Archive for December, 2012

A recommitment to KansasFest

December 31st, 2012 10:48 AM
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Filed under Happenings, Musings;
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The annual Apple II convention known as KansasFest has been a highlight of my year ever since I began attending in 1998. That enthusiasm must've been noticeable, as in 2001, I was asked to serve as roast emcee. I was nervous about performing in front of such an esteemed crowd, so I asked Ryan Suenaga and Eric Shepherd how I should respond to the invitation. Ryan's response: "Yes." His simple, straightforward answer bespoke of a calm confidence in my ability to rise to this task. Emboldened, I accepted.

It was with a similar confidence in April 2002 that KansasFest's then-committee chair Steve Gozdziewski added me to the planning committee. I say "added" instead of "invited" because there was no discussion beforehand; one day, I simply received an email from list manager Devin Reade asking at what email address I would like to receive committee emails. I expressed my surprise to Steve, who replied: "Oops! Seems I've done this backwards – I should have talked to you first:( As you've learned, we'd like to add you to the KFest-Admin list. It's the 'penalty' you pay for all you do for KFest:)"

Once added, I introduced myself to the rest of the committee, concluding: "I'm not quite sure what I'm doing on this list, but it will probably become apparent over time." Again, Steve replied: "As of now, there are no vacancies on the Committee or I'd be proposing a more drastic 'penalty' for your involvement! However, there IS general agreement that you should be part of the KFest planning this year. Some of this goes on in the background via the Admin list and we've got more things to consider this year than last. Hope you'll join and add what you can to make KFest the best it can be!"

That I was brought onto the committee with no particular charge had long-ranging effects. It meant that I could freely contribute wherever I saw the need, benefitting the community with whatever skills and interests I had. Over the next several years, I did just that, surviving three committee chairs, two sponsors, and a gradual replacement of nearly every existing committee member. (Only recently was it pointed out to me that their successors were all ones I nominated, which I suppose makes me Nick Fury to the KansasFest Avengers.)

Over time, my responsibilities grew from writing press releases to wrangling keynote speakers to running the Web site (I had quietly registered KansasFest.org as a backup in the event of KFest.org going down — which it eventually did). When we switched the site to WordPress using a design provided by one of my old high school buddies, I also became the group's historian, building and maintaining an extensive multimedia database. That led to 2010, when I added the role of videographer, recording and publishing every KanasFest session. It seemed there wasn't anything I couldn't do.

I was heartened by the synergy I was able to bring to KansasFest. As editor of Juiced.GS, I edited an interview with Apple R&D co-founder Bob Bishop; the staff member responsible for that interview later helped put the committee in touch with Mr. Bishop, resulting in the 2011 keynote speech. And as an editor at Computerworld, I've encountered many storied IT professionals, such as Jason Scott, Lane Roathe, and Randy Wigginton, who I also was able to help shepherd to Kansas City.

Although I enjoyed the freedom my lack of charter provided, it also meant there was no limit to my responsibilities. Over time, I found myself doing more than I was capable of — and, more important, more than I enjoyed. The breaking point came at the KansasFest 2012 committee meeting when I realized the event had become more work than play. If this trend continued, I would end up not wanting to attend KansasFest ever again. And that would be my loss, if no one else's. Something had to change.

Readers of this blog suggested back in March that KansasFest has perhaps the narrowest appeal to the Apple II community, given the limited accessibility a physical event offers over, say, a magazine like Juiced.GS or a podcast such as Open Apple. I'm not sure such a comparison takes into account the utter irreplaceability of KansasFest: there are other podcasts and other printed and online news outlets, but there is no other Apple II convention. It is absolutely essential for the health and growth of the community that this event continue.

But, although KansasFest, Open Apple, and Juiced.GS are all team efforts, I feel I am more easily replaced at KansasFest. Substituting my efforts on the other productions is possible but would result in a noticeable change in the tenor of the final product. KansasFest, I suspect, would be business as usual without me.

And so change has occurred. After helping produce eleven annual Apple II conferences over the course of exactly a third of my life, today marks my last full day on the KansasFest planning committee. I do this not so I can better focus on other contributions to the Apple II community; doing so would result in the same burnout I've already experienced. Instead I seek more work-life balance and the freedom to pursue other interests. For example, next semester I'll be teaching an undergraduate course in electronic publishing. I'll be happier grading my students' papers knowing that my time needn't be divided publishing the backlog of KansasFest multimedia. Such videos have a proven track record for attracting newcomers to the event, and I hope the committee will continue to invest in that outlet. But my job will be to invest in my students.

I'm not completely freeing myself of commitment to KansasFest, as there are still two tasks I owe to both the event and myself: to attend KansasFest, and to enjoy doing so. I will always provide the event with the presence and financial commitment of at least one attendee, and I will forever be the event's evangelist to ensure I share the good company of my fellow Apple II enthusiasts.

Next year is shaping up to be a fantastic one for KansasFest. Already the event has a major keynote speaker in Randy Wigginton, Apple employee #6. And Dagen Brock even created a self-running demo to commemorate 2013 being the 25th annual KansasFest — a milestone we recognized only once Steve Weyhrich rewrote the event's Wikipedia page. I can't wait to see all these friends old and new and re-experience what it means to be a part of, and not apart from, the community.

As a non-organizer, I am again eligible to be in the running to be the event's first registrant. You'd have to beat me off with a stick to keep me from going!

Live podcasting with RCR & Google+

December 24th, 2012 11:31 AM
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Yesterday I watched Retro Computing Roundtable #41. I've listened to the twice-monthly podcast since its 2010 debut, but this was my first time watching the live video recording, a medium they introduced a few months ago.

