On Sunday, I returned from Kansas City, Missouri after having spent a truly remarkable four and a half days at something called "KansasFest." Faithful readers may recall that I bought a couple of old Apple IIe computers last summer, and joined the ranks of "retro-computing" hobbyists. This year, I wanted to attend one of their pinnacle events, KansasFest.
KansasFest began almost thirty years ago, as a kind of Apple II developers' conference, as Apple's support for the platform began to wane. It was organized by a guy named Tom Weishaar who ran a small publishing company that printed a number of Apple II-related newsletters, one of which I subscribed to, Open-Apple (later named, A2-Central). I recall well the reports from those early events, the fun and excitement had by the people who loved the Apple II the most, and made much, if not all, of their living from it.
KansasFest was open to anyone who wished to attend. Back then I was married with young children, serving on active duty in the navy, often at sea; so while I envied those who attended, I never seemed to be able to be among them.
I left the Apple II platform in 1995 or 1996, when we bought our first Macintosh. My then wife was getting her second Master's degree, and was tired of writing papers in AppleWorks and printing them on a dot-matrix printer. She wanted a more "modern" computer. I sold all my machines, peripherals, books and software; effectively ending my active engagement with the II platform.
It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that KansasFest was still going on. I don't recall when I first learned of it, but it may have been just last year. As I write, I'm trying to piece together my own chronology. I mentioned to some of this year's attendees that I'd hoped to go to last year's event, but Mitzi had just had surgery to remove the hardware in her ankle. But I don't think that's correct. Nice Marmot tells me I didn't get my first "new" old Apple II until last August, after the KansasFest event. So I suspect I may have been reading the Cult of Mac coverage of last year's event, tweeted by some of the retro-computing members I follow on Twitter. It's likely that those stories further inspired me to get my own box. This is only relevant because of an interesting coincidence.
In September of last year, Mitzi and I went to Colorado for a vacation get-together she planned with her daughters and their guys. While we were out there, I guess Mitzi had me tell her daughter Sherri about my "new" old computer. Sherri mentioned that one of her co-workers is an Apple II enthusiast, and that he goes to "this thing every year in Kanas City." I told her yeah, that's KansasFest! And I think it was just then that I decided that I too would go to the next KansasFest! As it turned out, Sherri's co-worker is Martin Haye, and he's a significant figure in the community, a board member of the KansasFest organization, and the guy who picked me up and returned me to the airport on my first trip!
Well, enough backstory.
Imagine something that's part technical conference, part swap-meet, part old-school user group meeting, and part summer camp. Now, dial the intensity up to, say, eleven.
They sold out this year. The maximum number of attendees they can support with the facilities they secure from Rockhurst University is one hundred. It was the largest KansasFest gathering in many years, and I was either lucky or wise to sign up as soon as registration opened.
If you want to get good at something, do it for nearly thirty years. The event is very well organized. Many of us were newbies this year, and the organizers and regulars made sure we were all welcome, and kept the confusion to a minimum. That said, I found the experience to be a bit overwhelming. Jason Scott, an amazing guy himself, used the "shock and awe" metaphor in a talk he gave at the conference, and that resonated strongly with me, because that was what I was in the midst of experiencing.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Martin picked up me and another rookie at the airport, and we went immediately to dinner with a bunch of the attendees. Seated outside at the restaurant were a number of people I follow on Twitter or on their podcasts or YouTube videos. I met 4am (@a2_4am), Apple II software de-protection expert, disk cracker sans pareil, and Quinn Dunki of BlondiHacks. There were others too, but I'm afraid it's all kind of a blur now. I recall feeling just a little bit star-struck, well maybe a lot star-struck. These were all people I respected and admired for their talent and ability, and for their generosity in sharing all that talent and ability. It was a feeling I was to have many, many times over the next few days.
