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.  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 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, 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.

August 23, 2018

Dr. Ruth Westheimer Paved the Way to American Sexual Knowledge

As of 2018, sex is fairly ubiquitous in the U.S. media, but for decades, the environment was much more of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" when it came to any form of sex in the United States.  In spite of humanity's continued perpetuation in the U.S. (proof that people were, in fact, having sex), open discussion of sex was still considered evil, at least when it came to conversations, or even having knowledge of sex.

But before 1980, open discussion of human sexuality or anything related to it, were seldom if ever done in public in the U.S., except perhaps for when discussing zoning requirements (usually restrictions) for pornographic movie theaters, or maybe a debate about public school funding for sex education.  That was at least part of the reason that the incidence of teenage pregnancies, subsequently abortions, and later HIV/AIDS infections were all so prevalent in the U.S. at the time, because too many people really did not know any better.  Ignorance was NOT bliss.

The late 1960's brought with it the era of Baby Boomer-led feminism (aided by the introduction of the first female birth control pill).  Although the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment had stalled by the mid-to-late-1970's (and failed to secure the necessary state votes to amend the U.S. Constitution), there was nevertheless a newfound awareness of female sexuality in U.S. society.  A vibrant publishing industry led the way with books including "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and "The Joy of Sex" (catch my post on that at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2017/02/joy-of-sex-our-bodies-ourselves-became.html for more) as well as various magazines, including Playboy whose nude centerfolds first premiered in 1952, but were aided by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. California that dramatically narrowed and simplified the definition of obscenity, which resulted in a new, nationwide subscriber base for the publication and dramatically fewer obscenity prosecutions nationwide.  Beyond that, events such as the Stonewall riots also happened in 1969, ushering in a new era of LGBT visibility and demands for Constitutionally-protected legal rights which gained steam in the 1970's which were non-existent when the group remained closeted and invisible.

But times were rapidly changing; with new attitudes and perspectives upending decades of religious dogma that had infiltrated U.S. laws from communities to the country as a whole.  We can attribute at least some of it to the massive Baby Boomer demographic cohort.  Along with them, Boomers helped introduce the U.S. to women's liberation, widespread birth control, gay rights and a host of other issues that were previously never even acknowledged.  The stage was set for more a honest dialogue about human sexuality.

In 1980, WYNY (a now-defunct radio station) was a struggling New York City Adult Contemporary station which had recently gone through a makeover in an attempt to build an audience.  Part of this rebuild was adding specialized talk shows to the evening and weekend hours.  In September of 1980, WYNY launched a 15-minute pre-recorded segment that aired on Sunday nights after midnight.  The segment was called "Sexually Speaking" and it featured a unique host who was a German immigrant who had lived in Switzerland, Israel, and France before immigrating to the U.S. in 1956.  One year later, it became a live show, and it was so successful that the station expanded it to a one-hour show airing at 10:00 PM on which Dr. Ruth Westheimer (or Dr. Ruth, as she became known) answered call-in questions from listeners.

Below is a recording of Dr. Ruth Westheimer's original New York radio broadcast from 97.1 FM on WYNY recorded in June 1982.  The recording is below, or you can listen by visiting https://youtu.be/Oy3-WNv3AI0:



Dr. Ruth, who is a psychosexual therapist who helped to pioneer the field of media psychology with her original radio program, "Sexually Speaking".  As noted, she was born in Germany in 1928, but she was sent to a children’s home in Switzerland at the age of ten which became an orphanage for most of the German Jewish students who had been sent there to escape the Holocaust.  At age 17, she went to Israel where she fought for that country's independence as a member of the Haganah, the Jewish freedom fighters.  She then moved to Paris where she studied at the Sorbonne and taught kindergarten.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 where she obtained her Masters Degree in Sociology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research.  In 1970, she received a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in the Interdisciplinary Study of the Family from Columbia University Teacher's College.