Although still an audio podcast, RCR's video aspect brings some additional features. When Carrington showed off his Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade cabinet — one of only a dozen in existence, of which only three exist "in the wild" — watching the camera pan to reveal his surprise acquisition was a real jaw-dropper.

As the chat was conducted via a Google+ Hangout, the three speakers were represented by dynamic thumbnails at the bottom of the window, with the main video window automatically switching to whoever was speaking. I liked this feature, as it was reminiscent of a live cameraman actively looking to capture reaction shots from the participants.

But for the rest of the show, the video component didn't add much — nor is it supposed to, lest primarily audio listeners such as myself miss out. The real draw isn't to watch some talking heads, but to be able to participate in the show live by inviting listeners to chat with the hosts while they record. Instead of a dedicated chat room, these conversations are held in the YouTube comments for the video. It's a bit awkward, as these comments persist even after the recording, without any indication of what part of the video they are in reference to. Producing the podcast in conjunction with SceneSat Radio would better synchronize the video and text while giving listeners a dedicated space in which to congregate.

Finally, there's the issue that has kept Open Apple from recording live: the lack of post-production opportunity. When you listen to a show as it's being recorded, you don't hear any of the background music or transitions that are usually later placed into the audio file. As a result, this episode of RCR felt rawer and less polished than I'm accustomed to, even though I know the version I'll eventually download from iTunes will be more typical.

To be clear, I have no reservations or complaints with the Retro Computing Roundtable or its hosts or content; this blog post is meant as a critique of the recording and delivery mechanisms offered by Google+ and YouTube. As a podcaster myself, I'm always curious to investigate alternative tools and processes, and I'm glad that RCR has branched out in this way that I might learn from the experience.

The Deadly Orbs

December 17th, 2012 11:59 PM
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Filed under Game trail;
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From the creative genius that brought you Applesoft Action and Dogfighters of Mars comes a new game: The Deadly Orbs!

Brian Picchi created this Applesoft BASIC game as part of Retrospectiva, a programming competition similar to RetroChallenge:

Retrospectiva is rediscover the fascination and wonder the first home computers generated in us. Challenges you to put your knowledge and inspiration to the test under the constraints of obsolete computers.If you like programming, draw or write music and are interested in the retro-computer world, this competition is meant for you.

Here's some gameplay footage of The Deadly Orbs:

The Deadly Orbs demonstrates a consistent improvement in the graphics of Picchi's products, as seen by comparing it with the blockier antagonist of his former Retrospectiva entry, Surfshooter. Orbs accepts input from either the keyboard or the joystick. With either, the pace is a bit slow for me, though maybe that's for the best, as I also find the orbs' movements less predictable than Picchi does, making for a good challenge. Speaking of patterns, some randomization in the initial placement of the sword would've made the levels, at least the first few steps, less rote.

The game took 30+ hours of extracurricular programming to produce, resulting in a self-booting .DO disk image inside a ZIP archive. It's an encouraging reminder that one person can be responsible for game design, programming, and art and still produce an entertaining title.

The Making of Karateka

December 10th, 2012 1:51 PM
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As I previously blogged, I'm not a fan of the new Karateka. I admittedly did not play the full, commercial version of Jordan Mechner's new game, but those who have reaffirmed my opinion: the game has a 62% aggregate rating on Metacritic, based on two positive reviews, one negative review, and 11 mixed.

But I'm still glad Mechner revisited his classic Apple II property, as it's proven an elucidating experience, one that he's chosen to share with the retrocomputing and game design communities. On his blog, Mechner reflects on making and remaking Karateka. Much has changed from the original game's release in 1982 to the remake three decades later, with Mechner commenting on the experiences and inspirations across four short videos themed around inspiration, animation, audio, and gameplay.

For those who prefer a more textual experience, Mechner has followed up his previous e-book, The Making of Prince of Persia, with a complement, The Making of Karateka. Both books are published in ePub, PDF, Kindle, and (coming soon!) paperback, with free samples available for download.

With his recent iOS re-release of The Last Express, I think Mechner has now tapped all the properties with which he launched his career. Might we see something original next?

Burt Rutan: Space race is like the Apple II

December 3rd, 2012 11:05 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage;
1 comment.

The Up Experience, held October 25, 2012, in Houston, Texas, was "an engaging and intellectually stimulating event that brings together 16 of the world's most extraordinary thought leaders, creators, and innovators". It was akin TED Talk, providing which guests with 20 minutes to share their ideas, experiences, and philosophies.

What did Virgin Galactic spacecraft designer Burt Rutan do with that limited time? The same thing any of us would: cite the Apple II! Rutan made the case for the privatization of space travel and the industry of space tourism by likening it to the perpetual force behind technological innovation: entertainment.

Aerospace engineer and founder of Scaled Composites,
Burt Rutan imagines what investing in suborbital and
commercial spaceflight means for the future of space technology.

I find the historical precedent Rutan cites to be accurate: the need for more powerful graphic cards in the 1990s arose from a desire not to produce more accurate CAD models, but to play Doom and Quake. It was all other enterprises that rely on high-fidelity imaging that then benefitted. Would the film industry have Adobe Premier and Final Cut if its producers and editors hadn't grown up playing first-person shooters?

Perhaps some day we'll send an Apple II into space, and then the circle will be complete. In the meantime, the full video of Rutan's speech was recorded by Fora.TV, the same channel that produced last year's interview with Steve Wozniak about the Children's Discovery Museum.

(Hat tip to Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc)