A Little App Called ‘FlyLab’ Running on My NeXTstation

Last week was Back To School Week at r/Retrobattlestations. The challenge was to photograph your vintage computer running an educational program of some sort. For this one, a rather obscure little app that I ran across when first loading up the NeXTstation that I acquired in 2000 came to mind. FlyLab by Robert Desharnais of California State University, Los Angeles. It is a genetics application that visually conveys inheritance through mating pairs of flies with configurable traits, sort of a fly construction set. The app really stood out for me because it is an ideal demonstration of what NEXTSTEP could bring to education, and its interface a model of the strengths of the NeXT Interface Builder development tool.

FlyLab_NeXT

Desharnais and Melvin Limpson of the American Physiological Society developed a variety of NEXTSTEP applications as part of CSU’s Virtual Courseware Project, funded by CSU as well as major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In response to an email I sent at the time of my Back To School Week submission, Desharnais shared a bit of history surrounding FlyLab. A portion of his email follows.

FlyLab on NeXTSTEP was my first major app written for that platform. I did create a few more NeXTSTEP educational apps before NeXT went under. I love your NeXTstation! Brings back fond memories.

FYI, FlyLab begat a number of progeny. It’s son, Virtual FlyLab was a web-based server-script that went online in July 1995 and was very popular. In 2001 Virtual FlyLab begat a Java version called FlyLab that was part of a commercial product (Biology Labs OnLine) marketed by Pearson Ed, but is now available on our servers for free. Then came the great-grandchild called Drosophila, also free, which was developed using Flash and has lots more bells and whistles. Drosophila is currently being used in lots of colleges and high schools. The app bred like, well, fruit files.

It’s nice to hear the backstory of this little app that stood out to me way back when. I have searched online and cannot find an FTP archive hosting FlyLab, but will dig through my NeXTstation’s filesystem and try to find the original archive I downloaded (sixteen years ago…) to post shortly. It does little to bolster my personal illusion of youth to realize that my early retrocomputing endeavors are, themselves, becoming retro.

UPDATE (8/28/2016): I have tarballed FlyLab.app (v1.0.1) on my NeXTstation and placed it online for anyone interested in playing around with it on their NeXT workstation or perhaps under Previous, the NeXT emulator. (I do not believe it is a Multi-Architecture Binary able to run under NEXTSTEP for PA-RISC, SPARC, or x86.)


A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

Posted in NeXT, r/Retrobattlestations | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Computer Printout Photo Album from 1986

I got such a positive reaction from my last post about the 33 year old recovered photos of my first home computer setup that I became motivated to finally get a photo album I had spoken of in an earlier post photographed and online to share.

Back in 1986/87 I filled a few pages of a (physical, not digital) photo album with color printouts generated by the computers I owned at the time. One page is a printout from my Apple IIe that was equipped with an ImageWriter II printer, while the rest of the came from the computer that replaced that IIe, an Atari 520ST that sported an Okimate 20 color, 24-pin, wax-transfer printer. The IIe image is a crack screen and the ST images were mainly taken from Compute!’s Atari ST magazine + disk. I recall buying the magazines month-to-month at the grocery store a mile from home in Newport News, VA shortly after we moved to that town. I was 14 years old at the time.

I’ve photographed each page of the album containing a printout and placed them in a Flickr album. (The rest of the album is filled with photos taken while visiting friends at other colleges as well as a photo-chronicle of my 3,500 mile round trip drive (over a weekend…) to the College of Santa Fe, to do with a long-distance relationship gone south. Oh, to be young and to feel love’s keen sting…)

Have a look inside:

the_album

As I mentioned earlier, one of the images was the very first GIF (#softG) that I ever saw. I hope you enjoy this little bit of digital-to-analog computer graphics history I’ve been able to share.

Posted in Apple II, Atari, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

33 Year Old Roll of Film Offers a Glimpse of My Vintage Computing Beginnings

film_roll_bwI got my first home computer on Christmas morning in 1982. It was a TI-99/4A with 16K of RAM. In the years that followed, I moved on fairly frequently to a new system, selling the old to fund it. I was doing basically the same, with less frequency, when I started building a vintage computer collection back in 1999. It was then that I began re-acquiring systems that I knew and loved from years past as well as certain systems that I badly wanted way back when but were much too expensive at the time.

Collecting configurations that I have previously owned gets me thinking and writing about those original systems. It’s this sort-of reliving of the experience of using those systems for the first time that is perhaps the most satisfying facet of this, my hobby. As such, I value any photographs that I have of those original setups. Sadly, I lack photos of most of them, having owned them in the days long before everyone started packing a pocket internet machine / GPS / camera. On visits to my parents’ houses I would spend considerable time poring over myriad boxes and binders of photos, looking for any undiscovered visual records of the systems of my past. I found a few, but not many. And in searching I found a number of rolls of undeveloped film.