Although Dr. Ruth did not have a classic radio voice, she certainly had the expertise, the candor, and a disarming personality that made her an overnight radio star (she was already a medical doctor, so she really did not need radio as many other radio hosts do).  In a truthful, direct, and entertaining way, she truthfully answered blunt and honest questions about sex and sexuality that WYNY listeners called in (see some of the New York Times archived coverage from the mid-1980's at https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/04/style/a-voice-of-sexual-literacy.html and https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/01/magazine/merchandising-dr-ruth.html for more).

Within a year after the fifteen-minute midnight program began in New York, "Sexually Speaking" had become so popular that it was expanded into a daily, one-hour live call-in show.  National syndication followed soon thereafter, and then the U.S. was introduced to the charming, irrepressible, and transparent Dr. Ruth.  A very nice article can be found at Interview magazine at https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/dr-ruth-westheimer-westheimer-cecile-richards-april-issue-2018-interview which covers her evolution as one of the country's (and indeed, the world's) foremost sex therapists from her early work in the U.S. working at Planned Parenthood, to her latter day celebrity.

Dr. Ruth's celebrity status eventually landed her a national TV show (some archives of her old TV show can be found at ShoutFactoryTV http://www.shoutfactorytv.com/series/dr-ruth in which she speaks with Burt Reynolds, Joan Rivers, Richard Simmons to name a few of Hollywood's celebrities the diminutive celebrity sex therapist has gotten to know over the years.

Dr. Ruth also helped pave the way for a somewhat similar program that originally ran on Canadian television known as the Sunday Night Sex Show (which was branded as Talk Sex with Sue Johanson in the U.S.) with host Sue Johanson, who was also an older talk show host who was a Registered Nurse (rather than an MD, as was the case with Dr. Ruth).  The latter show lasted until 2008, but it was carried on U.S. cable television.  On May 11, 2008, the last live episode of Talk Sex was broadcast. After 174 episodes of the phenomenally successful show host, then at the age of 76, decided to hang up her dildos and depart from television.  But she still maintains a website at http://www.talksexwithsue.com/ even though she is now retired.

Regardless of their similarities. the original Dr. Ruth herself has never disappeared.

Far from it.

But perhaps Dr. Ruth has established older women as experts in the field, whereas men dominate in most other areas.  Indeed, she seems to revel in her role as celebrity sex therapist to the masses.

Today, Dr. Ruth still maintains a very active presence as a frequent guest on daytime television in traditional media, and in the online world, with a YouTube show at https://www.youtube.com/user/drruth and she also maintains a very active presence on Twitter as well at @AskDrRuth on Twitter.  Her goal was always to educate Americans about sex, because she believes that education can solve many issues that can become problems without an open dialogue.  Her early years on the radio revealed that many women and men alike had questions about sex, sometimes easy-to-answer, but often lacked a viable outlet to address those very basic questions.

An introduction to Dr. Ruth's YouTube Channel can be found at https://youtu.be/holCQf1GxZU or seen below.


Below are several links, both historical and current, giving a sampling of the tiny woman's huge presence on the topic of American sexual literacy over the years.  At age 89, Dr. Ruth shows no signs of slowing down.  Many Americans remain eternally grateful this height-challenged (indeed, Dr. Ruth Westheimer's height is just 4'7") fan favorite has left an indelible mark not only on sexual literacy, but popular culture as well.

https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/04/style/a-voice-of-sexual-literacy.html

http://www.shoutfactorytv.com/series/dr-ruth

https://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/168488453/dr-ruth-lets-talk-about-sex

https://www.wnyc.org/people/ruth-westheimer/

July 23, 2018

Free to Be ... You and Me



It started with a book, or at least an idea for a book.  On March 11, 1974, on the ABC television network, a television special entitled "Free to Be ... You and Me" aired on U.S. broadcast television.  Produced by 1960's "That Girl" star Marlo Thomas (Marlo was the daughter of 1950's TV legend Danny Thomas, although her own TV show had gained her fame and popularity for being one of the first TV shows that did not feature a working woman who was actively seeking out a husband so she could stop working, along with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" which ran a few years later).  Incidentally, Marlo's brother Tony Thomas was co-owner of Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, which is the company that produced such hit sitcoms as The Golden Girls (very recently, his partner Paul Junger Witt died of cancer, see https://usat.ly/2KnztsL for that news).

