Category Archives: Video Games

The CES and Other Illusions

Every year I read about the great new products at the Consume Electronic Show, this year held 8 – 12 January in Las Vegas. The products are marvelous. They’re amazing. They’re introduced amid a glamor of models, cosplayers, and celebrities. They represent the cutting edge of technology.

Unfortunately, most of us will see, much less be able to use most of them. Like, where are the flying cars?

Driverless cars, domestic robots, virtual 3-D that’s adult—NOT porn (I’m not kidding, that’s what they say), and (wait for it) the ability to see INSIDE YOUR HAIR! Now, given that I have much less hair than I did in my younger days, that just might be important to me. Can I stop by WalMart, BestBuy, or even Brookstone and pick one up? Not so much.

There are the latest video games (yawn)—but—wait! Here’s something special— a smart kitty litter box! Something practical—but it’s for the show, not the store.

Oh well.

I’d write more, but I need to go sweep up around the plain, old-fashioned, low-tech kitty litter box.

Time Travel

Flintstones, meet the Flintstones

Flintstones, meet the Flintstones

Suddenly my entire family was transported—thrown, really—into the mid twentieth century.

The internet connectivity to our house was lost. We still had cable television—just like 1975—but no computer connectivity. The telephones went out, too, but that happened in the twentieth century as well.

Of course the DVR, which is part of the cable service was not working, so we couldn’t watch the TV shows from earlier in the week, just like in 1975, before everyone had a VHS video recorder.

It was traumatic. When we called the cable company on a cell phone, they tried resetting everything from their master control center, but failed. They told us that a technician would have to come out and Monday was the earliest possibility. That would mean three days without internet! Three days! No breaking news surrounded by ads and “Sponsored Stories.” Someone could have rocked a dress or a bikini, and we wouldn’t have known. What if that Nigerian prince had tried to contact me by e-mail?

I carefully peeked in my teenagers’ rooms, expecting to find them in a fetal position, clutching their smartphones as their only lifeline to the present, but they proved to be made of stronger stuff. They weathered almost all of Saturday, trapped in the past.

Fortunately, today when we woke up, it had been repaired.

It’s amazing how the internet has become so intertwined in our lives. The silver lining is that it gave me an excuse for not writing a blog yesterday and a topic for today’s blog.

Third Order Effect

Ham radio isn’t a hobby – it’s about 400 hobbies. You can transmit computer signals, text, television, speech and other modes. You can assist in disasters, public service events and talk with the astronauts in the International Space Station. There are satellites that are dedicated to amateur radio, contests and then there are the local repeaters. Repeaters are used to increase the range of small low power transmitters used in cars or that are hand held. Repeaters tend to be like neighborhoods – you find one where you share interests and tend to favor that repeater. Most mornings on my way to work I talk with some of the same folks, which makes the drive much nicer.

The other day we were discussing how years ago there were many mail order electronics companies from whom you could purchase parts at bargain prices. They were kind of like the online computer stores of today, except that they sold resistors, capacitors and such rather than complete computer boards.

When manufacturing jobs left the United States, the people who worked in the factories lost their jobs – the primary effect. The people who worked at the places where these laid-off workers spent their paychecks were also affected – everyone from the restaurant where they ate to the babysitter who watched their kids when they went out. These are the second order effects. We do tend to recognize that these exist. However, what about the ripples that continue from there?

The bags of resistors we could buy by mail were the surplus parts that came from the manufacturers. Perhaps they finished a manufacturing run and no longer needed that specific type of transistor. Maybe the parts were ordered by accident or maybe while awaiting a backorder they placed a second order in order to get delivery in their required time frame. In any case, they ended up with surplus that they sold.

Someone started a business that bought the surplus from the manufacturer and made it available to others by mail. This meant jobs for those who worked for the surplus business, as well as the folks who manufactured the shipping boxes, the postal service and so on. Naturally all of the people in this market used their pay to make other purchases with their own second order effects.

