The legacy of Adam Rosen

February 3rd, 2020 9:22 AM
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A Massachusetts-based Apple II user recently reached out to me to ask where he could locally donate some aging software and documentation. I came up with a short list of potential recipients, including Adam Rosen of the Vintage Mac Museum, home to over a hundred classic Apple devices.

It was then that I belatedly learned that Adam had passed away on August 31, 2019, from pancreatic cancer; he was 53.

I'd met Adam only once, at a launch party for a proposed Boston-based retrocomputing museum known as the Digital Den, where I snapped photos of Adam and his many machines. We had both known of each other — he of his museum, me of Juiced.GS — and we were pleased to finally make each other's acquaintance. I didn't know that would be the first and last time we'd meet.

David Pierini of Cult of Mac called Adam "one of the biggest Mac fans ever". "Apple museums have popped up all over the world, but none with the quirky love that filled the rooms of Adam Rosen’s Massachusetts home," wrote Pierini. "Adam Rosen was happiest standing over an old Mac computer, all pulled apart with wires sticking out and components scattered across his kitchen table." You can hear that happiness from Adam himself, when the Retro Computing Roundtable interviewed him way back in episode #33 (September 2012).

Adam is gone before his time, but his computers live on. His collection has been donated to the American Computer and Robotics Museum of Bozeman, Montana. In Massachusetts, these machines were privately stored and visible only online; in Montana, they will be available to the public, starting in the fall of 2020.

I'm glad that a home has been found for these Macs — but the collection will be incomplete without Adam. His passion is what brought it together and kept it alive. I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to know him better.

WPI's potpourri list

January 6th, 2020 2:04 PM
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My first salaried job out of college was teaching 11th-grade tech writing. The high school was run by my undergraduate alma mater, WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), which gave me access to all the college's facilities and resources.

It also meant I had a wpi.edu email address that was subscribed to various internal mailing lists. Some of those lists were for the administration to make announcements that would affect all employees. Other lists — like all-staff — were not so moderated and were used liberally by anyone on campus for any purpose… especially to sell things.

This was 2004, almost a decade after Craigslist was founded, yet employees of WPI found it easier to use the campus as their marketplace. Anytime anyone had anything to sell, from cars to Red Sox tickets, they would broadcast an email to all faculty and staff. Waves and waves of employees hawking their goods — and interested parties accidentally clicking "reply all" — were inescapable.

For me, the final straw was the email offering pellets for a pellet stove. I'd already scheduled a meeting with the school's IT department, so I tacked onto the agenda a brief discussion about what I saw as abuse of this email list. It was a friendly conversation, as I recall the IT staff being as exasperated as I was. But they pointed out that the volume of for-sale emails demonstrated interest in using the list in this fashion, and they didn't want to shut down that tradition without providing an alternative outlet. Would it be another email list? Would it be opt-in or opt-out? Would it be reasonable to point WPI's less tech-savvy employees to the school's Usenet newsgroup dedicated to this purpose? These questions went unanswered in my two years as an employee.

That was 14 years ago. At some point since then, WPI finally solved this problem. Their news office recently published this reflection on their solution:

It needs no introduction (but we’re giving it one anyway). It’s an automated legend, known for flooding email inboxes from Goddard to Gateway and beyond. It’s where you can find an antique record player, a pasta roller, vintage video games, and hot tubs, all in the course of a single afternoon. You know it, you love it, or you just might want to be unsubscribed from it.

It’s Potpourri.

The news article goes on to describe the sort of things you can find on the Potpourri list:

here’s nothing quite like logging into your email on a Monday morning and sifting through the latest Potpourri offers. You never know what you’ll find: some days it’s bat boxes, bikes, and weighted blankets; others feature requests for graphing calculators, Commodore or Apple II computers, or mercury (this is WPI, after all).

It's unlikely a school as cutting edge as WPI still owns or operates Apple II computers, but given the interests and longevity of its employees, I'm not surprised that their personal retrocomputers might pop up on Potpourri.

If only I'd been around to see it! Even I could've tolerated the occasional stove pellet if it meant some rare Apple II gear. I hope WPI's current employees appreciate the growing pains that led them to this opt-in bounty.

The Appleworks of Harvard, Mass.

September 16th, 2019 11:27 AM
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I've lived my entire life in Massachusetts, having often driven or cycled the roads between Boston and my hometown to visit family. One particular path to my cousin's house has always brought a smile to this Apple II user's face.

AppleWorks is many things: it's a word processor; it's an environment in which I spent twenty years building my portfolio and honing my craft; it's a legendary Apple product that Quality Computers got the rights to upgrade; it's a program from a company with a complicated history; it's compiled from source code we'll almost certainly never see.

But in the small town of Harvard, Mass., it's also a company.

Appleworks post sign

Bold move, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off.

I've driven by this sign many times — you can see it from the road on Google Maps.

For decades, I've wondered how this company has retained its name, especially given how boldly it hangs its shingle. Apple is infamously litigatious, and any company that overlaps with the computer manufacturer's industry would be susceptible to a threat to change its name, which Steve Jobs would consider no big deal.

Has the AppleWorks business held the name since before the Apple II existed? Was it a publishing company or computer repair service? If not, why would the owners name it Appleworks? Were they taking inspiration from being two towns over from Johnny Appleseed's hometown?

After years of wondering these questions, it wasn't until I sat down to write this blog post last night that I finally got the answer: Appleworks isn't a business; it's a place. It's the name of the strip mall that houses the Siam Pepper Thai Cuisine restaurant whose website gave me the clue I needed, listing its address as "Appleworks Building, Harvard, MA".

