Bento Lab vs. the Apple II

September 4th, 2017 10:01 AM
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Bento Lab, a portable DNA analysis kit that was funded on Kickstarter in 2015 and 2016, was recently profiled in The Boston Globe. At a tenth the cost of a traditional lab setup, Bento Lab kits "represent a cracking open of a once-cloistered field of knowledge" and a democratization of the life sciences. "What can be achieved with Bento Lab is largely limited by the user’s imagination and ability," writes reporter Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.

Like most readers of this blog, my scientific interests stray more toward the technological than the organic. But the article bridges that gap with this apt metaphor:

[Harvard University genetic biologist George] Church described Bento Lab as "an Apple II moment." The Apple II, among the first personal computers made for the masses, changed computing in ways that are so fundamental that we can hardly appreciate them. "There were computers before the Apple I or the Apple II, cheap computers, but they were really geeky, they had wires hanging out of them. They didn’t have the right form factor or ease of use," he explained. "This, I think, is that moment."

I'm reminded of seven years ago, when World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov declared the Apple II as "the last technology that could be thought of as revolutionary". Whether it's biology, artificial intelligence, or personal computing, the Apple II continues to be an era-defining invention, demarcating a line in history before or after which everything came.

While its place in history is unquestionable, the Apple II shouldn't be unique in being considered a technological revolution. There other innovations that have done as much, if not more, than the Apple II to increase access and affordability to technology. Bicycles greatly expanded access to resources and job opportunities and continue to do so even today in third-world countries. (Even Steve Jobs called the computer "a bicycle for the mind") Radio and the telephone allowed the verbal exchange of ideas across great distances. Airplanes opened up the world to travel and tourism, allowing unprecedented access to new peoples, cultures, and environments. (And yes, while air travel is expensive, it's no more so than the Apple II was when it was first released.) The World Wide Web democratized publishing, giving voice to everyone's opinions and expertise. I'm not talking life-saving technologies, but life-changing. Some of these creations came before the Apple II; others came after, built on its foundation. Yet would we feel silly comparing the Bento Lab to the World Wide Web, in that one is a tangible product and the other is not?

That metaphor may be flawed, but I'm emboldened to make it by the comparison of the Apple II to a portable DNA kit. The Apple II started as an esoteric hobby and went on to revolutionize multiple industries. The Bento Lab, with its much more specialized function, will likely be praised within certain circles but remain unheard-of otherwise. But a more apt comparison might be difficult to draw, as any product similar to the Bento Lab has, by its nature, not drawn attention outside its target audience — unlike the Apple II.

I'm always intrigued by the contexts in which the Apple II turns up. When I first read about the Bento Lab, I thought of Amazon.com and e-books, which made agents and editors into optional gatekeepers that anyone could bypass. Amazon didn't invent e-books any more than Apple invented computers, but both made these platforms more affordable and accessible. In that sense, Bento Lab has succeeded — but it's no more an Apple II than it is an airplane or the World Wide Web.

The first game I ever played

August 28th, 2017 10:23 AM
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While VisiCalc and AppleWorks may've been system-sellers that established the Apple II in the business marketplace, they're not the programs we have fondest memories of. What really got us hooked on these machines and which built communities, demo parties, and more, were the games.

Tapping that trove of memories, the staff of PC Gamer recently asked each other: "What was the first PC game you played?" The answers are fun and diverse: Full Throttle, Rogue, Lemmings, X-Wings, and more, on such systems as the Atari ST, Magnavox Odyssey II, and Windows 95. Only one Apple II game made the list, that being Choplifter.

I don't remember the first Apple II game I ever played. There were so many in that era: not only Choplifter, but also Conan, Castle Wolfenstein, Microzine, Spy's Demise, and many others.

But the game I wrote about in a similar fashion to PC Gamer was Lode Runner. In 2008, when I was still on staff at Computerworld magazine, my fellow editors and I were asked the question: "What was the first personal computer you ever owned?" I answered:

1983: Growing up Apple

I don't remember ever not having the Apple IIe that I grew up with; it must've been delivered about the same time I was.

My family upgraded to an Apple IIgs in 1988. We still have that machine, as well as another IIgs that ran a dial-up BBS for four years.

Over the years, we tricked it out with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed — making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

The original IIgs machine is still at my father's house, where he occasionally depends on it for the family business accounting. Though my current computer is a MacBook Pro, it has all the Apple II programs and files I accumulated over the years. I access them with the Sweet16 emulator, which turns my Macintosh into an Apple II laptop.

Emulating has allowed me to have used the same word-processing software, AppleWorks Classic, for the past 20 years, for everything from a 4th grade science paper on the whooping crane to my 100-page college thesis to all my Computerworld articles. All this history fills up only 3MB of my hard drive. Most recently, I created a quick-and-dirty Apple II program to convert 700 blog posts for importing into WordPress — a huge timesaver over doing it manually.

