Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 3 Number 3, Mar. 2004
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
Clues from the Coin-op Convention
~ and ~
Report on the Robot Races
"Ever since I was a young boy,
I played the silver ball..."
-- The Who, 1969
My friend Bob S. (who I met on the day Nixon was elected president)
and I are long-time fans of pinball. I remember the first time we
played together, still in highschool, in December 1969, at the Par-Tee
(miniature) Golf Course in San Diego. Two years later I went off to
college at UC Santa Cruz, chosen partly because Bob (a year older
than me) was already there. But it turned out he didn't like the
school, and moved on to other educational opportunities in Ohio.
I wondered if in a parallel universe we might have ended up playing
pinball together in the big arcade at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk,
in the 1904 casino building where I ended up working part time as a
pinball floorman from 1973 to 1977 (it was also where I proposed
marriage to my wife, who was then a cashier). I was working there
when the first electro-mechanical pinball game with a computer chip
was introduced, "Captain Fantastic," in 1977.
( pinball.flippers.info/captainfantastic.asp )
With the Captain Fantastic character, played by Elton John, challenging
the "Pinball Wizard," it was a sequel to the earlier non-digital "Wizard!"
game, which featured Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margret,
( www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?id=2803 )
based on the movie "Tommy" (1975) directed by Ken Russell.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000K3TV/hip-20 )
(This surreal musical based on the Who's "rock opera" of the same
name starred Who members Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend
as well as actors Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson, and musical
performers Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Tina Turner.)
Unlike "Wizard!" the new "Captain Fantastic" pinball game required
digital logic diagnostic skills in order to fix it, and the repair
guys were going "back to school" to learn how.
Neither of these games is to be confused with the 1994 "The Who's
Tommy Pinball Wizard" game
( www.pinballrebel.com/game/pins/tommy2/tommy2.htm )
based solely on the original "Tommy" album (1969).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000002OZY/hip-20 )
I was also present earlier on when the first true video games
were introduced in Santa Cruz in the late 1970s: the unsuccessful
"Computer Space" (1970) flying saucer battle,
( ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/computer-space.html )
followed by the wildly successful ping-pong emulator, "Pong" (1972).
( www.klov.com/P/Pong.html )
Several things contributed to "Computer Space" failing while
"Pong" was a hit. The former was a one-person game, with
unintuitive button controls that most players had trouble with,
and which most players found way too hard to win, except for a
stubborn few who practiced until it was too easy to win. The
zone in which the game was challenging was too thin. The latter
was a two-person game that was as challenging as the other
player; furthermore, it was based on a familiar game and used
intuitive knobs to control the paddles. In "A Brief History
of Home Video Games" on the web site of Sam Hart,
( www.geekcomix.com/vgh/first/atpongarc.shtml )
this story is elaborated:
Nolan Bushnell's first exposure to video games was a game
called "Spacewar." Programmed by an MIT student named Steve
Russell in the early sixties, this game had circulated computer
labs across the country by the time Bushnell would play it in a
lab at the University of Utah in 1962. He would spend the next
seven years of his life trying to reproduce that game on a
smaller, less expensive computer. When it was completed,
Bushnell's Spacewar variation (known as "Computer Space") did
not sell. Frustrated by this, Bushnell changed his entire
perspective on computer game design.
In an interview, Bushnell later said, "You had to read the
instructions before you could play, people didn't want to
read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a
game people already knew how to play; something so simple
that any drunk in any bar could play."
In 1972, Bushnell quit his job at Ampex in Sunnyvale, California,
and with two other former Ampex engineers started his company.
Originally, the three applied for the company name "Syzygy," but
that had already been taken by a roofing firm. Bushnell enjoyed
playing the Japanese game "go" and his next suggestion was "atari"
which means "check." ...
Al Alcorn, one of Atari's first employees, was the engineer who
constructed the first Pong arcade game. The game was named after
the desired sound that Bushnell wanted incorporated in the game.
The dictionary defines "pong" as a hollow, ringing sound, and
this was the sound Bushnell felt was necessary in the game.
The first Pong arcade machine was placed in a local bar in
Sunnyvale called Andy Capp's. It was more of a trial than
anything else, as the unit did not even have a fully constructed
case. The following is an account of the first night Pong was
in this bar, reproduced from "Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari"
"One of the regulars approached the Pong game inquisitively
and studied the ball bouncing silently around the screen as
if in a vacuum. A friend joined him. The instructions said:
'Avoid missing ball for high score.' One of [them] inserted a
quarter. There was a beep. The game had begun. They watched
dumbfoundedly as the ball appeared alternately on one side
of the screen and then disappeared on the other. Each time
it did the score changed. The score was tied at 3-3 when one
player tried the knob controlling the paddle at his end of
the screen. The score was 5-4, his favor, when his paddle
made contact with the ball. There was a beautifully resonant
"pong" sound, and the ball bounced back to the other side of
the screen. 6-4. At 8-4 the second player figured out how to
use his paddle. They had their first brief volley just before
the score was 11-5 and the game was over.
