The history of Maxster

April 6th, 2020 2:28 PM
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This summer marks twenty years since I released Maxster. Enough time has passed that I can finally tell the true story of its development.

It was July 2000 at Avila College in Kansas City, Missouri, and I was attending my third KansasFest. HackFest had debuted two years earlier at my first KansasFest. Having entered and placed each year, I wanted to continue the streak. My toolkit was limited to Applesoft and Spectrum's scripting language, but I'd learned that creativity and earnestness counted for a lot at HackFest. All I needed was an idea.

As a college junior, I was aware of how popular Napster was for allowing my classmates to pirate free music. I wasn't a fan myself, but I understood the concept enough to get how it worked — and to know that it'd be impossible to implement on the Apple II.

It was the perfect project. And I knew just what to name it: Maxster, after Juiced.GS founding editor and HackFest judge Max Jones. (I wasn't above a little blatant flattery.)

After a few hours of Spectrum scripting, I had a "working" prototype. I'd downloaded a few songs, such as Weird Al's "Albuquerque" and They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul", and converted the first seconds of each into the rSound format used by the IIGS. If Maxster was asked to search the Napster network for these songs, it would "find" them and play a preview. Otherwise, Maxster would announce the file was unavailable, presenting a randomized list of users who had the MP3 but who were offline at that moment.

My presentation of Maxster had to seem authentic, though, which meant putting it online. This was in the days of dial-up ISPs, and I didn't have one with a Kansas City node. So without detailing what I needed it for, I asked my roommate Geoff Weiss if he could hook me up. He generously allowed me to use his connection, providing my demo the soundscape it needed.

When I debuted Maxster to the KansasFest community, they were wowed — more than I expected them to be. My delivery was completely deadpan, as I thought I wouldn't need to wink at the audience for them to know there was no way an Apple IIGS could download and decode even five seconds of an MP3 that quickly. (This was before Vince Briel's A2MP3 card.) Yet everyone seemed stunned and excited by what I had done.

Maxster logo
When I ended my talk and was met with applause, I grew concerned. I'd actually bamboozled everyone — something I never intended! I was a fraud. What if an actual Apple II program was overlooked because of my deception? As the time for judging approached, I grew more and more nervous.

Finally, the judges completed their deliberations, and HackFest founder Eric Shepherd took the stage to announce the winners. He'd just begun to address the audience when I sprang to my feet.

"Wait!" I blurted. "Can I talk to you privately?"

"Sure," a confused Sheppy said, following me out into the hallway.

Once we were alone, I confessed. "It's not real. Maxster, I mean. It doesn't actually do any of the things I claimed it did."

Sheppy smiled at me like I was an idiot. "We know," he said, much to my surprise and relief. "There's no way it could've done those things."

Mollified, I went back into the room to hear who the actual winners were. Somehow, despite my admission, Maxster was still recognized: I'd come in second place. The judges' announcement made no hint of the program's true nature.

Audience members' reactions were diverse. Geoff said that he'd been trying to figure out during my presentation what the TCP/IP connection he'd given me was actually doing and had correctly deduced that "it just sat there, doing nothing". I thanked him for his role in my deceit.

Greg Nelson proved a champion of a different sort. "You were robbed!" he exclaimed. "Your program was very impressive; it should've come in first."

Confused, I wanted to ensure Greg and I were on the same page. "Greg, what is it you think my program did?" I asked. He recited back to me everything I'd said and shown during my demo. When he was done, I again had to reveal the truth: "Greg… My program didn't do any of those things." Greg's reactions swiftly ran through perplextion, confusion, and amusement, ending with "Well, you should've come in first anyway, just for the convincing delivery!"

That October, Juiced.GS reported:

Second place went to Ken Gagne, who entertained KFesters with what appeared to be a Spectrum script that downloaded and played the first few seconds of MP3 music files.

In reality, the script turned out to be a spoof of the popular MP3 programs on the major platforms (Napster on the PC and Macster on the Mac). Gagne called his program Maxster (named after Juiced.GS publisher and HackFest judge Max Jones?) and displayed a working script that had all the appearances of real program.

Apple II News & Notes said of HackFest:

Special recognition to Ken Gagne for his incredible hoax named "Maxster" that had audience members puzzled, stunned, and rolling in laughter. Ken gained second place.

