Another Friday giant-list update

It’s Friday, and I have no concrete ideas for a larger update, yet have all of these smaller bits and pieces, so here goes:

  • I try to take notes of all of my ideas, but 90% of the time, they make no sense later.  I did this at some point in the middle of the night, and woke up to a note on my keyboard, in red pen and underlined several times, that simply said “ALIENS”.
  • I am going to see Close Encounters on the big screen tonight at the Paramount, which might be part of it.
  • It is now dark enough when I wake that I need to use the full-spectrum light.  This means soon we will reach the nighttime temperatures that involve felines fighting over who gets to sleep on which human’s head or feet to keep warm.
  • I bought this stuff called “miracle noodles”, on my latest diet rampage.  It’s this Asian noodle, like an angel-hair pasta, which has zero calories and carbs and is pretty much just strands of fiber.  They come packed in little six-ounce bags filled with water.  Most reviews said they have a peculiar smell when you first open them, until you rinse them off.  That “peculiar” smell is the smell of stale semen.  Once you rinse them off and boil them for a minute, they’re essentially flavorless, and will pick up the flavor of whatever you mix them with.
  • Another thing I got, while guilt-shopping on Amazon for anything to help me maintain weight, is this stuff called PB2, which is a powdered peanut butter which has had all of the fats and oils pressed out of it.  A tablespoon of the real deal has either 3 or 4 weight watcher points, but two tablespoons of PB2 has one point.  It tastes pretty much like the real deal, albeit the slight inconvenience of mixing it together for reconstitution.
  • I made a salad-type thing with the miracle noodles, the fake peanut butter, some rice wine vinegar and sesame oil, soy sauce, baked tofu, bean sprouts, white cabbage, and scallions.  It was surprisingly good.
  • I was never a big peanut butter person, especially since weight loss, since an appreciable amount of chunky peanut butter is about a half-day of points.  I also never liked putting peanut butter on white bread, and then the knife tears through the bottom of the bread.  And you can’t make a peanut butter sandwich on pumpernickel.  (Well, maybe you can.)
  • My strongest memory of peanut butter is getting a jar of Jif and a box of saltine crackers in a care package in college, sitting in bed between classes on the day of the first snow in 1989, looking out over a white-covered campus, listening to an Art of Noise album and making little peanut butter and cracker sandwiches.
  • I got jury duty.  Day after labor day, but it’s one of those things where you call in the night before and most of the time they tell you not to come in.  I guess this is because Oakland is so crime-free.
  • Every time I go to Rite-Aid there is a commercial playing on the PA saying that you should buy a book of the Forever stamps.  I seldom mail anything anymore, but I also never know when there will be another rate increase, which seems to happen constantly, so I almost always buy a book of the stamps.  (They aren’t really a book though; more like a sheet of stickers.)
  • I remember when first-class letter stamps were only 20 cents, from a brief and fleeting childhood interest in philately. It seemed like forever between 20 cents and when they raised it to 22 cents.  It now seems like they raise it another penny every other time I have to mail something.  I don’t know if that’s a function of inflation or my perception of time.
  • I changed themes here on WordPress, to the latest Twenty-Eleven theme, which isn’t that different.  I did change the font, though, using google web fonts.  I think it’s more readable, but I might hate it in a month.  The biggest problem with changing themes is I always fall down this k-hole of trying different themes and not knowing which one to choose, trying and trying until I eventually go back and use the first one I tried.
  • Someone on facebook started a memorial group for all of the people from my high school that have died.  I didn’t join, but I paged through it, and it’s majorly depressing.  Other than my neighbor Peter that died in a car crash when he was 18, I wasn’t particularly close to anyone who has died yet, but I definitely remember many of them.
  • As far as I know, none of my ex-girlfriends have died.  I think when that happens, I will be freaked the fuck out.
  • Two of my exes are now in Texas.
  • Sarah was in Milwaukee for a week, and while in bachelor mode, I got almost no writing done.  I would sit down to write and fall into these endless wikipedia k-holes that would keep me up half the night, googling about prison food and serial killers and space shuttle computers and obsolete video game systems.  If you ever get to the point where it’s after midnight and you’re furiously searching for a primer on set theory, just go to bed.
  • I bought one of those Apple magic trackpads, which is really nice, but it’s only bluetooth, so I can’t use it through my KVM on both machines.  I have it sitting next to my trackball and use it on the mac only, which is a waste.  I wish the entire right side of my desk was a giant trackpad, and I could use it for gestures and stuff, but I’d probably end up putting my arm or elbow on it too much.

Okay, time to get some real work done.


What happened to hypercard?

Hypercard was released 25 damn years ago.  Has it been that long?

Back in college, I spent a lot of time screwing around on the Mac, and there were certain programs that welded that old-school 68K Classic Mac experience in my mind.  One of them was Aldus PageMaker, which was the desktop publishing program of the day. This was in the very early 90s, in the days of DOS and WordPerfect 5.1, when the most advanced publishing work you could do on the WinTel side of things was using italics.  But the Mac had this funky and advanced program that enabled you to create page layouts and cool newsletters and even newspapers.  I saw many a journalism student slaving away on those old black-and-white Apples with the tiny grey screens, tweaking layouts and dumping fantastic publications to postscript printers.  I later learned PageMaker by doing the last issue of my old zine Xenocide in it, spending months tweaking page borders and reflowing columns.

