Ode to a Mid-2010 MacBook Pro

My MacBook died yesterday. Shit.

It wasn’t a full-on, catastrophic death, the kind with no backup and fire and smoke and no hope. It was more of a long goodbye. I replaced the battery last fall, the third battery in its almost five years of heavy use. It looked like the battery was holding a full charge, an app saying it had low cycles and high milliamp-hours. But it would lose a few percent per minute, and then would get down to about 20% and power off with no warning.

I thought this was one of those background-process-sucking-power things, like some damn Adobe vampire lurking in the shadows, constantly pinging home and scanning every file on the hard drive. I tried killing everything imaginable, and then tried a fresh install, zapping the NVRAM, resetting the SMC. After a 24-hour marathon of file copying and reinstalling, it died on 90% battery.

I bought this computer in 2010, in the spring. I jumped on board right on the first day of the new model, when the first i7 Macs appeared. I remember this well, because it was right after I switched jobs and left Samsung, so I worked in Palo Alto. I was in a funk, writing-wise, trying to pull back out of a long stretch of not doing anything except writing every day about how I could not write.

I drove to the Apple store in Palo Alto on my lunch hour to buy the computer. They had them in stock, and $2500 later, I had the top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro. I took it back to my cube, unboxed it, snapped photos, and took a quick look. Then it sat on my desk while I stared at it, waiting until the end of my shift for my long commute back to the house. Then I plugged it into my old Mac, and did the eternal wait for the migration assistant to slowly slurp all of the files from one hard drive to another.

This was both exciting and sad. I had an unusual attachment to my first Macbook, one of the 2007 white plastic not-Pro Macbooks. I wanted a new laptop bad, but wasn’t working that summer. I was sitting on a bunch of junk after we moved to Denver, though – things I could easily dump on eBay. There were years of bachelor-mode acquisitions ripe for the picking: collectible coins, old electronics, DVD and CD box sets, and a bunch of barely-used gadgets and trinkets. I spent the first part of the summer unloading all of this on eBay, making sales and watching auctions and driving to the Denver post office to ship off boxes and packages to far-off buyers around the country. The PayPal balance grew, and by the end of June, I got within target, and orderedd my new machine. I then watched the tracking number, as the machine left China, went to Anchorage, and then jetted down to Colorado. I loved that machine, and it went with me everywhere. It also represented that odd, brief period of 2007, a period of nostalgic landing I always want to visit again.

That machine got quickly retired for its more powerful aluminum unibody sibling. And by the fall of 2010, I started working from home, and got a lot more serious about writing. I can’t thank the machine or the schedule, but launched into a new mode of writing and publishing. And that machine was at the center of all of it. Since I got that MacBook Pro, I’ve published five books (plus republished another) and probably written a half-million words, easy. I also used it for a lot of photography, video, music, and other work. It’s been a real workhorse, and I’ve become very attached to it over the last four and a half years.

That Mac has held up well, all things considered. It did have the dreaded NVIDIA curse, though. That was the first model with a discrete video processor on the logic board, a second GPU that it could switch to for heavy processing, or shut back off for better power use. And a lot of the machines had bad failures. Mine started to crap out a few months in, and ended up getting two logic board replacements, along with a battery replacement because of a recall issue. I doubled the memory, and moved to an SSD. But otherwise, the machine ran well, and lasted longer than any other laptop I’ve had.

I managed to bring that thing everywhere, too. It went to Europe twice; the Midwest a bunch of times; work trips to New York; Hawaii; a bunch of trips all over California. I got a lot of writing done on the road, because I used it as both my desktop and portable. It got scratches and scuffs, but that aluminum case kept it together, and still looks decent.

The battery thing was the kicker, though. I don’t even know if the battery itself was bad, or if it’s another logic board flake-out. It’s still a decent machine, CPU-wise, although the lowest-end MacBook Air now benchmarks higher than the 2010 top-of-the-line. It didn’t have USB3 or Thunderbolt, and had the slower SATA bus, so the SSD drive didn’t work at full speed. I also could not increase the RAM any more than 8GB, and it would not mirror its display to an Apple TV. I seemed to get in at exactly the wrong time, when all of these technical innovations were showing up. It was a great machine, but it was starting to show its age.

After yesterday’s death, I gave up, ran to the Apple store, and bought the latest MacBook Pro Retina. I went down to the 13-inch model, which feels insanely light and small compared to the old one. I’ve spent the last day porting things over, and it’s such a huge improvement in speed. Plus it’s got USB and Thunderbolt, and gigabit ethernet, and the Retina display is insanely nice. Most importantly, I’ve been working for an hour now, and the battery is just down to 97%.

So, start of a new era.  And PSA: BACK UP YOUR MACHINE. Go get a CrashPlan account, drag your important stuff to Dropbox, and get an external drive.  Get two, they’re cheap.  Now, on to the next era of writing with this new toy.

