Archive for the ‘OMG ur such a G33k!!!’ Category

walkie talkie kid

I don’t recall my elders ever commenting on me using my walkie talkie too much growing up. Of course, there was a problem with using walkie-talkies too much. The battery life and the range were both greatly limited. But I got to thinking about playing with walkie-talkies as a kid today after thinking about how many of the older generation now express concern over the younger generation spending too much time playing with cell phones.

One of the most frequent comments I hear is generally along the lines of “we did just fine without cell phones” and tends to involve side references to how, instead, they went outside and played or would actually go interact with their friends in person. Fair enough criticism and one that I considered (and still do consider) has some merit. But not so much since I thought about the walkie-talkies.

Sure, there were other devices that we had, some of which equally raised hackles in our parents and their friends. My brother was obsessed with his Coleco electronic football game for a while as was I with the racing game. In high school, some of the nerdier guys I knew all got HP48c scientific calculators and used to spend hours trying to program rudimentary software into them to do a plethora of inane things hardly worthy of the time it required to achieve them.

“Look, I wrote a program last night that tells me the time in Shri Lanka!”
“And we need to know the time in Shri Lanka because why?”

But the closest analog to the modern cell phone has to be the walkie-talkie. For those of you that might be from my generation or slightly before, you probably know what I’m talking about even if you haven’t considered the comparison. The first thing you did after making sure they worked – a process that generally involved about 20 minutes of tinkering with batteries, switches and buttons – was to hold them next to one another pressing the buttons on each at once. This usually produced a loud squalk which could sometimes pre-occupy those kids new to the concept of audio-feedback for another 30 minutes. But once the initial fascination with the devices and the feedback subsided, the ultimate use of hand-held walkie-talkie radios was finally put to the test…

And without question, that involved getting out of sight of one another. Walkie-talkies made no sense what-so-ever if you could hear the guy talking within earshot. It didn’t even make much sense if you could see what he was doing, especially because the most common subject of conversation amounted to “what are you doing?” and the corresponding response. Needless to say, the nature of the ‘walkie talkie’ was to be out of line of sight from your friend. More often than not, the bulk of the first few weeks of playing with walkie-talkie radios involved an endless series of tests to see just ‘how far out of sight’ you could get from one another and still be able to converse. Once the initial fascination with wireless communications settled down, then and only then would you try to figure out things to do that did not revolve directly around the concept of getting-as-far-away-from-one-another-as-possible.

Another common practice, and one that would also generate concern from parents would be if and when two kids in close proximity could figure out how to use the walkie-talkies to converse while still in their own houses, especially the privacy of their own bedrooms. While this too caused concern with parents, it was generally not over the devices distracting from other activities — well that is except for the most common activity that generated the concern, going to bed instead of talking on the damn radio all night!

walkie talkies

As I mention, the devices were limited though, so there was not nearly as much concern. If you talked in them too much, the batteries went dead and getting mom or dad to buy you more batteries was an effort that became more difficult with increased use of the radio and increased frequency of need for new ones. So ad-hoc communications such as with the modern day cell phone and the advent of built-in rechargeable batteries was extremely limited. Of course, you were also limited to just talking and then only half-duplex. (read: one side conversing at a time) And as already mentioned there was only a limited range. If your friend went to the mall, you would be lucky if you could hear him transmitting past the top of the street corner. (though that did not stop us from trying, especially in the aforementioned ‘range testing’ phase)

There is also the very real concern today that a cell phone can connect to an internet full of all sorts of other influences. While many walkie-talkie devices were defaulted to channel 14 on the citizen band (CB radio) which was also used by truckers, truckers also tended to be more polite to kids on CB in those days and any nefarious behavior, if and when a meager walkie-talkie signal actually got heard by an adult, involved the adult telling the kid to knock it off!

Thinking back, however, if there had been any way for us to play games directly on those walkie talkies, we would have utilized it. If we could have talked farther than to the next block, we would have reveled in it. (hey, I became an Extra class amateur radio operator in my teens – I actually DID it) And if we could have sent text over them, we would have done that too. (the best we ever had was the occasional walkie talkie with a second red button that could send a morse code tone)

Thus, I think it is fair to say that for my generation (and those immediately before) who enjoyed things such as walkie talkies, we do not have much cause to complain – or at least to complain too loudly. Envy, perhaps. But complain? No!

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I know, talking about aliens?  What???  But I just finished watching the “Fourth Kind” the other day (and thought it was such a pile of BS) and it got me considering something.

