Pinnacle of Robotron:2084 Emulation

Here’s something fun.

Robotron 2084 Welcome Screen

My second favorite arcade game ever is Robotron:2084. This was a frenetically paced game, with dozens of onscreen targets and enemies converging on you first inevitably, then instantly. You got two joysticks for this, one controlling move, one controlling fire… so you can fire backwards at things chasing behind you. As is common in the genre, you are saving the last human family while taking out as many of the evil machines as possible. Here you see mommy in her pink dress and daddy in his blue business suit… and where you should see little mikey in his red t-shirt and shorts you will instead see a skull and cross-bones indicating a tank already ran the poor lil guy over.

Robotron:2084 Save the human family

Harder waves send more and different enemies at you… and apparently this family was a particularly fecund bunch, so they had that going for them, anyway.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave

What did it take to get that screenshot? Everything, as they say… here’s the screenshot timestamped one one-hundredth of a second later.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave Death

I also caught the brain’s “breathing” in that one. But, still dead. So many women left un-picked-up.

As you can see, I can play a pixel-perfect representation of the original arcade machine on my current main computer, a MacBook Pro, using OpenEmu software. This is an amazing (to me, anyway) jump in technology during my lifetime, even considering how popular Robotron was in its day and how often (and how well) it was reproduced. I own copies of Robotron:2084 for the Atari 8-bits, for the Atari 5200, Atari 7800, and the Atari ST… and along the way, I’ve played the versions for DOS, Apple ][, and Commodore 64. They all do a pretty good job… I mean considering the various hardware limitations in each case, the game always seemed to look good enough and play fast enough compared to other games available for that system. Yes, I like my statements well qualified.

But there has always been something missing. For the vast majority of those playing a Robotron port, they were playing with one joystick to move… and a button that shot in the direction you were running.

Completely unplayable.

Okay, that’s a bit far, but it was really hard to do well on the ports. And even with the few ports that allowed you to connect two joysticks to use as God and Williams intended… have you ever tried to control two separate lightweight joysticks, one in each hand? Think about those 2600 joysticks slamming over when you move in any direction… think about those 7800 controllers just sliding everywhere. I have two Wico sticks that it took me years to scrape off the duck tape residue where I taped them to a plank to make a Robotron setup. And that has been about the height of my Robotron play for years.

New day, new tech, new take on retrogaming, and I’m back at Robotron:2084. OpenEmu is showing me the most precise image from the original that we are going to get. And OpenEmu allows us to personalize the controller setup. I invested in a couple Logitech F310s, Sony-style controllers with dual thumbsticks.

Logitech F310

Once the joystick is connected, OpenEmu identifies it and allows you to determine how OpenEmu will use the different buttons, sticks, and pads in the game. The thing that’s a little quirky about setting up Robotron’s controls is that there is no obvious “map to second joystick” function. This is because “second joystick” just isn’t something that gets used much, so it’s not present in the standard format for the programs emulating the systems. OpenEmu happens to use MAME as the engine for arcade emulation, in particular MAME 0.149. MAME knows about the four-directional firing, but, there being no “second joystick” to map to in the format, those functions get mapped to buttons.

It only took a couple games of trial and error (with a couple face palming backslides along the way) before I found the secret of mapping Robotron’s fire controls the the Logitech F310.

OpenEmu Robotron 2084 right joystick configuration

With that set up, my scores jumped significantly.

Robotron_highscore

I happen to know my high score on the arcade original is over 1,000,000. Know this because I’ve been cleaning out the garage, and I found my Bronze and Silver Joystick Awards issued from The Endless Challenge arcade sometime in the eighties. So I know I still have a ways to go. But this is the best version of Robotron:2084 that I’ve been able to play without a quarter or a token handy.

There are actually two more options to possibly take this further. Already on my list of Things To Buy Next is a pair of 2600-dapters, little hardware interfaces that allow you to plug in old-school 9-pin joysticks to USB ports to use with emulators. The issue here will be the same as it was with the 7800, though… Wicos and duck tape as the best alternative.

And finally, I could build or buy a custom heavy duty controller. X-Arcade has a model with 2 joysticks and a trackball, which would cover almost all my retrogaming needs.

Almost all. Yes, Robotron:2084 is my second favorite game, despite the odd controls that make decently emulating it’s gameplay such a difficult task.

My favorite game is Tempest.

