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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Atari 2600 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Atari 2600 retrospective with a few links and thoughts...
  • Activision Patch Gallery: One of the things I've lamented about the Atari 2600 platform is the formulaic quality of many games: you basically manipulate a bunch of pixels on the screen to reach an arbitrary goal like 10,000 points. What fun is that? Well, to make things more interesting, Activision had this program where you could send a polaroid of your screen when you reached the arbitrary goal, and they would send you a patch. For example, I was a member of the Chopper Commandos (for Chopper Command), Explorer's Club (Pitfall!), and Trail Drive (Stampede).

    The practice of photographing the screen when you reached the end of a game lasted well into the Nintendo age (though the patches had disappeared by then - you instead got your photos published in Nintendo Power or some other such publication), but had disappeared by the 16 bit era (at least, I think so!)
  • Composite Map of the Lost Caverns from my favorite A2600 game, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. It was made from the Commodore 64 version of Pitfall II, but the layout is the same for the 2600 version of the game (the only difference is the graphics).
  • YouTube is filled with cheesy old Atari 2600 commercials, strategy videos, and parodies.
  • Kaedrin reader and video game enthusiast Samael has posted a list of his favorite Pre-NES games, including a selection of Intellivision games (a system I never owned).
That about wraps it up for the Atari 2600. Have I missed anything? Drop a comment below...
Posted by Mark on May 31, 2006 at 11:26 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, May 28, 2006

Atari 2600 Games: Honorable Mention
There are, of course, many great games for the Atari 2600. Some (like Pitfall II) have aged better than others, but there is a certain sentimental value to be had in even the most mind-numbingly repetitive of these games. As I've mentioned before, most games have a completely arbitrary goal set for you, usually having to do with a score or time. This can get tiresome, but back in the day, they were still a whole lot of fun. In reality, it's actually pretty impressive, considering that most of these games were about 2k - 4k in size. Here are some of my other favorite Atari games:
  • Adventure: One of a handful of exceptions to the typical Atari game formula (i.e. your mission is an arbitrary point score) is Adventure. Your goal is to return a chalice to the gold castle, exploring other castles, chambers, and mazes along the way. There are several objects (including a sword, a magnet, and keys to the aformentioned castles) strewn about the virtual world to aid you in your quest. Three deadly dragons roam the area as well. The graphics and sound are primitive - your character basically appears as a dot on the screen, the sword looks like an arrow, and it's often remarked that the dragons resemble a duck (personally, I think the yellow one looks like big bird. Also, when you kill a dragon, it takes on the shape of what appears to be E.T.). On the other hand the keys and the castles look great, and the gameplay more than makes up for the lack of visual complexity. This game apparently contains the first video game easter egg (unfortunately, I haven't been able to reproduce this on my emulator yet). Shamus also noted a strange bit of functionality where you could enter the difficulty selection screen (an odd bit of functionality, that, but I was able to reproduce it).

    Gold Castle
    The Gold Castle
    Big Bird the Dragon
    Big Bird or a duck?
    You decide!
    Is that E.T.?
    Is that E.T.?
  • Dragonfire: Another game featuring dragons and castles (yeah, I was a sucker for these types of games), this one follows a more standard Atari formula. The gameplay switches between two different screens. On the first, you dodge fireballs in an attempt to enter a castle. Once inside, you're confronted by the castle's guardian dragon and your goal is to collect all the treasure and escape, all the while dodging more fireballs. Excellent graphics (the dragons actually look like dragons and the treasures are detailed and relatively intricate) and smooth animations make this a pleasure to play, and despite the standard treasure collecting goals, the challenge of each successive level is rewarding.

    Fireballs! The Green Dragon
  • Chopper Command: And now we reach the point where a game gets about as formulaic and arbitrary as possible, yet is still entertaining because it executes it's (simple) premise so well. Decent graphics and smooth animation make this game fun to play, though I'm convinced that my childhood opinion of this game was based mostly on the sound effects, particularly that of your weapons (and holding down the fire button allowed for some serious rapid-fire action). Another interesting aspect of this game is the radar map at the bottom of the screen which gives you an overview of the level. This is something that has become common in games these days, which is interesting to see... An enjoyable, if simplistic, game.

    Blasting away...

