• 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.
It looks like an iPad with the on-screen keyboard showing…
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.
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:
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
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:
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.
I’d been waiting since the beginning of the year to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. I kept an eye on his website and watched as he added extra shows in the US and then concerts in Portugal and Spain. The UK had to be soon.
Of the four dates in the UK three were whilst I was out of the country, including the London gig at Wembley Stadium. Damn. I got the feeling that I was not meant to see this tour, but I really wanted to as The Boss is not getting any younger and I did not want to wait for the next time round when he would be pushing 70.
There was one solution, one show that I could make but it meant going to Manchester, some 200+ miles and 3+ hours on the train.
So I found a place on Airbnb that was within walking distance of the stadium and the journey (pilgrimage?) went without a hitch. I was going to follow a map to get to the stadium but when I got to the main road it was simply a case of following the several thousand other fans walking in that direction. The route from the main train station in Manchester (Piccadilly) to the Etihad stadium is an official route that is properly signposted, and I would recommend that people walk it if possible especially once I saw the situation after the concert with traffic jams and road closures.
The weather can go either way at the end of May and I was hoping that we were going to get a nice sunny, warm evening. No chance. Manchester was the only place in the country where it was raining and it kept it up all night. It was soon forgotten once the band came onstage but it would have been good to just go in a t-shirt instead…
In the days before the concert I had been looking at the setlists for the recent shows and hoping he was not going to change too much – at a Bruce show you never know what you’re going to get but I liked the look of what he had been playing. At the start of The River tour – in the US – they were starting the concerts by playing the River double album in its entirety but by the time they got to Europe this was a thing of the past – we got a good number of the songs but broken up during the set. I’m glad as it’s not my favourite Bruce album – I find it quite schizophrenic with its darker songs mixed with pretty simple rocking tunes.
The band had been playing a number of different first songs and we got Atlantic City – a good start. Then they dropped Murder Incorporated. This was going to be a good night. A few more songs in and the rain eased up a bit.
And then things got a bit… festive. This happened…
Looking out at the signs in the audience Bruce spotted a guy in a Father Christmas jacket with a sign saying “Santa Claus is Coming to Manchester”. He was invited up on stage and soon the bells were ringing out, the band kicked in with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the crowd was loving it. It was a bizarre but beautiful moment, a highlight of the evening.
Things did get more serious for a while. Bruce got into a more sombre character to tackle a few songs. They went for a different interpretation of I Wanna Marry You. It’s always good to see artists try new angles but on this occasion it was turned into something rather tepid and flat. Shame. The situation was rescued by The River followed by an intimate, almost conversational Point Blank – quite an achievement to pull off in a stadium.
I had mixed feelings when they played Darlington County / Working on the Highway. It was great to hear the songs but Bruce went down to the front of the crowd and disappeared from the stage for a long time. You could see him on the big screens but by the end of the second song I was feeling a bit left out just watching it on video.
All was forgiven when a little later they did this…
The Rising > Thunder Road > Backstreets > Born to Run > Glory Days > Dancing in the Dark > Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out > Shout > Bobby Jean
Holy shit. The place was rocking, rolling, dancing, singing. I’m struggling to describe it but the next day I saw a tweet that summed it up:
Over the next few days I looked at the setlists of the shows that came after. They got a number of songs from the first album which would have been great to hear. Coventry got Seven Nights to Rock and Dublin / London got Jungleland thrown into that last mix. Drool. But I was very happy with the setlist we got at Manchester.
I’ve seen Springsteen four times now and this was the best show yet. They played over 3 hours and never stopped. Any doubts that he is getting too old are ridiculous. He is in the shape of his life.
A fantastic night. A stunning, well humoured performance. Book me in again if he comes back any time soon.
The Manchester Evening News: Review: Bruce Springsteen @ The Etihad Stadium
The Financial Times: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, Manchester — ‘High-octane’
I’ve subscribed to Apple Music pretty much since the beginning and our family uses it on both iOS and Android. It is not perfect, suffering from a number of little flaws on my old iPhone, but its recommendations have led me to discover some great music. This tends to be in areas that I would not generally venture into such as jazz.
The radio stations are also getting better now that I am telling them what to play more (or less) of. I never really expected to use the radio stations but I’m listening this way more and more.
It’s still very hard to link to songs / albums in Apple Music, so this is a simple list. Try these out – you might like them…
Beth Hart – Better Than Home
Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One To Love / WomanChild
Diego Figueiredo – Broken Bossa
Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Dirty Truth
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Mack Avenue SuperBand – Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015
Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra – Into Forever / When the World Was One
Max Richter – From Sleep / Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
Nils Frahm – Wintermusik
The Souljazz Orchestra – Resistance / Inner Fire
I heard one of the band members talking on the radio about how they go about making their music and it sounded really interesting, so I checked this out. They find old audio recordings and then make music around them. This album is all about the early space race, so they are using snippets from NASA and the Russian space agency archives.
It can be vibrant and funky but also poignant, suspenseful and sad. These are reflections on real events and as such they showcase the full range of emotions involved in taking those first few steps towards one of mankind’s greatest endevours.
This is not something that I would have been aware of if I hadn’t heard it on the radio and I wondered at first why I like it so much. Then it occurred to me that lately I have been drifting off to sleep listening to the soundtrack from the film Gravity and Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe. It fits right in.
A word about the cover art. The cover of the album that you will normally see is the image above – the “USA” version. However on the other side is the “Russian” version. These are interchangeable. Here’s the Russian version:
I got this when Amazon did a 99p promotion for their Cloud Player.
Money well spent.
She has a fantastic voice, can really belt out a tune. He plays some great soulful blues guitar.