Those darned kids are smarter than we are — from 4-bit to 128-bit in three decades

July 31, 2009

2600FROM JASON’S HOPE FOR THE FUTURE — Humans are a bunch of idiots. We’re barely even smart monkeys. Want some proof?

Pork sales dropped by almost half when the “swine flu” made headlines. George Lucas cast both Jake LLoyd and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. The McCain-Palin ticket got 59.9 million votes in November 2008. Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles to the label in 1962. People choose to sky-dive.

Tom Hanks turned down the lead roles in Field of Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, and Jerry Maguire. A man who in 2007 robbed a Kansas City Family Dollar tried to make his getaway from police via a city bus. Ross Perot had a chance in 1979 to buy Microsoft for mere millions of dollars and passed it up.

The good news is that we’re getting smarter. I recently stumbled across the Wikipedia article on the Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research shows intelligence quotients in much of the civilized world continue to rise year over year by three points per decade.

I thank Pac-Man.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the l’il yellow guy take all the credit for the big jump in human progress. But let’s just think about the evolution of games of the past three decades.

Do you remember the Atari 2600? That glorious hunk of wood-paneled junk was my go-to machine for much of my happy childhood — back when a color television was still considered a luxury and you could rent a VCR from your corner video store. The game titles were not zeniths of strategy. You bounced a four-bit block between two paddles in Pong. In Space Invaders, you had two directions to move and one direction to fire. Pole Position had you negotiating gentle turns… once in a while.

The 2600 had one button.

Let’s explore, by way of contrast, some modern games:

In Left 4 Dead, my game of the year, you have to coordinate with four other players to strategically clear hordes of zombies using multiple firearms and incendiary devices in a dynamic 3D playing area, securing certain strongholds and using classical war techniques such as bottle-necking, construction of kill-zones, triage, fire walls, safe rooms, and sniper nests to stay alive in a destructible environment, often overcoming attacks by unpredictable hordes and special-class zombies.

Oblivion lets players loose in a 16-square-mile fantasy sandbox game world with dynamic time and weather events, with more than 1000 characters to interact with, and just as many monsters. Players choose to become one of 10 races and 21 classes, each with customizable skillsets, weapons, armor, statistics, and backstories. In addition to the world-spanning and epic main plot, there are 220 side quests, making for hundreds of hours of exploration, goals, and rewards.

Age of Empires III pits eight competing European colonial powers against each other in a real-time strategy rush to conquer the New World circa 1492 to 1850. Players control up to 200 combined military and domestic units each and can build 20 different building types, each granting various abilities, resources, upgrades, and tactical advantages as opponents square off in huge melees with competing objectives for victory.

That’s a little more complex than jumping over Donkey Kong’s falling barrels, isn’t it? And kids today have no problem running roughshod through these games, barely stopping for breath before moving on to the next new release.

I mean, these kids with their new-fangled games and their mad skillz make me feel like a frickin’ retard. And I’m part of the Information Age generation, despite my white hairs. I hate to think how much like dinosaurs my grandparents feel; my wife’s grandmother didn’t even have a telephone until she was a teenager.

No wonder kids are getting smarter. Look how much more demanding their entertainment is — today’s video games challenge them to think more laterally and do far more in-depth problem solving than freeze tag, passive TV-watching, baseball, or checkers ever did.

Gamers think differently than non-gamers, a July article in Neuropsychologia says (according to some guy on the Internet. I didn’t actually read it). Video games change how players allocate their attention, testing proved, forcing them to set priorities, discard irrelevant information fed to them in the game, respond more quickly to targets, and pick up better on in-game cues.

ABC News reported in 2005 that a University of Rochester study showed gamers scored 13 percent higher than non-gamers when asked to count the number of squares that flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second.

A now-famous 2003 study in Nature quoted the same university’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, saying video games improve visual skills. Four experiments, including the one mentioned above, showed habitual gamers outperformed their non-gaming counterparts. A fifth showed that non-gamers improved after sitting down in front of the screen to play.

