Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Editorials and other thoughts about the Apple II and its community.

Activating HTTPS for Apple II Bits

June 24th, 2019 12:29 PM
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In 2016, I mused how the Web's move toward encryption — specifically, free Let's Encrypt SSL certificates — was leaving retrocomputers behind.

In 2017, I installed a Let's Encrypt certificate on this website, but configured the domain to be a "dual front-end", accessible via both HTTP and HTTPS. Other than some issues when trying to submit comments — issues that stumped even my host's tech support — this arrangement has worked well.

Then, in 2018, I started working at Automattic. As a technical account engineer (TAE), I assist enterprise clients in migrating their websites to our WordPress VIP hosting platform. I've collaborated with many large news organizations around the world, some of whom come to us because their previous hosts' service or features didn't meet their needs. From learning those histories, and in my own experience as a webmaster, I've seen and heard horror stories about exploited users, passwords, code, infrastructure.

Any site and any CMS can get hacked, as I learned seven years ago with WordPress. Those hard lessons taught me to use security plugins, strong passwords, and other best practices. This mindset has served me well as a TAE, as a platform is only as secure as the software you put on it and the clients who use it.

Now I need to practice what I preach — not to be consistent, but to be secure. One of WordPress VIP's key features is security, which includes free, auto-renewing SSL certificates from Let's Encrypt, with additional HSTS headers to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. I want that VIP level of security for myself, not because I think someone is out to get me or the Apple II, but because bots and spiders don't discriminate when seeking vulnerabilities.

But if I transition this website fully to HTTPS, what about the Apple II users that'll be excluded? In my annual report of this site's statistics, one granular detail I omit is web browser usage. In the first nine years of Apple II Bits, the most popular browsers were, unsurprisingly, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, constituting a combined 92.44% of all traffic. The remaining 69 browsers each constitute no more than 1.3% of my traffic. There are plenty of browsers I've never heard of, like Rockmelt, Maxthon, Puffin, and Dolfin; several game consoles, including Sony's PlayStation 3 and Vita and Nintendo's 3DS; and mobile devices, from Nokia and BlackBerry.

In very last place on that list is "APPLE ][" with a single visit: on January 20, 2017, someone spent 45:52 reading seven pages on this site.

Maintaining compatibility between this site and its target audience was always more about principle; now, armed with WordPress experience and Google Analytics, I lean more toward the practical. Maintaining an insecure website isn't the best way to support the Apple II; better ways are to attend KansasFest, read/write for Juiced.GS, develop hardware and software, sell merchandise — and build secure websites.

In the march toward those goals, I offer my condolences to the one user from 2.5 years ago who I may never see again in that fashion. I value the appearance you made, and your singular place in my logs shall forever stand.

Apple II Bits' ninth–and penultimate?–year

April 29th, 2019 9:00 AM
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It's a week of milestones: yesterday, I concluded the second season of my Transporter Lock podcast; this Friday, I finish my eighth semester of teaching; and today, April 29, marks exactly nine years since the launch of this blog.

Nine apples

And then there were nine.

Every Monday since 2010, I've shared something about the Apple II. Sometimes it's an anecdote from my own life that I somehow had never put in writing before, as with last week's tale about Rocky's Boots. Other posts look at the Apple II's influence on modern media, such as the state of Oregon's tourism marketing. Still others are commentary on current Apple II events, such as 4am's archiving efforts. Whether the source is my memory, my experiences, or my Google Alerts, I'm never wanting for content.

What I am sometimes wanting for is time and energy. Back in 2012, I found myself dealing with too many commitments and family health issues that all contributed to the possibility of burnout. I've been approaching that edge again lately: a weekly blog, two podcasts, a teaching position, and more start to add up. While some of those commitments are over as of this week, I expect my time to soon be filled with cycling and getting a dog, neither of which are small undertakings.

That's nothing new, though, and I've always managed to juggle everything before. What's different is how taxing a year I've had, with three family funerals, a scary surgery, and other personal challenges. Some artists and therapists recommend journaling, and to the degree that Apple II Bits is a regular, creative outlet, it does bring me some relief. But it requires active energy and output — something that, as of January 2018, I now give to my day job, which is demanding and fulfilling in ways I've never experienced. Add all that up, and sometimes I just want to relax without having something to show for it when I'm done.

