tymshft

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How the home game Pong started in a bar

Retroist recently ran a photo showing two boys sitting on a living room floor, staring at a large screen in front of them. The black and white screen showed a dotted vertical line separating the screen into two halves. Numbers (in this case “3” and “2”) appeared on each side of the screen, and if you looked very closely, you could see a short vertical line on each edge of the screen.

The two boys are staring at this boring black and white screen, acting like it was showing something riveting.

Actually, the screen WAS riveting.

If you haven’t looked at the picture – or even if you have – you might not realize that the television screen in the picture is showing the game of Pong. All revolutions have to start somewhere, and the move from traditional pinball games to video games was accelerated by Pong.

But before Pong became a home game, it was an arcade game. And the whole idea of bringing an arcade game into the home was a terrifying thought in the early 1970s. This article (which I’ve cited before) describes the seedy reputation of arcades, pre-Pong.

The invention of the flipper by Gottlieb in 1947 helped to launch pinball more firmly into the “game of skill” category, and manufacturers began to aggressively pursue a family-friendly image. Of course, that didn’t matter to much of the country where pinball was illegal, forcing machines into even seedier locations like porn shops and dive bars. New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood became a haven for backroom pinball machines. Like so many things which are illicit, though, the attraction of pinball only increased in the prohibition years following World War II, and, by the 1950s, the quickest route to proving your rebel status in America was to be seen within a few feet of a pinball machine.

But these smoky pinball machine havens were about to see a new type of video game. Video games themselves had been around in some form or another for a decade, but they weren’t the types of things that you’d bring into a bar.

Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, wasn’t the kind of place where fights would break out every night. But the hole, named for the surly British comic-strip slacker, was shadowy and dark. Cigarette smoke swirled so thick that it rivaled the fog that rolled in over the Santa Cruz Mountains. You might bring your girlfriend to Andy Capp’s, but not on a first date.

But three former Ampex employees, Nolan Bushnell, Allan Alcorn, and Ted Dabney chose this Sunnyvale bar to test their company Atari’s new game Pong. While the initial success of the game at the bar may have been exaggerated (did the bar patrons fill the game with too many quarters, or did Bushnell?), the game did become successful at bars throughout the country and eventually around the world.

Pong
By Bumm13 [2] (Originally upload at en.wikipedia.org [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And why not? Compared to pinball machines of the day, Pong WAS revolutionary and mesmerizing. No moving parts on the play board, a deceptively simple – and addicting – game. As competitors improved on Atari’s game – and as Magnavox took Atari to court alleging the Pong infringed on an earlier Magnavox game – the entire industry worked at creating games better than Pong, ushering in a golden era for video games.

Much has happened since then – you can now play Pong on your iPhone, and Andy Capp’s Tavern is now a comedy club – but Pong has undeniably changed the entire gaming industry.

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Poppy covers ancient history

One day not too long ago I was watching videos and encountered one in which kids react to Poppy reacting to kids reacting to Poppy.

I had never heard of Poppy before this time.

Yes, I am not trendy.

Well, while I’ve been listening to some of her music, I occasionally take a dive into her videos that treat The Human Condition or something like that. And here’s one that she created for her younger fans. It’s like history and stuff.

And since “floppy” rhymes with “Poppy,” I see a new marketing effort in her future.

What has happened to the sports broadcasting industry in 29 years

On Saturday, May 6, I was in a Goodwill store in Santa Clarita (Canyon Country), California, and found myself in the book section. I was eyeing a 1988 book entitled Sports for Sale: Television, Money, and the Fans by David A. Klatell and Norman Marcus. I was intrigued by the predictions on the back of the book jacket.

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So, in the interests of journalism, I spent the two bucks on the book, knowing that I would probably end up writing about these “provocative findings and conclusions,” some of which were spot-on, others of which were a little off. Plus, it appears that the authors were unable to anticipate one huge change in the future – hint: you’re using it to read these words right now, unless you’ve already quit reading this to search for NBA playoff highlight videos.

As is the case with post-mortems on failed predictions, my intent will not be to criticize those who made the flawed prediction, but to discern what circumstances led to the flawed prediction. (Not that Klatell would care what I think; he passed away last year.)

