Archive for January, 2012

The course of my life with the Apple II

January 30th, 2012 11:56 AM
by
Filed under Musings;
Comments Off on The course of my life with the Apple II

Fellow Massachusetts retrocomputing enthusiast and all-around neat guy Dan McLaughlin recently started his own Apple II blog. He's actually had one for awhile, but its latest incarnation is powered by WordPress, the unofficial CMS of the Apple II community. I discovered the relaunch of Dan site's via the story of his introduction to the Apple IIGS:

[My father and I] pulled into the strip mall and entered The Computer Shop. In The Computer Shop, everything was gray: The carpet, the room dividers and shelving that held books and software, even the display tables. I take that back there was an accent color: beige. There might have been a touch of maroon in there as well. It smelled like new carpet even though it had been open for a few years. There was a large plate glass window from which sunlight was streaming in on this beautiful fall day.

After we had walked past the software displays, and aisles of computer books and magazines, near the back center of the store, I saw it. There for all to hear and to behold was the Apple IIGS.

Like Dan, I was introduced to the Apple II through my father. My family's business is commercial real estate, and once upon a time, we had an authorized Apple dealer as a tenant. It's for that reason more than any other that our first computer was an Apple IIe and not a Commodore 64 or one of the many other platforms of the personal computer revolution. My three older brothers and I all made use of the computer for school projects, personal correspondence, and especially games, but I cottoned to it like none other in the family: I taught myself programming (and in the process destroyed some software for which we had no backups), expanded the hardware, and became a part of the community on CompuServe. Whereas my three brothers went to college and got their first PCs, I got my first Mac, sticking with the only brand that I'd ever known. After college, I became part of a convention, a magazine, and a podcast, leading me to make friends, pursue education, develop skills, attain jobs, and relocate across the country.

Dan's post reminded me how a financial decision made decades ago for practical and immediate reasons can have a snowball effect that we continue to experience and observe well into the 21st century. It's no understatement my father's fateful decision has defined the personal and professional development of my childhood and my adulthood. Although I can never know what timelines might've developed from bring a different microcomputer into the Gagné household, it's an alternative I'm glad I never needed to explore.

How would your life be different with a computer other than the Apple II?

6502 documentary preview

January 26th, 2012 3:05 PM
by
Filed under History;
1 comment.

KansasFest 2009 keynote speaker Jason Scott recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that earned him $118,801 (minus fees) with which to fund three documentaries on tape, arcades, and the 6502 processor. His first investment with that money was some new A/V equipment: a Canon 5D Mark II Camera, multiple Canon L lenses (24mm–70mm, 50mm, 70mm–200mm), Lowell Tota lights, a H4N recorder connected to a Seinnheiser microphone, and a Cinevate Atlas 30 slider dolly. Using these purchases, he shot some test footage about a typewriter.

More recently, Scott interviewed Joe Grand of the Discovery Channel series Prototype This! about SCSIcide, a cartridge-based game he released in 2001 for the Atari 2600, which uses the same 6502 processor as the Apple II. Whether this 23-second clip will appear in Scott's final documentary remains to be seen — Grand isn't listed on the current cast list — but it's the first preview we've had of a documentary that's not due for release until December 2015.

Apple's return to education

January 23rd, 2012 1:51 PM
by
Filed under Musings;
Comments Off on Apple's return to education

Last week, Apple announced iBooks textbooks and iBooks author, two iPad applications designed to redefine education.

Although I still favor physical literature for leisure reading, the elimination of physical textbooks in favor of e-books has been a long time coming, as outlined in this 2009 column by Mike Elgan who proposed that "education reform should begin by burning all the textbooks." And Apple may be just the company to get the ball rolling. Some pundits are seeing this move as a return to Apple's origin: the iPhone and iPad, which have been aimed at consumers and the enterprise, overlooked that "schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II", writes Ryan Faas for Computerworld.

Others are less optimistic, saying that Apple's methodology is fundamentally flawed by being based on false assumptions and failing to address long-standing issues. Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, remembers hearing these same promises in the days of the Apple II and cites a nine-year-old study that questions the value of technology in education (in contrast to a recent pilot program by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.

Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, says that no matter how elegant the software, the problem of hardware remains the same as it has the past three decades: "There was an Apple II in my third-grade classroom. We used it to play Oregon Trail. Then it died. Therein lies the problem with iPads in high school: devices break."

iPads are expensive, and they do break. And it may be true that Apple is simply trading one set of problems (the expense, weight, and outdatedness of textbooks) for another. But much of Apple's early success was found in the education market; "Education has always been a big part of Apple's DNA," said Eddy Cue, senior VP of Internet software and services, in the above video. Millions of today's adults may not be able to tell you exactly what they learned by playing Oregon Trail, but they remember the experience and the introduction it gave them to the computers that demand familiarity from today's workforce. Don't today's students deserve the same opportunities with today's tools that my generation had with the Apple II?

Woz loves Android

January 19th, 2012 8:21 PM
by
Filed under Mainstream coverage, Steve Wozniak;
Comments Off on Woz loves Android

Last summer, I attended the CIO 100 Symposium, a conference hosted by my employer, IDG Enterprise. In one of the sessions, "New Ways To Manage Change", I and several IT professionals discussed the emerging trend of "Bring Your Own Device", in which employees supply their own technology rather than rely on corporate-issued hardware. An interesting correlation surfaced from one of the table discussions: whether it be theirs or their employers', salespeople wanted to use iPhones, whereas the engineering department wanted Android devices. It seems engineers don't want to work in a walled garden, preferring a machine that they can more easily tamper with.