The other program I messed with endlessly was HyperCard.  This was something included on all of the old Macs, and it was incredibly interesting to me.  Basically, you created a stack of cards, and each card could have a mix of text and clip art graphics on it.  But you could also plop controls on the cards, like links or text boxes.  You could then hook up those controls to link cards to each other, or do other freaky stuff like run scripts.

This sounds pretty pedestrian compared to what we do daily on the web.  And it sounds disturbingly like PowerPoint, which is probably one of the most evil things created in the business world. But back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, these concepts were absolutely revolutionary.  And even better, the interface to HyperCard was not that intimidating.  If you could make basic art in MacPaint or write a paper in WordPerfect, you could easily create a HyperCard stack.

I remember spending a lot of time at work creating a choose-your-own-adventure game using HyperCard.  I forget exactly what it was – I think it was a game about trying to score drugs on a college campus, and you could click on various pictures to move around.  It wasn’t exactly as sophisticated as the Zork series, but it was something I could do at work, under the guise of “learning more about HyperCard.”  I never learned much about the scripting language, but I did work with some people who did pretty sophisticated stacks.  The system was widely used by education majors, I guess to develop learning tools for kids.  I guess the original Myst on the Mac was written in Hypercard, each of the worlds a Hypercard stack, interlaced with heavy-duty graphics and audio, presented with custom plug-ins.

Like I said, the web came along, and HyperCard more or less vanished.  It was one of the products developed by Claris, which was spun off from Apple and then later re-merged.  The last version of HyperCard came out in 1996, but it was one of the projects killed by Steve Jobs after his return.  You could run old versions for a while, but it did not survive the jump from OS9 to OSX.  You could get it to work in Classic emulation on newer systems, but it only worked on PPC Macs.  On today’s Intel-based machines running later versions of OSX, it doesn’t work at all.

Its one big legacy on the Mac is that the HyperTalk scripting language was adapted and added to System 7, and called AppleScript.  It’s still around in modern versions of OS X, and is even more interesting, now that you can run unix commands from within AppleScript.  It influenced the development of HTTP, JavaScript, and Ward Cunningham said the whole idea of wikis goes back to using HyperText.

To me, HyperCard was always a bit of a missed opportunity.  I think it would be very easy for casual users to create HyperCard stacks and then use some kind of tool to push them to a web site; it would potentially be easier to create high-quality interactive web sites with something like that.  There are probably many programs that you could buy to do that, but none that come with your operating system and follow its UI paradigm.  It would also be great to develop mobile apps.  I could see creating a stack, testing it out on your computer, then pushing it through a compiler and shooting out a binary that could be run on a phone or tablet.  You couldn’t write the next Skyrim that way, but for simple stuff, like interactive kid’s books or multimedia guides, it would be great.  Same thing for interactive books on the Kindle or iPad.

I know you can do all of these things with XCode or by hand or whatever, but there’s something about the ease of use by a non-programmer, and the availability on every Mac, that make this a different paradigm.  There are some conspiracy theories that Jobs killed Hypercard in order to solidify the division between creator and consumer.  I don’t know if that’s true; I think he killed it because Apple had eleventy billion disparate things going on when he returned, and none of them were getting the company closer to profitable hardware sales or a decent operating system.  It’s too bad we don’t have something like this anymore.



Shut The Fuck Up About Megapixels

I hate it when people think that more megapixels are better.  They are wrong.

This has been bugging the shit out of me ever since the latest Mars lander touched down.  Once people heard the probe had a two megapixel camera, the circle-jerk started.  “HEY MAN WTF DID THEY USE THAT CAMERA MY ANDROID HAS AN 8 MEGAPIXEL NASA SUX GLGLGLGLG”

Okay, back up a few steps.  Back in the old days, a camera worked by focusing light through a pinhole and onto a sheet of film, which chemically trapped that blast of light into something you could hang on a wall (after you did some developing process to the sheet involving trays of chemicals in a dark room, or dropping the shit off at Walgreen’s and waiting a week.)  That pinhole then evolved into a glass lens or a series of lenses that could be used to optically process what image ended up on what paper.

Digital cameras do away with the film part by using a computer chip that’s sensitive to light, called an image sensor.  That image sensor is divided up into millions of little pixels.  The number of pixels determines the camera’s resolution.  So if that sensor had 1024 by 1024 little square dots that reacted to light, it would be a one megapixel sensor. The sensors aren’t typically square, though; they’re usually in some rectangular format, which is why all of the pictures in your Facebook albums aren’t perfect squares.  An average cell phone is going to have a sensor that has an active area of about 5.3mm by 4.0 mm.  A consumer point/shoot is going to be a couple times wider and taller.  Canon’s DSLRs are either APS-C (22.2×14.8mm) or APS-H (28.7x19mm).  There are full format cameras that are even bigger.  Obviously, the bigger a sensor, the more it weighs, costs, and uses power.

When you take the size of the image sensor and divide it up by the number of pixels, you’re going to get the size of each pixel.  It’s like cutting a cake.  If I take one of those big sheet cakes from Kroger and cut it into four pieces, each piece is going to have 2876 Weight Watchers points in it, and will put you into a diabetic coma.  If you have to cut up the same cake for an office of six hundred people, each piece would conveniently fit in a thimble.  (A 16×24″ sheet cake cut into 2″ squares feeds 96 people, unless you’re serving it in Indiana, in which case it will serve about two dozen people, provided nobody’s scooter batteries die during the meal and leave them stranded away from the cake.)

