December 11, 2018

Mama Mia! The Swedish Group ABBA Has Made a Lot of Money, Money Money!

Much has been written about the Swedish super group called ABBA. After all, the group has more than proven its endurance to a global audience.
The group's iconic logo was/is also a registered trademark
Songwriters and musicians Björn Ulaeus and Benny Andersson first met in 1966, and in 1969, the seeds of the soon-to-be Swedish supergroup were planted when Björn met his fiancée, Agnetha Fältskog, and Benny met his fiancée, Anni-Frid (known as Frida) Lyngstad, and the group formed in Stockholm in 1972. Ulvaeus and Andersson knew how to write contagious pop hits, but Fältskog's and Lyngstad's beautiful harmonies were integral to the global chart-topping ABBA sound. The group's name is an acronym from the first letter in each of their names. In 1974, ABBA was the contestant for Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest, the pan-European music festival. Sweden (and ABBA) took home the prize as the winner of the Eurovision contest that year with their performance of the song "Waterloo".

Although relatively unknown outside of Scandinavia at the time, ABBA used the Eurovision song contest as a launching pad to become a global pop music sensation. While Sweden has long been one of the world's largest cultural exporters (books, music, film, television programming, etc.), likely because in Swedish public schools, the population is taught English in as a core subject (along with Swedish and mathematics) staring in grade school between the ages 7 and 9, depending on the school attended. Indeed, most Scandinavians are praised for having both fluency in English and language competency in addition to their own native tongues, hence Swedes successfully export to the broader English-speaking world.

Anyway, in 1974, in spite of competing against the likes of Olivia Newton-John who represented the UK in Eurovision that year (unfortunately, she sang a boring song entitled "Long Live Love" that year, and her outfit was similarly conservative), ABBA grabbed the top prize.  A video of the group's winning performance in the 1974 Eurovision contest can be seen below, or by visiting HERE.



Not only was the ABBA song "Waterloo" understood across Europe, but the band also wore what were considered pretty daring costumes that year, too. Their costumes were certainly eye-catching: shiny, satin, all-in-one outfits and even shinier knee-length hot-boots. The costumes were explained largely as a way to exploit a Swedish tax law. As long as their outfits were so outrageous that they could not be worn on the street, the band could claim the cost of the outfits were tax-deductible.

ABBA band member Björn Ulvaeus recalled: "In my honest opinion, we looked like nuts in those years. Nobody can have been as badly dressed on stage as we were." Björn added: "We figured with our clothes, people would remember us even if we finished ninth." Frida noted: "We chose clothes we felt comfortable in. My favorite was a body stocking with a little dress cut diagonally. I thought I was elegant and sexy in it."

But the costumes fit right into the disco era which was just emerging around the world at the time, and people remembered the band who wore such colorful (if garish) outfits. It didn't hurt that their music was universal, and the harmonies of the women's voices in the group sounded great. They took their knack for memorable (if ugly) costumes, along with catchy lyrics and dancible pop melodies and became a global superstar group whose success is in many ways, unparalleled. All told, ABBA released eight studio albums over their original 10 years together. Perhaps their most iconic single was their 1976 h"Dancing Queen" which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/ABBADancingQueen_201811.



"Dancing Queen" was ABBA's biggest hit in the United States (going to number one), and it also topped the charts in Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Germany and Zimbabwe. "Dancing Queen" also reached the top five in many other countries.

At their commercial zenith in the late 1970's, ABBA were reputedly second only to Volvo in their contribution to Sweden's exports. While figures vary, industry watchers agree that ABBA has sold at least than 200 million albums and singles worldwide (some unconfirmed estimates put the figure closer to 400 million, behind only The Beatles but ahead of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen), and certainly comparable to the Rolling Stones. Collectively, estimates are that ABBA has earned more than $2 billion in album and singles sales during its career.


The 1974 Eurovision-winning band was actually made up of two couples — Agnetha Fältskog and  Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. Both couples would later split as the band became most successful, and ABBA broke up as a group in 1982. ABBA was always bigger in terms of studio recordings, but decidedly less so when it came to touring and live performances. Despite some disagreements among the quartet, the four largely remained in touch and they seem fairly united in decision-making that has perpetuated their fame and fortune. The original ABBA team have proven themselves VERY adept at continuing the nurture their money-machine by carefully licensing their songs to bands and singers who have kept their songs continually playing (and selling).

For example, in 1992, they wisely licensed several of their songs to the UK pop duo Erasure (Vince Clarke and Andy Bell) which released an EP of four of ABBA's best-known hits. That EP revived ABBA's songs for a generation of young adults who grew up listening to the original ABBA songs on the radio, and was also Erasure's first and only #1 on the UK Singles Chart for the single "Take A Chance on Me", plus it got significant airplay in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

ABBA later licensed its songs to live theater productions of the show "Mama Mia" which opened in London and remained a best-seller there, replicating that successful run in New York, Toronto, Sydney and elsewhere. The stage version's worldwide gross from 49 productions exceeded $2 billion in 2015, having been seen by 500 million people. The 14-year Broadway run alone grossed more than $600 million, according to the trade group Broadway League.

In 2014, the ABBA band-members released a video they called "The Last Video" which can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/8L6T6Yj5u4k which is indicative of the continued creative work from the group members.


ABBA's West-End/Broadway success with "Mama Mia", in-turn, lead to the Hollywood movie version of "Mama Mia" that starred Meryl Streep. The "Mamma Mia" movie version of the all-ABBA musical was released by Universal and earned the band another $600 million at the box office, while the sequel (whose story was panned) still quietly earned another $280 million during just its first four weeks without even factoring in DVD and streaming sales, licensing to cable television, etc. ABBA then released (or was it really a re-release of their biggest hits?) "ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits", which has been called one of the most influential compilation albums ever released, and sparked a strong revival of ABBA's music that has endured well into the 21st century.

In 2018, one guest-star of "Mama Mia 2", herself a seventies pop icon Cher, released a whole new album of ABBA covers following her appearance in the sequel movie. She announced one of the singles "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" via her active Twitter account.

Cher told the press (see HERE): "I've always liked ABBA and saw the original Mamma Mia musical on Broadway three times. After filming "Mamma Mia! 2: Here We Go Again", I was reminded again of what great and timeless songs they wrote and started thinking 'why not do an album of their music?' The songs were harder to sing than I imagined but I'm so happy with how the music came out. I'm really excited for people to hear it. It's a perfect time."

Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, Sweden, the ABBA The Museum is a Swedish interactive exhibition about the pop band ABBA that opened in Stockholm, Sweden in May 2013. ABBA's collected works are showcased in a contemporary, interactive setting at Djurgården, Stockholm.

ABBA also announced that the Swedish foursome had recorded several brand new songs during 2018, its first in 35 years, which will be released in early 2019. The original band members are all now in their seventies, so studio recordings are one thing, but the group has said they have no intention of doing any live performances. But there ARE plans for a TV special, and a separate digital project to recreate the four members performing as what they're branding their 'ABBAtars' using the experience gained from the ABBA Museum to further their commercial success on a global basis.

Just how much longer ABBA can perpetuate its "Money, Money, Money" tree remains to be seen. But they've proven themselves perhaps the most successful at merchandising their music in a way that few other bands have yet to replicate -- it doesn't just happen, it takes a degree of talent, intellect and work -- but perhaps could pave the way for future artists in the 21st century?

December 4, 2018

Strange Archives: Attention K-Mart Shoppers


The internet has a collection of the truly obscure! However, because its the holiday season, memories of shopping at cheesy, American discount stores is no doubt something for which many people are familiar.

Notably, the Internet Archive is assembling a massive digital collection of miscellaneous things, some quite impressive, such as the emulator library of video games and home video game consoles as well as handheld devices which I've addressed in prior posts, including one about Speak & Spell and other items, for example. There are also video clips from different sources, and a large audio collection. Due to copyright issues, audio can be more challenging, but sometimes the work is already done by others, in this case the once-giant discount retailer K-Mart Corporation.

