Archive for May, 2018

The health savings of computer history

May 28th, 2018 8:39 AM
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My only visit to the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California, occurred in December 2015, when Martin Haye and I squeezed in a visit after attending GaymerX in nearby San Jose. I was already familiar with the museum, both from its origin in my backyard of Boston and as an archive of Juiced.GS, and I was thrilled to finally step foot in the halls of such hallowed technology preservation. But it wasn't until years later that I'd learn this same museum could preserve so much more.

Shortly after that visit, I began teaching myself about finances and investments: 401(k), Roth IRA, socially responsible investing (SRI), and more. As part of this move toward fiscal maturity, I started using an FSA, or Flexible Spending Account. An FSA is a savings account you can contribute pre-tax dollars to from your paycheck; those monies can then be used to pay any medical expenses, from surgery to prescriptions to contact lens solution. If you spend $2,000 a year on healthcare, it's like getting a $2,000 tax credit.

An FSA is not without its downsides: it has an annual contribution cap of $2,600, and only $500 rolls over every calendar year; the rest of the account is "use it or lose it". As a result, you have to predict what your health expenses will be a year in advance, which is difficult to do accurately. And if you leave the participating employer, your FSA disappears.

But this year, I moved to an employer that instead offers an HSA, or Health Savings Account. An HSA has a maximum annual contribution of $3,450, and its value never expires, even if I switch jobs. As a result, I don't need to anticipate my expenses, instead using the HSA as a long-term investment account — especially since, unlike an FSA, an HSA gains interest!

I don't know why every employer doesn't offer an HSA, but the good news is that you don't need a generous boss: you can get your own HSA. Many banks offer them — but if yours doesn't, then check out First Tech Federal Credit Union of Beaverton, Oregon. They offer an HSA with no setup or maintenance fees and no minimum balance to qualified members.

What qualifies one to join First Tech? You can work for the State of Oregon, or any one of hundreds of participating employers. But my preferred route is to be a member of the Computer History Museum for either $15 or $75 a year. Simply donating to the museum makes you eligible to receive all the membership benefits of First Tech.

What better or more affordable way to preserve computer history and your own health?

(Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor, nor am I a customer or affiliate of First Tech. I have historically donated to the Computer History Museum, but currently, my only contributions are the aforementioned issues of Juiced.GS.)

Game Informer's top 300 games

May 21st, 2018 8:32 AM
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Every one-hundred monthly issues, Game Informer magazine compiles a list of the best games of all time. These lists fluctuate with the magazine's staff and as new games are released and old games are forgotten. Recently, issue #300 revisited this tradition with the staff's top 300 games. You could call the result arbitrary in the sense that they are highly subjective, but it doesn't change the fact that, with roughly 300 new games being released on Steam every month, to be counted among the top 300 games of all time is an honor, regardless of who it's coming from or how the decision came to be.

While some institutions frequently overlook the Apple II's contributions to gaming, Game Informer has not committed that error, with four games — more than a full percent of the list! — being for the Apple II. Every game on the list got at least a one-sentence summary; most games also had a screenshot; some games further received a full paragraph. All four Apple II games warranted screenshots, and two of them received those lengthier write-ups:


Oregon Trail (#104)

Oregon Trail

Fording a river, contracting snakebites, starving — you and your friends probably died in all these ways and more while playing The Oregon Trail. This wasn't just an entertaining simulation; MECC's revolutionary piece of educational software leveraged new technology to engage students' imaginations beyond textbooks. While the Apple II version of The Oregon Trail wasn't technically the first, it's the one most ids played as they crowded into school computer labs.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (#131)

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Sir Tech's text-heavy dungeon crawl provided the backbone for many of the long-running RPG series that followed.

Zork (#186)

Zork

Though this text game is hard to go back to now, Zork is undisputedly the progenitor of any video game that sought to emulate having an adventure.

Lode Runner (#197)

Lode Runner

Lode Runner combined twitch Pac-Man skills with the ability to dig into the level, trap enemies, and collect gold, creating an ever-changing puzzle game with seemingly infinite configurations, including levels of your own design. It also required both quick thinking and the strategic foresight to decipher increasingly complex levels, becoming a must-have for the home computer, and setting itself apart in the arcade-dominated market.

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Hulk SMASH!

May 14th, 2018 9:20 AM
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Avengers: Infinity War, now playing in theaters, is the 19th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tying together nine film franchises: Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and Black Panther. These characters have decades of comic book history dating back to 1962, with some of them seeing their first live-action interpretations only now.

