Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

Jury-rigging the Apple II, either in reality or concept.

Speech synthesis on the Apple II

July 23rd, 2018 9:16 AM
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Earlier this year, I interviewed Joseph Bein of Out of Sight Games. As a visually impaired gamer, Joseph finds some games more accessible than others; but as a game developer, he encounters other challenges I'd never even considered. Are game development tools themselves accessible? How do we make them so?

Interviewing Joseph made it apparent that computers can cause problems for those seeking easy access to technology and media — but another podcast showcased how they can also solve a lot of problems. The Apple II was one of the pioneers in that department, courtesy the Echo II speech synthesis expansion card. One early beneficiary of the Echo II was Dr. Robert Carter, a podcaster who himself was recently interviewed on the podcast Background Mode, a publication of The Mac Observer.

From the show notes:

Dr. Robert Carter is a Ph.D. Psychologist at Texas A&M, a long-time Apple enthusiast, and the co-host of the Tech Doctor podcast. He's very well versed in assistive technologies, having been blind since birth. Robert tells an amazing story about he's coped with his disability through the years. It started with using a portable typewriter in grade school, discovering the Apple II at age 18 and a speech synthesizer plug-in card, and ultimately using Apple's extraordinary VoiceOver technology on the Mac—and now iPhone.

The Apple II connections in this podcast extend to both sides of the mic: host John Martellaro was the editor and publisher of Peelings II, "The Magazine of Apple Software Evaluation", back in the early 1980s.

I'd love to examine the accessibility features of the Apple II — both historical and modern — in a future issue of Juiced.GS. After listening to this podcast, I'm adding Dr. Carter to my list of primary resources!

Apple II Wii

July 16th, 2018 9:12 AM
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I'm not one to hack, crack, or jailbreak; I tend to use products as they were designed. One notable exception was the Nintendo Wii, a video game console released in 2006. Its innovative point-and-click interface made possible a variety of console game genres and experiences that were previously impossible. I wanted to see what hobbyists and enthusiasts could do with these tools, so I installed the Homebrew Channel.

Ironically, my favorite use of the channel was the SCUMM emulator: once this tool was installed, I could play classic LucasArts games. I owned a legal copy of Day of the Tentacle, but it required a version of Classic Mac OS that I didn't have. By copying its files to an SD card, I was able to play it on the Wii's ScummVM. It remains the only way I've ever played this game, despite its 2016 remastering and release for modern systems such as Mac OS X, iOS, and PlayStation 4.

I deleted the Homebrew Channel before migrating my data to the Wii U in 2012, and it's only now that I realize what an opportunity I missed: the original Wii could emulate not only SCUMM, but also the Apple II. Christian Simpson explores this feature on a recent episode of his YouTube series, Retro Recipes:

The video is more an overview of the Wii's many emulation modes; we don't get to see the Apple II until 5:36 into the video. At that point, we discover the emulator, WiiApple, is a port of AppleWin/LinApple — neat! But the only game we see it play is Frogger — not more popular or original games like Choplifter, Lode Runner, Prince of Persia, or King's Quest.

WiiApple is a nine-year-old emulator running on a twelve-year-old console. Nintendo has since released the Wii U (2012) and Switch (2017), but Apple II emulators for either have not yet surfaced. If you want to emulate the Apple II on a home game console, Simpson's video shows you what's still the best way.

(Hat tip to Christian on Google+)

Apple Personal Modem rescue

April 16th, 2018 11:32 AM
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When I recall my first dial-up connection, I think about the Apple II and CompuServe. But I often overlook the piece of hardware that connected the two: the Apple Personal Modem.

The Apple Personal Modem was a first-party peripheral, matching the color palette and design aesthetic of the Apple IIe I used it with. The modem maxed out at a whopping 1200 bps, which, if I recall, was roughly reading speed — perfect for the all-text interface of CompuServe. The modem dutifully granted me access to the Academic American Encyclopedia (GO AAE), an invaluable resource for my secondary education.

When we moved houses and upgraded to an Apple IIGS, many other upgrades followed, among them more RAM, a SCSI card, and a faster modem, and then still a faster modem. These years later, I can't tell you the brand or model of those later modems that enabled me to download such games as Plunder and Bouncin' Ferno — but the Apple Personal Modem has remained memorable for its heft, handheld-sized form factor, and unusual power supply, eschewing a power cord or brick in favor of plugging directly into a wall outlet. In fact, it wasn't until I watched this unboxing video that I discovered there was another model that did not have the inbuilt prong but instead used a more traditional power cord.

I don't know what happened to my Apple Personal Modem; I haven't seen it in decades. Rather than it being buried somewhere in my collection, it more likely was disposed of as soon as it was no longer of practical value.

Recently, a friend who was visiting Apple Rescue of Denver asked me if there was anything I wanted salvaged. Of everything in the store's inventory, I don't know what drew me to the Apple Personal Modem, but as soon as I saw it, I knew we needed to be reunited.

Since I still have those faster modems and even an Uthernet II card, the Apple Personal Modem remains more a curiosity than the connection to the online world that it once represented. But for the reasonable fee of $15, I'm glad to again own this pioneering peripheral.

Now if only I could remember the name of the telecom software I used with it…

Keyboard latency

January 29th, 2018 10:15 AM
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Having just started working at Automattic, I'm anticipating a future where I'll spend even more time than ever sitting at a keyboard. Computers have been where I've spent most of my career, but they've always been interrupted by presentations, meetings, and the like. With even those now being done at a keyboard, I'm investigating ways to improve efficiency, such as switching to a DVORAK or Colemak layout.