I’ve never been a big fan of science fiction or even pseudo-science scenarios that anthropomorphize the behavior and motivations of theoretical  ‘alien’ civilizations.  There tends to be two major themes: a malevolent alien or a beneficent alien.  The notions of alien visitation revolve around either a race that wants to destroy us, rape our planet, eat us, take over our brains or some other heinous abuse or it’s some compassionate race of benevolent beings looking over us like guardian angels.  And both scenarios are highly egocentric – to assume that our planet or our civilization would be of significant interest to any advanced civilized race to be worthy of exploitation or admirable enough for philantropy.

It got me to considering what would make us ‘worthy’ of a visitation or first contact.  Those with knowledge of the vastness of the universe often hypothesize that even if the chances are rare, the sheer number of stars with potential planets with potential life with potential intelligent life is reasonably good based on just how big the universe is.  And based on how old the universe is, if there was an intelligent life out there, they may well have one hell of a headstart on us – like possibly by millions if not billions of years.  This got me to pondering (something I’ve already done from time to time) as to the nature of such an intelligent life.

Obviously the kind of intelligence that would fit with a ‘visit to earth’ would likely have to be one that had the ability to span the distances between the stars if not entire galaxies.  With a couple mellinia to work out the details, who knows.  If nothing else, a being that could live that long could span the distances without even having a need to ‘bend’ space or use other ‘super’ means to do so.  Either way, it would be a considerable expense of resources, even for an advanced race with access to many resources, to just ‘pay a visit’.

Another consideration, any such race that had been around a long time would likely have colonized or otherwise spread out to some extent.  Without anthropomorphizing the nature of their society itself, it’s not a leap to assume that the maintenance of any technologies to span space would likely require at least some level of organization that a societal/colonial structure would provide to advance the technologies, harvest the resources and create/maintain/support the means to travel the stars.

Now, here’s the twist I realized.  The typical scenarios mentioned above deal with either exploiters or helpers.  My assertion has always been that any such advanced race would be indifferent to us on either of those grounds.  So what would interest such an advanced race in meeting others?  What would interest such an advanced race in going anywhere outside their colonies?

Again without anthropomorphizing, one can look at the basic behaviors of life in general.  Living things span out to get 1) more places to live, 2) more resources on which to survive, and in the case of intelligent life 3) to learn new things.

So what does our corner of the milky way provide?  Is our planet particularly big as a place to live?  Relative to other planets just in our own solar system, no – but depending on the conditions of life, maybe.  But it’s already occupied!  And there aren’t any other planets like it in our solar system.  I’d have to imagine there might be many many many other better alternatives out there on which to colonize for new places to live.  So scratch #1

Are there a large number of resources here?  Water may be of interest, but again, compared to other places in the universe do we have a lot of it?  It seems like a lot to us, but would it seem that way to an expansive race when our’s is the sole planet with a lot of liquid water in a teeny little 8 planet solar system?
What about other resources such as minerals?  We’ve seen some huge planets surrounding other stars, many more than we have here, planets larger than Jupiter.  Even our sun is small in comparison to other stars out there. And yeah, many of them are gas-giants but there are also a lot of random rocks out there (including ice rocks) that aren’t stuck down in the bottom of an already occupied gravity well.  So scratch #2

Would we know more than a race that had been around for much longer than us and is able to span the stars themselves?  Scratch #3

This got me to thinking of what was going on when Columbus set sail.  This theory does fall under a bit of anthropomorphic interpretation, but not really.  It wouldn’t require a ‘capitalist’ like society to assume that an intelligent race might be interested in new contacts for the purposes of ‘trade’.  If for nothing else than having the ability to exchange things they already have for things they might need without the necessity of gathering it and processing it themselves.  But extend a little man-like motive to that and you might also consider such a race, if it did have any capitalist tendencies might also be looking for a ‘market’ for their own goods.

When you are talking about the possibilities of an intelligent, colonial, entrepreneurial race that has been around a lot longer than us, we ain’t big enough yet!  6 billion people seems like a lot to us, but to such a elder race, our planets population would likely be akin to a ‘small village’ to us.
If we span out across our own solar system and colonize space itself with orbiting habitations, gain the ability to mine the asteroid belts and harvest energies directly from the sun – now we are starting to at least get a little bit more appealing.  The last step is the ability to actually deliver goods – the ability to span the distances of space itself.

So my suggestion to all those looking to the stars for life out there, promote the space program, promote space stations, promote trips to mars, promote space industry.  With a  thousand years to ten-thousand more years of that we might become a big enough market to be worthy of a stop-over!

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I recently finished reading Outliers and posted a short comment about my opinion on Gladwell’s conclusions to my facebook profile.