Shoppers of K-Mart may recall the retailer's in-store audio background music which was periodically interrupted by K-Mart product commercials which were usually introduced with the phrase "Attention K-Mart Shoppers".  A collection entitled "Attention K-Mart Shoppers" is one such collection.

As the archivist Mark Davis admits, this is a somewhat strange collection. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, he worked for K-mart behind the service desk and the store played specific pre-recorded cassettes issued by corporate. This was background music, or perhaps you could call it elevator music. Some have some recordings of musicians including Neil Diamond, for example. Anyway, he saved the tapes from the trash during this period, and its his extensive, if odd collection. Some of these recordings date back to the mid-1970's.

Until around 1992, the cassettes were rotated monthly. Then, they were replaced weekly. Finally sometime around 1993, satellite programming was introduced which eliminated the need for these tapes altogether. The older tapes contain canned elevator music with instrumental renditions of songs. Then, the songs became completely mainstream around 1991. All of them have advertisements every few songs.

He notes that the monthly tapes were very, very, worn and rippled at the time they were converted to MP3 files. He says that's because they ran for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week on auto-reverse. If you do the math, assuming that each tape is 30 minutes per side, that's over 800 passes over a tape head each month.

Still, for anyone interested in this peculiar collection of background music that played in K-Mart stores during that era, this collection might be worth listening to.

Visit the full "Attention K-Mart Shoppers" collection at https://archive.org/details/attentionkmartshoppers for this rather unusual collection.

For a sample of what's contained in this collection (this one from October 1989), listen to the embedded post below, or visit https://archive.org/details/KmartOctober1989 for the recording.

November 30, 2018

Vintage Typewriters Never Die, They're Reincarnated

Perhaps some readers have seen re-runs of the old 1980's television hit show "Murder, She Wrote" which was broadcast for an impressive 12 seasons from 1984-1996, and won countless awards along the way. The show starred actress Angela Lansbury who played the main character Jessica Fletcher, and Mrs. Fletcher was a mystery writer.

Coincidentally, Ms. Lansbury's hit TV show emerged at roughly the same time as her very good friend Bea Arthur who also had a hit TV series called "The Golden Girls" which aired from 1985-1992 and was another show that featured more mature women as the central characters (I've addressed that show HERE). The two actresses met one another when they co-starred in the Broadway musical "Mame" in 1966 (both women won Tony Awards that year), and they remained lifelong friends until Ms. Arthur passed away in 2009.

The opening of "Murder, She Wrote" featured the character Mrs. Fletcher producing a murder-mystery manuscript on a vintage typewriter, at least until Jessica got with the times and started using a word processor during last few seasons of the show which were recorded in the 1990's.

A video showing the intro to Season 4 of that "Murder, She Wrote"  can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/gSxQXOYnGUI:



Vintage Typewriters Have Found a Robust Market in 2013 and Beyond

In any event, the idea of authors (and non-authors) using old, mechanical typewriters is hardly fiction. For example, it's been reported that actor and producer Tom Hanks is a very big collector of vintage typewriters.  In 2013, he wrote an ode to the vintage typewriter published in the New York Times (see https://nyti.ms/2Q78O5D for his piece).  On October 15, 2017, he told "CBS Sunday Morning" that a book he released entitled "Uncommon Type" was a collection of 17 short stories in which typewriters were supporting characters, and that was entirely on purpose he says. See the transcript of the segment featuring his typewriters and him at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-hanks-uncommon-type/ and the video at https://www.cbs.com/shows/cbs-sunday-morning/video/MfE6Mrff_TwfGuZQmEZ3wgy9CG_3w16Z/tom-hanks-typewriter-enthusiast/ (or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/UTtDb73NkNM if you wish).



CBS Sunday Morning observed "Funny that a guy who's name is synonymous with "You've Got Mail" [the 1998 film Mr. Hanks starred in, along with Meg Ryan] loves something even more vintage than AOL itself."

Mr. Hanks' personal typewriter collection is reportedly now more than 100 vintage typewriters, most having been completely restored to beautiful, working condition and before he passed away, CBS News' Morley Safer brought his typewriter to one store Mr. Hanks frequents -- at least, so said the index card on file at Gramercy Typewriter in New York City, a business that restores and sells vintage typewriters which has seen a booming business in recent years.

The reasons for their newfound popularity are varied, but many writers say its because the machines were an integral part of the creative process. Tom Hanks said "There's a percussive quality to writing sometimes, you know?"

But Tom Hanks may be a good public persona representing what is undoubtedly a national trend.  Indeed, all across the country, many sellers of reconditioned, old typewriters are reporting a very robust business, with some like Gramercy in NYC even gaining prominent national news coverage. The trend has even spawned a new business of selling typewriter-like modern keyboards and even retrofitting old typewriters to function as a modern-day computer keyboards.

Newer Pseudo Typewriters Aim to Fill a Void Left By More Modern Computers

Its worth mentioning that the original 1874 Sholes & Glidden typewriters established the "QWERTY" layout for the letter keys and the QWERTY layout of keys has become the de facto standard for English-language typewriter and computer keyboards, including many found on touch-screen keyboards in mobile phones and tablets used even today. Other languages written in the Latin alphabet sometimes use variants of the QWERTY layouts, such as the French AZERTY, the Italian QZERTY and the German QWERTZ layouts. Hence, the lasting legacy of old typewriters remain very much with us even today.

A fair number of accomplished writers, in spite of the advent of modern-day word processing which has made manuscript revisions and corrections far easier, still had a fondness for manual typewriters. As noted, many explain it as being an integral part of their creative process. The unique feel of tapping the keys, and the sounds associated with manual typewriters are part of it, and many writers were reluctant to completely abandon that aspect of the creative process. That said, there is still no denying the unique advantages of word processing programs, such as the ability to incorporate many revisions easily and produce a perfectly printed hard-copies with said revisions in just minutes.

To address the fondness for not-so-new technology that so many rely upon, the market has responded. For example, a typewriter-inspired mechanical keyboard called the Qwerkywriter Bluetooth keyboard was an unexpected Kickstarter success story in 2015, and it has seen some commercial success. In essence, it enables the use of modern, tablet computers much like an old-fashioned, manual typewriter. Bustle featured an article on the topic at https://www.bustle.com/articles/59728-5-typewriters-and-typewriter-ish-apps-that-are-fit-for-21st-century-writers-to-compose-their-masterpieces which is worth reading.


In the original pitch, the Qwerkywriter was proposed to come with both USB and Bluetooth connections, but only the latter made it into the final version. Some early complaints about the Qwerkywriter keyboard were that the tablet dock made it kind of difficult for users to actually read what they were typing, and some Apple fans complained their home keys were blocked in the initial version (Android users had similar issues). However, most of those issues have since been successfully addressed, and users find these retro-styled keyboards pleasingly heavy, weighing several pounds so they do not slide around one's desktop, and are made from solid aluminum that's covered in a matte black powder paint, similar to many old typewriters. Apps enabling vintage typewriter sound-effects are also available (Tom Hanks had something to do with one app called Hanx Writer, too!).

A recording of the sound of typing on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter (visit HERE for the source page) can be listened to below.



Knockoffs Proliferate


Naturally, the successful idea inspired a number of knockoffs, including some significantly cheaper versions, and while the Qwerkywriter and rivals including the Azio retro classic computer keyboard, the Elretron PENNA keyboard cost several hundred dollars, some cheap knockoffs made in China, including a few models from Logitech, can be found for as little as $35, although the cheap knockoffs aren't nearly as sturdy/heavy so they don't feel as solid to use, and critics say you get what you pay for. While the manufactures promote the idea of using their keyboards with smartphones, the idea of watching a tiny screen is lost on many would-be buyers, most of whom find tablet computers far more compelling, but if kids will fork over $300 to use a typewriter keyboard with an iPhone, I guess they won't complain too much.

