Archive for June, 2019

Activating HTTPS for Apple II Bits

June 24th, 2019 12:29 PM
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In 2016, I mused how the Web's move toward encryption — specifically, free Let's Encrypt SSL certificates — was leaving retrocomputers behind.

In 2017, I installed a Let's Encrypt certificate on this website, but configured the domain to be a "dual front-end", accessible via both HTTP and HTTPS. Other than some issues when trying to submit comments — issues that stumped even my host's tech support — this arrangement has worked well.

Then, in 2018, I started working at Automattic. As a technical account engineer (TAE), I assist enterprise clients in migrating their websites to our WordPress VIP hosting platform. I've collaborated with many large news organizations around the world, some of whom come to us because their previous hosts' service or features didn't meet their needs. From learning those histories, and in my own experience as a webmaster, I've seen and heard horror stories about exploited users, passwords, code, infrastructure.

Any site and any CMS can get hacked, as I learned seven years ago with WordPress. Those hard lessons taught me to use security plugins, strong passwords, and other best practices. This mindset has served me well as a TAE, as a platform is only as secure as the software you put on it and the clients who use it.

Now I need to practice what I preach — not to be consistent, but to be secure. One of WordPress VIP's key features is security, which includes free, auto-renewing SSL certificates from Let's Encrypt, with additional HSTS headers to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. I want that VIP level of security for myself, not because I think someone is out to get me or the Apple II, but because bots and spiders don't discriminate when seeking vulnerabilities.

But if I transition this website fully to HTTPS, what about the Apple II users that'll be excluded? In my annual report of this site's statistics, one granular detail I omit is web browser usage. In the first nine years of Apple II Bits, the most popular browsers were, unsurprisingly, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, constituting a combined 92.44% of all traffic. The remaining 69 browsers each constitute no more than 1.3% of my traffic. There are plenty of browsers I've never heard of, like Rockmelt, Maxthon, Puffin, and Dolfin; several game consoles, including Sony's PlayStation 3 and Vita and Nintendo's 3DS; and mobile devices, from Nokia and BlackBerry.

In very last place on that list is "APPLE ][" with a single visit: on January 20, 2017, someone spent 45:52 reading seven pages on this site.

Maintaining compatibility between this site and its target audience was always more about principle; now, armed with WordPress experience and Google Analytics, I lean more toward the practical. Maintaining an insecure website isn't the best way to support the Apple II; better ways are to attend KansasFest, read/write for Juiced.GS, develop hardware and software, sell merchandise — and build secure websites.

In the march toward those goals, I offer my condolences to the one user from 2.5 years ago who I may never see again in that fashion. I value the appearance you made, and your singular place in my logs shall forever stand.

Shirts & game crossovers

June 17th, 2019 9:43 AM
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Chris Torrence, host of the Assembly Lines video podcast and volunteer at the Media Archaeology Lab, recently added an e-commerce store to his online offerings.

T-shirts based on 8-bit franchises and artwork are nothing new; my closet is full of KansasFest, A2Central.com, and even InTrec shirts. But one item in Chris's catalog caught my eye.

This shirt doesn't just juxtapose Choplifter and Oregon Trail; it actually has them interacting in an unexpected fashion. I was tickled by this unique approach! After Chris confirmed that it is an original design, the Twitterverse requested other crossovers. Chris quickly responded by mocking up Lemonade Stand and Karateka:

Karateka guy kicking Lemonade Stand

Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop proposed a Lemonade Stand / Castle Wolfenstein mashup, which caught Kevin Savetz's attention:

I then responded to @rubygolem's proposal for The Bard's Tale and Carmen Sandiego, prompting them to rise to the occasion:

I proposed a boatload of other crossovers, too:

There are plenty of other crossovers I'd like to see, either in game or shirt form, some which may be more a stretch than others:

  •  Leisure Suit Larry / Space Quest: Meet exotic aliens. Have sex with them.
  •  One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird / Olympic Decathlon: Play basketball while simultaneously breaking your keyboard.
  •  Tass Times in Tone Town / Escape from Antcatraz: The colony's grandfather ant has gone missing! Trace his disappearance across several anthills.
  •  Jungle Hunt / Impossible Mission: Avoid drones and alligators while saving damsels and cracking safes.
  • Video game crossovers are becoming more common: just this past week, Nintendo joined forces with Sega for a Mario & Sonic game and with Square Enix for a Smash Bros. team-up. In those scenarios, companies collaborate to lend each other their well-known brands and icons. That wouldn't be possible with many Apple II games, whose copyright holders are defunct or just not good with sharing.