 

Boundaries and Expectations

I admit it: I have an addictive personality. When I find something cool, I want to find out all I can about it and how it got that way… and I want to see and understand the variations. Although I feel this has ultimately served me well in my life, there are times when it can become a stumbling block. The best idea is to approach these things with some idea of your limits in mind… not to mention an idea of what you actually want to get out of the interaction.

It’s like I keep trying to tell my kids, “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.” As I’m rebuilding my website to better reflect and serve my life, I’ve realized that some boundaries and expectations are in order.

The Roles of jjewell.com

In my personal life, I have tried to use some of Stephen Covey’s methods to be and do more. One of the main ideas I pull from Covey is that of Roles: we each play a certain number of roles in our life, and there must be a balance among and between them when it comes to our attention and effort. In that same way, I am expecting jjewell.com to serve several roles for me.

Information Repository – I want to be able to easily store and access all types of information and data that is important to me.

Connection Interface – I want to be able to easily share and enable collaboration on all types of creative projects that are important to me.

Neocapitalism – I want to be able to easily buy, sell, and trade my own goods and services in ways that avoid pitfalls associated with modern capitalism.

Information Repository

At one point, jjewell.com featured a MediaWiki installation focused on my life. I started making entries about certain events or topics of interest, with the intention that slowly but surely, everything I ever knew and loved would be connected and accessible through my website.

The wiki is not an aspect of jjewell.com that has been revived, at least as of yet. With that wide open a mission, there were just way too many rabbit holes to start down. These are the rabbit holes that I need to block off before we spelunk that cave, again.

I do have some idea of things I definitely want to have curated here. Most importantly, I want to create a repository for personal media: the photos, recordings, videos, documents, and other digital bric-a-brac I want to hold onto for personal reasons. I want to be able to add to and access the data wherever I am at the moment, and I want the access and backup options to be under my control.

I also want a repository for a more public type of media… things I want to curate for use beyond my own brain. In my case, this kind of media includes songs to practice and perform; recording tools and data; emulation tools and data; and comic books, art, and animation. These are things that I want to have access to for myself, but that would also be useful and of interest to others. Again, I want to be able to get to the files from anywhere and control access and backup.

Connection Interface

A sometimes overlooked aspect of our technological present is our ability to communicate, work, and play with people separated by distance. I am a musician, a writer, a collector, and a cook, among other roles, and all of those roles benefit from collaboration with others. I want my website to to an enabler of this collaboration.

Neocapitalism

Some history: I came of age during the 1980’s in America, a time when making money seemed easy, desirable, and honorable in and of its own right. Even at that stage, it seemed to me that “business” was being used as code for, and rationalization of, selfish greed and a lack of human morals and empathy. I equated the words “sales” and “marketing” with “lying long enough for the check to clear.” My work history is filled with 1 to 5 year stints where I systematically lost faith in the good intentions and nature of every employer I ever had. Early versions of jjewell.com featured a Capitalism Capitulation page… where I acknowledged the need to involve yourself in capitalism to some extent in order to simply survive.

I’ve decided that almost all of that is the wrong attitude. Despite the glaringly audacious greed of the owning class and the systematic destruction of the working class as featured in Modern American Capitalism, the concepts of using capitalism as a basis for trade in organized societies are sound.

We aren’t going to replace capitalism. But we do have to fix what is broken about it.

And that’s what I mean by neocapitalism: doing business the most “fixed” way possible can in what is undoubtedly a broken system.

Moving Forward

I will be building the website with those basic expectations in place. I know that a personal photo library with automated backups will be a part of the plan. The restructuring I’m doing of my physical environment has meant that my vintage hardware, particularly Atari computers and games, has taken a primary spot in my focus.

Perhaps most importantly, as I uncover artifacts in my garage and life, I’m going to create a model of both the boundaries and the expectations of jjewell.com in the structure of the website itself.

 

Technological Amnesia

A first step in changing my life is changing my surroundings, organizing my belongings, environment, and habits to make the most of what I have and expand upon that foundation. All that makes “dig through a bunch of old boxes” sound almost noble. Excavating my own history has gone, in one way, much as anyone would expect: old comics, toys, and games; old musical instruments and recordings; old technology of all varieties. What I didn’t expect was a different way of looking at these artifacts and forebears, and an examination of why they are actually important to me.

