In the 1970s, in the fledgling days of the video games industry, an engineer named Gerald “Jerry” Lawson designed one of the earliest game consoles, the Channel F, and also led the team that invented the game cartridge, a defining innovation in how games were made and sold. His son, Andersen Lawson, recalls that he was often working on gaming projects in the garage of their family home in Santa Clara, California. “There have been conversations recently about the struggles he might have had that were related to his colour,” he says. “Was it difficult [for him]? Yes, I’m quite certain. But I never heard any grumblings from him. And I’m also certain that he earned his respect … My father was a person of colour and I think that would inspire young people today to jump in and help move the industry along.”
Black people, and especially black women, are still underrepresented in the video games industry. The Independent Game Developers’ Association records that only 2% of US game developers identify as black; in the UK, meanwhile, according to UKIE’s 2020 census of the entire industry, 10% of its workers are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). But black innovators such as Jerry Lawson have been present and influential since the earliest days of the video games industry – and there is not enough recognition for their achievements.
Lawson was featured in Netflix’s High Score documentary series on the history of video games last year. Born in New York in 1940, he developed a strong interest in electronics during his youth, when he often fixed his neighbours’ small appliances as a hobby. This influenced his decision to become an engineer, and after moving to California, he became a member of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist collective that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among its members. It was his work as an engineer at San Jose-based Fairchild Semiconductor, though, that was truly pioneering. As a side project, he created a coin-op arcade game called Demolition Derby, and as a result he was approached by his bosses to become the lead engineer in the company’s new gaming division. He died from complications of diabetes in 2011, aged 70.
After moving on from Fairchild in 1980, Lawson founded Video Soft, which created games for the Atari 2600. The games were never publicly released, however, and following the notorious North American video game crash of 1983, he shut up shop in 1984 and worked as a consulting engineer thereafter. “Another company had the idea for the console but it was Fairchild that commercialised it,” says Andersen Lawson. “My dad was the person responsible for putting the team together … and they were able to achieve something that has been long since forgotten.”
New York-born Ed Smith, meanwhile, is a retired engineer who helped develop APF Electronics’ Imagination Machine, a hybrid console and home computer system. Companies such as APF expanded into gaming in the 70s and early 80s, providing opportunities for talented engineers. “As a black person, it was more about having the opportunity to be gainfully employed, no matter what area of work I was doing,” Smith tells me. “I had a child at a young age and the biggest thing for me was to get a good job. Luckily, I got into the field of technology and that was the point from which everything else just flowed.”
As well as engineering, his work on the machine included developing schematic diagrams and game testing. Smith’s innovative work at APF was deeply influential to future generations, but the company itself did not withstand the video game crash. “I thought our game would be one of many in the marketplace for years to come… my expectations were that I would be in the industry for the long term; the reality was that after the market tanked, I had to go and work in other areas,” he says.
Eventually, Smith found long-term work in tech sales and retired about two years ago to focus on writing Imagine That!, a book about his life. It recounts his struggles as a young black man in 1960s America. “We had our share of things that caused us to go out and to protest at that time. And it was pretty much the same things that we’re dealing with today – which is unfortunate,” he adds.
A third black innovator from the early days of the video games industry is Muriel Tramis, who is considered to be the first black female video game designer. She lives in France but grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles, and began her career as an engineer, programming military drones. She first made her mark on video games while working at French developer Coktel Vision, which she joined in 1986.
Tramis says that this was her happiest time, professionally speaking. “I had found a way to combine IT and literary creativity,” she told the Guardian. “My editor entrusted me with the project management of his adventure games because my engineering training allowed me to understand the technical aspects of development, programming of interactions, and integration of images and sound. He was of Armenian origin and probably for this reason, was very open-minded to diversity.”
Méwilo, the 1987 Atari game that Tramis wrote and directed in collaboration with writer Patrick Chamoiseau, drew on Martinique’s rich history. She says: “When I wanted to create my first script, I wanted it to be in the style of a historical novel. It’s natural that I was inspired by the island’s history, because it was unknown, or poorly known, to the rest of the world and had all the ingredients to create intrigue, drama and mystery. The history of the Antilles is part of the history of France, but this region has known the pain of slavery and colonisation. This is the origin of many traumas which are visible in Creole society and mixed societies in general.”