At the time, because Ms. Thomas was already a celebrity in her own right, she was able to assemble an all-star cast for this particular special, among them: Marlo Thomas herself, along with actors/actresses Alan Alda, Dustin Hoffman, Kris Kristofferson, Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy, Carol Channing, talk show host Dick Cavett, comedy producer Carl Reiner, NFL football star Rosey Grier, singers Diana Ross, Rita Coolidge, Dionne Warwick, Harry Belafonte, singer/songwriter Roberta Flack and a very young Michael Jackson (then of the hit Motown singing group known as the Jackson 5).


The idea began with Ms. Thomas herself, who as noted, was already a star of the late 1960's TV sitcom "That Girl", and in 1971, she also became a new aunt.  (This was prior to Ms. Thomas marrying daytime television talk show host Phil Donahue in 1980, whom she remains married to as of 2018).  Ms. Thomas felt that her young niece's storybooks were the same old ones that she had read as a child, and she felt that the then-recent entries to the bedtime canon only reinforced the idea that boys were supposed to grow up to become pilots and doctors while girls were supposed to become lesser stewardesses (the feminine form of a term that has since been replaced with the gender-neutral term flight attendant) and nurses.

Marlo Thomas conceived a children's book that, instead of telling boys and girls who they should be, instead hopefully opened them to the possibilities of who they COULD be.  She gathered many of her talented friends and acquaintances from various worlds of the arts (TV, music and even professional sports) and the result was highly-regarded as a modern classic of children's literature.  Life-enhancing themes were imaginatively blended with music and humor to expand children's personal horizons, enabling them to invent their own futures without limitation, while dispelling some old constraints and worn-out conventions in the process.

Among her collaborators was Shel Silverstein and co-producer Carole Hart, and the project created a gold record album and a best-selling book.  Then, in 1972, it was then turned into an Emmy-and Peabody-winning TV special.  The effort was feminist and multicultural; an early childhood education in empathy; multimedia before anybody even used the word.  It was also promoted by Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine (I touched on Ms. magazine in my Lynda Carter post at https://goo.gl/c25V1y) which was very big at the time.

Ms. Thomas admitted that her inspiration was that she had just became an aunt (her sister Terre recently had a daughter she named Dionne Gordon in 1969 -- the very same year I was born).  Thomas wrote in the prologue to the book 'When We Were Free to Be' edited by Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett:

"Honestly I was just trying to do something for one little girl." That it would grow to become a cultural phenomenon was never a part of the plan."


But the basic themes in the book, album and TV special were mean to inspire girls and boys to challenge gender and racial stereotypes, value cooperation, and respect diversity became very much part of the feminist movement of those days.  Remember, back in those days, there were only 3 broadcast television networks (plus government-sponsored PBS if you count that, along with some independent stations in select markets).  Cable TV was largely non-existent at the time, and VCR's, DVR's, videocassettes, DVD's and streaming video hadn't been invented yet.  That basically guaranteed a large audience for a TV special that aired just once.

Marlo Thomas' own YouTube channel (which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/marlothomas) and The Free To Be Foundation's YouTube channels (which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/ftbfoundation) both have clips from different segments of the original ABC special.  I've pieced them together in a playlist (which may or may not be in the original sequence) below, along with clips prior to and at the end of the "Free to Be ... You and Me" television special with commentary from Marlo Thomas and several of the other collaborators on the project.



Yet this particular TV special, the book and especially the soundtrack that was created for it, were fondly remembered by thousands of kids who tuned in to watch the show when it aired on TV.  Today, those kids now are in their late 40's or early 50's, and stepping into leadership roles in society.  The lessons taught in the special remained in the minds of many of those who watched.

