Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Dungeons & Microzine

April 23rd, 2018 11:45 AM
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Earlier this month, I attended my ninth annual PAX East, a video game convention held here in Boston, Massachusetts. The event offers panels, game demos, competitions, and merchandise. That's roughly the order in which they appeal to me, as I try to save my money and avoid the merch table. But there's one kind of merch I can never resist: dice.

When my age was in the single digits, I found my older brother's Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, complete with polyhedral dice. I'd never before encountered dice with more than six pipped sides and was fascinated to discover dice could have any number of sides: four, eight, ten, twelve, and twenty! I eventually saved my pennies and bought a one-hundred-sided die from the TSR Hobby Shop.

Dice

A fraction of my collection.

Now, every trip to PAX East includes a stop by the Chessex booth, where I pore over dice of different shapes, colors, and materials. Even though I no longer play D&D, I usually go home from PAX East with a few additions to my dice collection.

I want my nephews to experience some of the same awe and fantasy I did as a kid. When I saw one of them randomly rolling dice last month, I decided to expand his horizons with more dice acquired at PAX East.

But what was he to do with these dice? Rolling them at random without purpose or structure would be entertain for only so long. So I set out to find some games he could play.

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An Apple II standing desk

March 26th, 2018 8:02 AM
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As part of starting a new job, my employer bought a standing/sitting desk for my home office. I moved my filing cabinets of Juiced.GS back issues to make room and set up the new furniture. To get a sense for its range, I then adjusted it to its maximum height.

Uplift's Bamboo Stand Up Desk, raised

A giant desk.

When I examined what I'd wrought, I didn't see a desk. What I instead pictured was this:

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California Typewriter

February 19th, 2018 8:18 PM
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This weekend, I watched California Typewriter, a 2016 documentary about the professional and hobbyist communities surrounding typewriters. A narrative thread weaves through the titular California Typewriter, a family-owned shop in Berkeley, California — but the film's scope encompasses many other typewriter enthusiasts, including Tom Hanks, who's collected over 250 typewriters and who has lent his name to the typewriter-inspired iOS app Hanx Writer.

Typewriters were an essential step in the evolutionary history of personal computers, establishing such standards as the QWERTY keyboard. As a retrocomputing enthusiast, I appreciated the veneration these collectors feel for these classic machines. Offering a dedicated environment in which to focus on one's writing, free from distraction, notifications, or multitasking, is something typewriters and the Apple II have in common.

But I must disagree with a few qualities of the typewriter that were touted as strengths compared to personal computers. I didn't take notes during my viewing, so I'll paraphrase Tom Hanks who said that a personal, typed letter is more likely to survive the ravages of time. He cited an example of a thank-you note that playwright Noel Coward sent in the 1940s and which is now framed and preserved. Hanks pointed out that it's easy to delete an email, and if Coward had been able to send something via that medium, it would've been unlikely to have survived to present day.

But the best way to preserve something isn't to put it in one medium over another — it's to put it in as many hands as possible. Coward's letter is unique and singular; should anything happen to it, there are no copies or means by which to reproduce it. By contrast, something that is digital in origin or which is scanned into a digital format will almost always exist somewhere. Observe the history of Hewlett-Packard, meticulously recorded in hardcopy only and then lost in a fire this past October. Those documents were as irreplaceable as Coward's letter; had they been digitized, they likely would've lasted as long as that letter, too.

The movie also featured musician John Mayer's multiple complaints against electronic documents. First, that they showed no record of how something was created; apparently he's never heard of version control and incremental backups. Second, while he acknowledged that digital files will last forever, he likened it to a trash pile: yes, the files exist, but no one ever goes through them or sees them again.

His statement is likely based on personal experience and is likely true for most individuals: I still have every email I sent in college but haven't looked at them in twenty years. But when it comes to famous individuals or archaelogical artifacts — as both are the case with Ted Nelson — such "trash piles" hold at least as much historical value as a playwright's thank-you note.

