Vector Memory Lane

A friend recently exposed me to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs— my first taste of this author:

I enjoyed this in part because it so clearly evokes a peculiar moment in technological history— 1994— when computer culture both was computer culture and also wasn’t. The narrator comments on the rise of the geek class, rails against the feeling that his work is subjugating him to his computer… in general, all the familiar trappings of high-tech culture are recognizably there. And yet, it’s (essentially) pre-interent. The characters in the book send email to each other… and yet, they remark irritably about the ubiquity of this so-called Information Superhighway that’s supposedly about-to-be-everywhere and yet nowhere.

All this brought back a dim personal memory of being summoned to a semi-mandatory training session in my last year of college (yup, 1994) where we were given an extensive tutorial on how to use Gopher, the pre-www internet protocol developed the University of Minnesota. (I went to Macalester, also located in Minnesota… so it was almost like Gopher was being touted as the regional internet protocol of choice.) I have a vivid memory of paying keen attention for the first few minutes and then lapsing into disinterest and thinking, “Man, I’ve never going to use this thing…”

Another passing reference made in this book that really got my nostalgia-wheels turning, though, was to the North American video game collapse of 1983. This calamity totally marred by childhood, so I was fascinated to read that it is an actual observed, documented part of cultural history— when you’re ten years old, you don’t think in these terms; you just lament the fact that suddenly there are no good new Atari titles.

The wikipedia entry for the North American video game collapse cites several causes, a key one being over-saturation of the market. Check out the rogue’s gallery of consoles on the market by the eve of the crash:

At the time of the U.S crash, there were numerous consoles on the market, including the Atari 2600, the Atari 5200, the Bally Astrocade, the ColecoVision, the Coleco Gemini (a 2600 clone), the Emerson Arcadia 2001, the Fairchild Channel F System II, the Magnavox Odyssey2, the MattelIntellivision (and its just-released update with several peripherals, the Intellivision II), the Sears Tele-Games systems (which included both 2600 and Intellivision clones), the TandyvisioN (an Intellivision clone for Radio Shack), and the Vectrex.

Sad to say, the very last entry in this list— the Vectrex— was the console that graced the Dan household in 1983:

No, that’s not me with my family. Nonwithstanding this cheeseball ad, the Vectrex had some interesting and distinctive qualities. First, it was a standalone console that didn’t need to be plugged into a TV (‘Take it anywhere!’). Second, and most significant, it was the only all-vector console on the market. Sometimes the lines didn’t really meet up exactly, and the efforts to portray humans and other sentient characters were always a real stretch… but still, it gave the console a certain stylish edginess that made me the envy of my block for about 15 minutes. In an attempt to compensate for the lack of color, each game arrived with a translucent plastic screen that you were supposed to snap in place over the screen. Finally, in its dying days, the Vectrex offered 3D goggles (???!!!!) that I never managed to get my hands on but that my ten year-old brain lustfully tried to apprehend the user experience of:

So, in a more meritocratic world, the Vectrex might have made a big splash— it did have some real objective advantages over the competition, after all— but had the bad luck to hit the market during an industry-wide death swoon. In this sense, the Vectrex was like a disco ingenue who had this misfortunate to release his first album in 1981. Or a really good high-top fade with a word shaved into the back circa 1994. You get the idea.

Sad to say, the Vectrex was only the second-most dated technological device in my uncool household during these years. Around the same time that the Vectrex entered the picture, my father purchased our first home computer… but passed on the newly-released Apple II in favor of something called a Kay-Pro that folded up into a suitcase and whose only claim to fame is that it was used by Arthur C. Clarke for the writing of 2010:

There was even a plastic handle fixed to the back of the far side, so you could cart it around with you. Lame as it was, it did have a semi-cool logo:

A casual visitor to our household in the mid-80s might have thought that we travelled a lot, or were planning to make a run from the law, given the proliferation of all-in-one, transportable gadgets in our house, but this was not the case.

Addendum: literally as I was writing this post, a friend passed along this timely link to a blog of Croatian video game graphics from the mid-80s. Thanks, Ivan!

Solarium and Vodka

• This is my first winter in Berlin… and, man, it gets dark early here. We’re already down to 4:30pm daylight curfew and there’s still a month to go to the solstice. I’m about ready to curl up in the solarium with a few bottles of vodka for the next few months.

