[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]
Released: June 1979 – December 1982
Specs: 64KB RAM, 6502 CPU
Wait, are we regressing in time? No, just in technology.
Nice as the Commodore 64 was, all I had for it was the tape drive and for some odd reason, Commodore 64 software and hardware wasn’t all that common near my small town. It was much easier to get software for the computers my school used, and those were Apple IIs.
Luckily for me, a college student at UF ran out of pot money midway through the semester and my sister bought his Apple II+ for me in 1988. The good news about Apple computers at the time, though, was that you could expand them, and mine ended up with 64KB of RAM, an 80 column card, dual disk drives, a printer, and a speech synthesizer.
Plus I had access through friends to a huge library of software and games.
My favorites for the Apple II were:
- Taipan!, a game of commodities trading and piracy.
- Eamon, an early fantasy RPG text adventure series that had a lot of expansions plus the ability to make your own.
- Conan, a platform adventure game.
- Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, a “stealth” exploration game.
- Seven Cities of Gold, a game of exploration in the New World.
- Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, no introduction necessary.
There were a few others, but when I played games on the Apple, it was mostly these.
Much like the Millennium Falcon, however, my Apple II had some issues that required constant calibration and tinkering, especially with the disk drives…so a good part of my time using it involved having the case open or off altogether.
By God, in my day, we EARNED our video games!
The Planiverse, 2D Worlds, and 3D Lives
Probably the most important influence of the Apple II came from programming on it. In 1989, my friend William Simmons introduced me to a book called The Planiverse by A.K. Dewdney that curved the trajectory of my life.
The Planiverse tells the fictional story of Dewdney’s computer science class accidentally stumbling upon a two-dimensional alien world while programming a simulation, and it combines theorizing about 2D physics, chemistry, engineering, and biology with the spiritual quest of its main character, YNDRD. The students watch YNDRD as he makes his way across his continent on a pilgrimage, and what he finds was one of my first encounters with the idea of finding the truth through the intersection of many perspectives.
It was the kind of book that cracks open your skull at just the right time in your life and changes the way you see the world forever.
Part technical manual and part philosophical exploration, the book has influenced me in ways I haven’t realized until writing this paragraph: stories told as fake non-fiction, technical writing, explorations of the soul taken through technology, epic journeys that end up back at the self.
What I took from it in 1989 was the desire to simulate a world on my Apple II. I didn’t think I’d contact a two-dimensional world, but I was fascinated by the idea of creating a world and defining its rules.
So I worked on a program called 2DWORLD in which square block animals explore a digital savannah, grazing on stationary “plants” or chasing “prey” if they come within a detectable range.
Each animal’s “instinct” was basically this:
IF FOOD is visible, MOVE toward it one square, ELSE move in a random direction. IF FOOD not found after five iterations, DIE.
This was not a visually sophisticated simulation, just a dark green screen with colored blocks twitching after one another on it. But I could experiment with putting in fewer plants or more plants, fewer predators or more predators, and see how long the simulation would sustain itself.
When I visited my sister and her husband over the summer at UF, I spent a lot of time in Marston Science Library looking up the theory behind computer simulations, and I wrote it all up in a paper that I presented with my science fair project.
I got a C (eventually) because, as my non-computer-savvy science teacher put it, “This could be Pac-Man for all I know.” That would have been far more disheartening if I didn’t win the Computers division of the science fair with that project.
What did I learn there?
- Experts aren’t always experts.
- Even science can be done out of love and joy, one iteration at a time, following the next logical hypothesis until you discover something wondrous.