A visit to the Media Archaeology Lab

March 4th, 2019 6:16 AM
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I've gotten to explore some fantastic computer museums in the company of Apple II users: the Boston Museum of Science with Ryan Suenaga; the Computer History Museum with Martin Haye; Living Computers: Museum + Labs with Olivier Guinart; the Strong Museum of Play with Andy Molloy. Last month, I enjoyed another such adventure, this one to the Media Archaeology Lab with Chris Torrence.

The MAL is in Boulder, Colorado, a place I briefly lived and to which I was now returning on business. I work for Automattic, a completely distributed company whose employees all work remotely. Instead of a traditional office, where everyone works together for fifty weeks a year then gets two weeks of vacation apart, Automattic flips that model: we spend only two weeks together a year, at two week-long team meetups. My first meetup of 2019 was in Boulder, giving me the perfect excuse to extend my stay for a visit to the MAL.

Another convenient synchronicity was that, just two months earlier, I'd started selling Steve Weyhrich's book, Sophistication & Simplicity. Steve permitted me to donate a few copies of his book to libraries and museums, so I emailed some historians to ask what institutions I should target. Jason Scott suggested the MAL, a museum that I was vaguely aware of from Chris Torrence volunteering there. I pitched him a donation of S&S as well as a complete collection of Juiced.GS, and he enthusiastically accepted. Instead of mailing so much heavy Apple II literature, my Automattic trip would enable me to personally deliver it, followed by a tour of the MAL!

The MAL resides in the basement of a building near the local university campus. Three rooms are accessible to the public, with the main lobby hosting one long table of operational Apple computers, and another table filled with other brands and models. Like the Living Computers museum of Seattle, Washington, MAL's artifacts are meant to be used: shelves are filled to the ceiling with classic software, mainly games, waiting to be played. I booted up an Apple IIe for a round of Oregon Trail, naming my wagonmates after fellow Apple II users, while Chris fiddled with getting BattleChess to work on the IIGS.

The back room, the second-largest room in the MAL, holds a dozen or so game consoles, all connected to CRT televisions. Chris and I rotated through several two-player Nintendo games, including Super Dodge Ball and Double Dragon II. I also tried the Vectrex, an all-in-one game console and display unit released by Milton Bradley in late 1982 and discontinued in early 1984. I was familiar with the Vectrex but had never gotten hands-on experience with one before. Its vector graphics, similar to an Asteroids coin-op, were bright and vivid — though playing the Star Trek game reminded me that this console is from an era where gameplay was not intuitive, and a thorough reading of the manual was essential.

I enjoyed my time at the MAL and wish I'd been able to stay longer. The assortment of not just digital technology, but all media, was fascinating, from computers to record players to oscilloscopes. As much as I'm a retrocomputing enthusiast, there is plenty of history and media I've still to discover. There are few places better to do so than the MAL.

Oregon Trail IRL

February 5th, 2018 12:59 PM
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As art imitates life, so too does life occasionally imitate art. Such is the case with Oregon Trail, a 2,170-mile wagon route that became the basis for a timeless Apple II game. The edutainment software has in turn been adapted to real-life interactive events, as with Oregon Trail Live, an annual event in Salem, Oregon, that will next be held on Saturday, September 8.

But for those in Colorado who didn't want to wait that long, the non-profit History Colorado recently hosted Oregon Trail IRL, a one-day event officially sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

Relive your childhood, as the vintage The Oregon Trail video game becomes a live-action experience set throughout the museum. Test your pioneering skills as you hunt for food, ford a river in a human hamster ball, play the original game in our '90s throwback library computer lab, plus so much more. Finish your immersive experience in our graveyard lounge with cash bar and music.

Colorado itself has few ties to the historical Oregon Trail; according to Wikipedia, "A branch of the Oregon trail crossed the very northeast corner of Colorado if they followed the South Platte River to one of its last crossings." But the state does lay claim to Chris Torrence, renowned Apple II blogger and videographer. The latest episode of video podcast series, Assembly Lines, features his expedition to the sold-out Oregon Trail IRL.

Oregon Trail IRL looks just like the game it's based on: both fun and educational. My thanks to Chris for capturing this experience for the rest of us!

(Full disclosure: I support Chris on Patreon.)

Bringing KFest to Denver Apple Pi

August 25th, 2011 9:00 AM
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Being in Denver this summer, I've been eager to meet people and make friends. One way to do so is to seek out those with common interests, so I immediately took myself to the Denver Apple Pi user group's summer barbecue. As I introduced myself, they welcomed me into their fold — though I was surprised to discover for a few people, I needed no introduction. Tammy, the resident Apple II collector, recognized me by name as "the KansasFest guy", and Elissa, the group's secretary, knew of KansasFest, even though no one in the group had attended. In fact, since I would apparently be the group's sole honorary representative, would I be willing to come back from KansasFest and present to DAPi on everything they missed?

Wow! Only a few weeks in Denver, and already I was being invited to be a guest speaker!

The presentation occurred last Tuesday, immediately after Jeff Gamet of Mac Observer presented the new features of Mac OS X Lion. I chose to expand my topic to cover not just KansasFest, but the history of the Apple II, what its modern community is doing with it, and what additional resources exist for viewers interested in learning more. My media, as is my wont, was mostly a a slideshow, preferring images instead of text with which to complement my speech. I've compiled the many links I referenced into a document of show notes (PDF).

The quality of the facilities and equipment were surprisingly good. A lavaliere mic boosted my volume but didn't pick up the audience voices as well, which may be for the best. Although ClarisWorks and AppleWorks, for the Mac and Apple II respectively, were once simultaneously marketed by Apple, some audience members insisted that they were both Apple II programs. I found this a bit stunning, since their disagreement was with not only me, but fellow attendee Randy Brandt — who I think would know better!

The full video in which I present the Apple II to DAPi is available for viewing or download under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons license.

My thanks to Martin Haye, Peter Neubauer, Steve Weyhrich, and Andy Molloy for their help in preparing the slideshow. I hope I did my bit to evangelize the Apple II and spread awareness that it is alive and well. If nothing else, the presentation gave me an opportunity to connect with some of the kindest and coolest Mac users this side of the Continental Divide.