Tramis left Coktel Vision in 2003, but thinks fondly of her time there. “I liked the period so much that after a detour through virtual reality applied to urban planning, I am about to create my own video game development studio,” she says. “About 30 years after my first game, I am working on a future story.” Her upcoming game features black heroes and shows how skin-colour prejudice is the origin of present-day discrimination.
She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2018 and says it was an honour not just for herself but for her friends, family, her country and the “sisters” across the world, whom she hopes to inspire. Tramis is keen to encourage more women into technology and science, given the skills shortage in Europe: if women represent 50% of digital users, “they must also be 50% of designers, engineers and technicians”.
Though names like Lawson, Smith and Tramis do sometimes show up in video game history books, the contributions of many other black people in the fledgling days of the industry have gone entirely uncredited. “It parallels what we know about black women’s participation in the space program,” says TreaAndrea Russworm, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, who discusses black women’s contribution to games in her article Replaying Video Game History as a Mixtape of Black Feminist Thought (co-written with fellow black female academic Samantha Blackmon). “The book and film Hidden Figures has made it very obvious to us now that black women were there, but they weren’t headliners: they weren’t the astronauts, but they were the human computers, the labour force that was essential to the program, and they worked for many years unrecognised.
“At the Strong Museum [the US National Museum of Play], where they have archives on Midway and Atari, you can flip through their company newsletters, and you’ll come across photos of black women … they sometimes have a title or a caption saying who they were. But a lot of times, they don’t.”
Iron Ox aims to reduce the carbon footprint of farming using robotics and AI.
Silicon Valley agtech start-up Iron Ox has secured $53m in Series C funding led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Founded in 2015, Iron Ox has now raised $98m to date for its autonomous farming technologies.
The ultimate goal for Iron Ox is to rebuild the agricultural model so that fruit and veg can be produced locally and sustainably with a lower carbon footprint. Using robotics and AI to support a data-driven approach to farming, Iron Ox claims to create 30 times more produce per acre using 90pc less water than conventional field farms.
Food from its farms in northern California can be purchased in stores across the San Francisco Bay area, and the company expects to further its reach later this year after breaking ground on a new 535,000 sq ft indoor farm in Texas.
Existing investors in Iron Ox include Crosslink Capital, R7 Partners, Amplify Partners and Y Combinator. This is a first round of investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund established by Bill Gates and a coalition of private investors in 2015.
With more than $2bn in committed capital, Breakthrough Energy targets its investments at companies and innovations that can help reach a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This week, it was announced that the fund had secured investments from Microsoft, BlackRock, General Motors, American Airlines, Boston Consulting Group, Bank of America and ArcelorMittal.
Emissions from agriculture have been shown to be a significant contributor to the climate crisis. According to global research non-profit World Resources Institute, without intervention, greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production could increase by 58pc by 2050.
The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that unless there are immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, will be “beyond reach”.
“World-class investors know that humanity’s most important pursuit is to reverse climate change,” said Iron Ox CEO and co-founder Brandon Alexander. “To get there, we can’t settle for incrementally more sustainable crops – and we can’t ask consumers to compromise on taste, convenience or value.”
Iron Ox’s technology sets out to minimise the amount of land, water and energy needed for everyday produce. “The team at Iron Ox will not stop until we achieve our long-term mission of making the produce sector carbon negative,” said Alexander.
The start-up will use this Series C round to expand its retail presence and accelerate hiring. In particular, it’s seeking plant scientists, engineers, roboticists and greenhouse operators to join the team. The company also plans to boost its R&D programmes, accelerate its manufacturing scale-up and expand its operations across the US.
Carmichael Roberts from Breakthrough Energy Ventures said that this investment aligns with the fund’s aim to accelerate innovations that can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Iron Ox is uniquely positioned to accelerate the shift towards climate-friendly agriculture, while increasing the accessibility and quality of fresh produce,” he said.
“It’s the type of solution that’s designed to scale quickly and has the potential to get us one big step closer to net zero.”
