Tuesday, September 27, 2022

My Early Computer Experiences

My interest in computers started when I was in grade school, or more likely started when I was watching Star Trek in the late 60's and early 70's. The first time I actually got to use a computer was in High School, when i took a computer programming class. At the time a bank in town had a DECSYSTEM-2020, basically a PDP-10, which they did not not come even close to using all of its resources and so allowed Billings Senior High to access it and teach computer classes. It was on this system that I learned to program Basic for the first time. At this point I did not really get into computers, the instructor was pretty uninspiring, plus he and I disagreed on the utility of flow charting.

When I started college at Eastern Montana College (EMC), they actually had their own Dec system. It ran the same operating system as the one used by my High School, but I cannot tell you what model it was. Here is a picture of it in the early 80's, maybe someone can tell me what it is..

It was at EMC where I really took my first steps into learning how computers really worked. I learned not just how to program, but how the actual operating system, TOPS-10 or TOPS-20, worked. This was also where I learned how to hack, the security, or lack there of really makes me cringe today. I did get caught once, fortunately the Professor who caught me was the Father of a High School friend who knew me pretty well, he let me skate, but also let me know he was very unhappy with me. He also reminded me of the incident 12 years later when I was the best man at my friends wedding.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been building a Serial Terminal, not really for any real functional reason, but mostly because I could. Those early computer experiences I had were through serial terminals, so it kind of gave me a bit of a nostalgia rush. Like all good nerds, I started wondering if I could actually recreate those early experiences. Obviously buying an actual DECSYSTEM-2020 would not be an option, I doubt there are many left in existence, let alone in a functional state and even if there were, they would cost a fortune to ship and require me to dedicate a room in my house to it. However, after five minutes on Google, I discovered there is a very good emulator out there by the name of SIMH. I also discovered that copies of TOPS-10 and TOPS-20 are pretty widely available and a few very nice people have even made rebuilt packages like TOPS-10 in a Box and the TOPS-20 Panda Build. Both of these worked out of box on my Debian 11 machine with no messing around at all.

TOPS-10 in a Box was the easier of the two, however keep in mind it is a bit limited, the person who built its only goal was the play Will Crowther's Original “Adventure” as it was intended to be played, so while it does contain both FORTRAN and BASIC compilers, it does not have all the bells and whistles. The TOPS-20 Panda Build is far more complete and includes a bunch of extras like Emacs and has networking built in as well. Over the next couple of days I am going to marry these two packages to a Raspberry Pi 4, use my Serial Terminal to access it and see if I can get some of those old feeling I had back in the late 70's and early 80's of my early exploration of those systems.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Dell XPS 8940 Failures

 A couple of months ago I bought a new computer, my old one was 5+ years old and getting long in the tooth. My last couple of machines have been Alienware systems and I have been very happy with them. This time around I went with a Dell XPS 8940, it was a good deal with an Intel i7-11700 and an Nvidia 1660. Initially I was pretty happy with it, performance was good, it was noticeably faster than my previous system and was considerably quieter as well.

Then the freezes began. It did not happen often, maybe once a week. Unfortunately it was a hard lock, so the BIOS error logs showed nothing and neither did the Linux logs. I ran diagnostics on the machine multiple times and everything checked out fine every single time. My tech intuition started to buzz that this was not a typical hardware failure. So I did what every good Tech does, I went out on the internet and Googled it. Sure enough, this was a known issue with these machines. The issue started with BIOS version 2.4 when Dell implemented vulnerability patches to the BIOS, since then they have released 4 BIOS updates and none of them fixed the issue.

I implemented every suggested fix and then waited to see if the system locked up again and sure enough, it did. By this time I was outside of 30 days, so no money back guarantee for me. Other owners had went through the process of having hardware replaced with no good results, so I figured this was a non starter. The lockups happen rarely enough that it did not bother me too much, it was more of an annoyance than anything else, so I lived with it. However eventually I decided I had paid good money for this system and I should have something that works, so I decided to replace the motherboard so I could get on with my life.

