Southern Man

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

First Contact

Today Southern Man had the privilege of hearing a talk by Dr. Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Dr. Mountain's subject (illustrated with much NASA and Hubble Space Telescope multimedia goodness) was the possibility of life beyond our own Earth. Afterward, audience members were chatting about the implications of alien visitors and it was clear to Southern Man that their notion of First Contact was drawn more from Hollywood than the harsher world of reality.

Some months ago Southern Man was clearing rocks and bricks from an old fence-line out at The Land when he pulled up a cinderblock and uncovered an advanced society of cooperative city-builders. He watched in amusement as the termites scurried about in panic at this encounter with an entity whose purpose and motives and very nature was far beyond their understanding, then tossed the block into the wheelbarrow and continued with his business.

That is what First Contact will look like, if and when it comes. If we're lucky. Note that Southern Man didn't bother to go out of his way to destroy their world.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Snapshot

Took the day off as the original plan was to take eleven-year-old daughter back to her mom but that's delayed 'till tomorrow! So Southern Man is puttering around cleaning up and generally relaxing, teen daughter and one of her girlfriends are holed up in her bedroom (apparently neither feels much urgency for academics today) and eleven-year-old daughter is butchering Slow Ride on Guitar Hero III. Good times.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Break Recap

No blogging for a week because (a) it was Spring Break and Southern Man was out enjoying his holiday and (b) through an oversight on his part there was no 'net at the house for a week. OK, mostly (b). It's fine to surf and play simple games and check email on the iPad but not much else.

Southern Man's eleven-year-old daughter is here this week for her Spring Break, so Southern Man had a week to himself and then went north to fetch her on Saturday and spent the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday with her before surrendering her to Southern Grandmother but will hopefully get more time with her before he has to take her back on Friday. She's already two for two on geocaches! Southern Man doesn't even have to work at it anymore; she's happy to run ahead and start the search without him.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In Praise Of Older Games

Southern Man is something of an introvert, which simply means that he finds social interaction somewhat draining (extroverts find them energizing) and needs time to recharge after such. And his preferred means of recharging after a long day of teaching and committee meetings is computer games. Typically older, single-player computer games; either fairly simple arcade-style games or more complex ones he's long since mastered and finds comfort in replaying time after time. So here is Southern Man's tribute to the older games he knows and loves.

Two old favorites hearken all the way back to the days of ASCII graphics on a black screen: Empire and Angband. Empire is a turn-based strategy game in which you and your opponent begin with a single city on the coast of an island and construct armies, navies, and such to overwhelm your opponent; Southern Man favors an early MS-DOS port over later versions. Angband is a turn-based RPG known as a "Roguelike" in which you begin in town with nothing but a handful of gold and your character's attributes (strength, dexterity, charisma, and such), and the goal is to dive deep into the mines of Moria to battle the Dark Lord himself. Angband is derived from an older game called Moria; Moria, from the original Rogue. Moria itself was written at The University Of Oklahoma while Southern Man was a graduate student in physics there and he's played early versions of that game with the original authors looking over his shoulder shouting "No, don't do that!" In thirty years Southern Man has never actually won Rogue or Moria or Angband but he keeps playing them anyway. Games like these probably cost Southern Man an extra year of grad school and it was totally worth it.

Tetris took the world by storm in 1984; Southern Man plays a little-known 3D shareware version called "Frac" after the Mandelbrot Set fractal used for the game background:

Screen shot found at this site, which also describes newer versions of the game.

Southern Man will occasionally immerse himself in make-believe worlds (such as the Tolkien-inspired games described above) and two of his favorites are those of Star Wars and Star Trek. Given the plethora of games set in both universes, he is not alone. And among those his all time favorites are Star Wars: TIE Fighter and Star Trek: Armada.

TIE Fighter occasionally appearances on game lists as the single best computer game ever published. It's a real-time simulation in which you begin as a rookie pilot for the Empire and work your way up the ranks, which includes occasional missions for a sinister agent of the Emperor's "Inner Circle." The game incorporates elements from Southern Man's two favorite "Expanded Universe" trilogies: the Han Solo adventures by Brian Daley and the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. If anyone wanted to make real prequel and sequel trilogies you could do a lot worse than those books as source material.

