Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Anyone know?

Ok, someone needs to tell me if I’m going insane.

English was one of two subjects I got A’s in at school. After school, I went to college and did my A-levels (the equivalent of an American Associate’s degree) and got an A in English there as well. Finally I went on to University and got my Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature with a minor in writing studies.

As such, you’d expect me to know my way around the written word, right?

Then, last night, I read an article and found the way I write dialogue is supposedly completely wrong. I’m trying to work out if I’ve been taught by a parade of incompetent teachers, if this is a stylistic thing or if it’s an American English Vs. British English thing.

The way I was taught to write dialogue is that, for basic grammar, you essentially ignore the quotation marks, for example:

“If the spoken sentence ends with a period, the next word should start with a capital letter.” Said the Teacher.


“If the spoken sentence is broken by a comma,” said the Teacher, “you don’t capitalize.”

Then, today, I was reading an article on grammar and discovered the so-called ‘sentence extensions’ should never be capitalized unless it begins with a proper noun. For example:

“Even though there’s a period at the end of the quoted sentence, you shouldn’t capitalize the extension.” said the teacher.

“Of course, if a proper noun is at the start of the extension, you should still capitalize it.” Bob said.

To be honest, I think both ways make sense…but I can’t work out if this is a stylistic thing, and American English Vs. British English thing…or if all my English teachers have taught me the wrong way to write dialogue.

Is there anyone ‘in the know’ that can set me straight? I’m even more confused after writing this because when I tried to type in the supposed ‘correct’ way (not capitalizing the sentence extension), Microsoft word auto-correct kicked in and capitalized it for me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Path to True Geekhood.

My first ever computer was an ‘Acorn Electron’ that my parents bought in 1983 when I was just two years old. It wasn’t bought for me, but it was the computer I (literally) cut my teeth on. To this day it remains one of my favorite computers ever…and I actually still have it (although, right now it’s in the loft a my parents’ house).

From a quick check on Wikipedia, it retailed in England for around £199, or roughly $350 dollars…of course, this is in 1983 dollars, which would be roughly $800 dollars in today’s money…and considering the specs, it shows just how far we’ve come.

The Acorn Electron was the ‘cut down’ version of the extremely popular BBC Micro (a computer that was in nearly every British school in the early 80’s). It featured a whopping 32k of RAM, and blisteringly fast 1mhz processor, and had graphics chip capable of producing up to sixteen colors at a super-sharp resolution of 160x256.

To put it another way, a modern microwave probably has ten times the raw processing power of this beast…but I loved it anyway.

The Acorn Electron is one of the reasons I laugh when people call modern computers ‘hard to use’. When you hooked up your electron to your TV and turned it on, you got a blinking cursor and that was it. Then, you either loaded a program from a cassette tape, using a perfectly normal tape deck…or you wrote your program by hand. In fact, I remember my parents doing just that on many occasions. My dad would buy a computer magazine…but in 1983, ‘bundled software’ didn’t come on a disc…you got a printout that you copied by hand (and hopefully remembered to save to a cassette before you ran it).

The first game I ever played was called ‘Bugzap’. There was a capital letter ‘A’ at the bottom of the screen that served as your ‘spaceship’ and you moved it left and right with the ‘Z’ and ‘X’ keys. When you pressed the space bar, you’d shoot at a letter ‘X’ that disappeared and reappeared randomly at the top of the screen. Every time you missed it would move one line closer to the bottom of the screen. If it got to the bottom, you lost…if you got it, the game would start over.

Yeah, kids…think about that the next time you complain that the graphics on your Xbox game aren’t very good.

The game I remember most was one my mum actually hand copied from one of those magazine printouts. I don't remember what it was actually called, but I just called it ‘Santa’. This was graphically advanced for its time with four different colors and featured a very blocky red sleigh. (Games required imagination back then) The sleigh flew from left to right over the top of the screen, and when you pressed the space bar, a present would drop from the sleigh and you had to land it in a chimney of one of the three houses on the bottom of the screen.

In the 80’s, one of my favorite Electron games became ‘Exile’, check out this awesome screenshot:

If you're wondering what the multicolored mess around the screen is, that's an old trick where the programmers would leave non-graphical data in the display buffer to gain additional memory space. In case you're wondering what the multicolored mess in the middle of the screen is...that's the actual game. That's the jet-pack flying astronaut in his space ship.

