Archive for September, 2019

Bizarro caller ID

September 30th, 2019 10:33 AM
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When I ran my BBS, I kept a corkboard on the wall above my computer — probably because it's what my dad did above his computer in his home office, of which my BBS occupied a corner. Little that I put on my board was practical or relevant, consisting primarily of mementos or jokes from completely unrelated affairs, like parking stubs from a summer trip to the beach.

But while recently cleaning out my house, I discovered that I'd kept the contents of that board from two decades past. And one such item actually did pertain to my BBS.

Sherlock Holmes speaks into phone: "Did you just dial my number by mistake and hang up before I answered, Watson?" Caption: "Sherlock Holmes gets Caller ID"

This comic strip from Dan Piraro's Bizarro highlights a groundbreaking technology of the 1990s: Caller ID. The strip is from 1995, which was my sophomore year of high school. I distinctly remember how excited I was for this feature to become available: how it arrived first at my grandmother's house one city over, then in my hometown a day later. Phones didn't have inbuilt digital displays back then, so I had to buy a separate caller ID box to sit between the wall jack and my BBS modem.

Finally, I could see who was calling my BBS before they even logged in! And it became an effective deterrent against pranksters and trolls. If I saw multiple accounts log in from the same number, I could call out these sockpuppets (though they always had what they thought was a good excuse, such as "Oh, that's my brother"). If someone used *67 to block their caller ID, I would sometimes use that as grounds to disconnect the call entirely. (In the early days of my BBS, I would verify each new user by calling their landline and asking to speak with them. Needless to say, that got onerous for both parties pretty quickly.)

This comic is a fun reminder not only of my BBS, but of how something we now take for granted — knowing who's calling before we answer " was once revolutionary. Some things don't change, though: I still read Bizarro every day. Its online archives extend only to 2005, so please enjoy this glimpse further back into its history.

Pete Perkins' Apple II clone

September 23rd, 2019 1:13 PM
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As proprietary as Apple likes to make their products, given enough effort, even Apple's hardware and software can be copied. Some Apple II clones were broadly distributed commercial products, such as the Franklin Ace 100; others were region-specific, such as the Bulgaria's Pravetz computers. There were enough other clones and manufacturers to fill an entire Wikipedia page.

But not all clones end up being historical footnotes in Wikipedia; some were commercially available but produced in such small quantities that they flew under Apple's radar. Pete Perkins, proprietor of Honda Computers in Tokyo, was such an entrepreneur, using his technical wizardry to build on and profit off Apple's innovations by implementing expansion ports for networking and selling his creation for half of Apple's.

We might never have known about this early hacker and pirate if not for Thames Television, the production company behind the British television series Database, which IMDb describes as "an early series for computer addicts". For the episode that aired July 6, 1984, host Tony Bastable traveled to Japan, where he interviewed Perkins about his homebrew machine.

I love how guileless Perkins is in this interview. He claims he didn't copy the Apple II, since it looks different — a defense that leads to a knowing grin that such an argument would never hold up in court. Later he goes on record as saying it might be illegal — he just hasn't gotten caught yet!

Where are they now? Bastable passed away in 2007. Perkins later ran the CortNet BBS and Janis II; in 1996, he was running a combination Internet caf√© and classroom. Where he's gone since then, I don't know — though I remain hopeful he escaped Apple's wrath.

The Appleworks of Harvard, Mass.

September 16th, 2019 11:27 AM
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I've lived my entire life in Massachusetts, having often driven or cycled the roads between Boston and my hometown to visit family. One particular path to my cousin's house has always brought a smile to this Apple II user's face.

AppleWorks is many things: it's a word processor; it's an environment in which I spent twenty years building my portfolio and honing my craft; it's a legendary Apple product that Quality Computers got the rights to upgrade; it's a program from a company with a complicated history; it's compiled from source code we'll almost certainly never see.

But in the small town of Harvard, Mass., it's also a company.

Appleworks post sign

Bold move, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off.

I've driven by this sign many times — you can see it from the road on Google Maps.

For decades, I've wondered how this company has retained its name, especially given how boldly it hangs its shingle. Apple is infamously litigatious, and any company that overlaps with the computer manufacturer's industry would be susceptible to a threat to change its name, which Steve Jobs would consider no big deal.

Has the AppleWorks business held the name since before the Apple II existed? Was it a publishing company or computer repair service? If not, why would the owners name it Appleworks? Were they taking inspiration from being two towns over from Johnny Appleseed's hometown?

