Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Diction Comes Pulsin'

I read today that Grand Theft Auto IV is predicted to break video game sales records... and that it's already being lambasted by critics who haven't even seen it yet. Although I don't buy, play, or even like today's violent games, I have to shake my head at the notion that games are sending our culture down the garden path. It's a chicken and egg scenario; are games making people like violence - or is a market for violence boosting the sales of games? I find it difficult to believe a game can single-handedly raise a nation of carjackers. Much has been made of the individuals who have played games compulsively until they dropped dead, or murderers who enjoyed computer games and expressed such freely. I submit to you that there was almost certainly something else wrong with those people beyond their chosen game pastime. For proof, I give you the hundreds of millions of mentally healthy people playing the same games with no ill effect.

Back in my day, games were simpler, but there was still often shooting and destruction. The first game to cause a real stir was Death Race (Exidy, 1976). In this game, you drive your little on-screen car around to try and catch up with "gremlins." (I.E., pedestrians.) The game was inspired by a silly B-movie released the year before. The outrage over the game was greater than the outrage over the (much more graphic) film - presumably because the game was 1) interactive and 2) found in arcades sometimes frequented by children and families.

Here's a video of the game in action:

Doesn't seem particularly shocking by today's standards, does it? Yet as a symbol, to some it represents possibly losing control of ourselves, getting sucked into a virtual world that has the power to corrupt us, to influence our thinking and our actions in the real world.

Whether Death Race or GTA IV is the potential influence in question, I hope we are not that feckless, and I hope those of us who are parents will take seriously their responsibility for their charges. Our media are a mirror of our culture; they are not our society itself. Don't blame the mirror for how you look - these games sell like they do because people want to play them.

There was another new medium that caused a panic in some circles when it was introduced - it offered a leisure-time activity that caused young people to withdraw for hours at a time, fired their imaginations, separated them from reality, etc. - this new medium was the novel.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

and They Named it "Female Friend"

It seems I have always been a fan of the obscure. For me the choice was never "Beatles or Elvis" or "Beatles or Stones"... Pink Floyd was the clear choice; anything else is a false dichotomy. Given the choice, I didn't go for Coke, nor Pepsi; RC was my drink (Yes... I really can taste a difference). And when it was time to buy my very own first personal computer back in the 1980s, I didn't gravitate towards the IBM PC platform (even though I'd grown up with it) nor the Macintosh (though it was supposedly a life-changing niche machine.) I opted instead for a little-known machine made by Commodore, who'd previously come out with the best-selling computer of all time. This newer, state of the art machine did not enjoy such sales figures - for one thing, it always had an identity crisis; the creators originally designed it as the ultimate games machine... it was soon expanded and marketed as a "do-anything" machine; called "the computer for the creative mind," (and who wouldn't want to think of themselves as creative?)... and it ended up as a top choice for video editing and production.

They wanted a friendly, easy to remember name for their creation - they settled on "Amiga," and the fact that it came alphabetically before Apple and Atari didn't hurt. Later given the model number 1000 to differentiate from its siblings the home-aimed Amiga 500 and the more expandable Amiga 2000, the Amiga cost less than the IBM and Mac computers of the day, yet did much more. When it launched in 1985, the Amiga could display 4096 colors on screen at once, while the IBM of the day could display sixteen and the Macintosh, only two. The Amiga also featured stereophonic digital sound and music (up to four sound channels playing simultaneously) when the other guys mostly just beeped, and it could do true hardware multitasking - running multiple applications simultaneously in its various windows. All things we take for granted today, of course; but at the time, revolutionary. The Amiga had custom computer chips for sound, graphics, and so forth, just as computers today do - but other computers didn't begin to have custom chipsets until years after the Amiga was gone.

So given all this, why have most people never heard of Amiga? It's a tragic tale of squandered opportunity and corporate infighting. After a big splash debut in New York City, featuring appearances by Deborah Harry and Andy Warhol (both Amiga users, it seems), Commodore didn't do much to promote or market their new computer line; and what was done, was often done badly - I remember commercials showing a kid hijacking a TV broadcast, helping out various celebrities, or even levitating his house. Not things most people have a need for - but it showed the common confused conception of computers at that time: they were something that could do anything you wanted, if you just learned how to tap their power. A far cry from the common household appliance they are today.

I have linked below to an article in the August 1985 issue of Personal Computing, previewing the first Amiga (warning: the files are large in size, about 1 MB each). I like the sense of wonder it evokes... it really did seem like anything was possible back then.
Many thanks are due Gerd Frank, of the German site AmiATLAS, who so kindly scanned this for me after winning it on eBay.

More information: arstechnica did a piece on the history of the Amiga. And here's a page with some info on how Warhol used the Amiga.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Mix Tape that Changed My Life

Almost 20 years ago as of this writing, I started college. That freshman year was a high water mark in many ways; I'm still friends with a lot of the people I met then; I got my first taste of independence and self-reliance; and I started discovering really interesting music I'd never heard on the radio - which, in effect, meant that I became a music listener when I'd never really seen any reason to be one before.

One of the musical artists I discovered that autumn is Robyn Hitchcock - a songwriter from England who has had a lot of labels stuck on him over the years, such as "quirky", "eccentric", "cult figure" and even "God." He's been called the Monty Python, Douglas Adams, and Rod Serling of pop. The venerable Trouser Press record guide called his "entire body of work of the great undiscovered treasures of modern pop music." And it was Creem magazine that proclaimed "God walks among us." I wonder if his obscure status makes people like him more; I always get a warm feeling from discovering something unique and special that it seems almost no one else knows about. Not that I don't try and spread the word - you're reading this, right?

My introduction to Mr Hitchcock's oeuvre was a common one for the time - a "mix tape" cassette that a friend of a friend had compiled from vinyl records, and passed on to an interested party (my new school friend, Dan) in order to spread the gospel. Dan was a great source of new music in those days - he had an immense collection of store bought cassettes as well, and was generous about lending them out. He gave me the Hitchcock mix tape outright and I was instantly hooked. It was cued up to side B when I first played it, in the room of one of the girls on our floor. "In St. Petersburg... In the night... Where the light shines down on the snow..." The voice, slightly nasal, almost self-mocking, full of character, crooned about an object of desire who was - in typical fashion for that time in that musical career - beautiful, mysterious, and no longer alive: brought back to memory by a dark vision of death, with dark music accompaniment to match.

Since that day, I've met still more friends online through the Hitchcock listserv, and I'm working on a third tribute songs collection. In honor of 20 years of music fandom, and in honor of Dan's birthday today, I enshrine here a scan of the mix tape that changed my life.

Happy birthday, Dan!