I started feeling the discomfort with comics… and it actually happened years ago. Collecting comics had been the great passion in my life for decades, but a change in my financial situation first left no budget to collect, and eventually led to a massive liquidation of the heart of my collection. Complete runs of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-man, The Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, basically every Marvel Silver Age first appearance and key issue… it was necessary at the time, but the experience took a toll on my love of collecting comics. Although I hear the call of old comics, the thought of starting over on a collection just isn’t appealing. I did miss a lot of the stories and characters, though.

A few years ago, I discovered a thing called Marvel Unlimited. Long story short, for a pretty reasonable yearly subscription, I get access to thousands of issues of Marvel history… even through my iPhone, wherever I am. I like this service. I get to re-read all my favorite stories whenever I want, and even try a lot of new-to-me comics that I wouldn’t have gotten interested in, back when reading the story meant tracking down back issues in comic stores and conventions scattered across this great land of ours. In many ways, technology has left the physical comic book behind; paper comics aren’t well-suited to modern methods of distribution and consumption. Comic books are still what they always were, but the essence of the stories and characters are traveling so much faster and more widely through digital means. The books weren’t able to keep up with things changing around them… almost like an anterograde amnesia, comic books couldn’t process or adapt to the inevitable future.

But there was another part to my comic collecting. Yes, I liked reading the stories and spending time with the characters, but in the days before instant global full-video communication, there was much more of a thrill of the chase to it. I finally found my last Fantastic Four, issue #14, when I was set up at a small local convention, and a guest was looking to sell this and some other books, and another dealer who knew I was looking for it pointed me out to the guy. I had been looking for it for years… it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it, I didn’t have the book in my collection because I had simply never come across one in all that time of looking. That was part of comic collecting, and comic dealing, knowing about who wants what and making connections. Knowing your business. You can now buy and sell pre-graded, plastic-sealed comics that you can never actually touch or open, without leaving your chair. Completing a collection is less about archeological detective work, and more about having a credit card without a limit. Modern comic collecting, actually buying old comic books, has become less about knowing the comics than about picking the right lottery ticket. In our zeal to make the transfer and sale of comics easier and faster, we lost a certain amount of institutional knowledge: collectors at the highest levels are often investors or speculators in a stock, and not necessarily a fan, advocate, or expert on the actual comics. The modern methods of both casual consumption and high-end collecting have forgotten important aspects of their history… they suffer from retrograde amnesia.

All that had been floating around in my head for awhile, and I’d thought about it in different directions trying to make sense of it; trying to figure out the essence of what drew me to comic collecting. It was only more recently, as I’ve been curating various old computers, tvs, stereos, and music instruments, that I started thinking about tech in those same terms. For instance, I have paid for at least five different copies of one of my favorite songs, Man Out of Time, by Elvis Costello: vinyl album, cassette tape, CD, and digital download. At several junctures, I realized that I was paying for something I already “owned,” in principle: when I bought that first vinyl album, I bought the right to listen to that song as many times as I wanted for perpetuity; but I rationalized the purchase as a fair trade of dollars to avoid the time, hassle, and expense of acquiring and operating the equipment necessary to do a quality conversion. The formats of their time had anterograde amnesia, and couldn’t continue to function with excellence as time and tech went on. The next greatest formats always had retrograde amnesia, and my tape player forgot about all the music my record player knew, as the CD would in turn forget about my institutional knowledge from the tape.

Everything came neatly together for me when I got to the computers. I got my first computer in 1981, an Atari 800… and I still have it and it still works. Everything about it is just as amazing to me as it was almost forty years ago: the games are still fun, the applications still perform their assigned functions… but that fun and those functions have not stood the test of time, were not adaptable enough to stay relevant, to keep up with the current and move ahead. Anterograde amnesia. I got my second computer in 1987, an Atari ST… and I still have it and it still works, too. That was an interesting time for me, because I “needed” to have two computers running: I depended on software on the 800 to do things in life, and that software would not run on the ST. The ST had retrograde amnesia, and forgot the institutional knowledge that came before it. I had to buy new programs for the ST to serve the same function… often enough  called the same title and written by the company or individual who wrote the one for the 800.

Computers are particularly gifted at battling retrograde amnesia. The ST wasn’t too old before a clever programmer wrote a program that could pretend it was an 800. You could actually run those old programs written for different hardware on this newer machine through this emulation program. By overcoming the amnesia, the ST gained the 800’s institutional knowledge.