"Seven quarters later they were having extended volleys, and
the constant pong noise was attracting the curiosity of others
at the bar. Before closing, everybody in the bar had played
the game. The next day people were lined up outside Andy Capp's
at 10 A.M. to play Pong. Around ten o'clock that night, the
game suddenly died." (pg.29)
The reason for this was that the milk carton coin container inside
the machine was overflowing into the electronics. After it was
emptied, the game continued its usual operation.
Pong would become a huge hit in the arcades, spawning numerous
imitations and several official sequels. Its popularity would
not die down, until it was replaced by more advanced systems
that used microprocessors instead of LSI (Large Scale
Again, like the newest pinball games, these games required a
new "digital" skill set in order for technicians to repair them.
An issue of "Replay Magazine" that I found lying around in 1976 talked
about these changes, and about the rise of new "home games" which
* * * * * *
"In our time the sudden shift from the mechanical technology
of the wheel to the technology of the electric circuitry
represents one of the major shifts of all historical time."
-- Marshall McLuhan, 1964
"Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man"
Bob and I reconnected in San Diego in the early 1980s.
A few years ago we started playing pinball together again,
sometimes at a few now-defunct locales, and sometimes at
the Boardwalk at Parkway Bowl in El Cajon, which is still in business.
( www.boardwalk-parkway.com )
(Tragically, a domestic violence murder occurred in the pizza parlor
area of this arcade and fun zone just last week. I noticed that
the press obligingly called it a "restaurant" and never once
mentioned the arcade's video and pinball games, probably hoping
to avoid adding to the undeserved "sleazy" image of coin-op games.)
( www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20040323-9999-news_1m23slay.html )
Among the games Bob and I have enjoyed in recent years are "No Good
( www.jamesgames.biz/images/pinball/Image053.jpg )
and "Star Wars Episode I" which cleverly combines video and pinball.
( www.pinball.com/games/starwars )
This last game was one of a new family of pinball games from Williams
based on a common hardware platform they called "Pinball 2000."
( www.pinball.com/pinball2000/home.html )
We also began researching the history of pinball. Bob shared
with me the only video on the subject, "The History of Pinball" (1998).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6304921284/hip-20 )
Bob also expressed a growing interest in the quasi-gambling machines
that have hovered on the edge of pinball, such as the bingo games
described in the book "Bally's Bingo Pinball Machines" (1999).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0764308742/hip-20 )
Then in Feb. of 2000 we saw an article in WIRED magazine by Erik
Davis, entitled "Game Over: Evolve or die. Too bad pinball couldn't
make the leap."
( www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.02/pinball.html )
It announced without qualifications that our pastime was history:
"Toll the bell: Pinball, a cultural technology that has
swallowed our coins since the Great Depression, is dead."
We were told that Williams, the last "major" supplier of pinball
games, had pulled the plug in order to concentrate on more profitable
coin-ops such as slot machines. This was confirmed on Williams
own web site,
( www.pinball.com )
"On Monday, October 25, 1999, WMS Industries Inc. announced
that it will discontinue its pinball production and cabinets
manufacturing operations after the completion of the game
currently in production as a result of a prolonged period of
weak demand and ongoing losses."
At this point, we went from being hobbyists to preservationists.
In late 2001 Bob and I attended the COMDEX show in Las Vegas, and we
made it a priority to seek out pinball on the trip. On the way
we barely missed finding a vintage pre-paddles wooden pinball game
at Calico Ghost Town (we did finally play it last month). Research
on the web pointed us to a slot car racing storefront called "Radtrax"
with a back room of older pinball games.
( www.radtrax.com )
There we met proprieter Jon Pierracos and told him of our pinball
interests, and he told us about a local Las Vegas pinball fan named
"Tim" who has the phone number 1-702-I-FIX-PIN, and occasionally
holds pinball parties where, for a small fee ($5?) you can play
his vintage machines all evening. We have yet to connect with Tim,
but one of these days we hope to. Meanwhile, we've also discovered
there are consumer-oriented pinball shows where fans can play vintage
machines. The next one is "Pinball-A-Go-Go" (PAGG) to be held May
14 - 16, 2004 in Dixon, CA, near Sacramento.
( andrewcrabtree.dyndns.org/pagg )
Also on this 2001 Vegas trip we developed an increased interest in
vintage slot machines. (The more we learned about pinball and
slot machines, the more the distinction between them began to blur.)