• I caught a cold in Prague that metastasized in the world’s most annoying, hacking cough over the last week. Yesterday, while I was at my work space, I was actually slinking out of the office on multiple occasions into the bathroom just to go have a good round of coughing. It had gotten to the point where I was embarrassed to cough any more in the presence of people who were trying to get work done. This is a necessary nod to integrity on my part, because I hate it when I’m trying to concentrate and some wretched person keeps coughing… so I have to try to be at least somewhat consistent. Then, this morning, I burst into a nosebleed while on the U-Bahn, from all the honking over the past few days. What a pain in the ass. What is it about a nosebleed that inspires such contempt? I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a vague presumption that you’re likely a cocaine abuser or something. It feels especially damning in a situation like German mass transit where there are lots of people and everyone’s sort of reasonably well put together. If it happened on the BART, you could at least be confident that there would be at least seven more disturbing, unhygienic people in the immediate vicinity.

• The wife and I have found a nice new sublet for the next year as we weigh our long-term options (Berlin vs. Prague). We have to leave our present, glorious sublet next month, when the master tenants return from their year abroad. The new place is in a peculiar neighborhood called ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island)— the ‘island’ part comes from the fact that the area is surrounded by a triangle of train tracks, so one must cross a bridge to get in; the ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was traditionally a lefty stronghold and was the last area to hold out against Hitler’s political machine in the 1930s.

Before taking our Red Island place, we went and looked at one place that seemed spacious and well-priced but turned out to be located at the exact epicenter for monumental Soviet-style architecture, Frankfurter Tor:

No thanks! If I hadn’t just got done living in Prague for five years, this might seem culturally intriguing, but as things stand…. I think I’ve had enough.

In contrast to the massive authoritarianism of Frankfurter Tor, I prefer the cutesy neighborliness of  ‘Little Hamburger Street’:

(Top: Plague mask by Andreas Krautwald)

From random ……….. to planned

In yet another very old post, I unveiled The Old Apartment Rule, my proposal that anyone ought to be allowed to ask for a quick five minute tour of any apartment or house that they’ve previously lived in from the current residents. I finagled my way into a real-life instance of this last week when we went back to Prague last week for a short visit and stopped by our old apartment that we’re currently subletting to pick up mail. There was the sight of our old place— ours for five-plus years, the longest I’ve lived at any one address as an adult!— shifted around and decorated with somebody else’s knick-knacks and sensibilities. I worried that the cognitive dissonance would fry my son’s young brain, but he enjoyed the visit and seemed unbothered by the weird collision of old/new, ours/not-ours.

Also strangely transformed is Prague’s hlavní nadraži, aka main train station. They’ve been renovating it for several years now in order to turn it into a typical spacious, organized, appealing, identical Western European train hub, just like any other. Previously, it had this weird sense of spatial compression from the low ceilings and an infernal red-ness, plus the large number of pigeons that seemed to be trapped inside at any given moment:

(photo credit: milov)

[Admission: actually, this renovation basically finished like a year ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about this whole time, but only just remembered when I was back there this week.]

In general, the changes are nice, if bland. It’s nice to be able to buy your ticket from a visible, accessible person rather than leaning over to shout into a tiny voice hole set in shatterproof glass with a grumpy, shadowy personage lurking behind. It’s nice to be able to buy food that you don’t instantly hurl into a garbage can four steps later. But most of all, I’m delighted by this series of ads that appear in the station, touting the improvements made. They are essentially before-and-after pictures, with a shot from the old unrenovated days on top and an up-to-date image below. Like this:

‘From random…. to planned,’ boasts the caption. First, I love the fact that they took the effort to organize a shoot of characteristic stuff from the old station just so they could poop on it later by dint of comparison. You can just see the proprietor of the ‘random’ stand throwing up his arms in insulted disbelief upon seeing this: What?! That’s what I was told to sell. That’s what Czech people eat!

The series contains several other gems:

The abandoned, sloshy bucket on the floor is really great. Again: it kills me to imagine the prop wrangler and art director for this shoot in action.

This might be the best:

From the ‘before’ scene, the grumpy old guy scratching his head is perfect casting— I mean, I can just picture myself defeatedly approaching that guy for information and trying to struggle through a conversation with him in Czech all the while knowing that it’s not going to avail me of anything. But what’s up with the woman straddling the suitcases? The encounter doesn’t seem that ‘distant’. It actually seems kind of ‘romantic’, at least when compared with the Oral-B blandness of the lower ‘new and improved’ reality.

Shine on, you crazy kids.

