Archive for April, 2013

Apple II Bits turns three!

April 29th, 2013 2:59 PM
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Filed under Musings;
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Today marks exactly three years since Apple II Bits' first blog post.

Holy crap, did that go quickly.

I once wrote a quarterly column for Juiced.GS entitled "A Word or II". It was a short piece, only half a page, and could be on any topic on which I had a personal opinion. Figuring out what to write about was never easy, but I did so sixteen times before editorial responsibilities shifted and Eric Shepherd took over the column. Now I write Juiced.GS's monthly editorial, "My Home Page", and have so far done so 29 times. It's still challenging.

So if three years ago you had asked me to write 263 columns about the Apple II, I would've laughed in your face.

Birthday cake

Happy birthday, blog!


And yet, Apple II Bits has done exactly that! It astonishes me. Although there's more effort required to produce online content than print due to the blog's capacity for embedded multimedia and researched hyperlinks, those same resources provide an almost infinite wealth of topics on which to opine.

Despite that, a year ago this month, I changed the blog's publication frequency from twice-weekly to weekly. I'm glad to have done so, as it's freed me up to produce content for other channels, such as YouTube and TechHive. But there's still plenty more to be said about the Apple II, and as one of the three pillars of my Apple II publishing empire — Juiced.GS and Open Apple being the others — it helps improve the discoverability of the entire network. So let's keep this outlet going, too

In the meantime, here are some random numbers about the blog.

Read the rest of this entry »

Public libraries aren't archives

April 22nd, 2013 12:25 PM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
8 comments.

I ardently support public libraries: I consciously opt to get my movies from their collections rather than Netflix, so as to increase their circulation numbers and thus their budget; I've written letters to the editor in support of these democratic institutions; I even dabbled in the education necessary to work in the field. There's little that public libraries aren't good for.

Once upon a time, libraries were even a source of Apple II software. In those days, there were so many computing platforms that it was unlikely an underfunded library would support any one, especially since computers in general were still so limited in their accessibility and penetration. But with educational institutions being one of the few that could afford such an investment, the software you were likely to find at libraries were edutainment titles such as Microzine. Even more rarely, you might find software of a more diversionary nature.

I thought that's what recently happened to me as I prepared the March issue of Juiced.GS, for which Andy Molloy submitted a review of Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia. Curious as to the availability of this book to our readers, I did a quick search for all materials by Mechner in any public library that's recognized by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Though I was looking for paperbacks, I was stunned to find a copy of Karateka, right here in Massachusetts!

Recycled library card catalogEver think to look for computer games at your local library?
TOO LATE NOW.

Unfortunately, though this title was listed in OCLC's WorldCat, I could not find a matching listing in the catalog specific to the holding library system, the North of Boston Library Exchange (NOBLE). I emailed a librarian to ask about the discrepancy. Assuming I didn't realize the lateness of my request, she replied:

If you look closely at the record copied below, you will see that it is a 5 1/4 disk for computer (Apple II+)! I do not believe that a library today would have any equipment able to use one of these now "prehistoric" disks!

It's disappointing but unsurprising that the library would not have kept its Apple II software on file. With the limited budget and space afforded to public libraries, they must dispose of those items with limited circulation to make room for new materials. It's doubtful anyone had requested an 8-bit 5.25" floppy disk in years, if not decades, so away it went. To where, we may never know — a good home, I hope.

Interested in locating libraries in your area that may be holding onto these artifacts? OCLC lets you conduct a search for computer files published 1977–1992, which reveals 17,759 hits. But without a means to sort by location or vicinity, finding the disks near you is hopeless. It was only by chance that I thought I'd found Karateka in my own backyard.

Libraries make available materials that the general population may never otherwise have access to. But libraries are not archives or museums. As I discovered when I archived hardcopies of Juiced.GS, there are organizations around the world who will accept such materials, from academic institutions to the Computer History Museum. These non-profits are the proper places to consider donating your historical hardware and software. But Apple II software in public libraries? It's time not to check in, but to check out.

Watch Steve Wozniak dominate at Tetris

April 15th, 2013 11:05 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage, Steve Wozniak;
2 comments.

Steve Wozniak is said to have created the Apple because he wanted to play arcade games at home. But the Apple wasn't Woz's only game machine; he was highly addicted to the Game Boy, Nintendo's handheld that came packaged with the puzzle game Tetris. For as long as the official Nintendo Power magazine printed gamers' high scores, Woz reigned supreme as Tetris champion.