At the "Casino Legends Hall of Fame" at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino
we saw a couple of 1940s machines, and they were beautiful.
( www.tropicanalv.com/ent_legends.asp )
A card on the back of one, as well as a friendly gift shop clerk,
directed us to the "Gamblers General Store" near downtown Las Vegas.
( www.gamblersgeneralstore.com )
There we saw a large collection of working-order and for-sale
machines, some as old as 1900, when there was only one wheel and
it was mounted like a "wheel of fortune" with the axis pointing
toward the player. Some of the machines from the 1930s and 40s
had beautiful Native American designs in bright colors painted
on the steel cases, like thunderbirds and sand painting designs.
It was there that I bought a copy of the amazing book, "Gambling
and Gambling Devices" (1912) by John Philip Quinn.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0870190172/hip-20 )
I also soon afterward checked another book out of the library and
read it, "Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years
of the World's Most Popular Coin-Operated Gaming Device" by Marshall
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0962385271/hip-20 )
It turns out that Mr. Fey is the grandson of Charles Fey, the inventor
of the first slot machine, the Liberty Bell (1895). The family owns the
Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant in Reno Nevada, which has working
antiques on display, including Fey's first machine.
( www.casinocom.com/library/liberty.html )
(Bob and I still haven't made it up there.)
Nearby is the "Nevada Gambling Museum" in Virginia City, which
-- unlike the saloon -- welcomes children, and has a non-paying
but working cutaway slot machine they can play with.
( www.museumsusa.org/data/museums/NV/136806.htm )
Our studies of slot machines helped understand that many of today's
design features are derived from attempts to skirt the laws on
gambling machines. After 1910 legislation banning the machines
outright, slots were disguised as gum machines, and the fruits
represented gum flavors. The bars were gum packs. Supposedly
you could only win gum, unless the bartender slipped you some money.
(Remember the short-lived 1960s pop group "1910 Fruit Gum Company,"
whose hits included "1,2,3, Red Light" and "Simon Says" among others?
I always wondered what the significance was of their name.)
Around this same time I was working on a project visualizing
potential bioterrorism threats in San Diego. Inspired by the
concept of a logarithmic safety index from the book "Innumeracy:
Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences" (1988) by John Allen
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0809058405/hip-20 )
I attempted to use a slot machine metaphor to show relative
risks. (The client didn't like it, and we didn't go any further
So, anyway, on the way back from this extremely edifying Vegas trip
Bob & I stopped at Peggy Sue's Diner in Yermo, near Calico, and played
a 1991 pinball game based on the movie "Terminator 2."
( www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?id=2524 )
It was sad to think that this mechanical art form was now dead,
even as its sibling, the slot machine, lived on.
Two years passed, and Bob and I kept planning more Vegas trips,
to go to COMDEX, and CES, and a number of conventions devoted to
the coin-operated amusements industry. Each plan fell through
for a variety reasons. Then, last fall, a new pinball game showed
up at our favorite arcade, the Boardwalk, based on the summer
movie "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines."
( www.sternpinball.com/terminator2.htm )
A new pinball game?! We checked the back glass and saw that the
manufacturer was Stern. Hooray! Pinball isn't dead!
We played this game all during the California recall campaign,
listening to the voice of Arnold saying "I'll be back!" and
"Come with me if you want to live," providing a comic backdrop
to the political circus.
What is it about pinball that makes it so enticing to us?
After all, I am also a fan of video games, and was rooting
for them from the outset. But they definitely lack something
that pinball has. One of the "Replay" magazines I was reading
back in Santa Cruz 1976 had an interview with media guru Marshall
McLuhan. "the games are very sexy," he said, and went on to talk
about how, if you play them right, you use your whole body. Later
I learned the work "kinesthetic" to describe this attribute.
The Who referred to this obliquely in the song "Pinball Wizard"
from the "Tommy" album, about a deaf, dumb and blind kid who
becomes a pinball champion:
"He ain't got no distractions
Can't hear those buzzers and bells,
Don't see lights a flashin'
Plays by sense of smell.
Always has a replay,
'n' never tilts at all...
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball."
And so, with renewed hope for the future of pinball, Bob and I
made plans to return to Vegas for the Amusement Showcase International,
being held March 9-11, 2004, to find out what was new in the coin-op
( asi-show.com )
* * * * * *
"Coincidence -- you weren't paying attention to the
other half of what was going on."
