All posts by Richard Levine

Richard S. Levine has been a math teacher, a software engineer, and a video games designer. Now he’s busy writing speculative fiction.He has had stories published in Emerald Tales, OG’s Speculative Fiction, Raygun Revival, The Fifth Di, The Lorelei Signal, and other online and print magazines. “A Comic on Phobos” received a nomination for Samsdotpublishing’s James award. To learn more about Mr. Levine’s writings and his award winning classic video game, “Microsurgeon”, please visit rickslevine.com.

“PBA Bowling” among 100 greatest

I only recently realized that “The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987” (August 28, 2014) by Brett Weiss includes Mattel Electronics Intellivision game “PBA Bowling” in the list.  

Mike Minkoff and I were the first in-house Mattel Electronics programmers to create an Intellivision game.  We designed and developed “PBA Bowling” — John Sohl, developer of “Astrosmash”, helped with sounds — while working at APh Technological Consulting offices in Pasadena.

As a long-time bowler — about a 150 average growing up, and 160’s to 170’s in college — and part of a family of bowlers, I loved to bowl.  I had already programmed Mattel Handheld Bowling (1979, I think) and looked forward to incorporating more aspects of the sport into the console game.  Just to give you an idea of how much I was willing to do in order to bring the game to life, here’s a map of the kind of driving I was doing back then to work with Mike at APh in Pasadena, sometimes go into the office at Mattel (Hawthorne area), sometimes go to the computer lab at night at UC Irvine while I worked on my BSCS (Computer Science ’81), and then return home to Huntington Beach, CA.  This was a major reason why a year later I chose to take a job nearer to Irvine to complete my degree.

But it was only decades later that I discovered that one of my cousins, Mort Confeld, holds (or has it been broken?) the American Bowling Congress record for conversion of 5 consecutive 5-7 splits in Minneapolis, MN 1957.  An amazing feat, and quite a nice bowling history coincidence!  “PBA Bowling” is featured on the PBS website regarding the movie “League of Ordinary Gentlemen” about the history of bowling.

Math and games

Origami, folding paper into fascinating shapes and recognizable objects, is a form of gaming.  Now, computation geometry is being used to help folders perfect their origami creations.

Mathematics has long been the secret ingredient to games.  Many players don’t even know they are dealing with math, but it is often there nevertheless.  Did you know “Candy Crush” is a hard mathematics problem?

Really, mathematics is necessary in all kinds of video games ranging from complex simulations involving logistics to casino games, often requiring difficult statistical verification before release — to insure that the game does not bankrupt the house.

Even my games “Microsurgeon” and “Truckin'” relied on a number of decisions and logistics — highly related to mathematics — in order to save a patient or make cargo deliveries on time.  Speaking of logistics, “Tetris” is probably the most famous video game related to selecting shapes into rows in order to score points.

But did you know that packing your bags or Amazon packing your order is a logistics problem too?  If you find this kind of thing fascinating, as I do, you might like my upcoming video game.  More on that soon.

In the meantime, if you haven’t tried it already, you might like my game “Family Tree Solitaire“.  Since one hand’s score in the tree is connected to another hand’s score in the tree, there is mathematics behind the scene.  But all you really need to do is just enjoy playing.  It’s free.

Short form art

I refer here to short form as meaning artistic creations that are short by nature, such as short films, short stories, comics, many classic and more recent indie games [created in months, not years], and other short creations.

I’ve always thought that the beginning of the video games industry was not unlike the start of making silent films.  Little and limited technology, but lots of imagination and hard work.  Not everyone in the early games industry made it into the modern games field, just as many silent film stars did not make the transition into talkies.

Today, I dabble in short story writing and making small indie style video games.  These are my short forms of choice.  I’ve considered writing a novel, and maybe I still will, but I love short form.  It suits me, and I have always enjoyed and appreciated the work of others in the short form.

It is with sadness that I report the recent passing away of Keith Robinson who with his company kept Mattel Intellivision games in the minds and hearts of classic game players everywhere.  Keith’s many talents will be missed.  He wasn’t just a developer and entrepreneur of games.  He was also adept at creating comic strips, another wonderful short form.

 

 

1911 robot car

From the imagination and trick-filmmaking ability of Walter R. Booth — also a magician — comes this highly imaginative 1911 short film called “Automatic Motorist”.  

It’s amazing that back in 1911 movie makers were already predicting robot cars – or in this case, a robot chauffeur driving a car.  This 6 minute silent film has some nice little special effects for 1911, and although it literally and humorously goes “out there” in terms of what is possible, it gets the point across that automatic cars are potentially a dangerous thing.  I love the scene where the robot drives the car in a circle for a while.  A funny, but somewhat accurate prediction from 100 years ago.  It is feasible that without the proper failure mechanisms in place a robot car could get stuck in such a loop due to some software glitch.