Meanwhile, other companies including the USB Typewriter offer conversion kits to actually retrofit old vintage typewriters to function as virtual keyboards that will work with iPad, Android, Microsoft Surface tablet computers as well as PC's and Macs, which not only address the limited Bluetooth connectivity with a USB connection (they also sell retro-fitted old typewriters as keyboards), but the conversion kits also enable trusted old typewriters that users are very comfortable with to continue functioning, only with newer capabilities. Even a startup with the old Royal Typewriter name has since gotten into the space.


In some respects, these are just different variations on the theme of retro themed landline phone services via the internet through providers like Vonage, Ooma and Google Voice/Obihai-Polycom did by enabling low-cost computer VoIP calling among households to go mainstream, no longer exclusively limited to big corporate buyers (catch my post on that topic HERE). That technology, specifically VoIP-enabled calling is far bigger than old analog PBX systems were and yes, bigger than smartphones, plus its cheaper. The reality is that the landline telephone isn't dead no matter what Apple or Samsung would have us believe, although it's no longer the central means of communications with the outside world among all households.

So are the retro-styled keyboards a genuine restoration of the creative process facilitated by older technology, or is it merely an expensive gadget for a generation unfamiliar with the older technologies? The answer is perhaps a little of both. Whether these inspire creativity the manual typewriter did for generations of writers remains to be seen.

November 1, 2018

Queen Biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" Opens

This week (on November 2, 2018), the Queen biopic movie known as "Bohemian Rhapsody" opens in the U.S. Its a story about the entire band, but the group's lead singer and front man known by the name of Freddie Mercury is really the central focus.


Freddie Mercury was actually born Farrokh Bulsara. He was of Parsi descent, which is an ethnic group in India whose origins are in what is considered present-day Iran, but the group fled religious persecution in Persia (Iran), and ended up in what is now India. His given name is Parsian in origin. However, while some of his formative years were spent in India, Freddie Mercury was actually born in what was then the British protectorate of Zanzibar in present-day Tanzania on the African continent. He lived there (as well as in India) before he, his parents, and his younger sister moved to England when he was just a teenager.

Queen was a global superstar rock group back in the 1970's into the early 1980's. The group dominated the charts across the English-speaking world, with a string of radio hits including the signature song for which this biopic film was named, as well as "We are the Champions", "Another One Bites the Dust", "Somebody to Love", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and others which continue to be played even today. Front man Freddie Mercury was the lead singer, and also a songwriter for the band. He was known to have a four-octave vocal range. The band Queen also enjoyed a brief U.S. resurgence in popularity following the release of the 1992 movie "Wayne's World", which featured "Bohemian Rhapsody" in its soundtrack.

The "Bohemian Rhapsody" biopic covers the years between the formation of Queen by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, telling the story of the beginnings of the band, up until their show-stealing performance at the LiveAid concert in 1985. The audio for the classic rock song "Bohemian Rhapsody" can be listened to below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/BohemianRhapsody_337:


Actor Rami Malek was ultimately cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury, and most reviews suggest that he is a key reason the film worked as well as it did.

Actor Rami Malek, who portrays Freddie Mercury in the movie "Bohemian Rhapsody"
about the rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury on October 1, 2018.
Photo credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images for 20th Century Fox
Originally, Freddie Mercury was to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known for his comedic characters Borat, Ali G, and Brüno. But in 2013, Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of the role due to creative differences with the remaining members of Queen. Cohen reportedly wanted a more realistic, R-rated look at the band and Freddie Mercury's life, while the band preferred going for a PG tone. They reportedly parted on good terms, but the band felt that Cohen's presence would have been distracting. In 2017, Rami Malek was chosen to play Freddie Mercury. Malek is actually an American actor of Egyptian and Greek descent, but his physical characteristics made him a very credible choice for the role, and he has been credited with an excellent depiction of the singer, too. There is slightly less media focus on the other band members, although given that several of them were involved in the casting and production, we can presume most of the original Queen band-members were satisfied with their portrayals.

There has been plenty of criticism about the "Bohemian Rhapsody" including the filmmakers' largely ignoring front man Freddie Mercury's sexuality. In fact, the criticism for attempting to "straight-wash" the rock icon has merit: "Bohemian Rhapsody" devotes considerable screen time to Freddie Mercury's romance with Mary Austin — the woman he wrote the hit song "Love of My Life" about — before it even starts to address his many relationships with men near the halfway part of the movie.

As the Guardian's Steve Rose touched upon the subject (see the review at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/23/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-biopic-bites-the-dust for details), stating: "Unforgivably, Bohemian Rhapsody casts Mercury's wilderness years as a symptom of his gayness. We see the solo Mercury in Munich, drug-addled, shorn of his real friends and exploited by his new ones, who are mostly leather-clad, party-happy men. It reduces Mercury's homosexuality to a tutting "he's got in with the wrong crowd".

Forbes' Scott Mendelson was even less kind in his review, which had the headline "'Bohemian Rhapsody' Review: Freddie Mercury Gets Slut-Shamed In Homophobic Biopic" (see that review at
https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/10/24/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-gets-slut-shamed-in-homophobic-biopic/ for detail), saying:

"It is a painfully by-the-numbers biopic, squeezing the narrative into a 'Walk Hard' box while struggling with the simple fact that (at least as portrayed in this film) Freddie Mercury's life wasn't all that cinematic. Just because someone makes great art and has an interesting personality doesn't mean they merit a narrative feature film based on their life and exploits. When Mercury and his bandmates are working their magic, the movie will rock you. But when its going through the biopic motions, you won't be having a good time."

Mendelsohn has a point; there are parts of the movie that are excellent (such as the performances), but there are also parts that are not as good. Whether that means the film is homophobic is probably a mischaracterization. There is no doubt Mercury was definitely a product of his era: during the '70's and '80's, in spite of being post-Stonewall, true equality in terms of socially acceptable behavior and sexual orientation were still quite different than today. The late pianist and showman Liberace (catch my post on his biopic at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/05/steven-soderberghs-newest-movie-depicts.html for more) was a product of the earlier part of that era, whereas Freddie Mercury was a product of the latter part of that era. Gay and bisexual performers, and assuredly transgendered performers (although few of the latter had very big careers in show business) were expected to, and generally did, live closeted lives.

In fact, Mercury is known to have had sex with both men and women, and the filmmakers were doing a biopic of the band Queen over a 15-year period, not a detailed expose of the front man's personal sex life. However, there's no getting around the fact that Mr. Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 due to complications from AIDS, having publicly confirmed that he'd contracted the disease just one day before his death. According to his male partner Jim Hutton, Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in late April 1987. During his lifetime, he was also known to have frequented many gay leather bars in across Europe, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, so he wasn't truly closeted. The handlebar mustache he wore during the LiveAid concert (which would be one of his last public performances) was also a popular look among the gay leathermen crowd in the 1980's.

However, upon his death, Freddie Mercury did end up leaving his London home to Mary Austin in his will (which was a 28-room Georgian mansion set in a quarter-acre manicured garden surrounded by a high brick wall), which she'd picked out for him, rather than to his male partner Jim Hutton, saying to Ms. Austin, "You would have been my wife, and it would have been yours anyway."

Other criticisms include, of all things, the teeth that actor Rami Malek wore in the film. NPR's Glen Weldon had this to say (see the NPR review at https://n.pr/2zkjrv6) about those:

"They're ... something, those teeth. They distend Malek's upper lip, just as the real ones did Freddie Mercury's — more, actually; it's not so much an overbite as an überbite."

Aside from criticism of teeth (of all things), NPR acknowledged:

"Early worries that the film might elide Mercury's queerness prove unfounded, mostly. Sort of. True, his long romance with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) is presented as the one relationship in his life that he clings to — but that feels less like a desire to whitewash his gayness and more like an attempt to address the very believable possibility that a gay man of his time and place, with his upbringing, would find himself reluctant to abandon a relationship that represented a life he'd been brought up to expect for himself."

