Archive for the ‘Happenings’ Category

The Apple II isn't just a computer; it's a community. Conferences, conventions, and parties are where to meet your fratres in computatrum.

Beta-testing Wolfenstein 3D

April 13th, 2020 1:06 PM
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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.

Nuclear floppy

November 4th, 2019 12:08 PM
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Every semester that I teach at Emerson College, I start with a lesson on the history of computers and the Internet. This lesson employs several props, including a variety of floppy disk sizes.

"How many of you remember these?" I say, holding up a 3.5" disk. When I started asking that question seven years ago, every hand went up; now, only half do. And when I ask the same question of 5.25" disks, half the hands used to go up; now, none do.

The one constant over the years is that nobody remembers 8" disks. And that's fair: they debuted in 1972, twenty-five years before my students were born. As this was also well before the arrival of personal computers, I infer this floppy size was used primarily in business and industrial settings.

One industry that lingered with the 8" floppy was the United States government — but even they have decided to move on. Reported last month by Engadget is that our country's military will no longer reply on floppy disks to coordinate the launch of nuclear missiles, replacing them with a "highly-secure solid state digital storage solution".

This is not just a transfer of media; the underlying software must be changing as well. The storage capacity of 8" floppies maxed out at 1.2 megabytes, whereas SSD storage usually holds a minimum of several gigabytes. What would that antiquated nuclear system do with all that extra space? Likely we are upgrading to a more complex and bloated system. It reminds me of the sequel to WarGames, where (spoiler) the original JOSHUA software is uploaded to a modern mainframe to do battle with its more modern counterpart. Would an 8" floppy stand the test of time?

It possibly could, as the floppy medium had its advantages. When I interviewed author R.A. Salvatore back in 2002 about his official novelization of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he said that the book was being written on a computer with no access to the Internet, making it impenetrable except by physical means. Likewise, the US government once defended their choice of 8" floppies: "You can't hack something that doesn't have an IP address. It's a very unique system — it is old and it is very good." Hard to repair and maintain, perhaps, but otherwise reliable.

So farewell to a last bastion of 8" floppies. Like my A2Central.com t-shirt says: It's not obsolete; it's proven technology.

(Hat tip to Eric Reimann)

Apple II-inspired photos from PAX East

July 22nd, 2019 12:14 PM
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Every year I attend PAX East, a Boston convention of video games and board games that attracts 70,000 people. I always snap plenty of fun cosplay photos and selfies, but except for whatever I tweet in the moment, I rarely take the time to sort the photos and get them published.

So last weekend I caught up on four years of pictures, sorting through 621 photos and publishing most of them to Gamebits.net. And as I sifted through nearly a half-decade of memories, I came across a few photos that were inspired by the Apple II.

Apple II Forever!

This 2016 photo depicts the Nintendo 3DS handheld of Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy. This game console has a feature called StreetPass, which allows 3DS systems in proximity to each other to exchange avatars. Here's what Andy's avatar says to greet other users.

These two photos are from the 2018 panel "You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education" (which originated in 2016 at PAX West was reprised again in 2019 at PAX South). Its description:

Teachers and parents are continually looking for innovative ways to keep students and kids motivated and engaged. As gamers, we know first hand how elements of video games can keep a person riveted and motivated for hours. How do we take motivating elements of gaming and add them to various education environments? Join a teacher and seven-time PAX presenter as we investigate some simple yet effective ways to take tips from video games and turn them into best teaching practices, without gimmicks.

Though I attended this panel, a downside to waiting so long to share the photos is that I no longer have meaningful context or memories.

But what I remember most aren't the panels or even the photos, but the joy of attending this event with other people who know, love, the Apple II and the games it inspired. ❤️

Iconic 1977 Apple pillow at PAX East

March 25th, 2019 10:31 AM
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Last fall, I contributed to Roberto Hoyos' Kickstarter for "The Iconic Pillow Collection", which would deliver soft, plush pillows modeled after classic Apple products. Mine arrived about a month ago and is everything it was advertised to be.

It's also a great complement for my handmade, one-of-a-kind floppy pillow — though clearly there's a discrepancy in scale between the two.

A floppy disk pillow next to the Apple II pillow.

Objects in pillow may be larger than they appear.

The Apple II pillow is now on sale in the Throwboy store for $39.99. But the best outcome of this Kickstarter is still to be realized.

Every year, I attend PAX East, a massive video game convention in Boston, Massachusetts whose attendance is roughly 600 times that of KansasFest. I do my best to represent the Apple II at PAX, whether by hosting panels about classic game genres or bringing an actual Apple II to PAX.

This year, I was assembling a panel of artists who make crafts inspired by classic gaming hardware and software. It didn't take me long to realize I had just backed such an artist on Kickstarter! I reached out to Roberto Hoyos, CEO of Throwboy and co-host of the podcast That Thing You Made, and he enthusiastically answered my call.