Next came a computer legend: The Commodore 64:

This is the machine that solidified me into a fully fledged geek. You can count the time I spent in front of this machine in years.

It was a huge step up from the Electron, with its Herculean 64k of memory, 320x210 display...and the ability to play more than a single sound at once.

To be honest, I got this computer for Christmas at the very end of its life cycle. It actually came out in the same year as the Electron, but I didn't get it until the late 80's, and by that time, the Amiga 500 was king. Of course, the Amiga was selling at that time for £699 (well over a thousand dollars) and the C64 was selling for £100 at that time.

(In fact, I just checked, I mus have got this computer in 1991, because I remember it came bundled with a ROM Cartridge (!!!) that had the Terminator 2 game on it.

The ROM cartridge was a huge deal, despite the fact I never actually got another cartridge game for it. I had a Sega Master System at the time, but up until that point all my computer games had been on cassette tapes. Cartridges loaded instantly and that was a huge deal.

In fact let me take a second to talk about cassette tapes, because it's something the kids of today have never and will never experience. Shortly before I got rid of the C64 I bought Street Fighter 2 for it...a game that went down in history as not only the worst Street Fighter port, but one of the worst games ever. Let me describe the experience:

You put in the tape, typed LOAD "*", 1 and pressed enter. The screen would go blank and start to flash. About five minutes later, you'd get to the character select screen. You'd pick your character, then...the screen would go blank and flash for another five minutes. Then you'd fight three rounds...then the screen would go blank and flash for five minutes.

Five minutes between every round...I'm not even joking.

But I loved my C64.

One school summer holiday, I went to the library, borrowed a book on BASIC and spent the next six weeks writing a 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' text adventure. I had almost no idea what I was doing and programmed it in the longest, most complicated way possible. I consisted of about fifteen rooms and a handful of puzzles, but I shudder to think how many lines of BASIC code I wrote.

By the time I sold it four years later, I'd accumulated three large trash bags literally stuffed with cassette tapes. Some where actual bought games, most were cover tapes from Zzap64! and CommodoreForce...but I'm really sad to say my own text adventure was among them. Sadly, the person I sold it to had no clue about computers and was buying it for her young daughter. I'd have loved to see my game end up for download on one of those retro software sites.

Then, in 1995, I moved up to the big leagues:

I've already explained in a previous post how I came into possession of my first real PC, and even though the specs are laughable by today's standards, after my C64, it might as well have been a mainframe supercomputer. I didn't even care that it didn't even have a CD-ROM or a sound card. (In fact, if you ask me, the only way to play the original 'Alone in the Dark' is with the sounds coming from the PC's internal speaker).

What I didn't tell you is that within two months of getting it, I completely broke it. In hindsight, I'm glad I did, because it's what finally cemented me into true geekhood.

You see, my awesome P75 had this brand new, ultra-sophisticated, brand-new operating system called Windows95. Unfortunately, the handful of my friends who had PC's (who I borrowed a lot of games from) still had old 486's running DOS. Windows95 wasn't exactly known for it's backwards compatibility...so I had a hard time getting a few games to run.

So I came up with an awesome idea. Why don't I just get an older copy of DOS and install that? All these games keep telling me I have the wrong version of DOS, so installing an older version will fix all my problems, right?

Yeah, I was about to learn a lesson. Mostly that you couldn't run two operating systems side by side, and that installing DOS 4.0 meant Windows 95 couldn't run...and, just to add the icing on the cake, you couldn't install Windows 95 under DOS 4.0

Of course, it was an easy fix. All I had to do was format the drive and re-install windows...but this was my first ever PC and I didn't have a clue.

Luckily, my Uncle Alan was a computer buff, and when I called him in a panic because I'd just broken the £1700 computer my parents had bought me, over the next few months I basically became his Padawan Learner.

I say I'm glad I broke the computer, because if I hadn't had the motivation to get my hands dirty, I'd still probably be a clueless computer user. Within a year I was making a sideline by building computers for people from scratch (although I eventually put a stop to this because most people assumed that if I built a computer for them, they were also buying 24-hour free Tech Support for perpetuity.)

Yup, there's nothing quite like getting a phone call at 11.30pm that goes like this:

"I bought this computer from you a year ago, now I've installed this thing I found on the internet and now it won't work! You ripped me off! Come and fix it now!"