  • Enduro: I get the impression that this is one of the more underrated Atari games, perhaps in part because it resembles the classicPole Position (but I prefer Enduro). The gameplay for this racer is a bit different from its competition though. Your goal is to pass a certain number of cars in a "day," and each day progresses through a series of weather conditions, including rain, snow, darkness, and fog. The graphics are about medium-range, and the sounds of revving engines are decent too. It gets pretty intense at times, especially when night turns to dawn and you still need to pass some cars before sunrise...

    Racing Racing Racing
  • Keystone Kapers: In this game you play a cop (sorry, a "kop") who chases criminals (kriminals?) through a department store, dodging shopping carts, little airplanes, radios and beachballs along the way. Every level is essentially the same, with the krook becoming more and more difficult to catch. Fun, fluid gameplay is bolstered by the excellent graphics and animations.

    Closing in on my man...

  • Battlezone: Probably a little ahead of its time, I could arguably consider this my first first-person shooter, complete with a little circular radar map at the top telling you where your oponents are lurking (more akin to the one used in Unreal Tournament than the one in Chopper Command). Despite the limited hardware, this game actually managed to pull off its three dimensional nature which is pretty impressive. The enemies are varied and challenging, but in the end, it's another one of those unending formula games. Still, it was impressive enough at the time...

    Battlezone

  • Stampede: Another simplistic formula game, Stampede was still pretty fun. Some nice animations of lassos and running horses/cattle. Movement is a bit restricted (you can only move vertically), but some interesting gameplay allows you to push slow moving cattle ahead, giving yourself some extra time to lasso them. It's actually a pretty unusual game in these respects, and I think that's part of why it sticks out in my head.

    Stampede
Well, I think that just about does it for the Atari 2600 games. One final caveat, I'm sure there are plenty of great games that I'm missing on my list, but this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. As it turns out, many of the old standbys (Space Invaders, Pac-man, etc...) just didn't make that much of an impression on me. The games above did, even if they were clones of other popular games (like Chopper Command and Enduro). Anyway, expect another Atari post or two to wrap up. I may be taking a bit of a break before I start on the next system (the classic Commodore 64 - not technically a console, but a vehicle for many hours of game playing as a young'un). I like taking this stroll down memory lane, but I don't want to completely jam the blog with all video game posts...
Posted by Mark on May 28, 2006 at 08:22 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.



Thursday, May 25, 2006

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Perhaps I've gone too far. I'm in an underground cavern beneath Peru. It seems to be a complex maze, perhaps eight chambers wide and over three times as deep. Niece Rhonda has disappeared, along with Quickclaw, our cowardly cat. I am beset by all manner of subterranean creatures in this vast, ancient labrynth. And all because of a rock--the Raj diamond. It was stolen a century ago, and hidden here.
- An excerpt from Pitfall Harry's diary
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns - Cover Art; click for a larger version
Cover Art
Without a doubt, the greatest game ever made for the Atari 2600 was Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. The original Pitfall! set the standard for Atari adventure games as it sent our intrepid hero, an Indiana Jones clone named Pitfall Harry, to a junge where he must avoid the likes of scorpions, crocodiles quicksand and tar pits (amongst other things). The goal of the first game was simply to collect 32 bars of gold in 20 minutes without dying 3 times, a typical Atari-era video game goal. The sequel improves upon nearly every aspect of the original game and far surpasses the competition.

To start, the game actually has a legitimate goal, not some arbitrary point score. Your goal is to collect the Raj diamond, rescue your niece Rhonda and also your cowardly cat Quickclaw (with an added bonus for collecting a rare rat and the usual gold bars). What's more, you are given an infinite amount of lives and time with which to accomplish these goals (there are scattered checkpoints and when you die, you are transported back to the last one you reached, deducting points as you go). You're given a few new abilities (like the ability to swim) and you face a new series of hazards, including poisonous frogs, bats, condors and electric eels.

From a technological standpoint, Pitfall II pushed the envelope both visually and musically. It was one of the largest games ever created for the 2600 (a whopping 10k), and it included features like smooth scrolling, an expansive map, relatively high-resolution graphics, varying scenery, detailed animations and a first-rate musical score that was detailed and varied (quite an accomplishment considering that most 2600 games did not feature music at all). Obviously, all of these things are trivial by current standards, but at the time, this was an astounding feat. Indeed, it was only made possible because of custom hardware built inside the game cartridge that enhanced the 2600's video and audio capabilities.

