Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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

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.

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.