I found a roll of 35mm film from the early 1990s and had it developed locally. The quality was weak after all those years, but it did give me a photo of my second Macintosh, the Mac LC. The rest of the undeveloped film that I found weren’t rolls but discs. Three rather older discs, holding unknown photos taken in the mid-1980s.

disc_4000Discs? In 1982 Kodak introduced a series of consumer-oriented cameras that used disc film which consisted of a disc of film offering 15 10x8mm exposures, contained within a squarish, plastic case. The film and the cameras that used them were thin and convenient for the day, but the image quality left much to be desired and ultimately it was not a highly successful format. I received a Kodak Disc 4000 camera (the mid-tier unit) for Christmas 1983 and used it for several years, taking photos of family, friends, and whatever else … including my computers.

Now, the disc film format died long ago and you can’t just walk into a CVS or even a Ritz Camera and get a disc developed. In fact, there are only one or two remaining places in the country that are equipped to develop disc film. One of them is the Rocky Mountain Film Lab in Colorado. Back in 2012 I sent two discs in to the lab for development and was told that they wait to accumulate a certain threshold of disc film development orders before running them through a development process that involves a special chemical mix geared towards getting the most out of very old film. A year passed with no news, but when I found a third undeveloped disc I sent it in to add to my order. There was no word from the lab for three years, despite a few inquiries, and I came to feel there was little hope of ever seeing what might be captured on those discs (not to mention development fees paid). On just arriving home from a week at the beach, however, I found a package containing three disc film negatives along with two CD-ROMs waiting for me.

With fingers crossed and in great suspense, I popped the CDs into my iMac.

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Posted in Apple II, Atari, Just Rambling, TI-99 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Showing Off the Atari SC1224 for “CRT Week” at r/Retrobattlestations

st_CRT

Earlier this month it was CRT Week at r/Retrobattlestations. There are many CRTs in my vintage computer collection, but for this contest I focused on the one that has the sharpest display of any 15kHz RGB monitor I’ve ever seen, the 12-inch Atari SC1224 made by JVC. Aside from its sharpness and clarity I love the industrial design of the unit, and it’s part of one of my favorite systems, the Atari 520ST.


A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

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Gearing Up For Proper BBSing With the Raspberry Pi

modem_iconA few recent retro challenges I’ve undertaken had me wanting to spend a bit more time logged in to BBS’s strewn here and there about the web. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time on BBS’s over the years, nearly all of it long ago on systems that we today consider to be vintage. As such, I wanted to use just such systems to explore BBS’s that are online today, and that means telnet access. Unfortunately, my normal approach to setting this up, using my iMac to bridge an older system to the internet via serial connection, is presently broken. Apple completely redid the USB stack in OS X El Capitan and in so-doing broke the drivers for all of the various USB-to-serial adapters I have on hand. I needed to find another approach, and so I looked to the Raspberry Pi.

I ran a quick search and found that Keyspan USB-to-serial adapters work under Linux with the proper firmware. I downloaded the firmware and installed them on my Pi Model B laptop, which is equipped with WiFi. I dug out a serial cable, several gender changers, a DB9-to-DB25 converter, and a particularly hard to track down null-modem converter, I wired the lot together, and fired up my Amiga 1000. After getting getty properly configured on the Pi (with some help from @pdweinstein, whose Apple //c serial terminal adventure inspired me to start turning everything I owned into a serial terminal), I loaded up NComm on the Amiga and … voila, the Amiga became a serial terminal to the Raspberry Pi. A few keystrokes later, I was logged into @FozzTexx‘s Level 29 BBS, bbs.fozztexx.com.

As you can see from the short video of the adventure I put together, the Pi laptop easily sits on top of the Amiga’s monitor. Previously I had been running a long serial cable from my iMac on one side of the room to whichever system I wanted to use as a serial terminal. With this Pi laptop so configured, I can just walk it over to whatever vintage machine strikes me at a given moment, attach the Pi, and get onto the BBS’s in the appropriate fashion. My laptop Raspberry Pi has found its role and it’s nice to have easy access to BBS’s on proper hardware once again.

Posted in Amiga, Multi-Platform | 2 Comments

A Look Back at Three Decades of Word Processors

A few days ago I was running through twitter when I saw Peter Cohen (@flargh) link to a blog post he had written about distraction free writing and the focused simplicity of a 30 year old word processor. Reading the article, I began to reflect upon the word processors I have used over the past 35 years and it inspired me to write a little about a few of those that stand-out in my mind. (I should underscore the fact that this post is not meant to be a look at the overall evolution of the word processor, but a look back at my own experiences over the years.)

