Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Computers And Tao

Mincer of Logic asks, “At what point did you change to managing everything electronically.”

There's an obvious answer, and that would be six years. But that cheats me of being allowed to talk at length about myself, so I’ll take Option B and attend to my own ego.

My first experience with computers pre-dates my involvement with D&D. I was 13 years old, and as part of a unit for school we learned how computers worked and were taught to do basic programming – with punch cards. For those lucky souls who have no experience with it, they were cards that were a little larger than 7x3 inches, where the calculations were accomplished by little holes that were punched into the cards and read by computer. We were taught how the machine worked that punched holes in the cards, and we were taught how it took one card to provide one line of programming.

Yes, I literally grew up in the dark ages.

On some level everyone knew that computers were going to expand and get more complicated, but I want to say that the attitude in 1978 was much the same as the attitude right now – that it is all changing very fast, that most of the ‘big’ changes had already been made, that paper was obsolete and so on. Time marches on but the song remains the same.

I don’t want to get into a history about computers, but we’re going past that particular event at the moment so I want to get my licks in before moving on. Computers got to be more common by the time I entered high school, the cards disappeared and we moved into that glorious time when everyone was told that if they didn’t learn Fortran and Cobal they’d be LOST in the future – incapable of doing, well, anything. But around my last year in grade school a friend of mine got a VIC 20 and we used it for his Traveller campaign ... mostly to do math, like a big calculator.

But I knew enough about basic programming that as I got access to computers through the first half of the eighties, I knew how to use it to generate random results ... I remember spending untold amounts of time programming the random dungeon from the DMG into basic, to the degree that it worked ... though it always seemed to have one more bug in it, so I was always fixing the code. But I am getting ahead of myself, describing something I did about ’87.

I have long, long since forgotten how basic works, so don’t ask me.

My parents, being the odd sort that they are, bought an Amiga while I was still living with them – which was a piece of crap by all accounts. But the word processor worked, so I was writing fiction and working on my D&D world on computer by 1983. Up until then I’d been all paper and pencil. In 1984 I got a job with Gulf Canada as a statistical clerk, calculating well porosities for tapped-dry oil fields in Alberta and finding those that fit a certain set of parameters, all for an economic forecast that the engineering department was putting together for the future of practical drilling. The forecast was finished by March of ‘85 and I was let go ... but in the 9 months that I worked there I was introduced to Lotus ... with which I fell in love. Lotus, for those who don’t know, was the progenitor of Excel.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money for a computer that would run it, particularly since I was pursuing a questionable relationship throughout the Autumn of ’84 with an high maintenance harpy. In March of ’85, also, I fell out with my parents and at last left home. I was 21.

So following three years of destitution, having taken my income from Statistics Canada (whom I worked for in ’86) and throwing it away on my first year of University (started mid-term of Jan ’87) ... and getting married in the interim (Nov ’86) ... the only computer I could afford was a Commodore 64. This is a computer that you could, without any real knowledge about computers at all, open up and diddle around with like a toaster. But it carried me through four years of writing and gaming design, despite my never having gotten a Lotus program for it.

But the University I was attending solved that for me. You understand, I was going to university because I’d been all around the real world and I hated it – like Dan Ackroyd said, they expected ‘results.’ University was a nice womb for me, particularly when they filled the place with hundreds of Macintosh computers, all loaded up with Word and, yes you guessed it, Excel.

As a student I had unlimited access to any computer that wasn’t being used by another student ... and so many nights when I had the chance I would spend long, long hours at the university, working on D&D. Everything was on floppy disk, and I still had my Commodore at home, but between the relatively up-to-date Macs and my own piece of shit, I got a lot done. Virtually all the preliminary work that I did on my trade system (the research part) was done on a University Library computer with the whole Library at my elbow. They were good times.

In ’92 I got tired of being a student (I was starting to deliver results, that pissed off my profs, so I realized it was time to go back to the real world) – but I went on using their computers as an alumnus. In ’94 my wife’s MS ceased to be in remission, reducing her to the status of a quadriplegic, so everything else in life got put on hold. I worked, got some freelance material published, got work as an editor on a local magazine and learned how to work in MS Publisher, and watched my partner drift downhill. The magazine folded and we got very broke – and life got very hard for my daughter, my wife and I. The Commodore stopped working and D&D ceased to be any real part of my life. Then I found a government-provided nurse abusing my wife, I tossed her out the front door and was brought up on charges of assault – for which I was found guilty, because my home was technically the nurse’s place of employment. I couldn’t afford the sort of lawyer that could help me prove the abuse, you understand. My sentence was suspended in favor of my taking anger management classes – because it isn’t good to get angry at abusive caregivers – and all government services for my wife were cut off as long as she lived with me. So we separated, and I went into a very bad tailspin that lasted throughout 1997.

Finding myself alone (my daughter was living with my wife and her parents), and with lots of time, working crummy jobs that I didn’t handle well, I found myself returning to D&D for solace. In early ’98 I started using my brain again, and found the means to raise money so that I could start a business of my own. With a partner, I bought a Pentium III computer and started a small coffee shop magazine, for which I sold ads and provided intellectual content ... reading material on humanities and social science subjects, very much like the blogs I write now. We did very well, we made money, we picked up a reputation and things were looking very good after nine months. Unfortunately, old story that it is, my partner cleaned out the bank accounts to pay a court fine that was levied against him for drunk driving – an incident that coincided with my breaking my forearm and having to spend three months in a shoulder-to wrist cast. Between the two circumstances, with no one else to rely on, the magazine died.

But I had the computer, I had time (again), and in the end of 1998 I discovered the Internet. I did not like it at first – not until I discovered porn (yeh!), and soon after the possible applications for D&D. At that time I had no players, no connections to the community remaining, no relationship with anyone else playing D&D at all – and only the old AD&D books in my possession. I unearthed my papers and the old work I’d done on a variety of procedures and began to coalesce it all together into the single unified concept that I have today. Most of the first level of work was done on the Pentium – the motherboard of which still works, to this day, all 1.2 gigs of it, hooked into a different tower from a 2001 PC that I inherited from my present partner.

And now, as I said in the last post, I am practically hip deep in computers. I was able to turn my experience starting my own magazine into a job working for a national magazine, that paid nicely and made possible the existence I live at present – something in the neighborhood of low middle class.

But I want to finish this all with a last note, directed straight at Mincer.

That economic forecast that took nine months to create back in 1984/5 – I asked one of the engineers working there how long it took to do that same forecast ten years later (just about the time Gulf Canada ceased to exist) ... and he told me it would take about five minutes.

I spent nineteen years working on my world before starting in earnest in 1999. If I had had a Pentium to work with, and the Internet, in 1980, I could have done all of that 19 years of work in about as many months. When I think of all the time I spend scratching out lists by hand, and then having to do it again when I updated the list, and then having to do it again when I thought of a better way, I weep. Pen and paper, for all their nostalgic quality, is a rotten process when it comes to revision.

It is a process, in fact, that prevents revision, since as DM you are loathe to open up those tables again, to consider editing anything ... since it means useless hours copying, sore hand and all. So the tables that get made by the paper and pencil crowd are short, sketchy, limited, unimproved and overall, backwards.

Dump it. Get over the hard part, teach yourself the damn programs and get on with it. Throughout every limitation in my life, where most of the time I haven’t even had a computer, I’ve gone on learning how they work, mostly how to make them work for me.

You owe it to yourself to do the same.

1 comment:

David said...

Damn that's a story! Thank you for sharing!