The result of "Free to Be ... You and Me" effort created a very large population that largely wants to put racial issues, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny behind it.

As one original review for the book 'When We Were Free to Be' eloquently observed:

"A moving reminder that the women's movement was and is ardently pro-child. These fascinating reminiscences and timely essays about what still needs doing to make our children truly 'free to be' will have you singing the songs again—or discovering the joy of learning them."

Some of the most popular tracks from the original soundtrack can be listened to at  The Free To Be Foundation's website at at http://www.freetobefoundation.com/.  I have included four of the main songs which are found on its website below.

Free To Be You And Me
http://www.freetobefoundation.com/audio/free_to_be.mp3



It's All Right To Cry
http://www.freetobefoundation.com/audio/its_all_right_to_cry.MP3



Sisters And Brothers
http://www.freetobefoundation.com/audio/sisters_and_bros.mp3



When We Grow Up
http://www.freetobefoundation.com/audio/when_we_grow_up.mp3



The book that inspired this blog "Whatever Happened To Pudding Pops?" has an entry about the "Free to Be ... You and Me" initiative which was as follows:


Free to Be ... You and Me

A BOY who loved his doll, a girl getting chomped by tigers, and a dog fixing a sink? Where do we sign up?

A record album, illustrated songbook, and 1974 TV special, triple-threat media powerhouse Free to Be ... You and Me was created when That Girl star Marlo Thomas wanted to teach her young niece that it was OK to break gender roles, in careers and life. And looking at today’s world, with its stay-at-home dads and doctor moms, there's little doubt that she helped make that happen.

Kids who got this book or album had probably never heard of women's lib except as a punch line on Maude. Many of the major points sailed over our heads; other parts seemed “no-DOY” obvious. No one likes housework. It's all right to cry. Boys can bake cakes, girls can bait hooks, and whatever gender you dreamy pencil sketches, snappy cartoons, and one story told in handwritten notes on torn notebook paper. Its most memorable song? "William Wants a Doll," sung by Alan "Hawkeye Pierce" Alda. Its best story? Shel Silverstein's hilarious “Ladies First,” in which a demanding little girl is eaten up by tigers. The book even addressed issues kids didn't know were issues, such as how you shouldn't dress your cat in an apron but should, if he so desires, let your dog be a plumber.  Heather Has Two Mommies gots nothing on this.

X-Tinction Rating: Revised and revived

Replaced By: A thirty-fifth anniversary addition of the book came out in 2008.  And in fall 2010, Target released a back-to-school ad prominently featuring the "Free to Be..." song.


The effort was not without criticism, even in the early 1970's.  As CNN reported, for every "Free to Be" class play, another school wouldn't acknowledge it. TV producers initially balked at a song that seemed to show Thomas and Belafonte as an interracial couple. At least one TV critic warned parents to keep kids away from the television when "Free to Be" was on.  James Dobson (who helped create several known anti-Semetic and anti-LGBT hate-groups, while avoiding anything that might imperil his own organization's tax-free status) Focus on the Family criticized it and advocated for rigid traditional gender roles in child-rearing. Even "Free to Be" supporters argued that some of the skits were classist, and noted its bent toward traditional families with mommies, daddies and children.

Still, with this kind of feminist-inspired teaching of children of that era, no one should be surprised that today, a majority of younger people are far less interested in reigniting old race or gender role tensions of the past (no matter what Donald Trump and his white supremacist supporters may believe, and a President who just barely won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by more than 3 million votes cannot presume he is guaranteed unwavering public support for his racial perspective).

Aside from the 2016 election results and the subsequent national embarrassment of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the country stands at a precipice right now.