You start the game in the jungle. In a perverse maneuver, the game's designers made sure that you could see Quickclaw (one of your primary objectives) immediately beneath your starting point, but to actually reach him you must traverse the entire map!

So close, yet so far away...
So close, yet so far away...

Again, the sequel imbues Pitfall Harry with a few extra abilities, including the ability to swim. Naturally, this benefit does not come without danger, as shown by the electric eel swimming along side our hero (you can't see it in the screenshot, but the eel alternates between a white squiggly line and a black squiggly line, thus conveying it's electric nature). Also of note is the rather nice graphical element of the waterfall.

Swimming with an electric eel
Swimming with an electric eel

As you explore the caverns, you run across various checkpoints marked with a cross. When you touch a cross, it becomes your new starting point whenever you die.

I think that green thing is supposed to be a poison frog.
I think that green thing is supposed to be a poison frog.

At various points in the game you are faced with a huge, vertical open space. Sometimes you just have to jump. One of the great things about this game, though, is that there is a surprising amount of freedom of movement. You could, if you wanted, just take the ladder down to the bottom of the cavern instead of jumping (though at one point, if you want to get the Raj ring, you'll need to face the abyss). Plus, there are all sorts of gold bars hidden around the caves in places that you don't have to go. Obviously, there are a limited number of specific paths you can take - it's no GTA III - but given the constraints at the time, this was a neat aspect of the game.

Stepping into the abyss
Stepping into the abyss

Another innovation in Pitfall II is Harry's ability to grab onto a rising balloon and ride it to the top of the cavern (a necessary step at one point), dodging bats along the way. A pretty unique and exciting sequence for its time.

That's some powerful helium in that balloon
That's some powerful helium in that balloon

The valiant Pitfall Harry, about to rescue his neice Rhonda.

Rhonda!
Rhonda!

The designers' cruel sense of placement strikes again. I can see the Raj diamond, but how do you get there? Luckily, the game's freedom of movement allows you to backtrack if you want (and when you want).

Curse you, game designers!
Curse you, game designers!

The final portion of the map is still, to this day, challenging. Up until this point in the game, you've only had to dogde a bat here, a condor there. This section requires you to really get your timing and reflexes in order, as you must complete a long sequence of evasions before you get to the top. Nevertheless, success was imminent.

Victory is mine!
Victory is mine!

Naturally, the game does not hold water compared to the games of today in terms of technology or gameplay, but what is remarkable about this game is how close it got. And that it did so at a time when many of these concepts were unheard-of. Sure, there are still some elements taken from the "Do it again, stupid" school of game design, but given the constraints of the 6 year old hardware and the fact that nearly every other game ever released for the console was much worse in this respect, I think it's worth cutting the game some slack (plus, as Shamus notes in the referenced post, these sorts of things are still common today!)

Everything about this game, from the packaging and manual (which is actually an excellent document done in the style of Pitfall Harry's aformentioned diary) to the graphics and music to the innovative gameplay and freedom of movement, is exceptional. Without a doubt, my favorite game for the 2600. Stay tuned for the honorable mentions!
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2006 at 09:09 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.



Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Video Game Retrospective: Part 1
Samael's recent Mario Marathon of Madness put me in a nostalgic mood. I started thinking about my history of playing video games. These days I don't do much gaming (with occassional exceptions), but when I was younger, I certainly did. So I figure I'll write a series of posts about my favorite games for all the various platforms I've played on, starting with the glorious Atari 2600.

Technically, the 2600 was not my family's first gaming system. I do remember a strange console that had two paddles and could only play Pong. I'll have to see if I can dig that up. In any case, in looking at the history of the 2600, I don't think I really started playing until after the video game crash of 1983. I suspect this is partly because prices fell dramatically and thus made it that much easier to convince the parents to purchase them (plus, my brother is 4 years older than I, so he had already built up a collection of games).