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Apple TV

So last night, as an early anniversary present, Sarah got me the new Apple TV.  Not the rumored buy-a-whole-TV-from-Apple Apple TV, but the third-generation set-top box from Apple.  My first impression is that this is an interesting little piece of machinery, and will largely replace my first-gen Roku, plus do a whole lot more.

The Apple TV is a very minimalist piece of hardware. It’s black, not much bigger than a hockey puck, and has no markings or logos other than a low-visibility logo on the top, and a light on the front that isn’t visible when it’s not illuminated.  The back has jacks for power, ethernet, HDMI, optical audio, and a mini-usb that is for “service use only,” whatever that means.  Other than the dust cover on the optical audio jack, there are no moving parts; it does not contain a mechanical hard drive or a fan. The whole thing is very low-key.

That’s the weird impression I get about a lot of Apple hardware and software. You plug everything in and think “ok, now what?”  And then suddenly, it becomes irreplaceable, because it Just Works.  That’s the way the iPad was.  I got it, fired it up, and thought, “okay, I have a web browser and all of my phone’s apps on a big screen.  So what?”  And then a week later, I was using it constantly, for everything. It’s the big appeal of ubiquitous computing; there’s no dazzle or show, but it’s something that’s always there, and totally utilitarian.

So, what’s it do?  Well, I plugged it into my TV, and when it fired up, it asked me how to connect to the internet.  I’m out of ethernet in my living room, so I pointed it to my wireless router.  (My first minor complaint is having to type in the password with the remote arrow keys on an onscreen keyboard, but that’s what I get for not having a wireless password of ABCDE.)  Then it asked me for my Apple ID and password, which is what I use to buy content on iTunes.  And then, main menu.

The obvious use for the Apple TV is for consuming content you’ve purchased within the walled garden of iTunes.  So if you’ve bought movies or TV shows or music in iTunes on your computer, or your iPad or iPhone, you can navigate the menus on the slick interface and see all of that stuff, and stream it to your TV.  The unit does not store any of the content on the box itself.  (It does have 8GB of SSD storage that it uses for buffering/caching, but those details are hidden away to the user.)  Of course, if you’re living in some rural outback shithole with a 56K modem, this is an issue, but for me, it isn’t. All of this works fine, and of course you can do stuff like peruse the iTunes store from your living room, and click on things to rent or buy them.  Part of the reason for doing all of this is to make it easier for you to throw money at Apple with very simple clicks, and this part, of course, works very well.  And any of your purchases here are added to your Apple ID, so when you go to your iPad or iPhone or MacBook, you’re going to have the same purchases available.

There are a number of other non-Apple streaming services available from this menu.  The obvious is Netflix, and if you’re already paying them, you can log in and stream all of their stuff.  There’s also MLB.TV, Vimeo, NBA TV, Flickr, and the biggest win for me, YouTube, which was not available on the Roku.  I spend a lot of time watching obscure UFO conspiracy theory documentaries on YouTube, so I will now be able to watch them on the big screen.  The one missing feature, for obvious reasons, is Amazon.  That’s a huge one, since we use Amazon Prime, but the PS3 offers that now, so all is not lost.  Another minor quibble is that there isn’t a way to add any channels.  I don’t know why I miss this feature though, because the Roku has it, and has a million channels to add, all of them being garbage.

The big feature that is not as obvious is that the Apple TV will stream whatever is in your iTunes library.  This means that even if you never bought a single thing from Apple, you can still stream all of the stuff you’ve ripped or stolen off the internet, from your computer to the TV.  This is big for me because I rip a lot of my DVDs so I have crap to watch on planes. Once the Apple TV found my laptop on the local network, I had a catalog of movies waiting for me when I plugged in.  Also, a lot of comedians have been doing this Louie CK model of a $5 downloadable concert, and I have all of those sitting in iTunes, ready to roll.  My former CD collection, which is now all ripped and sitting on my hard drive, is also available. Also, iTunes works as a conduit to iPhoto, so I can look through all of my pictures on my computer on the TV.

The other interesting thing is AirPlay.  Basically, the Apple TV acts as an AirPlay receiver, and any iDevice that supports AirPlay or has a program that does can pipe its output to the TV.  This is an extremely freaky and endlessly useful feature.  For example, if I’m sitting in the living room with my iPhone in hand, looking at a baseball game in the MLB At Bat app, if someone hits a home run or whatever, they will post a recap video.  I press play, but I click a little AirPlay logo and choose my TV set, and suddenly, I’m watching the video in 42″ glory, instead of on the tiny screen.  A bunch of games and apps support AirPlay, and will pipe their audio or video to the Apple TV.  This is also cool if you have the Apple TV plugged into a receiver, so you can use your stereo’s speakers as an output destination for audio from your computer or iOS device.

