Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Ponderings on an upset stomach

I woke up about two hours ago with an upset stomach. Unable to sleep, my mind started to wander into the past. I began thinking about the technological advances a centenarian would have seen in his/her lifetime: Electricity, radio, television, indoor plumbing... many of the "necessities" of life we take for granted. Then, I started remembering all of the advances I'd seen in my life and I thought I would share some of them with you.

For those of you too young to remember, Pong was the first video game... ever. It was black and white - that's two-bit graphics, my friends: It's either on or off. Pong involved moving a bar vertically, using a dial control, to intercept a square that would then "bounce" off of your bar toward the other side of the screen, which was divided by a line, where your opponent's bar waited. If you missed - it was harder than it sounds and did involve basic strategy - your opponent scored a point; much like a tennis match (but without all of the weird scoring).

To an eight-year-old with nothing but his imagination and a handful of G.I. Joe dolls (the 11-inchers, not the action figures - another invention in my lifetime), this was as exciting as... well... I just don't know what to compare it to... maybe as exciting as wrapped bread. This toy actually did something on its own!

I recall that a couple of friends down the street had a pong game and their house was the place to be. Of course, every time anyone in the neighborhood went to Jeff & BJ's house, all we wanted to do was play Pong. Since they had it to play any time they wanted, Jeff & BJ usually didn't.

I recently saw a History Channel (I think it was them) special on video games. They talked about the history and development of Pong (and other games). At the time, it was as incredible as going to the moon. These guys didn't have C or Java or even BASIC for that matter. They figured out how to get this "ball" to move across the screen, determine if it had hit something (top/bottom of screen or a "player"), then determine the angle of reflection... ingenious - and the reason you have a PlayStation today.

As far back as I can remember, there have been computers. When I first became aware of them, however, they were housed in basements on college campuses or big businesses. People interacted with them through printers and punch cards. There were no CRTs yet.

I recall walking into a Radio Shack store an seeing a TRS-80 computer on display. It looked like some kind of electronic typewriter with a television display. I remember thinking that it was a computer and that you could make computers do things if you knew how. And I determined to learn how.

About four years later, the IBM Personal Computer, IBM PC for short, was introduced. For the frst time, you didn't have to go to a University campus and punch cards or sit at a terminal (dumb terminals were still in widespread use when I welt to college in 1985). It was the greatest thing since... Pong.

My friend, Bill, had one. At $1,500+ in 1981 dollars it actually belonged to the whole family. His father, being a programmer, was the primary user. Bill and I didn't use it much - like we wanted to sit down and really get to know WordStar (especially when they didn't have a printer). Don't get me wrong, having use of a word processor was a very handy thing but it wasn't until Bill bought Wizardry that we actually started using the PC as a form of entertainment. I would later go on to own a Commodore 64 (I still have the portable version [the SX-64] my folks bought me for my 18th birthday), a couple of "IBM Clones", and eventually started building my own.

Compact Discs
I was listening to the radio one morning - a regular breakfast feature growing up - and heard the DJ I listened to tell the world they were going to debut a new music system called Compact Disc. A local audio component retailer had brought one to the station and they were going to show it off. "You'll probably want to be listening on a Hi-Fi system to get the full impact." said the DJ. I promptly went downstairs, convinced my father that he could go one morning without listening to John Erling for the chance to be the first to hear one of the Compact Discs (they didn't call them CDs yet), and tuned his stereo to the station my alarm clock played.

The station milked it for all it was worth. We finished preparing for school, finished our breakfast, and still waited. If we didn't leave soon, we'd be late for school. It was worth it, though, to hear this fabulous new technology.

Finally, they interviewed the guy about what Compact Disc was, how it worked, etc. (fascinating in its own right) and played the disc.

We didn't notice any difference.

It wasn't until I actually heard a CD player first-hand, and realized the Star Trek theme had bongos in the background, that I really understood what was so cool about this technology. I think I bought my first CD about a month later (.38 Special: Flashback). I didn't even have a CD player yet, but I knew I would some day.

Other advancements I've had the priveledge to witness (in no particular order):
The Apple Macintosh
The Computer Mouse
Video Arcades
Ergonomic Keyboards
Stereo Television
Kicker Boxes
LCD (digital watches, particularly)
Hallogen floor lamps
The breaking of the 4.77MHz, 33MHz, 66MHz, 100MHz, and 1GHz barriers
Home Theater
Color/Inkjet printing
Laser printing

The list goes on and continues to grow....

I love technology

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