Archive for April, 2019

Apple II Bits' ninth–and penultimate?–year

April 29th, 2019 9:00 AM
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Filed under Musings;
2 comments.

It's a week of milestones: yesterday, I concluded the second season of my Transporter Lock podcast; this Friday, I finish my eighth semester of teaching; and today, April 29, marks exactly nine years since the launch of this blog.

Nine apples

And then there were nine.

Every Monday since 2010, I've shared something about the Apple II. Sometimes it's an anecdote from my own life that I somehow had never put in writing before, as with last week's tale about Rocky's Boots. Other posts look at the Apple II's influence on modern media, such as the state of Oregon's tourism marketing. Still others are commentary on current Apple II events, such as 4am's archiving efforts. Whether the source is my memory, my experiences, or my Google Alerts, I'm never wanting for content.

What I am sometimes wanting for is time and energy. Back in 2012, I found myself dealing with too many commitments and family health issues that all contributed to the possibility of burnout. I've been approaching that edge again lately: a weekly blog, two podcasts, a teaching position, and more start to add up. While some of those commitments are over as of this week, I expect my time to soon be filled with cycling and getting a dog, neither of which are small undertakings.

That's nothing new, though, and I've always managed to juggle everything before. What's different is how taxing a year I've had, with three family funerals, a scary surgery, and other personal challenges. Some artists and therapists recommend journaling, and to the degree that Apple II Bits is a regular, creative outlet, it does bring me some relief. But it requires active energy and output — something that, as of January 2018, I now give to my day job, which is demanding and fulfilling in ways I've never experienced. Add all that up, and sometimes I just want to relax without having something to show for it when I'm done.

But I'm not ready to call it quits! Apple II Bits will continue for at least another year, for several reasons. First, the blog is in easy reach of one decade of publication — perhaps an arbitrary milestone, but one that I'd nonetheless be proud of. Second, Apple II Bits is often where articles are inspired or workshopped for Juiced.GS, a magazine that itself is nearing a milestone: 2020 will mark its 25th year in print. Now is not the time to kill a source of content that would make that landmark achievable.

Finally, I'm aware that dedication can ebb and flow, and you don't give up just because you're in a temporary lull. Once the days and my bike rides are longer, and last year's hardships have faded further into memory, I suspect I'll be gladder for the regularity of Apple II Bits. If I'm not, then I can reassess after hitting that ten-year mark.

I've had a lot of variables in my life, and very few constants. Apple II Bits is one of the latter. Someday, one of those variables may supplant it — but not today.

In the meantime, enjoy this annual roundup of statistics and analytics about the blog.
Read the rest of this entry »

An adventure in Rocky's Boots

April 22nd, 2019 1:04 PM
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Filed under Game trail, History;
2 comments.

My reputation as any workplace's resident (and only) Apple II expert began at my first salaried job as a high-school teacher. I'd often annoy the computer-science teacher, Ms. Lang, by extolling the virtues of BASIC as a programming language (she preferred Scheme); and when I had to substitute for her for a day, I taught her students how to use VisiCalc, as detailed in a Juiced.GS article.

One day, that same teacher came to me for help. She'd recently come back from a conference with a copy of an old Apple II program used to teach programming logic using circuits and gates — could I boot it in my emulator so she could assess its usefulness to her class? I'd never heard the game, but as soon as it started, I gasped. "This is the work of Warren Robinett!"

In Rocky's Boots, players control a simple square as it navigates single-screen rooms, picking up items by colliding with them and transporting them through exits. Sword-like arrows guide the player from room to room.

It was the exact same design and interface as a game I'd grown up with: Adventure on the Atari 2600. Using a joystick and a single button, I'd guided that square on expeditions to distant castles, raiding their treasure while dodging and defeating terrifying, duck-like dragons, all while hoping not to be abducted by a random bat. Adventure's place was cemented not just in my memory but also in history for featuring the first-ever Easter egg: a hidden room with the developer's name, Warren Robinett.

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room

Warren Robinett's name in Adventure's hidden room.

It was thanks to that Easter egg that I knew who must be responsible for Rocky's Boots. It's rare for a developer to have such an identifiable style, but when I saw Rocky's Boots, I knew it had to be, if not the same developer, then at least the same engine. I'd never researched Robinett's portfolio beyond that historical Atari 2600 game; until that moment in my high school office, I didn't realize Robinett had adapted his work to any other platform. But in a video demoing the 1982 eudcational title, Robinett describes it: "It uses some of the same ideas from the Adventure game for Atari: A network of interlinked screens, objects that you could pick up…"

I haven't played Rocky's Boots since that day in 2005, but it recently become easier to explore this educational curiosity, thanks to the work of 4am:

My thanks to 4am for preserving this classic, to Robinett for developing it, and to Karen Lang for introducing me to it. Now go try it yourself and enjoy this adventure on the Apple II!