In any case, you gotta love the 2600, with it's awkward single-button controllers, faux wood panelling console, and huge library of games (yeah, most were clones of popular games like Pac Man, but so what?). The default controllers were awful, but I remember when my brother managed to get his hands on a pair of Epyx 500XJ Joysticks. These unique controllers were more responsive, fit ergonomically and comfortably in the palm of your hand, and as a bonus, could also be used with the Commodore 64/128 (which will be the next system in my series).

The games will be covered in separate posts, but I will say that while they were fun at the time, I can see why people lost interest until the NES. Most games primarily involved manipulating various elements on the screen to get a higher score. Period. There really weren't any goals other than running the score up as high as possible (there were exceptions to this which will be covered in later posts). That said, I recently downloaded an emulator and started playing some of these games again, and it instilled a powerful sense of nostalgia. These games bring back a lot of memories! And there are so many of them. Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!

Update: Follow up posts:
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2006 at 07:03 PM .: link :.



Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Man Who Knew Too Much
My little Hitchcock marathon continues with the 1934 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much. This was a breakthrough international success and it was also critically acclaimed as a new high in suspense films. However, while this film exhibits much more of a mastery of technique than his previous efforts, it's still not indicative of his later brilliance. There are many great scenes and great shots in this movie, but the plotting and pacing problems that plagued his other early films are still in evidence (although there was a big improvement). The plot has enormous holes in it, but the themes and conventions are pure Hitchcock and it's not without a certain sense of charm.

The story concerns a married couple vacationing in the Alps with their daughter. They're befriended by a French man who, naturally, is shot. It turns out that the man was a spy, and just before he dies, he tells the couple of a plot to assassinate an important diplomat in London. To keep the couple from talking to the police, the assassins kidnap the couple's daughter and hold her hostage. The movie is filled with excellent scenes and shots, but the plot holes hold the film back from total brilliance. Spoilers, screenshots and more below!

The film also displays some Hitchcockian humor, something that was somewhat lacking in his previous films. For instance, there's a clever sequence towards the beginning of the film involving a group of people on a dancefloor that get tangled up in string. Later, a scene at a dentist's office approaches slapstick.

I always bring a gun to the dentist's office.
I always bring a gun to the dentist's office.

A hilarious scene at a church approaches downright silliness as the father and his friend attempt to communicate by singing plot points to each other to the tune of the hymns (thereby disguising their conversation from their fellow churchgoers).

We must sing the plot, so as not to be detected.
We must sing the plot now, so as not to be detected.

Later, the father's friend gets hypnotized by the head of this (rather strange) Church. Naturally, she's in league with the assassins.

She's not as good as hypnotoad, but she'll do
She's not as good as hypnotoad, but she'll do.

Cornered by the criminals at the Church, our hero starts a... chair fight. This sequence is literally minutes long, as our hero throws chairs at the criminals, who decide not to use their guns to return fire, but to throw chairs back at the hero instead. By the way, it's not clear in the screenshot below, but if you look closely, you can see that the man has a cigarette in his mouth. That's right, he initiates this chair fight with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Chair fight!
Chair fight!

The assassin was expertly played by Peter Lorre, in his first English speaking role. Cheerfully chewing scenery and smoking like a chimney, his presence helps give the film a large portion of its charm. A testament to how a great villain can elevate a movie...

I am Peter Lorre, hear me roar.
I am Peter Lorre, hear me roar.

One of the most memorable sequences in the film is when the assassins make their move on the diplomat. The shooter times his shot with a key portion of the music at a concert, and Hitchcock employs a brilliant dissolve from the orchestra to the gun (the screenshots below don't do it justice).

Yay orchestra! Wait, wait, where's the orchestra going? Oh no, a gun!

Believe it or not, our heroine manages to help foil the assassination attempt, and the police are able to follow the shooter back to his group's hideout (the aforementioned Church). This leads to a siege and eventual shootout, which was apparently based on Siege of Sidney Street, a notorious real-life gunfight in London's East End in 1911.

Didn't you hear me, I am Peter Lorre! Rarr!
Didn't you hear me, I am Peter Lorre! Rarr!

The film ends with the daughter escaping to the roof, chased by this pleasant fellow:

I'm nowhere near as cool as Peter Lorre.
I'm nowhere near as cool as Peter Lorre.