[I] just finished reading ‘Outliers: the story of success’ but have to say I don’t wholly agree with Gladwell.  The long and the short of it is that his conclusions are subjective.
He identifies what I have no doubt are real patterns of success. He also identifies a number of powerful contributors to success. In the process he acknowledges innate ability but only passively and rather dismissively. Yet he speaks very very little as to the aspect of  ‘ability’ that comprises ambition. (about the only aspect he acknowledges is environmental influences such as cultural traditions and support from families and what he dubs multiple times ‘lucky’ or ‘gift’ like opportunities)
There is no doubt that anyone seeking success should try to emulate the factors he points out that influenced the successes of the examples he raises in the book. But Gladwell’s conclusions seem to very strongly suggest (including his only real example of an exceptionally able ‘failure’ on the part of Chris Langon, a man with a genius IQ that never became a ‘Bill Gates’) that the combinations of factors in one’s environment and background are necessarily the only factors that will play a role in your success or failure.
While they can be huge contributors to success, to look upon them as absolutes is playing tokenism. To suggest such is to assume that anyone presented with the same opportunities that is ‘good enough’ in regards to ability would achieve the same levels of ‘success’ and that is just not the case. If that were the case, everyone that lived near Bill Gates in Washington born in or around 1955 with even a semi-supportive ‘community’ would have been sneaking out of their houses at 3 am to cram into those same time-share computer labs and now be running multi-billion dollar tech corporations. But they aren’t and they didn’t. Gates did!
To only look at those opportunities available to them says nothing about the fact that Gates sought those out specifically, exploited them to their maximum potential and excelled.

Some of the followup comments inspired me to speak a bit on my personal experiences with computers and how I managed to become so proficient on them.  A couple of the examples covered in Gladwell’s treatise refer to computer pioneers such as Bill Gates and the opportunities their circumstances made available to them.  So I thought it might be of interest to speak of some of the opportunities, fortunate or otherwise, that were available and ultimately exploited by me and how.

Sixth GradeCommodore PET

I saw my first personal computer in the sixth grade.  The school had managed to procure a couple of single-piece  Commodore Business Machines (CBM) PET computers with the old green-on-black cathode ray tube displays.  It was as foreign a device to most of the teachers as it was to us students.

A couple of the systems they had were put in the school library to be made available for students to use on a sign-up basis.  About all they could make it do of any use or interest to us was run a couple of simple programs with things like math and spelling quizzes and a couple of simple games.  We were all allowed to try it out briefly class by class, but I wasn’t satisfied with a brief chance to use it and would find any opportunity I could to go to the library.

Over the course of that school year, me and one of my friends spent a lot of time playing a simple game called Weather War (aka OURANOS) on it that had two houses drawn in ascii characters on either side of the of the bottom of the screen and it would allow each player to claim one of the houses then randomly place a ‘cloud’ somewhere near the top of the screen.  It would also include some basic ‘weather’ parameters, also random.  Based on the weather conditions, it was then up to the player to choose from various weather ‘effects’: rain, snow, hail, lightening, etc.  The goal?  Hit your opponents little barn with weather until one or the other was destroyed.Weather War

Each was effected by the weather conditions to some extent or not at all (for example, lightening was not effected by wind at all so it was only useful when the cloud was over your opponents house).  Each effect also had a certain level of damage it did.  Lightening did the worst damage, followed by hail doing slightly less and which was the least effected by wind (after lightening) and so on.

That game was about all me and my friend could figure out (and were interested) in doing on that old PET but we still logged more hours than any other students in my elementary school.

pre-Junior HighSinclair ZX81

I ended up getting a lucky break when my brother (who was better at saving his money than me) saw something in the back of a Popular Science magazine.  Mainly, one of the first mass produced yet somewhat affordable home computers offered by a British company dubbed the Sinclair ZX81.  (this was later co-branded by the Timex watch company as the Timex-Sinclair 1000 and the price was slashed to about 1/6th of what my brother paid a few months earlier)

It came with a simple version of Sinclair BASIC programming language as it’s operating system and would connect to a television as a display but could only display graphics in black-and-white (even on a color TV) and the graphics where very crude and fixed.  It came with a membrane keyboard, a whole whopping 8k of memory and was very restrictive as to what you could do with it as a result.  But since the OS was a programming language, you could learn to write programs.

I bugged my brother to let me use it and would more often than not use it without his permission when he wasn’t home.  Ultimately using it, and getting far better at using it, than he.

(I should also probably add that around but slightly before that time, we were also given an Atari 2600 for Christmas and in years prior had always been more than willing to accompany dad to the arcades at the mall to play the various [very primative] computer games that were starting to become popular – eghad I’d hate to think how many quarters I’d gone through by the time I graduated high school!)