What gets even more mind-blowing is AirPlay mirroring.  If I’m on my iPhone, I can mirror my entire display to the TV wirelessly, regardless of what I’m doing.  The one downer to this is that the only device I currently have that supports AirPlay mirroring is my phone; neither of my laptops or my first-gen iPad have the GPU power to do this.  But it’s interesting, because if for example, I had a company that was an all-Apple shop, I could put an Apple TV on a projector in a conference room, and when a presenter needed to connect, instead of fucking with cables and adapters, they could just beam their stuff right into the projector.  (And of course, this is password-protectable, so your neighbors can’t suddenly shoot pornos at your TV at three in the morning.)

Like I said, this thing comes with a remote, and it’s a tiny piece of shit IR thing that I will probably lose in a week.  If I was smart, I could reprogram my all-in-one that drives my DVR so it would also work the Apple TV, but I’m lazy.  Luckily, there is a free app called Remote that I already have on my iPad and iPhone, that enables me to use them as glorified remote controls.  So when I have to search for something on the TV, I can use the keyboard on the iPad to do it.  (I suppose I could also bluetooth in my real keyboard to the iPad, like if I had to type a dissertation into the Apple TV, but I’m not there yet.)

All of this works perfectly and is an entirely disruptive technology if you’re using all Apple devices and have a bunch of crap in iTunes.  If you prefer registry fondling and DLL conflicts to usability and getting work done, I have no idea if the Apple TV plays well with the Windows version of iTunes.  And I’m certain there are some hidden DRM nightmares that prevent you from doing certain things, although the system seems perfectly capable of taking torrents you pirated off the web and playing them in 1080p glory.  (Not that I would ever do that, Mr. MPAA intern scouring the net for possible lawsuits.)  If you have philosophical issues with iTunes, cloud computing, wireless networks, and not owning physical copies of media, this isn’t for you.  But for me, it’s an almost perfect solution.

There are some minor issues, like the lack of an app store or method of adding channels.  The Apple TV uses the same processor as the iPhone, and a customized version of iOS, so I would suspect some kind of app store in the future, with the ability to add games and whatnot.  (There have been some jailbreaks for the first and second generation that enable you to do some freaky stuff like this, but nothing for the new version.)  Or maybe the philosophy is to keep the platform as just a receiver, and focus on iOS and Mac apps that use AirPlay.  There’s huge potential for kick-ass games that use AirPlay as the main display and your iOS device as a controller.

Anyway, it’s a cool little present.  Now I just need to go buy a new iPad to get mirroring to work.  Maybe that’s how they’re able to sell these things for so cheap.

 

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What happened to hypercard?

Hypercard was released 25 damn years ago.  Has it been that long?

Back in college, I spent a lot of time screwing around on the Mac, and there were certain programs that welded that old-school 68K Classic Mac experience in my mind.  One of them was Aldus PageMaker, which was the desktop publishing program of the day. This was in the very early 90s, in the days of DOS and WordPerfect 5.1, when the most advanced publishing work you could do on the WinTel side of things was using italics.  But the Mac had this funky and advanced program that enabled you to create page layouts and cool newsletters and even newspapers.  I saw many a journalism student slaving away on those old black-and-white Apples with the tiny grey screens, tweaking layouts and dumping fantastic publications to postscript printers.  I later learned PageMaker by doing the last issue of my old zine Xenocide in it, spending months tweaking page borders and reflowing columns.

The other program I messed with endlessly was HyperCard.  This was something included on all of the old Macs, and it was incredibly interesting to me.  Basically, you created a stack of cards, and each card could have a mix of text and clip art graphics on it.  But you could also plop controls on the cards, like links or text boxes.  You could then hook up those controls to link cards to each other, or do other freaky stuff like run scripts.

This sounds pretty pedestrian compared to what we do daily on the web.  And it sounds disturbingly like PowerPoint, which is probably one of the most evil things created in the business world. But back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, these concepts were absolutely revolutionary.  And even better, the interface to HyperCard was not that intimidating.  If you could make basic art in MacPaint or write a paper in WordPerfect, you could easily create a HyperCard stack.

I remember spending a lot of time at work creating a choose-your-own-adventure game using HyperCard.  I forget exactly what it was – I think it was a game about trying to score drugs on a college campus, and you could click on various pictures to move around.  It wasn’t exactly as sophisticated as the Zork series, but it was something I could do at work, under the guise of “learning more about HyperCard.”  I never learned much about the scripting language, but I did work with some people who did pretty sophisticated stacks.  The system was widely used by education majors, I guess to develop learning tools for kids.  I guess the original Myst on the Mac was written in Hypercard, each of the worlds a Hypercard stack, interlaced with heavy-duty graphics and audio, presented with custom plug-ins.