Hell, my mom can’t even figure out Tetris, and Guitar Hero (on easy) destroyed my dad. Yet I’ve seen perfectly average six-year-olds pick up Pokemon Platinum and start kicking ass. I think the correlation is perfectly clear.

I’m not saying I’m going to deprive my kids of a good game of basketball in the driveway to force them to play, say, NBA Jam. But in the face of the evidence, I’m not going to lie to them and say the vidjagames will rot their brains.

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Mary… Poppins? Musical theater isn’t my thing.

July 25, 2009

poppinsFROM JASON’S LONG, SAD AFTERNOON — Andrew and I have often discussed our very different opinions on musical theater. I am not fond of it, while he tends to be a fan.

Two-and-a-half hours trapped today in a balcony seat affirmed why I eschew this particular medium. It’s the singing. And the dancing.

Please don’t misunderstand; both in small doses can be just fine. But the live version of Disney’s Mary Poppins can’t stand against the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. On stage, the actors put so much weight into the song-and-dance routines that they miss out on what I love best about stories — the  characterization.

It was the wife’s idea — or maybe her revenge after I forced her to sit through Star Trek — to hit the State Theater on Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. She’s a huge fan of children’s media as long as it’s ripped from a book and in no way contains transforming robots, laser-wielding terrorists, cat-men with magic swords, any manifestation of ninja (mutant or otherwise), or is any way related to either DC or Marvel. Also, science fiction in her eyes is bad, whilst magic is just peachy.

She loves the singing. And the dancing. Sigh.

She must also love being too far away from the action to see any facial acting. And she must love that the actors rush through spoken lines too quickly to get to sing-song ones. She must hate dramatic pauses, establishing shots, and all the dynamism that comes with camera-work. Film editing must be anathema.

But she sure liked the disturbing narcissism and cold shoulder-ing that Poppins embraced in her live role, which if IMDB is to believed is actually much closer to how the character acted in the source material by novelist P.L. Travers. In addition, there were homoerotic living statues, a scene where toys come to life (which was cut from the Disney film), and not a dancing penguin to be seen.

But that’s just the method of delivery. Make no bones about it, I’ve always loved the film version of Poppins, and couldn’t stop whistling the catchy Sherman Brothers songs all the way home. Chim-chim-char-oo indeed! Look, I’m just a guy who likes to drink beer and play video games. Musical theater crosses a line that can sometimes be masked on film. That’s all I’m saying.

Not everything about the theater performance was unbearable. The sets were amazing works of both engineering and art, with some very clever built-in special effects that made the production just as much a magic show as a story. Sometimes the wires were visible, but other times the ingenuity of the builders had me scratching my head and wondering where the trap doors and puppet actors could possibly be hidden, or whether they were using radio controls and servos to accomplish certain effects.

Matter of fact, I spent more time wondering trying to reverse engineer the set than I did paying attention to the actors. Or the singing. And the dancing.

My mind also wandered thematically as Bert mused about the self-reflexive nature of Mary Poppins’ appearance. Cyclism is a time-honored philosophical device… the Norse had their Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, and Battlestar Galactica had its refrain of,  “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Bert suggests in both the stage and screen versions that Poppins works in much the same way, and that this story is just one of many in which she’s involved herself.

Bert’s authority on that matter has always intrigued me. There’s never an explanation for how Poppins knows Bert, or from whence comes his narrative omniscience. I posit that either A) Mary was summoned as Bert’s nanny when he was a child or B) he’s a kindred magical spirit.

I’m glad the writers left the matter ambiguous. Can you imagine the same movie written today? The producers would insist, of course, of sapping the power out of the enigma by creating a concrete backstory for who Mary is, where she comes from, where she returns to. There would be an elaborate scene showing her origin. There might even be a montage showing her popping up in conspicuous places throughout history.

Also left unabashedly unexplained is the subtle romance between Mary and Bert… which Travers allegedly hated. The story goes that she made Walt Disney promise not to slip it into the script (yet there it is, underplayed and remaining a loose string to this day).

Word is that Travers didn’t like anything about the Disney version — hating it to the point of storming out of the premier. She had script approval on the film, but Walt laughed last by clinching final draft approval and giving a firm rejection to her attempted rewrites.

