Tron Uprising premieres

The Disney animated series “Tron Uprising” premieres tonight on the Disney XD cable channel. Here’s the prologue episode, showing the back story of how a character named Beck becomes the new Tron. It looks very well done.

The concept is it shows what happens in Flynn’s “grid” world before “Tron Legacy,” but after Clu turns corrupt and defeats the original Tron character.

I remember when I watched the movie I wondered why there were gladiatorial games going on. In the original “Tron” this could be explained by these games being the ones we played in the arcade, only it was really life and death for the programs. This episode also explains why the games return.

h/t to

Why I do this

Following an inspiration

I went to see the movie Julie & Julia yesterday, and I really liked it, way more than I expected. I remember Julia Child from her TV show when I was a kid. Either my mom or my grandmother (or both) used to watch her show regularly. I wanted to see the movie because I thought it was about her life (which it is), but what blew me away was the story of Julie, who takes on a project of going through all of Julia’s recipes and blogging about it. The experience she has doing this matches my own blogging experience in some ways. I am also following my inspiration where it leads, and I also struggle with my own ignorance. What’s comforting and inspiring about the movie is it shows that 1) those who inspire us went through their own struggles and doubts, and 2) we tend to idealize/idolize our inspirations. In a Platonic way (after Plato) these idealized versions we hold within ourselves are really “forms,” and they’re our inspiration, not what we think are our inspiration. We come to own our inspiration using the illusion that it all comes from someone else to make the inspiration stronger within us at first.

The movie is based on two books: My Life in France, by Julia Child, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, by Julie Powell, which is based on her blog The Julie/Julia Project. The movie skillfully interweaves the two stories to show parallels in the lives of these two people–and perhaps idealizes them as well.

Coming out of ignorance and teaching others

Speaking of Plato, I came upon a video recently showing Plato’s allegory of “The cave.” It describes well an aspect of the journey I feel I’ve been on, based on my experience. It was meant as a way of expressing the process that one goes through to reach enlightenment, the responsibility of the enlightened to try to help fellow members of society to go on their own enlightenment journeys, and the obstacles they face in doing it.

There’s a morbid aspect to this allegory. Plato says that those who return to the “prisoners” to try to free them risk death, for those inside do not wish to leave their unenlightened state. I think I read that this allegory was Plato’s way of describing the significance of the life and death of Socrates, and that this allusion to “the danger of death” to the enlightened was an oblique reference to his Athenian trial and death sentence. I don’t feel that this applies today, but I have sometimes seen the mocking and dismissive resistance that Plato described when I’ve tried to share in the “troubles and honors” of fellow developers, and present an expanded viewpoint of computing.

This story is more than 2,000 years old, and it shows that the process of becoming enlightened, and the difficulties in helping others do the same are part of the human condition.

Michael Jackson dead at 50

There aren’t any pop artists I’ve grown attached to over the years. There have always been songs I’ve liked for a time, sometimes intensely, but then they fade. I really like revisiting them after 10 years or so. Certain songs bring back memories of my childhood or when I was a teen, or going through college. So it is with Michael Jackson. I heard about his passing yesterday, and I felt a bit sad, but not overwrought. He’s been a fixture in my life, a bit hard to avoid. When I was a teen his music was wildly popular and was on the radio all the time. His music and performance art were significant and innovative in pop culture. When he “exploded on the scene” in the early 1980s he really stood on his own. There was no one else like him. I was really struck by his music videos. They were innovative and captured my attention. Some would say later that he made the music video an art form worth paying attention to. There were music videos around before he really made it big, but they were amateurish.

Before all that I didn’t really know about him, but I’d heard him, as part of the Jackson 5. A couple of their songs were big favorites of mine when I was a kid in the 1970s, “ABC”, and “I Want You Back.” Michael was the child lead singer of the group. I liked this music because it was simple and catchy, and Michael’s voice sounded like a child’s, which I could relate to instantly.

I watched The Wiz when it came on TV. It was a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz in the mold of Motown. Michael Jackson was in it along with Diana Ross. Only thing was I barely noticed him under the costume and make-up. He played the scarecrow.