Armada is a fairly standard RTS game in which one can play all four major powers: the Federation, the Klingons, the Romulans, and the Borg. The real pleasure of this game (other than the setting) is the excellent voicework; J. G. Hertzler's delightfully over-the-top Martok and a few sly Battlestar Galactica references in the Borg dialog just add to the charm. The cut scenes are often constructed from the game in progress and include the stuff you built, which is pretty cool. Southern Man delights as playing as the Borg against a handful of AI opponents and assimilating them all. Yes, this worries him too. The sequel Armada II is both more and less than the original and while Southern Man will occasionally pull it out and play through the single-player campaigns he typically sticks to his collection of user-written add-on maps for the older version.

DOOM was a seismic event in gaming forshadowed by the tremors of Wolfenstein 3D in which the geniuses of iD Software more or less invented the first-person shooter. DOOM and its successor Quake are among the few multiplayer games Southern Man joined in his younger days; during his tenure as a physics professor his students put more effort into writing new maps than they did their physics homework and most of the student conferences we attended ran a night-before DOOM or Quake tournament. These days Southern Man sticks to the single-player versions and takes great pleasure in both the original campaigns and the thousands of add-on maps in his collection. Quake II and Heretic are among the other FPS that he still enjoys on a fairly regular basis.

Like many video games, DOOM was made into a movie. This was the only part worth watching. Listen for tributes to the original game's amazing soundtrack! Oh, you don't hear any, either?

And part of this history is also the story of computer graphics. Southern Man still delights in the memories of his first cutting-edge 3dFX graphics cards and the advent of Gouraud shading and the OpenGL port of Quake and the frustration of getting all of these new technologies to work and the pleasure when they did. And other technologies, such as early disk-caching programs such as SmartDrive that so improved game performance. One just laughs about it now but you really had to work at it to make games run well on the systems of the day. Southern Man put a tremendous amount of effort into home-built computers dedicated to running games like TIE FIghter and Quake with high-quality sound and acceptable frame rates; now he sees five times that performance on hand-me-down office PCs with on-board video and sound. How things have changed!

This was cutting-edge graphics in the mid-1990s. And it was awesome! Image from Wikipedia.

Most of these games do not work or play well with newer operating systems and they are the reason that Southern Man always keeps a
Windows 98 2nd Edition computer up and running. Yes, there are newer games that occasionally appear under Southern Man's controllers but that is another post. And the increasing challenges of coaxing W98 to run on new hardware may be the subject of yet another post, some day (the limiting factor is device drivers, of course; the advantage is that these older games just fly on newer machines). And there are the memories of many older games for platforms that no longer exist; Southern Man is thinking in particular of playing the original Adventure on a mainframe via teletype and taking the printouts home for analysis and mapmaking (yes, he still has them) and the many wonderful games from Big Five Software for his TRS-80 Model III (delivered on cassette tape!) and many amazing games for the Amiga 1000 (including the single best version of Marble Madness ever) and those may deserve a memorial post someday as well.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Southern Man is a year older, and hopefully wiser. And this evening kicks off that wonderful perk of education, Spring Break - nine days of work-free bliss. Well, eight; he'll have to go in on Monday for a bit. But he's not wearing a tie.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Math Education and Descarte's Rule of Signs

Southern Man is well credentialed in mathematics. He's earned a doctorate in nuclear physics and a masters in computer science and works in the latter field to this day. One would imagine that he's well qualified to help teen daughter with her algebra homework.

One would imagine correctly. However, that is not the point of this rant.

Teen daughter's homework last night involved Descarte's Rule of Signs. You know what that is, right? No? Well, it's an esoteric bit of historical algebra that has absolutely no application to modern life. None. Zilch. Nada. Southern Man, who has worked in physics and mathematics and computer science his entire adult life, has never had any need whatsoever for Descarte's Rule of Signs. In fact, the first (and last) time Southern Man encountered Descarte's Rule of Signs was in high school algebra.

Which begs the question: why the hell are we making high school students learn Descarte's Rule of Signs when they could be mastering concepts that are actually useful and applicable in real life? Like, what's 20% off of 40% off? Is it better to take the instant rebate or the lower interest rate? How is compound interest computed in that furniture-store Rule of 78s loan? Is that "free" cell phone worth committing to a two-year contract? What does it really cost you, per mile, to operate your car? What's the appropriate tip on this tab? Can you double that recipe?* What, really, does it cost in the long run to carry a balance on that 22%-interest credit card? Is that college worth the expense, and, if so, what sort of loans should we take to attend there? Is it better in the long run to purchase points on your mortgage? Southern Man could think of another dozen things he wishes teen daughter would learn in this, probably the very last mathematics class she will ever take (she's getting college credit for it). With all due respect to the enormous contributions of the mighty René Descartes, his Rule of Signs is not among them.