In a later Juiced.GS's response to a letter to the editor, Max wrote:

Placing second this year was Ken Gagne. You may remember that Ken burst onto the HackFest elite scene during Y][KFest with the way-cool program Maxster (named after yours truly). Ken's Spectrum script created the illusion of an MP3 player for the IIGS, and his presentation took on the air of stand-up comic rather than programmer.

Unbelievably, that was not the end of Maxster. Three months after that memorable KansasFest, I publicly released a version of Maxster that anyone could run. All the rSound files had been included in a compressed script, which not only streamlined the package but also obscured the source code; no one could see what was actually happening under the hood. And two months later, I updated this version to fix a bug Jeff Blakeney had reported that prevented "Albuquerque" from playing.

In July 2001, the Napster network as it was then known was shut down, allowing me a graceful out to say that development of Maxster has been permanently halted. Still, it remains one of my proudest (and most surprising) contributions to the Apple II community.

To commemorate the occasion of this story, I am for the first time releasing the Maxster source code. I've created a new page on this site that archives all my software, including Maxster, so anyone can fool their friends like it's the year 2000.

Anyone who would like to continue development of Maxster to support more songs is more than welcome to do so.

A profile of Wolfenstein's Silas Warner

March 16th, 2020 12:30 PM
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Long before John Romero and company produced their 3D adaptation, Castle Wolfenstein was a 2D stealth game for the Apple II. It was the brainchild of one man: Silas Warner.

While I've long known about his most famous game, I knew little about the man himself, other than that he was also a musician and had died in 2004 at the age of 54.

Polygon journalist Colin Campbell set out to learn even more, interviewing Warner's widow, Kari Ann Owen. The resulting profile, "The man who made Wolfenstein", is a fascinating look at Warner, Muse Software, Wolfenstein, Robot Wars, and more.

Castle Wolfenstein
Campbell drew on a variety of sources for his research, from memorial pages to Silas Warner to previous interviews in now-defunct magazines. One such source was Silas Warner himself: he spoke at KansasFest 1992, and an audio recording of that presentation is available. I'm glad Campbell found this piece of history and was able to incorporate it into the profile.

But what if he hadn't? After all, audio is not indexed by Google, so depending on how Campbell has searched, he might not have found it. And once he found it, he had to put in the time to listen to the recording to find the facts and quotations needed for his article.

I thought we should make it easier for future historians to find and reference Warner's presentation, so I had it transcribed. The full text of 6,827 words is now available on the KansasFest website in HTML and text formats.

My thanks to Campbell for spotlighting this important figure in Apple II and gaming history, and to KansasFest for hosting these files for Campbell and others who wish to remember Silas Warner.

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!

Mark Pelczarski & Spy's Demise

March 11th, 2019 2:07 PM
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From the IIe's release in 1983 to when I switched to the Apple IIGS in 1988, I used the Apple II primarily as a gaming machine. Many of our family's games were cracked, pirated copies, though I can't tell you where they came from — perhaps our local Apple retailer snuck them to my dad on the sly, or my older brothers were exchanging floppies on the playground. Regardless, it exposed me to many quirky titles that I may otherwise never have encountered.

One such game was Spy's Demise. As a kid growing up watching Inspector Gadget and reading Dungeons & Dragons novels such as Hero of Washington Square, I knew all about spies! (Mission: Impossible's 1988 revival and reruns of Get Smart! wouldn't come until later.) But demise? Not if I had anything to do about it!

Spy's Demise was an action game in which players navigated a spy across the horizontal floors of a building, avoiding a collision course with elevators as they vertically travel their shafts. It reminded me of Elevator Action, a Data East coin-op that my father and I would play together on family vacations.

I doubt I ever finished the game or even knew that there was an ending. Those who did get that far were presented with a hidden cryptogram and a phone number to call. What they got for their efforts, I don't know, but based on other prizes of the era offered by Nintendo or Atari, I'd guess it was a sew-on patch with the company logo.

It wasn't until researching this post that I also learned the game had a sequel, The Spy Strikes Back!, which offers a top-down view as the spy tries to avoid motion-sensing drones.