I’m not prepared to write about these predictions yet; as I write this, I’m only on page 10 of the book. But I can already see a number of the difficulties that the authors would encounter. Remember – this book was written in 1988. Back then, ABC Sports was still a very strong sports brand, and I don’t think that anyone could conceive of that brand disappearing entirely. Fox Sports did not even exist – heck, the Fox Broadcasting Company itself was only two years old.

But the most shocking indicator of the changes between 1988 and 2017 can be found in this passage, found on page 10.

On the other hand, we not only remember certain television images, we also recall where we were when we saw them, who was with us at the time, and how they made us feel. We remember Olga Korbut’s charm, O. J. Simpson’s grace, Muhammad Ali’s bag of tricks, Celtics’ pride, Mets’ arrogance, and Dodger Blue…

Those who remember O. J. Simpson today and, um, “remember certain television images” may not associate the word “grace” with him.

(And there have been plenty of other changes with the other personalities named. In 1998, Korbut’s country was Communist and the U.S. President had recently referred to it as an “evil empire.” And the Dodgers were fresh off winning a World Series – how many more World Series would the O’Malley-owned team win over the coming decades?)

This should be an interesting read, even if Kirkus Reviews panned the book when it was published. I predict that I’ll come back later with more thoughts as I read it.

Robots and the union label in Korea

So my last post in tymshft was about robots, I guess.

And I haven’t written about guaranteed income in a while.

And I don’t know that I’ve ever written about Korea.

Put those together, add trade unions, and you get this:

As far as job security is concerned, Hyundai Motor is touted as the best place for workers as the automaker’s militant trade union safeguards them against any attempts by management to cut payrolls.

However, they seem not to be content with the status quo as the union is asking the company to guarantee that their jobs will be safe even after the full-fledged introduction of robotic production, possibly controlled by artificial intelligence (AI).

In a sense, this is not about technology at all. Change “robots” to “Chinese immigrants” (or, in the case of my own country…Chinese immigrants) and the issues are the same. An established labor order is upset by the introduction of low-cost workers who require less salary and benefits. Of course, in the case of robots, “salary and benefits” becomes maintenance and upkeep.

There are two prevailing thoughts in all of these situations. One is that the high-salary jobs that are taken by these low-cost workers (carbon-based or otherwise) are not coming back, and that we’ll need some type of “guaranteed income” mechanism to keep society from falling apart. The other is that the old high-salary jobs will be replaced by high-salary jobs in new industries, and the economy will adjust like it always has when horse-and-buggy dealers, tobacco farmers, and coal miners saw job losses.

But what happens in a country like Korea? I plead ignorance about Korean society and customs, but what happens in such a country where people no longer work in traditional jobs – or perhaps no longer work at all?

Or am I kidding myself when I believe that the go-getter U.S. society can adjust to this more quickly than so-called traditional societies? After all, even though we haven’t been around for all that long, we have our own traditions…

No, the robots aren’t killing us…yet

Let’s go back to July 7, 2015, when this tragic event occurred in Michigan:

An employee of Ventra Ionia Main, an automotive stamping facility, died after being caught in a robotic machine, police said.

The accident happened about 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, July 7 at Ventra, 14 N. Beardsley St., Ionia Public Safety Department officers said.

More details were revealed this month, when the inevitable lawsuit was filed.

[Wanda] Holbrook, a journeyman technician, was performing routine maintenance on one of the robots on the trailer hitch assembly line when the unit unexpectedly activated and attempted to load a part into the unit being repaired, crushing Holbrook’s head.

By the time this filtered through several sources, the press was referring to a rogue robot, conjuring an image of a sentient being taking out its vengeance on an unfortunate carbon-based life form.

The lawyers don’t go that far, but they interpret this as a machine that was improperly programmed by a host of companies named in the lawsuit.

In this respect, it’s no different than any piece of machinery – or, frankly, any manufactured item. No one accuses a shovel of being a sentient rogue being, but it can kill also.