I needed to replace the motherboard, but along with that comes a new case and power supply. for the motherboard I choose the ASUS TUF Gaming B560M-Plus, this supported the CPU and had some nice BIOS options and reviewed on Amazon pretty well. For my case I picked the Zalman T6 ATX Mid Tower, frankly the case is the least important part of a computer, so at less than $50, I was in. It is not a great case, but it has good air flow with nice fan placement and plenty of room on the cable side to hide all my bad cable management. I decided to replace the memory as well, the Dell stock memory was running at  an anemic 2333 Mhz and I figured I might as well bump that up to 3200. So I grabbed a Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (2X16GB) DDR4 3200 memory kit. Finally, for the power supply, I went with a Thermaltake Smart 500W 80+ White Certified PSU, again, not the greatest PSU ever made, but Thernaltake makes a decent product, and it was a massive upgrade from the Dell 360 Watt PSU I had. I took the free shipping on all of these item, in spite of that, I had everything within a week of ordering.

On Thursday night after work, I gutted the 8940 and transferred all of its hardware to the new case and motherboard. The process took me about 2 hours and the system booted on the first try. The only mistake I made was I connected the hard drive LED backwards, fortunately I had not put on the side panel yet, so that was a quick fix. Otherwise this was a pretty nearly flawless process. I am a bit unhappy that I had to spend another $320 to get this thing going the way I wanted, but I expect over the next 5 years this new and improved system will serve me well. When it comes time to replace it, someone please remind me to just buy the fucking Alienware.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Trash Talking Generations

I see a lot of trash talking between generations online. Listening to these conversations, it amazes me that we forget who is responsible for what. Boomers who are complaining about entitled Millennial's need to remember that it was Boomer's who raised the Millennial's. likewise Generation X complaining about the work ethics of Millennial's, need to remember it was Generation X who were supposed to be mentoring them early in their careers. In case you are not sure how this works, here is a breakdown for you.

At any given time, there is a generation that is both raising children and mentoring young adults. Yes, those very same Boomer's who hurl the participation trophy insults at Millennial's, were the one who actually gave them all those participation trophies. So, before anyone goes off complaining about the younger generations, consider who it was that was responsible for influencing these young people during their formative years. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Ages of RPG’s: The Bronze Age, Maybe II

 The previous five posts, were originally posted in an earlier iteration of this blog. I believe I wrote them over a 6 month period around 2010-2011. I have reposted them here with no editing at all for context. A lot has changed in the last 12 years, these were written when we were 2 years into 4th Edition D&D and 4 years prior to 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons (D&D5E). At that point D&D5E was not even being considered let alone talked about anywhere. D&D5E hit the game industry like a cement truck. After the tepid failure of 4th Edition, I don;t think anyone was expecting much from D&D5E . Boy, were we wrong.

D&D5E went through a very long public playtest process, where Wizard of the Coast (WotC) made the draft versions of the game available to anyone who wanted them and actively asked for feedback and they got it. The end product was really really good, it was streamlined and the learning curve was very shallow at its beginning staged and became more complicated only as the individual groups needed it to be. The game lent itself well to scale and allowed for interesting customization. The game also gave plenty of choices for both role players and power gamers. You can easily play a combat monster of a fighter that does massive amounts of damage every turn or you can play the Cheese Makers Son turned Artificer, both can exist in the same game and neither be overshadowed by the other.

On top of this we saw the advent of game groups streaming their games on YouTube and Twitch. Critical Role, Acquisitions inc, D&D NPC Man and a host of others have become extremely popular. These streaming groups have brought in hundreds of thousands of new players. For many of these players, this is their first real exposure to the game. Throw in the websites like Roll20 that allow groups to play online and the COVID epidemic, that kept everyone at home for 2 years, you get a critical mass of players. D&D5E  is without a doubt the most popular iteration of the game. WotC has sold millions of copies and has become the primary profit center for HasBro games, the owners of WotC and D&D.