Baby Boomer voters are finally outnumbered by the number registered voters, although voting patterns have enabled them to claim a majority for at least the 2016 election and possibly the next one or two elections, mathematically, their days are numbered.  Given the societal cues, the racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic views embodied by the Alt-Right (which is basically white supremacy re-branded with a new name), the very people who so fervently supported Mr. Trump will be increasingly difficult to maintain much beyond 2020.  Indeed, while he has solidified support among right-wing voters, polling shows that he has lost support among independent voters, and more generally, female voters overall.

On October 21, 2015, Marlo Thomas Tweeted this picture of herself,
her sister Terre and her niece Dionne (the little girl that inspired Free To Be)
who had both come to see her in the show Clever Little Lies.
While the original "Free to Be ... You and Me" television special had a very limited broadcast, The Free To Be Foundation was incorporated in 1973 to develop and market educational products that challenge stereotypes, fight discrimination, and encourage individuality and the freedom to pursue one's talents and dreams.  The foundation continues to maintain a website which can be visited at http://www.freetobefoundation.com/.  The Free To Be Foundation's website has links to where the 2008 thirty-fifth anniversary edition of the book (a link to the publisher is listed below) is still sold, along CD's with the soundtrack and even a DVD release of the original ABC television special.  In addition, a stage play with a script and accompanying music can be licensed from the foundation.

Several Links About the "Free to Be ... You and Me" initiative can be seen below:

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/11/living/free-to-be-you-and-me-40-years/

https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469619057/when-we-were-free-to-be/

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/doublex/features/2012/free_to_be_you_and_me_40th_anniversary_how_did_a_kids_album_about_gender/free_to_be_you_and_me_40th_anniversary_how_did_a_kids_album_by_a_bunch_of.html

July 17, 2018

Digital Natives Are Now A Half-Century+ Old


I received my very first computer 45 years ago -- back in 1973.  Admittedly, it was merely a toy, but it was long before the iPhone's introduction more than thirty years later in 2007.  In fact, not a single Millennial was even alive in 1973 when I got my first computer.  I would argue that proves I've been a "digital native" a whole lot longer than they are.

I'm also a true "digital native" who will be age 50 next year.  (Catch a relevant article on Gen Xers turning age 50 at https://www.theepochtimes.com/gen-x-turns-50-were-doing-well-thanks-for-asking_1925959.html for more detail).

Millennials can only wait enviously behind Gen Xers on the distinction as "digital native", even if marketers or dumb employment recruiters think it means them.  Genuine digital natives precede Millennials by at least two decades, probably even more than that.  After all, it was Gen X kids like Matthew Broderick who saved the world from a computer-initiated nuclear armageddon a decade later in the 1983 movie "War Games," so Gen Xers have an indisputable claim that the kids who once camped out in front of Apple Stores are no more digital native than we are, because we've been natives longer than they have by decades.

Early mobile phones (which were the size, shape and weight of bricks ... and had power that only lasted for 30 minutes), for example, were portable, but were analog and could only make audio telephone calls.  Today, smartphones are pocket-sized computer devices that are perennially running out of power, memory capacity, and arguably don't work very well if you want to preserve your eyesight beyond age 35.

As one Gizmodo article (see HERE for detail) eloquently put it:

"You'd think that toy computers would have reached their height in the last decade. This Playskool Play and Learn Computer is from 1972 and is a spectacular reminder that a) everything is toyable and b) computers have always been our future."


My own experience with computers actually began around 1973 when I was around four years old with the very Playskool Play 'n Learn Computer depicted in the Gizmodo article above.  Note that in the early 1970's, Playskool was still an independent toy company based in Wisconsin (it wouldn't be acquired by toy-giant Hasbro until 1984).  From the company's earliest days in the 1930's or so, its niche was always making toys for preschool aged children centered around the idea that its products could help develop coordination and stimulate the minds of small children.   As a precocious child, I was always troubled (and a bit insulted) by the fact that in the company name, "school" was incorrectly spelled "skool".  I was too young to understand that corporate names could be completely made-up.