Studies published in the Lancet and the American Journal of Cardiology, among other outlets, show that the incidence of heart failure goes up in the week after a blizzard. The Lancet study, based on death certificates in eastern Massachusetts after six blizzards from 1974-78, demonstrated that ischemic heart disease deaths rose by 22 percent during the blizzard week and stayed elevated for the subsequent eight days, suggesting that the effect was related to storm-related activities, like shoveling, rather than the storm itself. Similarly, the AJC article, based on medical examiner records from three Michigan counties, found that there were more exertion-related sudden cardiac deaths in the weeks during and after blizzards, and that 36 of the 43 total exertion-related deaths occurred during or shortly after snow removal.

Perhaps some day we will have a true rogue robot, with independent decision-making capability, that performs an action that results in a death. But we’re not there yet.

Can the @AINowInitiative achieve its goals?

Confession – when I first saw Marshall Kirkpatrick’s tweet, I thought that it sounded too much like Newspeak. Most of you probably won’t react that way, but I did.

AINowMarshall

“Preventing fascism through AI?” After the recent Wikileaks revelations about purported CIA listening technology, you kinda wonder if the AI would be used to IMPLEMENT “fascism” – whatever “fascism” is.

But when I went to the AI Now Initiative website (which, as far as I can tell, does NOT use the f-word), it looks like they have a valid point. But can they get where they want to go? And where DO they want to go?

First, let me introduce the AI Now Initiative itself.

Led by Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker, AI Now is a New York-based research initiative working across disciplines to understand AI’s social impacts….

The AI Now Report provides recommendations that can help ensure AI is more fair and equitable. It represents the thinking and research of the experts who attended our first symposium, hosted in collaboration with President Obama’s White House and held at New York University in 2016.

The thing that struck me in the details was their discussion of bias.

Bias and inclusion

Data reflects the social and political conditions in which it is collected. AI is only able to “see” what is in the data it’s given. This, along with many other factors, can lead to biased and unfair outcomes. AI Now researches and measures the nature of such bias, how bias is defined and by whom, and the impact of such bias on diverse populations.

I wanted to read the report (PDF) of the first symposium – since the second symposium hasn’t yet been held, its report has (I hope) not yet been written – but the definition of bias is a key step here. If you’re wearing a MAGA hat or have one of North Korea’s approved hairstyles, then anything involving Barack Obama and the city of New York is already hopelessly biased, infused with New York values – one of those values being the Constitution and laws of the United States.

While reading the report, it appears that “bias” is defined as “lack of fairness.”

As AI systems take on a more important role in high-stakes decision-making – from offers of credit and insurance, to hiring decisions and parole – they will begin to affect who gets offered crucial opportunities, and who is left behind. This brings questions of rights, liberties, and basic fairness to the forefront.

While some hope that AI systems will help to overcome the biases that plague human decision-making, others fear that AI systems will amplify such biases, denying opportunities to the deserving and subjecting the deprived to further disadvantage.

An example will illustrate the issues involved.

Person A and Person B are applying for health insurance. What data is required to evaluate the risks from insuring each person? Do we need to know their ages? Their genders? Their races? What they ate for dinner last night? Their genetic test results? Some will argue that all of this data is not only desirable, but necessary for decision-making. Others will argue that collection of such data is an affront to the aforementioned “New York values” enshrined in the Constitution.

So should an AI system have access to all data, or some data? And should it be neutral, or “fair”?

One sentence in the report, however, justifies the common scientific plea that more research (and funding for research) is needed.

It is important to note that while there are communities doing wonderful work on these issues, there is no consensus on how to “detect” bias of either kind.

 

Forward Into the Past, Musically

Longevity has its place. And sometimes in the musical world, that place is one of utter confusion.

I was recently listening to the title track from Stan Ridgway’s first solo album, The Big Heat. As is the wont with Ridgway’s lyrics, there was a little twist in the song – in this case, toward the end.

A block away he wondered if he’d left behind a clue
The front page of a paper dated 1992
He remembered when he used to be the chairman of the board
But that was when the world was young and long before the war

Back when the solo album was released, the lyric had a futuristic feel, predicting a devastating war that would occur a few years after the song was written.

Now, of course, 1992 was a quarter century ago, and people listening to the song may not get the meaning.

Of course, Ridgway wasn’t the first to use futuristic references in his lyrics. Wings released a song called “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five.” As Wings fans know, by the time we actually got to 1985, Wings had gone up in a cloud of smoke.