Anyway, as I mentioned in a previous post, that P75 served me well until 2003 when I moved to the US. Of course, along the way it went through four different processors, three different motherboards and two different cases along with more memory and video card upgrades than I can count...but I never stopped thinking about it as that P75 that I found in the Kitchen in the great big box on Christmas morning.

My parents even used it for a good few years after I moved...but without anyone knowledgeable enough to keep it current, it eventually withered to the point where it was cheaper to buy a whole new computer than to upgrade the old one.

I'm not sure what my parents did with it when they got their new computer...but if I'd had my way, it would have been pushed out to sea on a flaming Viking longboat.

For completeness, I've also owned and played with a few more other computers, but these are the ones that stand out.

Anyway, I suppose the moral of the story is this:

Next time your computer doesn't work right and you feel like chucking it through the window...just be glad your software isn't on cassettes.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Thought For Christmas

A couple of days ago, Sunny and I went to finish our Christmas shopping. When we were done, we split up to buy gifts for ourselves. (I know it’s odd buying gifts for ourselves instead of each other, but I wanted a game and Sunny wanted clothes…if we’d bought them for each other we’d have ended up exchanging them anyway).

Anyway, a few minutes later, we met up again and Sunny asked me what I’d got. The conversation went something like this:

“What game did you get?”


“Pokemon? What? Are you twelve?

“No. I’m 29, but I’m not going to pretend fun things aren’t fun anymore just because I’m older.”

It’s true. As a society, I think we take ourselves way too seriously. We grow up, become ‘adults’, then spend the rest of our lives developing ulcers because we’re so stressed out.

Here’s the deal, it’s Christmas morning. Don’t just watch your kids play with their presents… get down on the floor and play with them as well. I don’t care if you’re a bank manager or the goddamn CEO of a multinational corporation. Forget the way you’re ‘supposed’ to behave and pretend you’re seven years old again.

I guarantee you’ll make an amazing discovery. Playing with Legos or driving an RC car is exactly as awesome when you’re forty as it was when you were four.

Yeah, it’s not ‘dignified’, yeah, you’re being childish…but so what?

Let me let you in on a little secret. I turn 30 in less than a month… but hand me a coloring book and some crayons and I will color the shit out of some dinosaurs. I spend significant amounts of time thinking about Batman or mentally planning the Ultimate Treehouse. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I pretend I’m piloting an X-Wing. When I walk through an automatic door I wave my hand and pretend I’m opening it with the force.

The only difference between me and 99.9% of everyone else is I’ll actually admit it.

Sure, we’re adults, there are times when we have to be grown up. We have responsibilities…but just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally turn the couch cushions and a few blankets into a sweet fort.

It’s Christmas Day. Chances are there are a ton of new toys in your house this morning.

Take the time to be a kid again. It’s fun.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Morning

One of my earliest memories (if not the earliest memory I have) is of a Christmas morning…but it’s not actually much of a memory.

If memories from this week are pristine Hi-Def recordings and memories from my early teens are slightly worse-for-wear VHS tapes…this memory is a short cutting of cine-camera film that’s been left on the floor and walked on for a few decades.

The memory starts outside the living room door from my first house in Liverpool. I know I was two years old, because we moved away from Liverpool when I was three. I may have been one, but I doubt it.

It goes like this: I remember standing outside the living room door with my mum and dad. Someone pushed open the door and I ran into the room, past the Christmas tree and skidded to a stop on my knees next to a white metal-framed rocking horse…then the screen goes blank. Then there’s a brief flash of sitting on the couch, eating a piece of hot buttered toast while Paul McCartney’s ‘We all Stand Together’ played in the background.

That’s it, the whole memory. It’s more of a feeling than a memory…but that’s what most of my memories of my time in Liverpool are like…short, out of context bursts of experience populated by faceless people.

It’s weird, but I remember that rocking horse in vivid detail, but I have no idea if it was for me or my brother. It’s strange how some details stand out while others are completely lost.

My favorite Christmas memory, however, was Christmas 1995.

I’d spent years lobbying for a PC. I’d tried everything, pointing out how it would help with schoolwork, and I’d need one when I started college. My Commodore 64 just wasn’t going to cut it.

