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visitors since May 12, 2002
January 14, 2003
Fireworks in the dark

Goddang. I forgot to mention the really cool thing about using a Macintosh Classic. The screensaver, man, the screensaver. As they say in the classics: it's all about the screensaver. If I was writing something and got stuck a simple remedy was at hand. I just had to wait a few minutes for the screensaver to kick in and provide me with a surprisingly adequate amount of prehistoric digital entertainment.

The screen would abruptly go black and a little white dot would blast off in a rising arc. Just after it started falling it would explode with fireworks. Then the screen would go dark again, and the little white dot would reappear somewhere else and launch at a different angle. Over time, I came to love that screensaver. I wrote a lot of stuff about it, some of which was in rhyme. It's early days yet, but this could well be The Year Of Extensive Screensaver Discussion.

Except for one thing, and that thing is Sudsy: Sudnow Syndrome. Named after David Sudnow, author of Pilgrim in the Microworld, a book of some kind. A book I recently read, in fact, and a book that I strongly recommend avoiding. It's 227 pages long, and about five of these pages are about his life away from the computer screen. (Sudnow briefly talks about his son at the very start and at the very end of the book. These pages aren't great, but they're better than the rest of the book.)

227 pages, minus 5, adds up to a great deal of information about the book's real topic: Breakout. This is an early computer game designed by Atari, who went broke not long after Pilgrim in the Microworld was published in 1983. I doubt there's a connection, but I'm happy to imply one.

Breakout was a huge hit in the gaming world, partially because of its then revolutionary gameplay. At the bottom of the screen was a little paddle that you could move from side to side. Above this, close to the top of the screen, was a solid wall of bricks. A bouncy ball would appear on your paddle and travel upwards. It'd hit one of the bricks and bounce back down, so you'd try to move the paddle to hit the ball back up against the bricks. Every time the ball hit a brick it would disappear, and the idea was to completely clear the screen of bricks. If you missed the ball on its way back down the machine would snort at you and give you another chance. But you only got five chances: five misses and you lost the game.

In the first half of the book Sudnow describes nearly half a million games, all of which he loses. For a while I admired his determination, then I pitied him, then I found the whole thing embarrassing. Ultimately, of course, I wondered why I was still reading.

To his credit, Sudnow tries to do a great many things along the undiscovered path to Breakout enlightenment. His book is part reflection on the relationship between people and technology, part Inner Game of Tennis, part scientific treatise, part Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He's also fairly consistent, at least in the sense that everything he tries doesn't work.

But his book offers a salutory lesson: remember who you are writing for. There's a school of thought that says "write about anything that's interesting to you, as long as you can make it interesting to others." Sudnow certainly follows this advice, but only up to the comma. He completely forgets to make his topic interesting. After about ten pages it also becomes obvious that he's not really addressing a human audience: if anything, he's writing for an audience of Atari bricks. Which is all very well, I guess, but they're not conscious beings and they can't read.

"With my tongue hanging out, I was on that plane of being where not even the simplest sorts of analytical reasoning flourish, and with a handful of bricks before me it was pure id, no ego, pure electricity, no program. Oh, please, you Atari bricks." - Pilgrim in the Microworld, p.78

Over the last few weeks I've spent a lot of time looking at an antique screensaver on an old Macintosh. I wrote something like twenty-three thousand words about it, but I very much doubt you'll ever get to read any of them.

Trust me on this: that's a good thing.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 05:58 PM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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