Like I said, the web came along, and HyperCard more or less vanished.  It was one of the products developed by Claris, which was spun off from Apple and then later re-merged.  The last version of HyperCard came out in 1996, but it was one of the projects killed by Steve Jobs after his return.  You could run old versions for a while, but it did not survive the jump from OS9 to OSX.  You could get it to work in Classic emulation on newer systems, but it only worked on PPC Macs.  On today’s Intel-based machines running later versions of OSX, it doesn’t work at all.

Its one big legacy on the Mac is that the HyperTalk scripting language was adapted and added to System 7, and called AppleScript.  It’s still around in modern versions of OS X, and is even more interesting, now that you can run unix commands from within AppleScript.  It influenced the development of HTTP, JavaScript, and Ward Cunningham said the whole idea of wikis goes back to using HyperText.

To me, HyperCard was always a bit of a missed opportunity.  I think it would be very easy for casual users to create HyperCard stacks and then use some kind of tool to push them to a web site; it would potentially be easier to create high-quality interactive web sites with something like that.  There are probably many programs that you could buy to do that, but none that come with your operating system and follow its UI paradigm.  It would also be great to develop mobile apps.  I could see creating a stack, testing it out on your computer, then pushing it through a compiler and shooting out a binary that could be run on a phone or tablet.  You couldn’t write the next Skyrim that way, but for simple stuff, like interactive kid’s books or multimedia guides, it would be great.  Same thing for interactive books on the Kindle or iPad.

I know you can do all of these things with XCode or by hand or whatever, but there’s something about the ease of use by a non-programmer, and the availability on every Mac, that make this a different paradigm.  There are some conspiracy theories that Jobs killed Hypercard in order to solidify the division between creator and consumer.  I don’t know if that’s true; I think he killed it because Apple had eleventy billion disparate things going on when he returned, and none of them were getting the company closer to profitable hardware sales or a decent operating system.  It’s too bad we don’t have something like this anymore.

 

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I’d hate to be a piece of furniture in Steve Ballmer’s office this week

The Mac App Store launched Thursday, and Herman Miller stock went up two points in anticipation of all of the chairs Steve Ballmer has probably been throwing at people this week.  There’s no way the sweaty-pitted Microsoft CEO isn’t beating his middle managers like red-headed step-children after the news came out that people downloaded a million apps in the first day, with 10,000 apps available at launch.  The Mac App Store changes things in ways that people in Windowsland cannot even contemplate, although when Win7SP2 launches with the MSFT half-ass attempt of the same concept, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the greatness, just like we’ll hear about how great judicial advocacy is from Teapotters that have railed against it for the last two years when they need it to keep Guantanamo bay open.

The Mac App Store changes things in a big way, both good and bad.  Back when I got started in this industry, if you wanted to write and sell an application for a Mac (or a PC), you rode your dinosaur to work, hired a bunch of people to put your crap on floppy disks and into boxes, and then either sold it yourself in your local computer stores (kids younger than 20: imagine a Best Buy with only a computer section, that didn’t suck), or you got your retail boxes dumped into the channel and flushed out to big stores and catalogs.  (Catalog: a paper version of Amazon, but it took 4-6 weeks to get your stuff.)  Then the internet happened, and people sold software on web sites, where you somehow sent money and either got a download or got a CD-ROM sent to you through the pony express for later installation at your own leisure.

But if you had this great software package, you had this huge list of problems.  Gotta set up a web site.  Gotta get a shopping cart system in place.  Gotta take credit cards and get a merchant account and whatever SSL nonsense your ISP wants you to get.  Or, gotta bend over and spread for PalPal’s cut of the vig.  Gotta find a way to have a download center that isn’t just at widget.com/dontlookhere/dl/product.zip so the first person that buys your crap doesn’t just spam the magic link to the world and let everyone download.  Gotta come up with come crazy system of software enablement, serial numbers you type in and send securely, whatever obfuscated nonsense you need to keep the world from just emailing your ZIP file to all of their friends.  Gotta find a way to drive traffic to the site.  Gotta find a way to get people to return to the site for upgrades and new versions.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to consider, and either every software reseller reinvents the wheel, or you join some tribe or cabal or commune or collective or whatever else to use one common set of machinery for everyone’s releases, and you pay for the privilege.

So now you avoid all of that.  Pay Apple a hundred bucks to join, upload your DMG file, and you’re in a searchable, centralized catalog of apps.  When a new Apple user fires up their iMac for the first time, there’s a pretty little icon to click that brings them to a huge store filled with games and productivity apps and stuff people can click on without scrambling for their credit cards or signing up for yet another e-merchant account that will probably eventually get hacked, with your password and Visa number and home phone ending up in a torrent sent out to every script kiddie in the world.

