Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Feeling Floppy Happy

August 5th, 2019 11:39 AM
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Steve Weyhrich, purveyor of fine Apple II music videos such as "Week of the KFest", "KFest Funk", and "The KFest Show", as well as creator of the Apple II in Minecraft, has done it again. Although he debuted the video "Boot Up and Run" just a month before KansasFest 2019, he followed it up in short order at KansasFest by premiering "Floppy" a parody of "Happy" by Pharrell Williams.

This latest creation already has more views than many of Steve's previous music videos. I attribute that to two qualities of his song: its source material is well-known; and the video incorporates many members of the Apple II community, lending itself well to being organically shared.

But even without the visual component, it's still catchy! Using iTube Studio for Mac, I downloaded Steve's entire playlist in audio format, quickly and easily adding them to my iTunes library.

List of YouTube videos being downloaded as MP3s

If you've ever wished your iPhone could play floppy disks, well, now it kind of can.

Siri playing a song in response to being asked to "play floppy"

Thank you for yet another hit, Steve!

Apple-1 jigsaw puzzle

July 29th, 2019 12:09 PM
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Earlier this month, I came across some online purchases I'd made 5–6 years ago that were still in their shipping boxes. That era was the height of my YouTube channel, so I must've been saving these purchases for unboxing videos. But since my channel's popularity has waned, I figured it was time to open them off-camera and free the space the boxes were occupying.

I couldn't remember what it was I'd bought, so to allow myself a bit of surprise, I shook the boxes to see if I could guess what was in them. One sounded like it had dozens, if not hundreds, of loose pieces… a puzzle?! Yes!

Boxed jigsaw puzzle of the Apple-1

I bought this Apple-1 puzzle on October 21, 2013, from Subatomic Puzzle Lab on Etsy for $22.22, shipping included. It's a 500-piece puzzle that measures 19" x 13.5" when assembled. The paragraph on the front of the box matches the first paragraph of text in Apple's original Apple-1 advertisement; the back of the box is blank. The top half of the box is taped to the bottom half; I've not yet opened it and inspected the contents.

If you're surprised to find this product exists, you're not alone. I haven't been able to find any photos or news reports about it from that era, and it seems to no longer be available: the Etsy store is empty, the Facebook page hasn't been updated since December 2013.

But the manufacturer's website is still active. It describes itself as a small business whose services "allow owners and distributors of Video or Print media to monetize their content", so you might think the domain name has changed hands. But the company's postal mailing address matches the return address on the box the puzzle shipped in, so this is indeed the same business, just taken in a new direction.

Six years later, this puzzle has gone from a hot commodity to a historical curiosity. I may still record a time-lapse video of me assembling the puzzle. In the meantime, if anyone else has one of these puzzles or can recommend similar products, please leave a comment!

Old-school Dark Mode

July 1st, 2019 9:41 AM
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Last year, Apple introduced a new display option in macOS Mojave: Dark Mode, an alternative color scheme that emphasizes dark tones and minimizes white light. Reading on backlit screens is hard on the eyes — just compare an iPad to an e-ink Kindle. Apple's theorizes that essentially inverting the default display will be easier on the eyes.

There's just two problems with that. First, science says Dark Mode achieves the opposite of its intended effect. Mark LaPlante pointed me to this TidBITS article, in which Adam Engst of explains:

… a dark-on-light (positive polarity) display like a Mac in Light Mode provides better performance in focusing of the eye, identifying letters, transcribing letters, text comprehension, reading speed, and proofreading performance, and at least some older studies suggest that using a positive polarity display results in less visual fatigue and increased visual comfort.

The second problem, and one Engst briefly acknowledges: Apple's earliest products already had a "Dark Mode", back when Apple II and Macintosh computers used monochrome monitors. It was considered an evolution to move from that to full-color, lighter displays. Why revert now? Sure, I get a kick out of using a monochrome display on my Mac every now and then; I even wrote a Juiced.GS article about WriteRoom, a modern word processor that can easily emulate the appearance of AppleWorks Classic. But it's not a work environment I'd want to make a habit of.

AppleWorks' Dark Mode seems awfully familiar…

But by recognizing the disadvantages of a monochrome display, some interesting thought experiments result. Someone could arrive at KansasFest announcing that they're releasing Dark Mode for the Apple II, and ta-da, it's the default display — hilarious. But to be earnest, what would it take to invert the Apple II display, producing a near-equivalent to the Mac's "Light Mode"? Or are there any 8-bit word processors that already use dark text on a white background?

If I were writing a Juiced.GS article, I would determine the answers to these questions and present you with my findings. But for a weekly blog post, I'm content to leave it as an exercise for the reader — and as a potential HackFest entry for the writer.

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.
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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.