The BART Video Game Arcade (Circa 1976)

Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Gary Fong / The Chronicle / December 1, 1976

While at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorders), I had to trained fresh out of high school graduates on being video game testers. These youngsters didn’t believe I played video games in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So I introduced them to a tester who tested video games for the original Atari in the 1980’s, and then introduced them to a tester who tested pen-and-paper games in the 1970’s. Their young heads often exploded in amazement that video games existed before the Sony PlayStation in 1995. As further proof that early video games existed, SFGate recently noted that the Powell Street BART Station installed video arcade games in 1976.

The first time I ever played a video game was Atari Pong in the basement of the Sear’s building in downtown San Jose—where the Midtown Safeway is today—during the Bicentennial (1975/76). I was five- or six-years-old at the time. My mother was returning something at the exchange desk. My father slipped a quarter into the arcade machine and we played a short game. Several years later I got a TV pong game for Christmas, the first of several early video game consoles that would prepare me for the working world.

Most arcade machines were hidden away in pizza parlors, bowling alleys and public venues like the BART station throughout the 1970’s. Arcades with wall-to-wall machines didn’t happen until the early 1980’s. The arcade that I grew up in was at Oakridge Mall in South San Jose. A dark hole in the wall that sucked in kids and their quarters like nothing else, and quickly doubled in size after taking over the storefront next door. This was my favorite after school activity.

My parents didn’t approve that I split my weekly allowance—a princely $30 USD that I didn’t know was a small fortune for a teenager—between the arcade and the bookstore. Video games were much worse than the pinball machines that they grew up on. Reading inspires all kinds of subversive behaviors, such as being smarter than anyone else. On the bright side, I wasn’t buying drugs like so many of friends who got stoned out of their mind in class.

After the Atari E.T. cartridge scandal killed the video game revolution, the wall-to-wall arcades started fading away in popularity. Newer video game consoles and PC’s brought the video games back into the home. Arcade machines are still tucked away at various locations today. The only real arcades left in Silicon Valley are Chuck E. Cheese’sDave & Buster’s or Nickel City. I don’t play arcade machines anymore, as any five-year-old youngster can beat my sorry ass with faster reflexes.

Recycling That Mainframe Computer

The leasing office occasionally sends out a missive that gets taped to the front door of each apartment in the complex. Sometimes this makes for interesting reading. One such missive a few years ago about what can or cannot be flushed down the toilets implied that recreational sex (condoms), having babies (diaper wipes) and being a woman (tampons) will no longer be permissible behavior. (I wrote a 500-word flash story, “Circling The Drain,” around that particular premise.) A recent missive had a list of recyclable items to turn into the leasing office for an e-waste recycling drive. One item popped out on the list: Mainframe computers.

When I worked as a quality assurance software testing intern at Fujitsu in the 1990’s, our virtual world division got a new vice president from Japan who previously worked for the mainframe division. He took our group out to Jade Cathay restaurant on First Street in San Jose to get to know us. When the hostess handed him the menu, he ordered the same stir fry with tofu dish for everyone. Somehow I ended up sitting next to him. Not wanting to offend my host, I ate everything on my plate even though I never had Chinese before. We all suffered a severe case of massive heart burn later on, as that dish was very spicy.

He asked me if I was a mainframe programmer, and became disappointed when I told him that I wasn’t. (I didn’t volunteer that I was only an intern.) He asked around the table if anyone else was a mainframe programmer. No one else was. He informed us that Fujitsu was always looking for mainframe programmers. That statement puzzled everyone, as our group had nothing to do with mainframes. A month later he returned to Japan to lead the mainframe group again and got replaced by a more Westernized vice president who wasn’t looking for mainframe programmers.

Despite the popular misconception that mainframe computers are obsolete and long gone, they’re still around for processing massive amounts of data that can’t fit into the cloud. One of the hottest I.T. job market is for mainframe programmers who know COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). With the previous generation retiring, and many colleges stopped teaching mainframe computers years ago, there’s an acute shortage of skilled workers.

Unlike other areas of I.T., you can’t simply download a mainframe computer to your desktop and grab a book to learn how to program it. You need the actual room-sized hardware to get any practical experience. Most large companies that depend on mainframe computers are training programmers in-house. There’s no practical way to learn mainframe programming on your own.

Needless to say, no one turned in a mainframe computer at the leasing office.