Regardless of his sexual orientation being bi, gay or straight, the real question becomes whether this biopic is a realistic view which can be squeezed into a two hour movie. The movie aims to chronicle the 15-year period between their formation as a band and their famous performance at LiveAid at Wembley Stadium in 1985.  That LiveAid performance can be seen below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/20180315020139:



As noted, actor Rami Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury has been praised almost universally. Mr. Malek played Elliot Alderson for a second season in USA Network's psychological drama "Mr. Robot". The actor, whose credits also include "Short Term 12" and "The Master", won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama in 2016. In spite of those credits, he remains relatively unknown, which may be his biggest advantage. When audiences don't know what to expect from an actor, they won't be disappointed. But as noted, the reviews of his performance as Freddie Mercury have been overwhelmingly positive.

In any event, there is certainly enough in the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" to merit watching it. Whether its a perfect depiction will ultimately be up to the viewers. I suspect the feelings will be mixed, but Mr. Malek's performance will ensure the actor will get consideration for future movie and television roles.  The "Bohemian Rhapsody" movie preview is available below, or by visiting https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/bohemian-rhapsody or https://youtu.be/mP0VHJYFOAU:



October 23, 2018

Judy Blume Goes to Hollywood With Her Books

I blogged about author Judy Blume back in early June 2012 (catch my post HERE). At the time, she was still very interested in censorship which was a central focus of her early career. But movies and television shows of her work wasn't really on her radar.  Well, there was news in mid-October 2018 that Judy Blume is finally letting Hollywood have a crack at one of her most iconic works. That work is the book "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret". The prolific author (who published has 30 books), just turned 80 in February 2018, and has famously been opposed to screen adaptations of her works, with just two exceptions: the 1978 TV movie adaptation of "Forever", and the 2012 adaptation of "Tiger Eyes", both of which were, in the words of Vanity Fair journalist Yohana Desta "largely forgettable", which may explain her reluctance to try it again.

Photo: Getty Images
As per reporting from Deadline , the author has given director Kelly Fremon Craig and producer James L. Brooks the green light to adapt "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" about a young girl navigating puberty and the pains of growing up into a movie. Fremon Craig will write and direct the adaptation; Brooks will produce under his Gracie Films banner.

This marks the first time Judy Blume has ever granted the movie rights to her novel. But back in August 2018, the author herself Tweeted that she had a change of heart, and that she was taking meetings in Los Angeles to see which of her books could potentially be made into films or TV series.
The initial winner of a movie deal was "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" although its possible others will be coming, too -- either in movie form, or television (or some combination). The book "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" was originally published back in 1970 as a young adult novel, but it meant much more to an entire generation of preadolescent girls looking for answers and a sense they weren't alone as childhood turned into a tumultuous something else. At that time, books were available for young people, while parents were getting divorced and mothers entered the workforce en masse, leaving many kids of that era alone. The subject matter might seem tame by today's standards, but it stood alone in its time, and there were even calls over the years for it to be banned from libraries. It is also among Time's list of the top 100 fiction books written in English since 1923.

The issues addressed in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" were real problems girls of that era couldn't really discuss with anyone: when would they reach puberty and get their periods? Should they pad their bras, and what to do about the boys they were crushing on? Margaret is a sixth grader who moves from New York City to Farbrook, New Jersey (the character Peter Hatcher and his family from the book "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" also move to suburban Princeton, New Jersey from NYC in the sequel "Superfudge". Ms. Blume herself is from New Jersey, although she spent several years as a child living in Miami, Florida). Anyway, her character Margaret is raised by a religiously indifferent Christian mother and Jewish father, she prays to a God she imagines is watching over her. In addition to a search for faith, she is curious about upcoming changes in her own body and forms a secret club with four other girls where they discuss subjects like boys, bras, and periods.

Judy Blume, of course, wrote far more books than ones aimed exclusively at adolescent girls, even if those were among her bestsellers. As noted, her seminal book "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" spoke to young boys (about my age; I was in third grade when it was released) about the trials of living with a younger "baby" brother who sucks all of the attention and air out of a room because he's younger, cuter child proved that she could reach a range of children's ages with her works.

As far as the soon-to-be-made-into-a-movie "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret", over the years Judy Blume has offered a lot of comments (see her blog post for more) about how that particular book was updated to reflect how just months after the book was released, old sanitary belts women of that era used became obsolete when adhesive strip pads hit the market, and it was an editor in the UK who suggested that Margaret should trade in those belts and pads for the new, more friendly feminine products. Judy Blume herself never dreamed it was even possible to revise a book that had already been published to reflect changes in the market for feminine sanitary products.

She has gone on the record as saying that she does not want to see her characters age. She told NPR (see https://www.npr.org/2018/02/12/584561888/at-80-judy-blume-reflects-on-feminism-metoo-and-letting-margaret-grow-up for reference):

"I don't want to rewrite anything. My characters are who they are. For years, people have written and asked me to let Margaret go through menopause. And it's like, "Hey guys! Margaret is 12 and she is going to stay 12. That's who she is." No, I don't want to rewrite any of them."

That said, we CAN expect to see her timeless characters brought to life in movie format soon. However, I would say that Ms. Blume herself is likely applying the lessons she learned from her early experience, and now she's able to chose producers and people to produce her works (perhaps even having more of a say in casting, sets, etc.) that SHE wants to work with, which means the latest iteration of Judy Blume books-turned-films are likely to be somewhat different than her initial experiences.

While I won't necessarily be waiting for the release of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret", I will wait until we see a "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" and "Superfudge" or one of the two later sequels (which I had outgrown by the time of their release; besides, instead of being about older brother Peter, they were about the younger brother Fudge) film or TV show made. Still, I wonder if now that I've had 40 more years of life behind me if my recollections and emotions with her books will be the same, or whether others will have similar experiences?  We shall find out soon enough!

See also:

http://judyblume.com/

https://judyblumeofficial.tumblr.com/

October 17, 2018

Internet Archive Emulator for Atari 2600 Activision Pitfall!

As we head into the holiday season about 2 months from now, again I'm mining the digital treasure trove of the nonprofit organization Internet Archive, this time for home video game console systems and library of different games that worked with each console which first emerged in the late 1970's.


Home video game console systems continue to be produced today even if the companies selling them have changed (for example, Microsoft sells XBox consoles, and Sony sells the popular PlayStation gaming system, each in different iterations over time), plus Japan-based Nintendo continues to operate in the space, too.

Since this blog deals mainly with retro content, I won't be discussing any of the present purveyors of home video game consoles. But, I will address a few contained in the Internet Archive's Console Living Room (catch their December 2013 blog post at https://blog.archive.org/2013/12/26/a-second-christmas-morning-the-console-living-room/ for details), including companies with names like Coleco, Atari, Philips/Magnavox Odyssey 2 (the latter two were brands of the same if memory serves me correctly), and Mattel Intellivision (legal challenges from the litigious Mattel Corporation means that particular library will not be included in this collection).  Those are definitely games from my generation, and thanks to Internet Archive, even though the old hardware may now be history, their games live on -- online (FREE!), and are open to anyone with a web browser thanks to emulation.

Like the Internet Archive's Historical Software collection, its Console Living Room is in still technically in beta. Its very much a work-in-process, and new emulators are being developed all the time. At some point, we are likely to see much better cataloging of the content there, with relevant search functionality, instructions for using each game on the web, game documentation, etc. Right now, because its still in beta, most of those things are still missing.

Each home video game system console has its own history and games they were best known for. The Atari Video Computer System (or VCS) was originally released on September 11, 1977 (yes, on 9/11), but was re-named Atari 2600 in 1982.  It is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and games contained on ROM cartridges. Newer home video game consoles such as Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's XBox use CD-ROM's for games which are cheaper and easier to produce, and a very lucrative secondary market for buying and selling used games exists as of 2018, which has helped perpetuate their popularity.