There’s also the issue of central maintenance.  When you have to push out a patch, you don’t spam out emails, and you don’t have to write complicated code to beam back to the mothership and check if the latest version is installed on the user’s PC. You tell Apple you have a new version, and let them do the dirty work.  And when a person bricks their MacBook or spills juice in their iMac and has to go get a new machine, they just plug in their username and all of their apps magically download again.  There isn’t a two-month process of trying to remember all of the crap you installed, or a weekend-long backup and reload on an external drive or a pile of DVD-Rs.

Yeah, there are downsides.  You’re paying Apple that hundred bucks, and they’re also skimming 30% of the take on your sales.  But do you know how much banks take from mom and pop companies on merchant accounts?  I’d tell you, but there are like 79 different surcharges and monthly fees and address verification fees and machine rental fees and every other nickel-and-diming the banks can think of to hit you with.  That 30% erases a lot of headaches.  And compare it to how much of a discount you’d give in channel sales, and it’s not a bad deal.

There are all of the “walled garden” arguments you’ll hear from the Microsoft camp.  You’ve heard the same arguments since the App Store showed up on the iPhone, although you haven’t heard as many of them since Windows Phone 7 adopted the same exact strategy for their app store.  And you probably won’t hear much more about it after that Windows 7 Platinum Home Deluxe SP2 Zune Marketplace shows up in the next rev of their OS, providing the same exact walled garden, albeit with a lot of the wall’s pieces removed to appease any of the big software makers that balk.

I think by the fall, everyone at every point of the food chain is going to try to launch their PC app store.  Amazon’s probably brewing one; I’m sure all of the hardware manufacturers like HP and Dell are going to have a long, painful meeting this Monday where some idiot who has never installed software in his life but can wear a mean tie and gets all of the ZDNet headlines beamed to his Blackberry is going to pitch their genius idea to launch their own bundled crapware app store on their new computers.   App stores will be the add-on toolbar of 2011, just like they were for phones in the last 18 months.

Another argument that is a plus and a minus is what the hell this will do to pricing.  People are now used to paying 99 cents for a game on their phone, so good luck on putting your desktop game on the App Store for $79.99.  Sure, you can trim down that price a bit because you’re not paying $47 a copy in merchant account fees to Bank of America.  And your game is some one-gig DVD release and not just a two-screen screen-tapper you wrote in a weekend.  It’s going to cause unbundling of suites, like Apple is doing with iWork and iLife, where people will only buy the apps they want, at a lower price and a smaller download, instead of buying a full package of apps on a DVD.  I don’t know what the magic price point will become, although I’m guessing people will be less apt to buy a $99 app and more willing to pay something like $19 for Real Apps and $4.99 for games and entertainment.

I just got the update and installed the App Store, and gave it a quick drive to download the new Twitter client.  No problems, no surprises.  I haven’t bought anything yet, but when I get a free second (which will be in like June) I will probably hunt down the latest versions of some of the older registered payware/shareware I have, just to make the next update easier.  All I can tell you now is, I’m glad I’m not working at a hardware manufacturer that’s probably going to go on damage control and require all of its R&D center employees to waste a lot of their free time generating stupid powerpoints re-selling an already done idea.  Also glad I’m not driving across the 520 bridge every morning to potentially have a 57-pound Aeron chair thrown at my head.

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River of stress

I continue to stress out over the move.  I have two painters coming over today for quotes on patch/paint on the old place to get it ready to sell.  I have no news and no commitment on when we will get keys for the new place, so I’m now putting together the contingency plan so that when on Friday they tell us, “oh, maybe next Friday, or the one after that” I can scramble and try to reschedule the dozen things that will happen in the next few days.

I bought a KVM yesterday, a DVI one and the adapter I need to hook it up to the new work laptop.  I’m currently dragging both computers and my four-million-pound 20″ LCD monitor to the kitchen table and working there.  I’ve started using the LCD in portrait mode, because it rotates 90 degrees, and I find it pretty helpful while writing and editing.  I can open two full-page views, one on top of the other, or one really long page, and avoid a lot of scrolling.  I’d like to do this from now on, although my monitor stand is slightly shaky like this.  I’ll be glad to have the KVM – I currently keep the mac running, mostly to run iTunes all day and to keep my mail open, and I have it sort of behind my other computer, so I have to look around to see it.  I work the music with the remote, and that’s fine, but when I do look at the mail, I have the bad confusing habit of trying to move the pointer with the wrong mouse until I realize what the hell I’m doing.  I’ve thought about one of those systems where you can hang multiple displays on one set of input, and can drag windows from the Mac to the PC or whatever, but I’m sure they all involve some form of VNC that will bog down machines or require jumping through network hoops that I can’t deal with right now.

I also found a NeXT VMware image at http://osvirtual.net/en/nextstep-3-3-with-drivers-vmware/ and fired it up yesterday in Fusion.  I got it to work with no real problem, except I’d forgotten about a lot of the weird quirks about the NeXT interface.  And I think a lot of the allure of it back in 1991 was probably that it was a generation ahead of everything else out there, and it ran on the cool black hardware.  I like the idea of a NeXT cube, but I think clunking along on a 25 MHz 68030 is probably not ideal.  Back when a Mac IIfx was a speed demon and cost you $9000, the NeXT was a steal.