Once again, we've got a film which shows flashes of Hitch's future brilliance without being, in itself, brilliant. Still, there's much more substance here than in the previous films in my marathon. It's an archetype of his later work and indeed, Hitchcock remade the film nearly 20 years later (though critics disagree about which version is better).

Update: You can download the movie at the Internet Archive!
Posted by Mark on May 21, 2006 at 08:05 PM .: Comments (1) | link :.



Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Victorian Internet and Centralized Solutions
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the internet affects our ability to think, pulling from Nicholas Carr's post on internet and mindlessness. I disagreed with Carr's skepticism, and in the comments, Samael noted that Carr was actually using a common form of argument.
This seems to be a pretty common form of argument, though.

If the advent of a technology tends to create a certain problem, what is to blame for that problem?

It's not much different from the "guns/video games/music/movies are to blame for violence" or "video games/television are to blame for short attention spans" or "junk food is responsible for obesity" arguments.
Carr's argument is in the same form - the sea of information made possible by the internet is to blame for a deterioration in our ability to think. I rejected that because of choice - technology does not force us to think poorly; we choose how we interact with technology (especially on-demand technology like the internet). It's possible to go overboard, but there's nothing forcing that to happen. It's our choice. In any case, this isn't the first time a technology that lead to a massive increase in communication caused these problems. In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage explores the parallels between the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today. Jon Udell summarizes the similarities:
A 19th-century citizen transported to today would be amazed by air travel, Standage suggests, but not by the Internet. Been there, done that.

Multiprotocol routers? Check. Back then, they translated between Morse code and scraps of paper in canisters shot through pneumatic tubes.

Fraud? Check. Stock market feeds were being spoofed in the 1830s, back when the telegraph network ran on visual semaphores rather than electrical pulses.

Romance? Check. The first online marriage was really a telegraph marriage, performed not long after the dawn of electric telegraphy.

Continuous partial attention? Check. In 1848 the New York businessman W.E. Dodge was already feeling the effects of always-on connectivity: "The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London."
All too often, when I listen to someone describe a problem, I feel a sensationalistic vibe. It's usually not that I totally disagree that something is a problem, but the more I read of history and the more I analyze certain issues, I find that much of what people are complaining about today isn't all that new. Yes, the internet has given rise to certain problems, but they're not really new problems. They're the same problems ported to a new medium. As shown in the quote above, many of the internet's problems also affected telegraphy nearly two centuries ago (I'd wager that the advance of the printing press lead to similar issues in its time as well). That doesn't make them less of a problem (indeed, it actually means that the problem is not easily solved!), but it does mean we should perhaps step back and maybe turn down the rhetoric a bit. These are extremely large problems and they're not easily solved.

It almost feels like we expect there to be a simple solution for everything. I've observed before that there is a lot of talk about problems that are incredibly complex as if they really aren't that complex. Everyone is trying to "solve" these problems, but as I've noted many times, we don't so much solve problems as we trade one set of problems for another (with the hope that the new set of problems is more favorable than the old). What's more, we expect these "solutions" to come at a high level. In politics, this translates to a Federal solution rather than relying upon state and local solutions. A Federal law has the conceit of being universal and fair, but I don't think that's really true. When it comes to large problems, perhaps the answer isn't large solutions, but small ones. Indeed, that's one of the great things about the structure of our government - we have state and local governments which (in theory) are more responsive and flexible than the Federal government. I think what you find with a centralized solution is something that attempts to be everything to everyone, and as a result, it doesn't help anyone.

For example, Bruce Schneier recently wrote about identity theft laws.
California was the first state to pass a law requiring companies that keep personal data to disclose when that data is lost or stolen. Since then, many states have followed suit. Now Congress is debating federal legislation that would do the same thing nationwide.

Except that it won't do the same thing: The federal bill has become so watered down that it won't be very effective. I would still be in favor of it -- a poor federal law is better than none -- if it didn't also pre-empt more-effective state laws, which makes it a net loss.
It's a net loss because the state laws are stricter. This also brings up another point about centralized systems - they're much more vulnerable to attack than a decentralized or distributed system. It's much easier to lobby against (or water down) a single Federal law than it is to do the same thing to 50 state laws. State and local governments aren't perfect either, but their very structure makes them a little more resilient. Unfortunately, we seem to keep focusing on big problems and proposing big centralized solutions, bypassing rather than taking advantage of the system our founding fathers wisely put into place.