    But it doesn't mean a creative entrepreneur like Chris Torrence couldn't mock something up!

    (Full disclosure: As an Automattic employee, I recommended Chris use WordPress as his store's content management system (CMS) of choice and gave some minor advice upon its launch. I also support Chris' Patreon.)

    A VisiCalc time capsule

    June 10th, 2019 12:56 PM
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    When I was in sixth grade, my class created personal time capsules. We took various pop culture artifacts, put then in a shoebox, and then applied newspapers to decoupage the assembled work. There was no coordinated effort to bury the capsules, though — we brought them home and did whatever 11-year-olds do with completed homework, which in my case was shove it under my bed. It's still there, and the decoupage didn't permanently seal the box, as every few years, I open it to paw through what I thought was important thirty years ago.

    Or, actually, what was unimportant: I couldn't imagine parting with anything I actually valued and bequeathing it to unknown citizens of generations hence. My capsule instead consisted of newspaper comics, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and other random gadgets I wouldn't miss. It wasn't the most representative selection of the time.

    Architect Frank Gehry did a better job of preserving 20th-century history in a time capsule donated to MIT. Its contents were assembled in 1999, a mere twenty years ago. It was meant to remain sealed for another fifteen years, but its creator locked it with a cryptographic puzzle that would've taken the computers of his era ages to unlock, whereas today's machines made short work of it.

    Regardless, he did a much better job than I did in selecting artifacts of value. The contents of the time capsule were already old when he chose them, such as the user manual for VisiCalc, the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was invented by Dan Bricklin, an MIT graduate, so its inclusion in the capsule was of local interest as well.

    Unlocking the time capsule.

    The capsule's other contents would also be of interest to Apple II users. They included a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the Altair, donated by Bill Gates, who attended the 1999 ceremony in which the capsule was originally sealed. Altair's BASIC was Microsoft's first product, laying the foundation for the company to later create Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II.

    In sixth grade, I plenty of Apple II paraphernalia that would've been right at home in a time capsule. It never occurred to me to include any not because I thought it was insignificant, but because it was too important for me to part with. The Apple II was a computer I used daily from 1983 to 1997, and via emulation ever since; I was too selfish to sacrifice some aspect of it for historical preservation.

    Fortunately, nowadays we can have our artifacts and preserve them, too. Microsoft BASIC's source code has been released; the VisiCalc manual has been scanned; heck, even VisiCalc itself is available for download from Dan Bricklin's website.

    But you can't digitize a Happy Meal toy, so maybe I didn't do so badly, after all.

    (Hat tip to Jesus Diaz)

    Rainbows adorn Apple Park campus

    June 3rd, 2019 10:51 AM
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    Apple's logo has had many variations through the years: while always the same shape, it's gone from multicolored to monochromatic, 2D to 3D and back to 2D. But Rob Janoff's original rainbow scheme remains in the hearts of old-school Apple enthusiasts, with its appearance instantly striking a nostalgic chord.

    Apple occasionally bandies that classic logo when it suits them, especially if playing to that nostalgia can bring commercial success — behold last year's proposal for rainbow shirts and hats. But sometimes, Apple can be as nostalgic as its fans, using the logo to acknowledge its history and pay tribute to its founders.

    Apple's new campus, Apple Park, celebrated its formal opening on May 17, and as a tribute to Steve Jobs, the rainbow logo was on display in full force, as seen in these photos from MacRumors.

    Jony Ive told Cult of Mac: "There is the resonance with the rainbow logo that’s been part of our identity for many years. The rainbow is also a positive and joyful expression of some of our inclusion values… The rainbow’s presence and optimism is keenly felt in many places and at the end of the day — it’s hard to find somebody that doesn’t love a rainbow."

    It sometimes feels like Apple wants to forget its history with the Apple II. But when our retrocomputer's logo inspires this modern décor, it gives me hope that we've earned a place not only in the history books, but in the hearts of Apple.