As a young teen I remember I liked Shake Your Body by The Jacksons (the Jackson brothers changed their name in 1975) off of their Destiny album, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” from Michael’s solo album Off The Wall, and Human Nature from Thriller. Around this time I started hearing about Michael Jackson a bit as a solo artist. He didn’t leave an indelible imprint on my imagination until he produced his Beat It, Billie Jean, and Thriller music videos, all from his Thriller album. They had an epic quality. They were like small movies. Of these three the only one I really liked as a song was “Billie Jean.”

As with anyone who’s famous, Weird Al Yankovic had to make parodies of his music (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery): “Eat It” (Beat It), and “Fat” (“Bad”).

These are some other videos and songs that Michael Jackson (or “The Jacksons”) made that were favorites of mine:

“Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons from their Triumph album – This is going to sound crass, but President Obama could’ve used this song as an anthem for his campaign. Seriously.

From Michael’s album Bad“Another Part of Me,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”

“Black or White” from his album Dangerous – Out of all the music videos he made this is my favorite. It’s brimming with creativity. I loved the line, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” The end of it features a technology that was very new at the time, computer morphing. This video was produced in 1991.

“You Rock My World” from his album Invincible – This was the latest one I really liked. It just feels so easy to dance to. The video has some great creative elements in it. What’s funny is Chris Tucker keeps dropping names of older Michael Jackson songs, and phrases he’s used. I love watching Tucker dance in it. I don’t know for sure but this may have been the last time Marlon Brando appeared on film before he died.

I had never bought one of Jackson’s albums before, but I felt like getting Invincible when this song came out in 2001. I listened to the album at the store and was disappointed. “You Rock My World” was the only good song on it. A lot of albums had that problem back then. Maybe they still do?

It really seemed like Jackson’s career was winding down when his last album came out. I didn’t expect anything new out of him. I thought he would change focus and do something else with his life, and perhaps he did. I heard yesterday, though, that he was planning a European tour.

Artistic influences

Doing my research last night I learned that there have been many artists who’ve used samples of his music, or have done covers of his songs. I heard a few many years ago. A song called “Love Will Be Right Here” by Sisters With Voices used a sample of “Human Nature.” A rap called “O.P.P.” by Naughty by Nature used two samples from the Jackson 5: “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” A few artists I’ve seen who’ve done covers are Mariah Carey with “I’ll Be There.” The original was done by the Jackson 5. Alien Ant Farm did Smooth Criminal, an homage to all things Jackson. Here’s the original. A band simply named “V” did a cover of “Can You Feel It.”

A dance move that Jackson became known for when his career was exploding in the early 80s was the “moonwalk.” I think I heard recently that it used to be called “the back slide.” He popularized it, but he certainly didn’t invent it.

Edit 7-8-2009: I watched portions of the memorial service for Michael Jackson last night. It was pretty good. I really liked Jermaine Jackson’s rendition of “Smile” written by Charlie Chaplin. It was heartfelt. Brook Shields said it was Michael’s favorite song of all. Chaplin wrote this music for his 1936 movie Modern Times.

I’ve done a little research into “Smile”. It sounds like it originally didn’t have a name. Chaplin just used it in his movie without a credit. Lyrics were added to it in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and it was given the name “Smile.” It was obviously rearranged as well. It looks like Nat King Cole was the first to sing it. From what I’ve heard, Jermaine got the lyrics a bit mixed up, but that’s okay. They were in mourning, so who cares. Here’s Michael Jackson’s rendition of “Smile.”

TR2N: A sequel to Tron? Perhaps

There have been rumors of a Tron sequel for several years now. Back in 2003 Disney released Tron 2.0 a video game for PCs, and later a port for consoles. Originally the video game was supposed to accompany a movie with the same title, with Steven Lisberger reprising his role as director. That project got canned. The video game came out, but no movie. Talk about a botched release! Anyway, I think the video game is pretty good.