But many of them have appeared in other media as well — and that includes Apple II games. Kat Bailey at USGamer has compiled the video game history of every major hero in Avengers: Infinity War. The Apple II gets a special shout-out for being the first video game to ever feature The Incredible Hulk:

Hulk is known as the unstoppable force of destruction, but his first video game appearance was in… an adventure game? Yep, Hulk's video game debut was in 1984's Questprobe, a trilogy of command-based adventure games for the Apple II and Commodore 64 [also] featuring Spider-Man, The Human Torch, and The Thing. It had fantastic art for its time, but the graphical splendor resulted in severely limited commands, hurting overall gameplay.

MobyGames offers this plot summary:

1st in the Questprobe Marvel Comics series. Play Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk through this interactive fiction game with graphics. You awake as Banner, tied by ropes to your chair in a bunker in the desert; once you free yourself, collect all the gems to escape this hellhole.

These games were designed by Scott Adams, author of many classic Apple II text adventures. However, The Hulk was the first in the Questprobe series, with the sequels using a much-improved game engine; as a result, Hulk may not have been Adams' finest hour.

Although Avengers is tearing up the box office, the Hulk didn't similarly smash his way to success in his Apple II outing: Questprobe, originally planned to be a series of a dozen games, was cancelled after the third title when its developer went bankrupt. Such was the case for many text-adventure publishers of that era, as more processing power became available and gamers migrated to more visual genres of entertainment.

A greater loss than Hulk's defeat at retail is his disappearance from history: my initial search in the Internet Archive revealed many playable copies of Questprobe, but only for the Spectrum ZX and Atari 800 computers; the Apple II version was surprisingly absent.

Surely that floppy disk isn't rarer than an Infinity Stone. If the Avengers can come together to save the day, we can do our part to preserve the Hulk! Fortunately, all it took was a tweet aimed at the right persons:

… and the game is now available.

Hulk was NOT slain by Thanos, for the good of the Universe. Phew!

Happy birthday, 1 MHz

May 7th, 2018 9:46 AM
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When Ryan Suenaga launched the A2Unplugged podcast on August 8, 2006, he declared it the world's first Apple II podcast. He quickly discovered that someone who'd never been to KansasFest, subscribed to GEnie, or read Juiced.GS had beaten him to the punch by only three months and a day: on May 7 of that year, Carrington Vanston debuted 1 MHz — originally "the Apple II podcast", soon "an Apple II podcast".

1 MHz podcast

Free as in beer, and free as in freedom.

Over six years and sixteen episodes, Carrington played 8-bit Apple II games both popular and obscure: Wasteland, Bureaucracy, Archon, Apple Panic, and more. Almost a decade before podcasts like New Game Plus and Do You Want to Keep Playing? made "retro game of the week" their schtick, 1 MHz was plumbing the depths of classic adventures, putting them in historical context and gushing over their feelies, exhibiting an enthusiasm normally reserved for someone discovering these games for the first time.

What Carrington had in quality, he made up for in lack of quantity. Sixteen episodes over 75 months is not frequent — it's roughly one every five months. The shortest span between episodes was four weeks; and the longest was two years, eight months. At that rate, it became an event when a new episode debuted, with my friends hurriedly texting me, "Did you hear? A new episode of 1 MHz is out!!"

1 MHz is not the only show to have fluctuated the Apple II airwaves. After four years of broadcasting, A2Unplugged aired its 36th and final episode in July 2010; host Ryan Suenaga passed away nine months later, in April 2011. But he lived to hear the debut of Open Apple, a show Mike Maginnis and I created to do what no other Apple II podcast was doing: interviewing the voices that constitute this amazing community. I departed that show after three years, but despite occasional hiatuses, Open Apple continues to this day, with Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I guest-appearing on the latest episode, #76.

Meanwhile, in the last four years, traditional episodes of 1 MHz have been absent — but Carrington has not been silent. His rambunctious style of podcasting can be heard today not only on the Retro Computing Roundtable but on Eaten by a Grue, a game review podcast in the style of 1 MHz that Carrington co-hosts with Kevin Savetz. Last month, episode #17 aired, making it a more prolific podcast than 1 MHz.

But the great thing about retrocomputing podcasts is that they're never outdated: by covering topics that aren't contemporary, the podcasts themselves become timeless. So to celebrate the 12th anniversary of 1 MHz's premiere, I've ensured that Carrington's show will never be lost to the tides of time, and I've uploaded it to the Internet Archive.

Here's to ensuring a long life for the first — and one of the best — Apple II podcasts!