Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari

I was in the library the other day, and it occurred to me to search for "Atari" in the card catalog, and I found this book by Scott Cohen. It has a very interesting perspective, given that it was written in 1984, right as the videogame crash was happening. The author, who makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't like videogames, and who suggests that everyone in silicon valley is an alcoholic and/or a drug addict, sees the crash as evidence of the end of a fad. I remember distinctly, in second grade, seeing a "Scholastic News" article (printed on that colored pulp paper back in the 70's) asking the question "Are videogames just a fad?" and I remember thinking that was absolutely impossible. And I guess I had it right, unlike videogame hater Scott Cohen. However -- he had some other things quite right indeed, that I'll get to in a moment.

Okay... what did I learn from this book?

1) A lot of details about how Nolan Bushnell ran his businesses. He was incredibly vision oriented, without a lot of focus on practicalities. Making a machine for $1100 and selling it for $1000, like he did with Gran Trak 10? We'll make it up in volume. Focus on one thing at a time? Nope... arcade games, home games, and even Chuck E. Cheese were all worked on simultaneously. I had always seen Pizza Time Theater as something that game later, but no, it was created in parallel with Atari.

2) Space Invaders was very, very important. As I mentioned here, I knew that it transformed arcades... but what I did not know was that it also transformed home video games! After all, The Atari, the Odyssey, and the Fairchild Channel F system were all out on the market in 1977, and mostly, people didn't care. But when Space Invaders hit in 1978, suddenly the world went videogame crazy, and not only did this change arcades, but suddenly people wanted home systems too, and Atari rode that to great success. And of course, the fact that they landed the first videogame license ever (Space Invaders) helped them enormously.

3) After Warner bought Atari ($28M) they managed it well at times, getting strong licenses (like Pac-Man) but other times managed it incredibly badly. It seems they were arrogant, and did not really understand the retail business, even though Atari had become 70% of their revenue! Their biggest mistake was 1982, when they didn't realize that retailers were cancelling orders all over the place, and they kept manufacturing anyway, which led to the famous ET debacle. They found themselves in a situation where they were creatively bankrupt (just LOOK at 2600 Pac-Man) and also had no grasp of the business they were in.

Again, this book was written 33 years ago, and so it is amusing to hear the thinking of the day on what the future will be like. Scott talks endlessly about the promise of holography (people really believed it was the future of displays), and how "nothing will surpass the laserdisk", which is all very quaint. But then he says something rather startling. He suggests that the next big thing might come out of Bell Labs. "Although a communications company like Bell is not an entertainment company like Warner, it can leap-frog the entertainment industry. People can be entertained by something outside the entertainment market; it's just a question of how you define entertainment... Look at what people spend their money on. If there were a neat little terminal and it put people in touch with everything they wanted to be in touch with, people would stop playing video games." That sounds an awful lot like a vision of the web browser to me, and back in 1984. I guess it should come as no surprise to me that his inaccurate projections come from looking at technology of the day, and his accurate ones come from looking at what people actually want... that is, after all, the only method that works!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America

I picked up this book by Michael Z. Newman at GDC this year because I am always interested in videogame history, and in particular, I'm an Atari fanatic. Lately, I've become obsessed with collecting every possible Atari 2600 cart, and stitching them all together into one giant game... but that's another story.

From this book, I hoped to get some insight into the story of how Atari happened, and how it defined videogames. And... I got half of that. This book is very light on business and software development history, instead focusing on the impact of games on popular culture. Specifically, it focuses on 1972-1983, a relatively narrow and interesting focus. I can't say I learned a lot of facts from this book, but I definitely took away some interesting perspectives. Basically, here are my big three takeaways from this book.

