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SapphireSteeel Software



June 2005

This month Huw stumbles upon a male pop singer who is transforming himself into Mae West, Harry Potter’s more debauched rival and a clock that tells you when you are going to die…


If I were to ask you to name a story about an academic institution for trainee wizards, I wonder what you’d say? Let me give you another clue. The tale I am thinking of concerns a young bespectacled apprentice sorcerer who has to go to lots of wizardry classes and learn one-word spells in order to battle against evil forces and….

‘Aha!’ you cry, ‘That could only be Harry Potter!’

Well, no, actually, it couldn’t….

The apprentice sorcerer I have in mind is one Ernie Eaglebeak. Instead of Hogwarts, he attends the Sorcerer’s University of Peloria; and instead of finding the philosopher’s stone (or the ‘sorcerer’s stone’ as it’s called in American release of the Harry Potter film and book), he must find the sorcerer’s appliance.

Now, maybe you think that the Eaglebeak yarn sounds a bit too close to Harry Potter for comfort; perhaps Ms Rowling should consult her copyright lawyer at her earliest opportunity in order to put an end to this blatant plagiarism. Nope, not a chance. The Eaglebeak adventures pre-date Harry Potter by almost a decade. The first episode, ‘Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All The Girls’, appeared in 1990 (oh yes, that’s another difference - unlike Harry Potter, Ernie Eaglebeak wasn’t slow to discover sex) and this was quickly followed by ‘Spellcasting 201: The Sorcerer’s Appliance’ and ‘Spellcasting 301: Spring Break’.

And there is one other important difference. The Ernie Eaglebeak stories were computer games rather than novels….

Can that really be Harry Potter? Nope! That's his seedier rival, Ernie Eaglebeak

Sticky Moments

The Spellcasting series was produced by Legend Software and written by one Steve Meretzky. Prior to this Meretzky had written a whole load of games for the great text adventure company, Infocom. These included an adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a weird little yarn called The Leather Godesses of Phobos and another game about student sorcerers called, pithily enough, Sorcerer.

Sorcerer was itself the second part of a trilogy which began with Enchanter and concluded with Spellbreaker. Once again this series has some surprising similarities to the Harry Potter saga. It all begins with a student of wizardry who at one moment finds himself sitting through boring lessons all about spells and potions and at the next moment has to battle against the powers of an evil wizard in a fight for life. The third game, Spellbreaker, even comes with a colour catalogue of magical goods that wouldn’t be out of place in Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley….

Back By Popular demand!” one advert says, “We brought back good, old-fashioned brooms, just like great-grandmother used to fly.” Another ad promises: “No more sticky spell residue with our rejection-coated cauldrons.” There are yet more ads for wands in all styles, wizards’ hats “reinforced to counteract atmospheric interference”, vellum scrolls for better spells and “tropical lizards… sent in our world-renowned, temperature controlled newtpaks to ensure freshness.”

I have no idea whether or not J K Rowling was a keen adventure gamer in her younger days. The parallels between the worlds of the Enchanter and Spellcasting series are, in all probability, entirely coincidental. But I have to say that, as an enthusiastic text-adventure gamer myself I would like to think that maybe Harry Potter is, at least, somewhat distantly related to Ernie Eaglebeak…. I’m fortunate enough to have these games lovingly preserved in their original packaging. I see, however, that Spellcasting 101 (the game but not the packaging) is available for free download from Abandonia, a repository of ‘abandoned’ games: http://www.abandonia.com/games/423/download/Spellcasting_101.htm

Go West!

It’s amazing what you find out about people when you run a web site. For example, I would never have guessed how many people are fascinated by Pete Burns’ plastic surgery. Burns is the singer with the group, Dead Or Alive, who were big in the UK during the ‘80s and have, apparently, been bigger in Japan ever since. I did an interview with Pete Burns at the height of his fame, some twenty or so years ago when I was a fresh-faced pop music journalist. Although he dabbled with make-up and fishnet tights Pete Burns was, at that time, unscathed by the cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel. So when he told me that his ambition, in later life was to have face lifts and plastic surgery because “I want to look like Mae West,” I frankly thought he was pulling my leg.

Not so! As good as his word, Pete has had extensive facial reconstruction in recent years. The skin is tight, the eyes are singularly lacking in bags and the lips are as full and juicy as two halves of a grapefruit. You can see the before, during and after pictures here:
(warning: this is not suitable for people of a nervous disposition).

But to get back to the point…. I only know that people are fascinated by “Pete Burns” and “plastic surgery” because these precise terms rank highly among the Google searches which people use in order to find the ‘80s music web site containing my interview with Pete Burns (www.darkneon.com).

