WARNING: Sesame Street may be dangerous for your child

cookiemonster_200.jpgOne of the items I put on my Amazon Wish List (go ahead – click the link and buy me something…. I’ll wait) this year was Sesame Street: Old School, a DVD compilation of shows from 1970s-era Sesame Street. Back when The Count was actually scary, Mister Snuffleupagus was still invisible to everyone except Bird, and LONG before that Grover-wannabe Elmo took over the show – that’s what’s on these DVDs.

Little did I know that this supposedly “educational” TV show was actually causing damage to my young impressionable brain. Yes – that’s right. Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Looper are responsible for the hollow shell of a person I have become! Those old Sesame Street episodes are now considered unsuitable for children. From The NY Times Magazine:

Sunny days! The earliest episodes of “Sesame Street” are available on digital video! …

Just don’t bring the children. According to an earnest warning on Volumes 1 and 2, “Sesame Street: Old School” is adults-only: “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

Say what? At a recent all-ages home screening, a hush fell over the room…What they did to us was hard-core. Man, was that scene rough. The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes. Oscar’s depression was untreated…

Nothing in the children’s entertainment of today, candy-colored animation hopped up on computer tricks, can prepare young or old for this frightening glimpse of simpler times. Back then — as on the very first episode, which aired on PBS Nov. 10, 1969 — a pretty, lonely girl like Sally might find herself befriended by an older male stranger who held her hand and took her home. Granted, Gordon just wanted Sally to meet his wife and have some milk and cookies, but… well, he could have wanted anything. As it was, he fed her milk and cookies. The milk looks dangerously whole.

It all makes sense now. The Gen-X stupor of the 1990s wasn’t a result of grunge, disaffection or lack of direction, but those monsters at Children’s Television Worship!

I asked Carol-Lynn Parente, the executive producer of “Sesame Street,” how exactly the first episodes were unsuitable for toddlers in 2007. She told me about Alistair Cookie and the parody “Monsterpiece Theater.” Alistair Cookie, played by Cookie Monster, used to appear with a pipe, which he later gobbled. According to Parente, “That modeled the wrong behavior” — smoking, eating pipes — “so we reshot those scenes without the pipe, and then we dropped the parody altogether.”

I always wondered where my penchant for devouring pipes originated; now I know. Thanks Sesame Street. Thanks a lot.

(In all seriousness, nothing in those early shows can hold a candle to the disturbing “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce” – a canceled episode that was supposed to be aired in 1992.)

[The New York Times Magazine]

The Atari 2600 celebrates 30 years of low-rez fun

As my 35th birthday approaches, an old friend is celebrating 30 years… the Atari 2600! Retro Thing is doing an “Atari Week” feature, with several pieces about the first device that defined “video game” for the majority of us thirty-somethings.

The Atari 2600’s impact upon the gaming world was immense. No less than eight variations were produced over its stunning 14 year lifespan, along with three Sears-branded models and over a dozen clones. The system sold in excess of 40 million units, and AtariAge lists well over 1300 different game titles. This is all the more incredible because the system was envisioned to have only a two or three year lifespan before being replaced by something more sophisticated. That day never came. Even though Atari made repeated attempts to surpass their initial design, the 2600 remained the pinnacle of the company’s console gaming success.

Christmas 1980
Christmas morning, 1980

Many fuzzy memories:

  • Begging my parents to drop me off at John Arnett’s house to play his 2600 before my piano lessons.
  • The hilarity of Basketball’s square ball.
  • Being awed by the ability to play Space Invaders without having to drop a quarter at the arcade. (and the syncopated rhythm when there’s only four attackers left)
  • Finally getting an Atari of my own for Christmas. Thanks Mom and Dad! Uh, I mean, Santa!
  • Staying up all night at John Merritt’s house to beat Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • Playing, enjoying, and beating E.T., years before the internet told me I was supposed to hate it.
  • Checking out my friends’ latest acquisitions each Saturday at the Cub Scout meeting. Including Journey Escape – Now THAT game was a stinker.
  • …and finally giving it up for the Commodore 64 [links to an archive of my C64 site from several years ago]

Atari 2600 with ubiquitous Combat cartridge - courtesy AtariTimes.comThe Atari 2600 seems so quaint in comparison to what we have today, but it was capable of some truly amazing things given it’s limitations. It had a meager 128 bytes of memory – to put that in perspective, this blog post alone is 20 times that. Your average home computer today with a gigabyte of memory can hold over 8 million times that amount. The ability to create anything with those limitations, let alone some of the classics that were produced for the 2600, is nothing short of incredible.

[Retro Thing]

Xbox 360 spring update to offer h.264 and MPEG-4 video playback

Besides being a gaming console, the Xbox 360 has quite a bit of functionality as a media extender. Music, video, and pictures that are stored on your home PC can be streamed to the 360 for viewing on your TV – very handy, but up to this point it has been crippled quite a bit. Currently, the only video formats Microsoft has allowed users to view via the 360 are Windows Media Video, MPEG-1, and MPEG-2. There are a number of hacks out there that do a good job of shoehorning in support for other formats, including Transcode 360 and TVersity, but they both have a number of drawbacks.

