Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Ahh Ahh by Maggi Payne

March 30th, 2020 1:38 PM
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Chiptune music — original songs compused primarily using 8-bit microcomputers or their style — is nothing new; in particular, 8 Bit Weapon has been using the Apple II to perform in this genre since 1998.

But we don't often talk about music composed using the Apple II back during its heyday. Some computer games featured simple soundtracks, but was the computer itself ever used to produce musical products that were independent of any software?

The answer is yes, with one example being musician Maggi Payne's album Ahh Ahh. This album wasn't released until 2012, but it features music Payne composed in the mid-1980s using a variety of instruments, including the Apple II computer.

This six-track album was re-released last week by Aguirre Records and is now available on vinyl or can be downloaded from Bandcamp. While the LP costs €21, the digital version costs a mere €6, with three of the tracks streaming for free.

According to the product description:

Composed on an Apple II computer and various early sampling devices, Payne's compositions are a vibrant response to the call from the moving body. Populated with buoyant pulses, graceful analogue swells, dense fog-like drones and cascading rhythms that shift in space, Ahh Ahh is a vital document of not only these early collaborations, but of computer based music as well.

Here is the opening number, "Flights of Fancy":

If you're looking to expand your musical portfolio with something familiar yet off the beaten path, check out Ahh-Ahh.

(Hat tips to Lazlo Rugoff and Wade Clarke)

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.

The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.

Bizarro caller ID

September 30th, 2019 10:33 AM
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When I ran my BBS, I kept a corkboard on the wall above my computer — probably because it's what my dad did above his computer in his home office, of which my BBS occupied a corner. Little that I put on my board was practical or relevant, consisting primarily of mementos or jokes from completely unrelated affairs, like parking stubs from a summer trip to the beach.

But while recently cleaning out my house, I discovered that I'd kept the contents of that board from two decades past. And one such item actually did pertain to my BBS.

Sherlock Holmes speaks into phone: "Did you just dial my number by mistake and hang up before I answered, Watson?" Caption: "Sherlock Holmes gets Caller ID"

This comic strip from Dan Piraro's Bizarro highlights a groundbreaking technology of the 1990s: Caller ID. The strip is from 1995, which was my sophomore year of high school. I distinctly remember how excited I was for this feature to become available: how it arrived first at my grandmother's house one city over, then in my hometown a day later. Phones didn't have inbuilt digital displays back then, so I had to buy a separate caller ID box to sit between the wall jack and my BBS modem.

Finally, I could see who was calling my BBS before they even logged in! And it became an effective deterrent against pranksters and trolls. If I saw multiple accounts log in from the same number, I could call out these sockpuppets (though they always had what they thought was a good excuse, such as "Oh, that's my brother"). If someone used *67 to block their caller ID, I would sometimes use that as grounds to disconnect the call entirely. (In the early days of my BBS, I would verify each new user by calling their landline and asking to speak with them. Needless to say, that got onerous for both parties pretty quickly.)

This comic is a fun reminder not only of my BBS, but of how something we now take for granted — knowing who's calling before we answer " was once revolutionary. Some things don't change, though: I still read Bizarro every day. Its online archives extend only to 2005, so please enjoy this glimpse further back into its history.

BBS harassment

September 9th, 2019 11:12 AM
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My grade school was small, with only nineteen students in my junior high's graduating class. Not counting me, there were nine boys and nine girls, which was too small to foster diversity. There was no space for a nerd who didn't love sports.

So I sought community elsewhere, on CompuServe and dial-up bulletin board systems. At the end of eighth grade, desperate for others with whom to share my love for computer and video games, I launched my own BBS: The Playground!, exclamation mark and all.

The Playground! (or TPG for short) had message boards and file libraries focused on primarily on games for consoles and the Apple II. Since those were the machines available to me at the time, I wasn't interested in hosting discussions or files that I as the sysop couldn't verify (or enjoy). But TPG also hosted plenty of online games everyone could play, regardless of platform: door games like Triviamaster and Space Ship of Death.

Unfortunately, well before there was Twitter, there were online bullies. Users of my BBS were mostly young geeks and runts like me, using handles like Mr. Magoo and Scratchmouster. Whether they didn't like my BBS management style or they were just looking to exert control they didn't have elsewhere, some of these anonymous rapscallions were intent on causing me grief.

The most creative and damaging vandalism they undertook involved identity theft, though it took me awhile to figure that out. At first, all I knew was that users could not stay connected to my BBS. They would dial in and browse the forums like usual — then suddenly get booted. Since we had two Apple IIGS computers with two modems and two phone lines, I was able to call my BBS myself and verify my users' experience. I went through my Hayes modem settings, my BBS config, my phone connections, everything I could think of that would cause such errant behavior, but I found no culprit.

Finally, wanting to ensure other basic phone functions were operating, I tried calling my BBS while someone else was already connected. I expected a busy signal — but instead, the other user got booted.

My dedicated BBS line had been granted call waiting.

Maybe identity theft wasn't as rampant 25 years ago, and utility companies didn't require that customers prove they were who they said they were. But it was clear to me that one of my more mischievous members had called the phone company and asked that call waiting be added to my phone line. I called the phone company, had call waiting removed from our service, and my BBS's reliability was restored.

I still don't know who did this or why. And in the modern, larger context of online harassment, this ordeal was trivial: my BBS was not monetized, and neither my livelihood nor my safety were ever threatened. I chalk it up as an adolescent prank, but one that was at the time very stressful to a fellow adolescent who just wanted friends to play games with.