Emulators are now a part of our everyday lives; computer evolution favors those who are able to retain or regain that institutional knowledge. One of my favorite emulators makes my MacBook Pro think it’s an Atari 800. It’s amazing to be able to play the best games of my youth here on my regular computer anytime. But I still have an 800 (several from the line, in fact) and I still use it sometimes. Emulators are cool… but there are differences in the way a wireless PS4 joystick interacts with an emulator than the way an old-school 9-pin joystick interacts with an 800, not to mention the differences in the way a modern computer interacts with its monitor compared to the way old computers interacted with analog tv sets. Long story short, although the emulators are amazing, there is something tangible lost in the translation.

I like to think that I am becoming more self-aware; that I am considering my tendencies and motives to improve in every way I can. So when something like this spends so much time in my headspace, I try to figure out the lesson. There’s a primary layer to this, which reflects a certain bitterness about things that were once important to you losing their meaning: perhaps my best songs includes the line “Your passions turn to clutter there in front of your eyes;” I’ve felt this disconnect between what I thought I was and who I actually am for some time. I’m realizing how relatable the amnesias are to this thought: it’s not so much that I’ve lost interest in an activity, it’s that some kind of amnesia has gotten in the way of my connecting to my past, or in the way of learning more capabilities for the future… and that frustration, that miss, that lack of connection… is what leads to the activity becoming less important to me.

So I’m going to try to be more like a computer. I am going to confront my retrograde amnesia, and build whatever emulators I need to process the value of my past. I am going to expect my anterograde amnesia, and remain open to whatever adapters I can use to process new value the future offers.

OK, So What Do I Have To Do? (jj church sermon 0.2)

I had a disagreement with my church. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere and will forego the details here but to say that the things I was hearing from my pastor, and the actions taken by my pastor, were simply not aligned with the scripture he is allegedly teaching.

It took me awhile to come to terms with the fact that that issue has been a primary feature of organized religion since it’s inception. The basis of all Christianity is Jesus Christ pointing out that the organized church wasn’t teaching the stuff that was there, but were operating in their own self-interest. Looking at the history of religion is looking at a litany of people coming to the conclusion “the church isn’t looking at this correctly, I can’t abide this… I’m starting something else.”

It dawned on me how much of organized religion is arguing over semantics, interpretations, and simple differences of opinion about what the “important” parts are. The history of how we have defined and practiced religion is a history of rift, schism, and holy war. The irony is how central thoughts of love and acceptance of others are to the teachings of religion: in the name of and quest for peace, love, and goodness, we have created these organizations that continue to divide and set individuals against each other.

It seems obvious we are doing religion wrong. There will always be details, inconsistencies, and misunderstandings to disagree about… but we don’t have to focus on those areas. Religion is about bringing together… so the religion I am starting focuses on the things that bring us together.

  1. There is some existence beyond the three spatial dimensions and time we can perceive, affect, and understand. In some ways, I see this as the very question religion itself revolves around… the sense of knowing you are a small part of something bigger, wondering how you fit in the “grand scheme” of things. I won’t pretend to understand it’s workings, but I do think a basic belief in something laying above, beyond, around this world is the basis on which we are building.

  2. Some things are unknowable to us. Whether it is because of contemporaneous technological limitations, or our basic limitation to three physical dimensions and time, there are questions we cannot answer. Religion cannot answer these questions either.

  3. Scripture, even divinely inspired scripture, has been copied down, translated, and edited by fallible human hands, and often for political rather than religious reasons. We look to scripture for wisdom and guidance, but not for factual answers to questions… and particularly not those questions referred to above.

It is with those three basic beliefs that I started looking for the common elements of religions, in particular with regard to personal behavior: what do all these religions agree we should aspire to, should work toward? What I found was pretty simple: Forgive All, Do No Harm, Work For Good, Help and Share. These same ideals, thoughts, patterns, behaviors are basic to the teachings of all religions. And yet somehow, people who consider themselves very religious often ignore those teachings… sometimes even in the name of their religion. We lost the message somewhere, threw a baby out with some bathwater somewhere along the way.

I have an idea where I think we lost our way. I believe a big part of the problem is when we started using religion as the baseline for the behavior of others, rather than the goal for our own individual behavior. Whatever else this little church of mine one day becomes, it will be based on each of us taking the personal responsibility to Forgive All, Do No Harm, Work For Good, Help and Share.

Discussion thread for this post on the jjewell forums

Retrogaming on Mac: Getting started with OpenEmu

I started retrogaming when it was cutting edge gaming, and I still have all the hardware I accumulated along the way. And while I still enjoy dusting off an old machine and loading some forgotten format into a reader no longer made, I have grown into an Apple ecosystem user… and appreciate when something is simple and just works. I’ve toyed with the more complicated setups of individual emulators, and due to Atari allegiance have gotten a few of those working in the past, but it is with OpenEmu that the world of emulation has become simple and just works for Macs.

