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Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Dear catnappers,

My first semester in college, in an effort to stymie all academic progress, one of my suitemates unveiled an aging Nintendo console along with a cache of video game cartridges. Mind you, this was 1999, at which point the original Nintendo—a not-very-sexy gray box—was decidedly outdated. It was hardly unusual, for instance, to walk into the common room and find a friend hunched over, blowing into console, then the cartridge, then the console, as though giving mouth to mouth, just to get the damn think working again. Despite these low-tech troubles, however, I think we all felt a nostalgic thrill playing games like Castlevania and Super Mario Bros, sort of like revisiting your old elementary school (“I can’t believe how small everything is!”) Most things I remember from early childhood tend towards the traumatic—my first visit to the hospital, my first day of summer camp—but I can vividly recall the marvel I felt the first time I saw someone play Nintendo. And still I don’t quite understand how that Duck Hunt gun works.

The Internet, of course, was practically invented for nostalgic pleasures like these. So it’s no surprise to find a wealth of Nintendo-related material online. For starters, there’s the Nintendo Game Archive where you can view screenshots of everything from A Boy and His Blob to Zombie Nation Samurai. You can even view the game boxes, like this one from Zelda II.

Even more evocatively, you can listen to music from countless Nintendo games at the Video Game Music Archive. Just listen to the victory music from Super Mario Bros and tell me your heart doesn’t race just a little bit.

Not all Nintendo touched turned to gold, of course. Long before the Wii, there was the power pad (Dance Aerobics anyone?) and, this ad reminds me, a robot that, as far as I remember, did nothing.  (YouTube’s Irate Gamer offers a more nuanced historical view on “R.O.B.” as he was known .) My mother and father deserve credit for buying us only the most basic system.

Before Nintendo, my brother and I did manage with another game system—our beloved Atari, which was, in its own way, groundbreaking. How groundbreaking you ask? Groundbreaking enough to warrant its own magazine, now digitized over at Atari Age. The graphics, needless to say, looked nothing like those pictured on this cover. But we were skilled in the art of imagination! And where else could you find answers to questions like these? “Dear Atari Club, I have learned that on Space Invaders if you hold down the reset button at the same time as the power switch is being turned on, your laser cannon will fire double. My question is, will this hurt either my space invaders cartridge or my Atari console unit?” (The answer: it would!) New York magazine on the other hand saw fit to ask this question, “Can Atari Stay Ahead of the Game?” (The answer: it couldn’t!)

Alas, I have left video gaming behind, but the memories linger on. And my hand-eye coordination is better than it might otherwise be.

Yours playfully,

Stephen

P.S. Check out videos from the Nintendo-“inspired” cartoon series Captain N the Game Master.

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To the chronically tired,

While I may be lazy in my scholarship, let it never be said I’m a stranger to physical labor. On Monday, I started volunteering one morning a week at a local farm here in Northampton. As promised, the work was not glamorous—weeding, weeding, and more weeding—but it was surprisingly satisfying. As an academic, I’ve spent hours and hours revising the same paragraph, only to rework it again the following day. So imagine the joy in releasing a bushel of parsley from the strangling grasp of an encroaching weed, shaking off the soil, and moving on to the next plant. When I came home that afternoon, I still had dirt smeared across my brow—proof! It’s not so easy when your regular work consists of sipping  iced coffee while staring at a computer screen, trying not to cry. I know I’m getting ahead of myself for someone whose farming experience only amounts to four hours. But indulge me, dear reader. Do you know what it’s like to write a dissertation?

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the sustainable farming movement, and the longer history of environmentalism in the U.S. Much of the current organic/local/natural food movement has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, though those hippies probably never suspected their work would yield Whole Foods markets in 39 states (for better or worse).

Their spirit, however, lives on, thanks to Whole Earth Catalog Archive. The Whole Earth Catalog was launched in 1968 by Stewart Brand, described at the time by Tom Wolfe as “a thin blond guy… No shirt, however, just an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it.” The goal of the catalog, as the first installment explained, was to market tools that enabled the “individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” The products themselves range kind of wildly–a glass blowing guide, buckskin, hunting boots, self-hypnosis manuals. Though my favorite ad is for Anthony Greenback’s Book of Survival, which beat out The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook by several decades. As the catalog assures, you may laugh, but “next time you’re running from an enraged bull, you remember about flinging down your jacket.”

By 1971, the catalog ballooned from 66 pages to 452, with a well-expanded section on land-use, from gardening to goat husbandry (Beekman Boys, here is your heritage!).

The catalog also yielded the CoEvolution Quarterly, later renamed The Whole Earth Review, also viewable online. They’re worth browsing for the trippy illustrations alone, including this cover from 1977 by Robert Crumb, which lightly parodies the utopian ethos of the back-to-the-land movement. The issue includes Crumb’s comic treatment of a “Modern Dance Workshop,” plus the results of a Stanford study on “Voluntary Simplicity,” lessons on retrofitting tract housing with solar panels, a story by J.G. Ballard, and thoughts on death from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. 70s counterculture was anything but narrow.

Those less eager to flip pages online (or pay for the PDF) can also view some articles in HTML format.

I’ll leave it to readers to reflect on why we’re still fighting the battles the Whole Earth Catalog started forty years ago. For more on the catalog’s afterlife, you can check out Fred Turner’s well-received study From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, or Brand’s latest Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. And for a decidedly contemporary take, check out Adbusters latest issue, titled the “Whole Brain Catalog: Access to Therapies.”

On that note, back to my mental gardening.

Yours holistically,

Stephen

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Dear viewers like you,

The website Snagfilms usually gets pegged as “Hulu for documentaries”—a pretty generous comparison when I think about how many episodes of 30 Rock I’ve watched on our Mac. But while Hulu gives a chance for major TV networks to distribute shows both popular and flagging, Snagfilms shines its spotlight on filmmakers with far less funding and exposure. Most of its documentaries were created in the last ten years, but historians of the recent-but-not-too-recent past will also find ample reasons to browse.

For starters, take a look at Peter Rosen’s beautifully shot 1971 documentary Bright College Years on the student uprisings at Yale in the late 1960s.  It was included in PBS’s “Sixties Legacy” series, first aired in 1979—suggesting just how quickly the decade was commemorated and mourned.

Nick Broomfield’s Tattooed Tears from 1978, meanwhile, provides a look at a maximum security juvenile correctional facility in California. And for something completely different, check out Broomfield’s wry documentary about the British class system, 1973’s Proud to Be British.

The archive also includes some fascinating (if sometimes slow) profiles of artists, including Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, and Orson Welles. The oddest of these by far, however, is Henry Miller Asleep and Awake, a 1975 tour of the famed novelist’s bathroom. Yes. His bathroom, covered with photographs of every subject from “maniacs to whores.” In other words, what you would more or less expect from the author of Tropic of Cancer. As Miller explains, “People often come in here and get lost. They’re in here for, I don’t know how long, and I imagine maybe something happened, that they got constipated or something. But it isn’t that of course. They get fascinated with these pictures.” A little like looking at Jung’s Red Book.

Just two more for your weekend viewing: See what happens when a 7th grade class establishes its own imaginary country in 1979’s The Ruling Classroom. And for all you Internet addicts, see what happens when three college students give up their computers for three weeks in 2008’s Disconnected.

Digitally yours,

Stephen

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