Archive for January, 2020

Kevin Costner advertises the Apple Lisa

January 27th, 2020 9:58 AM
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Many film celebrities get their start with television commercials. Before Rain Man and Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman hawked for Volkswagen.

Ant Man Paul Rudd shilled the Super Nintendo.

And before he heard a voice whisper "If you build it, he will come", Kevin Costner advertised the Apple Lisa.

I've seen practically every Apple II commercial with their everyday families and dramatic voiceovers. Many are clever and memorable, but I don't know of any that feature the era's contemporary or nascent stars.

I suppose an early Apple Computer Inc. didn't have the budget to afford recognizable talent. The Apple II was released in 1977, with Apple's IPO happening 3.5 years later, on December 12, 1980. By the time the Apple Lisa debuted in January 1983, the company was comfortably profitable with more of a marketing budget.

Or maybe it's just the unpredictable vagaries of Hollywood. By the time Kevin Costner was advertising the Lisa, he'd been in only a half-dozen movies, none of them blockbuster films or starring roles such as "Frat Boy No. 1" in Ron Howard's Night Shift. Who knew that this commercial actor would grow up to be in The Postman, Waterworld, Tin Cup, and Man of Steel?

What a missed opportunity for him to have returned to his roots and make a cameo in any of the many Steve Jobs films!

(Hat tip to Cody Combs)

Dan Bricklin for President

January 20th, 2020 9:06 AM
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In a recent letter to the the Concord Monitor, the daily newspaper of Concord, New Hampshire, a reader submitted a letter about our country's upcoming presidential election. He compared two politicians, saying one was a "visionary", the first to present the ideas; but the other would be the "implementer", the one better suited to execute the ideas.

He then made an analogy using names Apple II users may recognize:

Do you know who Dan Bricklin is? Ever even heard of him? Dan Bricklin invented the spreadsheet. VisiCalc was the product that made the Apple II a viable business tool and the rest is history. Bricklin is a visionary and hero to software people like me.

But as often happens in software, first or even best doesn’t always win the game. First Lotus with 123 took the spreadsheet market and made it a real business game changer, followed by Microsoft Excel years later. Mitch Kapor (Lotus) and Bill Gates got the vision done.

This view of history rings false to me. Perhaps it's my Apple II bias, but Dan Bricklin did everything this reader says Mitch Kapor and Bill Gates did. VisiCalc was the first "killer app", demonstrating the value of personal computers and justifying their existence is offices and businesses across the country. Steve Jobs himself went on the record as saying that if it weren't for VisiCalc, there wouldn't've been an Apple Computer Inc.: "If Visicalc had been written for some other computer you'd be interviewing somebody else right now."

Did Lotus 1-2-3 improve upon VisiCalc? Certainly. According to Wikipedia, "1-2-3 quickly overtook VisiCalc, as well as Multiplan and SuperCalc, two VisiCalc competitors." But that's simply the nature of software development and evolution: any product that comes later will benefit from better hardware and development tools. Lotus 1-2-3's release in 1983 does not diminish the vision and implementation achieved by Bricklin in 1979.

As the Concord Monitor reader acknowledges, Bricklin is a hero and visionary — without whom we wouldn't have Lotus 1-2-3. Bricklin deserves credit not just for VisiCalc, but for helping the personal computer revolution succeed and for paving the way for visionaries to come.

1 MHz's surname pronunciation guide

January 13th, 2020 12:52 PM
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I spent some time this week listening to 1 MHz, the Apple II podcast you can read more about in my tribute post. No, there are no new episodes — I was digging through the archives, listening to classics from more than a decade ago.

As always, I found myself inspired by host Carrington Vanston's enthusiasm for Apple II games. I've never played the Wasteland or Fallout series, but Carrington's passion for the original game, its innovative and quirky gameplay features, and decent graphics make me want to explore it. Even his brief mention of Wizardry brought back my memories of playing Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on the Nintendo Entertainment System and left me wondering if I would enjoy it today — or, better yet, if I should again tackle Silvern Castle, which I reviewed for Juiced.GS 21 years ago.

But the main reason I was spelunking the archives of 1 MHz was to find a particular piece of audio. I'd found it once before for Juiced.GS's 2017 April Fool's joke, but I had failed to cite the specific episode. So I started with episode #12 and worked my way backward.