In the last year there have been more rumors of a Tron sequel, this time with a different director, with Lisberger being involved as producer. Just today I was browsing Brian Cunningham’s blog, and I came upon one posting pointing to a bootlegged test reel/teaser trailer called TR2N, shown at this year’s ComicCon, featuring Jeff Bridges looking bad ass (I assume he’s playing Flynn again), and a cool looking light cycles contest! It’s definitely modern, not some retread of old Tron footage. Tron 2.0 News has a lot of the details of what this teaser means. It looks like it was a test reel created to see how much interest it would generate. The project probably hasn’t been “greenlighted” yet. Anyway, I just had to see this. I watched it and got chills! Wow!

Oh, in case you’re wondering what the dialog is at the end, one of the contestants on the “game grid” exclaims, “It’s just a game!” His opponent says, after a dramatic pause, “Not anymore.”

Since the video is bootleg it may not be up for long. Check it out while you can.

The culture of “air guitar”

Since I started listening to Alan Kay’s ideas I’ve kept hearing him use the phrase “air guitar” to describe what he sees as shallow ideas, both in terms of educational and industry practice, which are promoted by a pop culture. Kay is a musician, among other things, so I can see where he’d come up with this term. My impression is he’s referring to an almost exclusive focus on technique, perhaps even using a tool, looking confident and stylish while doing it, and an almost total lack of focus on what is being worked with.

I watched video recently of another one of his presentations on Squeak, this time in front of an audience of educators. He brought up the issues of math and science education, and said that in many environments they teach kids to calculate, to do “math,” not mathematics. Students are essentially trained to “appreciate” math, but not in how to be real mathematicians.

He’s also used the term “gestures” to characterize this shallowness. In the field of software development he alluded to this idea in his 1997 keynote speech at OOPSLA, titled, “The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet”:

I think the main thing about doing OOP work, or any kind of programming work, is that there has to be some exquisite blend between beauty and practicality. There’s no reason to sacrifice either one of those, and people who are willing to sacrifice either one of those I don’t think really get what computing is all about. It’s like saying I have really great ideas for paintings, but I’m just going to use a brush, but no paint. You know, so my ideas will be represented by the gestures I make over the paper; and don’t tell any 20th century artists that, or they might decide to make a videotape of them doing that and put it in a museum.

Edit 4-5-2012: Case in point. I found this news feature segment about some air guitar enthusiasts who actually hold a national competition to see who’s the “best” at it. The winners go on to an international competition in Finland! Okay, it’s performance art, but this is like asking, “How great can you fake it?” It’s a glorified karaoke competition, except it’s worse, because there’s no attempt to express anything but gestures. When I first heard about this, I thought it was satire like the movie Spinal Tap, but no, it’s real.

I’ve been surprised when I’ve seen some piece of media come along that comes pretty darn close to illustrating one of Kay’s ideas. A while back I found a video clip of a Norwegian comedy show taking the learning curve of today’s novice computer users and making a media analogy to the “introduction of the book” after Gutenburg brought the printing press to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kay had always said that personal computers are a new form of media, and I thought this skit got the message across in a way that most people could understand, at least from having experienced the version of “personal computer media” that you can buy at a retail outlet or through mail order.

South Park is a show that’s been a favorite of mine for many years. It’s an odd mix of “pop culture with a message.” Despite the fact that it’s low brow and often offensive, on a few occasions it has been surprisingly poetic about real issues in our society. The show is about a group of kids going through life, misunderstanding things, playing pranks on each other, and getting in trouble. It also shows them trying to be powerful, trying to help, and trying to learn. Maybe that’s what interests me about it. It’s unclear what “grade level” the kids are at. There was one season where they were in “4th grade.” So I guess that gives you an idea.

I’ve included links to some clips of an episode I’ll talk about. The clips are from Comedy Central’s site. Fair warning: If you are easily offended, I would not encourage you to watch them. There is some language in the video that could offend.

Season 11, episode 13 is one where the kids buy a console video game system and play a game on it called “Guitar Hero”. The game is played by taking game controllers that look like small electric guitars, and manipulating switches and buttons on them in the right sequence and timing, to real music played by the game console.