I just went off on a browsing tangent, reading about the IIfx.  It’s weird, it was the fastest Mac until the Quadra AV came out in 1993.  And in 1995, I had the Centris version of the AV at work (the Centris 660AV) and I had the same machine when I went to WRQ in 1996.  And in both cases, they were already doorstops at the time.  Like I remember when MP3s were first starting to become popular, and I downloaded some MP3 ripping software and popped a CD in the player (actually into the required caddy, and that into the player), and it took roughly two days of running day and night to rip the 9 tracks.  There are times I romanticize old hardware, but then I remember how clunky the stuff was back in the day, and I’m not as fond of filling up my storage space with it.

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System emulation time machine

I’m always talking about time machines, touchstones that launch you into nostalgia for some forgotten era of the past.  There’s one that I mess with that’s infinitely more detailed than any other, and it’s system emulation, which was once just a vague dream and is now huge and all-encompassing.

I guess it all really started in the 80s, when you could get the box for your Intellivision or Colecovision that played Atari 2600 games.  And that was a kludge, because it was nothing more than an actual 2600 that hung off the side of your existing system, so you basically used your Mattel power supply, joysticks, and connection to the TV to play Atari games.  Then the Commodore 128 had a Zilog Z80 CPU in addition to its 8502, so you could boot into CPM mode, which was great except none of us cared about CPM or running ancient crusty old office productivity software.  Later there was a lot of talk about the Amiga being able to emulate the Mac or run as a PC with external hardware, but I never knew anybody that really did this.

Fast-forward maybe ten or fifteen years, and I’m in the period when I’m firmly planted behind a desk in cubeland and want to relive the days of 1985, so I’m scouring eBay for a good Commodore 64 and 1541 and maybe an Amiga 500 or decent Atari 2600 setup.  And I’m spending my spare time browsing all of the web sites out there for 8-bit computers, now that there’s a whole world of freaky Finland hackers posting all of this crazy stuff on the interwebs that’s knocking loose the rust in my brain and making me remember to SYS 49152 after I load some ML at #C000.  And around then, some people started writing software that ran in a modern Pentium computer that would emulate the C-64 or the 2600 or any other old machine.  Because by then, you add all of the overhead involved, but you run it on a fast PC, you’ve pretty much got a 6510 running at 1.023 MHz.  The other major factor is that nobody can even keep track of who the hell owns Commodore these days, so there aren’t a bunch of cease-and-desist lawsuits over the ROM images, and a ton of the games are floating around.  That’s the other great thing: in 1985, you spent all day waiting for your 1541 drive to slowly load in that Zork game.  But now, a complete ISO of a 170K SS/SD floppy is smaller than the image of a rounded corner on a web page.  You could go download a thousand games at a clip and barely spike your bandwidth.

And this is truly amazing to me.  Because you can look back at some old era and look at a posed photo that’s two-dimensional and unmovable, or listen to a tape of some audio of an old song or an old conversation, and that partially captures a moment.   But this is trapping an exact bit-by-bit representation, a living and working version of the same environment you basically lived in decades before.  It’s like being able to download some magic thing that would recreate your college dorm room down to the last millimeter, every single detail and quirk and bug and problem, and you could step inside it and relive it.  I could sit at that BASIC prompt and look at every single one of the 65,535 bytes in that system, and run every old game that me and Matt Wanke would stay up all night playing back in the 8th grade.  I could load up Blue Max, the very first game I ever played on the C-64, and fly that little biplane through the weird 45-degree angled world, dropping bombs on the 320×200 terrain that scrolled past.

I spent a lot of time back at the blue and cyan screen, trying to type in some BASIC, playing some old games, and that was decent.  But what really pushed me back into the past was when MAME games started coming out.  MAME was an emulator that could simulate many of the common arcade cabinets that lived in the 80s and 90s.  Game cabinets weren’t all one-off creations; each vendor typically had some common chassis or series, so they could just pop out the ROMs from a dud game and pop in something new.  It wasn’t always that straightforward, and you had systems that mutated over time to add new features or new hardware or whatever, plus you had some games with weird joysticks or buttons.  But if you got bored of your X-Men game and wanted the Simpsons game, it was a straight switch.  And that made it easier to write a common emulator for a bunch of different ROMs.  And once I got MAME running on my laptop and started tracking down ROMs, I was absolutely hooked.  There were two games that were total time machines for me, because I spent so much time pouring quarters into both of them.