I just wrote a story about Dan Budiac, a guy who paid $2,600 on eBay to get back an old Apple IIc. Why not do what I did and just never stop using it in the first place?

These are just a few of my memories of the Apple II. What about you — what was your first game? Do you even remember?

The gift of AfterWork

August 21st, 2017 9:38 AM
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Last week was my dad's birthday, and someone asked me: had I ever gotten him a gift for the Apple II?

In fact, I had! It was one Christmas in the 1990s, and Dad was in his second decade of using AppleWorks on the Apple II to run the family business. We'd just upgraded our version of AppleWorks — one of many purchases we'd made from Quality Computers. Although I was still a minor at the time, it was not unusual for me to receive a QC catalog in the mail, call them to order something, and tell them to charge it to dad's credit card, which they had on file. If the purchase was a game or something else that couldn't be written off as a business expense, I would reimburse my parents from my allowance.

Even at that age, I'd already caught up to and surpassed my father's familiarity with the Apple II and its capabilities. I thought I should use that experience to benefit his AppleWorks experience, so I bought AfterWork, a screen saver specifically for AppleWorks.

Screen savers are still ubiquitous, but primarily as an artifact of an earlier time when they served a necessary purpose. Today's LCD monitors don't run the risk of burn-in, but on a CRT monitor like the AppleColor RGB monitor on our IIGS, my dad stepping away from work for an hour to play Tetris could have disastrous results. AppleWorks 4.0 would blank the screen, but with AfterWork, fun animations would flood his display until he came back to his spreadsheets.

I don't know that my dad appreciated receiving the gift as much as I did giving it. Most of my family see computers much like I see cars: a vehicle to get you from point A to point B. They don't enjoy tinkering or playing with it or making it do fun, cool things for the sake of it. But I was nonetheless proud to give my dad something that integrated seamlessly into his workflow. I wasn't trying to get him to use the Apple II in a different or "better" way — I just wanted his work day to be a little more amusing, and to give back to him a small part of the wonder and joy he'd given me by getting me into the Apple II in the fist place.

It's been decades since I've seen AfterWork in action: I don't have it installed in Sweet16, and there appear to be no screenshots or YouTube videos of it. What I can find online is a 1995 review of AppleWorks 5.0 by now-Juiced.GS staff writer Andrew Roughan, in which he states, "AppleWorks now includes the AfterWork screen saver and five sample modules. The full AfterWork package which has 21 modules is available separately." I'm left uncertain which Christmas I bought AfterWork or for what version of AppleWorks. But I'll always remember it as a gift that represented something my dad and I had in common.

KansasFest at Rockhurst

August 14th, 2017 9:20 AM
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Those feeling the withdrawal of KansasFest 2017 now have something to look forward to, as the dates and venue for KansasFest 2018 have been announced: the world's largest and longest-running annual Apple II convention returns to Rockhurst University next July 16–22.

There has been much unsolicited, unofficial discourse on the KansasFest email list about whether Rockhurst should remain the venue for KansasFest. Those hoping for a change in 2018 shouldn't be surprised: executing an event like KansasFest takes almost an entire year of preparation, and pivoting to a new venue more quickly than that should occur only when no alternative is available, as when Avila decided to stop hosting KansasFest after 2004.

That doesn't mean the debate is over. For KansasFest 2019 and beyind, there are plenty of compelling opinions about where the event should be held. In the pro-Rockhurst camp:

  • • Rockhurst is exceedingly cheap — only a few hundred dollars for five nights, eleven meals, and conference registration makes it an incredibly affordable vacation.
  • • There are few other retrocomputing conventions where attendees stay right where the event is, making for a 24-hour event. Rockhurst enables this.
  • • The dormitory setting encourages socializing both in lounge areas and in private rooms with open doors.
  • • For the duration of KansasFest, the Corcoran student hall is exclusive to us, without needing to be shared by other guests, students, or events.
  • • After 13 years of hosting us, Rockhurst and KansasFest have developed an amicable working relationship and can anticipate each other's needs and expectations.

Those proposing we move to a hotel make the following points:

  • • Many attendees are at a point in their lives where they can afford nicer accommodations.
  • • A hotel is likely to have a more robust dining menu, accommodating more diverse tastes and diets.
  • • Hotels have larger, more comfortable beds.
  • • Hotel rooms have private bathrooms and showers.
  • • Hotels wouldn't cap attendance at 100 people.

As a former member of the KansasFest committee, I have no weight or authority beyond that of any other attendee. I, like 92 other attendees of KansasFest 2017, am happy to pay my cheap dues and enjoy a week of camaraderie with no responsibilities. If I am able to engage in that spirit of the event, then the trappings matter little.

To that end, it seems moving from Rockhurst wouldn't benefit the event itself, but its creature comforts. I've read no concerns about Rockhurst's ability to host the convention aspect: the presentation hall, the space for Sean's Garage Giveaway, and the Internet bandwidth have all suited our needs, and I've yet to encounter suggestions to the contrary. It's better room and board accommodations that folks want.