Am I doing what I decry here? Am I being alarmist? Probably. The trend for increasing federalization is certainly not new. However, in an increasingly globalized world, I'm thinking that resilience will come not from large centralized systems, but at the grassroots level. During the recent French riots, John Robb observed:
Resilience isn't limited to security. It is also tied to economic prosperity. There aren't any answers to this on the national level. The answer is at the grassroots level. It is only at that level that you get the flexibility, innovation, and responsiveness to compete effectively. The first western country that creates a platform for economic interop and at the same time decentralizes power over everything else is going to be a big winner.
None of this is to say that grassroots efforts are perfect. There are a different set of issues there. But as I've observed many times in the past, the fact that there are issues shouldn't stop us. There are problems with everything. What's important is that the new issues we face be more favorable than the old...
Posted by Mark on May 14, 2006 at 08:13 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Saturday, May 13, 2006

Technology Link Dump
My last post on technological change seems to have struck a nerve and I've been running across a lot of things along similar lines this week... Here are a few links on the subject:
  • Charlie Stross is writing his next novel on his cell phone:
    Being inclined towards crazy stunt performances, I'm planning on writing "Halting State" on my mobile phone. This is technologically feasible because the phone in question has more memory and online storage than every mainframe in North America in 1972 (and about the same amount of raw processing power as a 1977-vintage Cray-1 supercomputer). It's a zeitgeist thing: I need to get into the right frame of mind, and I need to use a mobile phone for the same reason Neal Stephenson used a fountain pen when he wrote the Baroque cycle. Afters all, I want to stick my head ten years into the future. Personal computers are already pass´┐Ż; sales are declining, performance is stagnating, the real action is all in the interstitial networked devices that keep washing up on the beaches of our bandwidth ocean, crazy-weird things like 3G phones and battery-powered network attached storage boxes and bluetooth-controlled vibrators. (It's getting weird out there in embedded intelligence land; the net is alive to the sound of pinging toasters, RFID chips are the latest virus target, and people are making business deals inside computer games.)
    I have yet to read one of Stross's novels, but he's in the queue...
  • Speaking of speculative fiction, Steven Den Beste has a post on Chizumatic (no permalinks, so you'll have to go a scrollin') about the difficulties faced in creating a plausible science fiction story placed in the future:
    1. Science and engineering now are expanding on an exponential curve.
    2. But not equally in all areas. In some areas they have run up against intransigent problems.
    3. Advances in one area can have incalculably large effects on other areas which at first seem completely unrelated.
    4. Much of this is driven by economic forces in ways which are difficult to predict or even understand after the fact.

    For instance, there was a period in which the main driver of technical advances in desktop computing was business use. But starting about 1994 that changed, and for a period of about ten years the bleeding edge was computer gamers. ...

    You look at the history of technological development and it becomes clear that it isn't possible for any person to predict it. I can tell you for sure that when we were working on the Arpanet at BBN in the 1980's, we didn't have the slightest clue as to what the Internet would eventually become, or all the ways in which it would be used. The idea of 8 megabit pipes into the home was preposterous in the extreme -- but that's what I've got. This is James Burke's "Connections" idea: it all relates, and serendipitous discoveries in one area can revolutionize other areas which are not apparently related in any way. How much have advances in powered machinery changed the lives and careers of farmers, for instance?

    With acceleration in development of new technologies, just what kind of advances could we really expect 200 years from now? The only thing that's certain is that it's impossible for us to guess. But if you posit interstellar travel by then, then there should be a lot of advances in other areas, and those advances may be used in "unimportant" ways to make life easier for people, and not just in big-ticket "obvious" ways.
    It's an excellent post and it ends on an... interesting note.
  • Shamus found an old 2001 article in PC Gamer speculating what computers would be like in 2006. It turns out that in some areas (like CPU speed), they were wildly overoptimistic, in other areas (broadband and portable devices), not so much.
  • Your Upgrade Is Ready: This popular mechanics article summarizes some advancements on the biological engineering and nanotechnology front.
    Weddell seals can stay underwater comfortably for more than an hour. As concrete-shoe wearers have discovered, humans can't make it past a few minutes. Why not? The seals don't have enormous lungs in comparison to humans--but they do have extraordinary blood, capable of storing great quantities of oxygen. Robert Freitas, a research fellow at the Institute of Molecular Manufacturing, has published a detailed blueprint for an artificial red blood cell, which he calls a respirocyte. Injected into the bloodstream, these superefficient oxygen-grabbers could put the scuba industry out of business.