1) Space Invaders. I always understood that Space Invaders was very popular, I remember, I was there when it happened. But what had not sunk in with me is exactly what a tipping point this one game was. As Newman tells it, before Space Invaders, video machines were viewed as lesser novelties by arcade owners. I remember these machines well - various car race games, games like Sea Wolf, etc. Apparently, they broke a lot, and didn't pull in the big money that pinball tended to. Space Invaders changed everything. Suddenly, a video machine was pulling in WAY more money than pinball machines. The dozens of successful arcade games that rapidly followed were all drafting off of the success of Space Invaders. It is yet another case of a single hit giving legitimacy to an entire industry. In many ways I feel that at this moment, VR is in the "Sea Wolf" stage. We have some good games, but we haven't yet had a breakout hit. But it will come, and when it does, it will change everything.

2) Pac-Man. Until I'd read Atari Age, I did not fully comprehend that Pac-Man was expressly created to reach a female audience, and the fact that it succeeded at doing so was central to its success. I remember when Pac-Man appeared, and it was like a new level of arcade machine, like going from the PC to the Mac in 1984. I remember saving up three dollars worth of quarters, riding my bike all the way out to Pavolo's Pizza one day, and carefully playing each game, studying and trying to master it. I was stunned and amazed when I finally saw the first cut scene -- no videogame before had contained that level of whimsical storytelling. We all wondered what other secrets this complex game might contain. I remember my babysitter was so proud to introduce me to her girlfriend who was good enough to get up the key screen. So, Pac-Man was notable in that it may have been the first game that intentionally sought a female audience, and actually succeeded in doing so.

3) Selling the Future. Atari Age spends a LOT of time analyzing advertisements for early computers. At first this seemed kind of ludicrous to me... the ads are cute, but why are they relevant? But soon it started to dawn on me -- what is really being analyzed here is what the psychology of the home computer really was. What was being sold was, yes, a business machine, and yes, a game machine, but something else, too: a gateway to intellectual mastery of the future. The possibility of becoming a "computer whiz" was central to these advertisements, and all that entailed. I remember these ads because they had me enraptured. I wanted to be that computer whiz, to own the future that way, so very badly. Looking back, a lot of it was false promises. But then, really, a lot of it wasn't. Sure, one was unlikely to get a job programming the VIC-20 or the Atari 800, but these things were a doorway to programming. And I, for one, stepped through that doorway, and it changed my life. Honestly, I don't think any product is sold under this premise any more... it is a difference in generations. There is no product today that promises that you will become a genius and master the future if learn to use it. What would that product even look like today?

So, anyway, I got some good things out of Atari Age, just not what I expected. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some Yars' Revenge to play.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Writing

I was excited when I found this "On Writing" book of Charles Bukowski letters edited by Abel Debritto. It is a collection of his letters that relate to writing and creative process. I was assuming it would be letters full of good, solid, thought provoking advice. I've always connected with Bukowski's writing, especially the poems. There is a raw power, and a kind of brutal honesty that I always enjoy.

Unfortunately, I think this book might have ruined Bukowski for me! They say you shouldn't get too close to your heroes, and I think THEY ARE RIGHT. I had always lived with the illusion that he lived his life like he tells it in his many poems. One day at a time, focused on hedonistic pleasures until life catches up with him, and then trudging through the dull parts of life until he could break away and live in the moment again, and occasionally banging out a poem along the way. Instead, these letters paint a picture of a neurotic, obsessed with how people see him. He talks endlessly about comparisons to other poets, making clear that his uneducated affect is just an act. Instead of a happy-go-lucky drunk, instead we see an obsessed, neurotic drunk, whose self-esteem is defined by how his poems are received. The way he paints his life in the poems always seemed a bit too good to be true, and these letters make clear that it was. I can't decide if this make Bukowski a more complex figure, or a simpler one. It does make clear, though, what he was wrestling with... a desire for immortality.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Beauty

I first found the poems of Jane Hirshfield in Poetry magazine, and was immediately captured by her quiet, pleasing, very specific poems. She is a kind of modern day Emily Dickinson, with poems like