Century 21 Dome Theater Saved By City Council

San Jose City HallSupporters of Save The Domes gathered at the Tuesday evening session of the San Jose City Council to plead for the protection of the 50-year-old building from demolition. On a seven-to-four vote, the council designated the Century 21 as a historical landmark. The developer can file a demolition plan to raze the other dome theaters, but must incorporate the Century 21 into the new mixed-urban development. No guarantees that the developer will keep it as a working theater. That’s the short version.

My friend and I drove downtown to attend the 7:00PM council session, arriving at the nearby public parking garage where the city keeps it fleet of vehicles, and walking a block over from Fifth Street. This was my first visit to the “new” city hall building since opening in 2005. I previously visited the old city hall on North 1st Street, part of the county government civic center that the county plans to renovate in the future, when my older brother had a shotgun wedding at the hall of justice in the 1970’s.

While my friend walked over to Subway for a sandwich, I walked down memory lane while wandering around the plaza. As a college student living downtown in the mid-1990, I used to shop at Lucky’s and eat at Taco Bell that previously occupied this one-and-half block stretch on Santa Clara Street and Fifth Street. It’s now all gone. San Jose State University is a few blocks away, where the eight-story Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. library is visible above the two-story buildings between city hall and the campus.

The city council chamber wasn’t in the rotunda building on the plaza, as one would imagine when pulling on the locked front doors. The circular floor space under the ten-story ceiling was empty. Not surprisingly, this space was reserved for private events. When the Bascom Avenue library opened last year, the library was smaller than I expected and the larger community center was available for private events as well. For a fee, of course. The city has to make a buck somewhere.

Walking past the rotunda building to the left will take you to a ground-level entrance for the restrooms and elevators. You can also walk up the narrow stairway next to the tower building that house the city bureaucracy or the broad stairway that borders the plaza to the second floor entrance. The public entrance to the city council opened to a university-style auditorium with seats sloping down from the second floor to the first floor.

The city council session opened light-heartedly with commendations by the mayor for several citizens who served the city in one way or another for 25 years, including a Boy Scout troop leader who brought out his troop. After pictures got taken and the boy scouts cleared out, more people came in to occupy the empty seats. The city council got down to business. We sat through two-hours of mind-numbing discussions about various public planning proposals. People got up to speak for or against, left the council chamber, and more people took their empty seats.

We left at 9:00PM to catch “The Wil Wheaton Project” on TV. On the way home we drove past the Century Domes on Winchester, where a single outdoor light illuminated the front doors of the Century 21 and the two other dome theaters shrouded in the darkness. The city council voted on the Century 21 historical landmark at about 10:30PM. After two mind-numbing hours watching democracy in action (sausage making would be more entertaining), I don’t think I could have survived another 90 minutes.

Pre-Internet Newspapers Go Online (Circa 1981)

Channel 4 KRON TV news report from 1981 details how the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspapers were adopting news articles for online delivery. You have to stop and think about what that meant back then. The Apple II home computer ruled the classrooms. The IBM PC was still several years off. Hobbyist computer systems that connected electronic keyboards to black-and-white TV’s were available to anyone with a soldering iron. CompuServe and America Online (AOL) were emerging online services. What would become the modern Internet was accessible only through military and university computer networks.

The first commercial Hayes modem came out that year to set the communication standard for a computer to connect to another computer over the plain old telephone at a lighting fast speed of 300-bits-per-second. (Today’s 30-megabits-per-second cable modem is 100,000 times faster in comparison.) As the anchorwoman pointed out in the YouTube video, it would take over two hours to download the daily $0.20 USD newspaper and the phone company charging $5.00 USD per hour.

Newspapers back then weren’t worry about losing money to an online news service. Flash forward 30 years into the future, the dead tree edition of the daily newspaper is declining as readers read mostly free news from the Internet over their cellphones and tablets. Like many industries that embraced computer technology, newspaper publisher never looked far enough down the road to see how their existing business model must change from the physical to the virtual. I stopped subscribing to the dead tree edition years ago, mostly because the neighbors kept stealing the newspapers off my apartment doorstep before I left for work in the morning.

The Blue Cube Disappearing From Silicon Valley

Blue Cube DemolishedWhile crisscrossing Silicon Valley on the light rail to attend a job interview in Mountain View, I noticed the Blue Cube (a.k.a., Onizuka Air Force Station) for the first time in years. Or what was left of it. The large satellite dishes outside the building were long gone after the base closure in 2010. The blue walls that concealed the tracking operations of military satellites were coming down one wall at a time. Like many iconic buildings from 50 years ago, the redeveloped site will become a new educational facility.