Before you start, figure out where you are going to store some files. Like a lot of files. Millions of little bitty files… and thousands of big fat ones. We are talking dozens to hundreds of gigs of stuff, depending on how complex you want to get at the start.

Download OpenEmu… not the big red “download” button, but the little red text underneath that says Experimental. This is the version that is starting to offer support for the MAME engine for arcade machine emulation. There will be warnings that MAME is not fully supported yet, but this is currently the best and easiest way to go.

OpenEmu is something called a frontend: it organizes the files needed for other programs, the emulators themselves, to run the game ROMs. ROM is an acronym for Read Only Memory, a type of chip used in things like game cartridges to hold the actual game program. Loading a ROM file into an emulator is like sticking the cartridge into your Atari 2600. OpenEmu works as a middleman to stick the right ROM files into the right emulators.

In addition to ROMs that are similar to cartridges or program files, there are ROMs that are more like operating systems. Because of the nature of copyright law, some emulators cannot be distributed with the ROM files from the machines they emulate; these files must be found by the user. Thanks to the Internet Archive, these files are easily found. The OpenEmu BIOS Pack includes all the files needed to activate the different cores, or machine emulations. Download and extract the files to your chosen storage location, then go to OpenEmu and select Preferences… System Files. You will see a whole list of warning symbols that we want to turn into green checkmarks. Just drag the files to the System Files window and OpenEmu will know what to do with them.

When all our checkmarks are green, OpenEmu is ready for some game ROMs. The Internet Archive Software Collection is your best friend in this process. This page links to libraries of archived software for different machines, and perhaps most importantly of all, for archived arcade machine ROMs… MAME ROMs.

MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is the gear OpenEmu kicks into when it is time to emulate arcade machines. While it is astonishing that MAME can do what it does, there is a certain amount of learning curve in getting MAME to sing to your tune. OpenEmu takes a lot of that confusion away for you, but there is still one thing you have to do correctly for all this to work: get the right MAME ROMs. In particular, the right MAME ROMs for OpenEmu’s version of MAME is 0.149. This is the sort of thing you are looking for. Download, extract, and drag the files into OpenEmu’s Arcade Library window.

At this point (well, after OpenEmu does a huge amount of chewing. Maybe you shouldn’t have dropped all 20K or so files on there at once, after all), you should able to play at least some of your old arcade favorites. If you downloaded the full MAME ROMset, there will be a lot of files that are for gambling machines that aren’t going to seem to work at all… and some of your favorites won’t look right, or may not run at all. This gets into more advanced MAME issues, and I bring it up here just so you won’t think there’s something broken.

At this point, it’s time to play around with your console emulators. I’m a longtime Atari guy, so those are the first ones I checked out. Once you have installed the BIOS ROMs mentioned above, you will just need game ROMs to play. Rather than downloading entire sets (this was important for MAME mostly because of how difficult it is to reliably source individual files from a particular ROMset version), I found a few sites where it was relatively easy to download individual ROMs, Planetemu.net and CoolROMs.com.au being a couple I used most often. I also found the very interesting ROMCollector.com; if you decide you do want to have a full archival ROMset for some of these emulators, it looks like this guy has done the hard work for you.

One more thing about OpenEmu: the controls. In general, OpenEmu has a best guess as to how to map keyboard keys to game functions. You can open Space Invaders and expect the arrow keys to move your base left and right, and depending on what system you are emulating, there will be some key that fires. You can edit these settings, including telling OpenEmu to use attached controllers, in OpenEmu’s Preferences… Controls section. It may take a little while with some games for you to figure out your controller mapping, but it’s worth it if you happen to be, say, a Robotron 2084 fan who figured out how to set up his Logitech F310 controller’s two joysticks to move and fire like in the arcade. I lost minutes figuring it out, then I lost hours enjoying it. Also, if you do take the time to map something special like this, make some manual note of the settings: I’ve not been able to figure out how to make OpenEmu save game specific controller configurations.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.