I appreciate typewriters and those who admire them, and the California Typewriter documentary drove home their kinship with retrocomputing enthusiasts. Both typewriters and personal computers such as the Apple II have unique strengths that needn't come at each other's weaknesses.

As a bonus, I learned that, just as floppy drives and ImageWriters can be played as musical instruments, so too can typewriters! Witness the Boston Typewriter Orchestra:

Paleotronic Magazine on Kickstarter

November 15th, 2017 12:30 PM
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The current landscape for print publications dedicated to retrocomputing is not vast. Generating enough content and interest for just one computer can be challenging, so there aren't many magazines that focus on specific platforms, like Juiced.GS does with the Apple II. A better path to commercial viability is to cover a broad range of related topics, though even that has its challenges. 300 Baud had a successful but short run in 2000, with all three issues now available online. 8-bit Magazine is still in publication with a new issue being crowdfunded roughly every four months. Its fifth issue is currently on Kickstarter — though it strikes me as time- and labor-intensive to crowdfund each individual issue, instead of offering recurring subscriptions.

A new player is set to enter the scene, and they too are using Kickstarter to fund their debut. KansasFest alumnae Melody and April Ayres-Griffiths are currently crowdfunding Paleotronic Magazine, which promises to "celebrate the best of yesterday’s technology, showcasing the most memorable video games, computers, audio-video technologies and more while also providing fun and interactive learning opportunities through software programming and foundational electronics engineering activities."

The magazine is ambitious in its scope, with seemingly glossy, full-color covers and 33 different departments of editorial content. (The typical issue of Juiced.GS has at most 12 "departments".) But with so many different content types, Paleotronic is likely to have a broad appeal, with retrocomputing enthusiasts of all ages and interests likely to find something that appeals to them.

The campaign includes support for the emulator microM8, an evolution of The Octalyzer, which has impressively added 3D effects to a variety of Apple II programs.

Whenever I teach someone how to run a crowdfunding campaign, I encourage them to have one of two qualities, if not both: a reputation and a prototype. By reputation, I mean that Kickstarter should not be the first place someone hears of you: you should already be established in the field. And a prototype is more than just a concept: you're coming to the table with a viable idea that is demonstrably functional and which just needs funds to be realized or produced.

By these two criteria, Paleotronic is off to a great start, with the Ayres-Griffiths having been contributing to the community for years with their software and a demo issue of Paleotronic (just like Juiced.GS did!). Its campaign earned 80% of its goal in just the first 24 hours, and by the time of this writing, it has already met its minimum, with 25 days still to go before the Kickstarter concludes on December 9, 2017.

I backed Paleotronic at a level to receive the first issue in print and the next five digitally. As you might guess, the editor of Juiced.GS would prefer to receive all the issues in print — but as the magazine is shipping from Australia, the additional cost of postage to the USA almost doubled the cost of the corresponding reward level!

Nonetheless, I'm glad to see our favorite hobby attracting more outlets for writers and readers to share their passion. I look forward to the first issue of Paleotronic being delivered in 2018; anyone else who wants to preorder their copy may do so via Kickstarter.

Installing optional SSL

October 9th, 2017 11:48 AM
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A year ago this month, I added SSL certificates to all my websites. Be it the ease and affordability of doing via Let's Encrypt, the paranoia of avoiding unencrypted communications inspired by Snowden, or the improvement to search-engine ranking provided by Google, it was an effortless and valuable addition all my sites.

Except this one. I spoke on the Retro Computing Roundtable and wrote on this blog about how evolving Web standards sometimes mean older technology is no longer grandfathered. In this case, no Apple II computer or browser currently supports (or may even be capable of accessing) SSL-encrypted websites. Even though my Google Analytics showed no such machines were accessing Apple II Bits, I was hesitant to disconnect this blog from the computer that inspired it.