Junior High

I was actually somewhat disappointed upon getting to Sashabaw Junior High as they didn’t really have a lot of computers.  But we were required to take a ‘study hall’ and I didn’t want to.  (I think it was a way the school saved on resources by warehousing all 7th graders at least one class period in the cafeteria)  By the end of the first semester I so dislike study hall that I intentionally did not schedule for it.  This created a problem when they eventually discovered it but it turned out in my favor as I had already been schedule for ‘real’ classes during all the periods of study hall that still had room for more students (as per the fire marshall rules for the cafeteria’s capacity) and no alternative combinations of class switches could be done to get me into a study hall.

I was given some alternatives to pursue such as seeing if any teachers needed a student assistant, a privilege usually reserved for the 8th and 9th graders.  Most of the teachers had those slots filled up also.  Ultimately the counselor himself offered what amounted to ‘babysitting’ me by slotting me as his assistant.

There were actually two counselors and they already had one assistant and it was more than they really needed.  As a result, there wasn’t a lot of work for us to do with two of us doing it.  By that point in time, a couple of the teachers had managed to convince the school to budget for and purchase a whole lab of Pet CBM computers.  They didn’t get them in time to do an actual class but would instead arrange for students to be pulled out of their 9th grade science classes to spend a couple of weeks in the computer lab learning some very simple programming skills. (skills I was already somewhat familiar with after obsessively learning on my brothers ZX81)

The teacher that took the most responsibility for implementing the lab also offered to bring in his own Commodore 64 which he kept up behind the teacher’s desk.  No one but the teacher was allowed to do anything with it that first year, but wow was it cool to look at with it’s actual color RGB monitor display and floppy disk drive.Commodore 64

Since I wasn’t needed very often in the counseling department when it wasn’t time for scheduling classes, I would generally make sure the counselor did not need me then go straight to the computer lab.  At first, as a seventh grader, I wasn’t even allowed to touch one.  I would just sit in the back and listen and watch.  But it didn’t take me long to show enough proficiency with BASIC (even though I was still picking up the Commodore variant of it) by way of helping the 9th graders struggling with their assignments, that the teachers doing the 2 week ‘labs’ would allow me to either work with people helping them on their projects or take over an empty computer if one was available.  In the latter case, I wasn’t required to do the assignments so, as long as I wasn’t disruptive to the class, I could spend the time doing my own ‘learning’, generally doing things that even the teacher was perplexed as to what it all entailed.

9th grade computing, 8th grade students!

At that time, many students had either Atari 400 or 800 computers at home or a Commodore 64 similar to the one the teacher owned. (all I had to work with at home was my brother’s ZX81 that he was getting less willing to let me use due to my doing so without permission way too many times already)  Those that owned them already, it was announced, would be given special privilege to get into a one semester programming class a grade early (8th grade, it was a class intended for 9th graders due to some of the math skills required) so long as we took a typing class first.

I took the typing while I was still trying to get special permission to attend the class based strictly on my proficiency.  I still didn’t have my own home computer, everyone else that signed on did.  I ended up being the only exception to that rule among the 8th graders allowed to enroll a year early.  In that most of the other students were Atari 800 owners, some of them required some adjustment to working on the PET version of BASIC so when the class began, my ‘camping out’ the prior year gave me a leg up.  There was only one other student (a 9th grader) that owned a C64 in my period.  Very early on in that semester, we both ended up being the only students to get ‘special’ permission from the teacher to use his own color computer behind his desk.

My first computer

I was hooked and ended up saving my allowance, doing odd jobs for neighbors, family and friends and ended up buying my own Commodore 64 before that semester was complete.  It turned out that the following year they wanted to do some additional computer classes with those 8th graders that attended the first class a year early so it was just the small group of us working for a small portion of the following year doing some additional things.

By that point in time, I was obsessively using my own C64, had spent some time at a neighbor’s using his Atari 400, and even played a bit on another friend’s Coleco game system on which he’d gotten a ‘keyboard’ accessory that came with a cartridge with BASIC programming.  Already having gotten bored with BASIC programming myself, I had gotten a couple of books for my C64 including one that came with an assembler program teaching me 6510 assembly language (and machine code).

