge Magazine.

A chat with Bill Budge

October 13th, 2011 11:53 AM
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If a wave of nostalgia and retrocomputing enthusiasm has led to a resurgence in the popularity of the Apple II, then it's natural that a spillover would effect the platform's past and present celebrities. Bill Budge, for one, was honored with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences's Pioneer Award, concurrent with an in-depth profile by Wired magazine.

You'd think that the popular press might have forgotten Budge since then, but you'd be wrong. Gamasutra recently ran Brandon Sheffield's lengthy interview with the programmer. In it, Budge talks about his evolution from programming games to tools for Electronic Arts 3DO, Sony, and Google — the seeds of which can be seen in his Apple II landmarks, Raster Blaster and Pinball Construction Set. The four-page, 4,383-word interview is somewhat technical as he reviews his favorite languages and the aspects that appeal to him. Fortunately, Apple II users tend to be a technical lot that's likely to find much of interest in this piece.

As a programming peon, I most appreciated Budge's closing remark:

At the end of the day, I think all that matters is what have you done. It doesn't matter how smart you are, or how brilliant do you sound, or whether you sound like an academic paper when you talk. What really impresses me is people who have built things, who made things that really worked, who did something that nobody else thought would work, or followed their vision and made it real. That, to me, is very admirable; the only thing that counts.

By his own measure, I'd say Budge has earned our admiration.