Thursday, November 16, 2006

the power of the sun in the palm of my hand

I use my mobile phone pretty much just for phone calls. Color me odd. But when I saw that a mobile SimCity was available, I couldn't resist giving it a whirl, if nothing else for the sake of nostalgia.

I bought SimCity Classic off the store shelf a while ago, copyright 1989, 1991. The box I still have is the same one pictured in the wikipedia article. In the lower left corner it lists the system requirements: "IBM PC/XT/AT/PS2, Compatibles", "Supports EGA, CGA, Hercules mono and Tandy Graphics", "Requires 512K (EGA 640K)", "Mouse and Printer Optional". I ran it on an XT-compatible with CGA graphics and 512K, and no mouse. It was DOS, of course, so the game had its own windowing system, along with a menu option to only animate the top window to allow better game performance. Here's a line from the manual: "Simulator reaction time is also greatly affected by your computer's clock speed and type of microprocessor. If you have an XT-compatible running at 4.77 MHz, life in SimCity will be much slower than on a 386 running at 33 MHz." Its copy protection was a red card with cities and population data. On startup, the game would ask for a statistic off the card. Any product I purchased from Maxis seemed to be reasonable on the issue of backup copies and copy protection. Considering the number of times I experienced a floppy disk failure, it was only right. Later versions of SimCity lost my interest, since the family's computer never kept current enough to play them.

Enough reminiscing. The mobile version I played had similarities to what I remembered, but actually was more complex in a few ways (to start with the obvious, a much wider range of colors). And the graphics weren't top down, but perspective-drawn, as if looking down at the city from a high oblique angle - the kind of view from a helicopter. The game was just as responsive running on my cell phone as it had on my XT-compatible, maybe more. My point is that technological advances happen so gradually that it can sometimes take a common point of reference--in this case, the game Simcity--to illustrate the great difference. My puny phone can run a game that is very similar to a game that ran on a desktop, and the phone version is even enhanced. It feels like I have the power of the sun in the palm of my hand! Almost makes you wonder if all that speculation about the Singularity isn't a huge load.

Along the same line, I ran Fractint when my family finally had a 386 (no coprocessor, which sometimes was a pain when running this program). It was an outstanding program created through the collaboration of many coders working over the Internet, or maybe it started in Compuserve for all I know; either way, Fractinct must have been the first time I'd heard of people doing that. By the time I came around to it, Fractint's feature list was incredible. In addition to many fractals and even fractal subtypes, the display parameters could be tweaked to do a slew of wild effects. It also offered a long list of video modes, any combination of resolution and colors one might want. Rather than sharing the generated images with others, the user could simply use a menu option to save the Fractint parameters that resulted in a given image and send the parameter file to another Fractint user, who could then use the corresponding menu option to load the parameters into Fractint and regenerate the image. Many of the fractals have informative documentation screens that explain the origin of the fractal and its calculation method. I could just go on and on.

As you may guess, I've kept my DOS Fractint files around just like the way I kept my SimCity materials. Any sentimental coot knows that Linux has a project, DOSEMU, that can run (Free)DOS excellently. DOSBox may be better for games, but I have had no trouble running Fractint with DOSEMU. After adding the line "$_hogthreshold = (0)" to my /etc/dosemu/dosemu.conf, which seems to be the equivalent of saying "sure, you can have my CPU, I don't need it for anything!", DOSEMU generates even the worst, most-complicated fractals of Fractint so quickly it's not even funny, in spite of the layer of indirection. Having to wait to see your fractal was such a large part of the experience...if all programs were written to perform as well as Fractint, latency in software would be a laughable concern. Here in my room is a computer that has so much more processing power than that 386, and it mostly sits idle, or whips through a web page render, or decodes a media file. It's a criminal case of waste.

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