But that still gave Paul (and Linda and Denny; this was during one of the periods that Wings only had three members) to rock out.

On no one left alive in 1985, will ever do
She may be right
She may be fine
She may get love but she won’t get mine
‘Cause I got you
Oh, oh I, oh oh I
Well I just can’t enough of that sweet stuff
My little lady gets behind

But that isn’t the only futuristic reference in the song. Toward the end of the song, just before the reprise to “Band On The Run” (Paul loves those reprises), he and the other two (with a little help from their friends) were rocking on to the 19th century piece “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

You may know it as the theme to the formerly futuristic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Viral spam goes low-tech

We’ve all run across viral spam.

Common traits include an unbelievable claim (“Facebook will start charging for posts!” or “Trump will imprison all non-whites!”), an appeal to authority (“I saw this on CNN!” or “This is from the police!”), and – most importantly – a plea to IMMEDIATELY share this important news with ALL of your friends.

Oh, and there’s one more common trait – the pleas are conveyed electronically via email (don’t you know someone who ALWAYS emails these things?), social media post (don’t you know someone who ALWAYS shares these things?), or some other electronic format.

Well, guess what? According to Imgur, you don’t ALWAYS have to share it electronically.

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UPDATE: As Bob Levine noted, the warning itself has been going around for more than a decade and is unsubstantiated.

Good old government workers

Fedscoop recently published an article criticizing the federal government hiring freeze, and cited three reasons why this was a bad idea. I’m going to concentrate on one of them.

More than 60 percent of the federal workforce is over the age of 45: Public sector workers are significantly older than their private sector counterparts. And nearly two-thirds of the government’s senior executives are already eligible to retire. As federal employees retire en masse over the coming years, agencies will need to fill critical roles. That means recruiting more new talent, not less, and finding and grooming the next generation of career civil servant leaders.

Now certain segments of the private sector – (cough) tech (cough) have the opposite problem. Even after years of complaints, articles such as Silicon Valley’s Peter Pan Syndrome vs. the Aging of Aquarius are still appearing. The Fortune article made a point of quoting Vinod Khosla:

“People under 35 are the people who make change happen. People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

When Khosla made that statement in 2011, he was over 55 years old. Obviously that idea wasn’t worth discussing. And after 2011, Khosla advanced oter ideas that can easily be ignored, such as ideas about meat and ideas about medicine (twice).

Government is having the opposite problem. Rather than jettisoning people when they get “too old,” they’re having problems getting people to join in the first place. Even under the best of circumstances, government salaries are capped because voters don’t like it when government workers make more than they do. On the state level, they complain when a state university head football coach makes over $1 million a year, but they’d really complain if they had a coach that made less than the governor. Good coaches don’t come cheap.

Therefore, your cybersecurity grads are more often than not going to skip that job application process with a federal agency. With student loans to pay, they’re better off going into the private sector.

But what happens when the 60% of federal employees over age 45 retire – and there are few people left to fill the empty requisitions?

Will “America First” hasten “China First”?

I have written a number of things in this tymshft blog over the years, but if I were to look over them again, I suspect that every one of them was written with an exclusively Western mindset.

Which is surprising when you think about it, because the most significant trend that people have been talking about for decades is the coming end of American dominance.

Over the last several hundred years, various countries and empires have taken turns as major world powers. For the people of today, it is inconceivable that Portugal was once one of those world powers. Now it’s the holiday spot for people from England, who themselves once presided over an empire upon which the sun never set. After the United States pretty much bailed Britain out in the 1940s, there were two world powers – and by 1990, there was only one.

Meanwhile, futurists kept an eye on the billion-plus people in the so-called “uncivilized” part of the world. Here’s part of what the American Conservative wrote in 2012:

[China’s poverty] began to change very rapidly once Deng Xiaoping initiated his free-market reforms in 1978, first throughout the countryside and eventually in the smaller industrial enterprises of the coastal provinces. By 1985, The Economist ran a cover story praising China’s 700,000,000 peasants for having doubled their agricultural production in just seven years, an achievement almost unprecedented in world history. Meanwhile, China’s newly adopted one-child policy, despite its considerable unpopularity, had sharply reduced population growth rates in a country possessing relatively little arable land….

