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!

Cognitive Dissonance

Two things I’m finding confusing right now:

1. Taste dissonance: grapes and raisins. Given that grapes and raisins are practically the same thing, you would expect their tastes to be complementary. So why is the experience of eating one and then the other in rapid succession so unappetizing? Try it for yourself– it’s surprisingly bad.

2. Not-so-fundamental nature of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. The Fundamental Attribution Error is super cool-sounding. But the phenomenon it describes isn’t really all that fundamental: basically, if you step in poop, I’m likely to assume that it happened because you’re the kind of person who steps in poop, whereas if I do it, I’m likely to assume that its because the poop was poorly placed. This reflects an interesting bias, but it’s not like the phenomenon crops up all that often.

To me, it seems to me that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ would better describe the phenomenon where somebody mistakes a symptom of a situation for its cause. For example: lots of people are having accidents, and there are lots of ambulances on the streets– therefore, the ambulances must be causing the accidents. This comes up more often than the step-in-poop phenomenon described above, if you ask me.

I wonder if people who work in various fields of social science are secretly miffed that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ got scooped up and used before they had a chance to claim it for whatever mistake-tendency they happen to be researching.

(Image: Josef Muller-Brockmann poster designed for public service campaign against noise pollution. Actually has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance, but works nicely together so long as you don’t speak German).

Nerdtown, Population: Me

  • My typography article is up at Smashing Magazine. Enjoy a wholehearted delve into font nerdiness.

  • In response to yesterday’s Julius Peppers post, reader MM passes on this compendium of outlandish college basketball names. Sample fun fact: LaceDarius Dunn has a brother named DaVarious. I liked the politically-correct impulse to put a non-black guy in there– hence, the inclusion of Jimmer Fredette, even though it doesn’t hold a candle to… say, Dundrecous Nelson.

Lego, Lasers, Awesome

I don’t know anything about 3D printing, but apparently it’s the bee’s knees. Just check out the side bar of an article someone pointed me to called ‘3D Printer Prints Its Own Upgrades‘:

Doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of nay-saying flying around at PC World over this right now.

Question: suppose you strip out the references to 3D printing from these article titles. This leaves you with…

  1. Vase Made With ________ : What Can’t________ Do?
  2. ________ Cars May Be The Way Of The Future
  3. ________ May Bring Legal Challenges, Group Says
  4. ________ Built Out Of Lego, Lasers, Awesome
  5. Want ________? Build Your Own With Lego

What’s the best phrase you can insert into the blank? Feel free to nominate your own, or vote for one of these suggestions:

John Meat-John

• Sorry for the extended writing outages lately. On top of general busyness and assorted crapulence, I’m also trying to write a short article for Smashing Magazine these days, so my spare ions of free time and writing inclination have been mostly sucked up in that task. The article concerns typography and is the very epitome of font-nerdishness. I’ll let you know if and when it goes live.

One of the great campaigns of disinformation that I’ve ever personally mounted has been trying to convince friends that the society of typography is actually a seething cesspool of loose morals and sexual adventuring, a la the stereotypes about Renaissance fair enthusiasts. Back in 2003, when I went to a three day typography conference, I had fun lying and persuading people that every conference was a veritable orgy waiting to erupt.

Little could be farther from the truth. With the notable exception of Eric Gill (devout Catholic and brilliant artist who, to everyone’s shock, was discovered decades after his death to have had sexual relations with everyone in his family including the family dog), type designers seem like the restrained bunch that you would expect. The one binding trait between them seems to be a tendency to wear bowties:

• Lately, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad with my wife. A few nights ago, we were watching an episode from season one where the teenage Walter Jr. is briefly shown in the liquor store parking with friends trying to get strangers to buy booze for them. Suddenly, I realized that I needed to pause the video to explain to my wife what was going on here– being Czech, she had no context by which to understand the American teenage rite of passage that is standing around asking random people to buy liquor for you. I even wound up getting into the time in high school that my buddy and I asked two winos to do the deed for us and they tried to run off with the money but weren’t very fast (being beat-up old winos), which set up an awkward confrontation once we ran them down in about two seconds, especially when one of the guys complainingly revealed that he’d somehow peed his pants during the run down (again, surely owing to general unhealthiness, not out of any sense of fear of the two high school kids bearing down on him).

• By a great coincidence, two of the more strangely named friends I’ve ever had have both recently made belated entrances to the Facebook community. First, there’s my colleague Jan Fleischhans, which means – in a munge of German and Czech – ‘John Meat-John’. Then, there are the two Hamburger brothers, Joel and Manny. Joel once told me  that there was even an Abraham Hamburger at some point in the family lineage. Two bad he lived before the era of trendy name-shortenings, or he could be, concisely, AbraHamburger.