So where does that leave us now? Are we now in the Iron Age of RPG's or are we in a 2nd Golden Age? As I said in a previous post, the problem with setting “Ages” is you really rarely know where you are until long after its over. So I guess the answer is, we don't know and probably won't for a few more years. The next Edition of D&D has been announced, it is being worked on and will be released in 2024, 10 years after D&D5E  was introduced. WotC has said it will be mostly a revision of current edition, more of a 5.5E than anything else, I am pretty okay with that. I like D&D5E  and I can see us playing it for many years to come.

The Ages of RPG’s: The Bronze Age, Maybe

 I have written about the Golden Age (1974-1989) and the Silver Age (1991-2000), this begs the question of where are we now. The problem with setting “Ages” is you really rarely know where you are until long after its over and it is not unusual for the genre you are speaking about to go in to a long decline before the new emergence occurs. It is definitely possible we moved from the Silver Age directly into the Bronze Age. Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition (D&D3E ) certainly caused a large influx of new players and brought a large number of players back to the table who had not gamed in a decade or more. It is also very true the history of the RPG hobby is the history of D&D. Even the Silver Age was characterized by D&D’s decline as much as by the rise of the World of Darkness.

There are other things which point to the serious probability we have already seen the Bronze Age. For instance the Old School Renaissance, which is a niche within the RPG hobby of players and publishers returning to the old games. This renaissance started with the publication of HackMaster in 2001 and was followed by Castles & Crusades, New Editions of Traveller, RuneQuest and Tunnels & Trolls. It also gave birth to the Simulacrum Games which are games that attempt to emulate the old games without treading on copyrights and allow for the publication of new material for the old games. Simulacrum Games include, but not limited to, Labyrinth Lords, Spells and Wizardry, OSRIC, Lamentation of the Flame Princess to name just a few. This movement is characterized mostly by people who have fond memories playing the game back in the early 80′s, have now reached middle age and want to recapture that feeling of wonder and exploration we all felt when our first characters took their first tentative steps into the Caves of Chaos.

The Open Game License opened up the possibility of 3rd party game companies to write material for D&D3E and they did. In the years following the release of D&D3E there was a huge expansion in the number of companies writing game material. The Internet also gave rise to electronic distribution, companies no longer had to print actual books, but instead release their work as a PDF. The majority of this content was crap, but there was some really good stuff put out as well, material that would have never seen the light of day in previous decades.

If in fact the Bronze Age started in 2000/2001, it is also a good possibility it ended in 2008. In that year two things occurred, first the U.S. had entered into recession in late 2007 (known among my conservative friends as the Carter/Clinton recession) and recessions are never good for business, but also tends to hit niche hobbies harder than other business types. The second thing which occurred was the release of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (D&D4E). First, when D&D3E was released, I think the hobby was ready for a serious change to the game, second players had no where else to go, Wizards of the Coast simply stopped selling Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition (AD&D2E) and if you wanted support, you transitioned to D&D3E. When D&D4E came out, people were not ready for a complete over haul of the game and Paizo Publishing took advantage of the Open Game License and published the PathFinder RPG, which is 99% compatible with D&D3E, so players had a place to go for new material, they did not even have to buy new books if they didn’t want to. Although D&D4E was not a failure, it also did not live up to expectations, initial sales were far below what D&D3E produced and players who did adopt the new game, did so very slowly. In effect, the hobby has been in contraction for at least 2 years and it looks like this trend will continue.

