Sunday, May 23, 2010

She blinded me with science

I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at, etc., etc.
Ada Lovelace

I went to InfoAge without high expectations, but left highly impressed. My family took a trip to this volunteer run museum because it was located in Camp Evans, where my father used to work, and he'd been told that his photo was somewhere in one of the exhibits. I imagined it would have a few kiddie exhibitions and a couple of pictures on a wall. Instead, I found something with a fascinating look at both the history of this camp, the technology it was involved with, and a few other really cool exhibits.

Camp Evans, located in Wall, started out as the station where Marconi did some pioneering work with radio broadcasting. It was later used by Fort Monmouth for numerous projects, such as the world's first portable computer (assuming your definition of portable includes "fits on a 30-foot truck").

What made this place extra enjoyable were the volunteers. They were all deeply knowledgeable, and willing to go into great depth. It's one thing to look at some old china plates and think how nice they look. It's another to look at some old china plates and be told the story of how they lay beneath the sea for over a century, until some spear fishermen realized that what they though were rocks were actually slats from a shipwreck, and while the crates the dishes were stored in had been eaten away, they were still protected by the straw they were packed in.

A few of the many highlights for me:
1) Seeing a picture of Max Adler, the man who gave me Bar Mitzvah lessons, in the Camp Evans hall of fame. (For personal reasons, obviously.)

2) Seeing some of the complex looking radar devices from World War 2. Tracking enemy planes was not just a matter of looking at dots on a screen. There were tons of complex calibrations necessary. For contrast, the exhibit also showed a working modern radar gun simple enough for children, and available in toy stores.

3) The fallout shelter at the camp, which has been turned into an exhibit on fallout shelters. I could probably give this section its own post, but I'll limit myself to pointing out how cool some of the items it showed are. There were posters advertising the shelters, tins of crackers and candies (which were called "carbohydrate supplements" and the volunteer told us were carcinogenic), geiger counters, and other helpful tools for families worried about the a-bomb.
They also showed us the opening credits to this video, prepared to help children in 1951:

4) Hearing about the ship wrecks off the coast of the Jersey Shore. Again, a guided tour of the artifacts uncovered from the deep really brought them to life.

5) A tour of vintage computers by members of MARCH, the MidAtlantic Retro Compuing Hobbyists. MARCH believes that not only should you see old computers, but when possible you should see them in action. They had working classics such as an original Macintosh, a tricked out Commodore 64 with two floppy drives and a 300 baud modem*, and a TRS-80. I used the TRS to write my first BASIC program since about 1994. I kept it very simple:
I thought about adding 20 GOTO 10, but didn't see where the break key was on the keyboard. (The only hard part about writing this was the keyboard was strange. The quotes were above the number 2, not left of the "enter" key, and the "enter" was where the backspace is.)

* For people who don't know about computers, this is the equivalent of a sports car that's been modified to go from zero to 60 in a tenth of a second and shoot laser beams.

That tour also showed us some older computers, including the refrigerator-sized tape drive of a Univac. (They're planning to expand soon, and will show the entire Univac, which takes up a full wall). Another, smaller, one was literally a typewriter hooked up to a TV:

6) A tour of radio and audio exhibits. Highlights included numerous demonstrations. Like the radar, old fashioned radios were not simple to tune -- there were three or four knobs involved. However, a lot of them were really beautiful. We also saw plenty of recording mediums, from CDs all the way back to phonographs with cylinders. This still works, and they played songs on it for us:

Most of the exhibits sound as though they're only half finished. InfoAge is preparing numerous expansions, and I think I'll check back on this place in a few months and see what progress has been made. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Feels like I'm going to lose my mind

Have you ever founded anything? If so, is it something that went on to become a global superpower? If not, why not? 
America (The Book), A Citizens Guide to History, presented by The Daily Show With John Stewart

This is just a test of how Blogspot posting works. I have an actual post I want to put up, but want to put a break in it because it has spoilers and was having trouble doing so.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Has he lost his mind?

He's back, the man behind the mask/ and he's out of control.
Alice Cooper
The original Iron Man is not exactly Citizen Kane, but it is perhaps the best summer action movie I've seen. There are two reasons for this. One is where I saw it:
That's the Family Drive In Theatre in Stephens City, Va. It's the only time I've been in a drive-in, and it's a very cool experience.

The other reason was because it kept things moving. About five minutes into the movie, you got your first explosion. Just about every scene was exciting, suspensful, advanced the plot, made you laugh, or a combination of the above.

