Many thanks to Dorna Khazeni for translating André Lozano's interesting tale of bringing Chris Marker's Dialector to the annual Appel II Convention @ KansasFest last summer. The original article in French appears in another post here, Dialector Reloaded, or We Aren’t In Kansas City Anymore.
André Lozano headed to Kansas City (USA) July 22-27 for the annual Apple II Convention, KansasFest, and to present “Dialector,” the original, previously unpublished program by Chris Marker, reactivated through his efforts, with the collaboration of artist Agnes de Cayeux, and the founder of Poptronics, Annick Rivoire. Back in France, he recounts the event, the ambiance, and ponders the retro-computing phenomenon.
How I reloaded Chris Marker's Dialector at KansasFest
So, I took off with my 5 1/2″ “Dialector” diskette in my bag, headed to Kansas City, USA, to “reload” the program that Chris Marker had written in his spare time in the 1980s. This was going to take place not just anywhere, but in a singular technological and sociological environment: at KansasFest, the rendez-vous of Apple II enthusiasts.
What Annick Rivoire, Agnes de Cayeux and myself mean by “reload” is the reactivation, using period computer equipment, of the “Dialector” program written 30 years ago by the documentary filmmaker and multimedia artist. As “Dialector” is a program intended to make it possible to hold a conversation with the machine, we were inviting volunteers to activate it, we would then conserve the subsequent emotions and dialogue.
Arrival in Kansas City
Seventeen flight hours after my take-off from Luxembourg, via Munich and Philadephia, I landed in Kansas City, “the City of Fountains.” and found I had moved back thirty years on the computer science timeline.
Immediately upon my arrival at the University of Rockhurst, barely after I'd passed the threshold of the main entrance, I stumbled upon a mountain of cumbersome computer equipment. It's a sort of tradition here: every year generous donors part with their collections. It's a free-for-all cum yardsale for the cognoscente. This year Eric is parting with his equipment with a note of sorrow as he's not sure, in view of his very advanced age, that he will be returning to KansasFest. Everyone helps themselves to the equipment and the sentimental patrimony according to their needs, and shares according to their means. In this trove, I came away only with a working joystick, the rest of it was either too voluminous, or was incompatible with European electronic standards.
I experienced a strange feeling at being here, 7500 kilometers from where I live, in this improbable place, a deserted Jesuit university, lost in a city in the middle of the United States, among 70 to 80 “attendees,” (participants), all of them fervent first generation Apple computer users. I wondered, “What is obsolescence exactly? Should one resign oneself to ever-changing equipment? What if the resilience of innovation were actually possible? Right here maybe, with Dean, Vince, Andrew and Quin? Young and old, initiated or debutants, a counter-innovation was set into motion.
“Apple II forever”
Let us resists the sirens of novelty, bye bye Ipod, Iphone and MacBook! Here it was “Apple II forever,” and everyone could marvel at an MOS 6502 processor. There reigns a sort of febrility among the participants that I imagine must resemble what animated those who conceived of computers toward the end of the 1970s, before the San Francisco West Coast Computer Fair. It's easy to identify with the two Steves assembling the Apple I in Jobs' father's garage: that “garage” spirit reigns here. A digital environment that's more bermuda shorts and t-shirts than business suits. The most incredible part of it is that the adventure carries on each year, growing even (some are happy to note there's a greater number of participants in 2014) and it along with it, a trove of new computers, new equipment, and the craziest developments for a platform, namely the Apple II, production for which ceased… over 20 years ago. Respect!
They come almost every year from the four corners of the United Stated, from Nebraska, from New York, from California, by plane, by car, by truck even (more practical for transporting equipment). The first edition took place in 1989. At the time, Apple shifted its focus to the Macintosh, abandoning the pioneers Basic, l'Assembleur and the small companies that produced all sorts of peripheral electronics. A turning point for micro-informatique: the artisans were swept away by the industry, and Apple, Microsoft and company were the new IBM.
I am still surprised at this fidelity in Apple's first generation. So, I put the question to those around me. When I asked George Elmore why he was passionate about these old machines, he confided this: “Nothing can replace a first love, you remain faithful to it your whole life, that's just how it is.” Dave Schmenk, who develops the integration of Raspberry Pi in Apple, begrudges today's machines their coldness. They are too “antiseptic” for his taste, whence his attachment to these old machines that are “warmer.” It's often a matter of finding the “gameplayer” of their youth. And actually a lot of KFest is about playing. Better yet, new games are created for the Apple II, like the RPG “Lawless Legends,” presented as a world exclusive at Kansas City.
