The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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Filed under History, Musings;
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I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.

Developing Retro Roundup

September 11th, 2017 12:11 PM
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Last week, I officially launched Retro Roundup, a curated RSS aggregator of retrocomputing news.
Retro Roundup banner
Or rather, re-launched: Retro Roundup was founded in 2005 by Kevin Savetz, who approached me this past February about taking over the site. While keeping the same purpose and logo, I rebuilt the site in WordPress, adding taxonomies, email subscriptions, and more. After several months in development, it was finally ready to demo during the KansasFest 2017 lightning talks.

Those talks were two months ago, yet the press release announcing Retro Roundup was published just last week. What took so long?

The problem was that Retro Roundup didn't have a defined end state. Unlike Juiced.GS, which has concrete deadlines resulting in a finished quarterly product, Retro Roundup will never stop growing. The more RSS feeds I add to it, the more content it will publish. How many feeds and how much content are enough to launch a website?

I was reminded of the development of Duke Nukem Forever, a video game that took 15 years to publish. The developers didn't have a roadmap for what the game would look like when it was done; as a result, they kept adding new levels and features and scrapping old ones to be current with the latest technology, which was advancing apace with the game. But every product is outdated by the time it launches — at some point, you just have to declare that it's met its goal and release it.

In my case, I thought I was done Retro Roundup in April — until I showed it to my librarian friend, Michele DeFilippo. She suggested I add "facet searches", which was not a term I'd ever heard, though I was familiar with the functionality: almost every e-commerce website offers parameters and filters to narrow search results. Adding this feature to Retro Roundup made the site infinitely more useful and usable.

Then I thought I was done — until a month later, when I attended WordCamp Portland, and met Scott Tirrell, a fan of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, on which I'm an occasional guest. I showed him the site, and he enthusiastically offered many more suggestions — from adding a search box to including YouTube channels among the site's feeds.

With such great feedback, I could've kept working on Retro Roundup indefinitely. What pushed me to finally release the site was Kevin plugging it on episode #45 of the ANTIC podcast (38:51–41:53). Listeners of that podcast immediately flocked to Retro Roundup and began submitting RSS feeds. Even before I knew how they'd discovered the site, I realized that I couldn't keep this cat in the bag any longer. So I spent a day off from work adding dozens more feeds to the site, many of which I'd solicited months ago on Facebook, before deciding I'd met some arbitrary, minimum quantity of content.

Despite this milestone, there are still more feeds and features to add. Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop was the first to use the "submit an advertisement" form, which I'd somehow overlooked in my testing. I was appalled by the results; an hour of my Friday night was spent bringing it up to spec. And a developer who contributed essential functionality to the a2.click tool is even now working on code that will make Retro Roundup even more usable.

Before last week, I had only two retrocomputing websites: Apple II Bits and Juiced.GS. I hope the former entertains its readers, but it's primarily a personal outlet; while the latter is in support of an offline product. Retro Roundup is the first retrocomputing website I've built that I would call a resource for the community. I've learned scads about WordPress and project management during its development. I hope it is found equally rewarding for its users, who will discover new sources for retrocomputing content, and for publishers, who will see new visitors being sent to their site from Retro Roundup.

Apple II cameo at Computerworld

September 8th, 2014 7:49 AM
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When I quit my job at Computerworld almost two years ago, I left the company on good terms. Though that's true of every job I've ever had, Computerworld is unique in allowing me to continue my professional relationship as a freelancer, contributing reviews, interviews, and feature stories. As a result, I've been more prolific since leaving than I was during my tenure there. As a salaried employee, writing was not in my job description, so my byline never affected by bottom line. Now, each successful pitch results in another paycheck, which is a powerful motivator.

The downside to that arrangement is that stories that would've been published when they were "free" (minus the time and effort of the professional editors I worked with) may get passed over when there's a fee associated with them. That's why you saw KansasFest coverage at Computerworld 2007–2013 but not in 2014 — the enterprise IT and Apple II crowds overlap only so much.