Now, Southern Man loves math for it's own sake and believes that everyone ought to learn some math. Southern Man uses math every single day. He wishes that people in general knew more math and dies a little inside every time some clerk behind the counter struggles to make change. But there's not much doubt in his mind that our State-regulated education system teaches the wrong kind of math to our children.

*A reference to a near-disaster some years back when a young relative who shall go un-named complained that doubling the recipe was impossible as the oven temperature dial didn't go high enough.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Daughter Weekend Day 3

Not much going on today - we slept in, had breakfast, hit the pool and hot tub, and relaxed in the room until time to check out. We ate at Twisters again, picked up another geocache (again, daughter was the first to find it) and took her to her Mom's. Southern Man took his time coming home and hit a few more caches on the way in. Southern Man gets her again in two weeks, for her Spring Break week. Alas, his is the week before so Southern Grandmother will have her for most of that. But it will be fun anyway.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Daughter Weekend Day 2

So we went to this huge mall (Legends) and shopped (Daughter bought a nice leather wallet for Southern Man's upcoming birthday and a bunch of DSi games and accessories for herself) and we saw a movie (Gnomeo and Juliet) and ate at the T-Rex Cafe and picked up a couple of geocaches near the mall and now we're "home" and ready to hit the pool and hot tub. Good times.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Daughter Weekend Day 1

Southern Man has dedicated this weekend to a visit Up North to see eleven-year-old daughter so much of today was spent on the road. Once daughter was retrieved we hit the Wal-Mart for snacks and a little bar and grill called Twisters for dinner and then spent a couple of hours in the Super 8 pool and hot tub. Tomorrow she wants to hit a big mall (and shop for Southern Man's birthday gift!) and we'll also get in some geocaching. Southern Man is also learning the capabilities and limitations of his new iPad, on which this post is being created.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Memory Index

One can get a grasp of how the prices of various things have changed over the years by comparing average wages with prevailing prices; e.g. the Bread Index. Southern Man will examine here the Memory Index, comparing the cost of computer memory in actual dollars and contrasting that to his income at the time.
Southern Man's first computer was a TRS-80 Model I (it took about half an hour to invert a 25x25 matrix but could beat Southern Man at chess) for which he eventually accumulated pretty much all of the accessories. One of these was the Expansion Port, which included 16K of RAM at a cost of $500 for a cost-per-byte of about $30/KB. His annual income at the time (as a college student) was a few thousand dollars per year. The Model I was eventually replaced by a Model III, which served well into grad school (abeit during the final years mostly serving as a remote terminal to the Physics Department mainframe).

The Model III was supplanted by a Commodore Amiga 1000 - color graphics, multitasking, and the envy of his early-PC-owning friends. One of the accessories was a 256K memory module that costs about $250, for about $1/KB. His income was several thousand dollars per year.

The Amiga gave way to Southern Man's first IBM-compatible PC, which was a 486DX with 4MB of memory and four empty memory sockets. 1 MB memory chips were $40 each for a nice round $40/MB. His annual income in those early years of teaching was about $30K which was supplemented for many years by a sideline of building and selling white-box systems so this fine old 486, although the first of many dozens of PCs to grace Casa Southern Man, remains the only name-brand desktop ever purchased retail at a store.

Today, 4GB memory modules sell for about forty bucks, or about $10/GB, and Southern Man's income is about twice what it was twenty years ago.

A side note is that the cost of a contemporary memory upgrade, regardless of size, has been a hundred bucks or so for about twenty years.
So in the last thirty years, memory price per byte has decreased by over six orders of magnitude (just as predicted by Moore's Law) while Southern Man's income has increased by about one (and since his first full-time job, a doubling time of twenty years). He is not particularly sure just what any of this means, other than that (a) a lot of stuff costs way more than twice what it did twenty years ago and (b) a lot of stuff that Southern Man spends his money on today didn't even exist twenty years ago.