Blogger and programmer Dan Luu recently identified another potential area of keyboard efficiency: latency. Regardless of the keyboard's layout, the actual time between keypress and result can also vary among brands and models — and even eras.

Turns out keyboard latency is one area in which our Apple II computer excels. Writes Luu: "… computers from the 70s and 80s commonly have keypress-to-screen-update latencies in the 30ms to 50ms range out of the box, whereas modern computers are often in the 100ms to 200ms range when you press a key in a terminal."

The author elaborates that modern keyboards themselves often have more, faster circuitry than an entire computer from the 1977 — yet, perhaps due to that simplicity, older keyboards are still faster:

consider that an Apple 2 has 3500 transistors running at 1MHz and an Atmel employee estimates that the core used in a number of high-end keyboards today has 80k transistors running at 16MHz. That’s 20x the transistors running at 16x the clock speed – keyboards are often more powerful than entire computers from the 70s and 80s! And yet, the median keyboard today adds as much latency as the entire end-to-end pipeline as a fast machine from the 70s.

Naturally, that led me to thinking that the best way to reduce my latency would be to replace my laptop's inbuilt keyboard, or even its external USB or Bluetooth keyboard, with an Apple II keyboard — a connection made possible by Charles Mangin of Retroconnector's keyboard shield. But, suspecting more steps between the keyboard and the computer would negate any improvement, I reached out to Charles for additional insight. He confirmed:

It would definitely add to the latency. The processor in the Arduino is running at 16mhz, and takes several cycles to register each switch state change. That is translated to the proper keypress, then it has to send that result as a USB signal, which takes more time. At best, it would be equivalent to a normal USB keyboard, but likely slower due to the Arduino overhead.

Alas, while the Apple II remains king of keyboard latency, that benefit is firmly tied to its classic architecture.

… The answer: replace my entire Automattic machine with an Apple II!

(Hat tip to mmphosis!)

iMac Pro memory comparison

January 22nd, 2018 2:26 PM
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Last week was the beginning of the semester at Emerson College, where I teach a graduate course on electronic publishing. To give my students context, I start each semester with a history of computers, the Internet, and data storage. That last aspect includes a brief mathematics lesson about binary, bits, and bytes, as well as how they scale to kilo, mega, giga, tera, and beyond.

Sometimes, even I need a reminder of just how massive the difference is in the scale between the Apple II and modern computers. The latest model of iMac Pro debuted last month, and with 11 times more memory than an Apple II, said one Twitter user. That's not surprising: early models of Apple II shipped with 48K of RAM, so 11 times that would be only 528K, or a bit more than half a megabyte.

But what Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, Apple employee #66, was referring to wasn't a comparison of a single Apple II to a single iMac Pro — but every Apple II ever, combined:

It's an impressive comparison — but is it true? Let's check the math. Six million Apple II computers at 48K each is 288,000,000 kilobytes of RAM, or 281,250 megabytes, or 274 gigabytes. Hmm… that's not quite right. Let's work backwards: 64 gigabytes is 67,108,864 kilobytes, divided by six million is 11 kilobytes each.

I don't have a precise number for the average amount of stock memory shipped over the lifespan of the Apple II and its various models, but I would guess it was more than 11K. Perhaps Tog is taking into account other factors, like SSD storage… but it still doesn't seem an Apples-to-Apples comparison.

But I appreciate Tog's intent, which may be more applicable to that hard drive. 4TB of storage is equal to 15,339,168 double-sided, 5.25;" 140K floppy disks. That's a lot of disks! I wonder how many floppy disks were ever made?

I'd love to get an unusual yet mathematically sound comparison of these two platforms' attributes that would help my students understand how far we've come. Please leave a comment with your suggestions!

(Hat tip to Luke Dormehl; featured image courtesy ReActiveMicro)

Unboxing Hayes Smartmodem

December 18th, 2017 2:40 PM
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Like most Apple II users, my first modem was a revelation, connecting me to people and resources I'd never imagined. For me, that modem was the Apple Personal Modem, a 1200-baud brick that connected me to CompuServe, where I "met" such folks as Loren Damewood, Tony Ward, and Ray Merlin. It wasn't until I'd attend KansasFest more than a decade later that I'd finally put faces to these names.

Sometimes, the introduction works the other way. At recent KansasFests, I've had the pleasure to getting to know Justin Scott, who I was recently surprised to discover has his own YouTube series, "Modem Monday". The first video I watched was Justin's sixth, which focused on connecting the Apple II to a Hayes Smartmodem.

It's been a long time since I used a dial-up modem on an Apple II, so to see Justin doing it today brought a big smile to my face. It made me recall connecting to Tymnet nodes and local BBSes, such as the one Justin telnets to in this video in 40-column monochromatic glory.

Beyond the content, I also enjoyed the production of the video itself. I've done a few Apple II unboxing videos myself, and I wish I had a setup like Justin's: except for one out-of-focus shot, the videography and lighting are excellent. It also seems Justin rehearses or scripts his dialogue while still sounding natural, as he brings a bevy of insights and trivia to each product he examines. When he pries open the Smartmodem case, we get live narration of each step as he's doing it. This is unlike earlier parts of the video, where the camera's audio is muted and the dialogue dubbed in later. In those scenes, I missed hearing the sound effects of the box being opened and the manual being flipped.

As a YouTube creator myself, I know how time-consuming these productions can be. If you like Justin's videos, you can support production of future Modem Mondays on his Patreon.

(Hat tip to Justin on Facebook)