Article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)

• Read the article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)

I buy quite a few books that then sit on a shelf, Kindle or Audible account for several years. Since the year 2000 I’ve had “Dealers of Lightning”, a history of the earliest days of (American) computing, waiting to be read. The other day I was flicking through the notes at the back of the book and this article was mentioned so I tracked it down online.

SPACEWAR is an article that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972 written by Stewart Brand. Brand is fondly remembered by older technologists as the founder of an early online community called the WELL and the Whole Earth Catalog, a late 60’s / 70’s catalogue for members of the American counter-culture.

Friends, I won’t be able to explain every computer-technical term that comes by. Fortunately you don’t need them to get the gist of what’s happening.

 

A distinct, intelligent vibe

There is a distinct, intelligent vibe in the style of writing, although I wonder how much readers at the time were able to decipher what the author meant when he describes what is happening during the game. It makes sense to people today because we are all familiar with video games, but to put this article in some kind of context it appeared one week after the arcade game Pong was released and six years before Space Invaders.

Talking of vibe, this article reminds me a lot of Tom Wolfe’s wonderful look at the invention of the integrated circuit  (microchip) and the birth of Silicon Valley in “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” from Esquire magazine. If you haven’t read either article, start with Wolfe’s. You won’t regret it.

 

Plus ça change…

Something else you notice is how things haven’t changed much in 45 years – for example  Artificial Intelligence is still the bleeding edge in technical prowess…

There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference.

…and the image of the computer geek (“Computer Bum” or “hacker”) was also already being cultivated:

The hackers are the technicians of this science – “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor.

 

The beginnings of the internet

There is also some history of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), from which came the Arpanet and subsequently the internet.

“90 percent of all good things that I can think of that have been done in computer science have been done funded by that agency. Chances that they would have been funded elsewhere are very low.”

Some of today’s technology jargon was in use back then too – there is mention of users sitting down “on-line” with a computer, and the ARPA Network being “up” (working) or “down” (crashed).

The dream for the Net was that researchers at widely separated facilities could share special resources, dip into each other’s files, and even work on-line together on design problems too complex to solve alone.

 

“How Net usage will evolve is uncertain”

Also, they saw possible opportunities and risks when connecting machines together, echoing today’s debates over internet freedoms vs surveillance:

How Net usage will evolve is uncertain. There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with reluctances about equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.

They were aware that the Net had the opportunity to disrupt industries and even back then they picked out the news industry and the music biz:

From anywhere on the Net you can log in and get the news that’s coming live over the wire … Project that to household terminals, and so much for newspapers (in present form).

Since huge quantities of information can be computer-digitalized and transmitted, music researchers could, for example, swap records over the Net with “essentially perfect fidelity.” So much for record stores (in present form).

 

Their ideas, our world

One aspect that came over very strongly – reading this with the benefit of hindsight – is how the ideas from this group of people have shaped the computing environment we have today. Some of the projects they were working on or discussing may not have had names back then but they do now. Examples? How about the paperless office or desktop publishing.

But it was the picture of the “Dynabook” that took my breath away.

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It looks like an iPad with the on-screen keyboard showing…

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It is described as:

a hand-held stand-alone interactive-graphic computer… It’ll have a graphics capability which’ll let you make sketches, make drawings… Working with a stylus on the display screen… incorporate music in it so you can use it for composing… It has the Smalltalk language capability which lets people program their own things very easily… And of course it plays Spacewar.”

That description sounds to me like the Apple Pencil, iTunes / Garageband, Swift Playgrounds and Apps.

Products from Apple – the biggest company in the world today by market capitalization.

(Addendum: Some product names from Apple include PowerBook, iBook, Macbook)

 

Ideas at the core of Apple?

Now having discovered this article I think that Steve Jobs’ ideas on the nature of computing could have been inspired by this kind of reporting. This article from Rolling Stone came out in December 1972, more than 3 years before the founding of Apple in 1976. He was 17 when this article came out.