The first one was Smash TV.  Me and Ray used to play this constantly, back in like 1991.  When I went to IUSB, we never went to class, and would always drive around South Bend and Mishawaka, listening to death metal, looking for something to eat, something to do, and of course there was nothing.  So we always ended up at the arcade at University Park Mall, and we’d dump unending amounts of money into that game.  It’s basically a rehash of the movie The Running Man; a future where prisoners (in the game, the prisoner part was not mentioned) have to run through mazes killing mass numbers of robots and mutants and warriors with futuristic laser weapons in front of a televised studio audience in order to win money and prizes.  It’s a typical quarter-eater, where two guys can play, and you just shoot every damn thing that runs at you, and if you die, you just need to shell out another token to keep rolling.  The game has a lot of synthesized speech from the Richard Dawson game show host, saying “BIG MONEY!  BIG PRIZES!  I LOVE IT!”  And it’s one of those weird memory things, where I can’t remember my office phone number, but every single millisecond of this game is burned into my head so much that I can instantly repeat any of the lines or hum any of the music within it.  So when I pop it up in a window on my Mac, even though I don’t have the joysticks and have to use a/w/s/z or whatever, it instantly takes me back to those days of playing hooky and feeding quarters in a mall arcade that’s now probably a cell phone store or a place selling uggs or something.

The other game that I have memorized like this is Golden Axe.  This is a Sega ripoff of the Conan franchise (barbarian, not talk show host, although that would be a cool game too, with Andy Richter at your side dressed up as a wench, and broadswording Jay Leno in the head.)  It’s very similar to Altered Beast (also done by the same design team), a side-scroller with two (or was it three?) sets of joysticks and buttons, and you dumped in the quarters to continue.  You could be a barbarian, a dwarf, or an amazon woman (a tall Hilary Swank-type warrior, not a woman that buys a lot of books online on a Kindle.)  They had one of these in the tiny arcade in the Indiana student union, and they only had maybe five games, and all of them sucked, but this one sucked the least, so I was sort of forced to play it when I was killing time in there.  I’d rather go to Spaceport and play some Tetris or find a Smash TV console, but it was one of those captive environment things, and within a matter of time, I got hooked on Golden Axe.  I think it’s a funny game, because all of the various screaming sounds in it are too accurate and over the top.  I was playing this once when Sarah was in the next room and she came in and said “what the hell is that?  It sounds like some kind of Lil’ Jon krunk video game.”  But once again, all of those little sounds and sayings are etched into my brain, and when I fire up that ROM in a Sega 16-B cabinet emulator, I’m back to the student union in 1989, between classes and wasting time and quarters.

I thought of all of this because I was cruising around and wondered if anyone had ever installed NeXTstep in a VMware emulator, and I guess a few people have tried.  I wanted to just find someone who did the whole thing and had a VMware image I could download and fire up, but it’s considerably more difficult than that, setting up all of the drivers and crap.  Here’s a post on how to do it, though.  I think sitting at an OmniWeb browser in a NeXTstep login would be a pretty severe time warp for me.  I spent a lot of time lusting after that hardware when it first came out, and spent a good chunk of 1991-1992 trying to get some time on it.  It’s funny how fast the fall from grace was, though.  Those machines were total demons in like 1991, and by the time I got to the support center in 1993, we had a slab that was practically a doorstop, it was so slow.  But maybe if you took that awesome (in 1991) OS and dropped it in an emulator on a quad-core x64 i7 chip, it would be 5% faster than it was back on the 68040.  Something to mess with, but probably not during the same week when I have to move.

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Requiem for an iPhone

Well, my must-last-two-years-according-to-AT&T iPhone 3G just crossed the magical Apple rainbow at nine months.  It was working fine, but it started developing a crack in the back case, just above the dock connector.  It probably could have lasted another year, but I figured I would make the trek to the Apple Store and see if they would swap it for a new one, even if I didn’t have AppleCare, and they did.

First, if we’re in a recession, it sure didn’t look like it in the Bay Street Apple store.  They were wall-to-wall with people grabbing Apple gear for the holidays.  I’m curious what their actual numbers are for sales in the holiday season, and also curious if these new Microsoft stores are doing anything comparable.  Anyway, I made an appointment for the genius bar, and managed to get in at exactly the specified time.  And the swap was no hassle.  Thanks to the whole iTunes-centric backup recovery paradigm and the fact that I backed up right before leaving, the whole thing went almost seamlessly.  (Only exceptions: my WiFi and voicemail passwords vanished and had to be re-entered when I got home.)  I also sprung for AppleCare, just in case, and a new screen protector, which they installed for me.  (It’s pretty much impossible to put on an adhesive screen protector in a home with a long-haired cat, unless you don’t mind staring at a few stray cat hairs on your touchscreen for the rest of the protector’s life.)

