Archive for April, 2020

Ten years — time for a change

April 27th, 2020 12:05 PM
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Filed under Musings;
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Every spring brings new milestones. In the last month, I published the first issue of Juiced.GS's 25th volume. I published the 100th episode of my Polygamer podcast. Sabriel and I concluded another season of our Transporter Lock podcast. And this week, Apple II Bits turns ten years old.

Ten apples stacked in a pyramid

Can I stop counting yet?
(Photo courtesy Jaren Jai Wicklund / Shutterstock)

When Apple II Bits turned nine, I wondered if my energy and focus would support this blog beyond its tenth birthday. Now that we're here, I find I have the same passion for the Apple II and a wealth of topics to blog about now as I did then. But other changes, I could not have anticipated.

First, at KansasFest 2019, I received news that eventually led me to become a digital nomad. I now move to a different city every few months with whatever I can fit in my Prius — which doesn't include an Apple II. What it does include are new challenges that encourage me to be creative and reflective. How do I decide where to go next? How do I choose what to bring with me? What's off the beaten path? These are all unique questions that I'm excited to be discovering the answers to answering.

Many of those experiences and discoveries are shared on my digital nomad blog, Roadbits. I've been publishing stories about life on the road three times a week. These posts are directly relevant to my own life and are of interest to my friends, family, co-workers, and others interested in remote work. Before the first post ever went up, Roadbits had more subscribers than Apple II Bits accrued in a decade.

It's also a different kind of writing from what I'm used to: more personal and introspective. Without easy access to an Apple II, I often rely on sharing second-hand news that I found elsewhere. With Roadbits, I'm writing about what has been or will be directly applicable to my life, and what it means.

The second big change in the last year is coronavirus. The pandemic has threatened the wellbeing, economies, and routines of everyone I know. While the threat of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on my nomadic itinerary, the more noticeable daily impact is on my mental health. The recent Onion story "Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive" rings very true.

Although nomading and self-isolation have both given me more free time, coronavirus has created a higher "activation barrier", requiring more enthusiasm for me to accomplish something. And right now, new and exciting projects are more motivating than doing something routine.

Roadbits is new and exciting — but so is finding new ways for me to support the Apple II. Mark Simonsen of Beagle Bros once called himself a "serial entrepreneur": he starts or purchases new businesses, builds them up, and then sells them. Like him, I get a rush out of new projects. That's why I'm currently in the process of acquiring, repairing, redesigning, or resurrecting four different Apple II websites you've all heard of. Some of these efforts are one-and-done; if I do my job well, then you'll never know I had a hand in it. Others will be noticeable surprises with visible bylines. It's too soon to say which will come to fruition.

What does this mean for Apple II Bits? Nine years ago, friend and fellow Apple II user Sarah W lent me the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, in which the author proposed an interesting model. Instead of viewing events in a chronological order from beginning to ending, we should consider the opposite: one thing must end before another thing can begin. While we may grieve the passing of an era, we can also welcome the reclaimed time and energy it brings us, and the new purpose we can give ourselves.

To that end, today is the end of my weekly commitment to Apple II Bits. I came to this decision a month ago, which is when I realized I still had a lot of personal stories left to tell and little time in which to tell them: the truth of Maxster. Beta-testing Wolfenstein 3D. My vanity license plate. Knowing today's deadline was looming gave me the incentive to finally tell these tales.

The good news is that this is not my last post! I have still more Apple II stories to tell, and I would do myself a disservice to cut myself off from this outlet. But from now on, I'm going to blog only when I have something to say and nowhere else to say it. (Some of those projects I'm working on may change the latter half of that equation.)

If you follow Apple II Bits, thank you — I hope you'll continue to do so. If you want regular new Apple II content, please subscribe to Juiced.GS.
If you are interested in following my personal adventures, both online and off, please consider subscribing to Roadbits.