I didn’t hold out much hope. We were never anything approaching poor, but we weren’t what you’d call rich either. I knew from experience that when it came to Christmas presents, $100 was usually the upper limit, and this was at the time when even a basic, entry-level PC was around $1500.

To my complete and total surprise, my parents agreed. Apparently my Dad had a Christmas bonus or something coming, and they said they’d get me a PC for Christmas on the understanding that while it was ostensibly ‘my’ Christmas gift, the whole family would get to use it.

This was in October and I was on Cloud f**king Nine. Like I said, we never had a huge amount of cash. When my friends had Super Nintendos, I had a Sega Master System. When my friends had Amiga’s, I had a Commodore 64. Suddenly, I was going to have a PC, the holy grail of gaming. (Yeah, I know I told my parents how useful it would be for schoolwork, but 99% of my computer time was taken up by X-Wing and TIE-Fighter…I was 15, sue me).

Then, shortly before Christmas, after visiting various computer stores with my parents to pick out the one we should get… disaster struck. I got in from school one afternoon in November and my Mum told me that Dad’s bonus hadn’t come through, so they wouldn’t be able to get me the PC for Christmas.

I was crushed. They told me that they were still going to get me a PC, but it would be in February or March.

I’m pleased to say I took it with good grace. As long as I was going to get one eventually, I didn’t care. I’d been lobbying for a PC since 1992…another three months wouldn’t kill me.

In fact, I was a very laid back kid. One year when I was about seven or eight, I’d asked for a radio controlled car and got up on Christmas morning to find it wasn’t there. It was two hours later and I was having a blast painting pictures with the set of poster paints I’d been given before my dad finally snapped and asked me why I hadn’t asked where my car was and I should probably look behind the couch.

Hey, sometimes Santa brings you what you ask for, sometimes he doesn’t. I’d just figured, hey, no car…but these paints are really frikkin’ cool and I got a couple of new comic books to read when I was done.

Anyway, I bought their story hook, line and sinker. You see, my parents had never been squeamish about talking to me about money. On a couple of rare occasions, when there was something I’d really wanted, I’d forgo a ‘big’ Christmas present so I could get what I really wanted on my Birthday in January when my parents could take advantage of the January sales.

So I bought their story. In fact, it’s a credit to their acting ability that when my asshole brother tried to ruin the surprise for me by telling me they had bought the PC for me a week before Christmas, I didn’t believe him for an instant. Their story was bullet proof.

On Christmas morning, I got out of bed, came downstairs and unwrapped my presents. One of the gifts was a package of floppy discs and another was one of those disc storage boxes. My mum told me that they’d bought them for me to show me that they were definitely going to buy me the computer in March.

It’s tradition in the Malone Household that after we open our presents, Dad makes everyone tea and toast, so I was slightly surprised when my Mum asked me to go put the kettle on.

You can probably see what’s coming.

I opened the door into the kitchen, and there, on the floor was a gigantic box with words like ‘Pentium’ and ‘Megabyte’ on the side. I literally dropped to my knees in shock. Not only had they bought me the PC, it was the one that I’d looked at as my ‘dream’ computer, which had produced a smirk and a ‘don’t even think about it’ from my Mum when I’d pointed it out.

I was a Pentium 75, with 8 megabytes of memory and a whopping 500mb hard drive. Sure, there are cell-phones that leave it in the dust today, but back then it was state of the freaking art.

It was the PC I cut my teeth on and I used it right up until I moved to the USA in 2003…of course, in that time, I upgraded every single component in the thing at least twice, including the monitor and the case, but it was still that same computer, I don’t care what anyone says.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Growing up in England, I never saw the animated version of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’. I think seeing this ‘Christmas Classic’ for the first time as an adult has given me something of a unique viewpoint on it.

Without the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia, it’s truly fucking horrifying. Here’s why:

Being different in any way is shameful and wrong.

Okay, imagine your child is born with a minor deformity. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say your child is born with one normal eye, but there is no color to the other eye’s iris. Your kids doesn’t care and is perfectly happy with his ‘different’ eye, so what do you do? Leave your kid be, or tell him he should be ashamed of his weird eye and force him to wear an uncomfortable contact lens?

If you’re Rudolph’s dad, you do the latter. In the movie, Rudolph’s parents force him to wear a false nose. They tell him flat out that being different is bad and he should be deeply ashamed of his deformity and hide it away.