But I'm not ready to call it quits! Apple II Bits will continue for at least another year, for several reasons. First, the blog is in easy reach of one decade of publication — perhaps an arbitrary milestone, but one that I'd nonetheless be proud of. Second, Apple II Bits is often where articles are inspired or workshopped for Juiced.GS, a magazine that itself is nearing a milestone: 2020 will mark its 25th year in print. Now is not the time to kill a source of content that would make that landmark achievable.

Finally, I'm aware that dedication can ebb and flow, and you don't give up just because you're in a temporary lull. Once the days and my bike rides are longer, and last year's hardships have faded further into memory, I suspect I'll be gladder for the regularity of Apple II Bits. If I'm not, then I can reassess after hitting that ten-year mark.

I've had a lot of variables in my life, and very few constants. Apple II Bits is one of the latter. Someday, one of those variables may supplant it — but not today.

In the meantime, enjoy this annual roundup of statistics and analytics about the blog.
Read the rest of this entry »

A visit to the Media Archaeology Lab

March 4th, 2019 6:16 AM
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I've gotten to explore some fantastic computer museums in the company of Apple II users: the Boston Museum of Science with Ryan Suenaga; the Computer History Museum with Martin Haye; Living Computers: Museum + Labs with Olivier Guinart; the Strong Museum of Play with Andy Molloy. Last month, I enjoyed another such adventure, this one to the Media Archaeology Lab with Chris Torrence.

The MAL is in Boulder, Colorado, a place I briefly lived and to which I was now returning on business. I work for Automattic, a completely distributed company whose employees all work remotely. Instead of a traditional office, where everyone works together for fifty weeks a year then gets two weeks of vacation apart, Automattic flips that model: we spend only two weeks together a year, at two week-long team meetups. My first meetup of 2019 was in Boulder, giving me the perfect excuse to extend my stay for a visit to the MAL.

Another convenient synchronicity was that, just two months earlier, I'd started selling Steve Weyhrich's book, Sophistication & Simplicity. Steve permitted me to donate a few copies of his book to libraries and museums, so I emailed some historians to ask what institutions I should target. Jason Scott suggested the MAL, a museum that I was vaguely aware of from Chris Torrence volunteering there. I pitched him a donation of S&S as well as a complete collection of Juiced.GS, and he enthusiastically accepted. Instead of mailing so much heavy Apple II literature, my Automattic trip would enable me to personally deliver it, followed by a tour of the MAL!

The MAL resides in the basement of a building near the local university campus. Three rooms are accessible to the public, with the main lobby hosting one long table of operational Apple computers, and another table filled with other brands and models. Like the Living Computers museum of Seattle, Washington, MAL's artifacts are meant to be used: shelves are filled to the ceiling with classic software, mainly games, waiting to be played. I booted up an Apple IIe for a round of Oregon Trail, naming my wagonmates after fellow Apple II users, while Chris fiddled with getting BattleChess to work on the IIGS.

The back room, the second-largest room in the MAL, holds a dozen or so game consoles, all connected to CRT televisions. Chris and I rotated through several two-player Nintendo games, including Super Dodge Ball and Double Dragon II. I also tried the Vectrex, an all-in-one game console and display unit released by Milton Bradley in late 1982 and discontinued in early 1984. I was familiar with the Vectrex but had never gotten hands-on experience with one before. Its vector graphics, similar to an Asteroids coin-op, were bright and vivid — though playing the Star Trek game reminded me that this console is from an era where gameplay was not intuitive, and a thorough reading of the manual was essential.

I enjoyed my time at the MAL and wish I'd been able to stay longer. The assortment of not just digital technology, but all media, was fascinating, from computers to record players to oscilloscopes. As much as I'm a retrocomputing enthusiast, there is plenty of history and media I've still to discover. There are few places better to do so than the MAL.

So Many Things music video

February 18th, 2019 11:10 AM
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More than a decade ago, I found myself wishing the Apple II community had a music video as cool as Comic Bakery's Commodore 64 song.

In recent years, Steve Weyhrich has amply filled that niche with his numerous KansasFest parody music videos. But somehow, another contender flew under my radar.

Joe Strosnider hosts Joe's Computer Museum, a lively YouTube channel filled with reviews of Apple II peripherals, repair tutorials, and tribute videos. Joe — whose license plate happens to be "6502" — in also an active member of the Apple II Enthusiasts group on Facebook, where I missed his September 2016 post debuting a unique and creative addition to his videography: the music video "So Many Things".

This original composition is a tour de force of everything we love about the Apple II and all the amazing things it can do. It even features callouts to the Facebook group and to KansasFest (though, to the best of my knowledge, Joe's not yet made that annual sojourn). Full tech specs and lyrics are listed in the video's description.

