Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

Ten years — time for a change

April 27th, 2020 12:05 PM
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Every spring brings new milestones. In the last month, I published the first issue of Juiced.GS's 25th volume. I published the 100th episode of my Polygamer podcast. Sabriel and I concluded another season of our Transporter Lock podcast. And this week, Apple II Bits turns ten years old.

Ten apples stacked in a pyramid

Can I stop counting yet?
(Photo courtesy Jaren Jai Wicklund / Shutterstock)

When Apple II Bits turned nine, I wondered if my energy and focus would support this blog beyond its tenth birthday. Now that we're here, I find I have the same passion for the Apple II and a wealth of topics to blog about now as I did then. But other changes, I could not have anticipated.

First, at KansasFest 2019, I received news that eventually led me to become a digital nomad. I now move to a different city every few months with whatever I can fit in my Prius — which doesn't include an Apple II. What it does include are new challenges that encourage me to be creative and reflective. How do I decide where to go next? How do I choose what to bring with me? What's off the beaten path? These are all unique questions that I'm excited to be discovering the answers to answering.

Many of those experiences and discoveries are shared on my digital nomad blog, Roadbits. I've been publishing stories about life on the road three times a week. These posts are directly relevant to my own life and are of interest to my friends, family, co-workers, and others interested in remote work. Before the first post ever went up, Roadbits had more subscribers than Apple II Bits accrued in a decade.

It's also a different kind of writing from what I'm used to: more personal and introspective. Without easy access to an Apple II, I often rely on sharing second-hand news that I found elsewhere. With Roadbits, I'm writing about what has been or will be directly applicable to my life, and what it means.

The second big change in the last year is coronavirus. The pandemic has threatened the wellbeing, economies, and routines of everyone I know. While the threat of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on my nomadic itinerary, the more noticeable daily impact is on my mental health. The recent Onion story "Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive" rings very true.

Although nomading and self-isolation have both given me more free time, coronavirus has created a higher "activation barrier", requiring more enthusiasm for me to accomplish something. And right now, new and exciting projects are more motivating than doing something routine.

Roadbits is new and exciting — but so is finding new ways for me to support the Apple II. Mark Simonsen of Beagle Bros once called himself a "serial entrepreneur": he starts or purchases new businesses, builds them up, and then sells them. Like him, I get a rush out of new projects. That's why I'm currently in the process of acquiring, repairing, redesigning, or resurrecting four different Apple II websites you've all heard of. Some of these efforts are one-and-done; if I do my job well, then you'll never know I had a hand in it. Others will be noticeable surprises with visible bylines. It's too soon to say which will come to fruition.

What does this mean for Apple II Bits? Nine years ago, friend and fellow Apple II user Sarah W lent me the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, in which the author proposed an interesting model. Instead of viewing events in a chronological order from beginning to ending, we should consider the opposite: one thing must end before another thing can begin. While we may grieve the passing of an era, we can also welcome the reclaimed time and energy it brings us, and the new purpose we can give ourselves.

To that end, today is the end of my weekly commitment to Apple II Bits. I came to this decision a month ago, which is when I realized I still had a lot of personal stories left to tell and little time in which to tell them: the truth of Maxster. Beta-testing Wolfenstein 3D. My vanity license plate. Knowing today's deadline was looming gave me the incentive to finally tell these tales.

The good news is that this is not my last post! I have still more Apple II stories to tell, and I would do myself a disservice to cut myself off from this outlet. But from now on, I'm going to blog only when I have something to say and nowhere else to say it. (Some of those projects I'm working on may change the latter half of that equation.)

If you follow Apple II Bits, thank you — I hope you'll continue to do so. If you want regular new Apple II content, please subscribe to Juiced.GS.
If you are interested in following my personal adventures, both online and off, please consider subscribing to Roadbits.

Whichever road you take — Apple II Forever!
Read the rest of this entry »

A JUICED license plate

April 20th, 2020 12:00 PM
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In November 2016, I submitted my car, a 2007 Toyota Prius, for its annual state certification. It failed on one count: the license plate, which I'd had for twenty years, was insufficiently reflective. Which is a thing, apparently.

I could request a shiny new license plate free of charge, but it would be a different number than the one I'd had memorized for two decades. The only way to keep the existing number was to pay a fee.

I couldn't justify paying for a new license plate — unless if it were a vanity plate. It was something I'd wanted as far back as 2011, when I used this blog to listed some options and invited readers to vote. But I never acted on the readers' selections because the poll excluded my top picks: APPLE2, WOZ, and JUICED, that last one referring to Juiced.GS, the quarterly Apple II magazine I've been editing since 2006. But those plates were already taken, and I didn't want to settle for anything else.

But now I had to get a new plate, so back to the Massachusetts RMV I went. It had been five years since I'd last queried their vanity plate database, so I again punched in my top three candidates… and was shocked to discover that JUICED had become available!

Now I had the means for my car to pass its inspection. But it seemed wasteful to put a new plate on an old car.

So I got a new car.

A red Toyota Prius Prime with JUICED license plate

Most expensive inspection ever.

For the next several weeks, stepping out of my office and seeing this car put the biggest grin on my face — not because of the vehicle itself, but because of the plate. It was so much fun to see something that was so very me, even if bystanders didn't know the true meaning. Even when asked, I usually simplify things by telling them "It's a plug-in hybrid, so I plug it in and juice it up!"

It wasn't until after I got the plate — and after I'd been publishing Juiced.GS for a decade — that I discovered an alternative meaning of the word "juiced": to be on steroids. That's technically where the name Juiced.GS came from, since someone had declared founding editor's tricked-out Apple IIGS to be a "juiced GS". I just never put two and two together, though I now like to joke that this plate is the reason I get pulled over so much more now.

I shared this photo of my Toyota Prius Prime at KansasFest 2017, joking that Juiced.GS was doing well, but that I vowed to spend its revenue only on things with the Juiced name on it. Some folks thought I'd Photoshopped the license for the gag — but nope, it's real!

Today is the first time I've posted this photo online. I'm sharing it now for two reasons: first, I've forsaken a permanent residence in favor of this car taking me from city to city in what's known as being a digital nomad — an adventure I am now documenting on my new blog, Roadbits, where this photo can also be seen.

Second, I was concerned that my license plate could be used to identify me, especially by unscrupulous gamers. But now that I have no home to trace me back to, the risks seem less — especially after reading this article about why license plates are usually blurred when posted to the Internet but don't really need to be.

Who knows — maybe I'll show up to the next KansasFest in my Juicedmobile, joining a proud history of retrocomputing plates!

Two cars with plates APL2GS

Seen at KansasFest 2002

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.