In any event, while creating emulators of the original home video game consoles remains a work-in-progress, a number are there now and are working very well. Recall that while Atari (under its ownership of Warner Communications in the early 1980's) made some of its own games, many of its more popular ones were "ports" from other video game manufacturers who developed them (Atari 2600 being an under-powered system is often criticized for poor graphics and sound quality; the company's later generation machine the Atari 7800 was considered a big upgrade, and the game library here reflects those improvements), but third-party software developers quickly entered the space, and some of their games are considered among the best ever released on those game platforms.

One such company is still very much in business as a gaming company today: Activision, which began in 1978, the year after Atari released its original home video game console. Its signature game has been released, re-released, released as part of collections, and included on dozens of platforms (including phones). Yet Activision has largely resisted efforts to make the original Pitfall! game online, except on very limited occasions. That said, apparently, because Internet Archive is using open-code software in its emulator models, evidently, the company isn't fighting its effort, which is good for end-users.

For its time, Pitfall! was a revolutionary and original game. It showed video game audiences that a cartridge could let you walk, run, jump, swing, and climb. Players were given an expansive area in which they could explore while avoiding dangerous obstacles. Pitfall! also gave the player a goal to collect treasure within a specific amount of time. All of these elements were new and original in 1982, and it paved the way for future video games. On top of this, Pitfall! featured impressive graphics, animation, and a unique sound system.


Pitfall! was originally conceived and designed by David Crane while at Activision, who graduated from the De Vry School of Technology in 1972. After first working at Atari, David Crane and three of his fellow game designers left to start their own company called Activision. Before too long, David found himself designing Pitfall! at his new company. "The idea took all of ten minutes," David remarked. "It was a simple idea - a man running in a jungle. But, it spawned a genre of side-scrolling games. It was the beginning of a genre. Also, I guess people just remembered it as being neat."

Once upon a time, one website had an Adobe Shockwave player version of the game online. But most old Adobe software, while functional, tended to be bug-ridden and were banned by many IT departments because it didn't always play nice with Windows or server software.  More recently, Adobe has migrated virtually all of its software library online. Regardless, the Shockwave version of the Pitfall! game itself has since been removed from the site, but there's still (for the time being) some relevant Adobe Flash-based history there, and it has some interesting background still which can be found at http://www.langleycreations.com/pitfall/ if you're interested.

Aside from that, a few other things I felt were worth sharing here.

First, an original television Commercial for Pitfall! from Internet Archive. The quality isn't great, but its one of the few out there and is worth a look. That can be viewed below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/Pitfall_1982_Activision.



AtariAge also has a lot of great documentation for the original Activision Pitfall! found online -- I find it a little bit cumbersome to navigate. For example, each page of the original manual is scanned as a separate jpg file. Format aside, the manual can be found at http://atariage.com/manual_thumbs.php?SoftwareLabelID=360 but is still worth a visit.

As for the relevant user details on playing the game, while the manual has most of those, some are a tiny bit different than the old Atari 2600 in a web browser-based environment (for example, most people don't have joystick controllers as the old Atari system had), and as noted, once its out of beta, we can expect Internet Archive will have this stuff cleaned up, documented and readily available. Right now, in Pitfall! parlance "It's a Jungle Out There!" so I've assembled the most relevant components here, followed by the game itself.

Instructions for Playing Pitfall! Online in an Internet Web Browser

The object of Pitfall! is to guide Harry through a maze of jungle scenes, jumping over or avoiding many deadly dangers, and helping Harry grab the most treasures in the shortest possible time.

GETTING UNDERWAY

1. Use of Keyboard Controls:

Although the following details have not (YET) been documented by Internet Archive (which one would expect once its no longer in beta format), but the following have been discovered by users and are worth sharing here.

  • Ctrl - To jump
  • Arrow Key Up - To move up
  • Arrow Key Down - To move down
  • Arrow Key Left - To move left
  • Arrow Key Right - To move right
  • P - To Pause Game
  • C - To cycle the game from Color to Black and White

2. Scoring. You start each adventure with 2000 points. If you fall down a hole, you will lose 100 points. Rolling logs also cause point loss; how much depends on how long contact is made with them.

Finding treasure earns you points. There are eight of each type of treasure in the game, 32 in all, worth a total of 112,000 points. Collect them all without losing any points for falling down holes or tripping on logs and you'll have earned a perfect score - 114,000!

Some misfortunes will cause a deduction of points.  Should you fall down a hole by accident, you will lose 100 points.  Rolling logs will also cause point loss depending on how long contact is made with them. Each treasure you find will add points to your score.  There are eight of each type of treasure in the entire game, 32 in all, for a total of 112,000 points.  A perfect score is 114,000 points (reached by collecting all treasures. without losing any points by falling down holes or tripping on logs).
  •  DIAMOND RING = 5000 POINTS
  •  GOLD BAR = 4000 POINTS
  •  SILVER BAR = 3000 POINTS
  •  MONEY BAG = 2000 POINTS
Below is an image I took of the various "treasures" you'll likely encounter during game-play.


3. Time. You have 20 minutes to complete each adventure. Pitfall Harry begins each game with three lives (see "Perils of Pitfall" below). Game ends when time runs out or Harry loses all three lives.

PERILS OF PITFALL!

Pitfall Harry's Jungle Adventure involves great danger. Some hazards slow him down, robbing you of points; others stop him cold. The "inconvenient" hazards are open holes in the ground and rolling logs (see "Scoring" above). The "catastrophic" hazards include scorpions, fires, cobras, crocodiles, swamps, quicksand and tar pits. These obstacles will not cost you any points, but they will cost Harry one of his three lives.

STRATEGY TIPS FROM DAVID CRANE, ORIGINAL DESIGNER OF PITFALL! FOR ATARI 2600

"As you set off on your first adventure with Harry, you'll notice two important features: The logs always roll from right to left, and the 'replacement' Harrys (after Harry loses a life) drop from trees on the left side of the screen. So, to minimize the number of rolling logs to be jumped, and the catastopic hazards to be re-tried, simply run to the left.

"Pitfall Harry's trip must be made through a maze of surface and underground passages through the jungle. To capture all 32 treasures in under twenty minutes, Harry will have to use some of the underground passages. I'd suggest that you make a map of the terrain each time you play. Knowing the jungle and planning the best route to all the treasures is the only way to ensure success time after time.

"Until you get really skilled at making Harry jump from croc to croc, you might wait until the crocodiles jaws are closed, jump to the top of the first croc's head, then wait for the jaws to open and close again before jumping to the next one. Soon, you'll be skipping across crocs like they were stepping stones in a stream.

"If you find any writing materials deep in the jungle, drop me a line. I'd love to hear how you and Harry are getting along."

David Crane

As David Crane suggested about the map, several users at the AtariAge website had a dialogue about a big map for Pitfall! that had been developed by users years earlier, and one user recommended a location where the full map of the playing area for Pitfall! is still available.  Keep in mind that while the main playing area represents a single screen of the game, by going to the lower levels, you can skip several of the main screens (sometimes a dozen at a time!), although you may also give up the ability to capture some treasures above to boost your score. There are "catastrophic" hazards found at the lower levels, so beware. Then again, if you're pressed for time (the game only runs for 20 minutes), its a way of more rapidly moving through the jungle -- just beware that some underground passageways are dead ends, which would waste your time.  Because its useful reference, I'm including the complete Pitfall! jungle map below, or you can still visit it online at http://pitfallharry.tripod.com/MapRoom/PitfallMap.html if you prefer.


So, without any other boring text, below are the emulators on file with Internet Archive's Console Living Room for the Atari 2600 (which can be accessed at  https://archive.org/details/atari_2600_library if you want to check out all of the other games for that system), and the original Activision Pitfall! emulator can be found below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/atari_2600_pitfall_1983_cce_c-813. My biggest disappointment is that when users share the emulator content, the full-screen game play is not enabled, while it is slightly better at Internet Archive's own pages. But the game itself, like my posts for the emulators of handheld games including Texas Instruments Speak & Spell and Parker Brothers Merlin: The Electronic Wizard, the game will load up on desktop computer browsers by clicking on the image below. I'm less clear how functional (if at all) those are on mobile browsers, which are often stripped-down versions of the real thing.  Still, with the stuff above, there should be enough for users to have some fun. Try not to waste too much time!