Pando People (jj church sermon 0.1)

Have you ever heard of Pando? Pando is a forest of birch trees in the western US. Burton V. Barnes started studying the forest in the late sixties, and noticed something peculiar: the trees in the forest all seemed to be just alike. Simply based on morphology, what the plants looked and acted like, Barnes believed that the trees in the forest made up a single unit. Future tests and techniques bore him out: Pando is a forest of genetically identical trees, trees that are connected by a single root system. Pando might very well be the largest living thing on this planet, the largest living thing humans have ever encountered. But from the outside, without digging around for miles underground, or digging into microscopic genetic code… Pando just looks like a bunch of trees.
I have come to think of human beings as resembling Pando. From the outside, we look like a bunch of individuals of a particular type… but if we look deeply enough, if we are willing to dig… we will discover that not only are we more alike that we ever imagined, we are in fact all a part of one connected entity.
Genetic science has made incredible progress and discoveries; it is now within the grasp of many humans to submit their own material and find out specifics of their background. We discover that all of us trace back to a few lineages. Something like ninety percent of all humans can be traced back to sixteen historical fathers… some known to us, some lost to history. Genetically, our family tree grows from few roots. I have no doubt that with continued improvements in testing and data mining, we will eventually narrow those roots even further. I think it is obvious that, like the trees of Pando, individual humans grow from the same genetic root.
I also believe something less obvious, something that we have not developed the tools and methods for which to dig. Humans seem to have a further connection that science has not yet understood. Linguists have noted that, based on the amount of the language human children are exposed to, there’s no explanation for how we learn to speak, how we learn to communicate. Psychologists have described the collective unconscious, that which we all seem to know innately, that which seems to be passed down through generations without our realizing it. This connection is not the only thing beyond the limits of current science… the simple question “where do we come from” ends with the mysterious and poorly named Big Bang; which, for all we can explain, happened for no reason out of nothing at all. We can’t explain how the elemental forces that affect us work together, or really, work at all. We have ideas, theories… string theory is one that could help explain the nature of these forces; but string theory requires we do our theoretical math in sixteen or twenty-five dimensions, rather than the three we can point to and touch.
The Big Bang, the beginning of everything from nothing… and the the equal but opposite mystery of what lies beyond the universe we know… are particularly difficult to wrap our minds around. We understand height, width, and depth, and even the quasi dimension of moving inexorably forward through time. But we literally have no frame of reference for what might be above height, farther out than width, behind depth… or before that time zero when everything we know and understand just simply… started.
What if it is really that simple, though? We are creatures created within that realm of time and three dimensions, our perceptions are only built to conceive of those axes. What if the outlandish prediction of string theory is correct, and there exist dimensions outside our perception, outside our reason, outside our comprehension?
Human beings are Pando, individuals sprung from the same genetic stock, appearing separate and distinct but exactly the same underneath. The Big Bang is the ground from which these apparent individuals grew, hiding the nature of our connected root system. That root system, that connection we have noticed but can’t define or explain, simply lies in dimensions beyond those which we were built to sense and comprehend.
Looking at life and lives in this framework, science and religion avoid their apparent dichotomy: science understands its limits are these three dimensions, and religion understands its implications lay beyond and aren’t always measurable or actionable in those three dimensions.
This probably sounds like a strange “sermon,” but it is an important plank in the platform I want to build, the church I want to attend. My church is intended to be an exploration of religion, a celebration of the paths and methods man has used and continues to use to find a larger sense of order, to find their place in the “Grand Scheme” of things. My church wants to deal with human information as far back as we have records… and my church isn’t trying to force those historical narratives to adhere to the three dimensions we can actually perceive. My church values the history of religion beyond its adherence to the limits of our science, and values science constantly improving the world within those limits.
I’d love to hear what you think of my church.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.

Starting Somewhere

I have had an idea for some time. It’s a big idea, literally world changing. There have been many nights I’ve lain awake thinking that this is what I’m here for, what I’m supposed to be doing for myself and for the world. It’s a big deal… And I want to get it right. Which has led to overthinking: where to start?

I want to change the way we think about religion and politics, and how the two have to live together to get the most out of either of them. Sounds obvious and necessary, but do you start by examining what is broken, or reestablishing a religious basis, or a political movement? How do you even start a religion or a political party? I’ve felt as though I need to write at least three books just to get this thing going.

So as much to lay the starting brick for myself as for those I hope to follow, I am starting with a declaration of intent, including why I feel something must change, and the foundation upon which that change must be built.

The very first part is the why, and to get into that, we have to get into story time. My story, how I got to where I felt I had to change something. In particular, my religious and political history.