What I’m going to say about it is my own interpretation, based on my own life experience.

What’s interesting to me is a parent of one of the kids tries to engage the group in learning how to play real music on a real instrument, but the kids are not interested.

The dad wonders what’s so special about the game, and that night sneaks down and tries it himself, showing what a bad fit a real musician is in this “air guitar” culture (or showing what a piece of crap it is).

I have the feeling this episode is based on a movie, though I don’t know which one. There are other parts not shown in these clips that dramatize betrayal between two friends, and reconciliation. Kind of your typical “buddy movie” plot line. These next clips show the “wider world” discovering the talent of these kids playing the game.

This gets to what I think the pop culture promotes. Even though it’s pretty empty, it makes you feel like you are accomplishing something, and getting something out of it. You are rewarded for “going through the motions,” “making the right gestures.”

If this next clip doesn’t scream “air guitar”, I don’t know what does.

I won’t show the ending, but it shows how utterly empty and worthless the whole “air guitar” exercise is–It’s not real!

I think the reason this episode had some meaning for me is what plays out feels kind of like my past experience as a software developer. Not that software development is an “air guitar” exercise in and of itself. Far from it. What I’m getting at is the wider computing culture with respect to software development is like this. Those of us who care about our craft are trying to play “good music,” often with bad instruments. In my case, I’m still learning what “good music” is. We may be with a good “band,” but most “bands” have “band managers” who don’t know a thing about “good music.” That’s why it seems like such a struggle.

“Real music” with good instruments in computing is available for those who seek it. You won’t find it in most programming languages, programming web sites, symposia, or tools. The idea of “good music” with “good instruments” doesn’t get much support, so it’s hard to find. Unfortunately the reality is in order to really be educated you have to seek out a real education. Just “going along for the ride” of school systems will usually leave you thinking the pop culture is the real thing. Seeking a real education, being your own learner, is much more rewarding.

Wonderful: The Journey & The Labyrinth

The Journey & The Labyrinth

I know this is going to be old news to some people. I first heard of this through PBS in 2006. I just got inspired to write about it now.

Sting, with Edin Karamazov, created a wonderful collaboration, bringing back to life the 400 year-old music of John Dowland. Sting and Edin, both playing lutes, and Sting with his smooth vocals, created an album from Dowland’s pieces, which were made widely available to people in his day. The music has a richness that is wonderful to listen to. The DVD is even better. The locales they play in bring a greater fullness to the whole thing. In addition there are some vignettes where Sting, Edin, and a couple of experts on Dowland discuss the music and his life. Through this you get a small taste of the culture he lived in.

What’s really gratifying is seeing the growth of an artist. Sting is best known for the pop music he created with The Police, and then in his own solo career. The CD contains none of that. Instead what you hear is Sting and Edin really making an effort to bring life back to these old songs, respecting the tradition they came from. The DVD has a little of Sting’s pop music thrown in as well. A few of the selections they put on the DVD are Sting “unplugged” with the lute.

I should add that if you saw the PBS program on this you’ve already seen most of what’s on the DVD. It contains some extras not seen on TV, like the full length concert that Sting and Edin put on, and a rehearsal session.

Overall it’s a wonderful collection if you enjoy quality music with rich themes. I highly recommend it.

Edit 10/15/2009: I found a video clip from the DVD to give you a taste. Here is the most famous Dowland song, “Flow My Tears” (video).

Reminiscing, Part 5

Going Retro

Here are some modern “retro” videos I found that harken back to the 8- and 16-bit era. I just thought they were neat.

“Move Your Feet,” by Junior Senior

A friend introduced me to this music video a few years ago. It harkens back to the olden days of blocky but colorful 8-bit graphics. I’m sure none of these graphics were generated on an actual 8-bit computer. Anyone know what they used?

“Atari Robot Demo,” by Alistair Bowness

This is a clever piece, splicing together video from a bunch of 8-bit games using professional video editing.