She also didn’t like the singing. And the dancing.

It didn’t matter. It was Disney’s most expensive film to date, but it was also the highest-grossing of the lot from 1965 to 1985. It raked in $102.5 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards.


Greater Than Gods – A Short Story

July 17, 2009

FROM SAIL’S WRITING PORTFOLIO — Martin turned the key and opened the door to his new office. The day before had been spent furnishing his large new executive workspace beyond the standard fixtures that were moved from his previous office downstairs. The tall-backed wooden guest chairs that he had purchased sat ridged and uninviting on the opposite side of his desk. Gracing the walls were paintings of the countryside, of such a generic and bland quality to make any dentist office’s interior designer proud. Bookshelves sat on either side of the room, both stuffed with volumes upon volumes of unopened reference books and unread Modern Library Collection editions of great literature. An Egyptian marble cat sculpture sat coldly beside one of these bookshelves and stared at the door jamb with a piercing glare. In the corner, upon a stout glass table, an orange plastic bowl of assorted candies sat, waiting for the day his niece and nephew might visit.

He paced quickly across the room, as if some very judgmental person was watching and would think him indulgent if he were to admire his new office for too long. Martin crossed over to the back of his desk and sank into the office chair, spinning to face the large window behind him. He was perched atop the nineteenth floor of a twenty story building. It was his hard work that had brought him to this nest, and it was his hard work that he had to thank for everything he possessed. Martin saw a reflection of himself in the rising sun that was being slightly obscured by the clouds on the horizon. He saw the symbolism in how, no matter how the cloud tried, it could not fully black out the massive and bright sun. He knew that he was the same way, a rising star that would never fail to triumph over those who wished to snuff him out.

Martin looked below at the already bustling business district and was reminded of how far he had come. He had made himself at age eighteen when he was accepted into Harvard University. His very low-income family could definitely not afford to pay for the school, even with scholarship grants he received, but agreed to carry the student loan debts for him. He worked tirelessly through every class on every subject, especially his Team Management and Development class that he begged his roommate to tutor him in so that he would able to graduate. He steadily and confidently climbed the corporate ladder as the executives he made friends with recommended him for promotions.

And now he was here. Here, sitting atop his mountain of toil. Only the four-and-a-half foot layer of steel and drywall above his head kept him from rocketing toward the zenith. The glass window before him disappeared and he felt the urge to leap toward the blue heavens where no human could bind him.

Martin heard a rap on his door and a click as someone entered the room. He spun around to see a small, somewhat plump woman moving towards him.

“Martin, we have business matter to discuss.” The woman pulled up one of the tall-backed wooden chairs to the desk and sat. She continued to speak as she uncomfortably shifted her weight about the hardwood seat.

“Under normal circumstances I would have simply emailed the documentation to you so that you may make a decision, but this is a special case. Our laboratory and research team has stumbled upon a breakthrough.” She paused a moment to allow for a reaction to shatter across Martin’s stony face. When none showed, she reiterated, “I came down here personally because I feel that this a matter that we needed to discuss in depth before you and the others make a decision.”

Martin was annoyed. Had he not rightfully been given this position? He was more than capable of making any decision that needed to be made. He had gotten here under his sole manpower and did not deserve the condescending attitude that this woman was giving him. But this irritation with his boss did not show on his face.

“What is this breakthrough?” Martin asked.

“Well,” the woman began excitedly, “they have found a new material that can be used in solar cells that has the potential to convert sunlight to electricity at eighty-percent efficiency.” The cool calmness that Martin had maintained up to this point in the conversation finally broke. His mind instantly went wild with images of his success: The scientists that he hired winning the Nobel Prize and all the publicity that would bring him, the build team that he hired developing this technology for use in the product and all the profits that it would bring him, the success of the corporation he works in and the promotion it would bring him. This was what the product was of all his hard work throughout his life. Through thankless years of his own toil, this was what his backbreaking autonomy had brought finally him. This was what would take him straight to the zenith.

“This is incredible!” he exclaimed, “This is absolutely incredible.” The woman appeared satisfied at finally having made an impact on Martin’s emotions.