Again, I'll list the key browser controls here:
  • Ctrl - To jump
  • Arrow Key Up - To move up
  • Arrow Key Down - To move down
  • Arrow Key Left - To move left
  • Arrow Key Right - To move right
  • P - To Pause Game
  • C - To cycle the game from Color to Black and White

October 11, 2018

The Return of 80's Music Icon: Steve Perry

On Friday, October 5, 2018, a brand new album titled "Traces" was released. What made that album so unusual was that it was from an artist who, in spite of having earned 3 Grammy's over his career, plus having received another nomination as part of the band he fronted from 1977 to 1987, and again from 1995 to 1998, along with a successful solo career between the mid-1980's and mid-1990's, is that its coming from someone who hasn't released any music in almost a quarter century (way back in 1994). "Traces" is the 2018 album release from former "Journey" frontman Steve Perry.

As noted, Mr. Perry released his last solo album in the early 1990's, and he then briefly reunited with his former band "Journey" a few years later for an album but no tour, but he has otherwise been completely absent from the public eye since then -- and it was all by his personal choice. Back in the 1980's, "Journey" didn't just rule the charts or the road, evidently they also had their own video game (by that time, I was kind of over video games), but I'll trust those who said it was true (see HERE).

CBS Sunday Morning recently asked him (without the mullet!) about what he was hoping for when he originally joined "Journey", and his response was as follows: "I just wanted to write music with the guys that mattered," the 69-year-old said, "that people would love and embrace and take into their hearts. There's nothing else that meant more to me than to be part of that." Incidentally, the CBS Sunday television interview was previously located at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/steve-perry-how-the-former-journey-singer-started-believin-again/ or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/iig-XR35qXw, and although the video portion is now gone, the article remains.

Steve Perry's unique story after being at the height of music industry success in the 1980's with sold-out national concerts, being at the top of the Billboard music charts is unique. In 1987, he left "Journey" at the height of the band's fame and had a somewhat difficult personal period that followed shortly after, during which he couldn't even listen to music, much less sing it.

He said needed to leave music in order to find himself. Of course, by abandoning the trappings of a celebrity lifestyle, his previous success enabled him to live comfortably without working, something many others don't have the luxury of. More typically, we hear stories of successful musicians being destroyed by a lifestyle of spending combined with alcohol, drugs and casual sex addictions.

None of that happened to Steve Perry.

He dropped out and avoided the cycle of self-destruction that ruins so many others in the music business. Steve Perry comes from California's San Joaquin Valley in Central California (specifically, the town of Hanford), which is miles away from the big urban areas on the coast, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, or San Diego. Its home to the state's massive agricultural industry, but is anything but Hollywood. The main towns of California's San Joaquin Valley are pretty ordinary locales such as Fresno and Stockton, which are decent-sized, but lack much to make them big tourist draws to the Golden State.

But along Steve Perry's way, he also found a type of contentment that being a rock celebrity did not bring him: he had a life-changing relationship with a woman named Kellie Nash whom he later married, and Perry says she made him feel loved for the first time, so he found a much deeper meaning as husband before his wife unfortunately passed away in 2012 from cancer.

He told NPR that his wife said to him: "Honey, I need to ask you a favor." Perry said "What's that?" She asked if he would make her a promise. "She said if something was to ever happen to her, she asked him to promise that he would not go back into isolation." She said "I just got a feeling it would make this [relationship] all for naught."

As a result of the promise he made to his wife before she died in 2012, the music that was finally written and ultimately recorded in his new album — about four, five years ago when Steve Perry first started writing it – and about three years ago, when he started recording it — and it was rooted in keeping the promise he had made to his wife.

In September 2018, he told NPR (see "Steve Perry Makes His Return" HERE or listen below):
  "She gave me so much. ... How would a guy like me really know if someone loves them? How would I really know? When you're sitting in front of a beautiful woman who's got better things to do than waste her time and looks at you and says she loves you, you have to feel that because it's pretty evident that she has better things to do than to waste her and my time. I have to feel it. I have to believe it. I must say that was the first time ever that I felt loved.

In October 2018, he was promoting his new album, and he returned to NPR for another interview. He told NPR that one of the songs on the album, "Most Of All," was written for his now-deceased wife Kellie Nash before he even met her.

"A heart isn't really complete until it's completely broken and mine was completely broken after I lost her," Perry said. "But that became the good news because from that came joy and songs and ideas." Listen to that full interview (see "Steve Perry's New Life: 'I've Rediscovered The Passion For Music'" at https://www.npr.org/2018/10/03/654034814/steve-perrys-new-life-i-ve-rediscovered-the-passion-for-music or below.
  As to the sound of Steve Perry's new songs, and his voice, Rolling Stone magazine had some thoughts on that. It said (see https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/review-steve-perry-is-still-a-believer-on-traces-732901/ for its coverage):

"[Steve] Perry’s voice is still elastic, but it’s huskier, scratchier and, at its worst, hoarser than it was in his glory years. Given his age, 69 years old, it's in good shape but it’s still surprising, mostly because we haven't heard from him in decades."

Adding: "Moreover, it tends to stay in a sad place and rarely picks up – "Sun Shines Gray" is the hardest rocking song on the standard edition, though the bonus tracks on the deluxe version offer a few more upbeat numbers.

The song from his newest album entitled "No Erasin'" (the title sounds like a tribute to his wife) that is expected to get some decent airplay from radio stations looking for something different to make them more relevant again in this era of personal iPods, Spotify and other subscription music services.

The "No Erasin'"video can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/Oawl9e-tFVM:



NPR said that the track sounds and feels like the kind of stadium rock songs "Journey" was known for. But Perry told NPR he doesn't see this as an issue. "That would be a beautiful problem, if I could sound like the old Steve Perry, at this point. Honey, 'cause I ain't no spring chicken," he said.

From my perspective, it's entertaining enough, and it's what made Steve Perry and "Journey" popular in the first place. Although the underlying songs are sad, I would concur with Rolling Stone's observation:

Many of the songs are too cloying for their own good, but in a weird way that’s what you want from Steve Perry – you want to feel and remember. By that definition, Traces lives up to its title and offers reminders of Perry’s might. When he sings, "No more cryin', 'cause I wont' love again, I won't, I won’t, I won't" on "No More Cryin'," he sings it in a way that makes you believe him.

October 2, 2018

Milton Bradley's Merlin:The Electronic Wizard

Since my previous post (also refer HERE for my very first post) was on the iconic Texas Instruments' Speak & Spell electronic teaching game, today I thought it might be worthwhile to post something else from the Internet Archive's Handheld History Collection (catch the original blog post for the introduction at http://blog.archive.org/2018/03/18/some-very-entertaining-plastic-emulated-at-the-archive/) that was slightly less educational, and a bit more fun.


Today, I'll be covering the original Parker Brothers' Merlin (sometimes known as Merlin, the Electronic Wizard).  Subsequent, more advanced versions of this toy, such as Master Merlin are considered different products and will not be addressed here, although some can also be found in Internet Archive's Handheld History Collection.

During the late 1970's and into the early 1980's, hand held electronic games became very popular with children of that era.  Traditional board game manufacturers were forced to enter that market with their own electronic games.  Mattel, for example, introduced its handheld electronic Football, Baseball, Basketball and Hockey to some success, before transitioning to video game system known as Intellivision that could be played from a television set.

Toy maker Milton Bradley was perhaps best known for making such low-tech board game classics such as Battleship, the dice game Yahtzee, and the checkers game Connect Four.  That company released the Simon electronic game in 1978, which was fairly late in the electronic games movement. Yet by 1980, Simon had still become that company's best-selling item.

I want to acknowledge here that both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers both ultimately ended up as units of Rhode Island-based toy giant Hasbro, Inc. which competes aggressively with California-based Mattel for the title of the world's largest toy manufacturer.