Whichever road you take — Apple II Forever!
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A JUICED license plate

April 20th, 2020 12:00 PM
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In November 2016, I submitted my car, a 2007 Toyota Prius, for its annual state certification. It failed on one count: the license plate, which I'd had for twenty years, was insufficiently reflective. Which is a thing, apparently.

I could request a shiny new license plate free of charge, but it would be a different number than the one I'd had memorized for two decades. The only way to keep the existing number was to pay a fee.

I couldn't justify paying for a new license plate — unless if it were a vanity plate. It was something I'd wanted as far back as 2011, when I used this blog to listed some options and invited readers to vote. But I never acted on the readers' selections because the poll excluded my top picks: APPLE2, WOZ, and JUICED, that last one referring to Juiced.GS, the quarterly Apple II magazine I've been editing since 2006. But those plates were already taken, and I didn't want to settle for anything else.

But now I had to get a new plate, so back to the Massachusetts RMV I went. It had been five years since I'd last queried their vanity plate database, so I again punched in my top three candidates… and was shocked to discover that JUICED had become available!

Now I had the means for my car to pass its inspection. But it seemed wasteful to put a new plate on an old car.

So I got a new car.

A red Toyota Prius Prime with JUICED license plate

Most expensive inspection ever.

For the next several weeks, stepping out of my office and seeing this car put the biggest grin on my face — not because of the vehicle itself, but because of the plate. It was so much fun to see something that was so very me, even if bystanders didn't know the true meaning. Even when asked, I usually simplify things by telling them "It's a plug-in hybrid, so I plug it in and juice it up!"

It wasn't until after I got the plate — and after I'd been publishing Juiced.GS for a decade — that I discovered an alternative meaning of the word "juiced": to be on steroids. That's technically where the name Juiced.GS came from, since someone had declared founding editor's tricked-out Apple IIGS to be a "juiced GS". I just never put two and two together, though I now like to joke that this plate is the reason I get pulled over so much more now.

I shared this photo of my Toyota Prius Prime at KansasFest 2017, joking that Juiced.GS was doing well, but that I vowed to spend its revenue only on things with the Juiced name on it. Some folks thought I'd Photoshopped the license for the gag — but nope, it's real!

Today is the first time I've posted this photo online. I'm sharing it now for two reasons: first, I've forsaken a permanent residence in favor of this car taking me from city to city in what's known as being a digital nomad — an adventure I am now documenting on my new blog, Roadbits, where this photo can also be seen.

Second, I was concerned that my license plate could be used to identify me, especially by unscrupulous gamers. But now that I have no home to trace me back to, the risks seem less — especially after reading this article about why license plates are usually blurred when posted to the Internet but don't really need to be.

Who knows — maybe I'll show up to the next KansasFest in my Juicedmobile, joining a proud history of retrocomputing plates!

Two cars with plates APL2GS

Seen at KansasFest 2002

Beta-testing Wolfenstein 3D

April 13th, 2020 1:06 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Happenings, History;
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Years after the last Apple II rolled off the production line, there was still a lot of commercial and shareware software being developed for the IIGS. In the heyday of the GEnie online service, I somehow fell into a group beta testers of new programs for companies such as InTrec and Seven Hills.

One developer I especially enjoyed working for was Eric "Sheppy" Shepherd. His website of eponymous SheppyWare lists many programs I got to try before they were ready for prime time, such as gsAIM, Lemonade Stand, Shifty List, and WebWorks GS.

But the beta I most enjoyed was that for Wolfenstein 3D. The port had been a long time in development, with many parties involved: id Software, Logicware, Burger Becky, and Ninjaforce, to name a few. It was Sheppy who developed and project-managed the final release of this first-person shooter that had been so popular on my friends' MS-DOS machines.

But I've never owned a desktop computer that wasn't an Apple II, so Wolf3D had been something I'd only been able to envy without playing. Gaming was my Apple II niche — I got my start with Juiced.GS writing a review of Silvern Castle — so I was eager to finally dive into the heralded game.

Wolfenstein 3D title screen

Perhaps too eager. The Apple IIGS emulator of choice for Mac OS in the mid- to late 1990s was Bernie ][ the Rescue, so I booted up Bernie on my Wall Street and promptly launched Wolf3D.