“Do you realize,” he continued in his raving, “what this will mean for us, this corporation? We are immortal, Henrietta! God himself will elevate us to the status of Archangels!”

“God?” The woman chuckled hesitantly. “We’re talking about people, here. Think about what this could mean for not just you and the company, but humanity as a whole. This means a revolutionary line of cars that cause zero emissions but still can be driven long distances and even tow trailers. This means we have a technology that will solve humanity’s dependence on coal for electricity generation. That’s why I came to your office personally, because I think it would be wrong to simply patent this and exploit it for profits when it could be shared with the entire scientific community for development and improvement. To do this would make you a savior! What we have stumbled across here is the thing that every human on this planet has been waiting for.”

“Humans?” Martin asked perplexedly, “I’m not sure what people have ever done for me.”


Galactic Arms Race has its gimmick… but it needs more to keep me coming back

July 14, 2009

FROM JASON’S LASER BEAMS — Look, this is a pretty old story and you know it by heart. It’s all about the grind. You kill things and you get credit for it, until you get enough credit that you can achieve a higher level.

That’s the way of World of Warcraft, of Dungeons and Dragons, of Final Fantasy. It’s how repetitive games progress. Everything else is embroidery.

That embroidery is what sets one grind apart from the rest… just not by much.

In the case of Galactic Arms Race, the freeware space shooter, the gimmick is the AI that constantly mutates new weapons based on an algorithm called cgNEAT.

To reduce it to Atari-speak, GAR is basically a fusion of Asteroids and Solaris with PvP and RPG mechanics thrown into the mix. You fly (solo or multiplayer) through a network of star systems taking on aliens, pirates, and space blobs while gaining experience and pumping up various armor and weapons stats. It’s got all the laser-filled shmup-ability of Japanese shooters with the same “just one more level” carrot offered by WoW.

GAR‘s the kind of DLC you would have killed to find back in 1995 — quick, resource-friendly, set against beautifully rendered space dust, and with constantly evolving (to a point) content. But when boiled down to its fundamentals, GAR is more a toy than a game.

What I mean is that no matter how many different ways the game finds to fire weapons (which so far are all variations on a very narrow theme), the shoot-and-level game idea has pretty much reached a dead end. For three decades, shoot-em-ups have been repackaging of the old tenets of Galaga.

What could move GAR further away from the realm of Galaxian et al would be a hybridization of mechanics. It would benefit tremendously, for instance, by incorporating trade or cargo-hauling, wreckage salvaging, mining, or some other similar components. The relative monotony could also be lifted by introducing personalities or (who knows) political interaction with the various enemy factions, or possibly a combination that could allow a control-the-map strategic element similar to RISK.

For now, that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan, and that’s okay if you want a few hours of mindless blow-shit-up-and-get-more-powerful fun. But that old chestnut gives dimishing returns on replay… especially when you’ve hit level 62 and start to get sleepy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like GAR, or I wouldn’t have put about six hours into it over the past few days. That’s why it’s worth talking about. It really is a terrific effort, especially for a university group project. I just need a little more meat, that’s all.


How much does a senior cost?

July 13, 2009

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The wife didn’t think this wording was nearly as funny as I did. She wouldn’t let me ask the server for pricing on the first senior.


You know you’re old when you realize The Goonies is full of faults

July 12, 2009

gooniesFROM JASON’S DVD COLLECTION — In many ways, I am still 10 years old. Just ask my wife. I still watch Transformers cartoons. I eat cereal with marshmallows. And I’m pretty sure girls have cooties.

But never have I felt further from 10 and closer to 30 than last night while watching The Goonies. A nice little patch of gerascophobia hit when I realized that the 1985 Richard Donner flick just wasn’t that good.

It was the first time in probably 15 years that I had watched it all the way through, and the very first time for the wife. I noticed very quickly that she was not laughing. Her eyes were glossing over. She was not caring.

I was embarrassed on behalf of the movie because I’d repressed all its nasty little faults. There were Sean Astin’s awkward moments talking to the skeleton of One-Eyed Willy. There was Kerri Green’s inability to deliver a convincing line. And there’s the disgustingly Jar Jar Binks-ish character of Sloth.