At this point, I am not sure I want to say with any authority that the Bronze Age has come and went, but it does appear as though it has. However, it is just as likely it was the Silver Age getting its second wind. Most Comic Book historians place the end of the Silver Age at 1970, however between 1970 and 1975 there was a mini resurgence marked by the Death of Gwen Stacy, the Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories and Mike Grell’s work on the Warlord and the Legion of Superheroes. It is well within the realm of possibility that the Bronze Age is yet to come. Either way, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Ages of RPG’s: The Silver Age Part II

 I have received some feed back on my estimation of when the Silver Age occurred. There are those who feel the 1990′s were not the Silver Age and if not a dark age, then definitely a time of shadows. The 1990′s were marked most heavily by the decline of Dungeons & Dragons and TSR generally being in self destruct mode. While there were other RPG’s that were popular, by in large the 1990′s were bereft of innovation and nothing of significance occurred. While I see this point of view, I am not certain I agree with it. There a lot of action going on in the RPG hobby, with TSR and D&D on the decline, it opened the market to other possibilities and allowed Vampire: The Masquerade to out sell D&D for a short time. The idea the 1990′s were completely without merit is only valid if you make the assumption that RPG’s and D&D are hard linked together and I am not convinced this is the truth. You may be able to convince me the Silver Age did not start until 2000 when D&D3E was released, I refuse to acknowledge that the 1990′s were a cultural wasteland for our hobby.

I am actually hoping the decline of D&D in the last couple of years sparks a new era similar to the 1990′s where D&D isn’t dominate and other game systems are allowed their time in spot light. As I have said in previous posts, I can easily see a future where D&D is nothing more than a gateway game published as some sort of evergreen game similar to Monopoly. In this future, D&D still extremely popular and is the game most people start with, but is not the best selling game or even the most popular game. In this near future we may see Pathfinder become the front runner, but replaced within a few years by GURPS 5th edition or something entirely new. This would not be a bad thing at all.

The Ages of RPG’s: The Silver Age

 I am eventually going to write again about the Golden Age of RPG’s, but frankly the research kind of depressed me. It heavily reminded me of times long gone, when I didn’t have to work for a living. So for the time being, I am going move on to the second great age of RPG’s. As I said in the first installment, the Golden Age either ended in 1981/1982 time frame or by my reckoning, around 1988/1989.  So then the question becomes, when did the Silver Age begin and what prompted it. The answer to those questions is very easy, the dawn of the Silver Age was 1991 when Vampire: The Masquerade came out and started its ascendancy.  There are those who will argue Vampire had nothing to do with the Silver Age, that it was AD&D2E which powered the Silver Age during the 90′s. I argue differently, because it was Vampire that was the first RPG to ever out sell AD&D and it did so at the peak of the Silver Age.

The Silver Age is marked heavily by TSR’s fall, the decline of AD&D and eventual acquisition of both by Wizards of the Coast. TSR’s decline occurred for couple of reasons. RPG’s in general were in decline primarily because a new genre of games emerged lead by Magic: The Gathering (MtG). With limited gamer dollars out there and with AD&D largely considered to be passe, gamers switched in mass to MtG. Those who stuck with RPG’s started playing Vampire, which was considered new, hip and cool. Seeing its money flow decline, TSR quickly jumped on the trading card game band wagon with SpellFire and then tried to grab market with Dragon Dice. Both games failed miserably and make matters worse, they made several poor marketing decisions concerning AD&D. Instead of concentrating on a few very popular game world settings, they diluted their market by introducing Dark Sun, Mystaria, Dragon Council and Birthright on top of GreyHawk, Forgotten Realms and DragonLance. Add in the general move towards splat books, instead of generating more money, they simply spread the money they were making across more products and continued to do so until none of the products were profitable. By 1997 when Wizard of the Coast acquired TSR, it was a shell of its former self and all but decimated, all the while White Wolf was building the power house World of Darkness product line. The Silver Age was a little bit about the fall of D&D, but more about the rise of Vampire: The Masquerade. I however have spoken more to TSR’s fall than White Wolf’s climb in popularity only because I know more about TSR than White Wolf.

There are some who make the claim that the Silver Age was also a time of enlightenment in RPG’s. That gamers were moving away from old paradigms like the classic Dungeon Crawl and PC’s killing monsters and stealing their stuff. Gamers were at the time moving towards more theatrical Role Playing where character development is more important that cool new powerz. The claim is these new games were more sophisticated not on the mechanical level, but rather on the intellectual level. This is of course a crock of shit, but I am not going to get into that right now, because I want to dedicate a whole post to Role Playing vs Roll Playing.

