Thursday, March 4, 2010

Joshua's Still Playing The Game

Al Trautwig lost TigerBlog when he uttered these words as the bell sounded for the final lap: "These will be the six most important miles some of these guys ever ski."

C'mon. Does that sound like fun to do, let alone watch? Of all the events in the Olympics, TigerBlog has always thought that cross country skiing has to be the least enjoyable to do. TB remembers a picture in Sports Illustrated from one of the Winter Olympics from a long time ago of a Finnish cross country skier at the finish line of a race, his beard covered in ice, a look of total exhaustion on his face.

Anyway, with six more miles to go in the cross country race and 30 minutes to go before the gold medal hockey game Sunday afternoon, TigerBlog started flipping the channels looking for something else to watch when he stumbled on one the more interesting movies he's ever seen: "War Games."

It was entertaining at the time it first came out, 1983, and it's even more fascinating now when viewed through what's happened with computers since.

For those who've never seen the movie, it stars Matthew Broderick as the high school loner goof-ball genius kid who is one of the first computer hackers, Ally Sheedy as the flaky cute girl who becomes interested in him, Dabney Coleman as the government computer genius chain smoker and the guy who played the astronaut in the TV show "Northern Exposure" as the general who can't stand Coleman and the whole computer idea.

The basic plot is that the military tries an exercise in which it orders a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union (if you lived through it, you understand; if you were too young, you don't quite get what it was like thinking that the Soviets were going to fire their nuclear weapons first), only the soldiers responsible are too scared to do it, so the missiles don't get fired. As a result, the military decides to take the humans out of the loop and replace them with computers, only they're not computers like we know them. They're giant machines that take up whole rooms and have lots of flashing lights and, in this case, the cool name of "WOPR," which stands for "War Operation Plan Response."

Broderick hacks into a computer that he thinks belongs to a toy company, only it's actually the government's computer that is controlling the nuclear missiles. He begins playing "global thermonuclear war," which he thinks is a game but in reality is actually starting the process of firing U.S. missiles.

Along the way, we meet the guy who wrote the computer programs who was supposedly killed but wasn't and who named the system for his son Joshua who actually was killed. As Broderick is being led away by federal agents (who, in contrast to those on, say, Criminal Minds, couldn't have been dumber), he screams back "Joshua's still playing the game," an oft-repeated comment through the years in many random situations.

Finally, as it appears that the whole world is going to be blown up, a remarkably calm Joshua's Father gently coaches Broderick into solving the problem without the least bit of panic. Northern Exposure general guy offers his own solution to the problem: "Can't you just unplug the thing?"

Watching the movie (or at least the last 20 minutes while some Scandinavian guys were skiing the most important six miles of their lives) for the first time in years, TigerBlog immediately thought of, well, TigerBlog - and and and and itunes and everything else.

The movie was from 1983, and it meant to play off people's fears of nuclear war. Instead, it ended up being more about people's fear of what computers were going to do to the world, how they were going to take over and end the world.

The movie was 27 years ago. TigerBlog was in college then, and he was excited because he had an electric typewriter with a built-in correct ribbon. Word processors were in their infancy. Apple had not yet come out with the first Mac. Nobody had ever heard of Bill Gates. When you had mail, there was no "e" in front of it. This symbol: "." was pronounced "period" instead of "dot" almost all of the time.

The No. 1 way that people communicated was by telephones, which were plugged into walls, in many cases with rotary dials.

Going back 27 years before the movie, to 1956, much of communication was done the same way. Maybe it got a little faster by the 1970s and '80s, but it hardly had skyrocketed.

Today, nothing is the same as it was back then. Computers have completely taken over the world, and communication moves faster and faster all the time.

Ever find yourself without your cell phone for a day? Or without access to email for a day? It's almost paralyzing now. How many people don't go directly to a computer when they first get to work or don't have a computer at home?

The impact on Princeton athletics has been dramatic and well-covered here. We used to mail information out. Then it was fax. Now it's email and web and everything else. Printing is out; video and podcasting are in.

The entire structure of athletic communications has changed in a short time. TigerBlog used to writer media notes for lacrosse games (and other sports, when he covered those). Now, the lacrosse notes aren't media notes per se. The Princeton-Hofstra pregame notes were read by 700 people on; maybe, what, 15 of them were media people? Should they be tailored for about 2% of the audience?

No. Whereas before it was about getting the notes to the media in the most objective fashion possible, now they are meant be entertaining for the people who read them as they talk about the team, because technology has enabled us to take the information directly to those people.

Oh, and it's not just about the written word. There's also the need to get video of a player or coach and get that on the site as well, because that's what the audience wants and because technology has made it so easy to do.

The NCAA used to have a form to be filled out by hand with statistical leaders. Now everything is done via an XML file. Shortly, those stats will be updated goal-by-goal or basket-by-basket or go in any number of other different ways.

And 27 years from now? TigerBlog can't even begin to imagine.

Yes, computers have changed everything. And will continue to do so.

This isn't exactly Earth-shattering news, and these are all topics that have been covered before. Every now and then, though, it's good to remember that it wasn't always this way and that being as current on technology is an obligation that communications people have.

Watching "War Games" again reminded TB of that. And, it's also really entertaining, even all these years later.

Or maybe it's just better than watching cross country skiing.


Anonymous said...

Little know fact from the movie "War Games"... At the very beginning of the movie there are two soldiers who are responsible for turning their keys in order to activate a US nuclear missile pointed at Russia. One has no problem following the order while the other hesitates while looking at a picture of his wife & kid (obviously contemplating the weight of his actions). The one who has no problem following the order (character's name was Steve) ultimately points his pistol at the other and demands that he turn his key.

Steve was played by Michael Madsen who later went on to star in Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill.

Anonymous said...

And I believe the other soldier (the one who hesitates) was John Spencer, who later became famous in LA Law and the West Wing.

BAH said...

How on Earth did you get convince your boss that your job should evolved into Sports-Guyesque ramblings? I gotta give you a lot of credit.

Also, I learned to butter corn on the cob by using a piece of bread from War Games.