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I write comedy and I direct comedy, and all of the money I make is from making comedy. However not all of the comedy I make is for making money. I like making things that are borne of nothing other than my fancy being tickled. I’m biased because I’m me and me is a perfect boy, but I’m pretty sure that this is the exactly correct way to approach your craft; one for you, one for them.
Ira Glass likes to talk about the taste gap and I like to talk about Ira Glass talking about the taste gap. It’s the mental chasm you find yourself in when you’re really into your chosen creative pursuit but you haven’t flexed your own muscle enough yet and you KNOW IT and it hurts cos you know you suck. I want to half-hijack my own funniest things list to celebrate the taste-gap-closing creative phase because I feel like its necessity is slowly being ignored.
This is a list of the funniest things on the internet that I know have been made only for the love of the process. No budgets or institutional support – simply really funny ideas explored to what appears to be the limit of the creators’ resources and abilities at the time. Has anyone laboured the ideology behind a selection criteria for a funny videos listicle as much as this? Probably not, but I’m trying to close up my opinion-piece-writing taste gap cos I’m thinking about starting a locky-d newsletter so like, forgive me?
1. Tiny Fuppets
Wow the Tiny Fuppets are AMAZE! I STAN TINY FUPPETS! If you don’t know about the Tiny Fuppets well they are simply just some Fuppets who are tiny teehee. This series started in 2011 and not too long after the creators became Conan writers.
2. Aunty Donna – GPS tries to kill man
Feels like you’re legally required to have an Aunty Donna video in your Guardian 10 funniest things list – they themselves had a list populated almost entirely with their own videos (due to the law I guess). Here we find the Donnas in 2012 being very funny and dumb and now we find them everywhere being funny and dumb cos they closed up their gap noice and toight.
3. F the Internet
A public-access-aping sketch that breaks out of the confines of its well-trodden framing with a confidently silly central performance and a clear willingness in the film-making to find the comedy on the day. This is 2015. Three years later star/writer/director Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough started working for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
4. The New Pet Detectives
2013, my best friends Sam and Greg form the dream team of them, Tom Ward and Jonathan Schuster, to make a sketch for our shared YouTube. They’re in Melbourne and I’ve only just moved to Sydney so I wasn’t involved at all and therefore don’t feel grotty about putting it on my list. Eight years later, The New Pet Detectives makes me laugh every time and even though it ends with literally an apology for how shit they thought it was, all of them have closed up their gaps enough to continue to make comedy on bigger and crazier world stages.
5. Redfern Electrical
This one’s some red-hot 2021 business. John Cruckshank, beyond being a man of the people, is achingly funny and along with his film-making collaborator Luke Smith has the storytelling prowess to make this work of autofiction both hilarious moment-to-moment as well as structurally watertight. Together they’ve got more chops than Sam Kekovich and when viewed as a local sitcom it’s hard to argue that there’s anything better being made on Australia TV by people getting paid to do it. Off the back of this the Shank got tapped to be in the Big Lez Show as well as some other upcoming US animation stuff. If you’re sleeping on him, cut it out.
6. Just 2 Guyz
I don’t think it’s that necessary to go deep into why the Lonely Island are good. Just 2 Guyz was a standalone 2004 video that wound up in their failed 2005 sketch show pilot. Later that year they were all hired into Saturday Night Live. Two years after that, Hot Rod, my favourite comedy movie, comes out. I did toy with including the Stolen Footage: Jorm Dances video series in this list but those were made during SNL which disqualified them from being “for free” in my staunch opinion.
7. Laura’s Shock Attack
Sam (see: The New Pet Detectives) showed this to me and I commend its makers for at once nodding to the past with their use of French New Wave jump cuts while also being forward thinking by experimenting with unusual aspect ratios before your A24 johnny-come-lately’s like Jonah Hill and Robert Eggers ever did. Though it’s rudimentary you gotta crawl before you can walk oddly down steps (see: 40s mark).