Still… how can one account for the attraction? The title of the book by Steven Weyhrich about the history of Apple, Sophistication and Simplicity, is perhaps a good shortcut for understanding what this generation of computers represents. As Apple's first ad proclaimed, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” At once simple and sophisticated with its 64 kilobytes of memory, this micro-computer was open to all modifications and all development, an ingenious system that generated a true ecosystem around itself with large and small enterprises daily developing software, games, peripherals, hardware, etc. for it.
Climate and Air-conditioning
You'd have to be mad to look for 35 degree © weather with a relative humidity of 80%, the average in July in Kansas City, but in the United States, no worries! Cars, buses, shops, everything or almost everything is air-conditioned, cool and pleasant nights await us in the dormitories at Rockhurst. Except that KansasFest is a sort of marathon and sleeping is out of the question: at all hours of day and night, in rooms, their doors ajar, interminable discussions, improvised workshops and other demos are underway. Certain rooms are veritable digital gloryholes, my neighbor across the way is surfing the net with his Apple II GS, the one next door is composing music on a IIc, and a little further away, I don't know but there's people chatting till there are no more hours left in the night.
Four in the morning, prey to the inevitable jet-lag, I went downstairs to stroll through the “lobby,” thinking I'd get something from a vending machine, and came across ten or so Apple lovers in animated conversation. Geeks never sleep at KansasFest. Just as well, me neither, I'm no longer sleepy, the next day I'm giving my “Dialector” presentation.
“Dialector”, Chris Marker and Retrogeeks
KansasFest is the dream place and event for reloading “Dialector.” Putting aside the temporal jump of 30 years that puts us back exactly at the moment the program was written by Chris Marker, the Anglophone environment is perfect for a program that speaks English. Besides, this is the only place, with all these Applesoft Basic and Apple II specialists, where you can not only play with “Dialector,” but also analyze all its algorythmic subtleties. Together with Annick and Agnes, we have done everything to re-situate “Dialector” within its historic and technological context, so as to better seize its impact and pertinence. Here at KansasFest, it is the ultimate test. If tomorrow, the program meets with success, then Chris Marker will merit, more than ever, our profound admiration as a digital pioneer.
At the end of my introduction, it was Sarah who volunteered to talk to “Dialector,” on an Apple IIc original—and a Qwerty keyboard this once. Naturally, the dialogue was more animated than it usually is since so many of the puns are directly related to the wit of early days Apple Users. A great burst of laughter erupts when “Computer,” (the interlocutor's name in “Dialector”) says “NEVER TRUST ANYONE OVER 256K” or “DO YOU PUT A ‘K' ON YOUR SHIRT?”—geek humor impenetrable to non-initiates.
Throughout the presentation, the audience reacted perfectly, with their questions and their suggestions, to the artistic quality of “Dialector,” and to the sense of humor that is so specific to Chris Marker. Mission accomplished when the “Dialector” session ended in the public's applause.
Here we are Apple fans, but we don't necessarily like Macintosh. Margot Comstock, at the end of her inaugural talk, confides in us that she stopped her magazine “Softalk” once the Macintosh arrived. Apple, under Steve Jobs' impulsion, toward the end of the 1980s, turned toward ready-to-use machines, that required only the slightest understanding of computer science, rendering the community of users and their clubs, their magazines and their knowledge base completely obsolete.
When it came out, I was a big fan of the Mac's graphic interface. However, when you think about it, that interface was at once the best and the worst thing that could have happened to computer technology. By making the computer as easy to use as a children's toy, Apple made its users even more ignorant and dependent. Thirty years ago, 5% of us owned a computer but almost 95% of owners were technically capable of programming or modifying their machines. Today, we are going to suppose 95% of us own a computer and that we are no more than 5% who are technically capable of programming code or of transforming a machine.