TIwriter1

TI Writer on the TI-99/4A (1983) — My first computer, the TI-99/4A, was nice for games and educational programs, but wasn’t the ideal word processing platform. Wanting to start using a word processor for my school reports (6th grade), I made the obvious choice to go with TI Writer, a combination cartridge and disk program that output to a printer tied to the RS-232 interface card (if you had one). The TI could only generate a 40-column display, but TI Writer delivered a virtual 80-column page that could be viewed using a left, middle, and right panning window — a bit cumbersome, indeed. I had a Smith-Corona TP-1 daisywheel printer hanging off of that board’s parallel port and became one of the very first kids in my class to hand work in done on a home computer. (Screenshot shows the first 1/3 of the 80-column sample document I created for this post.)
word processing icon
Apple Writer II

Apple Writer II on the Apple //c (1984) — My next computer was the Apple //c which I got right after it launched in early 1984. And it had 80 column text! The go-to word processor at that time was Apple Writer II, which was simple but functional — a dream compared to TI Writer! I had an Apple ImageWriter printer for output. (Screenshot shows a document I recently found on my 32-year-old Apple Writer II data disk.)
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Posted in Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Remembering the Opening of the First Apple Store, 15 Years Later

Tysons Corner Apple Store OpeningYesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the opening of the first Apple retail stores, one at Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Virginia and one at the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, California. Together the stores saw nearly 8,000 people and $600,000 in sales during their opening weekend.

The Tysons Corner store was the first to open (VA is three hours ahead of CA), and my wife and I attended the event. With my trusty Apple QuickTake 200 digital camera in hand, I waited in line for an hour and fifteen, captured a gallery of (low resolution) photos of the opening, purchased a semi-translucent blue and white Epson printer (which nicely matched my G3), and headed home to write up the event for MacRumors.com.

My write up is still online at MacRumors (here), but is more readable as captured by Internet Archive (here), with the full post “Read More…” (here).

By the end of 2001, Apple opened 25 more stores within the U.S., and here 15 years later, there are presently 478 retail stores worldwide, across 17 countries (268 of them are within the U.S.). Apple Stores are a huge success and contributed in no small part to moving Apple from “beleaguered” to “most valuable company on earth.” On the opening day, however, there were plenty of doubters.

Bloomberg ran a piece on May 21, 2001, entitled Commentary: Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work. Within, various sources prognosticated failure and doom for Apple’s excursion into retail.

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The ‘Real Genius’-Inspired BBS Challenge

Regular readers will have noticed that I have frequently joined in on the fun of r/Retrobattlestations‘ weekly and monthly retro challenges. I’ve done so with such frequency that I recently had to create an r/Retrobattlestations post category on this blog. These competitions, setup by /u/FozzTexx, generally involve firing up various types of retro computing hardware for a photo or maybe completing a programming challenge, the winners receiving a set of retro computing stickers and sometimes Reddit gold.

WarGames_RealGenius_stickers

Recently, things have gotten even more interesting. Back in March there was a challenge that involved dialing into a BBS using an actual telephone modem. The prize was an amazing looking WarGames multi-layer vinyl sticker crafted by Chris Osborn (@FozzTexx) himself. More recently there was a challenge that required a bit of sleuthing, in which Chris posted a video, inspired by the film Real Genius, containing a certain clue that led to a series of actions that may or may not have resulted in your correctly reporting the number of Frito Lay entries Lazlo Hollyfeld submitted to win the grand prize collection. I jumped down the rabbit hole on this one and made it through to the other side. I got the sticker, and the above photo shows the outside door to my basement “Byte Cellar” decorated with FozzTexx’s lovely multi-layer vinyl stickers.

I’d encourage anyone reading this post to come by r/Retrobattlestations and see what’s going on. It’s a rather fun little, nicely dusty, corner of the ‘net.


A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

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KFest Funk Gonna Give It To Ya!

I get closer and closer to attending KansasFest every year. All the after-reports I hear on the various retrocomputing podcasts I listen to confirm it’s the ultimate blast for a hardcore Apple II fan.

I was talking about it with my wife the other night, when my 10 year old daughter asked me what it was like. She asked if the people there are the same “old men that just like to talk about old computers all the time, like you,” that read this blog. This comment made me wonder whether or not she had a handle on just how cool an event KansasFest is and, by extension, those in attendance. So, I did a quick YouTube search to try and find some footage that would set her straight. Right away I found just the thing.

As soon as it began, she seemed to be utterly in awe. During the entire video she was uttering “Oh my god. Dad! Oh my god!” Overwhelmed, just two thirds of the way into it she powered the iPad off. After a moment, I asked her if she now understood that KansasFest is the coolest of gatherings. She just looked at me, apparently unable to express the strong degree to which she indeed understood.

We haven’t talked more about it as yet, but if I do attend for the first time next year, I think I know someone who’s going to be begging her dad to bring her along!

Relevant Link:

Posted in Apple II, Just Rambling | 3 Comments

Computers Are Funny (Or Were…)

I have started a new photo microblog of sorts over at Tumblr, and if you’re reading this site, you may find it of interest. It’s called Computers Are Funny, and I thought I would give readers a quick heads-up. From the new site:

During the ’70s and ’80s computers were new and novel. This prompted many computer magazines of the day to include a comic here and there in their issues to poke fun at / help diffuse the cryptic, even daunting, nature of early computers. This site is an effort to get those little (sometimes painful) gems in front of eyes that may have missed them the first time around.

I have so many different periodicals of that era sitting on my shelves that I thought it would be a fun and perhaps worthwhile effort to snap a few photos as I’m leafing through them, to share with the internet.

compsrfun

(Bonus points if you can tell me who the cartoon avatar is, at the top of the page!)

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