By that point in time I had already written hundreds of simple programs including a few games (in BASIC) that I would play with regularity.  My favorite that I recall was one where I used the ‘pi’ symbol to represent horses and random seeds as well as some weighting based on a given horse’s previous races to select a winner, the “horses” would then animate across the screen from left to right, some out pacing others at random until eventually the ‘winners’ for first, second and third (win, place and show) were across the finish line.  (I even went so far as to learn how horse racing bets were not only paid out but calculated based on past performance for more realistic accuracy)

I also learned how to use sprites, hotspots, do graphics first in monochrome, then in RGB (red green blue) color layers.  I bought the reference manual that included a full appendix of all the internal C64 ‘built-in’ machine code and lots of information about C64 internals.  I figured out how to create your own ‘character sets’ – basically changing the on screen alphabets to use custom ‘fonts’.  I would sit in my science classes taking notes, drawing little 8×8 grids to design my characters or 32×32 grids to design my sprites.  Next to the grids I would do the math in my head to convert each of the 8 lines of 8 ‘bits’ to both binary and hexidecimal notation so I could quickly insert the ‘numbers’ into computer memory when I got home to try out my new font.  I designed an entire cursive – upper and lower case – character set in my 9th grade science class.  (I still have some of those notes with the grids on them by the way)

By that point in time there were more students in the school with C64s and we would often congregate in the school library after lunch to compare notes.  (it was in those post-lunch library times that I gained the nickname treii28 by the way)  We also learned from the counselors of a huge terminal in the back of the library that was connected with a mainframe somewhere in Lansing for the purpose of doing career searches.  I would often find excuses to do searches on it even though it’s functionality was very limited as far as anything  you could ‘learn’ from it.

Of course, my knew found proficiency was not exempt of it’s own share of mischief.  On some days in class, we had another one of the teachers, a woman with a limited understanding of the whole thing, and I used to have a lot of fun using ‘peek’ and ‘poke’ statements.  I would scribble out a very simple machine code routine on paper that would read one of the systems random number generators, put the number into one spot in computer memory, read another number, put it in the next spot of computer memory then jump back to the beginning to do repeat the process.

The two spots specifically were the spots that controlled the corresponding colors to screen and the screen border.  The program could change those colors so fast that the scan beam on the computer monitor would only pass across the screen about 1 1/3rd time before the next number (and thus the next color) was put in place.  The result would appear as though the computer was ‘freaking out’!   The non-knowledgeable female teacher didn’t find it very funny when she I called her attention to tell her I thought I broke her co-workers personal computer.

The last program I was working on was pretty much the last game I ever tried to build.  By then I had already played extensively in basic and with full screen graphics that I felt comfortable in trying to write a fully graphic game strictly in machine code using my assembler.  Seeing the games that were available with race cars and other such things, I decided an unrepresented subject was winter sports.   At the time I had (by no choice) stopped programming it, I had a small ‘sprite’ based snowmobile that would appear at the bottom of the screen, move left and right as you moved the joystick, shoot another sprite ‘missile’ ahead  of it that would ‘shrink’ as it got further away and had a moving ‘perspective’ based obstacle trees that would come at you faster or slower as you moved the joystick forward or back.  I was ‘forced’ to stop when I accidentally took the book, with my assembler, through the new ‘book scanners’ installed in the library during one of our lunch congregations and ‘erased’ the program.  (I was going to chase down another copy but ended up not doing so by high school when I gained access to even newer, better technologies – see below)

High School Computing

By the time high school came around, I already had a reputation of being the resident C=64 expert.  I knew it inside and out, and about the only thing I couldn’t do was anything related to the floppy drive, mainly because I didn’t have one.  (I was still using a cassette drive and never really had need for any more after a friend referred me to a program listing in Compute magazine that made the cassette programs load as fast as a floppy anyway)

The high school didn’t have much new in the way of actual computer classes, but they did have a lab full of C64s which I would occasionally play in.  Instead, most of the old ‘gang’ of my fellow computer ‘geeks’ were quickly made aware of Mr. Ashmore who was working on developing a new computer lab at the other Junior High which was walking distance from the high school.  Besides giving us access to computers and 1/2 credit, it was also considered by the high school to be a legitimate elective to get out of a similar requirement for a ‘studyhall’.

As a result, we each volunteered for a different class period and would walk over to help with building, maintaining and tutoring in the Clarkston Junior High lab.

With all of our collective brain power working throughout the day each on a different period, the computer lab was set up and working even better than our former SJH lab in no time flat.  This led to the teachers and administrators at CJH getting designs on tapping our collective knowledge.  They approached us all with a project.  In that I was the only one proficiently familiar with the Commodore systems they had purchased, I ended up getting chosen to do it.  My first computer contract!  (well, I wasn’t paid, but it was still cool)

The CJH counselors had an idea that they could use the computer to help simplify the process of having the students register for classes.  I sat down with them and got a feel for what they needed and literally had a rather complex program done and written in just over a week.  Since I didn’t know the process of accessing the floppy disk, another student familiar with the concept changed literally two lines in my program by adding a “, 8” to the end of the two lines I had written to correspondingly load and save from my ‘cassette’.  Somehow, as a result, he ended up getting most of the credit for my program.  My first time getting SCREWED working in computers.  *sigh*

From what I understand, they actually used that program for a couple of years to make student registrations easier.  (the registration process began at the end of when that semester and wasn’t directly tied to the lab computers)  But by then I had begun to hear whispers of new computers coming to Clarkston Senior High.