In the very beginning you see a demonstration of what Atari users actually had to do to load a binary program. You had to go to a DOS (Disk Operating System) menu, which you loaded from disk, select “Binary Load”, and then type the name of the machine language program you wanted to run, at a prompt. The rapid-fire, high-pitched “beeps” you hear are the actual sound you’d hear out the TV or monitor speaker as the program loaded into memory from floppy disk.

It starts out with video of a real Atari 8-bit demo (video link) Atari used at the trade shows to show off the Atari XE series. Bowness took the music from the real demo and created a remix of it with a modern bass and drum track.

Atari and Commodore 8-bit games are shown, along with some coin-op games. There’s a little Commodore Amiga stuff in there, too.

It surprised me that the video included an Atari 8-bit game called “Dropzone.” It flies by rather quickly. It’s the screen before Dig Dug shows up. I was surprised because my memory is this was a little known game. I tried it out in college. The graphics performance on it was amazing. It was fast–too fast. The movement of graphics around the screen was very smooth. I remember I got killed all the time because I had a difficult time calibrating my movements on the joystick with what was going on onscreen. I’d make dumb moves, crash into stuff and die. Some of the graphics in it were a dead-ringer for the coin-op “Defender” game.

“Video Computer System,” by Golden Shower

I read how they made this song and video. “Video Computer System” is an actual music title you can get from Golden Shower. What they did was record real 8-bit game sounds, digitize them into their music system, and used them in the song, along with some 8-bit-like synth sounds they created themselves. The graphics for the video were created entirely in Photoshop, and maybe some other modern graphics packages. The 8-bit-like graphics look an awful lot like the real thing, but none of it was generated on an 8-bit machine.

This is a video of a small personal computer museum in Canada. Just about all of the computers that came out in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen, and used by patrons. You see some kids playing some of the old video games.

As you can see, a LOT of different personal computers were created in this time period. It shows you what I meant when I said earlier that everybody and his brother was coming out with their own personal computer in the early to mid-1980s.

I said earlier in Part 4 that this would be my last post. I lied…I’ve got one more coming up.

Saying goodbye to someone I never knew

Dr. Randy Pausch gives his last lecture (h/t to Mark Guzdial)

Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University and the creator of Alice, is dying of pancreatic cancer. I learned this past weekend that he had given his last lecture recently, while he was still in good health. It’s become kind of commonplace for universities to have dignitaries give “last lectures.” The scenario put to them is, “What would you tell people if you were going to die soon?” Well Randy really did it. As you can see from the video he was not morose about it. He was downright cheery. What he had to say was good and inspirational. He focused mostly on his career and people he’s met along the way, leaving his illness in the background.

I had heard of Alice through Squeak, but I had never heard of Randy Pausch before this. What he has done is amazing. He’s managed to marry performance art with computing via. virtual reality technology. He developed a course bringing together people from all sorts of disciplines to participate in creating immersive environments.

Randy said Alice is a “head fake” to get students to learn programming, “while doing something else.” He says students think they’re creating movies and video games with it, but they’re learning programming. He said with Alice, “The vision is clear: Millions of kids having fun while learning something hard.”

There were two parts of his speech that I loved.

In “Hello. World” the demonstrator creates a world in wireframe to please an endearing rabbit. The demonstrator renders the world, creating a sunny place with dancing, singing characters. She then does a “system reboot” that destroys the world before your eyes in a whimsical and hilarious way. Such creativity!

In another segment, on things other people had taught him, Randy talked about a former student, Dr. Caitlin Keller, who suggested that instead of seeing Alice as an easy-to-use tool to teach programming, he should present programming as a form of storytelling, through Alice. It sounded like he took that advice and used it in his classes. He said she demonstrated by using Alice this way in middle schools that girls could be attracted to learn programming, suggesting that it’s all about the approach, not the subject matter. This was heartening to me. I think it would be beneficial to male students of programming as well. I’ve written previously of the pleasure of “coding like writing,” though what I talked about was different. I wouldn’t call it storytelling, but rather describing a process using concepts, more like technical communication, rather than a narrative.

