Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Apple IIgs
Originally uploaded by Camera Wences

I read a very interesting article last week about Al Rogers' Apple II word processor, FrEdWriter, or Free Education Writer. Created in 1985, this word processor was a de facto standard for years in classrooms. Mr. Rogers designed the program around a not-so-popular public domain program called FreeWriter and re-marketed with an extremely easy-to-use interface, Spanish support, and the ability for teachers to leave on-screen prompts to guide student writing. Additionally, FrEdWriter was free: users had to pay a small charge for the software on a disk, but the splash-screen tells users to feel free to make as many copies as they want and to distribute FrEdWriter freely.

I wanted to give FrEdWriter a try, so I downloaded the file. It came compressed as a bin file, as often is the case with some of this old software. The problem was that I did not have a program that would properly decode binary files on the Apple II. I did my research and decided BinSCII looked like the best program for my needs. Of course BinSCII came as an "exec" file, essentially a text file that the Apple II is able to execute to build a compressed copy of the program. Transferring the file from my Mac to the Apple IIgs ended up creating on the IIgs a document without the proper creator code, indicated in a catalog by a "$00" designation. I tried using ProTYPE on the Mac with no luck. I was able to use ResEdit, however, to change the creator code and have the file recognized as ASCII text, an encouraging sign. However, when I exec'd the file, it would throw syntax errors. Listing the program showed that the line breaks were munged. Back on the Mac I opened the exec file with SubEthaEdit. In the Remarks at the beginning of the file it specifies line endings need to be Carriage Feeds, not Line Feeds. SubEthaEdit allows you to convert all line endings to the proper Carriage Feed setting. After moving the file back to the IIgs I was finally able to exec it!

BinSCII'ing FrEdWriter

Success! FrEdWriter is a nice little word processor. It supports 80 columns, which is nice, and it comes with an on-board tutorial that walks you through using it. Although it was a challenge to get the toolset in place, it was rewarding and interesting to take a walk down memory lane and see the word processor that dominated in the education market.

FrEdWriter Title Screen

FrEdWriter is Freeware

FrEdWriter in Action

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

frogdesigner's Take on the iPhone

Robert Fabricant is the Executive Creative Director of frog design in New York City. I am a huge fan of frog design's work for Apple, which I think identified and defined frog design as a serious design firm and consultancy, and I think frog design continues to have motivating influence upon the design world. Frog design stepped in and worked with Apple to design the Mac II and Mac SE, and stuck around to design and define the Quadra line as well.

I particularly like how frog design's web site includes case studies, in which the designers identify a challenge. A challenge is an issue that the client identified in an existing product like Yahoo's redesign of Yahoo! Messenger for Vista or the introduction of a new campaign like General Electric's Picture a Healthy World Campaign. The designers then discuss the process that they went through to complete the project. Finally, the result of the project is included. Transparency is important to clients, and the process allows for mutual definition of a product or brand.

In this blog entry (why am I blogging blogs?..) Robert Fabricant discusses the technologies that have existed for a while, in the R & D labs and out in the open, that informed the iPhone. Some of the technologies were incorporated, such as web browsing, while other paradigms and uses of a mobile information device were overlooked, like SMS or an individual-based browsing interface: imagine a communication device arranged around your contacts rather than applications. The RSS abilities of iPhone 1.0 are overlooked as well, according to Mr. Fabricant. However, the iPhone is easily updated via iTunes, as Mr. Fabricant notes, and Apple seems committed for now to arranging its device interaction (think Apple TV, iPod(s), and iPhone paring with a Mac or PC) through iTunes as Apple repositions itself as an entertainment corportation as media and Web 2.0 meld.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Artificial Intelligence Programming

While poking around the Intertubes for information about AppleWorks GS, I happened upon Bob Hearn's old webpage at MIT. Bob Hearn was one of the original programmers of the Apple II program that would become AppleWorks, later renamed ClarisWorks before becoming AppleWorks again.

Dr. Hearn has available on his MIT page an application he wrote to illustrate some of the concepts in his Ph.D. thesis, "Building Grounded Abstractions for Artificial Intelligence Programming." Influenced by Marvin Minsky's "The Society of Mind," Dr. Hearn was concerned with taking the ideas from this seminal work and applying them to constructing an Artificial Intelligence system. From his thesis' abstract:

As a demonstration of these abstractions, I have implemented a simulator for “creatures” controlled by a network of abstract units. The creatures exist in a simple 2D world, and exhibit behaviors such as catching mobile prey and sorting colored blocks into matching boxes. This program demonstrates that it is possible to build systems that can interact effectively with a dynamic physical environment, yet use symbolic representations to control aspects of their behavior.

