Saturday, April 24, 2010

Someone Else's Final Frontier

Cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the popular B.C. comic strip, once quipped "Cutting the space budget really restores my faith in humanity. It eliminates dreams, goals and ideals and lets us get straight to the business of hate, debauchery and self-annihilation."

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced that he is scrapping the Constellation program, which was supposed to replace the aging space shuttle with a new orbital vehicle and return men to the moon by 2020, from which they might venture further out into the solar system. This move has caused some to speculate that the future of space exploration will not belong to America but to some other nation, very likely the Chinese.

In response, Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, the last human being to walk on the moon, and Jim Lovell, one of three human beings who almost didn't make it back from the moon, wrote an open letter to the white house expressing their dismay. These are men who risked their lives in pursuit of a dream, only to see that dream shelved during their lifetimes.

We all understand that times are tough at the moment and the space program is expensive. Some might argue that the U.S. government, already mired in trillions of dollars in debt, can't afford to support a space program. Yet the Pentagon spends the estimated $108 billion that it would cost to return men to the moon by 2020 every three months or so. Obama has earmarked $600 million per year for the next five years for the design and manufacture of heavy-lift rockets required to send spacecrafts to Mars or the asteroids. Sounds good at first, until one realizes that that's about the same amount of money that it costs to purchase just four F-22 fighters. I suspect that the U.S. Air Force will likely be purchasing more than four F-22's per year over the next five years.

America never shone so brightly as she did during the Apollo years. The space program has given science invaluable new insights into the origin of the Earth, her moon and the solar system itself. It introduced new technologies and disciplines that have found useful applications outside the field of space exploration. It has subjugated no peoples and hardly killed anyone, with the exception of three unfortunate accidents. Unlike the shameful Abu Graib prison scandal and Wall Street's more recent financial implosion, the space program has done nothing to undermine America's international reputation. Quite to the contrary, the space program has been one of those American undertakings that the rest of the world has looked on with admiration. What a shame that, as Johnny Hart previously observed, America is once again forsaking her loftier dreams in favor of war, greed and short-sighted self-interest.

I'd suggest that Canada step forward, except that we'd probably just scrap the entire program and destroy all related materials after building the first five rockets.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Genius Of Pac Man

Looking at my stat counter, I noticed that five people have been lead to this blog because they were Googling boomerang Formica counter tops. Perhaps boomerang Formica really is coming back! Who knew?

But that's not really what I wanted to blog about this week. This week I want to blog about video games (pause while all the non-geeks click on some other link)...

...I think that those of you who are still reading will agree that video games have evolved unbelievably over the past twenty years or so (pause while all the pimply-faced kids who think that first video game ever was called "World of Warcraft" click on some other link)...

It used to be that video games were of interest only to nerds like me. Let's face it, they were quite primitive in the early days. The color palette was often limited to four or six colors, low resolution images necessitated simple graphics with jagged edges and the sound effects were electronic and artificial. Back then, video games sounded like video games. Early games were often designed and developed by small teams of programmers (sometimes even a single individual).

Advances in technology have since turned video games into a serious industry. Today's games feature 3D high-resolution graphics with an almost infinite color palette. Digital sound and music make it hard to distinguish a computer game from a movie. Game development studios have budgets that rival Hollywood movie studios, and large teams including programmers, artists, designers, writers, sound technicians and, yes, even actors spend months or even years on big budget games.

So how come I don't seem to enjoy playing computer games as much as I used to? I don't spend near as much time with joystick in hand as I did in the eighties and nineties. Perhaps I've matured. Perhaps I've outgrown computer games. Perhaps the passage of years has sobered me and turned my thoughts to more serious priorities (pause again while I break down laughing until tears flow down my cheeks as I pound the floor with my fist). Yeah, right!

The truth of the matter is that modern games just don't excite me anymore. I've been trying to finish BioShock for months but every time I fire it up I play for maybe twenty minutes before I utter an apathetic "Meh!" and click the Quit Game button. It's not that BioShock is without its charm. Its weird, decaying aquatic art deco environment is interesting enough. The menacing Big Daddies provide a suitable challenge while the Little Sisters, the genetically mutated little girls that they protect, are downright creepy. But haven't we seen this before? In the end, isn't it just another "Shoot the Monster" game, albeit a fancy one?

It seems to me that the problem with modern games is that their developers focus too much on technical wizardry and forget about originality and game play. In the days of eight-bit processors and 16K storage capacities, game developers couldn't afford eye candy so they had to hook the player with innovative ideas and imaginative challenges.

