Skip to main content

Darren Aronofsky’s Pi day: this week in tech, 20 years ago

Darren Aronofsky’s Pi day: this week in tech, 20 years ago


July 14th, 1998

Share this story

Darren Aronovsky’s Pi
Artisan Entertainment

There is surprisingly little news about technology and the 1998 World Cup.

The 2018 World Cup wraps up this weekend, and we’ve had lots to say about it — from how streaming video has made watching the games more convenient (unless it completely screws up) to how World Cup memes have made it all the way into Amazon’s Alexa. But in 1998... well, apparently it was the first year that officials used electronic displays during games. There were also a number of World Cup video games, including a ridiculous-looking Japanese arcade game and the first FIFA World Cup game from EA Sports — but these came out during the pre-Cup hype period, not the event itself.

Fortunately, the World Cup wasn’t the only thing people were writing about this week in 1998.

As a person who covers day-to-day technology news, I often wonder how my writing might come off to someone in the future — and whether anyone will even be reading it. I can’t answer those questions, but I can do the next best thing: look back at what other people were writing 20 years ago.

Here are five stories — big and small — that science and tech enthusiasts might have checked out during the week of July 14th, 1998.

Dividing by zero stuns a missile cruiser

In 1996, the US Navy retrofitted the USS Yorktown as the first “Smart Ship” — an experiment in reducing crew sizes by installing Windows NT computers to run parts of the missile cruiser. Breaking with science fiction tradition, the computers did not gain sentience and attempt to destroy humanity with a robotic battleship. Unfortunately, they did try to divide with a database entry of zero, which locked up the entire system and left the Yorktown dead in the water for nearly three hours.

The incident happened in 1997, but GCN magazine reported it the next summer, and Wired followed up with an in-depth article — which questioned the decision to use Windows instead of the potentially more stable Unix. The Navy defended Windows, but the Smart Ship program hit budget issues and delays, and it was wound down within a few years. Which isn’t to say that the concept went away — Rolls-Royce announced plans for a completely autonomous military ship last year, and military research agency DARPA christened an autonomous warship called the Sea Hunter in 2016.

The artificial island bonanza

The idea of building artificial islands isn’t a new one, nor necessarily a high-tech one. But it will never stop sounding awesome, so this Associated Press article about the Netherlands’ plans for expanding the country with new islands is still a distinctly fun read. If it sounds familiar, it might be because people are still constantly reporting on new Dutch islands. Among other projects, The New York Times covered plans to build a tulip-shaped island in 2007, and a Dutch energy network proposed constructing an island for an offshore wind farm last year.

Some of these plans don’t pan out: the airport mentioned in the AP article hasn’t been relocated offshore, for instance. But CityLab has reported on islands that are actually being created as well — including artificial islands meant to trap silt and provide a sanctuary for birds, and an archipelago of islands that provide extra housing space in Amsterdam.

“The medieval period of TV theme songs”

The late 1990s gave us the artsy TV title sequence, which — as chronicled in an excellent story by Lance Richardson last year — is now under threat. But two decades ago, the Chicago Tribune complained about the loss of something else: the memorable TV theme song. The world of television, studio executives argued, was just too fast-moving to keep viewers hooked through an extended musical sequence: “we can’t give the competitor an opportunity to grab those eyeballs from us,” complained one. The piece is a reminder of how much we’ve come to take take slow television (and the fast-forward button) for granted in the age of streaming.

That said, the Tribune also acknowledges a couple of extremely major exceptions... including one of the most maddeningly memorable — and extremely ‘90s — theme songs in television history.

Free-ze Mumia

The internet does not always favor common sense. A public figure, for instance, might take a divisive political stance — like Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen signing an open letter supporting a new trial for convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal. But after some time in the online rumor mill, that decision might look a lot more extreme — like Ben & Jerry’s naming one of its frozen treats after a man who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer.

In July of 1998, the Hartford Courant reported that American police departments had suddenly become furious about the flavor, which Ben & Jerry’s insisted didn’t exist. “This whole thing started up on the internet very recently,’’ lamented a spokesperson. “It’s incorrect, totally wrong.” Ben & Jerry’s has certainly dipped into politics in the years since, with things like an economic inequality-themed Bernie Sanders blend. But the Abu-Jamal ice cream has quite reasonably never materialized — and the internet, where web platforms are in a full-fledged panic over “fake news,” is still full of misinformation.

Pi turns 20

I’ll admit it: I have never watched Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, the surreal movie that Paste describes favorably as “an 85-minute migraine.” But the stripped-down, deeply weird film was released on July 10th, 1998, which means it’s time to take a look back. The original critical consensus on Pi isn’t that far from how people think of the film today: The New York Times called it “awfully hard to watch,” but said it posed “age-old questions about the relationships between genius and insanity, mathematics and numerology, mysticism and scientific truth.”

On the day of the film’s release, IndieWire published an interview with a young Aronofsky — who would go on to have a long career making films like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, and most recently, the notoriously controversial Mother! “Do you think you can see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?” asked interviewer Anthony Kaufman. “Making movies? We’ll see what happens,” said Aronofsky, cautiously.