The iPhone 4S uses a 4.54 x 3.42mm sensor.  Its capture size is 3264×2448, or 8 megapixels.  The Curiosity uses cameras based on the Kodak KAI-2020 sensor, which is a 1600×1200 capture size on a 13.36 x 9.52 mm chip.  That means the iPhone has a pixel size of 1.4 micrometers (or microns) square, and the KAI-2020 has a pixel pitch of 7.4 microns.  With a cell phone camera, you’re “serving” far more people cake, but with the larger format camera, you’re starting with a much bigger cake and sharing it with far fewer people.  So it “serves” nowhere near as many people, but those are some giant chunks of cake.

What does the size of the pixel mean?  First, you get much more detail with a larger pixel size, because the image that’s transferred through the optics and onto the sensor is going to be captured more faithfully.  It’s why your old 110 or disc film camera took such shitty pictures, and your 35mm camera didn’t; the larger a camera’s format, the more area it had to capture the image.  A small pixel size also limits the dynamic range, or the amount of range between highlight and shadow.  If you’re ever tried to take a picture with your cell phone when an extremely bright light was in the image, and you got  a shot of a bright ball of white surrounded by darkness, it’s because your camera couldn’t handle the dynamic range between the two.  And also, the smaller the pixel, the more noise that’s added to the picture, especially in low light conditions.

That doesn’t mean all high-megapixel cameras are junk, just high-megapixel cameras with small image sensors.  If you go pick up a Nikon D800, it’s a 36 megapixel camera, but it’s got a 24 x 35.9 mm sensor, so it’s a 4.88 micron pixel pitch.  That’s not quite the 7ish of NASA’s camera, but it’s much better than the 1.4 of an iPhone.  Of course, that D800 is going to cost you three grand plus lenses, and it’s not going to fit in your pocket or make phone calls or play Angry Birds.

There are a bunch of other factors involved in the difference between the Curiosity’s cameras and the ones on your phone.  First, your phone doesn’t have to deal with radiation or temperature extremes.  Also, they shopped around for a camera in 2004, and then tested the living fuck out of it before putting it on a rocket for space.  Your camera phone probably has a couple of tiny plastic lenses, while NASA hung much more complex optics off of their units.  And their budget was slightly bigger than that of a cell phone manufacturer, so they didn’t have to pinch pennies on the sensors they used.  And NASA typically takes a bunch of pictures, sends them on the slow link back to earth, then stitches them into the much larger images that you see.

It’s a shame that people are taught to judge hardware by numbers like this, and that we’re marketed hardware based on them.  I remember when I worked at Samsung, a meeting erupted into a giant argument, because everyone but me and another guy believed — KNEW — that a higher megapixel camera was always better, because… it had more megapixels.  It’s like when people talk about how their computer is so much better because it has a higher clock speed, without mentioning that their OS is burning way more cycles running crapware and antivirus software.  The 450 horsepower in a 36,000 pound low-geared John Deere is not better than the 430 horsepower in a 3200 pound Corvette.  It isn’t.


Baseball 2012

I haven’t been writing any posts about baseball this year.  Reason being, the wheels fell off the Rockies pretty early in the year, and then things just went from bad to worse.  I think I got a few weeks into April before I decided to stop watching, and things got exponentially worse after that.

I don’t know why I still follow the Rockies.  If I had any sense, I’d just jump on the Giants bandwagon, spend twice as much on tickets, and coast into the postseason with no problems.  But I started on this baseball kick when I lived a block from Coors Field, in that magic 2007 season, and now the curse of the whole thing is that I was programmed to like Colorado and hate the Giants and the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks and so on.

Okay, so 2011 ended in a shitstorm, a strong April start for the first damn time, and then the train completely derailed.  In 2009 and 2010, I had the ritual of counting wins and losses and magic numbers, coming out of a movie on a Saturday night and frantically starting up the MLB At Bat app on the iPhone to see if they managed to whittle away another half-game in the standings.  In 2009, they made the wild card; in 2010, there was hope, but they fettered it away.  In 2011, not even close.

Then you enter that period from October to February, where you hope the owners make some changes, dangle some big money out there for the free agents, hunt down some good roster moves with other teams.  Or, in the case of the Rockies’ ownership, it’s more like shopping for used tires in the five-dollar rack behind a shady gas station, picking through the leftovers for a mismatched set with almost enough tread to last you a month or two.  The Rockies almost never spend money on anything big, and this offseason was no different.  They did grab Marco Scutaro to fill in at second base, which seemed like an okay signing.  But the big need was pitching, and they got… Jamie Moyer, who is older than dirt; Jeremy Guthrie, a pop-fly pitcher, which never works out at Coors; and resigned to the fact the rest of the pitching staff would be the various minor-league parts and back-of-rotation pieces they had left over from 2011.