    As Freitas envisions it, each respirocyte--a ball measuring a thousandth of a millimeter across--is a tiny pressurized gas tank. Inject the balls and they course through the blood vessels, releasing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide in the body's periphery and recharging themselves with oxygen in the lungs. Freitas says respirocytes would transport oxygen 236 times more efficiently than red blood cells--and a syringeful could carry as much oxygen as your entire bloodstream.
    I tend to take stuff like this with a grain of salt, as such overviews usually end up being a little more sensational than reality, but still interesting reading. [via Event Horizon]
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2006 at 12:39 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.



Sunday, May 07, 2006

Is Technology Advancing or Declining?
In Isaac Asimov's novel Prelude to Foundation, an unknown mathematician named Hari Seldon travels from his podunk home planet to the Galactic Empire's capital world to give a presentation on a theoretical curiosity he dubs psychohistory (which is essentially a way to broadly predict the future). Naturally, the potential for this theory attracts the powerful, and Seldon goes on the run with the help of a journalist friend named Chetter Hummin. Hummin contends that "The Galactic Empire is Dying." Seldon is frankly surprised by this thesis and eventually asks for an explanation:
... "all over the Galaxy trade is stagnating. People think that because there are no rebellions at the moment and because things are quiet that all is well and that the difficulties of the past few centuries are over. However, political infighting, rebellions, and unrest are all signs of a certain vitality too. But now there's a general weariness. It's quiet, not because people are satisfied and prosperous, but because they're tired and have given up."

"Oh, I don't know," Seldon said dubiously.

"I do. And the Antigrav phenomenon we've talked about is another case in point. We have a few gravitic lifts in operation, but new ones aren't being constructed. It's an unprofitable venture and there seems no interest in trying to make it profitable. The rate of technological advance has been slowing for centuries and is down to a crawl now. In some cases, it has stopped altogether. Isn't this something you've noticed? After all, you're a mathematician."

"I can't say I've given the matter any thought."
Hummin acknowledges that he could be wrong (partly out of a desire to manipulate Seldon to develop psychohistory so as to confirm whether or not the Empire really is dying), but those who've read the Foundation Novels know he's right.

The reasons for this digression into decaying Galactic Empires include my affinity for quoting fiction to make a point and a post by Ken at ChicagoBoyz regarding technological stagnation (which immediately made me think of Asimov's declining Empire). Are we in a period of relative technological stagnation? I'm hardly an expert, but I have a few thoughts.

First, what constitutes advance or stagnation? Ken points to a post that argues that the century of maximum change is actually the period 1825-1925. It's an interesting post, but it only pays lipservice to the changes he sees occurring now:
From time to time I stumble across articles by technology-oriented writers claiming that we're living in an era of profound, unprecedented technological change. And their claim usually hinges on the emergence of the computer.

Gimme a break.

I'll concede that in certain areas such as biology and medicine, changes over the past few decades have been more profound than at any time in history. And true, computers have made important changes in details of our daily lives.

But in those daily life terms, the greatest changes happened quite a while ago.
The post seems to focus on disruptive changes, but if something is not disruptive, does that really mean that technology is not advancing? And why are changes in transportation capabilities (for instance) more important than communication, biology, or medicine? Also, when we're talking about measuring technological change over a long period of time, it's worth noting that advances or declines would probably not move in a straight line. There would be peaks where it seems like everything is changing at once, and lulls when it seems like nothing is changing (even though all the pieces may be falling into place for a huge change).