Steve Wozniak, the quintessential hacker, recently reinforced that dichotomy. Woz, a known owner of several iPhones (simultaneously!), commented to Dan Lyons of The Daily Beast:

"My primary phone is the iPhone," Woz says. "I love the beauty of it. But I wish it did all the things my Android does, I really do."

Android phones aren’t as simple to use as the iPhone, but they’re not that much more complicated, and "if you’re willing to do the work to understand it a little bit, well I hate to say it, but there’s more available in some ways," Woz says.

Although initially surprising to hear the Apple co-founder say anything that could be construed as disparaging against an Apple device, Woz's desire to operate outside the constraints of iOS is consistent with the creativity and innovation that led him to design the Apple II in the first place.

In the end, though, maybe there's something to be said for ease of consumption. After all, despite the above comments, Woz still uses an iPhone — and most of the world no longer uses the Apple II.

All the less power to them!

(Hat tip to Dwight Silverman)

Letting go is hard

January 16th, 2012 12:00 PM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods;
3 comments.

In the Vintage Computer Forums, a thread was started last week entitled "Letting go of a collection is hard". The author, who joined the site for the purpose of sharing his plight, wrote:

I've finally decided to sell my large collection of Apple II clones. It's a big step for me but it needs to happen. So today, I began testing and photographing the systems and writing the formal listings for eBay. Ugh. This is depressing! I knew it would be hard but geez. I didn't expect to feel so sad about it. The odd part is that I haven't even seen these computers (out of the box) in at least 10 years so why should I feel so sentimental about them? I don't know but I'm not enjoying letting go.

As a collector and historian, I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. I also enjoyed taking each system apart, cleaning the grunge off, and restoring them to working order. I would try to discover whatever I could about the companies who made these computers and whenever possible, I made contact with the actual people who helped design them. I cultivated friendships with fellow vintage computer collectors and spent hundreds of hours building a website about what I had found. So in many ways, it's not just a bunch of old computer junk that selling, it's more like I'm letting go of a part of my life that I thoroughly enjoyed at one time. Letting go of these systems IS the right thing for me to do, but it's not a pleasant experience at all.

Ernest didn't detail why he's getting rid of the machines: is it a financial matter? Is he downsizing his house? Has a significant other dictated, "That old junk has to go"? All these reasons are more or less valid, and as someone who recently moved for the first time in ten years, I can appreciate the desire to have less "stuff" to truck around. But it's also hard to know what the future will hold. After I decommissioned my dial-up BBS in 1997, my Apple IIGS sat unused for more than a decade. It was only three years ago that I dusted it off and booted it back up, adding a physical component to the emulation I'd relied on in the meantime. Having that machine back up and running serves many purposes: it's a point of pride, a necessary aspect to a file transfer setup, and a workplace conversation piece.

And, as with Ernest, the Apple II is a touchstone. It represents and parallels the course of my life, reminding me where I come from, what I do, and why I do it. To lose the Apple II would not rip those qualities from my heart, but it would make me infinitely sadder to not have a physical reality that mirrors what I know and feel inside. I'm glad to know I won't need to experience that disconnect anytime soon.

Have you ever had to get rid of once precious inventory? What made you do it, and how did you feel? Have you ever regretted it?

Choplifter HD first impressions

January 12th, 2012 4:45 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
2 comments.

Nearly a year ago, I was anticipating a modern re-creation of Choplifter. The game, developed by inXile and published by Konami, is the latest sequel in the franchise created by Dan Gorlin with his original Apple II action game.

Choplifter HD finally saw release this week and is available at a $15 price point for PC, Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. I grabbed the demo of the Xbox version and played it last night on what I presume was an inbuilt timer, completing 6.5 missions in the time allotted to me.

So far, I like what I see. The missions start of familiar: rescue soldiers and bring them back to base. But there are some clever variables, such as wounded soldiers who require medical attention and must be attended to before all others. Later missions require defending a particular point or containing a zombie outbreak.

Choplifter remains 2D, distinguishing itself from the nonlinear Strike series of helicopter games. But there are times when enemies can be in the foreground, and the chopper must be oriented to face the screen in order to shoot them. This cumbersome act balances the newfound control over the minigun, allowing it to be aimed in any direction separate from that in which the helicopter is moving. No more moving forward and fast just to attain a downward trajectory! There's also a "boost" function for evasive maneuvers, but it burns fuel quickly. Landing back at HQ will restore both your health and fuel; depots scattered throughout the level recover only the latter. Completing objectives earns you better helicopters, but they replace the old ones; there doesn't appear to be a choice of copters between missions.

I've played other games in the Choplifter series but remember the original best, so it was a pleasant surprise to note the excellent graphics and soundtrack in this reboot. The terrain varies from cities to deserts, each bustling with its own kind of activity. When you land, soldiers and hostages don't just disappear into your vehicle but will actually run around to either side to find an open seat. They shout such corny lines as "It's good to see you!" whereas a film crew might ask, "Get me out of here quickly — but watch the hair!" This attention to detail is noticeable, as is the game's quirky humor, reminding you that you're here to have fun, not reenact a war.

My time for gaming these days is limited, so I don't know if I'll be plunking down the $15 for the full game and its 80+ missions. But all other reviews are positive. I encourage retrogamers to check out this cross of old and new and enjoy the best of both worlds.