Other images in the series get a bit more predictable— this one, for example, uses the old black-and-white vs. color contrast used in every negative political campaign spot since the dawn of time:

Still, there are nice details sprinkled throughout. Notice above, for example, that while the bad old days were devoid of color and lighted signs, they were replete with leering strangers with no umbrella heckling you from the neighboring bench.

p.s. any time we’re on the subject of Czech mass transit, it’s worth linking one more time to the timeless Onion TV bit about Prague’s Franz Kafka Airport.

Has The Uncanny Valley Jumped The Shark?

Longtime readers may recall a post that the since-deceased Krafty wrote on the topic of the Uncanny Valley:

Perhaps, at the time, you marveled at the splendid oddness of this shiny new meme. Maybe you studied the graph carefully enough to realize the ‘prosthetic hand’ is cleverly mapped to TWO data points, one on the ‘moving’ path and one on the ‘still’ path. Or perhaps you just moved on to the next post, which was probably something about robots.

Nowadays, you can’t swing a dead cat without it slipping from your grip and landing in the Uncanny Valley— what was once a private conceit has grown into an inescapable meme. Last week, a friend forwarded me two links to read… and it turned out that BOTH articles included off-hand references to the Uncanny Valley:

First, it cropped up in an investigative article by Willy Staley entitled, ‘A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage‘. Staley invokes it to describe the disturbing physical form of the McDonalds McRib sandwich, in this compelling rant about the cloaked and sinister market forces that account for the otherwise-unexplainable appearances and disappearances of this perennial big ribby thing: “Each time it rolls out nationwide, people must again consider this strange and elusive product, whose unique form sets it deep in the Uncanny Valley—and exactly why its existence is so fleeting.”

I enjoyed Staley’s short history of the product, and shared in his puzzlement about why the thing looks so grotesque when McDonalds has clearly harnessed the ability to mold food into whatever kind of non-offensive spheres they want (see McNuggets). Also, a weird ancestral memory stirred in me while reading this. A memory of a book called Encyclopedia Brown’s Book Of Weird And Wonderful Facts that an aunt gave me for one of the birthdays in my nerdsome younger years. The book was only loosely affiliated with the crime-solving boy sleuth and basically just contained a long list of odd-ball factoids.

One such factoid that stuck in my memory was a tidbit about a local Burger King franchise somewhere in Massachusetts who got in trouble for putting a promotional display outside his restaurant that showed Ronald McDonald in a coffin with a tagline: They got me in the McRibs. The point was that children were distressed by the dead clown. Just as seems to happen to the local Republican Committee every time around Halloween leading up to an election year, a co-mingled spirit of partisanship and gore got the better of the Burger King franchisee’s common sense.

The second link my friend sent me is called The Social Graph Is Neither, and the author’s voice seemed oddly familiar from the outset… sure enough, by the end, I realized that it’s written by the irritatingly talented Idlewords guy, Maciej Ceglowski. Ceglowski evokes our friend, The Uncanny Valley, in a somewhat more trenchant way to describe creepiness of social networks and their efforts to map and mimic social convention. “Asking computer nerds to design social software,” he writes a little later, “is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender.” Then, he actually manages to work the Mormon bartender joke back into the article a bit later— that was good.

Anyway, I suppose you could tabulate all the Uncanny Valley references made since this blog started and plot them according to an X and Y criteria in order to make a Meta/Uber Valley of Uncanny Valleys, and the result would probably be something nerdy that would allow you to make the Mormon bartender joke yet one more time.

Halloween Inferno

Fireworks at Helmholtzplatz two nights ago.

Somehow, in all my days, I’d never before been close enough to the actual detonation site of a fireworks display to see how the magic works. You can imagine my surprise at seeing these occult-looking lamps set at even intervals along the ground. I’d always been misled to believe that it somehow involved exploding pumpkins and turkeys stuffed with gunpowder.

For the audio background, you have to imagine not only the deafening explosion of the fireworks themselves, but also a unanimous WAIL of children brought to the ground zero launch spot by their parents who were instantly traumatized by all the brimstone and din.

By the way, I’ve never mentioned this before, but: not only am I an only child… I also have zero first cousins who are actually related to my blood. By weird coincidence, all five of my first cousins were adopted (by three different sets of parents, for varying reasons). I think four of the five have eventually sought out their birth parents, while one abstained. Anyway, the point is that one of my cousins got in touch with her birth family, who turned out to be…. a large Italian clan in NYC who used to produce the big 4th of July fireworks show for years and years. Wow, didn’t see that one coming. It’s hard to explain, really, but I can barely think of anything more perpendicular to my own extended family than a huge family of Italian firework moguls. It’s not clear to me exactly how she wound up not with this festive group and instead with my family and its tight-assed celebrations of Independence Day.