A computer history museum returns to Boston

September 2nd, 2013 6:41 PM
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Eight years ago, I took Ryan Suenaga to the Boston Museum of Science, whose "ComputerPlace" exhibit featured an Apple II with a copy of VisiCalc. Although exciting to see, this one display was the extent of Boston's preservation of computer history. The Computer History Museum, now a Silicon Valley landmark, had its humble beginnings in Boston, where it lived for 15 years. Upon its relocation to Mountain View, California, no similar establishment remained in Boston.

Northeastern University lecturer Mary Hopper aims to rectify that. As the Boston Globe reports, when the Computer History Museum left Boston, Hopper started collecting computer artifacts (including an Apple II Plus), waiting for the day she could donate them to whatever local institution took the CHM's place. With that not having happened, she's now setting out to establish her own computer museum: the Digital Den. To do so, she's turned to crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $25,000 by September 23. She's presently at 6% of her goal.

How this project got so far under the radar baffles me. I asked local representatives of @party, the Artisan's Asylum, and KansasFest, and nobody had heard of this endeavor. I'm also concerned about how vast an enterprise Hopper is undertaking — there's more to starting a museum than having an inventory. However, a visit to the Den by local retrocomputing enthusiast Dave Ross resulted in an encouraging report:

Mary is every bit as impressive as her bio makes her out to be. She's done some impressive work and has been involved with making sure her work and the work of those around her were preserved well before they could be considered "history".

She's also been talking to lawyers and other museums to get a sense of what she can legally do for fundraising and what kind of donations she can accept. It's refreshing to see that kind of due diligence.

If Hopper can accomplish what no one else has tried in more than a decade, then I will do what I can to support her — and already have, thanks to Indiegogo. I look forward to visiting the Den for myself!

Public libraries aren't archives

April 22nd, 2013 12:25 PM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
8 comments.

I ardently support public libraries: I consciously opt to get my movies from their collections rather than Netflix, so as to increase their circulation numbers and thus their budget; I've written letters to the editor in support of these democratic institutions; I even dabbled in the education necessary to work in the field. There's little that public libraries aren't good for.

Once upon a time, libraries were even a source of Apple II software. In those days, there were so many computing platforms that it was unlikely an underfunded library would support any one, especially since computers in general were still so limited in their accessibility and penetration. But with educational institutions being one of the few that could afford such an investment, the software you were likely to find at libraries were edutainment titles such as Microzine. Even more rarely, you might find software of a more diversionary nature.

I thought that's what recently happened to me as I prepared the March issue of Juiced.GS, for which Andy Molloy submitted a review of Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia. Curious as to the availability of this book to our readers, I did a quick search for all materials by Mechner in any public library that's recognized by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Though I was looking for paperbacks, I was stunned to find a copy of Karateka, right here in Massachusetts!

Recycled library card catalogEver think to look for computer games at your local library?
TOO LATE NOW.

Unfortunately, though this title was listed in OCLC's WorldCat, I could not find a matching listing in the catalog specific to the holding library system, the North of Boston Library Exchange (NOBLE). I emailed a librarian to ask about the discrepancy. Assuming I didn't realize the lateness of my request, she replied:

If you look closely at the record copied below, you will see that it is a 5 1/4 disk for computer (Apple II+)! I do not believe that a library today would have any equipment able to use one of these now "prehistoric" disks!

It's disappointing but unsurprising that the library would not have kept its Apple II software on file. With the limited budget and space afforded to public libraries, they must dispose of those items with limited circulation to make room for new materials. It's doubtful anyone had requested an 8-bit 5.25" floppy disk in years, if not decades, so away it went. To where, we may never know — a good home, I hope.

Interested in locating libraries in your area that may be holding onto these artifacts? OCLC lets you conduct a search for computer files published 1977–1992, which reveals 17,759 hits. But without a means to sort by location or vicinity, finding the disks near you is hopeless. It was only by chance that I thought I'd found Karateka in my own backyard.

Libraries make available materials that the general population may never otherwise have access to. But libraries are not archives or museums. As I discovered when I archived hardcopies of Juiced.GS, there are organizations around the world who will accept such materials, from academic institutions to the Computer History Museum. These non-profits are the proper places to consider donating your historical hardware and software. But Apple II software in public libraries? It's time not to check in, but to check out.

The Apple II goes to work

March 4th, 2013 11:27 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Musings;
2 comments.

It's been almost two months since my Apple IIgs and I left Computerworld. It's been almost as long that I've been in my new position — the first one ever to afford me an office with windows. As much as I love the view, it seems empty without a certain rainbow Apple logo somewhere in the room.

I wasn't sure how long I should be at the new place before making a request to move in my own personal desktop computer. But my easygoing boss had no problems with such a setup, as long as I ran it past our IT department, to be politic. All that accomplished was a remark about how "that Mac must be older than you, Ken!" — two false statements in one, both designed to set me on edge. But I focused on the fact that they had no objections and thus visited my office on a weekend to set up my machine.

My Apple II seems quite happy in its new home. Other than turning the IIgs on to ensure it survived the disassembly and setup processes, I've not had the opportunity to use it — nor have I determined if this institution's network will accommodate my Uthernet interface, which is my preferred configuration for ADTPro.

Although that functionality is essential for certain projects, for now, I'm just happy that my office is beginning to feel like mine.

Apple II at @party demoparty

June 11th, 2012 7:26 PM
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Filed under Happenings;
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What are you doing next weekend? If you're in the Boston area and want to meet some fellow Apple II users, or learn more about this machine that's developed such a rabid community, then consider coming to @party.

