Back in the pre-Cambrian era of programming for the personal computer, there were only two options: assembly language and BASIC.
Assembly language was a compiled language, producing object code that was the machine’s native language, but it was hard to learn and writing good code was a time-consuming process. Debugging it was even harder. BASIC was an interpreted language. It was easy to learn, but because each line of code had to be interpreted on the fly, it was slow. And it wasn’t a structured language with functions and procedures, all you had were subroutines, so you ended up with a lot of spaghetti code.
Then one day Turbo Pascal crawled up out of the primordial ocean and triggered a Cambrian explosion of software evolution.
A couple of years ago, Robert J. Sawyer, Erin Brockovich, and I were all invited to fly to Istanbul and address a conference of several thousand business leaders on the topic of “thinking outside the box.” We weren’t the only ones invited, there were a number of other “out-of-the-box” speakers from all over Europe as well. While there, Sawyer and I were also invited to speak to a group of several hundred bankers. There was a lot of brain-power gathered in those conference halls and auditoriums.
Whenever I’m invited to give a speech, I always ask three questions. “Who am I speaking to and why did they invite me? What can I say to them that will be useful? What can I say that will make a difference?” (In this particular case, I was pretty sure that they did not want to hear about tribbles.)
After a few weeks of cogitation on the matter, I had an insight that struck me as profound. The reason why businesses fail is because the operators of those businesses fail to understand what business they’re really in. Because ultimately every business is a service business.
I have a holiday tradition. Every December, I buy myself a present. That way I guarantee I will get at least one gift I actually want. (I have a closet full of sweaters and shirts that other relatives thought were “just perfect” for me. No. Just no.)
This year, I ended up standing in the aisles of Fry’s Electronics, debating with myself. I really wanted a new camera—the Sony DSC-F828 is 7 years old and I’ve been studying the specs on various high-end DSLRs. But there’s also this great new game from Disney called Epic Mickey. I don’t have a Wii, but Epic Mickey looks so good that I was tempted to buy a Wii just for Epic Mickey alone.
But … I hesitated.
One of my nephews has a Wii, and he got Epic Mickey for his birthday early in November. So I invited myself for dinner one Sunday and afterward he set up the game for me. He showed me where all the controls were and walked me through the first few moments of the game.
I’m a big Disney fan and Epic Mickey opens up with some great references to classic Disneyana: Mickey Through The Looking Glass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, all those Disney anthologies with the animated paint brush creating whole landscapes with a stroke, early Disneyland, Night On Bald Mountain (and/or The Blot), and a calendar that acknowledges Mickey’s early films as the pages fall off.
After a spectacular setup, the game reveals Mickey in a place called The Wasteland. We meet Oswald the Rabbit, who Walt created before Mickey, in the laboratory of a mad scientist. This is an introductory level, a teaching level for the mechanics of the game. Your job, playing as Mickey, is to destroy one control console by spinning (shake the controller), leap across a broken platform and destroy a second control console. You leap by holding down the A button.
Like all platform and jumping games, it requires fast reflexes.
Call me a grinch, but I’m not a big fan of Christmas.
What should be a celebration of the Prince Of Peace has turned into an International Capitalist Feeding Frenzy, with too many businesses and even whole economies depending on a month of consumer spending for their survival for the rest of the year. I don’t consider that a sustainable model for a personal budget and I doubt that it is any more sustainable when it is multiplied by hundreds of millions. It is a global potlatch that serves nothing but greed. In my not-so humble opinion.
The last time I launched into this particular bit of curmudgeonry, That Pesky Dan Goodman asked me what I think we should do instead. Without pause, I replied, “Kindness Day.”
No, not the occasional random act of kindness just because you feel like it, but conscious deliberate kindness, methodically planned and executed, whether you feel like it or not. An act of generosity that makes a difference for someone else.
My first thought was August 17th, the most nondescript day of the year. August doesn’t have any real holidays of its own and 17 is a number totally without significance in any logic system that I know of. Then I decided that one day a year isn’t enough, so I have declared a personal Kindness Day of my own on the 17th of every month. (What you do on the 17th is your business. What I do on the 17th will be an act of deliberate unselfishness.) (If I can think of one.) (It might be a stretch.)
To kick it off, I want to do a tribute to one of the most under-appreciated men in both computing and science fiction. (I’m not sure if this will be published on the 17th, if it isn’t I’ll have to do another act of kindness too….)
The first computer monitors were cathode ray tubes. You got bright green or gray lettering on black, 80 characters by 25 lines. And in the earliest days of the personal computer revolution, you had to buy a monitor card to drive it. Video wasn’t built into the motherboard.
In 1981, IBM introduced the CGA (Color Graphics Adapter) card, which supported 16 different colors. In 1984, this was followed by the EGA card (Enhanced Graphics Adapter) which gave us 16 colors out of a palette of 64.
VGA (Video Graphics Array) was introduced in 1987, not as a card, but as a single chip that could be mounted directly on a motherboard. VGA cards were also available to those of us with older machines. The VGA had 16-color and 256-color modes. It could display 262,144 different colors. (6 bits each for red, green, and blue). VGA was the start of the real video revolution in personal computing.