Reminiscent of “Futureworld”

Scientists are just at the beginning of reading images from minds — in this case, from monkey’s minds.

In the movie “Futureworld” — sequel to the movie “Westworld”  — you might remember the Yul Brenner dream sequence, read from the mind of one of the main characters.  I don’t know how long it will be before researchers can achieve something like that, but it’s simultaneously exciting and frightening.

It was interesting to see HBO’s new “Westworld” series reimagine the original movie.  In particular, long dream — mixed with non-dream — sequences are being read from the minds of robots in order to test their memories and repair or modify them as needed.  Also exciting and equally frightening, especially since those in power think they know what’s best for the minds of their robot property and for the guests of Westworld.

Fighting Gorn in his 80’s

A few years ago, in an ad for a new “Star Trek” game, William Shatner was seen in his living room fighting the Gorn — according to Adweek.com.

I’m not touting the video game, but rather the fun little jab and nice memory of the scene between Captain Kirk (played by Shatner) and the alien Gorn in the wonderful old “Star Trek” episode, “Arena”.  It’s neat that an actor in his 80’s is fondly remembered for a television character and episode made 50 years ago.

Makes me wonder what I might be doing in my 80’s.  Classic (retro) gaming is still doing well around the world, remembering old video games from the 80’s.  Seems like a couple of times a year I’m still contacted for an interview or I read a tidbit online about my old games.

Microsurgeon” will be 50 years old in 2032.  Who knows, we might be going to Mars that year, so the world’s attention would certainly be on that.  But will classic gaming interests have moved on to games of 2002 or 2012?  Will anyone still play video games developed in the 1980’s?  I don’t know, but when I blog often I like to ponder such things…

It’s the 2030’s, and I see myself on a holodeck in my house battling life-size bacteria, viruses, lung cancer, and numerous other ailments to save my patient in “Microsurgeon: 2032″…

Bark or Woof?

New Scientists discusses robot dog sounds this week.  They say that sound, especially tuned to the size of the object, is an important element of companion robot pets.

Even if you decide you prefer a robot pet over a real one — or want both — and this algorithm will automatically handle sizing the voice to the robot — you still have to choose whether you prefer bark or woof or whatever other sound you like.

Robot Dog clip art

UI can cost your company money

According to The Washington Post, The Federal Trade Commission announced recently that parents whose children made Amazon purchases on mobile apps without their permission can begin getting their money back — possibly amounting to more than $70 million.

Something to think about when designing a user interface that involves purchases.  As shown in the video below, eBay got negative press over the same issue — children accidentally purchasing items with smartphones — a few years ago.

1989 Defender of the Crown CD-ROM

Back when I was working at Cinemaware in the late 1980’s, I was given the task of adding CD quality audio to “Defender of the Crown” for the PC (Mirrorsoft publisher).  It was already a successful game, but video games didn’t have high quality audio back then, so it was a neat thing to do.  Dave Riordan took care of creating the CD quality music and voices, while I added hooks to the code to play the music and narration off a CD-ROM.  Note that the version I created (shown at a conference) was not a mixed mode CD-ROM, as the code did not reside on the CD-ROM — I don’t know if Mirrorsoft later placed the code on the CD-ROM when it was published.

I had no idea until recently that there was a 1989 “New Scientist” magazine article about Mirrorsoft’s “Defender of the Crown” for CD-ROM.  I don’t know if the reviewer was talking about the specific Hitachi CD-ROM version with CD quality audio  I helped create, but it might have been.  The review is not especially flattering, but that may be because the reviewer calls himself “a games hater”

Wikipedia states, “The earliest examples of Mixed Mode CD audio in video games include the TurboGrafx-CD RPG franchises Tengai Makyo, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto from 1989 and the Ys series, composed by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa and arranged by Ryo Yonemitsu in 1989.”  But I worked on “Defender of the Crown” with CD quality audio in 1988, so it’s possible that Mirrorsoft’s version was the first video game to include CD quality audio.

Compact Disc 3 clip art

Artificial Intelligence is tops at Go

MIT Technology Review reports on how AlphaGo defeated the top human Go player in the world.  Now A.I. researchers are looking at even more complex games, like StarCraft.  It is interesting to note that StarCraft AI currently has over 60 bots listed.

It will be interesting to see if new bots take advantage of input speed — faster than humanly possible — or match human speed and test their creative and planning skills instead.  If we’re talking about a military bot in a simulated environment, perhaps the bot won’t limit input speed or any other factor.  After all, in the real world a bot will take advantage of whatever it can — like in Terminator.  But if we’re talking about strictly a test of intelligence, it would seem to me that is more important to limit input speed to human capable speed, thus testing pure intellect — creativity, craftiness, planning, team building, etc.
Game Of Go clip art

Captain?

We already have Siri, Cortana, and Alexa — as well as Google Assistant, which doesn’t seem to be a name at all.  But Yahoo has now introduced an assistant named Captain.