Nonetheless, I inadvertently worked the Apple II into my latest story for Computerworld. Apple II Bits is powered by the content management system WordPress, which I've been enthusiastically using and supporting for eight years. When WordPress 3.0 came out four years ago, I reviewed it for Computerworld — so it seemed a natural fit to revisit the topic in my new capacity as a freelancer for last week's release of WordPress 4.0.

My WordPress 4.0 review was submitted with screenshots of the WordPress backend taken while I composed the Apple II Bits blog post "Maniac Mansion design notes". I hadn't been thinking that, with Computerworld's own recent rollout of an entirely new design and more visual CMS, they'd need to use one of these images on the homepage. And so it was that a screenshot of LucasArts' 1987 classic point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion graced the homepage of Computerworld.com in 2014.

Maniac Mansion at Computerworld

IT LIVES

The image appears in the article itself but remained on the homepage for less than 24 hours, as screenshots are generally too busy to effectively advertise homepage content. The art director quickly crafted a more representative banner for WordPress and substituted that. But for a brief moment, the Apple II again had its place in the Computerworld sun.

Building an Apple II games database

August 18th, 2014 6:48 PM
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Whenever I've blogged about Brian Picchi, it's been in the context of the games he's made, such as Retro Fever or Deadly Orbs. But his latest undertaking is more meta and Sisyphean: a database of every 8-bit Apple II game.

The list, most recently updated on August 12, 2014, currently indexes the title, publisher, developer(s), year of publication, and media for 2,160 titles. The data are culled from such sources as MobyGames, GameFAQs, YouTube, and wikis

"It started both as a project Alex Lee and I were talking about, and because I was just curious as to how many Apple II games there are," said Picchi in an email to Apple II Bits. "Every site I had seen had under 1,000 games listed, despite claims of several thousand by other sources, including Apple."

But the database's value is in more than just verifying or setting records. "I also thought it might be helpful because I hear lots of people asking questions like 'What was that game from my childhood I can't remember, I know it was in an issue of Microzine?' or 'How many games supported Mockingboard?' or 'How many games did Sierra release for the Apple II?'" continued Picchi. "The list is available to anyone who wants to use it for any purpose." Anyone who wants to contribute to the database may do so via Google Docs.

As a metadata junkie, I'm excited to see so much information being compiling and to consider how much more can be added. Data such as game genre, additional assets such as box art, and links to related resources, such as Virtual Apple II or the Internet Archive's Console Living Room implementation of JSMESS. Picchi agrees: "I'd love to see it built into something like http://www.c64.com/ where you search for the game, can view screenshots, download it directly, etc."
Games databaseCollecting so much information is only half of this vast undertaking, with organizing and presenting it being another. The database is currently implemented using TablePress, one of my all-time favorite WordPress plugins. It's a powerful tool, but one that is ultimately limited in how much data it can associate and present with a single software title. The database may be better served by creating a Content Post Type, which would allow the definition of fields and attachments unique to this database.

The end result would be exactly why I was briefly enrolled in a Master's of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program: I love collecting and organizing information but lack the programming skills necessary to structure and host such vast quantities of data in a useful, meaningful way. But one thing I've learned about Picchi from reading his Juiced.GS article is that he's constantly expanding his boundaries, mastering new languages and platforms. Could WordPress be next? If so, it will be to the benefit of Apple II gamers the world over!

Resurrecting Athletic Diabetic

September 9th, 2013 5:49 PM
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When Ryan Suenaga passed away in April 2011, I was made acutely aware of the need to have a digital proxy — that is, someone who can make decisions about the continued existence of my digital footprint, much as my healthcare proxy can decide whether or not to pull the plug on my organic life. More recently, Google also saw the wisdom of such a backup, having introduced the Inactive Account Manager — but my data extend well beyond Google, and I wanted such security years before Google thought to go there. That's why I established a secure contingency plan of someone who will acquire all my passwords and data in case of an emergency, but not before.

However, that doesn't help Ryan, who had no reason to expect he'd not be managing his own data for years to come. Tony Diaz stepped in and managed to acquire backups of several of Ryan's sites. I too picked up some of the pieces Ryan left behind, one of which was ryansuenaga.com, the registration of which Ryan had let lapse within his lifetime; paying that particular bill hadn't seemed a priority to him. With the help of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, I restored it.