The 2012 injuries have been phenomenal. Here’s a partial list:

  • Jorge De La Rosa tore his arm apart in 2011 and had surgery.  There was talk that he’d be back early in the season; it’s August and after a couple of rough starts and setbacks, he’s just now starting to throw.
  • Juan Nicasio broke his neck last year after he got hit by a comebacker, and miraculously was throwing by spring training and started the season.  He’s now out with a leg injury requiring surgery.
  • Jeremy Guthrie, the #1 pitcher in the rotation, fell off his damn bike on the way to the park and screwed his shoulder.  He came back, had a complete meltdown, and was then pulled out of the rotation and later traded.
  • Jhoulys Chacin hasn’t pitched since May with some nerve inflammation issue.
  • Chris Nelson ended up in the hospital in July with an irregular heartbeat.
  • Jonathan Herrera went on the DL at the same time as Nelson because his arm got infected from his watch.  (Did he buy one of those Ro1ex watches in Chinatown?)
  • Troy Tulowitzki left with a groin injury in May that required season-ending surgery.
  • Christian Friedrich just got shut down for the season with a stress fracture in his back.
  • Jason Giambi’s been out since mid-July with the flu.
  • Todd Helton just had season-ending (and maybe career-ending) surgery on his hip.
  • Add to that a dozen and a half or more trips to the DL for various strains, sprains, and minor problems.

What’s even more laughable is how the ownership and management have treated the problem.  First, the plan going into this year was stupid, this “veteran movement” where a bunch of late-30s/early-40s players got slated for everyday positions.  That alone should have gotten the GM Dan O’Dowd fired and manager Jim Tracy demoted to equipment manager for the way he handled things day-to-day.  But instead, Tracy got an “indefinite contract extension”, and O’Dowd went on and on about how he was the greatest GM in the game.

So, the pitching rotation fell apart.  Only one pitcher (Drew Pomeranz) in the five-man rotation remains.  When everyone got gangrene or anthrax or hoof-and-mouth disease or traded to a minor-league team in Mexico, the powers that be thought it would be awesome to switch to a four-man rotation with a strict pitch count.  That essentially means none of Colorado’s starters will pitch more than 100 innings this year; none of them will be out of the single-digit win range, and what’s left of the bullpen will be majorly overtaxed.  This caused pitching coach Bob Apodaca to cry uncle and quit; he was replaced by “co-coaches”.

The Rockies were neither buyer or sellers at the trade deadline, which was odd.  I didn’t expect them to go hunting for new talent, which they did need, but wouldn’t do much good when you’re 20-some games out of first in your division.  But I also expected them to offload more of their long-term liabilities to get some younger prospects to start rebuilding.  They did trade Scutaro, and inexplicably added Jonathan Sanchez (who then lost three games and… wait for it… moved to the DL.)  But the inaction on O’Dowd’s part was a clear indicator that he thinks everything’s a-ok.

Everyone wants O’Dowd to quit.  And it looked like he would, but then he pulled some half-assed “co-managing” stunt, where he named his assistant the part-time GM or some lame bullshit like that, with him still “overseeing” everything.  It reminds me of when I worked for the university, and there would be these endless re-orgs, but with the same idiots in charge of the same flunkies, just with fancy new acronyms.

And I know running a baseball team’s probably hard work, and probably involves a certain amount of luck and momentum and blah blah blah.  I realize that if you can spend a quarter-billion dollars on salary, everything will be golden, and if you are in a small market, you’ve got to scrape and beg and borrow.  And I know that Coors is hell on pitchers.  But when you have a bunch of Jesus-freaks pushing their “everyone’s a winner” crap and never having the balls to just fire someone or maybe spend a few bucks on some outside talent, this is what you get.

And yet, I’m strangely nostalgic for the bastards.  It’s no fun to watch, and I will only occasionally check a score just to make sure they’re not getting no-hit.  I’m definitely not paying a couple grand to fly out to Denver and watch them drop two or three games to the Cubs or Padres.  And I’m not paying the now-hyperinflated AT&T Park ticket prices to sit in a sea of orange and watch the Rockies lose 16-2 to the Giants.  The season was over in April for me, and I do miss it, but it’s hard to grin and bear it at this point.


Recalling Total Recall

I always love to hear about a new movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story or book.  But I’ve been on the fence about the new Total Recall remake, mostly because I’ve always enjoyed the 1990 original movie.  It seems like almost every movie that comes out now, especially the big summer blockbusters, is just recycled garbage, reboots of comic book franchises that don’t need yet another reboot, or movies based on TV shows, video games, board games, and I’m predicting that by next summer, they’re going to do movies based on classic fast food items.  (Seriously, if you could get Jerry Bruckheimer to turn out McRib, it would do at least $100 million if you marketed it right.)  Most remakes are nothing but the lamest parts of the original movie, with a bunch of fake CGI and needless chase scenes.

I almost went to go see the new Total Recall this weekend, but I chickened out.  Instead, I dug up my DVD from the original 1990 version, and decided to give it a spin.  What’s interesting is that pretty much every reviewer that slams the new version says “the original was better,” but after a decade of distance from the movie, the 1990 version… kinda sucks.  I remember it as being pretty incredible, but after a re-watch, I’m of the opinion that aside from as the basis of a drinking game, it’s probably not worth watching again.