The end of the Silver age probably occurred around 2000 or 2001 when Wizards of the Coast released D&D third edition and started the second ascendancy of  D&D. On a personal note, unlike the Golden Age, I was AWOL from gaming during the Silver Age. I played MtG, and was very obsessed with it for a couple of years. But as far as RPG’s go, I played next to none. When I returned to the States after Desert Storm, I played a little GURPS and AD&D at Fort Gordon and while I was in Germany, I put together a game group which lasted about six months and broke up because we were deployed to Bosnia. So I pretty much slept through the Silver Age and sadly, I have no real emotional attachment to the age at all.

The Ages of RPG’s: The Golden Age II

 I was going to speak more about the Golden Age of our hobby, but I decided not to. I went to the trouble of having a couple of fairly extensive email conversations with a couple of old friends about that time period. We had a great lot of fun reminiscing about the good old days and wallowing in nostalgia. The problem is, I came away from it somewhat depressed about the whole thing. You see, I am a middle aged man, my youth is gone and it is never coming back. I am a different person and the world is a different place. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing really, because time moves on and our lives progress, but this does not keep us from looking back on our youth with some fondness.

So what does this have to do with gaming ? Well, my talking extensively about the Golden Age with friends got me to thinking about the current retro clone revolution, or the old school renaissance if that is what you want to call it. The question I have is, is this movement really a long term shift in the hobby or is this just a case of a group of middle aged men trying to recapture their lost youth, which will fade as these people start becoming grandparents and wonder away from gaming again. There is some credence to both theories.

This movement does not seem to be centered around a single person or company. Several retro clones have been released, both as commercial products and as free products done out of love. HackMaster 4th edition was the first of these products, followed shortly by Castles and Crusades. Not to mention the resurgence of Traveller, RuneQuest and Paranoia by Mongoose games. All of which were/are successful product lines. The there is the free products, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lords, BFRPG, Dark Dungeons and a few others, which have also shown to be popular. For the first time in more than a decade, there are adventures and supplements on the market that are compatible with D&D and AD&D. In short, people are making money and if people are making money, that is a good sign for the future and the long term viability of this movement.

On the other hand, who are buying these products ? Is this movement bringing in new players or just stroking ego’s of old players ? As close as I can tell by surfing the various forums, the answer is, the latter rather than the former. I see no sign of a new generation of gamers coming up in significant numbers, playing any of these games. None of the publishers or developers of these games even seem to be targeting the younger players. The future of this movement depends not on the 40 somethings, but rather on the 12-16 year olds who will be playing these games for the next 10-15 years and who will be the future game designers and adventure writers. Without new blood, this movement is doomed and the movement does not seem interested in new blood.

I think in the long run, this renaissance will more or less be a bump in the road. Right now there is a small demand for old school AD&D/OD&D modules and such, but it is primarily in demand from a small demographic of older players and this demographic, as far as I can tell, is not a growing one. These companies are making no effort to get their products into game stores or even into Amazon, they are sticking to Print on Demand through Lulu and or PDF downloads with DriveThruRPG. So while this is an interesting spike, in another few years these companies will probably move on to other revenue streams. In another 10 years, the kids who grew up playing D&D 3E will be entering thier 30′s/40′s and start looking back fondly on their misspent youth, only this time Paizo with their 3E clone Pathfinder, will be there to catch them.

The Ages of RolePlaying Games: The Golden Age

 Something I am probably going to speak of more than once is the various ages of RolePlaying Games. During the course of virtually all mediums, they go through times of resurgence and times of ebb. Usually the first  surge of any medium is called the Golden Age. Mostly, we have no idea when an age is passed or when a new one begins until years after the fact. In comic books, no one in 1940 was referring to the time as the Golden Age of Comic, and no one stood up in 1950 and said “Well that was fun, too bad its over.”.  No one even realized there had been a Golden Age of Comic until the Silver age was well under way. It was the same way with the Golden Age of RPG’s, I don’t think anyone really knew it was over until the mid 90′s.