What brings these games to mind after so many years is last week's announcement of the KansasFest 2019 keynote speaker. Mark Pelczarski is the co-author of The Spy Strikes Back! and the founder of Penguin Software, the company that published both Spy games as well as many others, including Translyvania and The Coveted Mirror. Pelczarski was also a columnist for Softalk and, before that, a high-school math teacher and college instructor of computer science. His LinkedIn profile outlines his many contributions since then to education, democracy, and web development.

Today, his roles include "consulting regarding software, data mining and integrity, and web security". No doubt this expertise in online security and cryptography originated with leaving clues and secrets for early Apple II spies. I look forward to meeting the secret agent who sent me on so many missions!

Negotiating deals at KansasFest

November 26th, 2018 3:36 PM
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It's Cyber Monday, and Juiced.GS is selling Sophistication & Simplicity, Dr. Steve Weyhrich's definitive history of the Apple II. I sang this book's praises upon its December 2013 release, even going so far as to shoot an unboxing video:

What brought this book to the Juiced.GS store five years later is a random confluence of events. This past summer marked my 21st time attending KansasFest, the annual Apple II expo held in Kansas City. But for the first time in over a decade, my traditional roommate of Andy Molloy was not in attendance. I asked Steve Weyhrich if I could crash in his dorm room instead.

It was during one evening of cohabitation that my roommate and I got to chatting, the conversation wandering among all aspects of the Apple II community. What I discovered that evening was that not only had Steve received a few complimentary copies of his book, as every author is owed; he also had several dozen extra copies in storage.

If this had come to light 4–5 years ago, I would not have been in a position to do anything about it. But in the last three years, Juiced.GS has become a publisher and reseller for other Apple II entities, such as The Byte Works and Kelvin Sherlock. When I asked Steve if he'd be interested in being the third person to engage in such a collaboration by allowing Juiced.GS to distribute his book, he happily agreed.

What followed were months of emails between Steve, me, publisher Variant Press, the Juiced.GS staff, and other parties. The result was our ability to bring autographed copies of this book to Juiced.GS customers at an all-time low price — all because Steve and I were KansasFest roommates.

The Apple II community at large has long benefitted from the fruits of KansasFest, with collaborative products such as Marinetti having been born there. I'm delighted that Steve and I are the latest instrument of such happenstance.

Blogging techniques at KansasFest 2018

August 27th, 2018 9:30 AM
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Attending conventions is, for me, a balancing act. As much as I appreciate being in the audience of so many amazing panels and presentations, I don't want to be exclusively a passive observer; I like being involved and having something to give back. But if I overcommit myself, I end up being so busy that I don't find myself being present and enjoying the convention.

For KansasFest, I've struck this balance by submitting just one talk a year. It can be challenging for me to find topics to present, as I am not a software developer or hardware hacker. I've given many talks about Apple II games, but I can do so only so many times before I've drained that well dry. And I don't like talking about Juiced.GS (unless I'm also feeding everyone pizza), lest I come across as a shill.

For KansasFest 2018, it took me eight years to realize another niche I can share with the Apple II community: this blog. I've written over 500 weekly posts for this site; I teach online publishing at a local college; and I work for Automattic, developers of WordPress.com. Maybe I know something about online content creation and distribution?

So, last month at KansasFest 2018, I gave a talk, "Blogging II Infinitum".

More than 40 years after its debut, how is it there's still so much to say about the Apple II? How do we find what's new, and how do we spin it to make it interesting? After eight years and 500+ weekly blog posts, Ken still has plenty of new material about his favorite computer. He'll reveal the secrets of his sources, blogging and distribution platforms, and audience engagement techniques in this session.

A video of the talk has been speedily reposted online:

A technique I deduced from experience then had reaffirmed by the book Presentation Zen is that presentations should consist of three delivery media: the speaker; the slides; and the handout. The above video includes the speaker and slides but omits the handout. KansasFest attendees received a PDF that not only compiles the resources mentioned in the talk but also outlines an invaluable writing exercise taught in college graduate programs.

That free PDF is now available to subscribers to this blog's email newsletter. Just sign up today and, once you've confirmed your subscription, you'll receive a download link. You can unsubscribe at any time. (If you're already a subscriber, you've received your download link in a separate email.)

I love being involved — but not too involved — in the Apple II community. I hope these resources help you explore further ways to contribute, too!