CRASH! The game failed almost immediately. I was disappointed to not get my hands on the game, but also excited to contribute to the beta-testing process. I was certain I had acted so swiftly that no one else could've yet encountered this blocker of a bug. Without checking to see if that was true, I reported back to the testing group: "Hey, it crashes Bernie!"

In my haste to submit my first bug, I had completely ignored the release notes that had accompanied this version of Wolf3D, indicating that it was incompatible with Bernie ][ the Rescue. 🤦🏼‍♂️

Just a few months later, in the summer of 1998, I attended my first KansasFest. It was my first time meeting Sheppy and my fellow beta-testers, such as Ryan Suenaga and Dave Miller. We were celebrating the successful release of Wolf3D for the IIGS earlier that year, with Sheppy hosting a post-mortem of the game's development, giving all KansasFest attendees a peek behind the scenes.

It was there, at my first KansasFest, in front of all my friends and heroes, that I was stunned to receive a certificate of acknowledgement for my significant contribution to the development of Wolfenstein 3D.

Hey, It Crashes Bernie Award

Sheppy wasn't singling out the new guy, though — every beta tester got their turn. As reported a month later by Ryan Suenaga in in The Lamp!:

Sheppy also presented the _Wolfenstein 3D Beta Tester Awards_, for those of us who had gone through the intense last few weeks of beta testing for the most eagerly anticipated Apple IIgs game in history. The history behind these awards is too long to go into here–use your imagination:

  • Dan Krass: The Web Banner Plaque of Honor
  • David Miller: The ProTERM Mac Can Do It Citation
  • Ken Gagne: The "Hey, It Crashes Bernie" Certificate
  • Kirk Mitchell: The "Boy, Is This Fast on My G3" Award
  • Ryan Suenaga: The Floppy Disk Loaner Citation of Valor
  • Tony Diaz: The Last-Minute Crisis Award of Merit
  • Tony Ward: The Custom Scenario Proponent Citation

Perhaps I should've been mortified to have had my youthful exuberance enshrined in such a public and memorable manner. But instead, I was and am grateful to Sheppy for the wonderful opportunity to test Wolfenstein 3D and for being including in his community — not only of beta testers, but of friends he could count on to take a joke. I found everything I hoped for at KansasFest 1998; it's thanks to memories like these that I've been a part of KansasFest and the Apple II community ever since.

The history of Maxster

April 6th, 2020 2:28 PM
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Filed under Software showcase;
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This summer marks twenty years since I released Maxster. Enough time has passed that I can finally tell the true story of its development.

It was July 2000 at Avila College in Kansas City, Missouri, and I was attending my third KansasFest. HackFest had debuted two years earlier at my first KansasFest. Having entered and placed each year, I wanted to continue the streak. My toolkit was limited to Applesoft and Spectrum's scripting language, but I'd learned that creativity and earnestness counted for a lot at HackFest. All I needed was an idea.

As a college junior, I was aware of how popular Napster was for allowing my classmates to pirate free music. I wasn't a fan myself, but I understood the concept enough to get how it worked — and to know that it'd be impossible to implement on the Apple II.

It was the perfect project. And I knew just what to name it: Maxster, after Juiced.GS founding editor and HackFest judge Max Jones. (I wasn't above a little blatant flattery.)

After a few hours of Spectrum scripting, I had a "working" prototype. I'd downloaded a few songs, such as Weird Al's "Albuquerque" and They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul", and converted the first seconds of each into the rSound format used by the IIGS. If Maxster was asked to search the Napster network for these songs, it would "find" them and play a preview. Otherwise, Maxster would announce the file was unavailable, presenting a randomized list of users who had the MP3 but who were offline at that moment.

My presentation of Maxster had to seem authentic, though, which meant putting it online. This was in the days of dial-up ISPs, and I didn't have one with a Kansas City node. So without detailing what I needed it for, I asked my roommate Geoff Weiss if he could hook me up. He generously allowed me to use his connection, providing my demo the soundscape it needed.