Of course, he eventually loses the false nose, so what do his peers do? Accept him and tell him being different isn’t anything to be ashamed of?

Nope! All the other young reindeer laugh at Rudolph and basically call him a freak.

At first, I assumed this was a setup for Santa to turn up and chastise the other reindeer, or for some adult authority figure to back up poor Rudolph and teach the kids some lesson about tolerance. Instead, the ‘coach’ in charge of the ‘Reindeer games’ turns up, literally screams at Rudolph’s nose…and bans him, not just from the reindeer games, but from having any interaction whatsoever with the ‘normals’ ever again.

Think about it. Santa, the elves and all the reindeer make Rudolph a total outcast because his nose is a different color. No wonder there are no black elves.

The North Pole is a Totalitarian Dictatorship

In this movie, the North Pole is not a very nice place. Rather than being a happy, magical land where it’s Christmas all year round, it’s essentially a slave-labor work camp where conformity is brutally enforced and any dissenting ideas are crushed with an iron fist. We’ve already seen how Rudolph immediately becomes an outcast because his nose is a different color… but it turns out that ‘thought crime’ is a very real concept in Santaland.

Think I’m exaggerating? Imagine having your entire life planned out for you from birth. You’re going to be forced into a job you despise for your entire life…and if you even suggest you’d rather do anything else… your friends, family and everyone you know will out and out despise you for it. In the North Pole, you either fall into line, do as you’re told or become a complete and total outcast.

Look at poor Hermey. The poor kids isn’t longing for some dream career. It’s not like he works in a cubicle farm and dreams of being a rock star…the poor bastard wants to be a freaking dentist for Christ’s sake…just a perfectly normal, everyday job that isn’t making toys.

What does he get for suggesting he’d like a different career? Just like Rudolph he is ridiculed, punished and made into an outcast.

Santa is a total asshole.

Oh, God is Santa as asshole.

Picture the scene. You’re an Elf at the North Pole. You’ve spent all year building toys for children in sweat-shop style conditions. Of course, you can’t be making toys all the time, so in what little free time you have left, you and all the other Elves write a song for your Great and Glorious Leader For Eternity Santa Claus.

Santa already has a pretty sweet gig. The Elves spent 364 days a year slaving away making toys. Santa spends one day a year delivering those toys …and gets all the credit.

So how does he react when he has to take five minutes to listen to the song that his unpaid workforce has written about how awesome he is? He says “I’m busy, you’d better make this quick.”

Then he spends the entirety of the song glowering at the singers, looking completely and totally bored and put out. When it’s over he stands up, says “It needs work. I have to go.”

What the fuck, Santa? If a group of people wrote a song about how awesome *I* am, even if it was the worst song ever written, I’d be touched and happy about it. I certainly wouldn’t bitch and moan to Mrs. Claus later about how I can’t even eat because that ‘silly elf song is driving me crazy’.

That’s not even the worst of Santa’s douchebaggery. What does Jolly old Saint Nick say to Rudolph’s dad when he sees Rudy’s glowing nose? He tells him he should be ashamed of himself.

Imagine taking your handicapped kid to work and your boss telling you that you should be ashamed for giving life to such an obvious abomination against nature…in front of all your friends and co-workers.

Of course, Rudolph’s dad isn’t exactly a paragon of fatherhood either. He doesn’t react by goring the shit out of the intolerant fat bastard, he hangs his head in shame.

If you’re different, you can gain grudging acceptance by being useful.

So disaster strikes and fog rolls in, meaning Santa can’t fly his sleigh and no-one will get any presents. Then someone remembers the poor freak Rudolph and realizes they can profit from his deformity.

Let me be absolutely clear here. No one actually apologizes to Rudolph. No one learns any lessons about tolerance or how being different can be a good thing…They go to see him and act like they’re doing him a massive favor by allowing him to save their asses. They don’t even show the slightest bit of remorse.

How I would have ended the movie.

Ok, so the North Pole is a dictatorship. Santa is a complete and utter asshole and everyone treats Rudolph like he’s some sort of goddamn child molester just because his nose is a different color…right up until the point they need him. If I came in to write the last act of this movie, here’s how it would go:

Santa: “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Rudolph: “Fuck you, you fat bastard.”

The asshole didn’t even say please for fuck’s sake.