Apple MacintoshApple Macintosh

One of the whispers that was brought to my attention was of the intention of the drafting department to purchase 3 of the new lauded Apple Macintosh computers for the more advanced drafting students to use.  I immediately signed up for drafting classes upon hearing this news.  This was a huge deal for those of us interested in computers because not only was it the first home computer to use an entirely ‘graphical’ interface (no more command line interface running a basic operating system) but it was also the first personal computer to make use of a mouse and pointer as part of that interface.  It was all in black and white which was a small step backwards from the color C64 and Atari 800, but it was still way cool!

I was disappointed to learn that the beginning drafting class was taught by one of the sports coaches and didn’t have any of the Macs in it.  I had to wait for the next semester and Mechanical Drawing II to even see one of them!  The teacher for MD I was a flake, a younger guy – I’m assuming considered attractive – who seemed to enjoy letting the girls that took the class to be ‘near’ him, to flirt with him.  But I endured and eventually ended up in Mr. Thibault’s MD II class.

The Mac’s were stored in the back room and only the Voc Ed drafting students were allowed to use them.  But Mr. T sensed my anxious interest and I would race through the assignments (accurately and thoroughly mind you, I aced that class) so I could use the remainder of the class to do little more than sit behind the seniors and watch.  That’s all I did was sit quietly and watch.

Eventually one of them finished their project and needed to do some work onsight at the Vocational Education center which was across town.  I eyed Mr. T the entire class upon seeing the back room empty.  When I brought my assignment to the front, he knew what I was thinking before I even said anything.  His response was simply “go ahead!”  I think even he was amazed when he would occasionally peek around the corner and see the various things I was doing in such a short period of time in MacPaint and MacDraw after doing nothing more than sitting quietly and watching.

He ended up giving me a lot more time on the computers after that and I became quite efficient in just about every program on it.  He also gave me a reference as well as referring me ‘to’ a job walking distance from the school in downtown Clarkston working for an environmental engineering firm that was looking for student help – and that was looking for students with MacPaint, MacWrite and MacDraw skills.  Woot!!!  I didn’t have to flip burgers anymore!  My first job ‘in’ computers!!!!

What little work I had done in the proper computer labs was in an offshoot of a creative writing class where were ended up working on 286 computers running Word Perfect.  I didn’t get highly efficient on it – I didn’t like Microsoft DOS based machines.  Besides being a cludgy, ugly operating system it was antiquated in my mind in a world that could exist without a necessary ‘need’ for a command line interface.

Despite that lack of interest in IBM PC compatibles, I was still able to do more in the way of on-screen formatting of text than the other students after having dinkered around with the more graphical “MacWrite” on the computers in Thibault’s back room.

Producing for Clarkston Cable Television

Late in Junior High I had gotten more into singing.  I joined a show choir taught by a wonder teacher at SJH, and she did well enough to even take us to a competition (as guest performers) for primarily high school groups.  She also brought a local group called the Academy Singers (a group made of of students from multiple area schools under the direction of an accomplished composer and clinician, Gene Grier and his wife Audrey Grier) to come perform for the entire school (but mostly for the benefit of her choir students).  They did summer workshops, and I managed to talk m parents into letting me attend, love it, tried out for the group that following fall and was accepted as what was at that time, the youngest student to ever pass the audition.

Among other things, Gene Grier would solicit the new community access television stations to film our winter and spring concerts for the benefit of the members and to get us better exposure in the community.  As part of his first effort to do this with the Clarkston Tribune-United Cable station (a lot of the students were from Clarkston at the time) the head of the local office, Joel Burnell offered to the Academy members an offer to attend a local access ‘television producer’ class.  Being a technophile I jumped at the opportunity and was producing programs with friends all through high school.

Commodore Amiga and CHS Media

Another whisper soon came down the pipe that Mr. Genshaw, who ran a similar class in conjunction with Jole over at Clarkston Cable for students at CHS, was going to purchase an Amiga system and Jole himself planned on getting a matching system that could be used at the station.  By that point in time, I was already familiar with CHS media programs (they did both class group projects that would be shown on the local access channel at the end of the semester as well as doing a weekly ‘news’ program for students that would both be shown on cable TV and made available upon request if any student desired and could furnish a blank VHS tape).  I was also aware that a friend of my brother’s, Chad Portugal, was in Genshaw’s class during my junior year.