Now you can watch him tell the story himself as he revisits his favorite game. The digital edition of latest issue of Game Informer magazine features a video of Steve Wozniak getting his Tetris on while he recounts his encounters with the game and his evangelization of the Game Boy to world leaders of two decades ago.

From Woz's repeated exclamations of "Uh, oh — I'm in trouble here!" and the lack of direct screen capture, it's hard to tell if Woz is still the Tetris master he was in his youth. But it's nonetheless fun to watch his boyish amusement with the world continue to shine.

Remembering the Apple II

April 8th, 2013 9:28 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Mainstream coverage;
2 comments.

A recent CNET story has popularized the unearthing of design schematics for the Disk ][ floppy drive and the contract that outsourced its operating system. This story has been a Big Deal, having been picked up by TUAW, Slashdot, A2Central.com, and others.

This story is also an opportunity to consider the scale and scope of computer history. We Apple II users have gobbled up this news, but I suspect it hasn't achieved awareness outside the small circles of retrocomputing enthusiasts and computer historians. After all, what relevancy does the Apple II have to the Apple Inc. of today, whose foundation lies not in desktop or even laptop computers, but in cell phones, tablets, and MP3 players?

It wouldn't be the first time the Apple II has failed to penetrate the public awareness. When I presented the history of the Apple II to the Denver Apple Pi users group, the audience was eager and receptive — with one exception. When one person learned the topic of my speech would be the computer that Apple made before the Macintosh, her response was, "Apple made computers before the Macintosh?" She didn't see the relevancy in this archaic machine and chose not to stay for the presentation.

Similarly, when I recruited Jason Scott as a guest speaker for my college course, he asked my students the loaded question, "How many of you would agree with me if I said Nintendo is thirty years old?" Nintendo was in fact founded in 1889 and dabbled in many industries, from playing cards to hotels to taxi services, before landing in electronic entertainment. Home video games are just a blip in the timeline of the company that set the standard.

These are just two examples of modern consumers being ignorant or uncaring of the lineage behind their everyday tech. I don't know that this oversight is necessarily evil so much as it is the product of irrelevance. Is it one we need to change? I would presume that awareness of the existence of pre-Macintosh computers has improved since the passing of Steve Jobs, but my experience is that just as many people as ever respond to my stories of the Apple II with a comment such as "That was my first Mac!"

The Apple II was sold for 16 years, 1977–1993. Sixteen years ago this year, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. That second era has achieved historical notoriety, both for the metaphoric prodigal son's return and for the reinvention of Apple Computer Inc. as a profitable company. Yet what was long the flagship product of the company's first 16 years seems to have fallen from public consciousness. Is all tech history susceptible to the vagaries of time? Or is the popularity of computer history directly proportionate the penetration of that era's computers? Since 1970s computers were not widely adopted by the mass market, is their history similarly of limited appeal? Do we need to improve the Apple II's public image — not just for the health of our retrocomputing hobby, but for the annals of time? If so, how?

I welcome your historical perspective on this matter!

Building a Lego Apple

April 1st, 2013 2:26 PM
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Filed under Hacks & mods;
1 comment.

Creativity in one discipline does not necessarily lend itself to others. My tenures at Computerworld and Juiced.GS have developed my imagination such that I have no trouble pulling ideas for feature stories from thin air. But one area in which I have always gone strictly by the book, doing exactly what I'm told without deviation or desire for variance — is Legos. The lethally edged gouging objects taught me to follow step-by-step instructions, a skill that, as an adult, has proven handy in the kitchen. But it was always the picture on the box, not in my mind, that I was driving to make a reality.

So I'm all the more impressed by Chiukeung (CK Tsang), who used the Lego building blocks to create a model Apple II.

2013_LEGO_APPLEII01e2

Just like Woz intended, you can even open the machine for direct access to its motherboard and expansion slots.

2013_LEGO_APPLEII04e

CPU, lid, keyboard, floppy drive, monitor — this machine has it all! Everything except for scale, actually — there's nothing to compare its size to, though I suspect it's smaller than Steve Weyhrich's virtual Minecraft Apple.

The Apple II is not the first computer CK has rendered in blocks. Check out his model Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), aka the Famicom, which coincidentally also uses a 6502 chip.

(Hat tip to Kelly Hodgkins)