Our collaboration will be "The Art of Craft: Inspiring Game Creations", being held Sunday, March 31, 1:30–2:30 PM in Arachnid Theatre.

Slide with panel details

Video games are art — and art imitates video games. The characters, colors, and aesthetics of our favorite digital worlds have spawned an industry of apparel and crafts that keep us warm and add a flair of the fantastic to ourselves and our homes. We'll hear from amateur, hobbyist, and professional artists and creators about the inspirations and tools they use to create, enjoy, and sell their custom clothes, jewelry, furniture, paintings, and more.

Featuring:

Follow along with the #paxcraft hashtag on Twitter, and expect Apple II pillows on display in force!!

Mark Pelczarski & Spy's Demise

March 11th, 2019 2:07 PM
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From the IIe's release in 1983 to when I switched to the Apple IIGS in 1988, I used the Apple II primarily as a gaming machine. Many of our family's games were cracked, pirated copies, though I can't tell you where they came from — perhaps our local Apple retailer snuck them to my dad on the sly, or my older brothers were exchanging floppies on the playground. Regardless, it exposed me to many quirky titles that I may otherwise never have encountered.

One such game was Spy's Demise. As a kid growing up watching Inspector Gadget and reading Dungeons & Dragons novels such as Hero of Washington Square, I knew all about spies! (Mission: Impossible's 1988 revival and reruns of Get Smart! wouldn't come until later.) But demise? Not if I had anything to do about it!

Spy's Demise was an action game in which players navigated a spy across the horizontal floors of a building, avoiding a collision course with elevators as they vertically travel their shafts. It reminded me of Elevator Action, a Data East coin-op that my father and I would play together on family vacations.

I doubt I ever finished the game or even knew that there was an ending. Those who did get that far were presented with a hidden cryptogram and a phone number to call. What they got for their efforts, I don't know, but based on other prizes of the era offered by Nintendo or Atari, I'd guess it was a sew-on patch with the company logo.

It wasn't until researching this post that I also learned the game had a sequel, The Spy Strikes Back!, which offers a top-down view as the spy tries to avoid motion-sensing drones.

What brings these games to mind after so many years is last week's announcement of the KansasFest 2019 keynote speaker. Mark Pelczarski is the co-author of The Spy Strikes Back! and the founder of Penguin Software, the company that published both Spy games as well as many others, including Translyvania and The Coveted Mirror. Pelczarski was also a columnist for Softalk and, before that, a high-school math teacher and college instructor of computer science. His LinkedIn profile outlines his many contributions since then to education, democracy, and web development.

Today, his roles include "consulting regarding software, data mining and integrity, and web security". No doubt this expertise in online security and cryptography originated with leaving clues and secrets for early Apple II spies. I look forward to meeting the secret agent who sent me on so many missions!

Blogging techniques at KansasFest 2018

August 27th, 2018 9:30 AM
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Attending conventions is, for me, a balancing act. As much as I appreciate being in the audience of so many amazing panels and presentations, I don't want to be exclusively a passive observer; I like being involved and having something to give back. But if I overcommit myself, I end up being so busy that I don't find myself being present and enjoying the convention.

For KansasFest, I've struck this balance by submitting just one talk a year. It can be challenging for me to find topics to present, as I am not a software developer or hardware hacker. I've given many talks about Apple II games, but I can do so only so many times before I've drained that well dry. And I don't like talking about Juiced.GS (unless I'm also feeding everyone pizza), lest I come across as a shill.

For KansasFest 2018, it took me eight years to realize another niche I can share with the Apple II community: this blog. I've written over 500 weekly posts for this site; I teach online publishing at a local college; and I work for Automattic, developers of WordPress.com. Maybe I know something about online content creation and distribution?

So, last month at KansasFest 2018, I gave a talk, "Blogging II Infinitum".

More than 40 years after its debut, how is it there's still so much to say about the Apple II? How do we find what's new, and how do we spin it to make it interesting? After eight years and 500+ weekly blog posts, Ken still has plenty of new material about his favorite computer. He'll reveal the secrets of his sources, blogging and distribution platforms, and audience engagement techniques in this session.

A video of the talk has been speedily reposted online:

A technique I deduced from experience then had reaffirmed by the book Presentation Zen is that presentations should consist of three delivery media: the speaker; the slides; and the handout. The above video includes the speaker and slides but omits the handout. KansasFest attendees received a PDF that not only compiles the resources mentioned in the talk but also outlines an invaluable writing exercise taught in college graduate programs.

That free PDF is now available to subscribers to this blog's email newsletter. Just sign up today and, once you've confirmed your subscription, you'll receive a download link. You can unsubscribe at any time. (If you're already a subscriber, you've received your download link in a separate email.)

I love being involved — but not too involved — in the Apple II community. I hope these resources help you explore further ways to contribute, too!