After I turned eighteen in 1988, I started working in construction with my father for a few years. We had a short job at the Blue Cube to build a block wall near one of the outer buildings, which was both exciting and scary at the same time. Military Police at the checkpoint patted us down and inspected the truck (presumably for weapons and/or spying devices). We followed a patrol car to the construction site, where the M.P. unlocked the chain link gate, signaled for us to drive through, and locked the gate behind us. During the whole time we built the wall, M.P.s with assault rifles and snarling police dogs patrolled the perimeter of the construction site. Whenever we stood next to the fence, an M.P. would stand on the opposite side with the police dog ready to lunge at the fence.

That was my first and last visit to a military installation.

Another iconic Cold War-era structure is under threat. Although the summit of Mount Umunhum will eventually become a public park, the five-story radar tower of the former Almaden Air Force Station will get demolished unless money is found to preserve and restore the structure by 2017. For the first eight years of my life, I would walk out of my family home each morning to look south to see the bright red radar dishes on the tower. As I gotten older and became something of an amateur historian, I learned how integrated the U.S. military complex—and the threat of nuclear annihilation—was into the electronic fabric of Silicon Valley.

Unburying The Atari E.T. Video Game Scandal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestial Video GameThe 1980’s home video game revolution crashed and burned in after Atari introduced “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” a movie-based video game that it overpaid to license, ordered millions of cartridges more than all the Atari 2600 video consoles in existence, rushed the game to the store shelves, and buried the whole thing in a New Mexico landfill. According to Snoops, the E.T. landfill burial was an urban legend. A documentary team went sifting through the landfill and found the E.T. cartridges. For those of us who lived through this particular episode of video game history, some things are best left buried in the ground.

I had an Atari 2600 and 30+ video game cartridges worth $1,000 USD when I was a preteen, a small fraction of the 500+ cartridges available back then. Toy “R” Us had one whole aisle dedicated to video game cartridges, where consoles and empty cartridge boxes hung from pegboard. You take a tag from the sleeve below the item you want, pay at the cash register, and take it over to the “cage” that used to house the high-priced specialty toys. At the height of the video game revolution, so many cartridges lined the cage from floor to ceiling that the clerks had little room to move around.

I knew the industry had jumped the shark when a camera store sold video games along side their expensive cameras under the glass case. The young sales clerk reassured me that “Shark Attack” by Apollo—one of the first cartridge companies to file for bankruptcy—was a great game. It wasn’t great; it was horrible. My friend and I exhausted the replay value of the game in less than an hour. I paid $30 USD for this piece of crap. That was the last cartridge I ever bought for the Atari 2600.

As for E.T., I paid little attention either the movie or the video game because I detested Reese’s Pieces.

After being split into several companies by Warner Communications in 1983, the intellectual property rights floated around the industry for years. I was working as a video game tester at the family owned Accolade when Infogrames, a French video game company that no one heard of, bought it out while on a buying spree to become the next Vivendi Universal that bought its way into the American multimedia markets. One of the companies that got bought was Hasbro Interactive, which owned the intellectual property rights for Atari.

Speculation was rampart that Infogrames would change its name to Atari after relocating the office from San Jose to Sunnyvale, which was where the old Atari had its headquarters. Shortly thereafter, the company became the new Atari and I became a lead tester in 2001. Alas, the new Atari didn’t escape the old Atari curse when every video game title became available for every platform (i.e., Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube/GameBoy Advance, PC, and Sony Playstation 2), flooding the market with DVDs for games that were excellent on some platforms but terrible on others.

I knew the new Atari jumped the shark when it acquired the rights for “Enter The Matrix” in 2002, a movie-based video game based on the popular Matrix movies, featuring two-hours of exclusive video from the forthcoming sequels. Security was tight. When a DVD without the exclusive content disappeared, five testers got fired. I avoided the game like the plague and spent only three days testing the rabbit hole tunnel sequence that was a black screen for the Nintendo GameCube version towards the end. Although it sold five million companies, the game was so horrible that it made E.T. look good in comparison.

The new Atari sold off all the video game studios that it bought over the years, realizing that it paid two to three times for what each studio was actually worth, reduced itself to peddling Facebook games for a while, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. The newly reformed Atari has only ten employees out of a company that once employed hundreds.

Meanwhile, I quit the company after six years in 2004, finished my associate degree in computer programming, and changed my career to help desk support. That was the best decision I ever made in my life, as being a video game tester was a dead-end job if you weren’t young and stupid to tolerate the abuses that went with it. After a while, you stop being young and stupid.