My Species

a small purple artichoke
in its own bittered
and darkening
grows tender,
grows tender and sweet

patience, I think,
my species

keep testing the spiny leaves

the spiny heart

Not all her poems are so short, there are some of a more medium length. And some are very short little poetry magic tricks, like

Two Linen Handkerchiefs

How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still

I guess I should buy a copy, since as I thumb through it again, I find myself not wanting to have to return it to the library. Sometimes I worry that good poetry doesn't get written anymore, and it is a comfort to find a book like this.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

All Things Alice

This is something of a novelty book -- a random collage of things to do with Alice in Wonderland: excerpts from the book, letters from Lewis Carroll, trivia, quotes, influences, descendants, popular culture, and even recipes. Everything is presented in a full-bleed artistic format, so it makes for a fine coffee table book, nice to leaf through. It has no continuity at all, and so fittingly, like a dream, I find it impossible to remember anything that I read in it.

Monday, September 5, 2016

So, You Want to Be a Coder?

I picked this up because I wondered what advice the world was giving kids about coding these days. We certainly have come a long way from the books I started with in the 80's, which mostly took two forms: first, "Here's some badly written examples of BASIC programs written in a dialect that likely won't work on your computer," and second, "Here's what a computer is, CPU, ROM, RAM, blah, blah, blah," which was equally disappointing because it didn't really provide any knowledge you could use. The first kind of book at the very least forced you learn debugging!

This book is a whole different story. It is full of interviews with real software developers, telling stories of how they got into coding, and what they like about it. It also explains a great deal about the realities of software development, and does a decent job outlining the kinds of projects you might get into (web, systems, games, AI, robots, security/hacking). It also outlines the languages you are likely to be working in (I must admit that I am kind of freaked out that computer languages seem to have stopped changing and improving at this point. Will we really be writing in C++ in the year 2030?), and talks about their differences. The one thing it does not do is teach any coding. Honestly, I think that was the best choice the author could make -- she leaves the long process of coding instruction to other books or media, and spends her time framing up the experience of coding. The only part of the book I disliked somewhat was a quiz at the beginning that suggests that if you'd rather work with other people than work alone, then coding probably isn't for you, which I think is both an incorrect and insulting stereotype.

You can see from the cover that the book is somewhat slanted at girls, but not overly so. There is a lot of "bubble writing" on the inside, and emphasis on the personal experience of coding, but overall I would say it only slants towards girls in a kind of 60/40 way, which seems more than fair given the history of coding books which have slanted the other direction.

In short, if you have a tween that is thinking about a career in coding, this book would be a great complement to their attempts to learn to code, helpfully putting the possibilities of coding into context.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Life of Samuel Johnson

The Life of Samuel Johnson is one of those books that if you read a lot, particularly if you read a lot about literature, just keeps coming up. I first met Johnson and Boswell in The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. Again I met them in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Eventually I felt like I was hearing Boswell mentioned all the time, and after reading a review of a new biography of Johnson in The London Review of Books, I decided that it was time that I paid an overdue visit to the home of Boswell and Johnson. It is a daunting book, a very long and large book, and I did not imagine that I would really be able to read it. But an audiobook is a different story -- I could commit 30 minutes a day to that via my commute. Surely, there must be one at the Pittsburgh library -- but there was not! Did one exist? It turns out, it does exist -- an edition on CD from Blackstone audiobooks. Maybe I'll just buy it? Turns out it is 43 hours, and costs $200! On a whim, I put in a request to the library, asking whether they would consider buying it. I got a prompt response: they were surprised they did not own it, and would be glad to order it for their collection. And so, not only was I able to listen to it, I got it fresh from the publisher. But could I really sit through 43 CDs? It turns out I could!