Here’s my list of reasons I thought the movie was much worse than I remembered:

  •  Arnold Schwarzenegger simply cannot act.  Or maybe he can act, but he can only play the kind of tough guy caricature that doesn’t work for the film.  I could see why the Terminator franchise was so good for him: the role of an emotionless killing machine with mechanical movements, minimal lines, and no required facial expressions works well for him.  Here, there were lots of places where the role of Quaid/Houser needed some finesse, and he simply did not have any.  Like the scene at the beginning of the movie where he’s in bed with his wife is like feeding peanut butter to a dog and watching him try to lick it off the roof of his mouth.  It’s so horrible and cringe-worthy, it eventually becomes hilarious, and none of those are the emotions needed for the scene.
  • Speaking of that scene, it’s a good example of how this 113-minute movie could have been better in a 90-minute cut.  It goes on and on and on about his dream, and his wife’s (phony) reaction, and it’s like a 14-second scene dragged out to nine minutes.  It’s like when someone writes a one-page paper and then fucks with the margins to get five pages out of it.  I’m almost tempted to rip a copy of this whole movie, drop it into an editor, and crank out a hot 88-minute version, but that would involve watching it a hundred more times.
  • I think enough fun has been made of Arnold’s one stock yell (“aaaaaiggh!”) but he does it so damn much in this movie, it’s almost like he registered it with ASCAP and gets a fixed royalty every time he says it.
  • A lot of the technology has not aged well.  There are huge CRT screens all over the place, like in the subway or at the hotel registration desk.  I don’t know if this was just because they wanted to throw real graphics on them, or because the idea of just having a flat screen seemed unrealistic in 1989.  (It’s not like they couldn’t have thrown the images on there via chromakey.)  And the blocky futuristic cars and trains all look silly.  The biggest laugh is when he’s on his way to Rekall and he stops at a kiosk in the lobby to look for directions.  The kiosk has a clone IBM Model M keyboard glued onto it, which dates the whole thing almost down to the year.
  • Speaking of graphics, every place where there are computer graphics looks absolutely stupid.  When they show something like a graph on a screen, you can totally tell it’s done on an Amiga.  And in places where there are terminals, they use a lot of green monochrome monitors with screens that look like a timesheet program written for an IBM mainframe back in 1986.  I almost expected someone to open up VAXPhone or an emacs window in one of them.
  • It’s always hilarious when 80s cyberpunk movies decide to show the world of the future as being wall-to-wall advertising by plastering the sets with logos from companies like Curtis Mathes.
  • This was probably one of the last movies to rely on miniature models instead of CGI for all of its effects, and it shows.
  • Aside from the technological anachronisms, the sets in general convey this 80s feeling of the future.  There’s a lot of brushed aluminum and stainless steel and poured concrete walls and neon tubes.  It’s an interesting little time-slip issue, when you look at a scene that is supposed to scream “2071” at you, and it’s very much “1990”.  I haven’t watched Blade Runner recently, but from what I remember, it had a different kind of griminess to it, probably because it didn’t try to look like the far future, and because the lighting design was much more subtle about the way it conveyed the grunginess.
  • There are plot holes that are catastrophically obvious because of the timing of the movie, as I mentioned above.  For example, when Quaid arrives at Mars and pulls off the fake head, the scene where he “loses control” of the fake head’s voicebox must go on for minutes, with everyone in the spaceport standing still and staring at him.  From the time the bad guys spot him to the time he throws the head at them, you could seriously count out a 100-Mississippi.  By act 3 of the movie, every fight scene is exhausting, because you know it’s going to be like when British troops in the American revolution would line up in a straight line, fire, and then wait until the other side fired until they returned fire.
  • There are tons of minor gaffes, mostly attributable to the editing down of the movie from an X to an R rating.  People get stabbed once and then at second glance are drenched in blood from head to toe; people shot in the back suddenly have bullet holes in their head.
  • I still like the overall plot of the movie, the “is this real or is he dreaming?” aspect of it.  But the hammy acting fat-fingers all of the scenes explaining this so much, it’s impossible to take it seriously.

Overall, like I said, the movie has not aged well.  I don’t know if that’s because effects are so good now and we’re all accustomed to lightning-fast edits and action sequences, or if I was just too excited about cyberpunk movies twenty years ago and needed the distance to see all of this.  Either way, I think I’m going to pass on the remake, or at least wait until it’s a free movie on Netflix streaming, so I don’t have to shell out money to see it.


Age of Aquarius

I’ve talked a few times about my old Commodore 64, but this wasn’t my first computer. I actually owned a much weaker computer for about a year before the C-64: the Mattel Aquarius.  I thought I’d told the story before, but looking through the archives here, I didn’t find much.  So here’s the deal.

The personal computer pretty much started happening when I was in grade school.  I guess before that, you could solder together your own Altair, but in about the 5th grade, these platinum-cased Apple II computers showed up, and I learned how to do the 10 PRINT "HELLO" thing on one of those green-screen monitors.  If your parents had money, you could get one of these things in your home, but with an original 1977 list price of $1298 for the 4K model (plus monitor, plus disk drive, plus software), there was no way in hell I’d ever own a computer.  But as the 70s became the 80s, an explosion of cheaper machines hit the market.  Atari came out with their 800, which listed for about half the price of an Apple, and then the C-64 machine started selling at $595.  There were also some cheap-o machines with more anemic specifications, like the VIC-20, which dropped to near $100, and the Timex-Sinclair, which was even cheaper.