Mistake, or Blunder?

As Krafty intimated in his Attacking and Defending post, he and I have nerding out and playing a lot of chess online in recent months. I’ve also been playing against his father, who employs a two-pronged approach of (1) being very good and (2) taking FOREVER between moves, such that its very hard to feel that you’re ever making any progress against him. Some easier pickins finally came along in the person of my friend Ryan, who mentioned having played against various math experts (or something like this), but  turned out to be not very good and relatively easy to subdue.

Any you finish a match on, a button appears that invites you to click it to receive ‘Computer analysis’… but every time I’ve done this, I’ve simply gotten a message asking me to wait a very long time, after which nothing happens. For whatever reason, when Ryan clicked the after our match, he actually got a report that included the following taxonomically-curious information:

  • Inaccuracies: 6 = 31.6% of moves
  • Mistakes: 3 = 15.8% of moves
  • Blunders: 4 = 21.1% of moves

Now, inaccuracies I suppose just refers to any move you make that’s different (and, therefore, less accurate) than the one the computer would have made. Maybe. But I’m dying to know the difference between mistakes and blunders. Does the percentage of blunders include the number of mistakes, or are they counted separately? (If separately, that would mean that the computer is essentially telling Ryan that a full two-thirds of his moves were bad). Is there a level worse than blunders? Oafish calamities?

The whole thing reminds me of the mysterious classifications that used to lurk at the bottom of the IQ scale (before they cleaned up the terminology to use less pejorative terms):

  • 50-69: Moron
  • 20-49: Imbecile
  • below 20: Idiot

This is weird, I think, because most people would probably think of these terms as synonyms, not as a hierarchy of mental capability.

In any case, I think the chess analyses would be much better if assigned some final judgement like this at the end.

The Loneliest Number

I saw this yesterday when I logged onto Facebook:

I must admit that the phrasing of this got me feeling a bit lonesome. No one is online?

When do you suppose the final moment in human history occurred when there was no one online? I imagine that various computers, running various inscrutable ‘services’, have been trawling the internet continuously since the very beginning. But what about the last occasion when no human was actually poking around on it? Midnight on Thanksgiving, 1987? Maybe a year earlier, when Geraldo opened Al Capone’s vault?

I remember that around this time, my friend’s dad was a tremendous nerd and had one of those early modems where you actually placed the phone face down onto a receptacle that it yakked into. The whole thing seemed so remote and esoteric that I can sort of imagine a fleeting moment taking place around this time when not one of these bearded guys anyplace on earth was doing this.

Dork Season Cometh

Czech people are really into the past. Bars almost uniformly go in for a comfy, old-timey vibe, such that the white leather sofa — so ubiquitous in the nightlife of other former Communist capital cities — is a rare sight here. Anytime we go to visit my wife’s parents and I stop to inspect the steady drone of weekend daytime TV going on in the background, the show is always something medieval-themed along the lines of Xena: Warrior Princess– there’s rarely any sci-fi or Saved By The Bell-type contemporary teen fodder. (Of course, there’s always the occasional exception– check out this great 1963 Czech sci-fi clip that JohnnyO passed along to me, in which futurist Slav-onauts discover a capitalist ghost ship).

The celebration of olden days of yore reaches its peak every year in September, when the annual harvest of a special kind of Moravian wine called Burčák arrives. Burčák, which doesn’t mean ‘the stinky wine’ but should, tastes like juice but smells terrible– the tongue may be fooled into thinking it’s not particularly alcoholic, but the nose knows better. I usually quaff it with my left hand while using my right hand to daintily pinch my nostrils closed. Anyway: the point is that the arrival of Burčák sets off a tidal wave of Renaissance festivals and other such pagentry, such that I tend to mark this time in my mental calendar as Dork Season. If you have a phobia of town criers or heaving, bodice-clad bosoms, definitely stay away from the Czech Republic in September.

Even though it’s a few months away, I was acutely reminded of the coming of Dork Season because we were visited this weekend by a friend from Paris who’s a veteran of historical reenactments. His first visit to the Czech Republic a few years ago was occasioned by the 200th anniversary of some Napoleonic battle, where he and a hundred other buffs dressed up in authentic uniforms and ran down some hill together. Naturally, I plied him with questions, attempting to disguise my mirthful curiosity as legitimate historical inquiry. Here’s what I learned:

1. Apparently, one can just hit ebay in order to buy one’s Napoleonic-era military outfits. Over here in Europe, the participants tend to be fairly relaxed about how carefully you adhere to historical authenticity, but the Civil War guys in the U.S. are another story altogether, and are much more likely to take you to task if your musket is a few years out of date or something.

2. Clannish factionalism runs amok in these historical revivals. Especially between Flemish Belgians and French-speaking Belgians. I guess this probably mirrors the regional rivalries roiling under the surface of Napoleonic-era armies pretty accurately.