One of the ideals that comes across throughout this article is what the impact could be once computers are accessible to everyone:

away from hugeness and centrality, toward the small and the personal, toward putting maximum computer power in the hands of every individual who wants it… They’ll reach millions when computer power becomes like telephone power…. I think it’s important to bring computing to the people… Far beyond borrowing some one else’s computer is having your own computer… Computing power to the people.

That sounds like the Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.

 

Conclusion

There is so much here to enjoy. I heartily recommend you read this if you have any interest in computing. I just wonder how many more of these articles are out there in old general interest magazines.


The article in all its 1970’s glory:

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Mini review: The End of Money (New Scientist Instant Expert series)

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This is an excellent introduction to bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and the blockchain, intelligently covering the subject in 200 pages.

My favourite sections examine the blockchain, delving into subjects such as public key cryptography, proof of work and its relation to bitcoin. It doesn’t get overly technical but explains step-by-step how things work. Despite bitcoin being better known, it is clear that the blockchain – the foundational technology behind the currency – is more likely to revolutionise the economy. The problems facing bitcoin are not widely covered but are mentioned here.

Apart from breaking up the text, the pictures in the book serve absolutely no purpose and most add nothing to the narrative whatsoever. I’m impressed – it must take some effort to be so bad. Conversely the graphs and timelines are well done, clearly showing trends and imparting a lot of information in a concise way.

The glossary is handy and the last section called “fifty ideas” is an excellent resource if you want to read further.

One thing that perplexes me is the title of the book. Cryptocurrencies will not be “the end of money” – this is the conclusion the book itself comes to in the section called “Is bitcoin really money?”. So maybe the tile should have been “The End of Money?”. Not a big deal but it struck me as strange.

Still, if the other books in the Instant Expert series are as good as this, I will be reading more.

Film: Hamlet (BBC adaptation with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart)

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This is the first time that I’ve seen or read Hamlet and I only had the faintest idea of the plot. This film is a good way to experience it. I definitely find it easier watching Shakespeare than trying to read it and having now seen a few of his plays I am less intimidated by the language and can focus on the story more.

It is a great cast but I was surprised how much the role of Hamlet was played for what came across to me to a large degree as comic effect – well suited to David Tennant – when I was expecting a lot more tragedy. I suppose that is why Shakespeare’s plays can be interpreted in many different ways and I expect that I would need to study the play more to see what aspects of the character I’ve not picked up on.

My only other comment would be that this comes across very much as a filmed version of a play rather than a fully fledged film in it’s own right.

• Spare Cycles: Much Ado About Nothing (The Globe Theatre, London)

• Spare Cycles: King Lear: Live cinema broadcast from the Globe Theatre, London

Four great new jazz albums (October 2017)

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I’m not a big jazz fan, so this has come as a nice surprise.

A couple of nights ago I was flicking through the jazz section of Apple Music and I discovered the new album by Kamasi Washington, who I was lucky enough to see play live last year at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the Late Night Proms series.

Venturing further I came across Cécile McLorin Salvan’s new live album. She has a wonderful voice, total control and a delicious sense of humour.

That’s typically as far as my interest in jazz has taken me for a long time.

Then I took a punt on a couple of cool-looking albums – by Keyon Harrold and the Blue Note All Stars – and loved them both.

I’ve still got a lot of listening to do to appreciate them all fully but I highly recommend you check them out:

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Cécile McLorin Salvant – Dreams and Daggers
Keyon Harrold – The Mugician
Blue Note All Stars – Our Point of View

King Lear: Live cinema broadcast from the Globe Theatre, London

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I have been to the Globe twice this summer (to see Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing) and enjoyed both times immensely. I’d never read either of the plays (just looked up the plots on Wikipedia) but I loved the experience of seeing them live.

So when this opportunity arose I jumped at it. My local cinema was broadcasting a live performance of King Lear – the first time the Globe Theatre has done so.