-- Chad C. Mulligan, 2010
"The Hipcrime Vocab"
(quoted by John Brunner, 1968
"Stand On Zanzibar")
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1857988361/hip-20 )
Meanwhile, I have another friend named Dave W. who I never would
have met if it weren't for a coincidence. In the fall of 1979,
having just moved back to my boyhood home of San Diego, I was looking
for a job. As was my habit before the Web, I started my search
at the public library, following advice in the book "What Color Is
Your Parachute?" (1974) by Richard Nelson Bolles.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1580085415/hip-20 )
I took a city bus downtown and accidently got off at the wrong stop.
As I walked the eight blocks or so to the library, I passed a the
office of a recruiter (also known as a "headhunter"). I stopped
in and gave him a copy of my resume. I ended up getting a job at
Datagraphix, a division of General Dynamics that made Computer
Output to Microfilm (COM) equipment. There I made a friend, Bob B.,
who was programming computers (I was a tech writer at the time).
He actually helped me get my next job, at a company he helped found,
Datasystems, programming Nova computers in assembly language, which
I'd learned while working at Data General. (I had a lot of jobs
early on with companies whose name stared with "Data." All are
now gone.) Bob B. introduced me to Dan E., who helped get me a
subsequent job, at GTI, my first 3D computer graphics job. This
lead to a career arc that took me to Los Angeles and into the scientific
visualization field. Dan E. introduced me to Will A. He used to
hold intellectual salons at his home, which he called "Mind Orgies"
(a brilliant marketing move). At the time my wife was attending
Mesa College in San Diego, and Will had a friend also studying there
named Dave W. After insisting repeatedly that I needed to meet this
guy, and after about 3 tries, Will managed to link me up with Dave,
not long before we made the move to LA. Soon afterwards, Dave made
the move to Loma Linda, east of LA, to attend medical school,
going for an MD/PhD. When the SIGGRAPH '93 computer graphics
convention was held in Anaheim, I was living about 30 minutes
away in Bellflower, and Dave convinced me to host a party at our
apartment for the folks attending the newly-formed Virtual Reality panel.
Shortly afterwards my boss (I was doing 3D graphics for the space
station program at Rockwell) held a party to which I invited Dave, and
he was his fist VR "data glove." This ultimately lead to Dave using VR
with disabled kids in the pediatric rehab facility at Loma Linda.
Later in the 1990s Dave spent some time at Syracuse University
before returning to Loma Linda to finally get his PhD, and then
landed back in San Diego about the same time I did, in 1998.
By this time he had gotten the military, especially the The Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- the same folks who
brought us the Internet.
( www.darpa.mil )
interested in his VR and human interface research. He was invited to
participate in the first military training exercise for humanitarian
relief efforts, Operation Strong Angel, held on a volcanic plane on
the big island of Hawaii in 2000.
( www.strongangel.org )
( www.mindtel.com/projects/sa/images/exercise )
One of his team's contributions was the Experimental Video And Audio
(EVA) enhanced telepresence system.
( www.medibolt.com/users/davew/b3k-01/adey-01/EVAx.doc )
After 9/11, Pentagon interest in new technologies to counter
terrorism gave Dave's research greater visibility. (This is
how I ended up doing visualizations of potential bioterrorism threats
in the fall of 2001.) In 2003 he produced the Shadow Bowl, a security
awareness event simultaneous with the Super Bowl in San Diego.
( www.mindtel.com/projects/shadowbowl/graphics1 )
This lead to his company, Mindtel, being invited to provide emergency
communications for the DARAPA Grand Challenge, a race of autonomous
(driverless) ground vehicles from Barstow to Las Vegas in March 2004.
( www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge )
As I mentioned in last month's e-Zine, Dave invited me to produce
a web site on the history of the route,
( www.well.com/~abs/EastMojave2004 )
and then also invited me to produce some 3D graphics of my research
and bring it to a "shadow event" called "Operation Desert Bloom"
at Barstow College during the race. This would put me in Barstow
area on March 12 and 13, right after the ASI show in Las Vegas which
Bob S. and I were already planning to attend. (Just think, this a
gig I wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't missed that bus 25 years ago.)
TO BE CONTINUED...
This announcement just missed being in last months Odds & Ends:
From: Gordon Feller
Date: Mon Mar 1, 2004 12:18:15 PM US/Pacific
Subject: Curriculum for Cybernetics and Systems Theory
Dear Alan B. Scrivener:
Please see the Bateson Conference announcement:
This Gregory Bateson centennial event is becoming a place where many who
have worked with his ideas will have an opportunity to see the
inter-connections between the various field in which he made such a
We're certainly hoping that you will consider attending.
We are working very hard to make this event a meaningful opportunity for
nearly 250 people from around the world.
Bateson Conference Manager
San Francisco, CA
PS: Can we send word out to your list used for "Cybernetics in the Third
PPS: Please pass this along to friends and colleagues whom you think
would be interested...
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Copyright 2004 by Alan B. Scrivener