I saw Iron Man 2 this weekend, and it was good, but lacked something the original had. They still did a fine job of translating the excitement and characters of a comic book onto the big screen, but at times it dragged. And I found it easy to figure out what the problem was. Since the rest of the review involves spoilers, I'm going to put a little break here. Click to continue reading.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Wherein I compare Shigeru Miyamoto to Al Jolson.

ACTORS EAT CAKES WITH THE COOLIDGES; Thirty Enjoy Breakfast at the White House and Then Entertain Their Hosts. PRESIDENT NEARLY LAUGHS Guests Crack 'Dignified' Jokes, Sing Songs and Pledge Support to Coolidge.
New York Times front page headline, Oct. 18, 1924

Super Mario 64 is The Jazz Singer of video games. (I mean the 1927 film with Al Jolson, not the 1980 film with Neil Diamond.) It's incredibly important historically; and it's still pretty enjoyable today, if you can put up with some embarrassing elements by modern standards.  

As I said earlier, playing Super Mario Brothers Wii made me nostalgic, so I played Super Mario Brothers 3. And that inspired me to see what else the series had to offer I had missed, so I'm in the middle of Super Mario 64. I plan to play until I get an ending, though not necessarily the ending. (The object of the game is to collect stars. You can, I have learned, defeat the big bad when you get 70 stars. But to get the ultimate prize, you need 120. I've got 49 stars as of this writing, and I'm willing to put up with the game's flaws to get 21 more, but not 71.)

I never had a Nintendo 64. In 1988, I purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System. In 2003 or 2004, I bought a Playstation 2. Because I'm rather proud of my "Jazz Singer" analogy, let me beat it into the ground. That was the equivalent of going to the theaters to see Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush in 1925, and not seeing another movie until The Wizard of Oz or Gone With The Wind in 1939

Here is my mini-synopsis of the history of the Nintendo 64, derived from Wikipedia and a few gaming sites. The console premiered in 1996, and helped usher in the era of 3-D gaming. Super Mario 64 was one of the first two games for the system, and reviewers instantly called it the best thing since sliced bread.  IGN's review said "it must be stated that SM64 is the greatest videogame to date, and one which all games, regardless of genre, will be judged henceforth."

Despite praise for its games, the N64 was a relative failure. It sold 32 million copies. Its competitor, the Playstation One, sold more than three times that amount. The N64 used cartridges for games, like the Nintendo and Super Nintendo, while the Playstation used CDs. While cartridges had some advantages, they had two major disadvantages. For one, they could only hold 64 megabytes of data; a CD could hold 10 times that, meaning it could create much bigger games. For another, they were more expensive to manufacture. A game that sold for $40 on the Playstation would sell for $60-$70 on the N64. Also, the controller was horrible. Here is a picture of it. For Mario, you were supposed to move around with the joystick in the center, jump with the blue button, punch and throw with the green button, use the red button for some special moves, and use the yellow buttons for adjusting the camera angles. That's an ergonomic nightmare. There are times where you need to move and press the red and green buttons at the same time; that must involve some real finger contortions.

Fortunately, I'm playing it on the Wii, with a controller that resembles the one I got used to playing with a PS2. Everything is in a much more sensible location.

The Jazz Singer was not, technically speaking, the first film with recorded sound. However, it revolutionized the industry. Similarly, while Mario 64 may not have been the world's first 3-D game, it changed the way they were designed, and made them popular on consoles.

Mario's plot is, as usual, elementary. Bowser has kidnapped the Princess in her own castle, and used the power of magical stars to trap the inhabitants of the castle in paintings. Mario must enter these paintings, each of which has a world guarded by his minions, and recover the stars in there.

The Good:
The main reason why I continue to play this is that it's a joy to control Mario. Legend has it that Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario games going all the way back to Donkey Kong, demanded that it be fun to move Mario. Before any levels were designed, they created a garden level, where all testers did was make Mario run, jump and swim. They did this for a month before designing the first world, satisfied it would be a pleasure to move around. (Another legend about Miyamoto is that he records testers' faces while they play, and if they're not smiling enough, he redesigns the section. He's definitely a cult figure among gamers.) The ease of moving him is complemented by his sounds; when he jumps exceptionally high, he makes a little "woo-hoo" of delight.