Affordable — unlike the Apple II

April 15th, 2019 9:46 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage;
3 comments.

The Apple II was a turning point in the computer revolution, making spreadsheets and games available in an attractive, accessible fashion to
professionals and students everywhere. Garry Kasparaov called it "the last technological revolution", and many entrepreneurs and innovators have since tried to recapture that magic. But they aim is sometimes off in identifying what made the Apple II special.

Project BLUE is a robotic arm being developed in UC Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab as part of the answer to the question, "How can AI change the robot design paradigm?"

After a three year effort across a multidisciplinary team of more than 15 researchers, we’ve designed, built, and tested BLUE — the Berkeley robot for Learning in Unstructured Environments. BLUE is a low-cost, high-performance robot that is intrinsically safe, developed from the ground up with ever-increasing Artificial Intelligence capabilities in mind.

MIT Technology Review reported news of BLUE's development, focusing on its affordable, low-cost nature. The headline for that story was "This may be the Apple II of AI-driven robot arms". The headline is derived from UC Berkeley postdoc Stephen McKinley saying, "Without a low-cost platform— an Apple II-type device— experimentation, trial and error, and productive research will continue to move slowly."

But the Apple II was never affordable. When it was first revealed 42 years ago, it cost $1,298 — the equivalent of $5,445 today. Compare that to the Commodore 64, which cost $595 in 1982, or $1,567 today. A consumder could buy almost four Commodore 64 computers for the cost of one Apple II — a leading factor why the Commodore 64 sold 12.5–17 million units, compared to the Apple II's 5–6 million.

Burt Ratan had it more accurate when he compared space tourism to the Apple II: something that affluent early adopters bought into. Whether it's a trip to the space station, a personal computer, or a robotic arm, investment in any early technology will pave the way for more affordable and innovative products. But when shooting to replicate the success of the Apple II, don't pretend that affordability is something your product it has in common.

Another look at the Apple II player piano

April 8th, 2019 6:44 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Software showcase;
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I know some classical musicians who are quite up in arms over virtual orchestras. Why hire a violinist or flautist to interpret your sheet music when you can simply set your composition software to flawlessly perform your digital score?

This is not a new phenomenon: the player piano, invented in 1895, requires no human operator, either. The last time I saw such an instrument was at Hildene, the summer home of Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert. The estate's player organ boasts an extensive collection of vintage music scrolls, most of which are now too brittle to be used. But to keep the organ fed, it has been modified with a USB port through which the scrolls' digital equivalents can be loaded.

This isn't the first time player piano and computer technologies have been integrated. In the 1980s, the Apple II often played a critical role in creating music for these automated performers, as seen in this profile.

The Apple II has only a brief visual cameo and little mention in the narration. But fear not! A more exhaustive look at the Apple II can be seen in a similar video I shared here eight years ago.

Pianos don't need computers to make music; and, with the power of MIDI, computers don't need pianos. But no matter the era, the two together are an inimitable duet.

(Hat tip to rryland on reddit)

Razer's Min-Liang Tan

April 1st, 2019 12:20 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage;
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Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are well-known developers of game consoles — but some players prefer to interface with those devices with third-party peripherals. When they do, Razer is one of the go-to manufacturers of controllers, keyboards, and mice. Razer is also yet another modern game company that might not exist if not for the Apple II, which got 41-year-old Razer founder Min-Liang Tan hooked on gaming. He waxed eloquent about these classic games in this recent interview with Abacus News.

Tan got his start on Lode Runner and Rescue Raiders, but he specifically called out Ultima IV's virtue system as being groundbreaking. "All of a sudden, it wasn't just about hack and slash and killing everything. You need some kind of a moral code."

I'm not familiar with the Apple II's adoption rate in Tan's native Singapore, but it apparently made its way into Tan's hands when it mattered most. As far as I know, Tan never developed hardware or software for the Apple II, unlike Steve Chiang, the current Executive Vice President of Worldwide Production and Studios at Warner Bros. Games. But that he remembers those classic titles all these decades later and cites them among his favorites is a testament to the influence and staying power of Apple II games.

Maybe we'll see Razer developing new Apple II joysticks next!