What’s weird is that while the Apple genius boxed up my old phone and got ready to pitch it off to whatever Chinese landfill/salvage dumping ground old iPhones go to at the end of their lives, I felt slightly emotional about seeing it go.  Granted, I got an exact clone of the old model, and it even looks identical because it’s in the same old case, but I still felt slightly sentimental about seeing it go.  I think part of that is because this is one of the first cell phones that wasn’t just a vague utensil I occasionally used to make calls, but an actual fully-fledged computer that I used for a wide swath of applications within my somewhat-connected life.  I mean, I really used the camera; I listened to pretty much every Rockies game I could this season, and when I couldn’t listen, I followed along in the MLB app; I sent and read many an email; I used it as a real web browser, not a postage stamp approximation of a web browser; I found myself texting a lot more than I typically would; I even wrote a few blog posts on it.

I guess there’s always been this lack of a suspension of disbelief in my use of a palm-sized computer, either because it didn’t do what I wanted, or it had such clunkiness in what it did do.  Like, I used to have a couple of Palm OS non-phone devices, and while those were decent phone books and occasional game machines (mostly Dopewars), there was a big line to be drawn with all things connected, because there was no way for me to surf the web or read emails on those things.  Yes, you could attach on some giant pack the size of the actual device and sort of use it as a crappy cell phone, and maybe run an email program that barely worked, but there was a pretty hard stopping point in the usefulness of these machines, and it was clear that I would also need to carry a cell phone and a laptop to be semi-functional in the field with these.

I guess now we’re truly reaching this age where we can have a palm-sized computer that can really run apps and really do things and because of that, I feel the same kind of emotional (and somewhat stupid) bond I feel toward some of the primary computers I have in my life.  I mean, when I finally kicked to the curb my entirely obsolete PC that was my primary writing machine from 1991-2001,  I felt a bit of remorse to see that beige rectangle go to the garbage, even if it was fully useless even as a doorstop by the time it went in 2005.  There were many good memories of that thing sitting on my desktop as I chipped away at various books.  And I felt the same kind of nostalgia as that tiny black piece of plastic and glass (which probably had more CPU and memory than said PC) got sent back to the void.

And a side note, iPhone wise – I was tapping away while standing in line at Taco Bell, and curiously got a WiFi connection and didn’t know why.  Then I realized I was standing next to a Starbucks, which has an AT&T hotspot, and at some point I logged in at a different Starbucks, and the new magical AT&T hotspot connector mojo worked without interaction.  That sure beats the old days of having to enter a thousand characters of login info, including a password you can never use or remember.

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iPod, CD binging

This iPod is incredible. It’s a great experience to have a big plurality of your music collection with you at all times, in a tiny little box as big as a deck of cards. And it’s great to listen to everything on shuffle, hearing old favorites next to new CDs next to things I cherished ten years ago but haven’t heard in ages because they were on a compilation CD buried somewhere in my apartment. I’ve been ripping CDs nonstop, and I’m barely filling up the 20 gigs of space. I’ve got about six gigs on there, and another gig or so of stuff I’ve ripped today.

I went to Best Buy today, the new one in Chelsea. It was a minor pain in the ass because there wasn’t an N/W train running to Manhattan, so I had to get on the 7. Then I got on an F, and it took me right to the door of this new place. The whole store is actually underground, and it’s big for a store in Chelsea, although it’s probably one of the smallest Best Buys I’ve been in. I went on a CD rampage, and here’s what I got:

  • CKY – Infiltrate, Destroy, Rebuild
  • CKY – Volume 1
  • Twisted Forever – A Tribute to the Legendary Twisted Sister
  • Iron Maiden – Powerslave
  • Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind
  • Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time
  • Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden
  • Orgy – Vapor Transmission
  • NWA – Greatest Hits
  • Green Day – Kerplunk
  • Dead Kennedys – Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

The Iron Maiden CDs are all the new “full cover” versions, with shitty bonus tracks available as multimedia only. I should’ve bought them all five years ago when they were in the cool Castle reissues with a bonus CD in a brilliant box, but I’m an idiot. I don’t have any of them on CD – all of my old Maiden stuff was on vinyl. The CKY is new to me, but I really like them a lot – I first heard them in the Jackass movie. The rest of the list were impulse purchases or stuff that was at a good price, so there you go.

I also picked up a copy of The Sims for PS/2, not really knowing much about it except that a lot of people like it. I played it for an hour or so this afternoon, and it is a total pain in the ass. You have to tell your dude what to do: eat, crap, bathe, watch TV, learn stuff, pick up the house, etc etc. If you don’t do stuff, your meters go down. For example, if you don’t talk to other family members, your social meter goes down. If you don’t watch TV or listen to the radio, your fun meter goes down. And you never, ever have time to do everything. So basically, it’s like real life. And I can’t manage to keep my own house clean or eat three square meals a day, so there’s not a chance I can do it on the computer. Despite this, it’s hard to put down. Go figure.

OK, gotta get out of here and get some stuff done.

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