He gave some useful advice for life, like, “Brick walls are there to show you how badly you really want something.” They’re there to keep out the people who aren’t dedicated to the task. He also said, “If you wait long enough,” with someone you are displeased with, “they will eventually impress you.” I have a new perspective on “brick walls” after listening to him.

Something he implies is it’s important to be in a community that agrees with your work values, and is open to what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re running into people who don’t value your ideas, much less understand them, it doesn’t necessarily mean your ideas are wrong. You might be hanging around the wrong people.

At the end the president of CMU announced that they’re going to build a bridge between the performing arts building, and the computer science building on campus. The buildings are already situated next to each other. They’re going to name the bridge, appropriately, after Randy.

The end of the lecture was touching. He said he did this lecture, and recorded it, for his kids so that someday they’ll understand some life lessons. It reminded me of a movie that came out years ago called “My Life,” starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman, about a man and his expecting wife who find out he’s dying of cancer, and how they choose to live the remainder of his life. It contained a great idea for terminally ill parents: Take the time to record “sit down talks” with your kids, teaching them life lessons, because you won’t be around when they’re older and ready for them. It also gives them an opportunity to know a bit of you, so you won’t be someone who wasn’t there for them.

That was one message from Randy’s lecture. What it also brought to mind for me is a message that all computer science programs should heed: TRY TO MAKE PROGRAMMING FUN! This doesn’t mean it has to be all fun all the time, just try to incorporate it somewhere.

I’ve been saying this to whoever will listen since industry started complaining that there weren’t enough computer science graduates. A group of companies got together in the 1990s to try to promote getting educated in computing for the benefits (ie. salary, nice job, good lifestyle, etc.). They created some videos to be shown in high schools with this message. The 2000/2001 tech recession clearly showed the fallacy of this line of thinking. Yes there are good times in this industry, but they don’t last. It’s a chaotic place to be.

When I was learning computers as a 12-year-old, the fun aspects were emphasized. Not so much playing games, but there were simple things you could try and get some gratification from what you did. There were resources available (books, magazines with type-in programs) that tried to make the experience of programming enjoyable by having you try things that were fun. There were all sorts of things around in our culture that made science and computing look fun and interesting. That’s why I got into it. It wasn’t imposing and boring. I developed this mentality that computers were “creation machines.” Unlike physical mechanical devices, you could mold the computer to whatever you wanted it to be, and you could take the vision you had in your head and realize it in front of you. That experience has always been a blast for me. There were some fun experiences I had in CS in college, but not too many. It was serious work, and fun was hardly ever emphasized. I think it killed that spirit within me a little. When I got out, for some reason I didn’t look for places to work that would be fun. I just wanted a job, and that’s what I got. Not to say I didn’t have enjoyable experiences in and out of the work world. I certainly did. I’ve worked with some great people. Was the computing part fun? Sometimes. What I’ve worked on remembering in the past year is what it was like to have that spirit of “computing is fun”–not necessarily easy, but fun nonetheless. Randy’s lecture was a part of that experience for me.

Thank you, Randy. I am sad to see you go so soon. I hardly knew you. Best wishes to your family. Your contributions will live on in your software and in your students.

By the way, readers can find Alice for Squeak Version 3.8 (not sure if it works in the current version, 3.9 as of this writing) in the Balloon3D class library on SqueakMap (just bring up “SqueakMap Package Loader” inside Squeak and search for it), or in Monticello using the repository. It’s called “Wonderland”. Once it’s loaded in Squeak, evaluate “Wonderland new” in a Workspace.

Edit 9/24/08: While I’m updating/cleaning up old posts, I figure I should update this one. Dr. Randy Pausch died of his illness on the morning of July 25, 2008. Here is a site Randy Pausch set up to document his “adventure” with cancer, and other events along the way. It also links to a page that’s like a scrapbook of his efforts to bring awareness to cancer research, and the events he was a part of, talking about his philosophy of life.

—Mark Miller,