Most new technological advances are really abstracted efficiencies - it's the great unglamorous march of technology. They're small and they're obfuscated by abstraction, thus many of the advances are barely noticed. Computers and networks represent a massive improvement in information processing and communication capabilities. I'd wager that even if we are in a period of relative technological stagnation (which I don't think we are), we're going to pull out of it in relatively short order because the advent of computers and networks means that information can spread much faster than it could in the past. A while ago, Steven Den Beste argued that the four most important inventions in history are: "spoken language, writing, movable type printing and digital electronic information processing (computers and networks)."
When knowledge could only spread by speech, it might take a thousand years for a good idea to cross the planet and begin to make a difference. With writing it could take a couple of centuries. With printing it could happen in fifty years. With computer networks, it can happen in a week if not less. ... That's a radical change in capability; a sufficient difference in degree to represent a difference in kind. It means that people all over the world can participate in debate about critical subjects with each other in real time.

We're already seeing some of the political, technological and cultural effects of the Internet, and this is just a start. What this means is that drastic cultural shakeout cannot be avoided. The next fifty years are going to be a very interesting time as the Internet truly creates the Global Village.
Indeed, part of the reason technologists are so optimistic about the rate of technological change is that we see it all the time on the internet. We see some guy halfway across the world make an observation or write a script, and suddently it shows up everywhere, spawning all sorts of variants and improvements. When someone invents something these days, it only takes a few days for it to be spread throughout the world and improved upon.

Of course, there are many people who would disagree with Ken's assertion that we're in a period of technological stagnation. People like Ray Kurzweil or Vernor Vinge would argue that we're on the edge of a technological singularity - that technology is advancing so quickly that we can't quantify it, and that we're going to eventually use technology to create an entity with greater than human intelligence.

I definitely think there is a problem with determining the actual rate of change. As I mentioned before, what qualifies as a noteworthy change? It's also worth noting that long-term technological effects are sometimes difficult to forecast. Most people picture the internet as being a centrally planned network, but it wasn't. Structurally, the internet is more like an evolving ecosystem than anything that was centrally designed. Those who worked on the internet in the 1960s and 1970s probably had no idea what it would eventually become or how it would affect our lives today. And honestly, I'm not sure we know today what it will be like in another 30 years...

One of the reasons I quoted Asimov's novel at the beginning of this post is that I think he captured what a technologically declining civilization would be like. The general weariness, the apathy, and the lack of desire to even question why. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that things are slowing down these days. Perhaps we're in a lull (it sure doesn't seem like it though), but I can see that edge, and I don't see weariness in those that will take us there...
Posted by Mark on May 07, 2006 at 06:59 PM .: link :.



Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Super Mario Mega Marathon of Madness
Perhaps loyal Kaedrin reader Samael has too much time on his hands:
Because I have too much free time on the weekends, and because I loves me some Mario, I'm going to have a little marathon session this weekend.

The goal: Conquer the worlds of Super Mario Brothers, in order, in as little time as I can.

I'll play through the console versions of the Super Mario games, starting with the original Super Mario Bro., and finishing with Super Mario Sunshine for Gamecube. For the sake of convenience, I'll be using the Mario All-Stars version of the first few games, so that I don't have to drag out my old-school NES. I've set rules for myself, because I am lame. The only rules are that I can't use any cheats or exploits, and I can't use warp-pipes or warp whistles to skip levels. This really only effects the first few games, since it's easy to work your way around levels in the later Mario games.
Bowser!

He started about 7 hours ago (he's posting updates in my forum as he goes), and appears to still be going strong. Some highlights:
1 pm: The slot machine thing- to get free guys- is really hard to win.
It only further reinforces my general dislike of gambling.

Except for poker.

I still like poker.

I'd totally kick Bowser's ass in a poker tourney.

3 pm: Mario looks like a doggy when he crouches with the racoon tail.

3:30 pm: World 4's boss is named Larry, I think. His ship didn't have any cannons on it- only the fire-spewing engines. Despite this, it had two power-up boxes. Crazy.

3:35 pm: It took me 12 seconds to defeat Larry.
That's what he gets for being blue, and for wearing antlers on his hat.
What a tool.
Again, he's still going. Read all about it in the forum.

Update: Anyone ever heard Mr. Bungle's version of the Super Mario theme? Supposedly, they also do a good Tetris theme as well. I wish they'd release another album...

Update 6 pm: "I've crushed Bowser's Army, his Navy, and his Air Force. What's next King of the Koopas?

"I'm coming for you Bowser. I'm coming for you like Rambo."
Posted by Mark on May 06, 2006 at 04:26 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.



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