I still have the bible I was given from Northside Methodist Church in 1975. I don’t remember receiving it, nor any particular events at the church in those days: we were a Christmas and Easter family, at our best, and we weren’t at our best very often. By high school, I wouldn’t be able to recognize anyone from the church, and they wouldn’t have been able to recognize me. I lived much of my adult life this way. It was only after years of working through depression and ADHD that Suzy and I decided to make the church a part of our lives again. Suzy still has her bible from Northside circa 1977, and several of her family members were and are still church pillars there, so that’s where we went. We were in the choir, and the bell choir, I played guitar for outdoor summer services; Suzy became the head of children’s ministries, I became president of United Methodist Men at Northside; I took lay speaking courses, became certified, taught Sunday School classes, and even preached from the pulpit on more than one occasion (yes, that means precisely twice).

As we got more and more involved in the church, and became more a part of decision making and leadership, it became more obvious that the UMC, the organization, was operating primarily as a business. And although I can’t say I am so naive to believe that’s not going to be the case in the US, even worse, it was being run as a bad business. Large, successful churches had a lot a “small groups,” for instance… so our tiny, older congregation was tasked with creating such groups. This led to all the groups being the same people; I was over fifty when they needed Suzy and I to be a part of the “Young Adults” small group. Instead of looking at the strengths and need of the individual churches, leadership was pushing to generate what amounted to fake numbers that looked like what they themselves defined as being successful. There was also a pastor that did not get along with a significant portion of the congregation: he was directly responsible for the only couple actually younger than Suzy and I in the Young Adults group leaving the church. Even Suzy’s grandmother, who’d been with Northside since it was people knocking on doors saying “we should start a church ’round here,” had taken to pointing out “it’s not his church, it’s our church” on matters involving this pastor. When Suzy’s grandmother passed, she did not want the pastor in question to preside over the ceremony, and we contacted the previous pastor. We were told that she would not be comfortable doing it, because, and I quote “that’s his flock now.” That’s when I realized that the organized church is not working for its congregations, but rather operates believing that its congregations work for it.

Religion, as practiced by the organized church in the US, is broken.

I was brought up Republican, which is to say that I was aware of my parents and grandparents voting Republican in the seventies and eighties. In high school, I was already getting the idea that both major parties had more in common with the actors in the other party than either of them had with the citizens they supposed to be representing, and I was sporting the “withdrawal in disgust is not apathy” banner to remove myself from political conversations. As I grew older, it occurred to me that the political conversation ended up affecting me whether I took part in it or not, and I have been an advocate for third parties ever since.

Over the past couple of decades we have seen the worst gridlock and political obstruction in our history… and our government is currently shutdown, despite bipartisan congressional agreement, at the childish whim of someone who can’t get us to pay something he told us someone else would pay for.

Politics, as practiced by the major parties in the US, is broken.

When we think about who we are, what we are for, what is our greatest good… we all too often compartmentalize a vast array of moral and social values into lumps we call politics and religion. Because of the peculiar brokenness of politics and religion in the US, we largely define ourselves within structures hundreds, even thousands of years old, that we did not build and to a great extent don’t even understand.

We have to start over. The structures we have are broken. My task as I see it is to create new structures, which both acknowledge the reality of the existing structures and plan for their eventual replacement. The next step is defining exactly what they are and what they do.

I’m not looking to replace religion or politics themselves, but rather the structures we use to define them: basically, a new church and a new political  party. For now, they’re called the jj church and the jj party. Part of the foundation of these new structures is that they are not intended to completely replace existing structures: I can foresee someone meaningfully calling themselves a “jj Republican” or a “jj Methodist.” One ideal of these structures will be to focus on common ground and working together to move forward, to make sure our differences don’t stand in the way of our similarities.

The very first thing we have to agree on, that has to be similar, is what we are trying to do with these structures. We toss around terms like “politics” and “religion” as though we all know exactly what we are talking about and to what extent. But we need to know why the structures exist in the first place… we don’t seek out a religion or political party because we like the colors of the building (or at least we shouldn’t), we seek them out to fill needs within and outside ourself. At its most basic level, religion is an attempt to understand where we as individuals fit in the “grander scheme” of things. At its most basic level, politics is an attempt to understand where we as a society can move forward the “grander scheme” of things. The insistence of separating church and state has always seemed odd to me when clearly the one was little more than an outward, societal take on the other.