Today, I'm relieved to bring another of Ryan's sites back to life. This past summer solstice, one of his former domains became available. I wasn't at my computer the moment it was released — fittingly enough, I was out for a bike ride that evening — but the domain was secured for me by proxy bidding service NameJet. I waited the requisite two months before transferring the registration to my preferred hosting company, DreamHost, then asked Tony if he had a backup of the original WordPress site. He did. After cleaning hacked files, updating plugins, disabling comments, and changing administrative contacts, Athletic Diabetic is once again available:

Athletic Diabetic

This blog is meant to share information from my personal experiences dealing with diabetes and exercise. I’m a medical social worker who not just works with diabetics, I am a Type II diabetic. I’ve lost over 80 pounds and counting since 2002 and have completed century (100 mile) bike rides and a marathon. I’ll be relating my experiences and research in both the diabetic and athletic arenas through this blog.

I hope you enjoy yourself here!

All 439 posts Ryan wrote between Apr 4, 2009, and April 19, 2011, have been restored to their original URLs.

In the grand scheme of life, what I've done doesn't amount to much — but the quality of the thing doesn't always matter. As Ryan would say: a site that exists is better than one that doesn't.

Moving forward with retro goals

May 23rd, 2011 12:21 PM
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Earlier this month, Mike Maginnis outlined some of his Apple II goals. It was an excellent call to action for Apple II users to outline what they want to accomplish with or contribute to the Apple II. It was a reminder for me to look at the bigger picture, as I otherwise find it easy to get lost in the day-to-day concerns of my neverending goals:

  • • Write one blog post every Monday and Thursday for Apple II Bits
  • • Produce one episode a month of the Open Apple podcast
  • • Publish one issue per quarter of the last remaining Apple II publication in print, Juiced.GS
  • • Help organize (and, ideally, present at) Apple II convention KansasFest annually

Having recently completed a master's degree, I should now find myself with copious free time, right? For the moment, let's assume there's some truth to that theory. My ambitions should thus fill it with the following goals, listed in order of their relevance to the Apple II:

Convert the Juiced.GS index to Zoho
Last July saw the online release of a comprehensive index of Juiced.GS's back issues, with every volume, issue, article, and author cataloged by Mike Maginnis. The tool used to present this data is wonderfully powerful and versatile, but it was not designed to handle this quantity of data and is already straining under the issues published thus far.

As we move forward, it will become more important to migrate this index to something like Zoho Creator, a free tool that I've experienced expertly handling Computerworld's review database. Unfortunately, the interface for designing such a database is arcane and has resisted my initial attempts at deciphering.

Learn PHP
I enjoyed programming on the Apple II but rarely since; languages such as C++ and JavaScript just haven't proven as fun or accessible as Applesoft. I still retain knowledge of programming concepts and structures, though, which has proven useful, especially in my blogging career.

I currently run sixteen WordPress sites, not counting various testbeds, all of which are built in PHP. I've been able to modify that code as necessary, but to actually understand the language and even write original code and plugins would prove immensely useful, allowing me to publish about the Apple II and other topics with more freedom and rigor.

Besides, PHP is a useful, modern asset to have in one's portfolio. Through my participation in the Boston WordPress Meetup group, grad school, and even community theater, I've been offered multiple Web design projects in the last three months, despite having never marketed my services in that area. It could be potentially lucrative to professionally develop those skills further.

Learn Inform 7
Text adventures are in vogue these days, spurred in part by Jason Scott's documentary on the subject, Get Lamp. More directly, I enjoyed presenting a Parsely adventure at KanasFest 2011, and then attending a PAX East session on programming in interactive fiction. The presenters of the latter, Jason McIntosh and Andrew Plotkin, made the language of Inform 7 seem an easy an intuitive way to write original text adventures, so I picked up a book on the subject. Even if I don't learn the language well enough, or lack the creativity, to write the next award-winning IF, I hope to at least be able to knowledgeably present on the subject at KansasFest 2012.

That's my to-do list. What's yours?