Watching as an adult, I couldn’t believe how long it took to get through the exposition and into the pirate tunnels where the real adventure happens. The Goonies isn’t about the impending foreclosure of Mikey’s home — it’s supposed to be about the booby traps and treasure maps, right?

There were also the wet child actors and their constant, cacophanous yelling back and forth. When they should have been biting their tongues to avoid detection by the murderous Fratellis, they were screaming like little girls. And when by modern movie standards they should have had slick wordplay and clever turns of phrase, they delivered childish little lines.

Or they just swore with sailors’ mouths and a surprising frequency for a PG-rated movie (especially when the new PG-13 rating had been invented the previous year, in response to other Steven Spielberg films like Jaws and Temple of Doom). Characters riff on the word “shit” 19 times, and Data spells it out once more in the final sequence. In hindsight, I can’t believe my tightly-strung, religious parents let me wear out the VHS copy we had (it might have been the television version).

“That was a waste,” the wife said when the credits rolled. I prodded her for some more explanation, and she said it was “too unbelievable” that a pirate ship would be moored off the Oregon coastline for 350 years — from 1632 to 1985 — without sinking from saltwater corrosion. That might happen in fantasy books, like Harry Potter, she said, but not in the real-world setting of The Goonies.

Of course, that’s why the rest of us liked the film as children. We wanted to believe that doubloons and pitfalls and Spanish galleys were awaiting us, just a stone’s-throw from our homes if only we looked hard enough and had the help of a secret map.

Apparently, thrill-seeking fans don’t share my wife’s concerns. The chamber of commerce in Astoria, Oregon, says the film continues to draw crowds to the Goonie House at 268 38th Street (now a private residence) and the old jail from which Jake Fratelli escaped.

The chamber has even produced an audio tour, available in MP3 format, highlighting not just The Goonies landmarks, but also filming locations around town for Kindergarten Cop, Short Circuit, Free Willy, and The Ring II.

You know, people always complain about remakes of films “raping” their childhood. But I think The Goonies would be an excellent candidate for an old cult classic to get a modern sensibility with updated cinematics and some better acting. Just roll with me, here. It could be good.


Wallpaper of the Week: Team Fortress 2

July 11, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — Admission time: I am not good at first-person shooters. I’m just not. My synapses are better suited to slightly slower-moving games. And I get irked by insta-deaths that I couldn’t see coming.

That happens a lot in Team Fortress 2.

So I resisted picking up Valve’s update of the classic MMOFPS for the longest time, at least until Steam lowered the price for a weekend deal to a paltry $9.99 a month or so back.

Since then, I’ve spent the better part of 40 hours getting fragged in every way imaginable: flamed, riddled by shotgun shells, darted to death, mowed by machine gun fire, rocketed, proximity bombed, caught unawares by a sentry, napalmed, arrow through the head — you name it.

I’ve took a few lives myself.

tf202

The engineer is my man. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting a sentry gun just out of sight around a high-traffic corner and watching it take out four or five opponents before it’s demoed.

I do have some complaints, though. The engineer needs more traps. What about pitfalls, tripwires, and logjams? For that matter, why can’t he build energy shields or barricades? And he’s not the only one who’s under-powered. C’mon, Valve, the medic deserves a better gun — one that doesn’t take 400 direct headshots to bring down a scout

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I’ve spent more time playing those two classes than all the others combined, and I’m all thumbs when it comes to the spy (average lifespan there is about 12 seconds). And I’m just getting into the groove with the demoman, who I believed at first to be completely useless and now understand to be the perfect anti-engineer character.

I’m also coming into my own with the sniper, as long as there is sufficient cover to be had; he’s almost as good with a submachine gun as a rifle scope.

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So I went looking for TF2 wallpapers and found a lot of very lame ones, sporting poorly-done  fan art and little charisma. What I decided is that expertly-timed screen caps of in-game action make for the best desktops — especially when they show imminent doom for our players. Enjoy these 1024×768 beauties, and as always, click to embiggen.