The absolute top of my gift list for 1973 was the Playskool Play 'n Learn Computer.  I really loved this toy, and it was all I talked about in anticipation of that holiday.  On Christmas morning that year, I literally asked which wrapped gift was the computer, but my parents forced me to calm down, so I zeroed in on the box that looked like it might be the same size and opened that one first.  My family bought me plenty of other things that year, including clothes which I don't think any child has ever really wanted for the holiday, but usually got anyway.  I don't recall what any of the other gifts I got that year were because that computer was the only thing I really wanted.

I wanted that toy more than anything until Atari 2600 (it was called the Atari Video Computer System or VCS at the time, and it wouldn't be renamed Atari 2600 until a few years later) came about a decade later.  Kids like me instantly recognized the potential of computers, and many would go on to make that a reality.  For example, Gen Xers are behind things we take for granted today, such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and even online banking.  Realize that in 1972, I was only three years old, but I still saw computers featured on television programs my parents watched, and even on TV shows including Captain Kangaroo.  At the time, those were all big mainframe computers, rather than personal computers (the ones I saw were of the sort featured on the popular 2016 film "Hidden Figures" which supposedly took place in the late 1960's, see below for more detail).

Most of the depictions of computers in those days were big, bulky things (with reel-to-reel storage tapes that stored many programs and most data) that was also the era where computers kind of f'd things up.  Computer screw-ups were frequently shown in late sixties and early seventies TV shows.  Whether it was turning someone's electricity off because the computer mistakenly credited their payment to another customer's account, or in the case of "War Games" mistakenly initiating Global Thermonuclear War with Russia because the computer mistakenly believes it's just another computer game, or when ATM's withdraw thousands of dollars from someone's account but only giving them a twenty dollar bill.  Occasionally, there were humorous takes on "computer dating" which began in the 1960's but was a recurring theme into the 1970's.  For example, I remember seeing a rerun of the TV show "Love, American Style" about the humorous results of computer dating gone wrong.  People submitted their vital stats to a computer dating service along with lengthy questionnaires (usually on a paper form where the respondent colored in a particular circle to answer a certain way not too dissimilar to the way SAT's used to be handled).


The New Yorker reports (see HERE for a Business Insider article with a link to that original article in New Yorker plus some relevant other information) that one early computer dating service made people answer some 1,400 multiple-choice questions, and then charged them $5.00 to have a computer find their match (which was equivalent of about $30.00 in 2018), though an advertisement from a rival in Look magazine also dated 1966 showed its price at $3.00.  In those days, computers were routinely depicted with suspicion and disruptive.  But they were mainly disruptive to older people who grew up in the days when computers were simply not around and they did not see much need for them.  Truth be told, computers did automate many processes that often took more human effort in the old analog world, and also rendered some jobs people used to do as obsolete.  It's a similar dialogue now going on about so-called AI (the acronym for artificial intelligence, see a ZDNet article HERE for more).


The Playskool Play 'n Learn Computer was designed to look like a mainframe computer, only it was a mechanical toy that used no batteries or external power source to compute if child had correctly found the right answer.  Instead, it had five double-sided cards included. Rhyming words, similar pictures, beginning sounds, telling time, colors, adding facts and related objects, identifying parts of a whole, matching words to objects, and a blank card for child to fill out.  As a toy, I eventually mastered the handful of questions, and the company failed by not selling any additional cards for this computer, so I eventually lost interest.  But for a brief time in the early seventies, I thought it was about the greatest toy a child could have.


Around the same time, Playskool also sold what could best be described as dolls and stuffed animals made from cotton fabric and polyester fiberfill (petroleum-sourced polyester was all the rage those days).  Perhaps the most famous of those "dolls" was known as "Dressy Bessy" and her male counterpart was "Dapper Dan", both of which aimed to help teach small children to learn how to dress themselves, with common parts of clothing including zippers, snaps, buckles, buttons, and shoelaces.  At the time, Playskool even licensed the product to the pattern company that sold Simplicity patterns which sold in fabric and sewing shops so homemakers could make these toys by themselves (presumably to give as gifts to children).  Whether they were any cheaper (if a pattern sold for $3.50 but the toy itself sold for $5.85 as it was priced in the Sears annual Wishbook in 1973 or so, one need not be a math genius to determine that the patterns plus the cost of fabric and time to make the Dressy Bessy meant it wasn't necessarily a great economy bargain).