At the beginning of 1984, my parents split up, right around the time of my 13th birthday.  I didn’t know the political angle of being a child of divorce, and I didn’t consciously want to pit one parent against the other, but getting a computer was stuck in the front of my head.  I needed one of these things.  There was no world wide web that I needed to browse, and I didn’t need to type papers or balance spreadsheets.  I just needed to be able to hack at a machine and write programs and develop games.  I’d taught myself BASIC, writing programs on paper and getting to try them out on friends’ machines or with the very narrow slivers of time afforded to me with the school’s few Apples.  I wanted to be able to waste all of my copious amounts of free time writing some kind of Dungeons and Dragons game on the computer.

And right around then, the Kay-Bee toy store at the mall by my house started selling these bundled computer systems from Mattel.  And they were only a hundred bucks, and included games and joysticks and the whole nine yards.  I didn’t know anyone with one of these machines, and this was long before I could plug this into wikipedia and look up the specs.  But I needed one, and $100 was an easier target to reach than the $200 or $300 price of a Commodore, so I begged and pleaded, and before I knew it, at the end of one of those “every other Sunday” visitations, I had this big huge box full of computer, ready to hook up to the TV set’s antenna screws.

The Mattel Aquarius has a strange history, one that I didn’t know for decades. Mattel made the Intellivision video game system, and promised in ads and brochures that they’d come out with a magical keyboard that would plug in and turn the thing into a real computer. This was a big deal back then, because if you were already dropping a few hundred dollars on a video game system, there was a certain enticement in being able to avoid spending another grand on a home computer. Problem was, they didn’t have this computer expander system ready. They turned to the manufacturer of their Intellivision, Radofin in Hong Kong, and they had a low-end computer system of their own, which they rebadged as the Aquarius.

The Aquarius was quite likely the worst home computer of the 80s. It was based on the Z80 processor, which was used in a lot of other systems, and it ran it at 3.5 mHz, which wasn’t horrible for the time. But it came with 4K of RAM. Once you booted the system, the screen memory, other buffers, and the BASIC interpreter took up most of that, leaving behind just over 1K. That’s a K and not an M; we’re talking about just over a thousand of characters of memory. This blog post is twice as big as the available memory on an Aquarius. There was a very rudimentary sound generator, and support for an 80×25 screen with no real graphics.

The BASIC was a version of Microsoft’s, and it was a fairly rudimentary implementation. If you programmed BASIC back in the day, you may remember that there were good BASICs and bad BASICs. Like the Commodore V2.0 BASIC didn’t have an ELSE statement for IF-THENs, which meant a lot of spaghetti IF-THENs that were an eyesore in a language with no indentation. And the CBM version didn’t have any sound or graphics functions, even though its chipset supported decent functionality; you’d have to PEEK and POKE to do anything cool, or spend some cash on Simon’s BASIC or some other extension of the language. The Aquarius BASIC, most likely because of the memory issue, was even more crippled than the Commodore version, with an extremely limited subset of commands.

Design-wise, the Aquarius was a fairly tiny machine. It came with a 48-key chicklet keyboard, these little rubber keys spaced far apart, and the machine wasn’t much bigger than the keyboard. The keyboard was essentially what they give you to type when you go to hell for eternity. A few other machines came with a membrane keyboard (the Atari 400, and the Timex) which was pretty bad, but these rubber keys were the worst. You could not touch type in any way, not only because of the keyboard’s spongy feel, and because it had a substandard layout. For example, it didn’t have a space bar; there was a a space key off to one side. The one saving grace was that there were keyboard shortcuts you could use when typing, so if you needed to type GOTO, you could use a function key and hit G or something like that. Cartridges usually came with these two-piece keyboard overlays, thin pieces of plastic embossed with all of the special functions for the program. There was almost no extensibility to the machine, either. It came with plugs for a printer and a cassette recorder, plus the RCA plug for the TV set. It had no other plugs; even the power supply didn’t have a plug, and the cord and power brick were permanently attached to the back. It did come with a single cartridge slot, which accommodated these weird wedge-shaped cartridges that matched the angle of the top half of the console.

The Aquarius was a huge flop, and was discontinued after a few months. Most of them sold were bundled with accessories for liquidation, which is where I got mine. My system came with four games, and a thing called the “Mini Expander”, an oversized cartridge that plugged into the machine and hung off the back end, providing two cartridge slots (so you could plug in a program cart and a memory expander), two joysticks, and the three-voice sound chip from the Intellivision. The joysticks were similar to the Intellivision, those weird disc controllers that were almost unusable, with a set of six chicklet buttons on the top of the controller, and no other fire buttons. (I think the Intellivision joysticks were actually better than the Aquarius ones.)

One of the huge issues with the Aquarius was that it was somehow perceived as a sibling to the Intellivision, but it was more like a second cousin by adoption, and even though some assumed it could play Intellivision games (which were generally better than Atari 2600 games), the gaming support was fairly horrible. In fact, the joke was that Mattel used to put programmers on the Aquarius team as a punishment. The games couldn’t use high-res graphics, and had to resort to using the machine’s extended character set to draw stuff on the screen. (The machine did have some cool characters in the extended character set though, like little explosions and running dudes and aliens.)