When I debuted Maxster to the KansasFest community, they were wowed — more than I expected them to be. My delivery was completely deadpan, as I thought I wouldn't need to wink at the audience for them to know there was no way an Apple IIGS could download and decode even five seconds of an MP3 that quickly. (This was before Vince Briel's A2MP3 card.) Yet everyone seemed stunned and excited by what I had done.

Maxster logo
When I ended my talk and was met with applause, I grew concerned. I'd actually bamboozled everyone — something I never intended! I was a fraud. What if an actual Apple II program was overlooked because of my deception? As the time for judging approached, I grew more and more nervous.

Finally, the judges completed their deliberations, and HackFest founder Eric Shepherd took the stage to announce the winners. He'd just begun to address the audience when I sprang to my feet.

"Wait!" I blurted. "Can I talk to you privately?"

"Sure," a confused Sheppy said, following me out into the hallway.

Once we were alone, I confessed. "It's not real. Maxster, I mean. It doesn't actually do any of the things I claimed it did."

Sheppy smiled at me like I was an idiot. "We know," he said, much to my surprise and relief. "There's no way it could've done those things."

Mollified, I went back into the room to hear who the actual winners were. Somehow, despite my admission, Maxster was still recognized: I'd come in second place. The judges' announcement made no hint of the program's true nature.

Audience members' reactions were diverse. Geoff said that he'd been trying to figure out during my presentation what the TCP/IP connection he'd given me was actually doing and had correctly deduced that "it just sat there, doing nothing". I thanked him for his role in my deceit.

Greg Nelson proved a champion of a different sort. "You were robbed!" he exclaimed. "Your program was very impressive; it should've come in first."

Confused, I wanted to ensure Greg and I were on the same page. "Greg, what is it you think my program did?" I asked. He recited back to me everything I'd said and shown during my demo. When he was done, I again had to reveal the truth: "Greg… My program didn't do any of those things." Greg's reactions swiftly ran through perplextion, confusion, and amusement, ending with "Well, you should've come in first anyway, just for the convincing delivery!"

That October, Juiced.GS reported:

Second place went to Ken Gagne, who entertained KFesters with what appeared to be a Spectrum script that downloaded and played the first few seconds of MP3 music files.

In reality, the script turned out to be a spoof of the popular MP3 programs on the major platforms (Napster on the PC and Macster on the Mac). Gagne called his program Maxster (named after Juiced.GS publisher and HackFest judge Max Jones?) and displayed a working script that had all the appearances of real program.

Apple II News & Notes said of HackFest:

Special recognition to Ken Gagne for his incredible hoax named "Maxster" that had audience members puzzled, stunned, and rolling in laughter. Ken gained second place.

In a later Juiced.GS's response to a letter to the editor, Max wrote:

Placing second this year was Ken Gagne. You may remember that Ken burst onto the HackFest elite scene during Y][KFest with the way-cool program Maxster (named after yours truly). Ken's Spectrum script created the illusion of an MP3 player for the IIGS, and his presentation took on the air of stand-up comic rather than programmer.

Unbelievably, that was not the end of Maxster. Three months after that memorable KansasFest, I publicly released a version of Maxster that anyone could run. All the rSound files had been included in a compressed script, which not only streamlined the package but also obscured the source code; no one could see what was actually happening under the hood. And two months later, I updated this version to fix a bug Jeff Blakeney had reported that prevented "Albuquerque" from playing.

In July 2001, the Napster network as it was then known was shut down, allowing me a graceful out to say that development of Maxster has been permanently halted. Still, it remains one of my proudest (and most surprising) contributions to the Apple II community.

To commemorate the occasion of this story, I am for the first time releasing the Maxster source code. I've created a new page on this site that archives all my software, including Maxster, so anyone can fool their friends like it's the year 2000.

Anyone who would like to continue development of Maxster to support more songs is more than welcome to do so.