Bye-Bye At The Century Domes

Century Domes Are ClosedAfter the Retro Dome had one last showing of “Raiders of The Lost Ark” at the Century 21 with 1,000 people in attendance, the iconic Century Domes has closed their doors after nearly 50 years. Without a historical landmark designation, the Domes are destined for the dustbin of history. My friend and I attended party, and, not surprisingly, we found ourselves in the front row because of the sold-out crowd. Beach balls were flying fast and furious as people knocked them about.

As the announcements got made, the booing and hissing got louder.

The Retro Dome people had a meeting with the Santana Row developer that acquired a 99-year lease—not a 50-year lease as previously reported—to redevelop the Winchester Boulevard property. The developer has no interest in preserving the domes, would demolish all the buildings (including the Flames Restaurant at the corner), and build another Santana Row II with more luxury stores and expensive housing. (The most popular audience rumor was that Bloomingdale and Saks Fifth Street will become anchor tenants.) If the any of the domes do get a historical landmark designation, the surviving domes will not remain as movie theaters and get retrofitted into something else.

Everyone, of course, got encouraged to contact the San Jose mayor and their council member to get a historical landmark designation for the Century Domes and reject the demolition permit that waiting for approval. The city, of course, would rather have the jobs, development fees and sales tax revenues that comes from a big project like this. Given the choice between preserving the a historical building and adding to the city’s bottom line, San Jose doesn’t have a good track record in saving old buildings that aren’t historical landmarks.

As for “Raiders of The Lost Ark,” this wasn’t my first time seeing it on the big screen. I saw the IMAX version that came out in 2012. But I really enjoyed watching the movie on the big screen at Century 21, as it has the special magic that the IMAX lacks. The audio system packed an incredible wallop with each gunshot, reminding me how the explosions from some movies can rattle my lungs. Since Borders closed at Santana Row in 2011, my friend and I have gone to other theaters with better hangout spots. We haven’t realized how much we have missed the Century Domes until this final showing.

Death Knell At The Century Domes

Century 22 DomesThe first time I went to the Century Domes on Winchester Boulevard was see “Star Wars” when it first came out in 1977 and before it exploded as a cultural phenomena. My aunt took my cousin and I to see a weekday matinée showing. The massive parking lot was empty except for a few cars. We had the entire theater to ourselves. That was thirty-seven years ago. The Century Domes today are heading for the dustbin of history unless the Century 21 dome gets a historical landmark designation by city, state and federal authorities.

The Century Domes are twentieth-century buildings that preservationists are trying to save. The Retro Dome (a.k.a., Century 25) at Westgate Mall got demolished last year, which showed classic movies like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and now plays at the Century 21 dome. The Century 24 dome, down the street from the Century 21/22/23 domes on Winchester, recently got torn down, which showed all the movies destined to die at the box office (a very reliable indicator). The remaining domes are next for the wrecking crew.

The families that own the nearby Winchester Mystery House and the land underneath the Century Domes for the last 90 years refused to renew the 50-year lease for the theaters and sought out a developer to revitalize the property. I’m surprised they didn’t try to sell the land. The 11.6-acre property is prime real estate in the heart of Silicon Valley. With the movie crowd watching movies at modern multiplex theaters around the south bay, this area was long overdue for a major change.

The developer for Santana Row across the street, which was the home of the Town & Country Village movie theater before it got razed in 2001, has acquired the new lease. Expect more of the same with mixed-development (i.e., ground-level retail space built from concrete and four-story housing from wood) and seven-story office buildings (the flight paths of nearby airports prohibits skyscrapers in Silicon Valley).

The Flames restaurant, formerly Bob’s Big Boy back in the day, will get demolished to square out the property in front. A small senior citizen mobile home park that I didn’t even know existed behind the Winchester Mystery House and Century 23 theater may get rezoned for development, which is a serious issue for these senior citizens as mobile home parks are disappearing from owners selling out to developers. I very much doubt that a multiplex movie theater would go into that location. The developer for Valley Fair Mall floated a proposal to build one down the street from the Century Domes that died without a whimper.

My friend and I stopped going to the Century Domes after the Borders bookstore closed at Santana Row in 2011. Without a convenient hangout spot, there was no reason to go there. We will be attending the Retro Dome movie, “Raiders of The Lost Ark,” which played for a whole year at Century 21 when it first came out in 1981, on March 30th at 7:00PM. Never mind that we saw “Raiders” when it came out on the IMAX screen a few years ago. This movie is a fitting tribute to a piece of Americana that may disappear soon.

