Tag: MIT

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 420: The 420-Characters Project


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A funny thing happened on my way to this article. I had a topic picked out months ago – one I’m as positive as a rum-soaked, middle-age mind can be that I’d found on the shelf of my muse, Ms. Wikipedia. Alas, this volume appears to be no more. I made the commitment that I wouldn’t write about drug culture for #420, as I’d hate to sag flaccidly into the realm of the cliché. So instead, I’m going to have to wing it.

As I remember it, the character limit on a Facebook status used to be 420. In 2011 it got increased to 5000 and then to over 63,000, but back in those sepia-tone days of having to limit one’s “going to the mall” status to less than 75 or so words, a writer by the name of Lou Beach came up with an idea. He began to compose complete stories, all within the 420 character limit. His stuff is on amazon now, but you can still read several of these tales on his website. I won’t mince words; this man can spin a scene with a mastery more impressive than a high-wire unicycled clown making balloon animals in a wind storm. His friends and fans who followed his fanciful status updates were treated to some gnarly narratives.

I wonder – could I have done justice to my kilographic exploits had I constrained myself to such a limit? I’m going to venture back through some of my previous topics and re-imagine them within the 420-character confines of a February, 2011 Facebook status. Read more…

Day 335: Happy 50th Birthday, Lots Of Stuff!

According to Wellcat.com, an arbitrary website that appears to want to sell me balms and pillows, today is Stay Home Because You Are Well Day. So if you haven’t left for work yet, don’t bother. Grab your phone, tell your boss you aren’t coming in because you feel great. Savor the ensuing eight hours, or perhaps use that time to update your resume because you probably just got fired.

But we need something to celebrate today. Sure, it’s Friday, but that’s not enough. Maybe an anniversary? It’s always the somethingth anniversary of something, right? Fortunately, I have a list of somethings right here, and they all share the common bond of turning 50 this year. So pick a reason, and though you may not be able to get the day off work for it, maybe you can sneak a flask to your desk and have a few drinks in its honor. Why not? It’s Friday.

Computer Games

I hope all the rogues, wizards and… I don’t know… disco-gnomes?… who are playing World of Warcraft today will take a moment and pause for a moment of celebration. Their legacy began 50 years ago with a game called Spacewar!. It took about 200 hours of work to create this game, and that’s 200 hours of work at M.I.T., so like 8000 hours by normal human standards. The game was conceived by three men: Steve “Slug” Russell, Martin “Shag” Graetz, and Wayne “Those Bastards Didn’t Give Me A Nickname” Wiitanen.

The game seems to be far more extensive even than Pong, which was still a decade away. Two players control ships, maneuvering them around the screen to avoid the star in the middle (which also has a gravitational field). They try to shoot each other and stay alive. The stars in the background were also a literal model of the night sky. Players had to watch both their fuel and missile supply. Honestly, this game sounds tremendously complex for having kicked off the genre.

When you get tired of the new Call of Duty, you can still play this one online.

Read more…

Day 313: The Robots Take Chess… Then The World!

I have stated in the past that I am not tremendously knowledgeable about chess. I am, however, always on the lookout for evidence of the inevitable robot (or possibly super-monkey) uprising that will unseat humanity at the top of our planet’s hierarchy. Perhaps the most publicized such evidence just happens to be tied to the world of chess.

Just as jai alai is a sport for the athletically inclined, and cricket is a pastime for people who own really clean white clothing, chess is the go-to game for the intellectually gifted. Players strategize several moves ahead, calculating probability and reading their opponents’ behavior like a seasoned gambler. I learned the basics of the game, but never wrapped my brainstem around the nuances. But then, I’m no robot.

Not that that’s stopped me from theorizing what I’d look like as a robot.

M.I.T. student Richard Greenblatt, who was later credited as the founder of the computer hacker community, developed the first chess program to be pitted against a human player, back in 1966. He called it Mac Hack VI, because a local psychedelic rock band had already taken the name ‘The Dick Greenblatt Experience’. Mac Hack VI could evaluate ten positions per second, which isn’t much by today’s standards but could still whomp the pants off any human brain.

Greenblatt’s ideal human counterpart was Dr. Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at M.I.T. Doc Dreyfus had written a book about the limitations of computers, claiming even the greatest of them couldn’t beat a ten-year-old at chess. He was the ideal doubter to face off against the machine. Read more…