A demoparty founded in 2010, @party is all about squeezing the most impressive graphics, sound, and functionality out of the oldest machines. Think of it like HackFest, except for all retrocomputers and lasting all weekend. But you don't need to be a programmer to compete — there are music, graphics, ASCII art, and other competitions, or "compos". If you just want to attend, there's still plenty for you, including chiptune concerts, text adventure tutorials, and more.

For the first time in @party's history, "more" includes me! I'll be the weekend's first last official speaker, with a presentation on Saturday at 1:30 5:00 PM EDT entitled "The Apple II lives! KansasFest and beyond". Likely to be an adaptation of last summer's presentation to the Denver Apple Pi users' group, I'll deliver an overview of the Apple II history, hardware, community, events, outlets, and more.

At least one other KansasFest alumnus will be there: krüe, an award-winning demo artist. Krüe is a demoparty fiend and will be sure to show you the ropes.

@party demoparty

Hackers hacking their hacks at @party 2010.

Registration ends TONIGHT (June 11) at midnight. Tickets are only $56.02 — not bad for a weekend of camaraderie and retro-fun. Come enjoy your first demoparty!

Presenting the Apple II

May 5th, 2011 5:55 AM
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Filed under Musings;
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Last Wednesday, I delivered the final presentation of my graduate student career. The course was in the theater education department of Emerson College, and the subject was non-profit grant-writing. Most of my classmates knew as much about theater as I do about computers, so I enjoyed the opportunity to be the most technically literate person in the crowd. Nonetheless, it also made me constantly mindful of my audience when presenting information.

My presentation was on the need to preserve the history of KansasFest. I started off with a brief overview of how Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded the company in their garage in 1977, with titles such as Oregon Trail and Visicalc making the machine a success in educational and business markets alike. I then traced the lineage that modern software owes to the Apple II by putting up a slide of the first-person shooter Call of Duty, which is derived from Wolfenstein 3D, which in turn was based on the Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein.

Most of the students recognized at least one of these titles, so by playing to their familiarity, I was able to keep them engaged — though one student seemed more enraptured than even I expected, with a face-splitting grin on her face at the screenshot of Castle Wolfenstein. I asked her later if she'd played that game. "No, but I grew up with King's Quest, so to see an old game like that was great," she enthusiastically replied. Ah! A retrogamer in the crowd. I followed up by emailing her a link to AGD Interactive.

KansasFest 2006 presentation

Watch as Ken presents the hell out of the Apple II.

The rest of the presentation went smoothly, due I believe in part to my M.O. when planning such events: I use as little text as possible. More often, my presentations could be better described as slideshows. Besides the fact that I'm a visual learner, I also didn't want to bore people by reading text off slides or by burying them with facts, statistics, and graphs that I may find interesting but which they do not. With a photo or screenshot, they can quickly absorb a visual complement to my speech without distracting them as they try to interpret the media.

The Q&A section was brief. One person asked if Apple Inc. still has an involvement in the Apple II and would be interested in participating in the preservation and continuation of KansasFest. Without trying to explain the Apple II downloads page of Apple.com, I told her that yes, Apple used to come to this event, but they hadn't been seen since my first year attending in 1998. Another student asked a question tangential to my proposal: have we figured out a way to put the Apple II online? In this, I momentarily forgot my audience by replying, "Sure — we've had dial-up modems since they were 300 baud." A few shrugs indicated that this reference was lost to them, so I moved on: "There is an Ethernet card for the Apple II, and just last week, I put the Apple II in my cubicle on the company network. Now I just need to install the Twitter client … It's pretty slick," I added, to their laughter.

Overall, it was a fun evening, especially since I was presenting on a topic I'm both knowledgeable and passionate about. I don't get many chances to present about the Apple II outside KansasFest, so to let my inner geek proudly shine — and, I hope, get an 'A' for it — was a great sendoff to my time at Emerson.

All Apple II roads lead to Boston

April 4th, 2011 12:47 PM
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With the apparent demise of the user group, there are no geographically oriented pockets of Apple II users anymore. But I have the good fortune of living in Central Massachusetts, which has somehow become a destination for many Apple II users over the years.

Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy has regularly made the trip from New York to enjoy the retrocomputing goodness my area has to offer, from Funspot to PAX. The same site where we recently attended PAX also once hosted Steve Weyhrich, who took time out of his professional development in the medical field to share a dinner with me. Even other continents send representatives to Boston, where Australian programmer Peter Watson and I went to the pub that inspired the television sitcom Cheers.

The Watsons in Boston

Carol, Andre, Lynne, Peter, Kahm, and Ken — Apple II users forever!

This weekend alone, I visited with multiple Apple II users. Thomas Compter, who once hosted me and Kelvin Sherlock for a Lord of the Rings marathon, was in town to attend the annual Havoc game convention. His and his wife Jeannie's availability coincided with a local vegan pop-up restaurant's monthly offering. I enjoyed spending an evening with these two KansasFest alumni, talking about everything but the Apple II, from WordPress to to dice towers to living in Germany.

Thomas and Jeannie moved a few years ago from Oklahoma to Vermont and then to Western Massachusetts, but the Panhandle State still has its share of Apple II users. Fewer than 24 hours later, I picked one up from the airport: KansasFest committee member, logo designer, and former HackFest winner Peter Neubauer. Peter's diverse Apple II résumé was recently expanded by his interview of Alan Floeter for Juiced.GS, which landed in subscriber mailboxes just last week. In contrast to the previous evening, the Apple II was practically all we talked about. We caught up on reactions to Juiced.GS and plans for KansasFest 2011 before getting on the horn with Mike Maginnis for another few hours.

I consider myself very lucky to live somewhere through which so many esteemed Apple II users pass, and I appreciate them making time to connect with a member of their community. It's like a series of mini-KFests to keep us going until the big one!