Which browser, which OS, which country, which search terms, what colour underpants... yup, my web site control panel tells me more about you than you'd ever want me to know!

The Control Panel also provides all kinds of other interesting statistics such as the percentage of visitors using specific web browsers. Champions of Firefox will no doubt be heartened to know that, to date, no less than 34.1% of visitors to the Bitwise site use Firefox (51.7% use Internet Explorer). However, compare this with the statistics for my ‘80s music site. Here only 8.2% of visitors have Firefox while Internet Explorer is used by 84.6%.

However, I seem to have wandered from the topic which I had intended to discuss - which was... ah yes, stumbleupon. I stumbled upon stumbleupon while browsing through the part of the Bitwise control panel which shows the numbers of visitors who have arrived at the site via links from external web pages. Most of the links shown in the control panel are familiar to me. I know, for example, that Bob Swart has a link on www.drbob42.com and that the good folks at Remote Exploit (new.remote-exploit.org) have also linked to Bitwise, as have various other programming and technical-type sites. However, I was surprised to find that Bitwise is also getting a substantial number of links from www.stumbleupon.com. Not only had I never heard of that site but the name certainly didn’t sound as though it was likely to be about computing. Fired up with curiosity, I decided to stumble across to stumbleupon and find out what was going on.

Mystery Tour

Stumbleupon (www.stumbleupon.com) turns out to be a simple idea wonderfully executed. It is a web exploration tool which is also a terrifically entertaining way to waste time. To put it baldly, stumbleupon is a database of recommended web sites. So far, so dull, you may think. Stay with me though - it gets better.

In order to be able to recommend (or discommend) a web site you have to join the stumbleupon community. You do this by downloading a bar for your browser. The stumbleupon browser bar is a bit like other browser addins such as the Google bar. It attaches a new bar of buttons to the top of your web browser (IE or Mozilla/Firefox). Now when you see a web site you like, you can press a thumbs up (or down) icon to add it to the stumbleupon database, with or without a few descriptive comments. If the site is already known to stumbleupon, you can click an icon to view other people’s comments about it.

This is the stumbleupon brower bar. One click of the Stumble! button can set you off on a voyage of adventure...

But the fun really starts when you start browsing around web sites which have been added to the database by other stumbleupon users. First you can optionally pick a subset of your interests such as ‘Computer Science’, ‘Dogs’ and ‘Bizarre/Oddities’ say. Then you click the ‘Stumble!’ button in the browser bar to go to randomly selected sites fitting these categories. With the above categories selected, these are the sites I’ve just found:

http://bigpawsonly.com/ - a site about big dogs such as St Bernards, Newfoundlands of Pyrenean Mountain Dogs (as regular readers will know, the latter breed has a special place in the Collingbourne household!)
http://funny2.com/facts.htm - a site of ‘true facts’ (apparently). Did you know that The chameleon has a tongue that is one and a half times the length of his body? Or that Beethoven dipped his head in cold water before he composed?
http://www.deathclock.com/ - want to know when you are going to die? Find out here! Me, I think I’ll just stumble quickly onto a different site…
http://www.fincher.org/Misc/Pennies/ - photographs of stacks of pennies to illustrate clever civil engineering type stuff, um, I think….?

Anyway, you get the picture. In the hours I spend clicking the Stumble! button I like to tell myself that this really is a great way to expand my intellectual horizons. Then again, maybe I should just get out more….?

Coming Soon...

Borland's David Intersimone braces himself for the Collingbourne interview (ah, but can he take the pace....?)

I did at least get out last Monday. All the way out to London which, travelling by a mix of road and rail from my remote hideaway on the North coast of Devon in the south-west of England, is not a trivial journey. In fact, it takes about five hours each way. Still, the man I had come to see had travelled from San Francisco via India and Japan so I probably shouldn’t grumble….

David Intersimone is Borland’s Vice President of Developer Relations and an all round decent chap. I first met him about fifteen or so years ago and our paths have continued to cross at fairly regular intervals ever since. I went to London to video an interview with David in which he told me about forthcoming developments in Borland’s Delphi, Java and C++ products. I got the distinct impression that David found this to be one of the most stimulating interviews he’s ever done. You don’t believe me? Then click HERE for the evidence (you’ll need the Windows Media Player).

The full video interview will be going online on the main Bitwise site shortly. I promise you, it does get a lot more lively later on!

p.s. Sorry, David, but I really couldn't resist :-)

My video interview with David Intersimone will be available from the Bitwise site shortly. To receive an alert to let you know when it’s online, you may want to subscribe to the RSS feed on the Bitwise front page. In the meantime, catch up on David’s musings on life, the universe and programming on his blog at http://blogs.borland.com/davidi/

Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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