Since then, Google stepped up its incentive to offer HTTPS encryption: starting later this month, any page or site with a text field — be it a contact form or a search box — that isn't encrypted will display a warning in Google Chrome. Whether this decision is reasonable or proper can be debated, but I can't ignore its consequences. Among visitors to this site, Chrome is the most popular, constituting 45% of sessions. For thousands of users to have a negative experience so I can accommodate a potential or even nonexistent audience is foolhardy.

Fortunately, as reader mmphosis commented, it's not an either/or proposition: a website can be configured to support both HTTP and HTTPS. This weekend, that's exactly the change I made to Apple II Bits' configuration. The canonical default for this website is still HTTP, but if you type HTTPS into your browser window (or have the EFF's excellent HTTPS Everywhere browser plugin enabled), you can now access the site via HTTPS as well.

In the future, I may investigate reversing those roles and making HTTPS the default but HTTP an option. In the meantime, I hope this compromise between old and new technologies is successful at serving a modern audience of retrocomputing enthusiasts.

Developing Retro Roundup

September 11th, 2017 12:11 PM
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Last week, I officially launched Retro Roundup, a curated RSS aggregator of retrocomputing news.
Retro Roundup banner
Or rather, re-launched: Retro Roundup was founded in 2005 by Kevin Savetz, who approached me this past February about taking over the site. While keeping the same purpose and logo, I rebuilt the site in WordPress, adding taxonomies, email subscriptions, and more. After several months in development, it was finally ready to demo during the KansasFest 2017 lightning talks.

Those talks were two months ago, yet the press release announcing Retro Roundup was published just last week. What took so long?

The problem was that Retro Roundup didn't have a defined end state. Unlike Juiced.GS, which has concrete deadlines resulting in a finished quarterly product, Retro Roundup will never stop growing. The more RSS feeds I add to it, the more content it will publish. How many feeds and how much content are enough to launch a website?

I was reminded of the development of Duke Nukem Forever, a video game that took 15 years to publish. The developers didn't have a roadmap for what the game would look like when it was done; as a result, they kept adding new levels and features and scrapping old ones to be current with the latest technology, which was advancing apace with the game. But every product is outdated by the time it launches — at some point, you just have to declare that it's met its goal and release it.

In my case, I thought I was done Retro Roundup in April — until I showed it to my librarian friend, Michele DeFilippo. She suggested I add "facet searches", which was not a term I'd ever heard, though I was familiar with the functionality: almost every e-commerce website offers parameters and filters to narrow search results. Adding this feature to Retro Roundup made the site infinitely more useful and usable.

Then I thought I was done — until a month later, when I attended WordCamp Portland, and met Scott Tirrell, a fan of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, on which I'm an occasional guest. I showed him the site, and he enthusiastically offered many more suggestions — from adding a search box to including YouTube channels among the site's feeds.

With such great feedback, I could've kept working on Retro Roundup indefinitely. What pushed me to finally release the site was Kevin plugging it on episode #45 of the ANTIC podcast (38:51–41:53). Listeners of that podcast immediately flocked to Retro Roundup and began submitting RSS feeds. Even before I knew how they'd discovered the site, I realized that I couldn't keep this cat in the bag any longer. So I spent a day off from work adding dozens more feeds to the site, many of which I'd solicited months ago on Facebook, before deciding I'd met some arbitrary, minimum quantity of content.

Despite this milestone, there are still more feeds and features to add. Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop was the first to use the "submit an advertisement" form, which I'd somehow overlooked in my testing. I was appalled by the results; an hour of my Friday night was spent bringing it up to spec. And a developer who contributed essential functionality to the a2.click tool is even now working on code that will make Retro Roundup even more usable.

Before last week, I had only two retrocomputing websites: Apple II Bits and Juiced.GS. I hope the former entertains its readers, but it's primarily a personal outlet; while the latter is in support of an offline product. Retro Roundup is the first retrocomputing website I've built that I would call a resource for the community. I've learned scads about WordPress and project management during its development. I hope it is found equally rewarding for its users, who will discover new sources for retrocomputing content, and for publishers, who will see new visitors being sent to their site from Retro Roundup.