I got four games with my system, in order from best to worst:

– Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin: This game was actually awesome. You moved through a maze, Doom-style (but with much worse graphics), with the right third of the screen an inventory list of the couple of items you could pick up and carry, including swords, bows and arrows, potions, and keys. You crawled through the levels of this massive dungeon, and when you ran into a dragon or orc (all drawn with this random collection of ASCII art, like prehistoric emoticons), a round of combat would ensue, with fireballs being traded and hit points lost. There were supposed to be 99 levels of this dungeon, or if you killed the white dragon, you’d win. Despite the sub-par graphics and sound, this was an incredibly playable game.

– Snafu: You and another player had these ever-growing lines on the screen, sort of like the Tron light cycle game, and you could not collide with the other person’s line. This was pretty fun if you had another player, but it was otherwise very basic.

– Night Stalker: This was a Pac-man style maze, there were no dots to be eaten; you just wandered around while alien dudes tried to shoot you. This could have been a much cooler game if it had more levels or mazes, but we’re talking about 4K of RAM here.

– Tron Deadly Discs – This game was straight-up worthless. It wasn’t really a Tron game; it was just two emoticons throwing chunks of ASCII at each other. I would play it about once a month just to see if there was something I missed, but within five minutes, I’d realize how I was duped.

The worst part of the Aquarius was that Mattel Electronics went bust about 15 minutes after I got the system, so there was absolutely no support. The market exploded with add-ons for the Apple and Atari; the Commodore could use Atari joysticks, and you could buy tons of games, or buy any of the dozen or two magazines like Compute! and type in your own games. But there was no support for the Aquarius, and I could not buy any software or accessories. And this was long before you could hop on Amazon and search for stuff to buy. Aside from the lack of games, I did not have a disk or tape drive to save my own programs, and I couldn’t even print out my stuff to a printer. Every once in a while, I’d see the Aquarius mentioned in a computer magazine, but it was always a “what happened here?” takedown piece.

The biggest pain point to the whole thing is that Mattel had released a bunch of cartridges, including an extended BASIC and memory expansion, and planned even more stuff.  The box for the system showed all of these unavailable items, and then had some black stickers covering pictures of vaporware items, like a master expansion chassis that would sit under the unit and provide a disk drive.  There was also an Aqaurius II that was very briefly sold, that had a real keyboard and the extended BASIC built in.

My tenure on the Aquarius was brief; by the next Christmas, the Commodore 64 was on my list, and I graduated to its much roomier 38,911 bytes free and full-motion keyboard that wasn’t designed like a calculator you got for free at a Shell station when you bought a tank of gas.  But we did play the hell out of those four games, though.  And now my daily driver is a machine that has two million times as much RAM available.  But that Aquarius is an interesting little footnote in my computing history.

And some linkage for you:


The Death of Paper Notes

One of the changes in OSX Mountain Lion is that it has a dedicated Notes application.  It’s just a basic text editor, except it syncs with other Apple devices.  This isn’t entirely new; iOS devices have had a notes app for a while, and it would sync with an IMAP server and show the notes in the Mail application.  This meant I could create a set of notes that lived in my gmail account, and then edit them on my phone, my computer, or my iPad.  That was pretty much the end of trying to remember to carry around a little notepad or Moleskin or whatever, and now I just jot down any stray thoughts or ideas there, and they get synced in all three places.  And I guess in some extreme emergency where I didn’t have any Apple devices with me, I could always point a web browser at gmail and get at the notes there.

This new workflow saves me a ton of time, and avoids the issue that my handwriting is all but unreadable, even to me.  But one problem with it is that I don’t have a hardcopy of any of my notes about a book.  I was digging around for something else in my storage recently, and found a vinyl three-ring binder containing all (or most all) of the notes from Summer Rain and Rumored to Exist.  One of the first things I realized about this binder is that it’s actually from when I was a computer consultant for the school.  UCS had these beginning-of-year training sessions where they gave you a binder full of stuff you’d never read, and this happens to be one of those binders.  It was probably given to me in 1991 when I started working there, and after I chucked all of the lists of phone numbers and rules, I used it as a school folder.  It’s still got a couple of papers I wrote in it, including the two papers I wrote in the summer of 1992 that I mention in Summer Rain.  I can’t even try to read them though; I’m sure they’re horrible.  I distinctly remember losing the 3.5″ floppy disk I used that summer for my WordPerfect files – I left it in a Mac in one of the labs.  Part of me wishes I still had those files for some sick reason, but I guess if I have the hardcopies, that’s just as bad.

A big chunk of the material in this binder is research material and notes on Summer Rain.  That book is fiction, but it’s based on fact, and I burned a lot of cycles trying to keep track of dates and times.  I’ve got an insane amount of post-it notes and scraps of paper reminding me of stuff like that Ray visited Bloomington on July 11, 1992 and I broke my arm on September 30th and I ate lunch at Burger King on August 7th.  There’s a bunch of report cards, a complete recapitulation of every bursar charge I had during my time at IU, and a small stack of snapshots of the campus in the early 90s.  And there are pages and pages of outlines.  I tend not to outline before I write; I usually write until I get stuck, and then I used to go back and write outlines of what existed, so I could navigate through all of the files without getting lost.  I have dozens of pages of these outlines, inventory sheets of what happens in what file.  There are punchlists from 1998 of what parts are missing from what chapter, and long essays to myself on 1996 on what direction characters are heading.  The 1998 notes even contain a combination of all of these, a list of chapters and what date they would have happened in real life.