Parker Brothers was another old-school board game manufacturer also based in Massachusetts best known as the seller of such board game classics as Monopoly, Ouija, and Clue.  Its entry into the electronic games arena began in 1978.  The original Merlin was for a time its bestselling handheld electronic game.

The play area of the game consisted of a matrix of 11 membrane, touch-responsive buttons; each button contained a red LED which each illuminated depending on the game selected for play. The array was encased in a red/maroon-colored plastic housing, bearing a slight resemblance to an overgrown touch-tone telephone.  Four game-selection and control buttons were also placed at the bottom of the unit; and a speaker took up the top section.  There was also a port for an A/C adapter (which sold separately), because it used six AA alkaline batteries.

Merlin's key point of differentiation from other hand held electronic games of that same era was that it was designed to play several different games, rather than one game exclusively.  Merlin supported six different games, some of which could be played against the computer or against another person. The games that could be selected were: Tic tac toe, Music machine, Echo which was a repeat game similar to Milton Bradley's Simon, Blackjack 13 which was a version of blackjack that functioned with only 9 digits so users would play for a maximum hand value of 13 rather than 21, Magic square which was a pattern game similar to Lights Out, and Mindbender which was supposed to be similar to the game known as Mastermind.

Each of the main keys corresponded with a number, akin to the dial pads found on a smartphone.  The numbers that correspond to each key are relevant for game play.  For example, each game in the hand held unit corresponded to numbers 1-6.  Also, in Blackjack 13, the user must keep count of their hand and the number assigned to each key are their total for their hand in the game, plus the Music machine game, the songs are programmed with a particular key representing a note in the song.

The Merlin electronic game was reportedly invented by former NASA employee Bob Doyle, his wife Holly, and brother-in-law Wendl Thomis.  The game looked kind of like an analog telephone handset such as the Western Electric Trimline touchtone model (catch my post which covered that by visiting http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2017/10/iphone-didnt-kill-landline-telephones.html for reference and a photo), which could be controlled completely from the handset (including the ability to hang-up the phone, whereas older desktop models could only be disconnected from the phone's base.

Merlin is notable as one of the earliest and most popular handheld games, selling over 5 million units during its initial run, as well as one of the most long-lived, remaining popular throughout the 1980's. A re-released version of the game was re-released by Hasbro in 2004.  It differed slightly from the original because the newer version did not feature an illuminated membrane keyboard, rather it had actual buttons which illuminated instead.  It was also slightly smaller in size than the original, and it used fewer AA batteries (four) than the original.

Manual

Its particularly useful to read the manual to understand how the game is played, which number corresponds to each game, etc.  Its only a few pages in length.  Internet Archive has a copy of the manual available for reading below, or by visiting  https://archive.org/details/manuals-handheld-games-ParkerBros-Merlin/page/n0, the text-only version can be found at https://archive.org/stream/manuals-handheld-games-ParkerBros-Merlin/ParkerBros-Merlin_djvu.txt:


Also, a downloadable copy of the original Merlin manual can be found at http://www.theelectronicwizard.com/manual.pdf.

Internet Archive has the emulator which can be played below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/hh_merlin:

September 25, 2018

Texas Instruments' Speak & Spell

A while back, I updated a post I did about classic, handheld LED electronic games which were popular with kids in the late 1970's into the mid-1980's in a P.S. about those devices being restored as emulators by the Internet Archive (catch my post with the relevant P.S. HERE, or the Internet Archive's post documenting it HERE for more information).

I acknowledged that the non-profit organization known as the Internet Archive had recently expanded its content library to include browser-based emulators for some of the old electronic toys that kids of that era actually played with.  Those emulators function mainly on personal computers (Apple Macintosh machines are not guaranteed to be included on this list, neither are the browsers found on many mobile devices (but it did work on my Android tablet computer, but the buttons were difficult to use on the virtual device below), but nevertheless, it provides a decent method of preserving some things that might otherwise be lost to history.

Although Mattel Electronics were among the more popular handheld electronic games in terms of units sold, those are not included because the litigious toy company likely threatened legal challenges, but many of the others that were made by now-defunct companies that once dominated the space (think of firms like Coleco, Radio Shack's Tandy brand, Tomy and of course, Texas Instruments or "TI" consumer electronics).

Texas Instruments is worthy of a special mention because while the company still manufactures semiconductors and integrated circuits (at least as I write this) which power other company's products, its no longer in the consumer electronics and personal computer business (such as things like electronic calculators, toys, PC's, etc.), but for a time in the late 1970's into the mid-1980's, it was a very big player in consumer devices.  TI sold many of those businesses (those which TI was still manufacturing; it had discontinued a number of those it once made prior to the sale) to Taiwan-based Acer in 1998.

Many children of the 1980’s probably either had one, or had a friend who owned a Speak & Spell toy from Texas Instruments.  I was a little too old, but I was proud that I used money earned from a paper route to buy my younger brother a second-generation Speak & Spell, which differed mainly because instead of having buttons on the device, it had a membrane keypad that powered its keyboard.

Below is an emulator of the 1979 version of TI's Speak & Spell, which can also be accessed by visiting https://archive.org/details/hh_snspell.  You can try using it here by pressing the image below!  Texas Instruments refers people to a particular web page for the device found HERE and which also directs users to a scanned copy of the 1980 manual for the device (in Adobe Acrobat format) HERE.



The Speak & Spell electronic toy was probably most popular after it's prominent role in the 1982 Steven Spielberg-produced film "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" as one of the components the creature known as E.T. used in the communicator it built to "phone home."

The original Speak & Spell was the first of a three-part talking educational toy series that also included Speak & Read and Speak & Math. The series was a subset of TI's Learning Center product group and the Speak & Spell was released simultaneously with the Spelling B (a non-speech product designed to help children learn to spell), and the First Watch (designed to teach children to read digital and analog timepieces). The Speak & Spell was sold, with regional variations, in the United States, Canada, Australia, in Europe, and Japan.

One of the things that made Speak & Spell unique for its time was that it consisted of a linear predictive coding speech synthesizer, a keyboard, and a receptor slot to receive one of a collection of different ROM library modules (collectively covered under U.S. patent 3934233) meant to expand the library of words that a child could be quizzed on. The first Speak & Spell was introduced at the summer Consumer Electronics Show in June 1978, making it one of the earliest handheld electronic devices with a visual display to use interchangeable "game" cartridges.  Speak & Spell was named an IEEE Milestone in 2009.

Wikipedia says Speak & Spell was created by a small team of engineers led by Paul Breedlove, himself an engineer, with TI during the late 1970's. Development began in 1976 with an initial budget of $25,000, as an outgrowth of TI's research into speech synthesis. The completed proof version of the first console utilized TI's trademarked Solid State Speech technology to store full words in a solid state format similar to the manner in which calculators of the time stored numbers. Additional purchased cartridges (called expansion modules) could be inserted through the battery receptacle to provide new solid-state libraries and new games. This represented the first time an educational toy utilized speech that was not recorded on tape or phonograph record (as with Mattel's See 'n Say line or the earlier Chatty Cathy dolls).

In any event, because TI's Speak & Spell still holds a special place in the minds of people around my age because it was "gee-whiz" technology that was futuristic back in the day, I'm giving it a post in this blog.  While its somewhat crude by today's standards, it helped pave the way for the smartphones that kids of today want so badly.  We can thank Speak & Spell for opening those doors!

September 6, 2018

The Future Is ... Personal Ads?

In 1979, a song called "Escape" written and recorded by British-born American singer Rupert Holmes for his album Partners in Crime was released.  Mr. Holmes later agreed to rename the song "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" when record company executives convinced him that the public recognized the title by the name of the popular cocktail.  As the lead single for the album, the pop song was recommended by Billboard for radio broadcasters on September 29, 1979, then added to prominent U.S. radio playlists starting in October–November. The song peaked at the end of December to become the last U.S. number one song of the 1970's.