Shoutout to Joe for this awesome contribution to the Apple II's music video library! Take that, Commodore 64.

Lego Ideas floppy disk

January 14th, 2019 2:42 PM
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Like many kids, I grew up playing with Lego. I loved following the instructions and turning small bricks into large ideas that looked exactly as envisioned on the box. But I rarely went beyond that prescribed route and into the realm of possibility: I had no interest in modifying the castles and spaceships into something original. That way lay chaos, whereas what I needed to instill in my life was order.

Lego has since extended into such media as movies and video games, but the physical bricks are still as popular as ever. They've even learned to crowdsource their designs in a way that young Ken almost certainly would not have taken advantage of: submit your own design for consideration to be made into an official set!

A recent submission to this Lego Ideas process is "The Disk", a floppy disk composed of Lego pieces. It's the first creation from a seven-year-old account and was submitted on January 2, 2019. It received 100 votes by January 7, adding 365 days to its original voting period of 60 days — but will it meet its goal by the new deadline of March 2, 2020?

Lego floppy disk

Everything I know about the Lego Ideas crowdfunding site comes from my friend Maia Weinstock, who created the Women of NASA Lego set. From an interview with Maia on Space.com: "Each set submitted to the program first goes through a public vetting process, in which the set must receive 10,000 votes from the public before being considered by the company." Her set met that threshold, was positively received by the powers that be, and is now an official Lego set.

It wasn't easy for Maia to reach that goal, nor was it her first attempt. Her first Lego proposal was the Legal Justice League, later revised to the Legal Justice Team, which earned 4,026 votes. Her media blitz to get out the vote included recruiting me and my podcast co-host Sabriel Mastin to stage a photo shoot:

Even with that effort, 4,026 votes still fell shy of the necessary 10,000. I suspect more people are familiar with the Supreme Court than they are floppy disks, so by comparison, "The Disk" seems too niche to reach the voting minimum and then be approved by Lego. Both floppy disks and the Women of NASA are broadly in the category of tech history, but I see more cultural, historical value in the Women of NASA. Until floppy disks get their own Hidden Figures moment, it seems likely that children playing with Lego today will know floppy disks only as the save icon in Microsoft Word; to build their own, they'll have to get creative and see what's possible.

(Hat tip to Michael Mulhern)

And Then You Die of Dysentery

December 24th, 2018 10:00 AM
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I'm a weekly patron of my local library, often taking advantage of its interlibrary loans to borrow books that I might not otherwise get my hands on. That's how I came to find myself recently reading …And Then You Die of Dysentery: Lessons in Adulting from the Oregon Trail, a book by Lauren Reeves published this October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (ISBN 9781328624390).

Similar to the Juiced.GS article I co-authored with Sheppy back in 2005, "Everything I ever really needed to know I learned from the Apple II", this book is a collection of bullet points and pithy sentences connecting 8-bit technology to modern life. But what was a single page in Juiced.GS has been stretched out to 100 pages here. Each individual piece of sage insight has its own dedicated page on the right, complemented on the left with an original pixel art drawing by Jude Buffum, for 50 witticisms in total.

Some of the images are plays on social media memes, such as "Distracted Boyfriend":

Jealous girlfriend meme

Or modern technology, like fitness trackers:

Fitbit tracker

Others are more of a stretch. This illustration of Angry Birds is meant to suggest that "It's important to play games along the trail to keep yourself entertainted." But I don't remember that happening when I played Oregon Trail. Other than hunting (which was essential for survival and not just a distraction), what mini-games abounded in Oregon Trail?

Angry Birds

The art is lovely and humorous, but most of the lessons are a stretch, being unrelated to Oregon Trail and thus failing to connect with the supposed target audience. There is also a political joke that could be funny, but it lacks context or intent — and as the only joke of that sort in the book, it seems out of place.

Having written stories similar to And Then You Die of Dysentery myself, I wasn't disappointed in the overall format of the book. But I think it would've been better as a series of short essays. Reeves' humor shines best in her introduction, where she's afforded the space to string sentences into full paragraphs. I don't doubt she has more substance to share about MECC's classic survival game — just not when limited to a single sentence per page.

For better or worse, the entire book can be read in 15 minutes. For a $15 book, that's an expensive investment, but a perfect fit for a library loan. I suggest giving …And Then You Die of Dysentery a flip and getting a few chuckles before reshelving.

(Hat tip to Chris Torrence)