The notes from Rumored to Exist are also pretty interesting.  When I worked in Seattle, I would sit with a PC in front of me, a Mac Centris 660AV on my right, and a legal pad on my left.  I would write this online help on the PC, and then compile it on the Mac.  The Apple machine also served as my CD player.  But while I worked, I would write down any random nonsensical thought on the legal pad.  And by the end of the day, I’d have a page or two of these scribblings, random quotes and names of designer drugs and medieval weaponry and genetic disorders and long-forgotten TV shows, and all of these became raw material for what eventually became that book.  And I’ve still got a bunch of these, along with a post card from Larry from the Astrodome, which is something that appeared in the book, but that he later really sent me.  There’s a shot of all of this on the back of the now-out-of-print annotated version of the book, but I’ve also got all of it here.

There’s also a printout of a 1998 draft of Rumored here, one that I must have given Marie, that she marked up and sent back to me.  It’s so different than the finished book that it amazes me.  I still have a lot of these drafts in electronic form, because I’ll usually zip up a copy at a big logical stopping point, but it’s amazing to me to see it captured forever on paper.  When I moved to New York, I was almost to the point of quitting this book, and decided to start a new draft, a completely blank document.  I sifted through the old version, and only carried over the things I absolutely loved.  Everything else stayed behind, and I think I probably rescued maybe 80 pages.  But those old bits — I started writing this thing in 1995, so there were pieces that stayed in the draft for three years before being clipped.  It’s fun to see those bits again.

Now, I do all of this stuff online, and it’s much more efficient.  I can tear around in Scrivener and keep a digital outline and easily checkpoint documents to save old drafts.  I have no idea why I kept any of this old paper stuff — I think there was some assumption that I’d sell millions of copies of the book and some university library would want to purchase all of my letters and notes.  I mean, not really, but that’s a hoarder’s rationale.  Now, I wonder if any of the bits I threw out are worth publishing, but I’ve already done so many editions of Rumored, I’m in no hurry to rush out another one.


Mandelbrot and Genre Writing

I’ve been in the post-book-release period of my writing cycle where I don’t know what I’m doing next, and I don’t know what I should be reading, so I start poring over non-fiction, usually some junk science book.  Specifically, it’s that James Gleick book Chaos, which is about chaos theory and the butterfly effect.  I mostly read stuff like this to pour random facts into my head with hopes that I’ll go off on a tangent in some wikipedia-reading frenzy and end up finding the pieces of my next short story.

Part of the book talks about Benoit Mandelbrot, who once said this:

Science would be ruined if (like sports) it were to put competition above everything else, and if it were to clarify the rules of competition by withdrawing entirely into narrowly defined specialties. The rare scholars who are nomads-by-choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines.

That got me thinking about genres, and writing.  I’ve been knocking against this invisible wall with regard to genres, because I don’t really fit into any one category.  And every self-publishing make-money-fast scheme online talks about how you need to market yourself by finding your niche and building your platform to sell to that slice of the reading public.  Every person out their schlepping their own advice on publishing will tell you about the importance of hitting up the forums relevant to your category.

When I’m depressed about not having stellar book numbers, this feeds into a horrible cycle of negativity.  I don’t sell books because I don’t market.  I don’t market because I can’t find the people to market to.  I can’t find the people to market to, because I don’t know how to categorize my work.  And I don’t know how to categorize my work because I don’t really like any of the categories.

That’s a big part of the problem.  I don’t read a lot of straight genre fiction, because it bores me.  While I like picking at the edges of the science fiction genre, I find the die-hard stuff to be so goddamn serious.  I can’t stand fantasy.  And romance and thriller aren’t even on my radar.  The books I like are combinations of different things, or aren’t representations of the category as a whole.  Vonnegut wasn’t a science fiction writer per se; he sometimes fell into that category, but his stories had a humor you aren’t going to find in the typical outer space robot book.  Burroughs had the same distinction.  Was Hunter S. Thompson a journalist or a humorist or an essayist or what?  And Mark Leyner wasn’t literary fiction, but he wasn’t general fiction, either.

The big issue is that when you define success as straight-up numbers, nothing but copies sold and dollars taken in, you’re competing more than you’re creating.  You’re not going to push boundaries or do what you truly want; you’re going to stick to that same narrowly-defined plot structure that everyone uses to maximize the number of readers you can satisfy.  You’re going to think of how to market a book and then write it, instead of creating what you truly need to create as an artist.  It’s like the difference between a painter like Jackson Pollock laying his soul and his inner demons onto the canvas, versus someone being handed an RFP by a hotel chain for a thousand identical paintings that meet certain requirements.  When you write for the market, you may sell, but you probably won’t innovate.

I don’t want to dole out yet another hero’s journey monomyth novel because I can plug it by saying “it’s like <current hit> but with <other thing people like>”.  I feel like I need to continue down the path I’ve followed with the last few books, but I also feel like it’s okay if I suddenly want to write some non-fiction, or a book of essays, or whatever else.  I’d hate to wake up someday and be told I can only write dystopian literary occult police procedural fantasy fiction, or that I couldn’t do what I want because it won’t sell.  Life’s too short to back yourself in a corner like that.