Captain?  That’s the best they could come up with?  I mean, do I really want to ask, “Captain, please set a reminder for my daughter’s birthday on Monday.”  Captain?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have anybody named Captain, nor do I have anybody of the rank Captain, in my house or my office.

Also, while there have been some terrific captains in history and in fiction, there have also been some awful ones.  Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, and Captain Bligh are just a few I can think of.

The name Captain just doesn’t work for me.

Fully Rigged Ship clip art

Why does “Star Trek: Discovery” look like “Star Wars”?

The “Star Trek” movies in recent years have had spectacular effects, and some have been enjoyable films.  But they mostly benefit from characters that already exist, just reimagined a bit, and they are very limited by the two hour film format.

I want the new “Star Trek: Discovery” television series to have solid stories, characterizations, acting, and writing with interesting science fiction themes.   I feel that is what made the best episodes of the old “Star Trek” shows.

When I looked at the latest photo of the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, I immediately thought that it looked like some cross between the latest “Star Trek” movies and “Star Wars” movies.  Personally, I don’t want this new series to be like either one of those.

Maybe it is just a stylized image that the producers wanted to use to excite potential viewers.  For me, it just looks like another pretty book cover created to try and make me like what’s inside.  I hope I’m wrong.  I really hope so.  Because anything with the “Star Trek” name has a lot to live up to.  The show’s trailer doesn’t reveal much either, just more gloss — and, of course, Klingons.

Keyboard lock up after sleep on Windows 10?

I’m not sure if this is due to the latest version of Windows 10 or not, but it started happening after the last update I got.  When my computer goes to sleep, sometimes when I wake it up I can’t enter anything from the keyboard.

I discovered that if I close my laptop and then re-open it, the keyboard starts working again.  Maybe this is just a coincidence, and it started happening because my laptop keyboard driver doesn’t recognize that my laptop has come out of sleep.  Or maybe it is something in the way the new Windows 10 version works.

If you lose the ability to enter from the keyboard, you can also temporarily gain control back by using the touch screen or by bringing up the virtual keyboard (the little keyboard symbol on the bottom right of the screen) with your mouse or pointing device.  In any case, rebooting (click on the start icon — bottom left of screen — and then the power icon just above it) should always restore the keyboard to normal operation.  If not, you may have additional issues to deal with.
Keyboard clip art

First human head transplant?

The Scientist reports that “Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero announced that the world’s first human head transplant…will take place in China sometime within the next 10 months…”  Apparently many experts are skeptical of Dr. Canavero’s proposed procedure .

Is this science fiction or reality?  It’s been a long time since “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley was published (1818).  I’m no expert of neurosurgery, so I can’t comment on the nature of the upcoming head transplant based on science.  But it does raise an issue which all of us can ponder.  Do we have a soul?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Dr. Canavero is successful in transplanting a human severed head to another body.  Further, let’s say that the patient survives and is able to communicate what it feels like to be in a new body — same head, different body.  Is there any way to determine if this person’s soul transferred along with their head?

Even if the patient thought that they were the same person as before, how can we be sure that their soul came along for the ride?  Or if it did, was it 100% transferred or was part of it left in the operating room?  Or even if they had a soul to begin with.

I don’t know the appropriate tests or questions for the patient.  But if by chance this transplant is a success, experts in theology and psychology and associated fields should be considering what those tests and questions should be.  If not, we may not fully understand the extent of success or failure of a head transplant.  Sure, we can check the patient’s vitals and mental health, but who can check their soul?

My story “Face Facts” examines the mind of a person who has an operation to cure their inability to recognize faces.

 

 

 

 

Guide to Intellivision

I can tell you that countless hours of programming and lots of passion went into developing many of the Intellivision video games.  The long nights of devotion to designing and developing “Microsurgeon” will forever be ingrained in my memory.  I’m not sure I’ve posted this before, but here’s another link to a “Microsurgeon” review — “Games That Made Me: Microsurgeon”.

Graeme Mason contacted me recently and pointed out his new guide to Intellivision published by GamesTM Magazine.

Chief Robotics Officer (CRO)

Computerworld senior writer Sharon Gaudin recently suggested that companies are going to need a Chief Robotics Officer (CRO), responsible for the company’s robotics strategy.

While I like the idea in the near term — after all, many large companies have had a CIO and/or CTO for decades — what about a few decades from now?  A CRO position seems right up the alley of an AI or a robot with AI.  As a sci-fi writer, I always like to imagine the future, and right about now I’m imagining a headline reading, “…robot Bob Bolt promoted to CRO at [choose your big company name of the future]…”  So if you’re thinking about applying to become the first CRO, just be sure to keep your eye on your career as time goes by.

If you’re thinking about managing robotics strategies as a career, you might also enjoy my sci-fi stories about robots and cyborgs.