It is kind of funny that the book is so acclaimed. Its moments of insight are rare. What it possesses is something special: a deep love of the biographer for his subject. What seems to have happened, more or less, was the James Boswell was a big time fanboy of Samuel Johnson. And at some point when Boswell was in his twenties, and Johnson was in his fifties, Boswell gets to meet his idol. They become friends, and Boswell then spends the next decades slavishly diarizing every encounter he has with Johnson, and everything he hears about him. This results in a somewhat peculiar biography: Johnson's first fifty years are covered somewhat briskly, and in summary. Then the book settles down with day by day descriptions of what Johnson did and said, often word for word, with conversations presented as if they were the script of a play. The result is not a view of Johnson from a distance, but the feeling that you are sitting in an eighteenth century drawing room with Boswell and Johnson, being part of the conversation. Some of this conversation, naturally is about philosophy, but most of it is gossip, and arguably, the value of the book comes more from the picture of eighteenth century life that it paints, rather than for its picture of Johnson's life in particular. Details of how book publishing worked at that time are spoken of in detail (the booksellers themselves were often the publishers, and authors generally paid a fixed price with no royalties) and one hears about all kinds of details of daily life that you might not find out any other way. For example, London apparently had a law limiting the number of hansom cabs, giving out exactly 1000 licenses, which were displayed prominently on each cab. Johnson mentions a day when he happened to notice cab #1 and number #1000 parked right next to each other. Interesting, this system seems to have changed little in about 200 years.

As for Johnson himself, he is a very strange figure. Fat, ugly to the point of disfigurement, slovenly, limping, and with strange tics and mannerisms. Despite all this, he was not only incredibly accomplished, but proud to the point of arrogance. He had strong opinions on everything. He seems like the kind of person whose brash intensity would push most people away, and one sometimes gets the impression that he was included in London society primarly as an amusing figure, as a sort of freak. But he clearly had several close friends, who appreciated the double-edged sword of brash truth. Boswell is constantly relating conversations where Johnson got "very hot" (angry) to the point he would lose his temper. But it would take a person of a peculiar temperament to write a whole dictionary himself. For while Johnson did a lot of writing, this is clearly his most singular accomplishment: writing the very first English dictionary. A French dictionary existed at this time, created by dozens of professors over many years. Somehow, through intense effort, Johnson created a complete dictionary almost completely by himself, in just a few years. Further, his greater accomplishment may be his creation of a magazine called The Rambler, which he mostly penned by himself, and was widely celebrated for its insight and overall excellence. One suspects he must have been somewhere on the autism spectrum, and used that to his full advantage.

Anyway, I'm glad I took time to experience this entire book. It gave me a great view of life in the eighteenth century, it rekindled my interest in Latin (Johnson is constantly quoting Juvenal and others), and I feel like I got to know Johnson and Boswell. This book is perhaps best known for its Johnson quotes: here are a few of my favorites.

  • Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
  • No man ever yet became great by imitation.
  • Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.
  • A boy should be introduced to such books by having his attention directed to the arrangement, to the style, and other excellencies of composition; that the mind being thus engaged by an amusing variety of objects may not grow weary.
  • WHO is ruined by gaming? You will not find six instances in an age.
  • All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.
  • A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.
  • Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.
  • Getting money is not all a man's business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.
  • He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.
  • What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
  • Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
and finally, this one, which I think sums up Johnson perfectly:
  • Don't think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire. I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.
I feared I would not be able to make it through such a long and strange book. But once I settled to its rhythm, I really enjoyed it, and when it was over, I find that I missed visiting with Boswell and Johnson each day. 

You may have noticed that I haven't written much in my blog lately. With everything I have going on, it's been hard to fit writing into my life, hard to decide where it should fit. But even though I finished this book some time ago, it has continued to be on my mind, I think partly because it is a book about the discipline of writing. It certainly is about Johnson's discipline, but also Boswell's: if he did not have the discipline to so thoroughly diarize his conversations with Johnson, this book wouldn't exist. I have some hard decisions to make about how to fit the discipline of writing into my own life. In any case, I'm very glad to be able to check this book off my list, and I'm pleased with the impressions it has left on my life and habits.