But I'm okay with the way things are. Sleeping and eating are two things I don't spend a lot of time doing at KansasFest; they're certainly not why I go. I've lived in college dorms before, and while I'm not nostalgic for those conditions, I can tolerate them for a week.

Rockhurst dormitory in 2006

Rockhurst in 2006. It's even nicer now.

But better accommodations may be more than KansasFest can afford, costing us both money and attendees. It's been said that if you're not turning people away, then you're not charging enough. With KansasFest hitting its attendee cap of 100 in 2017, perhaps we could charge more. But that would reduce the number of people can afford to attend KansasFest, negating the benefit of moving to a venue with no attendance cap.

And besides, do we want more than 100 people attending? I say this not out of elitism, but because I like the intimate scope of KansasFest as it is now. As we approach Dunbar's number, the ability to meet and get to know every attendee diminishes. I prefer quality time with a smaller number of people, which I find harder to achieve with more attendees.

I recall the multiple years of dwindling attendance, with each KansasFest leaving us wondering if it would be the last. It seems impossible that we've quadrupled our numbers since those pessimistic years of just a decade ago. Perhaps we've grown to the point where we've outgrown Rockhurst. From my perspective as an attendee, that doesn't seem the case. I'm happy to continue returning to its familiar campus for as long as the committee decides we should.

Apple Museum of Prague

August 7th, 2017 9:49 AM
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In the past few years, I've had the pleasure of seeing the Apple II in museums across the country: the Computer History Museum, the Strong Museum of Play, the Living Computer Museum, and Charles Babbage Institute, to name a few. And there are still others I've yet to explore, including the National Videogame Museum, as featured in the March 2017 issue of Juiced.GS.

But there are many more museums I've yet to visit, and the latest one to pop up on my radar is in the first foreign country I ever visited: the Czech Republic. My former Computerworld manager Sharon Machlis was recently in Prague on vacation, much as I was in March 1998. What's new in the two decades in between our visits is the creatively named Apple Museum. This institution "includes the most valuable and the most complex collection of computers from 1976 till 2012 and other Apple, Pixar and Next products."

Apple Museum entrance

Photo by Sharon Machlis.

While Sharon didn't pop into this museum, there are plenty of reviews of the venue online. On reddit, where a photo album can be found, reports indicate the museum shows the evolution and contrast from old to new technologies, but without being hands-on. The inventory coming from a private collection instead of donors likely accounts for the 472 exhibits being behind glass.

Also found here is an unusual offering among museums: a raw vegan bistro and smoothie bar.

The range of products is in line with favorite foods and beverages of Steve Jobs. This eccentric but likeable man with an infectious enthusiasm and passion for his cause, favored organic fruits and vegetables and totally rejected meat. As time went on, he progressed from vegetarianism to veganism and the most common foods were just salads, juices and fruit smoothies. Complete your visit with a unique culinary experience!

Hey, why not? Museums have to innovate, and anyway, it's for a good cause — all the proceeds go to charity, to help relieve traumatic brain injuries and muscular dystrophy.

Can't make it to Prague? The museum website, available in both English and Česky, has a Google Street View-like 3D tour, complete with support for Google Cardboard and other VR-like devices.

I'm not likely to get to the museum anytime soon — I'm just 19 years too late. But it's encouraging to know the history of our favorite platform is being preserved and exhibited around the world!

More Steamed Apples

July 31st, 2017 10:40 AM
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At KansasFest 2016, I presented parallels between classic gaming and modern Steam games. The session was called "Steamed Apples" and was largely based on indie games I'd encountered while researching and hosting the IndieSider podcast.

That podcast ended earlier this month, but not before I discovered several more games reminiscent of Apple II software mechanics and aesthetics. That combined with unused notes from last year's presentation led to its follow-up at KansasFest 2017: "More Steamed Apples".

Unlike last year, I no longer constrained myself to games available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, as some of the below games are Windows-only (such as Lode Runner Legacy) but were too good a fit to pass up. Also, as I did last year with Plangman, I accidentally slipped one non-Steam game in when I included Leadlight Gamma, which is available from itch.io only.

I've recategorized the genres since the presentation to make them a better fit, and to be more consistent with last year's categories.

GenreClassic gameSteam gameIndieSider?
ActionCrystal QuestEllipsisYes
ActionDino EggsDino Eggs RebirthNo
AdventureOut of This WorldOutlandNo
ActionLode RunnerLode Runner LegacyNo
PuzzleLemmingsInklingsNo
PuzzlePipe DreamWorld of GooNo
SurvivalOregon TrailThe Flame in the FloodYes
Text AdventureZorkLeadlight GammaYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotOpen SorceryYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotEmily Is AwayYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotThe Warlock of Firetop MountainYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotFirewatchNo

As IndieSider has now concluded its run, I don't expect there will be a third session in this series. But the games included in these tables should be enough for any Apple II user to get their entertainment fix in a modern computing environment.