Archive for August, 2013

Quora asks: What was it like to use the Apple II?

August 26th, 2013 11:59 PM
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Filed under History, Musings;
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Social media offers the modern Apple II user multiple homes and sources of information. Popular destinations include Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and even LinkedIn.

But what about Quora?

Quora is a question-and-answer website akin to Yahoo! Answers, except with a more professional bent. The interface isn't the most intuitive: finding a specific topic isn't obvious, and it's hard to tell what questions and answers are new or old. But the wealth and variety of information makes it worthwhile. Questions can be career- and advice-oriented, such as "What do you wish you would have known before you became a consultant?" or more local and factual, such as "Why did the Shaws grocery store in Fairhaven, Mass., close?" Apple history is also evident, as in an exploration of how Keynote was developed for Mac OS X.

But Quora's coverage of Apple history goes back even further. Someone recently asked, "What was it like to use the Apple ][ computer?" The question's past tense alludes not just to the capabilities of the Apple II, but to the historical context and experience of encountering it. It's a question that warrants a thoughtful response — which is exactly what Oregon resident Doug Dingus has provided, with a 1,971-word essay on the subject, complete with screenshots. Some selected excerpts:

Early on, it was all like some puzzle. You learn a few commands by rote and those commands would perform specific tasks you might want to accomplish. You can see the cursor in the screen shot above as a solid green block. A command was typed in at the top, "CATALOG" and that command would give you a listing of what your floppy disk contained. Floppy disk? Yeah, those things we used to put data onto for longer term storage or for movement between computers.

It was possible to sit down and just write a program of your choosing and then ask the computer to run, or execute it. Back then, this was considered a normal and encouraged use of the computer and many computers were sold on their ability to offer up BASIC and other language programming in ways that people could understand and that were powerful, accessible, robust too.

The sense of learning and discovery isn't much different than we experience today, though the pressure to do it is. Back then, you really had to know some stuff to get the real magic out of the machine and often that meant writing your own programs to do it. Today, the magic largely happens, but the best is still from your own programs a lot of the time.

Today, it's difficult to think about computers that aren't connected to one another for communication and information transfer. Back then, it was difficult to think of computers as connected things due to the fact that we were just beginning to develop useful networks. Most people got their computer, got software and peripherals and proceeded to use it in whatever way they found useful with each machine being a little island.

Today it all seems archaic. To those of us who were there, it's ordinary and the computers of today seem simple and futuristic. Back then it was awesome! Every little advance was a big deal. Just getting a few more colors on the screen, or a faster CPU, or a new kind of interface card was huge! First mouse seemed like some expensive luxury where today it's hard to imagine running a computer without one.

It's a great answer to a great question. What was your first experience with the Apple II? Sign up for a free Quora account to add your response to Doug's!

(John Brownlee)

Meet the geeks at KansasFest

August 19th, 2013 1:18 PM
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Filed under Happenings, Mainstream coverage, Steve Wozniak;
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From 2007 through 2012, I covered KansasFest for Computerworld, a magazine and website of which I was an editor. When I left that position in early 2013, I did so on good terms, leaving open the possibility of freelance work. I solicited suggestions from other Apple II users for how I might pitch coverage of this year's KansasFest in a way that Computerworld hadn't done before. Eric Shepherd proposed a series of attendee profiles, in the style of my previous coverage of BostonFIG. My editor loved the idea but asked that, instead of photos and writeups, I produce short video interviews.

I'd long wanted to shoot video at KansasFest, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. Andy Molloy helped me vet a list of attendees with unique, discrete roles who would exemplify the Apple II community. Throughout the week of KansasFest, I cornered a dozen people: programmers, historians, artists, gamers, and more.

Computerworld published eight of the videos in the slideshow, "Who goes to an Apple II convention in 2013?", which went live last Friday. This morning, KansasFest's official YouTube channel published an additional three. That makes eleven — the unpublished 12th video was one I shot of myself, as a proof of concept. No one needs to see that.

My thanks to all who contributed to this project! I hope the below videos serve as an example of the wonderful friends you can make at KansasFest. Click the thumbnails for an introduction!

Melissa Barron

The Artist

Steve Wozniak

The Founder

Randy Wigginton

The Speaker

Steve Weyhrich

The Historian

Carrington Vanston

The Podcaster

Michael Sternberg

The Gamer

Eric Shepherd

The Emulator

Kevin Savetz

The Rebel

Charles Mangin

The Inventor

Carl Knoblock

The Old-Timer

Ken Gagne

The Profiler

The Programmer

The Programmer

Preparing for the Jobs film

August 12th, 2013 7:36 PM
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Filed under History, Mainstream coverage, Steve Jobs;
2 comments.

Just a few weeks too late for a KansasFest outing, the Jobs movie finally debuts this week. To build hype, a second trailer has been released.