Here's an idea for a game. There's this maze full of dots. In the maze is a round yellow "head" with a mouth that continuously opens and closes. It's not a person or a character or an animal; just a head represented as a plain yellow circle with a triangular opening for a mouth. It doesn't even have any eyes! The player moves this little head through the maze using a joystick. As the head passes over dots in the maze, it eats them up. The object is to eat all the dots in the maze. But then we'll put a bunch of little ghosts in the maze too. They float around the maze, chasing after the munching head, and if they touch the head the player loses a life. Oh but, get this! We'll put four big flashing dots at the corners of the maze and, if the munching head eats one of those, the ghosts turn a different color and then the munching head can eat them too, and you get bonus points for eating them. So then the ghosts all run away from the munching head but, after a few seconds, they turn back to normal and go after the munching head again. Oh! Oh! And every so often fruit appears in the maze and that's also worth bonus points if you eat it.

Sounds simplistic, doesn't it? What was the designer who came up with that idea smoking, and where can I get some? Who would have guessed that Pac Man would become the phenomenon that it did after it was first released back in the early eighties? If we analyze the game play, though, we begin to see that, as with chess, the rules and mechanics are simple, but there's a lot of subtlety that only becomes apparent when playing. When Pac Man eats one of the flashing dots and the ghosts become vulnerable, do you use the time to eat up the remaining dots in the maze in relative safety, or do you go after the ghosts and the extra points and then risk not being able to finish the maze? If you chase after a ghost, can you catch it before it switches back and eats you? Each successive ghost that you catch while they're vulnerable is worth more bonus points. How greedy are you? How far are you willing to push your luck? The game demands split-second decision making while testing your judgement and your nerve and that's what hooks you. It doesn't need 3D graphics or digital sound or a big development budget. It keeps you coming back with pure game play.

I'm waiting for the game with graphics and sound comparable to BioShock, but the originality and simple yet engrossing game play of Pac Man. That's a game that I want to play.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tick... Tick... Tick...

This just in from a reliable source; namely a sixteen-year-old teenage girl who happens to be my daughter: Seems YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are considering pooling their resources to create the planet's Number One web site for on-line time wasters, tentatively to be called Until that happens, however, this blog remains the most expeditious way of frittering away your precious life seconds.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Boomerang Formica

The pattern that you see above is what I see underneath my cereal bowl as I douse my Shreddies with milk each morning. No, it's not the result of over-imbibing the night before, as evidenced by the fact that I was able to capture a photographic image of it. It's my kitchen counter top.

What I didn't realize, until recently, is that it has a name; boomerang Formica. The "boomerang" part of this interesting handle is an obvious allusion to the vague way in which the curvy little shapes resemble boomerangs, and the "Formica" part is owing to the fact that the laminate material upon which said curvy little shapes are printed is a heat-resistant, wipe-clean brand of composite materials manufactured by the Formica Corporation, based in Cincinatti, Ohio (according to Wikipedia). So, all in all, boomerang Formica is a very sensible moniker. "Amoeba Formica" would have been another possibility, but you don't want to associate the countertops upon which you prepare food with microsopic living organisms. I'd have to say that the marketing whizzes at Formica Corporation called this one right.

According to Jane and Michael Stern's Encyclopedia of Pop Culture (HarperCollins, 1992), patterns similar to this adorned the counter tops of homes and diners such as Al's back in the Happy Days, which gives you some idea how old my house is. It also gives you some idea how long it's been since any renovation or serious redecorating has been done (hint: not since before I moved into the place).

Boomerang Formica, say the Sterns, "signaled a forward-looking point of view, defiantly different from old, dowdy motifs such as the cabbage roses and Grecian urns" which embellish my bathroom walls and counter tops. That's me all over. Forward-looking but, unfortunately, riding in the caboose.

Wikipedia tells us that Formica was invented in 1912 by Daniel J. O'Conor and Herbert A. Faber, who worked for Westinghouse at the time. Before then, the word "formica" was used only in reference to a particular genus of ants (again according to Wikipedia), which would explain why my kitchen counters are overrun with ants each summer. I'm not sure how O'Conor and Faber were able to foresee this, but it all begins to make sense now. The ants probably follow the boomerangs, assuming that they point the way to the food.

Sadly, the heady days when counter tops such as the one in my kitchen exuded optimism and alluded to a "sleek, curved and speedy" future have faded into yesteryear. Now, say Jane and Michael Stern, "boomerang Formica is as nostalgic as doo-wop music and Brylcreemed hair". Well, I've admitted before on this blog that I have a weakness for nostalgia.

Okay, so my home is looking a little dated and I suppose I should really redo my kitchen counter tops. On the other hand, some styles are cyclical. If I hold out just a bit longer, maybe boomerang Formica will come back (Get it? Har! I kill me!)