Live video conferences from Kansas Fest
When I arrived here, I met Olivier, a Frenchman originally who had become American, who was also experiencing his first KFest. He had offered to do a daily write-up for the French Facebook page set up by fans of first generation Apple. He interceded on my behalf throughout my KansasFest sojourn. I was the only participant to have come from another continent.
It's all about holding your own… We organized, broadcast and recorded four Google HangOuts meetings that we put on a dedicated YouTube channel, with the aim of allowing Americans and French to meet and converse. Each day after lunch in Kansas City and around 8 p.m. French time (technical conditions permitting), we had leisurely and good-natured exchanges of ideas with Annick, Agnes, Dean, Ken, Olivier, Stephane, and our friend Antoine Vignau, at their stations. A great occasion for soldering new transatlantic ties.
Bouquets of sessions
Each day, KFest sessions follow one another according to a well-established calendar. The offerings are highly diversified between the conferences, demos, workshops… There are “classic” talks like Margot Comstock's about the adventure of the publication “Softalk,” a leading light of early 1980s computer publications, or Jason Scott from Archive.org's presentation about the issue of archiving. Then there was my own on “Dialector.”
Numerous demos also took place: Peter Neubauer revisited the emulator GSPort's latest developments, Ivan Drucker presented A2Cloud and A2Server (A2Cloud allows an Apple II to connect to the internet via a Raspberry Pi), Charles Mangin did a 3D printing demo for us to replace certain plastic parts, David Schmenk managed to fuse an Apple II to a Raspberry Pi…
There was no shortage of workshops either: Sarah Walkowiak traded the soldering iron for a needle and thread to make a cross stitch Apple out of thread; Vince Briel, already known for recreating the Apple I or Altair, reproduced the mythic Ohio Scientific Superboard II (OSI 600) with soldering irons and electronic components; the Hogans, father and son (11 years old), invited us to make rockets propelled by compressed air, piloted by the Apple II Joystick port.
A singular presentation by Quinn Dunki, a blond Canadian woman, who told us the story of how, over the course of four years, following in the footsteps of Steve Wozniak, she created her own computer, “Veronica.” Built from scratch, around the MOS 6502 processor. As a dare, with no end in mind other than mastering the hardware and software, propelled by playfulness and a wish to go beyond her own comfort zone, since she is not a computer scientist.
Meaning one does not get bored at Kansas Fest. Not to mention the games. For the five days of this gathering, we often had a chance to play, be it at “Structris” competitions—a sort of inverted “Tetris,”—or at “Lawless Legends,” just created this year, or, at more singular forms like “Jungle Adventure,” at its origin an interactive text game transposed as a collective society game by Ken Gagne, who himself incarnates the computer to which to give instructions (“human interface”).
The future of Apple II
During his presentation, Ken Gagne, the editor of Juiced.GS, surprised us by his presentation that made use of graphics that conveyed the growth in the numbers of his subscribers over the last five years. After a logical drop in the magazine's distribution, linked to the obsolescence of the machines, it found a veritable resurrection which can be attributed to the emergence of retro-computing.
Ever since the computers created 30 years ago entered museums, they have become of historic interest to a whole new generation that is passionate about preserving its computer science patrimony. Ken tells us he is surprised by the ever greater amount of information there is to publish around Apples: each day brings its lot of new equipment and software.
In the course of my stay at Kansas Fest, I often heard the term “Apple enthusiast,” or “computer enthusiast.” I really like this expression because it turns its back on “nostalgia,” and immunizes us against the “melancholy” that accompanies the disappearance of machines that have fascinated us. In this enthusiasm resides a joy and a trust in the future, as if the past were still capable of surprising us and teaching us new wisdoms.
A few retrogeek links
The last word where news concerning first generation Apple is concerned can be found here:
Building a computer from the ground up, by Quinn alias Blondie Hack.
Converting one's venerable Apple II into a sort of vintage Arduino.
The “Softalk” project set up by some fans that aims to digitize all the issues of the publication.
One of the first and famous sites for the conservation of digital memory and its best text files:
The French site dedicated to the world of Apple is here.
This is the site where you can find replicas of the famous Apple I and the Altair:
“Structris,” the inverted “Tetris” game for Apple II:
“Sophistication and Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer,” the indispensable book by Steven Weyhrick on the history of Apple.
“Juiced.GS,” the trimestrial news publication about first generation Apple.
The Apple II France Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/a2france/