After dinner we went to Corcoran Hall, the dormitory at Rockhurst University where nearly all the events would take place. Check-in was in the common area, but what seized my attention was the vast array of stuff that would be object of the Garage Give-Away the next day. Shock and awe. I had never seen so much computer stuff collected in one space before. I had brought a box of things hopefully to sell at the vendor event on Saturday. Looking around at all the stuff that would be given away for free, I felt I had little chance to actually sell anything. Rather than risk having to carry the 30 pound box back home, I simply emptied its contents among the other things that would be given away the next morning, and did so with no regret. I wasn't planning on getting rich, just getting some things I didn't need into the hands of someone else who could use them.
Jason Scott organized a number of the attendees into an effort to further sort and organize the inventory. This had the somewhat unhappy effect of changing the locations of things that some people had spotted and hoped to have the opportunity to obtain the next morning. But it it all worked out well in the end.
In one corner of the common area, 4am had established "4am's House of Crack," where he was busy de-protecting and imaging disks containing software applications that would, absent an effort to preserve them digitally, one day ultimately be lost to history as the magnetic media they were stored on degraded and decayed. I brought with me a few titles that were important to me to be preserved, and 4am promised to treat them well and return them to me when he was finished. I'd also brought a number of educational titles that were of little importance to me, but had perhaps been unpreserved to that point. He welcomed all of them. Qkumba, John Brooks, and John Morris were seated with him, all 6502 deities I'd been reading and following in the preceding months. Again, star-struck.
I arranged to sleep in the "noisy" side of the dorm. The idea is that folks can leave their doors open and people can wander in and out and talk at any hour of the day or night. A significant number of attendees bring their own machines and set them up in their rooms. Since I was flying, I did not. Next year, I may drive. In any event, after collecting my linen, towels, credentials and swag, I went to my room and met my roommate, Dr. Steven Weyhrich. I've "known" Steve since back in the 90s when we were both on GEnie, though I'm sure he didn't really "know" me back then. Steve's another KFest board member, and he'd driven there so he had a //e set up in the room with us. This was to be important (to me) later. Steve's the author of a book of Apple II history, Sophistication & Simplicity, which sits on a bookshelf above my desk. I bought my copy last August, the same day I ordered that Apple II from eBay.
The dorm rooms are about what you might expect. We each had desk to work from, if we wished. The mattresses are little more than springs enclosed in a plastic envelope, but you really don't do a lot of sleeping. It's a community bathroom, so, bring flip-flops and a robe. I managed just fine. Twenty-two years in the navy, you don't mind sharing an enclosed space every now and then.
Meals are at the university cafeteria, their cost is included in the registration fee. It's not a long walk from the dorm to the cafeteria, but the organizers have a golf cart to shuttle attendees who may be mobility-impaired, another sign of a very well organized and inclusive effort. The food was decent cafeteria food, but you really came for the conversations. I very much enjoyed just sitting down at any table and meeting new people and learning their connection to the community.
After breakfast on Wednesday, there were some procedural announcements, where we also learned that this was the largest and likely to be the last, Garage Give-Away. The volunteers who amassed this mountain of treasure also sustained significant costs in storing it. Donations had been insufficient to cover those costs, and it could no longer be sustained. A box was set up for folks to make contributions. This was followed by a recitation by Jason Scott of "the rules" prior to the give-away. The rules were chiefly, "be excellent to one another."
I remained somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and variety of equipment, software and documentation available. I'd come with a box of stuff weighing thirty pounds, I didn't wish to return home with an equal quantity of new stuff. I resolved to limit myself to one or two items that might be hard to come by otherwise. Alas, this was not to be.
Hardware was largely out of the question for me. I have plenty of my own now, although I could really have used a IIgs RGB monitor or an Apple composite color monitor. They would have been logistically problematic to bring home though. I had my eye on a modest 3M 5.25" disk box. I have one that houses most of my UCSD Pascal disks. I could use another. There were some manuals I wanted, an Apple //c Technical Reference Manual that was not in my library, and another language manual I don't recall just now, because I couldn't find it during the give-away.