Hasbro brought this particular toy back to market in 2001, but the market was less receptive at the time, perhaps due to a shortage of children of the right age to buy for and a glut of toys to choose from.  The toys were bright and colorful, although they were hardly fashionable even during the years preceding disco, polyester leisure suits, and platform shoes.  Indeed, some writers have jokingly stated: "Dapper?  Not so much."  Nevertheless, Bessy and Dan have remained a perpetually popular product line for Hasbro, even if not perennially available.


Using the same basic designs, the following year, the company expanded to offer what it called Hug-a-Book dolls, which featured the same garish colors (at least it did on the Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood toys) in all of the Hug-a-Book line.  By that time, I was about 4 and already starting to read (at least I knew the stories by heart, so the words on the page looked familiar enough).  The company took several favorite fairy tales and downsized the stories to fit on tiny, 12-page (made of silk-screened cotton) story books which were fastened to the stomach of these dolls.  Initially, it focused on just a few such stories, including Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and The Three Bears.

At the time, I was a four year-old child who was already very familiar with those stories, and I wanted one a lot like Ralphie wanted a "Red Rider" for Christmas (that's a reference to the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story").  I received the Hug-a-Book Jack and the Beanstalk for Christmas, and in the following April for my birthday, I received The Three Bears.  Eventually, the cover to Jack and the Beanstalk tore off, but my mother was a sewer, and she was able to fix it for me.

I grew older in the years that followed, so I outgrew all of Playskool's offerings, and would be mesmerized by things like The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (having aluminum lunchboxes with Steve Austin's image on it), as well as standard fare like Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Tomy Pocket cars.

I would later get handheld electronic games including Mattel's Electronic Basketball and Football, and rival Parker Brother's Merlin (catch my post on that by visiting http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/09/preservation-and-resurrection-of.html for more).  By the end of the decade, Atari's Video Computer System as it was originally called (later renamed Atari 2600, catch my post on that at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/07/atari-celebrates-40th-anniversary.html for more) and the endless pursuit of new home video games for that would capture my attention until my interest shifted to real, personal computers which in hindsight, were incredibly overpriced and underpowered, but were never Apple anything as the company nearly went bankrupt and was more famous for selling vaporware than good design or true technical expertise.

It was Lotus Development Corp. and a company known as WordPerfect that preceded even Microsoft as far as computer software that actually made computers run (Microsoft only for the operating system known as DOS or disk operating system).  As much as hipsters like to believe that Steve Jobs was the true computer visionary, he really wasn't, and his company got off to a very rocky start.
As a side-note, in 1978, Playskool itself would introduce a real (non-mechanical) computer toy called Alphie and a decade later in 1983, and pretend, musical mobile phone, but the original Playskool Play 'n Learn Computer will always remain as one of my all-time favorite holiday gifts.

But anyone under the age of 40 in 2018 who thinks they are a "digital native" is more of a liar than a "digital native".  Gen Xers gave the world Google and Twitter, and Baby Boomers like Bill Gates were pivotal in making those things happen.  But toys like Playskool Play-n-Learn Computer were the first introduction to the digital world for a generation of people who continue to define the term digital natives.  Sorry hipsters, you were about two decades late to the game.

See also:

https://www.commodorecomputerclub.com/1972-playskool-play-and-learn-computer/

https://katrina9799.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/playskool-dapper-dan-dressy-bessy-plush-dolls/

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/02/old-weird-tech-computer-dating-of-the-1960s/71217/

http://thecomputerboys.com/?p=654