At first, this revelation felt anti-climactic — but now I'm free to drive by this building, smile, and rest easy that it's an unlikely target for Apple legal.

A VisiCalc time capsule

June 10th, 2019 12:56 PM
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When I was in sixth grade, my class created personal time capsules. We took various pop culture artifacts, put then in a shoebox, and then applied newspapers to decoupage the assembled work. There was no coordinated effort to bury the capsules, though — we brought them home and did whatever 11-year-olds do with completed homework, which in my case was shove it under my bed. It's still there, and the decoupage didn't permanently seal the box, as every few years, I open it to paw through what I thought was important thirty years ago.

Or, actually, what was unimportant: I couldn't imagine parting with anything I actually valued and bequeathing it to unknown citizens of generations hence. My capsule instead consisted of newspaper comics, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and other random gadgets I wouldn't miss. It wasn't the most representative selection of the time.

Architect Frank Gehry did a better job of preserving 20th-century history in a time capsule donated to MIT. Its contents were assembled in 1999, a mere twenty years ago. It was meant to remain sealed for another fifteen years, but its creator locked it with a cryptographic puzzle that would've taken the computers of his era ages to unlock, whereas today's machines made short work of it.

Regardless, he did a much better job than I did in selecting artifacts of value. The contents of the time capsule were already old when he chose them, such as the user manual for VisiCalc, the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was invented by Dan Bricklin, an MIT graduate, so its inclusion in the capsule was of local interest as well.

Unlocking the time capsule.

The capsule's other contents would also be of interest to Apple II users. They included a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the Altair, donated by Bill Gates, who attended the 1999 ceremony in which the capsule was originally sealed. Altair's BASIC was Microsoft's first product, laying the foundation for the company to later create Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II.

In sixth grade, I plenty of Apple II paraphernalia that would've been right at home in a time capsule. It never occurred to me to include any not because I thought it was insignificant, but because it was too important for me to part with. The Apple II was a computer I used daily from 1983 to 1997, and via emulation ever since; I was too selfish to sacrifice some aspect of it for historical preservation.

Fortunately, nowadays we can have our artifacts and preserve them, too. Microsoft BASIC's source code has been released; the VisiCalc manual has been scanned; heck, even VisiCalc itself is available for download from Dan Bricklin's website.

But you can't digitize a Happy Meal toy, so maybe I didn't do so badly, after all.

(Hat tip to Jesus Diaz)

Retailing the Apple II

December 31st, 2018 2:29 PM
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There's a lot to say about the history of the Apple II — and, thanks to writers like Steve Weyhrich, much of it has already been said. Some of it even originates in my own backyard, such as the creation of genre-defining software titles VisiCalc in Zork, which happened right in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to MIT and Harvard.

But what about the local names that don't make the history books? Especially retailers? They're the ones who directly made computers available to the masses, equipping homes and offices with these new inventions. What was it like to be one of those early salespeople who had to convince customers of the utility of a machine that was entirely without precedent?

That's a bigger question than can be answered in a humble weekly blog post — but it's one that's brought to mind after stumbling across this photo, taken exactly forty years ago last month:

B&W photo of businessman in store holding Apple II peripheral

I originally found this photo published with this caption:

Joel Skolnick computer store manager in Cambridge, Mass., displays a memory board of one of the many functions an Apple II computer can do which is shown on screen. November 15, 1978 (AP Photo / David Tenenbaum).

That's not a very descriptive title: "computer store manager". But it turns out Mr. Skolnick is still alive and well in the area, and a quick visit to his LinkedIn profile reveals that he was the vice president of finance for a business called… Computer Store. Huh.

The history of Apple II retail is a potential Juiced.GS article in the making, and one for which Mr. Skolnick would certainly be a primary source. In the meantime, enjoy this photo of Computer Store of four decades ago.

Spectrum's origins

May 8th, 2017 8:27 AM
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I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately. He's the one who introduced me to the Apple II and enabled (if not supported) my BBS and CompuServe habit when I was in grade school. I made those online connections with ProTERM, which was 8-bit, but I was eager to switch to an application that took advantage of our Apple IIGS. I eventually got it when, after many delays, Seven Hills Software released Spectrum.

My dad didn't use the telecommunications aspects of our computer; his only application was AppleWorks Classic, with which he maintained the financial records of the family business. All he knew about Spectrum came from whatever I mentioned.

One day, my dad asked me if I knew that Spectrum was based out of our home state of Massachusetts? I was bewildered by this remark: Spectrum was a product, not a company, and it was developed by a European programmer. I doubt my dad was referring to Seven Hills Software, the Florida publisher whose name I'd had no reason to mention to him and which I doubt he would've remembered from the credit card bill. But Dad insisted that, while driving through the next town over, he'd seen a billboard advertising Spectrum.

Once he mentioned the billboard, I knew what he was talking about: Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts-based organization that offers counseling and recovery services. Sure enough, they had advertisements in some of the rougher parts of town.

Spectrum Health Systems

My dad had an odd sense of humor that often relied on teasing or on playing dumb to mislead people. I never found out if he sincerely thought my Apple II program had come, out of all the places in the world, from a nearby city, and that he would be the one to inform me of it — or if he was playing some harmless but humorless joke.

It's not something I ever begrudged my dad, but it was such a weird exchange that, even decades later, it's left me wondering: what was he thinking??