Dr. Hearn makes available the Macintosh application that he wrote as part of his thesis. Since I am a sucker for old, strange Macintosh applications I downloaded and ran it in Classic on my PowerBook. While Mr. Hearn does not provide directions, reading the abstract and having a sense of Minsky's Society of Mind theory, one can quickly understand the action that unfolds as the simulation runs.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Goodbye Alex the Parrot

The New York Times had two touching and though-provoking articles about Alex the Parrot, a 31 year old African gray parrot who lived and worked at Brandeis University with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist. Alex knew more than 100 words and could recognize colors and shapes, count, and some suggest at the end of his life came close to comprehending the concept of "zero" or "none," an extremely difficult concept.

The Times links to a great YouTube video, embedded here:

Watch until the end, where you will be presented with a menu of other videos of Alex.

Detractors believe that Alex was merely parroting (pun intended and not intended) his handlers, while others believe that Alex showed real intelligence and could provide insight into human intelligence, language acquisition, and interaction between animals and humans. Meg got a little misty when I read to her the end of Alex's obituary in the Times:

Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, she recalled, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, Dr. Pepperberg said.

ECAR and Higher Education Technology

There is an interesting article geared toward higher education at the "Inside Higher Ed" site that discusses the ways in which digitally "native" students are embracing and changing the ways in which technology is used in a pedagogical setting. This report comes after last week's release of a study by ECAR.

Chris Dede and others are mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article. Technologies such as Google Docs, social networking sites such as Facebook, and wikis are all explored as well.

Interestingly, digitally native students value face-to-face interaction and do not believe that digital tools will necessarily provide a solution in all educational settings and experiences.

Pie Man

Images from a Year - 109.jpg
Originally uploaded by Camera Wences

Then I moved on to play "Pie Man," one of the stranger old games. You play a chef who has to dodge spills and other staff in an "I Love Lucy"-esque challenge to construct pies that are coming off the conveyor belt.

I loved this game as a kid playing on my Apple ][+ but the game-play was lacking back then as I did not have a joystick. I managed this weekend to become a Master baker, building 48 pies before succumbing to spills and incompetent staff. Yummm, pies!

Robot Attack

Images from a Year - 108.jpg
Originally uploaded by Camera Wences

This weekend I spent some time playing some Apple II classic games on my Apple IIgs. It has the most excellent Compact Flash for Apple adapter in it, so I don't have to use the old 5 1/4" floppy disks.

I started by playing "Robot Attack." This game reminds me of "Daleks," the old cross-platform game based on Doctor Who and his arch-enemies. However, Robot Attack is more fast-paced because the robots do not wait for you to move before making their own move. Additionally, you aren't crashing the robots into each other, like in Daleks, but rather you are able to shoot in all directions. The game is not terribly difficult, but is definitely addictive!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

iMac Rollout 2007

iMac rollout 2007 02
Originally uploaded by Camera Wences

It is back to school time, and every year brings an update of computers at the school where I work. This year I deployed a custom-built OS X 10.4.10 Intel image on 34 iMac 17" computers. Used in conjunction with Workgroup Manager and Radmind, along with some simple shell scripts, it makes administering Macs in an elementary school (or any widespread deployment) very, very easy.

Of course I cannot take a look at every nook and cranny of every application before deploying a new build, but I have a whole school of eager testers to do that for me, and the tools that make it easy for me to make subtle updates that fix what is broken.

I deployed five of these new iMacs in the Library yesterday. I watched a bunch of fourth and fifth grade girls using them during recess, playing with KidPix Deluxe 4. I asked them if everything was working: they pointed out that the Stamps were not working, a QuickTime issue.

It was great to involve these student end-users in the troubleshooting process and seeing which applications they value the most. I have also installed Google Earth and Scratch on the Library Macs, so it will be interesting to see if they use these apps as well.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Wikifying my Summer's Notes

In OMET Cadre 9 we got to the point of joking about the necessity of setting up wikis for darn near anything.

I took a bunch of hand-written notes this summer, many off the top of my head and on the spur of the moment. I recently decided to take my OMET experiences to heart and to get the notes up on a wiki, where I could easily see them no matter where I was, could easily add to the notes as necessary, and to share the notes with other people running Tech Clubs.

I chose PBWiki from my experience using it as part of another Rev9 learning circle's presentation that utilized this particular wiki. I liked how clean it looked, and Brad suggested it after reviewing several different options.

If anything, getting the notes onto the wiki makes them more adaptable and easily kept up to date, as well as reduces the amount of scraps of paper taking up my space.