Being proficient with Atari 800’s, Chad had made most of the graphics for the media class on his own Atari 800.  I had heard rumors Mr. Genshaw had one, but since I had already done some toying on the Atari and didn’t find it significantly superior to my own C=64, I hadn’t really gone out of my way yet to join the Media class.  But I signed up when I heard of the new coming Amiga systems.

As it turned out, my high school allotted ‘extra’ slots based on the class schedule to accommodate for study halls, travel time to Voc Ed classes (which took up 3 periods for 2 credits due to the travel time involved) or various ‘tutor’ oriented 1/2 credit assistant positions such as we had at the junior high computer lab.  In that I evaded the no-credit study hall requirement, I ended up with sufficient credits by my senior year that I could take only 5 of 7 periods and still have an extra credit above the requirement to graduate.  I scheduled an aid position immediately after media class with Mr. Genshaw, as an aid for Mr. Genshaw.  After that class, I scheduled nothing at all.  (Seniors could opt out of one period a day if they had transportation – I didn’t but fudged it as though I did)

The result was that I could spend time not only in class working at least occasionally on the Media projects, I could use time when Mr. Genshaw didn’t have papers to grade or other tasks continuing media projects and then do nothing but ‘play’ for my last period in the editing/computer lab.  I ended up getting tasked with converting all of Chad’s animations from the Atari into the higher resolution Amiga versions.  I also did some dynamic animations in the same software for the local ‘Channel 1’ that was used for years to precede local origination programming on their local-origination channel.

Mr. Genshaw too loved toys and liked to buy new stuff for his new Amiga system.  One such toy was something called ‘Digiview‘.  He too wanted to play with it, but not unlike my father when he brought home a new VCR that he didn’t want to blink **12:00** forever, Mr. Genshaw immediately handed it to me to figure out.  He dragged an old black-and-white camera out of the the class storage room (that used to double as a photographic dark room before the public access program showed up) and I got to work. (play!!!!)

Digiview included a software program and a small dongle that included a BNC connector that could be connected to a video camera.  We had color cameras but the software recommended using a black and white since it could only scan in greyscale tones.  However, it also included a disc with three colored (red, green and blue) filters that could be used for fudging a color scan – you basically had to do three consecutive scans taking about 15 seconds to 2 minutes per, each using a different color ‘filter’ on the rotatable disc.

Besides scanning various things around the room, we quickly progressed to scanning each other.  Having already gained proficiency in Deluxe Paint, so it wasn’t long before I was taking my friend’s “scanned” image and changing  his features with dark skin and mohawk for a Mr. T look or making him completely bald.  My first ‘pre-photoshop experience!’  woo hoo!

(ugh, it’s getting late – if anyone actually read down this far, check back tomorrow and I’ll add the remainder of the experiences senior year when I bought my next computer, an Atari 512ST and my second job on computers actually doing desk top publishing on color macs, followed by a quick summary of what happened when I finally got to college – learned photoshop, illustrator, finally broke down and learned to use microsoft PCs, got into unix based systems on the internet and ultimately got into programming and development for the world wide web)

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(a couple of exchanges on facebook with another objectivist about the possibility of a coming ‘Quantum singularity’ inspired this post.  I was rather clumsily trying to explain my own opinion that even with exponential growth in computing and mechanized technologies, that the complexity of ‘human’ intelligence wasn’t going to be duplicated – at least not comparibly – any time soon)

This is gonna be crude, but I wanna get some form of this down as a mathematical representation.

If = C*e/c

left side: results produced from an intelligent system
If => a combined concept of both intelligence and functionality

right side: technological constraints at any point in time
C => capacity
e => efficiency
c => complexity

As I said, this is crude and I’m still working it out in my head as to what effects what and how, but let me try to at least explain my thinking.

If – This deals with the desired, expected or observable result. When speaking of intelligent systems, it would relate to the level of intelligent ability achieved and the functionality with which that intelligence could be applied.
Say for example you were speaking of an android where the desired result was ‘human-like’ behavior, thinking, reactions, speed, interaction with it’s environment etc. How well it emulated the human model would entail it’s ‘If’ rating.
It would be as subjective as the results desired or even those incidentally achieved by any such ‘intelligent’ machine and could consist of far more factors than I could list here, including some that might even be overlooked by a human observer with relative expectations.
To some extent it would even entail it’s own amount of efficiency, but in a different form than I use on the right side. (in this case pertaining to how efficiently the If behavior acted out, where the ‘e’ on the right pertains to how effectively the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ technologies interact to achieve it)