As it happened, I couldn't manage to restrain myself and I ultimately used the same box I'd brought to KansasFest to ship home thirty-nine pounds of books, magazines and software! I don't recall everything, and the box doesn't arrive until Wednesday, but a few highlights stand out. There were many Apple II magazines back in the day, and I subscribed to most of them at one point or another. There are simply too many to collect them all, so I've largely confined my efforts to Call-A.P.P.L.E. I was delighted to find some very early issues, and some later issues that weren't in my collection. Despite my intention to focus on Call-A.P.P.L.E., I also chose a near-complete collection of the Open-Apple/A2-Central annual bound volume editions of the newsletter. These were frequently filled with useful tips and arcana, and I actually had a letter published in one of them! I found a couple of early issues of Micro magazine, which focused on the 6502 processor. I found a new box of blank 5.25" disks, which are becoming somewhat more difficult to come by.
After the initial rush, the bounty remained on display for most of the rest of the conference for people to peruse and choose from at their leisure. One afternoon, I opened a rather nondescript, somewhat large, white box. Inside were two complete versions of Gutenberg, an early Apple II word processor. I had never seen Gutenberg, other than in ads within magazines, or mentioned in a review. Gutenberg was popular among academics, because it was a graphically based word processor, before the Mac. It didn't use a GUI interface, but it did allow the user to make custom type faces and to download those to dot matrix printers for hard copy output. It seemed to represent a monumental effort by a single programmer, and it was remarkable both for its achievement and for utterly failing to recognize the coming arrival of laser printing and PostScript. I wanted to dive deeper into the software to learn how it worked and to try to discover its history. The only problem was that the two user manuals probably weighed several pounds by themselves! I took it back to my room to and told myself I would sleep on it and perhaps return it to the pile if common sense prevailed. Somewhat to my chagrin, it did not and I look forward to its arrival on Wednesday.
I know I collected some other items, including an Apple Desktop Bus Gravis joystick. I'm hoping it'll work with my IIgs and that there are games that will recognize it. It was made for the Mac, and I don't know if it was released while the GS was still in production, so it may be of real little value to me ultimately. Still, it appeared to be in pristine condition. As for the rest, I look forward to being surprised on Wednesday.
The program of talks and presentations was jam-packed. Noobs were advised not to try to make every presentation, there were simply too many, but I tried. They varied somewhat in terms of interest or quality, but I found something of value in all the ones I attended. The basement of the dorm is the primary venue, though there is an adjacent conference room that was sometimes used for smaller, more limited-interest pitches or sidebar discussions. The presentations were all live-streamed and recorded, and I'm sure a YouTube collection will be up shortly.
There are a number of social activities, games and contests, that add to the fun of the event, and also give it something of its "camp" flavor. There's a door decorating contest, a tie contest, a hacking contest and a round of vintage computer Family Feud. I brought along a copy of Beagle Bros classic Peeks Pokes and Pointers chart, which was included in nearly all of their software offerings. It wasn't much as decorating goes, but I wanted to make a gesture toward participation. Others were far more elaborate and imaginative. My roommate, Steve Weyhrich, made a parody music video in which I had a brief cameo appearance. Steve is a talented karaoke vocalist!
Attendees who grabbed hardware at the give-away had the opportunity to retr0-brite their equipment's cases. This is the application of hydrogen peroxide and perhaps some other household chemicals to plastics that have browned or yellowed over time due to fire retardant leaching from the plastic and reacting with sunlight to cause a color change. The process requires a good deal of sunlight, which was in ample abundance in Kansas City in July. There were also attendees with hardware repair experience who helped to get machines that weren't operational back up and running. It's another example of the generosity present everywhere throughout the event.
There's a vendor event toward the end of the conference for people to sell products related to the Apple II, or old software or hardware. I bought a copy of Avalon Hill's Dreadnought, a WWII North Atlantic war at sea game. I also bought a Beagle Bros t-shirt from a vendor who had a number of Apple II related t-shirts for sale. I found a Sharpee and had my t-shirt autographed by Randy Brandt, one of the prolific programmers at Beagle back in the day, and also an attendee and speaker at the event.
As the week went on, I began to feel somewhat fatigued. I suspect it was a combination of lack of sleep and the cumulative effects of over-stimulation. I managed to unintentionally sleep through the Hackfest awards, I'll have to catch that on YouTube.