Defining the beginning of the Golden Age is easy, it occurred in 1974 when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson publish the Original Dungeons and Dragons and the ascendancy of D&D began. The ending is more difficult to nail down, some would place it as early as 1979 when the final core Advanced D&D book was published and D&D as a whole started to move into popular culture. Others put it as late as 1982 or 1983 when Gary Gygax gave up editorial control of TSR and the gaming industry started in a new direction. I personally place the end of the Golden age much later in 1989 when AD&D 2nd Edition came out.

The reason I place it so much later is first, I do not consider Lorraine Williams to be the viscous and evil bitch she is made out to be by the larger game community. She was a business woman who saw the potential of the industry, yes she openly disdained gamers and what she did to Gary Gygax is inexcusable, but she did take the debt ridden TSR and make it profitable, like it or not, TSR would have went down much earlier without Williams. The other thing I point out when discussing the period between 1982 and 1989 is, a lot of now classic books and modules were published like Unearthed Arcana, the Desert of Desolation series, Ravenloft and the Temple of Elemental Evil to name a few. The mid and late 80′s also saw the other publishers come into prominence, Hero Games, with Champions, Chaosium with Call of Cthulhu and Steve Jackson Games with GURPS.

Perhaps it is m own misguided perceptions of the time period which caused me to extend the Golden Age past 1982 or 83. When I went to GenCon in 1988, I knew things were changing, I remember standing in the hall where all the company booths were setup looking around me and thinking “Things are different now.”, I just didn’t understand how. Perhaps it was not the gaming industry which was changing perhaps it was my life. Maybe I was witnessing the beginning of the end of my own game group and probably end of my 20 somethings as well. At GenCon, four of us got in the car and drove there, three of us came back. One of us had graduated College and had gotten a job, this was his last hurrah, he went straight from GenCon 88 into his adult life, I never saw or heard from him again. After that slowly, one by one my friends started leaving our hometown, they were starting college, finishing college, getting jobs, getting married and getting the hell out. By early 1990 the game group I had been playing with since 1985 was virtually gone and by late 1990 so was I. I would not seriously play RPG’s again for more than a decade.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Thoughts on Roe v. Wade

 I think there is a gross misunderstanding of what happened last Friday when SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade by Republicans. This was not a small government move to take the Federal government out of the decision making process when a woman is deciding if she wants to carry a child to term or not. What actually happened was SCOTUS unilaterally removed the rights of women to make those choices and placed in the hands of State governments.

This is not a move to give women more freedom, it is a move to give State government more control over women's rights. When Republicans talk about "States Rights", they are not talking about moving power from the Federal government and placing it in the hands of State governments, what they really mean is they want to take rights and power away from individual people and give those rights to the State governments. It is no surprise that Clarence Thomas stated that next on the chopping block is birth control, gay sex and gay marriage. It should also be no surprise that Republicans in the House and Senate are saying that if they take control of Congress next year, they will bring forth bills to ban abortion nationally.

This is not now and never has been about "States Rights" or "Small Government", this is and always has been about removing the fundamental right to privacy and control of the population. Think about this, if women do not have the basic right of bodily autonomy, then neither do men. If women do not have the basic right to privacy, then neither do men. If gays do not have the right to choose their life partners, then neither do straights. If the State government can regulate gay sex, then the State government can also also regulate straight sex.

I know this sounds suspiciously like a slippery slope argument, however in the case of Clarence Thomas and these various Congressmen, they are telling us in in plain straight understandable language who they are and what they are planning to do and I think we should believe them. Ask yourself this, how many States have laws on the books making sex outside of marriage illegal? The answer is 7 States. How many States have laws making adultery illegal? The answer is 18 States. Now please by all means, tell me again how this is a slippery slope and it will never happen.