The good news is, on May 7 Microsoft will be sending out the spring update to all internet-connected Xbox 360s. Listed among the many updates:

  • H.264 video support: Up to 15 Mbps, Baseline, Main, and High (up to level 4.1) Profiles with 2 channel AAC LC and Main Profiles.
  • Added MPEG-4 Part 2 video support: Up to 8 Mbps, Simple Profile with 2 channel AAC LC and Main Profiles.

This is a welcome update – whether or not Xvid will be supported is still up in the air, but this is definitely a step in the right direction. Not to mention a slightly obvious attempt to take a little wind out of the sails of the recently released Apple TV, which is primarily an MPEG-4/H.264 playback device. I was seriously considering buying one, but if the Xbox 360 I already own has the same functionality, I think I’ll stick with what I’ve got!

Related Entries

Free Software of the Week: Handbrake

Related Links

Xbox News: Instant Messaging Comes to Xbox 360

Transcode 360

TVersity

Star Diamond

Some 20 Christmases ago, my grandparents gave me a program for my Commodore 64 called Adventure Writer. Unlike the rest of the games I owned, this one actually allowed you to create games – specifically, text-based adventure games such as Zork.

For all practical purposes, the genre – known these days among enthusiasts as Interactive Fiction – died in the early 90s. At least in the commercial sense. But my first memory of using an actual computer was playing the original Adventure on the mainframe at the local community college with my dad when I was 7 or 8 years old.

So anyway – back to Adventure Writer. Like most kids interested in computers and videogames, I imagined myself being able to make games for a living when I grew up. With Adventure Writer, I had a way to make my own games without having to know one of the advanced programming languages (you can only do so much with BASIC).

I worked for weeks on my magnum opus, the creatively-named “Star Diamond”. I sent it in to Compute!’s Gazette for possible publication, but a few weeks later, I received a rejection letter – I was one devastated 11 year old. And so died my dreams of being a famous video game designer.

But thanks to the magics of the interweb, Star Diamond shall finally see the light of day! I usually dust off my Commodore 64 around this time every year, and last year I found a copy of the game on one of my ancient floppy disks. So, I’ve repackaged it and made it available for download here [1.8 MB] – it’s Windows-only for the time-being. After playing through it a while and trying to remember how to win the game, I realize how *bad* it actually is 🙂 At any rate, the unwashed masses may now be witness to my game design genius.

Here are some brief directions, for those unfamiliar with text adventures:

The basic idea of the user interface is command and response. The program gives you a command prompt, then you type in some command and press Enter/Return. The computer chews on your input for a bit, then tells you the results and gives you a new prompt.

The most important question now is: “What do I type?”

BASIC COMMANDS

Most of the commands you use will be simple and direct. Typing OPEN THE DESK causes your character to (you guessed it) open the desk. Type GET THE PENCIL, and you will pick it up. The process is simple. When faced with the command prompt, just think “I want to…” or “What happens if I…” and let your mind work from there. INVENTORY (abbreviated I) displays a list of items you are carrying.

EXAMINE (sometimes abbreviated X and/or EXA) gives you a closer look at things. It’s used hundreds of times in the course of a typical game.

LOOK (abbreviated L) by itself gives you a detailed description of your location. I always type L just to be doing something while I’m thinking of what to do next.

This is one of the most versatile commands. You can LOOK AT THE CHEST, LOOK ON THE CHEST, LOOK IN THE CHEST, LOOK UNDER THE CHEST, LOOK BEHIND THE CHEST. All of these could give different, unique responses.

GO is a very important command, even if you may never actually type it. Even though GO NORTH, for example, is a command you need to move around, you can abbreviate it to NORTH or even just N.

GET, TAKE, and PICK UP are synonyms. You’ll find many objects you can pick up and carry around with you. If you can’t pick something up, the game will give you a reason, which you may be able to rectify.

DROP and PUT are how you put objects down. DROP is quick and easy, but it just puts the objects on the ground. PUT can be more specific,though, allowing you to PUT THE BOOK ON THE TABLE, for instance.

WAIT tells the computer you want to do nothing for a turn. In almost all games, no game time actually passes while the computer is waiting for your input. Use WAIT to force time to pass.

So… that’s about it. Have fun!

Download Star Diamond

It’s about time

This September: Original Unaltered Trilogy on DVD

Fans can look forward to a September filled with classic Star Wars nostalgia, led by the premiere of LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy video game and the long-awaited DVD release of the original theatrical incarnations of the classic Star Wars trilogy.

I really don’t mind most of the cosmetic changes George Lucas made to the original trilogy, but stuff like CGI Jabba in A New Hope and “Emo-Vader” in Return of the Jedi is distracting.

I suppose I can sell my 10 year old LaserDisc copies now…

Edit: Of course, right after I post this, I realized that HD-DVD and Blu-ray make their debut this year. I wonder how long it’ll take for the original versions to make it to this next generation of discs.

Edit Edit: As more information has come forth, this looks more and more like a lame money grab. No anamorphic encoding, no surround sound, etc. Basically they are the same as my 10 year old LaserDisc copies. No thanks.