The graphics are also, to my mind, excellent. They're bright and cartoony, and it doesn't matter that a modern game system could put more polygons onto the screen. It's fun to watch the little mushrooms (Goombas) wander around the screen.

Nintendo has always been a master of music. The background tunes are lively and quickly get stuck in your head. With a few exceptions, I'd say that music in games has actually suffered since the days of the NES. It's richer, of course, since they can have a full symphony instead of just synthesized beeps, but it's also much less memorable. Play a few strains of Kid Icarus, which I haven't played for 20 years, and I'll be humming along. Play the background music to all but two of the games I bought for the PS2, and I'll have no idea what you're playing, even if I put 40 or 50 hours into that game.

The Bad and the Ugly
The Jazz Singer has some scenes which are painfully embarrassing today, where Al Jolson puts on blackface. While the movie may have major historic significance, and a touching, classic plot, elements like that make it hard to watch. Also, while there is talking, much of the film is silent, so you need to put up with the extreme  gestures and over-emoting actors of the era did to get their points across. Things like that tell you this isn't a modern movie.

Two factors keep Mario 64 from aging perfectly: the camera, and the design philosophy.

Mario games have always rewarded oblique thinking. If you jump on a blank looking location, you might find an invisible box with a mushroom inside. Maybe you can walk on the roof of a level, avoiding all the enemies. But for most Mario games, these are bonuses. You can get through the game without ever figuring it out. In addition, the rules are pretty well defined. Mario can jump, break bricks, and pick some things up. No puzzle in Super Mario Brothers will ever call for Mario to mix a cocktail.

In Mario 64, sometimes you need to guess what the hell the designers were thinking. Each painting has six stars in it, and gives a clue how to get the star. Many present the sort of puzzle you expect from a Mario game: climb to a certain location, find a certain number of coins, or defeat a certain opponent. But a lot of the clues are so oblique as to be useless, and involve tricks that you use only once.

On one level, you have to push two crates as part of finding a star. That would be fine, but this is the only level I've encountered where you can move crates, and these are the only crates in the game that can be moved. In another level, you need to climb a tree, which wakes up a sleeping owl. The friendly owl then offers to fly you around. If you steer him properly, he'll take you to an otherwise inaccessible location where a star is located. Again, this seems to be the only helpful avian in the game; it's not a trend, and it's hardly intuitive. Yet another secret level is found by looking up at the ceiling at a certain point. All other levels are entered by jumping into a painting or hole.

I've given up trying to solve the problems on my own; that's what the Internet is for (particularly But the fact that each puzzle has its own solution, which may have nothing to do with anything else in the game, is driving me crazy.

The other part I can't stand is the camera, which was considered a cutting edge piece of programming in the day. For most of the 3-D games before Mario, the action was shown from either a first person perspective or situated just behind the character. As an example, look at 1982's Pole Position, where you always see the action from just behind the race car.

While that's fine for a race track, it doesn't work for a platformer, where you want to have interesting things above and below, where sometimes you'll want to see the action from Mario's side (e.g., on a flat plain, so you can see enemies approaching from all directions) and sometimes from behind (e.g, while climbing a mountain, so you can see the falling boulders getting closer.) Mario 64's solution was "Lakitu," a cameraman who followed you around in a cloud, and was supposed to film you from the most appropriate angle. If the player wanted to change the angle, he could do so with the camera buttons, or turn Lakitu off and force a "behind the shoulder" perspective.

In theory, it means you'll see the action from an ideal perspective. It doesn't work that well. Too often I've plunged to my death because the camera shifts perspective while I'm walking across a thin plank over a bottomless pit, and suddenly pressing left doesn't move me along the board, but off it. The camera angles also have a nasty habit of omitting important facts. I was stymied on one world because it looked like there was only a bottomless pit in one direction. If you turned the camera to look down -- which it never does by itself --  there was a single step where you had to go to find anything else.

Since it feels wrong to have the only image with this post be from a game I'm not even discussing, here's a clip of someone playing the first world. Notice how sometimes the camera is behind Mario, sometimes to his side, and sometimes it can't quite find where our favorite Italian plumber is. You only need to watch about a minute or so to see all of that.

I don't mind failing in a game because I made a mistake. I hate failing because the game is making things artificially more difficult by warping my perspective in the middle of a delicate maneuver.

Most modern games are better about the camera, but still not good, and I really prefer my games with a fixed, intelligently positioned camera at every scene. Mario 64 set an unfortunate precedent.