Even a century ago, near the nadir of China’s later weakness and decay, some of America’s foremost public intellectuals, such as Edward A. Ross and Lothrop Stoddard, boldly predicted the forthcoming restoration of the Chinese nation to global influence, the former with equanimity and the latter with serious concern.

While the American Conservative article goes on to argue that China’s ascendancy does not necessarily mean the United States’ decline, it argued that at the time (2012) we were clearly heading that way.

Our elites boast about the greatness of our constitutional democracy, the wondrous human rights we enjoy, the freedom and rule of law that have long made America a light unto the nations of the world and a spiritual draw for oppressed peoples everywhere, including China itself. But are these claims actually correct? They often stack up very strangely when they appear in the opinion pages of our major newspapers, coming just after the news reporting, whose facts tell a very different story.

Just last year, the Obama administration initiated a massive months-long bombing campaign against the duly recognized government of Libya on “humanitarian” grounds, then argued with a straight face that a military effort comprising hundreds of bombing sorties and over a billion dollars in combat costs did not actually constitute “warfare,” and hence was completely exempt from the established provisions of the Congressional War Powers Act.

But as the 2012 author well knew, the Obama administration would not be in power forever. At worst, Obama would be re-elected in 2012, but would leave office by 2017.

What if a very different leader were to take his place? What if a new President were to appeal to those who were NOT elite? What if he were to (intentionally or unintentionally) heed the George Washington warning against entangling alliances, and were to reverse the traditional isolationism that dominated the United States for most of the years between 1789 and 1940 – when the “America First” movement fell due to Communist disapproval (after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union), followed by American disapproval the next year after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor?

What if, on Inauguration Day in 2017, a new President were to stand on the Capitol steps and, despite their loaded meaning, actually utter the words “America First”?

Twice?

Well, that could lead to unexpected consequences:

This year’s Davos forum taking place from January 17, is supposed to be dominated by a haunting specter of hostility to globalization and the rise of protectionism around the world. It comes at a time, when the new U.S. president-elect is talking tough on trade, promising tariffs and increased government interference in the market. The forum will end on the day the new president is sworn in. It also, for the first time, features the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi’s pitch was fundamentally a focus on free trade rather than geopolitical confrontation, and a pitch for inclusive globalization. Protectionism, nativism and populism were identified as three threats that must be contended with by a more cooperative approach to global trade.

The speech itself comprised of a robust defense of the current world order.

The above was written by Sumantra Maitra at china.org.cn. And why not use china.org.cn as a reference? The Davos crowd, hit by the double whammy of Brexit and Trump, is all too willing to welcome anyone who champions the global interconnectedness of nations. And while there are some who argue that China remains a totalitarian state, with its population controls and its notorious “Great Firewall,” China can simply tell its critics to look in the mirror.

As Maitra poses the argument, two new coalitions of nations are forming. One consists of the nationalists – the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, and possibly other European nations in the coming months – nations who value nationalism and protectionism. According to Maitra, the other coalition consists of nations such as China who remain committed to globalism. Maitra concludes:

One needs to understand, that as long as there are laws of demand and supply, trade will be paramount and the forces of economics will favor countries which are pro-trade. Countries, which will try to be protectionist, will ultimately suffer as the market will inevitably punish them due to the lack of competitive advantage. Smaller countries will automatically coalesce around the powers which are more open to trade, and that should be a point well-articulated in Davos.

And as those small countries coalesce around the larger countries, obviously the larger countries will take the lead.

And which country is the largest country of all? Hint – it isn’t Switzerland.

When I shared this hypothesis with Tad Donaghe, a futurist whom I respect, I shared it in much shorter form. I was responding to this statement:

We will not accept Trump as the Leader of the free world.

I replied (while sharing the Maitra article):

Many have thought that the US would pass from world leadership regardless, and that China would ascend as the world leader. Perhaps this is happening, and both “America First” conservatives and “human rights” liberals are now on the sidelines.

His response:

We cannot allow that. There is no real freedom at all in China.

But csn “the West” truly prevent that from happening? And if so, how? None of the past Presidents – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, or Obama – were able to free China’s masses, and Trump doesn’t look like he can do it either.

Continue the discussion here, or at Tad’s Facebook post.

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