As I did so, I heard Carrington mangle several Apple II users' surnames: Sean Fahey, Steve Weyhrich, and other people Carrington had not yet met at KansasFest. But one name he had no trouble with was my own. On the contrary, in 1 MHz episode #8, he made it clear that I am the one who has trouble pronouncing my own name.

I have some trouble with Ken's last name. Now, as longtime listeners to the show will know, I have some trouble pronouncing, everyone's last name but with Ken it's because us Canadians pronounce G–A–G–N–E as "gohn-yay" not "gag-knee". Then again, we say oh, yeah, instead of "foy-yay" instead of "foyer" and "fill–aye" instead of "fillet" and things like "Pardon me" and "I'm sorry" instead of "Give me your wallet." But it's a cultural thing.

I know that Carrington's jest in in good humor, and that he is otherwise a person who respects individuals' identities. He's also not wrong about the original pronunciation of my surname, and depending on the context and audience, I have used either the original Canadian pronunciation or the American one. Both are correct, and I accept either.

I remembered this jab from 2007 because that was still four years before my first time hosting a podcast. Open Apple debuted in February 2011, marking my first time behind the microphone. Up until then, I was an editor of Juiced.GS and Computerworld, where I told stories without being the story. I hadn't yet engaged in a medium that put my identity and personality front and center — so to hear a podcast I was an ardent listener of suddenly talking about me was quite the squee moment… even if it was to poke fun.

I'd say I'm less starstruck now and that Carrington's jabs have since lost their luster, except I know it would only motivate him to redouble his efforts. So I'll just say thanks for reminding me of my own heritage — and for a blog post 13 years in the making.

WPI's potpourri list

January 6th, 2020 2:04 PM
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My first salaried job out of college was teaching 11th-grade tech writing. The high school was run by my undergraduate alma mater, WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), which gave me access to all the college's facilities and resources.

It also meant I had a wpi.edu email address that was subscribed to various internal mailing lists. Some of those lists were for the administration to make announcements that would affect all employees. Other lists — like all-staff — were not so moderated and were used liberally by anyone on campus for any purpose… especially to sell things.

This was 2004, almost a decade after Craigslist was founded, yet employees of WPI found it easier to use the campus as their marketplace. Anytime anyone had anything to sell, from cars to Red Sox tickets, they would broadcast an email to all faculty and staff. Waves and waves of employees hawking their goods — and interested parties accidentally clicking "reply all" — were inescapable.

For me, the final straw was the email offering pellets for a pellet stove. I'd already scheduled a meeting with the school's IT department, so I tacked onto the agenda a brief discussion about what I saw as abuse of this email list. It was a friendly conversation, as I recall the IT staff being as exasperated as I was. But they pointed out that the volume of for-sale emails demonstrated interest in using the list in this fashion, and they didn't want to shut down that tradition without providing an alternative outlet. Would it be another email list? Would it be opt-in or opt-out? Would it be reasonable to point WPI's less tech-savvy employees to the school's Usenet newsgroup dedicated to this purpose? These questions went unanswered in my two years as an employee.

That was 14 years ago. At some point since then, WPI finally solved this problem. Their news office recently published this reflection on their solution:

It needs no introduction (but we’re giving it one anyway). It’s an automated legend, known for flooding email inboxes from Goddard to Gateway and beyond. It’s where you can find an antique record player, a pasta roller, vintage video games, and hot tubs, all in the course of a single afternoon. You know it, you love it, or you just might want to be unsubscribed from it.

It’s Potpourri.

The news article goes on to describe the sort of things you can find on the Potpourri list:

here’s nothing quite like logging into your email on a Monday morning and sifting through the latest Potpourri offers. You never know what you’ll find: some days it’s bat boxes, bikes, and weighted blankets; others feature requests for graphing calculators, Commodore or Apple II computers, or mercury (this is WPI, after all).

It's unlikely a school as cutting edge as WPI still owns or operates Apple II computers, but given the interests and longevity of its employees, I'm not surprised that their personal retrocomputers might pop up on Potpourri.

If only I'd been around to see it! Even I could've tolerated the occasional stove pellet if it meant some rare Apple II gear. I hope WPI's current employees appreciate the growing pains that led them to this opt-in bounty.