8. This @jjjhack tweet
Half a decade late admin reveal: @jjjhack was run by Sophie Braham, Tom Cashman and myself. When we started it, Crikey wrote an article about the account’s follower rise without ever checking to see whether the followers were all eggs, which they were because I paid $60 to get 70,000 fake ones so that we aesthetically mirrored the real @triplejhack Twitter account as closely as possible. We made a pact with ourselves to only ever reply to any emails or tweets with a photo of George Rose from the Dragons which we just kind of plucked from the ether for no real reason. Highlights of the @jjjhack era were sending George Rose to Tom Tilley when he thanked us for the lols and duping Malcolm Turnbull into tagging us instead of the real account.
Again, I don’t feel grimy about sharing something I was involved in because this specific tweet was written by Tom or Soph as I quit writing on it long before they did. The three of us now do other things for fun I guess because we actually did age out of parodying the national youth broadcaster.
9. Side of Smooth
Nathan Fielder and Chris Locke in 2008, five years prior to Nathan For You.
Fine, I’ll include my own proper one. I made this with Aaron Chen in 2017, it has very little sheen because the entire budget was me paying for lunch. It was knocked back by Tropfest – though I think that’s reasonable because I made it before the year’s theme of “Pineapple” was announced and then I pretended like having pine cones at the start and an apple at the end was an intentionally bookended approach to that theme, but they’d been duped one too many times.
To conclude this list in full earnestness, I wrote this sketch during one of my first ever bouts of depression, a time when I was deeply uncertain of my craft and incredibly distrustful of the local industry and the alleged experts working within it. Aaron, being the perpetually supportive friend he is, agreed to do the role and we got our friend Toby to bring his dog for Aaron to spit on. I think the sketch is pretty funny and is certainly helped to its feet through Chen being one of the most daftly captivating and to-the-core hilarious people this side of the River Murray. Through some twists and turns that reinvigorated my trust in the industry it fell into the laps of the people at Adult Swim and helped get our foot (feet?) in the door to make our short film for them last year. So yeah, it’s in the list because of how clearly it epitomises the cause-and-effect power of making your own stuff.
Remember to try to close up your gap, appreciate it when other people try to close up theirs and always revel in creating for creation’s sake!
More than three years after X.Org Server 1.20, released in May 2018, a release candidate for 21.1.0 has been posted.
The Linux display server remains widely used despite the introduction of Wayland, first released in 2012 and intended to replace X.
The future of the software, in terms of significant new releases, was in doubt when project owner Adam Jackson declared the project “abandoned” last year, but Lithuanian developer Povilas Kanapickas (who formerly worked on the Unity game engine) stepped up and said:
“There are new features in the Xorg DDX that I would like to see released, so I’m volunteering to do the releasing work.”
XWayland, a compatibility piece that enabled X clients for Wayland display servers, is part of the X.Org project but in December maintainer Michel Dänzer proposed that “there are new Xwayland features that we’d like to ship to users. Since there’s currently no clear plan for a new major release of xserver as a whole, I’m volunteering to make releases of Xwayland only instead.”
This was met with approval, and in March there was a standalone release of XWayland 21.1.0. Kanapickas considered this separation “good practice” and therefore the new release candidate is X.Org-only.
Work is proceeding on the 21.1 release of X.Org Server
Wayland use is increasing and it is the default in popular distributions including Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Debian. Ubuntu switched to Wayland as the default in version 21.04, a second attempt since it was default in 17.10 but reverted to X.Org for 18.04, which means that the current LTS edition, 20.04, remains on X for most users.
The same applies to distributions such as Linux Mint, based on Ubuntu LTS. Even where Wayland is the default, some users prefer to run X for compatibility or performance reasons.
The new release candidate includes variable refresh rate support, support for AMD GLAMOR acceleration in the Xvfb (X virtual framebuffer), touchpad gesture support, and correct reporting of display DPI “in more cases that may affect rendering of client applications on hi-DPI screens.” There is also full support for the Meson build system and the older autotools support will be dropped in future releases. Kanapickas has also helpfully listed all the fixes since version 1.20.0 which is a long list.
While many users will welcome a new X Server release, Jackson observed last year: “I’m of the opinion that keeping xfree86 alive as a viable alternative since Wayland started getting real traction in 2010ish is part of the reason those are still issues.” ®