To summarize: with the intent of offering a better version of objectively broken modern US politics and religion, I am starting a new church and a new political party. These new structures will be intentionally built to focus on first working around, then eliminating these problems.

Party Like It’s 1996

Glory Days time, here. Back in the day, the mid-90’s day, my second job was at a comic book store. I had learned to read from Donald Duck comics digests, and when Star Wars came out (a life-altering event, for me), Marvel Comics started a Star Wars comic book. That introduced me to the rest of the Marvel Universe, and I was hooked. As an adult, working part time in the comic store was a great way to feed my habit.

A lot was going on in the comics and related fandom worlds at the time. A new thing called Magic, a game where you collected trading cards as playing pieces, was taking over the geek imagination. Although it seemed fascinating, there just wasn’t anything about it that drew me in enough to make the considerable investment in Magic cards.

Then came the Star Wars Collectible/Customizable Card Game.

For months, all my part time earnings went into packs and boxes of Star Wars cards. We played at the store, we played at each other’s houses… we played for hours at the local pizza place on Tuesday nights (thanks, Bertolo!). We played tournaments on Saturdays and at conventions.

What with being able to collect so many cards, and being in the center of a varied group of players, I got pretty good at the game. So good, in fact, I managed to win the tournament at Dragon*Con in 1996, the first year it was held. I still have the unopened box of Premiere I got for a prize.

But that wasn’t the best part of it. Dragon*Con was the first qualifier for the Star Wars CCG championship. Decipher, the company that created the game, flew me and 39 other qualifier winners from literally around the world to Vail, Colorado, where we holed up for the weekend and played cards. I ended up in the middle of the pack (I know it was two away from right at the middle, I was either 18th or 22nd, it’s lost in the fog of time, now), but the experience was amazing.

Decipher released more card sets, I kept playing. Somewhere along the line, Decipher sold out to Wizards of the Coast, the Magic makers. Between fewer players keeping up with the ever-expanding game and other happenings in my own life, I started playing less and less. Once the wife then kids arrived, the Star Wars cards were in boxes in the closet.

Not entirely unexpectedly, my own kids turned into Star Wars fans. When they were young, we watched the movies together, as they got older, we played the video games together.

One day, it became time to play Star Wars cards together.

So my kids got me to dig out my old cards and refresh my memory of Activate, Control, Deploy, Battle, Move, Draw. We had fun.

The limitation was built decks. I still had six or seven decks built from the day, and that’s what the kids and I have used. There’s just a huge amount of cards and playing styles, and with the kids just learning as they go, deck-building isn’t something they’ve shown an interest in, at least yet. To try and scratch that itch, I went back to some of my old comic haunts to see if there were any players left.

Not really, no. The market had moved on, and if you told people you were playing the Star Wars game now, it means something completely different. So online I went.

First stop was the Star Wars CCG Players Committee at https://www.starwarsccg.org, and pay dirt right away: there’s an Online Play link right in the middle of the page. That link led me to the GEMP website at http://tlbiesterfeld.servegame.com/gemp-swccg/, where you can build decks and even play online against folks around the world.

I haven’t even fully explored the GEMP site yet, much less started using all the tools. But this is the kind of thing the internet was literally built for: making the tedium of chasing 120 playing cards around a table into a click-and-drag operation, and bringing together people from far away over the same interests.

May the Force be with you.

Long Time Coming

Okay, so the bad news is I haven’t slept all night for two straight nights.

The good news is it’s because I got interested in something.

After having this goal for way too long, this weekend I finally went through the process of setting up my digital music interface and actually cutting tracks of vocals, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar, while also setting up an M-Audio keyboard controller for keyboards, bass, and drums synths. I used an actual song to test, my own Approximately, and it’s now on SoundCloud and also linked in the menu here on jjewell.com.

This is actually a pretty big one, for me. Getting over the hump on cutting some sort of “baseline” track to build on was a mental block for far too long… but once that foundation was laid, the rest of it came together a lot more quickly than I would have expected. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a finished song, but the fact that completed it and it exists and its out there in the world is a big deal I intend to celebrate.

Success Story Number Two

Multiple small successes rolled into one: I have an online shop for physical items, I have, again, finally, online forums, and I’m running a website primarily from iOS. The website from iOS thing was primarily the purpose of the fireapplered.com web address… not sure what I’ll do with that at the moment, since I’m now accomplishing its purpose here.

This is a particular victory for me at the moment because I’ve been working through some depression… and things haven’t seemed worth doing, recently. Making some visible changes is a good sign.