3. It sounds like the revivals are often poorly organized and, in that sense, also accurately reflect the realities of 19th century warfare. Our friend said that he had gotten off the group bus in some town in Austria and started wandering around the town center, thinking they had a few hours of free time, when he suddenly noticed clouds of cannon smoke and shouting coming from a nearby hill and had to rush over as to not miss the skirmishing.

Open pouch, receive duck

Looking over the search engine terms that people have used to find this blog, it’s come to my attention that there’s something called Mock Duck Hot Springs. Before you get too excited, I should clarify this exotic refuge exists only within the virtual reality of something called Rohan: Blood Feud, one of these massively popular, unfathomable multiplayer online role-playing games. Huge in the Philippines, it seems.

The premise behind Rohan: Blood Feud sounds like something straight out of the back pages of Scientology:

The Lesser Gods, in a desperate move decided to sacrifice the other races since killing the dragons didn’t bring back Ohn. The Lesser Gods create monsters to eliminate the races but their plan backfires. The advent of monsters bring the races closer together. It brings the Elves and Humans especially close, so close that the two start producing offspring, the world’s first Half Elves. Rejected by both Humans and Elves, the Half Elves created their own settlement in the middle of the forest of Morrisen.

All that’s missing is third-level Thetans being transformed into intergalactic walruses after falling out of spaceships.

Anyway, it’s confusing what the mythical Mock Duck Hot Springs have to do with all this (especially as half the info posted about the game on message boards is written in some Filipino language). Luckily, I found this handy FAQ:

Q: Where is the Mock Duck Hot Springs?

A: The Hot Springs are located geographically north of Varvylon

Q: How do you enter the Hot Springs?

A: You can enter by presenting a Hot Springs Ticket to Mr. Duck at the entrance of the Hot Springs. Tickets are available at the Rohan Item Mall (

Q: What can I do inside?

A: Monster galore plus a chain of quest to get a mock duck bag with random treasure inside.

Q: What are the new quests that you speak of?

A: There are 4 quests inside the Hot Springs.
Duck Feathers (lvl 30)
Duck Eggs (lvl 50)
Empty Bottles (lvl 70)
Mock Duck Pouch (lvl ?)

Once you finish the final quest, you are awarded with a special Mock Duck Pouch which gives you unique items when you open it including a chance to get an exclusive mock duck pet.

As someone concisely explains on another forum message board, “open pouch, receive duck.”

Here are screenshots someone posted of ‘Mr. Duck’ and the Mock Duck Hot Springs experience (click for larger, nerdier views):

Faeted To Pretend

I had iTunes on shuffle today and Time to Pretend by MGMT came up. The song’s been out for like a year and a half, but somehow I had never really paid attention to the lyrics before. Oh, I’d listened through the part about ‘I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars’, but tended to tune out thereafter and had always just assumed that the song was about youthful hedonism and that’s all there was to it. This time, for whatever reason, I paid attention through to the end and was struck by how much in common the lyrics have with one of W.B. Yeats’ early poems, ‘The Stolen Child‘ (one of the few Yeats’ pieces I still remember vividly from a seminar I took in college). Consider…

In Yeats poem, a bunch of faeries plan to spirit off a human child to a magical land. The magical land is all good times, carousing around and staying up all night (‘To and fro we leap / And chase the frothy bubbles, / While the world is full of troubles / And anxious in its sleep’). Its allure is in its non-reality and weightlessness (consider the strange and beautiful line ‘We seek for slumbering trout / and whispering in their ears / Give them unquiet dreams’), and in the extent to which this contrasts with the mundanity and sorrow of the real world:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

But then, the final stanza produces this switcheroo where we’re made to feel the longing that the stolen child will feel for the tangible, commonplace details of the real world, petty and squalid as they may be:

He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest

The sheer tangibility and realness of the lowing cows, singing kettle and vermin-infested oatmeal chest becomes the stuff of nostalgia. Time To Pretend manages a similar trick: the first half presents stardom as all models, cocaine and elegant cars, an escape from mundanity. ‘What else can we do?’ the singer asks, ‘Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?’. The first verse ends with him pledging to ‘forget about our mothers and our friends’. But then, in the second verse, we get the equivalent of brown mice bobbing in the oatmeal chest:

I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home
Yeah, I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.

Suddenly worms, family members and even boredom are things to be longed for. Of course, Time To Pretend ends with a sort of resolution and renewed vow to party up to the end and eventually ‘choke on our own vomit’… but I like to think that they were really channeling Yeats and just threw this in at the end to make it an acceptable pop song. In any case, I think there’s a lot of correspondence between the two, given that one is a youth anthem and the other is all pre-Raphaelite and shit.