Forty years of geekitude

TRS-80 Model 1It was forty years ago this fall, in 1977, that I bought my first computer. I had little experience with computers prior to that – a few weeks working after hours on an APL system at the U of T, mostly to play games against the machine, reading a few magazine articles on the coming ‘personal’ computer wave. Nothing seriously hands-on, experience-wise, and no programming skills either. But as soon as I saw one, I had to have it. And so I bought one.

Since then, I have not been a day without one, and generally had more than just one in my home. As many as six or seven at one time, back in the early 1980s, all different brands. But that was when I was writing about them, editing computer books and writing computer manuals.

My first computer was a TRS 80, Model 1. TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack. It was a 16KB computer (yes: that’s 16,384 bytes of memory) In comparison, my current laptop has 8GB, or 8,388,608 kilobytes: 512 times the Model 1’s amount of RAM!

It was powered by a Zilog Z-80 eight-bit processor. My current machines all run 64-bit, multi-core processors. It had no USB ports, didn’t use a mouse, and had no audio card. Smartphones today are more versatile and more powerful. But not as much fun.

Before I bought it, I debated for a week or two whether to get the TRS or the competing Commodore PET, powered by the 6502 processor. It had similar limitations in memory and input devices, but came with a green and black screen integrated with the keyboard in one unit. But the TRS was sold at a nearby Radio Shack store within walking distance, and they also offered nighttime classes to teach the basics. The PET was only sold at stores downtown, so I bought the closer one.

I had to boot it and load programs from a cassette tape player. A year or so later, I upgraded to a 64KB RAM system and dual floppy (5.25″) drives. Each floppy could hold about 160KB of programs or data. It had a standalone B & W monitor that didn’t have any graphic capability, although canny programmers used the blocks in the ASCII character set to create pseudo-graphics (a bit like today’s Dwarf Fortress game displays, but only in B&W).
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Microsoft killed solitaire for me

Solitaire – also known as Klondike and Patience – is a very popular game on computers. So popular, in fact that a version of this 200-year-old card game has been included by Microsoft in every version of Windows since 3.0 (1990), aside from a brief hiatus with Win 8 (which gap was filled in by third-party versions). Microsoft has even launched a version for iOS, playable on the Mac, iPhone and iPad.

And according to some reports, it is the most widely used program by Windows users by a long shot. More than Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint and Explorer. Writer Luke Plunkett called that statistic “frightening.”

But for millions of us, solitaire fills the time; it occupies our brains during long travel times, in waiting rooms, in between loading, downloading, burning to disk or compiling experiences. Not just the one game: there are a whole raft of solo card games under the name solitaire – freecell, spider, Klondike, pyramid and tri-peaks among them – that people play regularly. And sometimes obsessively. Many is the time I have stopped writing this blog or some other piece, trapped by writer’s block or simple exhaustion, to while away a few minutes recharging with a simple game of solitaire.

As Plunkett wrote:

You mention Solitaire and—after the amazing end-game card haze—the first thing that pops into your head is that it was once seen as the single biggest threat to office productivity facing this planet’s workers. And in many regards, that’s correct.
Most people who have worked in an office can testify to the lure of the game, and could name one or two colleagues who spent a little too much time cutting the decks when they should have been filing reports. Some even take it too far; in 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously fired a city employee he caught playing the game while at work.
This addiction can even spread beyond the workplace and into people’s homes. My father has spent more time playing Freecell over the past decade than he has doing housework, for example. Things can get even worse for some: in 1996, Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack opened the world’s first clinic for computer addicts as a response to her own chronic Solitaire addiction.

In May, 2008, Slate magazine ran a story titled, “Solitaire-y Confinement: Why we can’t stop playing a computerized card game.” In it, author Josh Levin wrote:

The game’s continued pre-eminence is a remarkable feat—it’s something akin to living in a universe in which Pong were the most-popular title for PlayStation 3. One reason solitaire endures is its predictability. The gameplay and aesthetic have remained remarkably stable; a visitor from the year 1990 could play the latest Windows version without a glitch, at least if he could figure out how to use the Start menu. It also remains one of the very few computer programs, game or nongame, that old people can predictably navigate. Brad Fregger, the developer of Solitaire Royale, the first commercial solitaire game for the Macintosh and the PC, told me that his 89-year-old mother still calls regularly to brag about her high scores. The game has also maintained a strong foothold in the modern-day cubicle.

So with its widespread popularity, a game beloved by millions and maybe even billions, you have to wonder why Microsoft seems bent on destroying the experience in Windows 10. Levin calls solitaire the “…cockroach of gaming, remarkably flexible and adaptable.” Perhaps Microsoft wants to stamp it out.
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TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

The WOW Factor

WOWAfter two years away from the game, I was recently convinced by a friend to return to World of Warcraft again and play in the fantasy universe of WOW. At 10 years old, WOW remains the biggest, most-subscribed, most popular MMORPG, with around 10 million subscribers.

By technology’s rapid-aging standards, WOW is a grandfather game; maybe even a great-grandfather. It has certainly spawned a lot of offspring, although not all are legitimate.

I started playing WOW back in 2005. although I didn’t play it seriously and attentively until a little later, after the first expansion. Then I got heavily into the game, so that for a long stretch, barely a day went by without at least doing the daily quests for one or more characters.

I dutifully paid my monthly subscription fee for years. I upgraded to the first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. Then the Wrath of the Lich King. And also the third, Cataclysm, coming out in late 2010. When the fourth expansion set, Mists of Pandaria, was released, in the fall of 2012. I was already losing interest and the corny fighting pandas the expansion threw in just didn’t make me want to shell out another $50 plus the $15 a month.

WOWI slogged on for a few more months, but in December 2012, I finally gave up. I wasn’t enjoying the way the game had evolved. I wasn’t having fun any more.

I had long stopped being obsessed with finishing pointless quests, running back and forth collecting useless items for some NPC. And running was what I did most of the time. You can’t get a mount to travel faster until level 20. Flying mounts at level 60. A lot of the grind is spent running. My fingers were getting stiff.

My game time had dwindled from hours a day to hours a week. Then a month. Finally, I simply didn’t care any more.

I was tired of the repetitive canned responses from NPCs. The voice acting was old and stale. The cartoonish scenery and characters no longer amused me. I had had a small boost to my enjoyment when they added flying mounts (Cataclysm?), but that soon became tired, too. Questing and collecting and making things became a grind, not fun.

I was never big on some of the game’s aspects, even from the start – battlegrounds and raids weren’t attractive to me. Nor was PvP. I preferred questing, often solo or with a single friend, and the occasional dungeon crawl with a mixed party. But after I reached the pinnacle – level 70 at first, then cranked to 80 –  with most of my characters, it simply paled. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The expansions added territory to explore, new quests, new opponents, but generally they seemed to be a kind of kitchen-sink approach: stuff was added, changed, removed with seeming arbitrariness. The new races, the new enemies didn’t seem to match the logic of the original game series. Sometimes it felt like the whole WOW universe was designed by 14-year-olds with lots of passion but lacking a solid background in fantasy.
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