That song, which authors Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont who wrote the book "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?: The Lost Toys, Tastes, and Trends of the 70's and 80's" wrote in their entry entitled "Story Songs" (which as the authors note, are still going strong noting that as long as country music lives, the story song will never die)!  Escape (The Piña Colada Song) was actually about cheating on your woman, with your woman (whoops).  That classic track can be listened to below, or by visiting the Internet Archive page at https://archive.org/details/RupertHolmesEscapeThePiaColadaSong:



Central to The Piña Colada Song was a personal ad the singer responded to because he was getting bored with his girlfriend, so he responds to a personal ad he read in the newspaper, and to his surprise, the person who wrote the ad was his own girlfriend whom he hoped to cheat on.  Irony?  Perhaps.  But the central role of personals will likely be with us for a long time to come, even if they are no longer printed in the back pages of the newspaper, but move online, or to the mobile environment.

Classified ads are a form of very brief advertising which was very common in newspapers and other periodicals, and more recently, it has migrated online (e.g. driven by free ads) and even to mobile applications, dealing with offers of or requests for jobs, houses, apartments, cars, personals, etc.  The ads may be charged or distributed free of charge.  Typically, classified ads in newspapers were very short as they were charged per letter, line or column.  As the name suggests, classified ads are classified into different classes or categories.

The original U.S. newspaper ad was published in 1704 in the old Boston News-Letter. The ad was an announcement seeking a buyer for an Oyster Bay (on Long Island, New York) property. That ad reportedly marked the birth of newspaper classifieds in the United States.

Personals

The classified ad used in one of the few hit Madonna
movies "Desperately Seeking Susan" from 1985
One form of classified ads that has long been treated with suspicion are the personal ads (or personals).  Indeed, because abbreviations have long ruled in classifieds (real estate ads, for example, have many acronyms, as do employment ads), learning the appropriate lingo meant the difference between understanding and being clueless about what the ads said.

For example, an ad for a used car might read: 2010 Blu (for blue color) Toyota Camry, <50K mi (under 50,000 miles on the vehicle), 4D (4 doors) HB (hatchback), 4CY (4 cylinder engine), 4WD (for a 4 wheel drive auto), ALUM/W (meaning the car has aluminum wheels), 4 new tires, $17K OBO ($17,000 or best offer).

That would read as:

2010 Blu Toyota Camry <50K mi 4D HB 4CY 4WD ALUM/W w 4 new tires $17K OBO eves 555-555-5555/email@email.com

That ad contains just 19 words, which is useful when you pay for an ad based on number of words and/or ad length.

Similarly, personals ads have their own unique lingo, usually something like this: 32 YO NM NS SWF (32 year old, never married, non-smoking single white female) ISO (in search of) SWM (single white male) HWP (height weight proportional) for a LTR (long term relationship).  Likes: music, fine dining and BWAY (Broadway) shows.  Call eves (evenings) at 555-555-5555 or email at email@email.com.

So the personal ad above would read:

32YO NM NS SWF ISO NS SWM HWP 4 LTR. Like music dining & BWAY. Contact eves 555-555-5555/email@email.com

All told, its exactly 19 words, and would be quite inexpensive (if the venue even charges for the ad) to run, and could potentially run for an entire week, possibly longer.

Of course, traditionally, personal ads have been viewed with a degree of skepticism, as there's really no screening involved so the risk is that a person will look absolutely nothing like their personal ad suggests.  Terms like "average" (or AVG) are seen by skeptics as fat since most Americans are fat, and other terms like disease and drug free (DD FREE) used for ads seeking sex are perceived as something everyone writes, even if there's no basis in reality for the assertion.

Initially, classified ads dominated local newspapers (either dailies, or weekly alternative papers), but at the beginning of the new millennium, most of that activity shifted to online sites including craigslist.org or online dating or hookup sites (and their relevant mobile applications) including match.com, Tinder, OKCupid, or the site for married people seeking extramarital sex with others known as AshleyMadison or for gay male sex hookups grindr or scruff.  As noted, increasingly, most also have apps which enable access from smartphones, although the allure of dedicated dating apps is seen as drawing the younger population more so than older people.

That said, in early 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill known as FOSTA (allowing states and victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017), which placed legal responsibility for sex-work interactions on the platform holders, rather than on individual users.  It was a dramatic shift, since platform holders had, for years, been immune to legal responsibility for what their users do on their platforms, provided that they responded to inappropriate behavior effectively.  The new law shifted the responsibility to companies like Craigslist, which concluded it was easier to simply abandon personals rather than face any legal problems or fines by puritanical lawmakers looking to stop supposed sex trafficking online.

Unlike companies including Facebook or Google, Craigslist has always been stubbornly simple, by design. It doesn't use advanced artificial intelligence (AI) or whatever to root out bad posts. Because of that, the site announced that it was taking down the popular Personals section entirely.

In its posting (see https://www.craigslist.org/about/FOSTA for the posting) about the legal development, Craigslist wrote:'

"Any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day."

They closed by noting:

"To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!"

It certainly doesn't mean personal ads are dead, rather just as they migrated from print to online, they are continuing to emerge elsewhere, and likely will continue doing so as long as people are seeking companionship, sex and more from other people.

Like the proverbial whack-a-mole arcade game, where one hits moles that pop up with a mallet only to have another pop up elsewhere.  We also saw that in the early 1970's when theaters showing pornography would routinely open, be shut down, and then open up someplace else a few miles away.

The Future Is ... Personal Ads?

Still, the old-fashioned personal ad has some virtues, among them being that it enables people to be a bit more specific about what they're seeking in a partner.  Women, in particular, find male-focused dating and sex hookup apps like grindr or scruff tend to overlook content other than photos, with the ability to swipe left on a listing to skip over it in seconds, hence it tends to be extremely superficial.  By comparison, someone seeking something a bit more informative is out of luck.

That's why a lesbian developed what she calls a queer online dating community formed around an old-school format for hookups: old-school styled personal ads.  The New York Times reported (see https://nyti.ms/2wNrMXW for the article) that the outcome of that is an Instagram dating community called Personals or Personals on Instagram (linked to an Instagram account) that developer Kelly Rakowski built for lesbians; bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual women; and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people. (Basically, anyone who isn't a cisgender and/or straight man.)  Personals is not for straight couples or cis men.
The term cisgender (also referred to as simply cis) is still not universally understood, but it basically means that one's gender identity exclusively identifies with their sex assigned at birth, but has nothing to do with sexual orientation.  Both straight and gay men are cisgender since both identify as men, even if they are gay and have sex with other men.  Likewise, heterosexual women and lesbians are also both cisgender.  Because the term cisgender is still relatively new, even many gays and lesbians respond to the term with confusion.

Terminology aside, the idea that old school classified personal ads delivered via Facebook's Instagram social media network (although its designed to work WITH Instagram, even if its not a requirement) still generally presumes the use of a smartphone to generate photos for postings (although one can instead use a regular computer at http://www.personalspersonals.us/ without a smartphone, and it also excludes most men other than those who were previously female.  Then again, given that gay men already have the Chinese-owned app Grindr for gay male sex hookups or the American-owned Scruff, and straight men can rely on many others including match.com, Tinder, OKCupid or ashleymadison (the latter one being for married people to have affairs) for similar purposes, the female angle of Personals for women is indeed unique.

Still, the idea of enabling old-school personal ads in a more modern environment is akin to many other things that have since become commonplace.  Think about online video streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime video, Hulu, Kanopy as well as iTunes and Google Play, while music also includes the two just noted, as well as Spotify and possibly others which have yet to emerge -- all of which enable both streaming of video content or music online.  Previously, one relied on broadcast radio and television, and later cable TV and video rental shops including Blockbuster Video to deliver those things, and today they are available on-demand with a broadband internet connection.

Whether the new women's version of Personals is widely adopted depends upon building awareness.  Building awareness will also enable it to build a user base, which is really the key to a successful dating and/or hookup platform.