Last year, IBM announced that it had built a computer that exceeds the neural capacity of the cortex of a cat.
My first thought on hearing this news was that the world does not need a computer that is snotty, stubborn, and coughs up hairballs on the couch. (I already have a computer like that, including the hairballs—one of these days, I just gotta clean the fan.) But fortunately, that was not IBM’s goal.
That same press release went on to say that IBM eventually wants to build a computer that simulates and emulates the abilities of a human brain for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition.
And once they accomplish that, why stop there? If you can build a machine that matches the cortical ability of a human, why not keep going and build a machine that exceeds that by ten times, or a hundred, or as far as you can go before the limitations of the physical universe kick in?
The column before last, I wrote about vinyl records and how amazing the technology for analog sound really is—because you’re fighting the obstinacy of the physical universe throughout the whole signal path.
During the seventies and well into the eighties, I invested quite a bit of time and money into my own sound system and I remember fondly playing with all kinds of electronic devices designed to remove clicks and pops, minimize tape hiss, expand musical peaks for more dynamic impact, and even add an extra octave of bass at the bottom. I also added an equalizer to compensate for sonic peaks and valleys in my living room.
Bob Carver’s Sonic Hologram did a kind of electronic signal-cancelling, so you wouldn’t hear the left speaker at your right ear, nor the right speaker at your left ear. That was a pretty astonishing effect, which has since evolved into all kinds of digital ‘spatializer’ enhancements. You could also add two speakers at the back of your listening room to extract out-of-phase information from the stereo signal and give yourself a quadraphonic experience.
A lot of the various equalizers and signal-processors were extraordinary devices for the time, genuinely pushing the envelope of sonic manipulation and enhancement. And remember, all of this was done in the analog domain. Occasionally, I still see some of these devices showing up as techno-props on crime-investigation TV episodes where some nerdy-genius forensic expert is magically extracting a remarkably clear audio signal from an overwhelming hash of noise. (If only….)
Imagine it. Here’s a diamond stylus racing through a vinyl groove, somehow turning all those little bumps and ridges into beautiful, stunning music.
First, consider the vinyl. If the vinyl is virgin—never used before, not recycled—it’s a pure surface. If it is recycled, it will have impurities, little lumps of dirt and dust and maybe some bits of shredded label too, and that will show up as a granular surface in the groove which will slightly degrade the overall quality of the sound.
Now think about the stylus, a precisely shaped triangle of diamond mounted on a precision cantilever made of aluminum, boron, ruby, diamond, beryllium, or even carbon fiber for stiffness—each with its own physical characteristics that will influence the quality of the sound.
I’ll say it again. There is genuine magic in a vinyl record.
The grooves pressed into the vinyl are direct analogs of the sound waves that struck the microphone. Because they’r analogs, the physical medium becomes part of the process of sonic reconstruction. Every single factor in the signal chain—the physical characteristics of the stylus, the cantilever, the coils, the magnets, the tonearm, the turntable motor, the connecting wires, the preamplifier components, the equalization curve—everything affects the signal quality. Every single component votes on the overall sound.
That decades of engineering brilliance have made it possible for such stunning sound to come out of such an obstinate signal path is the triumph of passionate will power over the inordinate obstinacy of the physical universe. During the seventies and eighties, I invested a small fortune into high-end stereo gear and a much larger fortune into an admirable collection of rock and classical and electronic music.
Playing a vinyl record is an act of devotion for an audiophile. You handle it lovingly, you use a special blower to bow excess dust off it, you give it a wipe with a clean micro-fiber cloth or maybe you run it through an expensive record-cleaning machine, you install a special brush on the end of the tonearm to remove errant dust from the grooves before the stylus gets there, you lower a dust cover over the whole affair so that dust doesn’t land on the record while it’s playing. And you make sure you have the whole thing sonically isolated on so that even an errant foostep won’t be felt by the stylus and produce an audible thump in the music.
My father was a professional photographer. He worked hard to master his craft and he built his own cameras to his own precise specifications. I watched him build them in his workshop, fascinated by the process. In those days, a camera was a large and bulky box with a frosted glass plate in the back for focusing—you stuck your head under a black velvet hood to line up the shot. The image was upside down on the glass, so you had to mentally invert it. (Talk about your single-lens reflex system!)
Every exposure required an 8x10 sheet of film. You loaded each sheet into one side of a large two-sided plate — kind of like a cartridge-thing, only huge. You put a sheet of film on each side and you slid a covering slide over each piece of film to protect it from the light. Did I mention that you had to do this in the darkroom, so called because you were literally working in the dark? You loaded the film into the plates in total darkness, by feel alone. You couldn’t risk even the slightest smidge of light. You couldn’t even risk a spark of static electricity. (I loaded film for my dad a few times. It was time consuming and tedious. It was not my idea of fun. I’ve had fun, this wasn’t it.) You loaded up as many plates as you expected to use and lugged them around in a heavy case.
When you were ready to take a picture, you slid the cartridge-thing into the back of the camera, just in front of the glass panel, pulled out the slide that protected the film from light, squeezed the air-pressure bulb that clicked the shutter, slid the covering slide back over the film, pulled out the cartridge-thing, flipped it over, reinserted it into the camera so you could expose the film on the flip side.