C – Capacity is just what it sounds like. The speed, storage, command sets, and any other limit-specific parts making up the combined hardware and software (at least in present day IT terms) of the system. (e.g. the capacity of an average home computer today is comparable to my 4Ghz AMD dual core Turion processor with 333Mhz bus speed, 4Gb or ram and 300Gb SATA hard drive and tied to a 100baseT ethernet and a comcast internet connection)

e – efficiency is a little harder for me to weed out here because it also kind of ties into capacity above. But I thought it useful to include it here as it’s not simply a factor of hardware speeds, MIPs, memory size, bus speed, and net speed but how the system, it’s operating system software and any software running on top of that works within the confines of the hardware capacity. A poorly written program running on a fast computer will still run poorly, just faster.
And of course there are other things that can factor into ‘e’ – size of the components, the overall ‘cost’, the energy required to run it, even things such as the facility in which it is housed. (facilities management is a huge factor in large scale processing ‘clean room’ management – air temperature, security, power, back-up power, etc – even a well-thought-out home computing environment may well include an air conditioned airspace, a UPS system with a surge protector, a shelf full of ‘extra’ hardware components in the event of a partial failure and system of off-site back-up storage as ‘normal’ operating)

c – complexity is also hard because it kinda overlaps into efficiency while also being effected by the desired (or necessary) Intelligence and functionality. Basically I see this as the factor that relates to how complex the needs placed on the system are in relation to the resulting intelligence and functionality.
Adding 4+4 is not very complex. Looking at a Picasso painting and drawing from it’s designs abstract concepts, framing them into coherent thoughts then proceeding to move both the musculature of the lungs (to force air upward), vocal chords (to produce sound at the appropriate volume and pitch) and the throat, jaw, tongue and lips (to create the necessary resonances, enhancements and supplemental sounds) to deliver a strung out chain of phonic utterances in any given language sufficient to relay the concept coherently to another observer… is not.
Now imagine adding to that the need to breath, pump blood through the veins, fight off disease, maintain proper balance and ambulatory movement, monitor things such as hunger, thirst, fight/flight responses, processing and interpreting visual, audio and other sensory data in real time and adding it in real time to ongoing processes and behaviors, yadda yadda yadda
It’s easy to crunch numbers if all you do is crunch numbers in an enclosed box with nothing other than numbers to deal with!

So obviously Capacity (C) is expanding exponentially – there is still some debate over whether or not programming and other factors of efficiency (e) are improving in step with it or not. Compiler technologies have always been an issue (the interpreters between the many known programming ‘languages’ and the actual ‘machine’ code).
I can recall when the cold war was just winding down how many American programmers were fascinated with Russian programming for it’s efficiency. Russian computers were way behind their American counterparts, but their software was incredibly efficient as a result and the resulting functionality of their programs wasn’t as far behind (relatively speaking) things running on much faster and more advanced US computers.
One of the big drives that has been ongoing for over a decade is to approach programming from what is dubbed a ‘natural language’ perspective, where a need to know C, C++ or Java to program a computer will be a thing of the past. True, intelligent machines will improve the efficiency of such code, but most attempts thus far at achieving ‘natural language programming’ have involved either way too much complexity to make it feasible or produced very inefficient code due to the number of ‘layers’ involved in translating a layperson’s relating of a problem into an actual computer program capable of attempting to solve it.

So let’s for sake of argument say the ‘C’ is expanding exponentially but ‘e’ is reasonably constant as some improvements in compiler technology are met with other requirements or environmental factors that stifle the gains in efficiency. Ahhh, but complexity is growing by leaps and bounds also. The nature of the problems we are addressing with digital solutions, the tasks we are putting to them, is growing at an incredible rate.
If you go back to the android example, we’ve seen some very pre-alpha prototypes of human-like machines that talk or dance. But they are far from human. The trend is that each subsequent wave gets closer, but still doesn’t come that close. They will of course get closer over time, but before we see Star Trek’s data running around it’s gonna have to go a hell of a long way in growth of both Capacity (C) and complexity (c).

Basically what I was trying to demonstrate by putting it in the math equation is that Moore’s law (which is simply a factor of the ‘C’ for Capacity in my equation) is only one facet of the issue that leads to the end result (Intelligence and functionality or If). As you add to the complexity desired of the end result, it is a factor applied to both the Capacity and efficiency and for that reason I am still not fully convinced of any near-pending singularity. At least not in the form of a specific or near-instantaneous (relatively speaking) ‘event’.

addendum: with all that said, at some future point (with increased knowledge and understanding), the complexity to replicate human intelligence and functionality ultimately is a finite quantity. So it is perceivable that there is an amount of Capacity and efficiency that could outweigh the necessary complexity to create a reasonable facsimile (or at least something comparable in overall I and f)
But with that said, where I see the current issue is that we aren’t even close to fathoming the true complexity necessary to reach that finite quantity of ‘c’ nor do I think we will in the time periods currently being suggested.

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