I was impressed – the cameras always gave you a clear view and you got a good indication of what it is like to see a production live. Obviously not as good as the real thing but the equivalent of standing in the crowd near to the front of the stage. Picture and sound quality were very good and you got to sit down in a comfy seat for three hours in the warm. There’s a lot to be said in favour of that on a chilly September evening.

All the actors were very good in their roles, with the main character of Lear being portrayed brilliantly. The play, despite being a tragedy, did have a number of barbed lines by the King that raised a laugh, mainly at the expense of his wayward kin. Maybe it’s the fact that I have daughters myself that made things ring true. Hopefully my vanity and conceit are not great enough to kick off events such as these.

When I booked my ticket it was around £18, which is only a bit cheaper for me than going to a performance if I bought a standing ticket and paid my travel costs. Still, that’s only because getting to the Globe is a possibility for me. By the end of the event I thought it was a fair price to pay, especially given the small number of people at the showing, the price of tickets to the event in general and the opportunity you are given to attend a show that you most likely would not be able to get to see otherwise.

I would definitely go to one of these cinema broadcasts again for other events and I would like the Globe to do this again for other productions.

Much Ado About Nothing (The Globe Theatre, London)

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I’ve never had a particular interest in Shakespeare but earlier this year we did a family tour of the Globe Theatre, situated on London’s Southbank. We had an engaging guide and this led to taking my daughter to see a rather unconventional version of Romeo and Juliet. I had a rough idea of the plot, but in that moment the play came alive.

The one problem we had was that – despite paying for pretty expensive seats – we had an obscured view. A wooden pillar a couple of rows in front meant that I spent most of the time leaning to the right a bit to make sure I had a good view of the stage.  The person next to me was very obliging.

Still, in the afterglow of the performance I booked to see Much Ado About Nothing.  This time I wanted to be in the midst of things, in with the crowd, exposed to the elements, up close.  This meant a couple of things:

  • I got a ticket for £5 (!)
  • I went on my own as my daughter refused to stand for 3 hours

Anyway, I got my clear viewpoint:

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Being that close is a fantastic experience, a visceral connection.  You get a face full of smoke.  The gunshots ring in your ears.  At times I had to shuffle forward as the cast passed through behind me to get to another stage in the crowd.

The performance was stunning, vibrant, poignant, funny.  The play is set in Mexico, 1914, and was performed with such energy I completely forgot that it was in Shakespearean English and just enjoyed the spectacle:

At the end you feel elated and with the sense that you must have just seen the best show in London.

At the time of writing (mid September 2017) there is still time to see the production.  If you can get tickets, I urge you to go even if you think that Shakespeare isn’t your thing.  After seeing this, it will be.

Next year I will be back, regardless of what is showing.

Mini review: “Dodgers” by Bill Beverly

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I came across this by chance and just could not resist given the reviews and the awards it won last year.

It is the story of a group of young black guys from a rough part of Los Angeles who are sent on a road trip across America to kill a judge when their narcotics operation is busted by the police.

Its pared-back tone belies the book’s emotional impact. This is more than a journey in a van for the main character – it is a rite of passage. I read through the second half of the book in one sitting one evening and found myself thinking about it all the next morning.

Somehow I managed to miss the fact that there was an audiobook version (it sounds good too…), so I went with the paper version.

Given that the book clocks in at only 300 pages there is a lot of story and character development built in.  A number of twists happen out of the blue and without fanfare that mess with the boys’ mission.

I wondered about the plausibility of such young characters being able to do what the plot asks of them but it becomes clear as the story progresses that it wouldn’t be difficult for people to disappear through the cracks of society and never be found. If anybody actually cares enough to look for them in the first place.

Take care if you are sensitive to sometimes harsh language. These are young guys gassing amongst themselves in a confined space. Reflect on this and decide accordingly.

I’m very pleased that I chose to hitch a ride on this particular literary adventure and would highly recommend it.

Wouldn’t fancy doing it for real though.