The Macintosh Came Out 30 Years Ago

Byte Magazine MacIntoshUnlike the first-generation iPhone in 2007, I wasn’t there for the introduction of the first-generation Macintosh in 1984. I was in the eighth grade at John Steinbeck Middle School in San Jose. According to the girls at school, I came from a “poor” family because my parents couldn’t afford cable TV to get MTV. We were too poor to own an Apple II. My parents gave me a Commodore VIC-20 for the Christmas the year before. When I informed my teacher that I got a computer, I got laughed out of the Apple II programming class in the seventh grade because he called the VIC-20 a toy (which it was).

A real computer, I learned, requires big bucks.

As my interests in computer programming and electronics developed in 1984, I read everything I could get my hands on. Byte Magazine was my primary source of information, where I first read about the Macintosh. The two most influential books I read that summer was a technical book on the Motorola 68000 processor that the Macintosh used, and “Hackers: Heroes of The Computer Revolution” by Steven Levy. I felt frustrated because I didn’t have a real computer to do anything with and the computer revolution was marching on without me. Never mind that I was only 15-years-old at the time.

I got a Commodore 64 for Christmas that year. Although a toy compared to the Apple II and Macintosh, this Commodore 64 was the first of three I would use for word processing, programming and video games over the next ten years. The Commodore 64 got me through the four bad years when I stayed home from high school and four good years at San Jose City College when I got my associate degree in general education.

The first Macintosh computer I used was a Macintosh Classic II at the SJCC library. English literature instructors demanded that all papers be turned in as either typewritten or laser-printed. The near letter quality (NLQ) setting on my dot matrix printer was barely tolerated. I would print out papers at home, re-type the papers into the Macintosh at the library, saved the file to a 3.5″ floppy, walked over to the checkout counter, insert the floppy into the Macintosh connected to the laser printer, and printed out the pages at ten cents a page.

As I worked in Silicon Valley, my experience with the Macintosh was touch-and-go in the Windows-centric corporate environment. Every time a co-worker taught me how to do something new on the Macintosh, I would get laid off from work two weeks later. Recruiters always teased me about Apple jobs but never submitted my resume because my work experience was—and still is—predominately Windows.

After I started earning the big bucks, I got a Mac mini in 2005 and a black MacBook in 2006. I later gave the mini to a friend who needed a Mac more than I needed an extra system. I’m still using the MacBook eight years later. Although suitable for word processing and web browsing, it’s no longer suitable for compiling programs in the background. I’ll be getting a replacement system later this year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh.

A Truly Tasteless French Ad About JFK Assassination

You can always trust the French to come up with something truly tasteless about American culture, say, a new TV ad for a gambling company with the JFK assassination as a backdrop. Two Dallas cops are standing along the parade route when one bets the other that he can spin his gun like a cowboy, accidentally discharges the gun, and the bullet ricochet all over the place until hitting someone inside a passing open-air limousine, where a Jackie-O look-alike scrambles over the backseat as a Secret Service agent jumps the back of the limousine, and the bumbling cops points to a nearby building.

An interesting reinterpretation of an iconic moment from American history that still prompts raw emotion in people, as the 50th anniversary of the assassination is on November 22, 2013. I wouldn’t be born for another six years, but the assassination deeply impacted my parents as their first wedding anniversary took place time. Like many significant events witnessed on TV, they remembered where they were when it happened. For my father in particular, and many older white Americans in general, this was the moment when the American dream got flushed down the toilet and the country went straight to hell.

Here are my favorite pop culture reinterpretations of the JFK assassination.

Red Dwarf

This British science fiction comedy TV series, “Red Dwarf,” has the intrepid crew going back into time to accidentally prevent the JFK assassination from happening. Most Americans remember JFK as being a great president because he got assassinated. If he had survived to complete his term, people might have remembered his administration as being no better or worse than the Jimmy Carter administration. The Red Dwarf crew takes an older, washed-up and jaded JFK back in time for him to pull the trigger to assassinate himself from behind the fence to restore his place in history.

The Watchmen

I was at WonderCon 2009 when the opening montage for “The Watchmen” movie, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, got revealed for the first time, where a series of reinterpreted American scenes from the 1940’s to the 1980’s included the superheroes with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing” playing in the background. The JFK assassination takes place with The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) pulling the trigger from behind the fence. The visual effects and the music made for a stunning montage.

The X-Files

From “The X-Files” TV series came the episode, “Musings of A Cigarette Smoking Man,” which explains how the Smoking Man as a young man became a key player in so many conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs. His role in the JFK assassination was setting up Lee Harvey Oswald to take the fall by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and firing the fateful shot from a storm drain. As the older Smoking Man once told Agent Fox Mulder, he had watched presidents die.