When I posted the video to Facebook, it received no replies — perhaps because the discussion was still active elsewhere in the group, where 35 comments reflected little enthusiasm for or faith in the film. "The clips I saw of how they portrayed Woz was enough for me to forget this film exists," wrote Paul Lipps. Similarly on Google+, Bill Loguidice wrote, "The poor Woz interpretation alone kills it for me." Added Brendan Robert, "I'll only see it if they don't screw up Woz." I agree — and so does Woz — that his character is poorly, stereotypically portrayed.

Yet I am inexplicably excited to see this film. Perhaps because it's a mass-media manifestation of the inventor whose most famous creation my fellow Apple II users and I have celebrated for decades. Too often I've been disappointed by people not knowing Steve Jobs co-founded Apple with "the other Steve". Even if our hero is poorly represented, won't it behoove us to educate the masses as to his existence?

Or maybe it's not just Woz but more broadly the history of Apple I'm interested in. I'm finally reading Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, the biography released shortly after Jobs' death in October 2011 and which I received as a Christmas gift that year. I'll never complete the massive tome in time for the film's release, but it's already refreshing my memory with details that I hope to see evidenced on the silver screen.

Or maybe I relish seeing the film because I know it'll be terrible. On the subject of ancient computers, surely nothing could be worse than my experience wanting to walk out of last month's Computer Chess. It's all about having proper expectation — though Apple Insider user Enigmamatic warns even that may not be enough:

I got to see this movie at a pre-screening this week and I don't know why they are letting people see it early. It's worse than one thinks and I went in with very low expectations. It's poorly written with ridiculous dialogue and no exposition. Virtually the entire movie takes place with no explanation as to why anything in the movie happens. It's just a parade of scenes that the viewer has to accept. Truly a horrible movie that was obviously pushed through production to get it out first and take advantage of Jobs' death.

Soon we'll all be able to reach our own conclusions of whether this film surpasses its predecessor, Pirates of Silicon Valley, or if it warrants its own RiffTrax. I hope to see it in time to provide a review to Computerworld. Follow me on Twitter, or follow my film blog, for updates!

Computer literacy begins at home

August 5th, 2013 4:59 PM
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Filed under Happenings, Musings;
2 comments.

KansasFest 2013 is now a week behind us, and I'm still absorbing everything I saw, learned, and experienced. Moments such as interviewing Steve Wozniak and other unscripted events are memories that will last a lifetime. But of those events that stuck to the schedule — that is, the daytime presentations and official sessions — but one that really caught my attention was "Teach U.S. Kids to Program" by attendee Matt Hellinger.

Hellinger's talk was prompted by "Teach U.S. kids to write computer code", a December 2012 article by Douglas Rushkoff, digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com, a tool I use in my own classroom. Rushkoff outlined ten reasons why programming must be an essential part of any student's curriculum, given how pervasive computers have become in modern culture and industry. The article focused on how we passively use computers, allowing ourselves to be the passenger to tools that drive our lives. Hellinger in turn reflected on the golden age of the Apple II, when users and programmers were one in the same, putting us in the driver's seat. Can that experience be replicated for today's youth?

His proposal stems from more than some nostalgic desire for his kids to grow up the same way he did. Hellinger made a compelling argument that computers have become so powerful and complex as to be impenetrable, transforming them from tool to crutch. He suggested bringing them down a notch to again make them accessible to students, providing them with an environment where they can write original programs in fifty lines of code instead of a thousand. The Apple II is just such a machine.

But there's more to that equation than the classroom. Hellinger and I approach the topic from very different perspectives: he as an IT professional and parent; I as childfree educator. Although I'll happily expose other people's children to retroprogramming, as is already happening in Milton Keynes, those lessons have to be reinforced in the home. To that end, Hellinger proposed taking away the tablet, replacing or completing the desktop with a Raspberry Pi, and limiting Internet access.

I challenged Hellinger on these potentially draconian measures — not out of opposition but curiosity, to better assess the rigor of the stance. I asked what Johnny should do when he comes home from playing Xbox 360 and surfing Facebook at his classmates' homes. Hellinger said those exceptions are no different from expecting a child to obey other house rules: different parents make different allowances for their kids. Later I followed up via email: what about when the disagreement isn't between homes, but between home and classroom? What if the student is using an iPad at school and needs one to complete his homework? Again, Hellinger made it a simpler matter than I imagined, pointing back to his basic tenets. "I would definitely recommend restricting usage (as if the kid had brought home a video game to research)," he wrote. "Disabling Wi-Fi in the house would go a long way toward resolving unfettered use."

Overall, I was pleased and intrigued by Hellinger's proposal. I hope for opportunities to test and practice his ideas in the classroom, just as he is doing so in his own household. If you want to see his theories for yourself, he has generously allowed me to embed his original slides in this blog. Watch for them to eventually be added to the KansasFest file archive.