We know that the loss of manufacturing jobs had significant impact on the economy, but here’s another issue. As a youngster, the availability of parts allowed me to experiment – not always successfully, but try things out nevertheless. I wanted to know how and why things worked the way they do. How does a transmitter work? What about a receiver? I remember building a crystal radio and later finding out that in the Second World War soldiers in prisoner of war camps built radios out of a safety pin, wire, a pencil lead and a razor blade. The only commercial item they needed was a set of headphones. How cool was that? How did they do that? That questioning has stayed with me all these years and has helped me immensely.

Compare that to today. With computers in everything from our phones to our automobiles, there’s a wealth of technology. Yet if you ask a teenager today how a video board works, they haven’t a clue. If you ask them how a USB flash drive – one of those key fob memory sticks – works, the same answer. Software? Firmware?

With the loss of manufacturing, with the loss of the “leftovers”, we no longer fuel the imagination in young people. Instead of encouraging them to ask questions and actively seek answers, we instead give them computer games that provide some mental simulation but not the type that will help them in the future.

I guess we gave up a lot more than we thought we did by saving a couple of bucks per product by having it assembled in Mexico, China or wherever.

“Guitar Hero” is Dead – Long Live “Call of Duty”

I don’t know what it means, but it surely means something.

Activision announced that it was abandoning its “Guitar Hero” video line so it could concentrate on its “Call of Duty” games.  Their stock immediately dropped 10%.

The good news is that millions of young people will no longer spend more hours pretending to play a guitar than it would take to actually learn how.  A few might actually try to learn.

The bad news is that now even more can pretend to be in combat while sitting in front of the TV screen. 

Now you might think that I am not a big fan of video games, and you’d be absolutely correct.  I used to have a home office and frequently would return from a road trip only to find that my computer would no longer perform a basic function; like print, or recognize the keyboard or let me type a letter.  In my absence my son would have installed a new game and it would possess my computer like an evil demon.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to spend hours reinstalling software just to write a letter to a customer.

Then they came out with dedicated game consoles.  This meant that the games could be more conveniently located in a child’s bedroom.  I have a younger son who I see occasionally – usually around meal times.  It’s like having a 5 foot tall cuckoo clock figure.  Periodically the door to his bedroom opens and he comes out briefly, only to return shortly thereafter and close the door until the next cycle. 

Just before Christmas his PlayStation melted down and the angst was palpable.  His sincerity, enthusiasm, and sudden sibling affection was touching, if only intended to ensure a replacement would be under the Christmas tree.  Unfortunately, his high grades, soccer performance and the fact that he plays 3 musical instruments put him in an enviable position for negotiations.

Some claim that video games improve hand eye coordination.  The same can be said of Ping-Pong, but since a Ping-Pong table doesn’t sell for $300 and the ping pong balls are less than the $40 each for video games, you don’t hear of a lot of companies promoting the benefits of Ping-Pong.

Now comes the really bad news.  The people who play “Call of Duty” apparently act as soldiers in a virtual world blasting the bad guys with a wide array of weapons.  If they believe this in any way is preparing them for such a life…

  • It takes about 11 service members to support each Soldier/Marine/Sailor/Airman or Coastguard on the front line.  Therefore for every 100 “trigger pullers” there are about 1100 others in uniform doing clerical, mechanical, supply, medical or other duties.  Joining the military is a noble endeavor, but one is far more likely to have one of these support jobs than be a hero.
  • Of those service members who are directly in combat only an infinitesimal number are in the elite forces such as the Navy Seals, Army Special Forces, etc.  The rest are normally not issued a personal arsenal of high tech weapons.  The standard M-16 most ground troops carry has only changed a little since introduced during the Viet Nam War.  So much for fancy armament.
  • I’ve never known a Seal candidate to be asked how well he did on video games.  Instead they are tested, pushed and trained on the type of physical endurance that athletes would envy.

In reality, those (primarily) young men and (relatively few) women who play these games are actually distancing themselves from the possibility of actually serving.  Real world SpecOps folks are judged to a great deal on their physical condition and abilities.  Being sedentary for several hours a day does not contribute to being in the best physical condition.  On the other hand it does explain why 75% of American teens reportedly cannot pass the basic physical requirements to enlist in the armed forces.

Might make more sense to turn off the video game, get up off the couch and go do something physical.
Copyright 2011 SF Nowak – All Rights Reserved