After years of wondering these questions, it wasn't until I sat down to write this blog post last night that I finally got the answer: Appleworks isn't a business; it's a place. It's the name of the strip mall that houses the Siam Pepper Thai Cuisine restaurant whose website gave me the clue I needed, listing its address as "Appleworks Building, Harvard, MA".

At first, this revelation felt anti-climactic — but now I'm free to drive by this building, smile, and rest easy that it's an unlikely target for Apple legal.

BBS harassment

September 9th, 2019 11:12 AM
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My grade school was small, with only nineteen students in my junior high's graduating class. Not counting me, there were nine boys and nine girls, which was too small to foster diversity. There was no space for a nerd who didn't love sports.

So I sought community elsewhere, on CompuServe and dial-up bulletin board systems. At the end of eighth grade, desperate for others with whom to share my love for computer and video games, I launched my own BBS: The Playground!, exclamation mark and all.

The Playground! (or TPG for short) had message boards and file libraries focused on primarily on games for consoles and the Apple II. Since those were the machines available to me at the time, I wasn't interested in hosting discussions or files that I as the sysop couldn't verify (or enjoy). But TPG also hosted plenty of online games everyone could play, regardless of platform: door games like Triviamaster and Space Ship of Death.

Unfortunately, well before there was Twitter, there were online bullies. Users of my BBS were mostly young geeks and runts like me, using handles like Mr. Magoo and Scratchmouster. Whether they didn't like my BBS management style or they were just looking to exert control they didn't have elsewhere, some of these anonymous rapscallions were intent on causing me grief.

The most creative and damaging vandalism they undertook involved identity theft, though it took me awhile to figure that out. At first, all I knew was that users could not stay connected to my BBS. They would dial in and browse the forums like usual — then suddenly get booted. Since we had two Apple IIGS computers with two modems and two phone lines, I was able to call my BBS myself and verify my users' experience. I went through my Hayes modem settings, my BBS config, my phone connections, everything I could think of that would cause such errant behavior, but I found no culprit.

Finally, wanting to ensure other basic phone functions were operating, I tried calling my BBS while someone else was already connected. I expected a busy signal — but instead, the other user got booted.

My dedicated BBS line had been granted call waiting.

Maybe identity theft wasn't as rampant 25 years ago, and utility companies didn't require that customers prove they were who they said they were. But it was clear to me that one of my more mischievous members had called the phone company and asked that call waiting be added to my phone line. I called the phone company, had call waiting removed from our service, and my BBS's reliability was restored.

I still don't know who did this or why. And in the modern, larger context of online harassment, this ordeal was trivial: my BBS was not monetized, and neither my livelihood nor my safety were ever threatened. I chalk it up as an adolescent prank, but one that was at the time very stressful to a fellow adolescent who just wanted friends to play games with.

A crowdfunded clear case

September 2nd, 2019 8:27 AM
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Earlier this year, a company called MacEffects successfully crowdfunded a Kickstarter to create a clear case for the Mac SE/30. With delivery of that product due next month, MacEffects is ready to move on to their next project. This weekend, they launched a Kickstarter to create another transparent case — and this time, the platform is the Apple II.

The case models range in price from $150 to $450 — but all are for the Apple II and Apple II Plus. Other models of Apple II, including the IIe, IIc, and IIGS, are not included, though the project description promises that "If this Kickstarter is successfully funded, we will venture to open a new Kickstarter for the Apple IIe!" Unmentioned in the video is a stretch goal of $35,000, which will fund a clear case for the Disk II floppy drive.

The campaign seeks to raise $29,000 in two months. As of Sunday morning, the project has only 16 backers, but those backers have contributed an average of $277 each, for 15% of the project's total. Similarly, their Mac SE/30 campaign raised $25,674 from just 84 backers, averaging $305 each. Supporters are clearly willing to toss significant sums at these cases!

I wonder if this new case will enjoy similar success, though. The Apple II already has a top that's easy to remove, displaying the computer's internals to the world. A clear case doesn't make it easier to do so, though it does make it safer, since it doesn't expose the circuitry to as much air and dust. I also found this Kickstarter video's lighting, sound, and delivery underwhelming, which you could argue are to be expected from a low-budget retrocomputing company. Yet that didn't stop Nox Archaist from pulling out all the stops!

On the bright side, you won't ever have to worry about retrobriting this transparent case: "To avoid future yellowing of our custom case, we will NOT be adding fire-retardant additive. Therefore, it is recommended to not operate your computer with this custom case unattended."

No problem — unless you're mining Bitcoin, why would you ever tear yourself away from a running Apple II and leave it unattended?

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)