So, what's to be made of all this? Is there some broader significance to the longevity of this event, its recent growth and the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding it? Well, perhaps not. Not "broadly," anyway. In a more narrow sense, I think KansasFest and its current revival is significant. Most of the attendees I met were around my age (60), or were using Apple IIs in school when they were students. They had some real connection with the computer in their youth. But there were others who were too young to have ever used an Apple II when it was in its "prime." I asked a couple of those younger attendees what drew them to the Apple II, and to pay their way out to Kansas City and a conference full of near-geezer geeks. I didn't conduct a thorough survey, but I was struck that both of the individuals I asked, in separate conversations, mentioned the openness of the Apple II, the way that it invited exploration.
One guy said he started out collecting Macs because that was what he used in elementary school, and collecting a few Apple IIs just seemed like a logical extension of his hobby. What he didn't anticipate was that he would find the Apple II to be so interesting. You can turn it on and immediately begin interacting with it. You don't need a disk drive (though you will, soon), or a cassette player. You can just begin typing in BASIC and begin to see what it can do. If you're more adventurous, you can type CALL -151, get the * monitor prompt, and begin exploring the monitor ROM and 65c02 opcodes. There are no libraries to install. No editor to configure. No "environment" to "make." It's all self-contained.
"Computers" today are largely software constructs. You seldom approach "the metal." And if you want to do anything more than use an application, there's a fairly steep effort required to get "the keys to the car," so to speak. On the Mac, you can goof around with AppleScript I suppose. That'll be an exercise in frustration for all but the very determined. If you want to write a program, you'll need to download and install... something. It doesn't just offer that facility out of the box. And unless you have some kind of exposure to Unix and formal programming, well, get a book!
I was excited when Apple announced Swift. I thought, "Cool! A new language that I can follow along as it's developed and maybe learn how to program in it." Well, Apple made its development a community effort, and pretty soon there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people with their own points of view about what a modern programming language should look like, and they all spoke Greek as far as I was concerned. The language kept changing faster than I could comprehend. I took a look at an iPad app that Apple posted as an intro to "programming" using Swift for naive users, and it seemed to consist of moving a cartoon character around a scene. I gave up. Computers have passed me by.
But not the Apple II. It's still as open and inviting as it was when I brought it home from ComputerLand in October, 1981. Sure, it's a very constrained environment, but as they say, "It's not a bug, it's a feature!" I think there's still an opportunity for devices like that, and I think the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi respond to that opportunity and desire for something comprehensible.
The Apple II is still here. KansasFest is still here. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different, somewhat unique programs and applications and languages that I've never used or explored. There is still the opportunity to experience the rewards of discovery and mastery, even if I'm never going to be on the App Store.
I'm grateful for that. My plan is to return to KansasFest next year. I'll drive next time. First, to be able to bring along some gear. Second, to reduce my carbon footprint. We should all be conscious of that. And third, just in case this year wasn't the last Garage Give-Away...
Finally, not that I feel it's necessary to disclose, but I attended KansasFest for "free," this year. An anonymous donor gave the organization some money to offer some attendees "Golden Tickets," to cover the cost of their registration. It was a drawing among first-time attendees who registered and paid. I learned just before the event that someone who had won a Golden Ticket was unable to attend, and so my name came up on a subsequent drawing. I was thrilled, of course. I don't recall ever winning anything of any value before, other than the lottery of life, a white male in America in the 20th century. They offered me a check for the full amount, and while I'm not a person of unlimited means, I asked that they give $100 to one of the members who'd incurred costs storing the Garage Give-Away items, and $100 to a scholarship fund established by the family of one of the long-time regular attendees who died suddenly in an accidental fall a number of years ago. I used $100 of the remaining money to pay for a device developed and sold by a father-and-son team who gave a great demo of a truly cool little hardware interface device. Without the winnings, I couldn't have afforded it. But I did want to support those guys, so I was lucky and happy to have the opportunity to do so. The remaining $85 went to my parking bill, since I parked in the parking garage at JIA because I didn't want to schlepp that thirty pound box, my suitcase and my backpack in the heat from long term parking!