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Some Computational Reflections...

• Nine Billion Names (3/5/05) •
• Julia Sets •
• Guilloche Patterns •
• Feng Shui •
• Worldmaker •
• A New Kind of Spreadsheet •
• The Wolfpack GA •
• Fractal Landscapes •
• Namemaker •
• The New PlanetMaster •

Recreational computing has been a hobby of mine through the years, ever since we bought our first PC, an Apple II+tm, in 1980. Back then, the acronym “PC” had not yet been invented – they were known as “microcomputers”. Quaint, huh?

The Apple was a bit prone to heat buildup, and despite adding an aftermarket cooling fan, the power supply would blow once in awhile. It had a whopping 48K of RAM, and it had a blazing clock speed of something around 1 mHz. But I did buy 2 ea. 5-1/4” floppy drives to connect up to it, so I was truly King Sh*t in my community of peers – many of whom were still using cassette tape drives for program storage and loading. You believe that?

When we replaced it with a Commodore Amigatm in about 1985, the Apple was relegated to an unused back room. It stayed there until earlier this year (2004), when I took it, plus a full trunkload of other obsolete electronic devices -- some still working and some not -- to a special e-recycling event that came through town. Included in the haul was an early Betamax deck weighing in at about 50 pounds, several unused TVs and monitors, various and sundry cassette tape decks, VHS decks, telephones, an old Heathkit receiver (hand-built), and the Commodore Amiga. I remember one older dude at the recycling lot who was helping to unload stuff from people’s cars saying: “Man, I haven’t seen one of THOSE in YEARS!” I’m not sure which article he was spying, but I’ll bet it was the Apple…


I somehow managed to survive that purging experience, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t realize it until later, but I had actually been using that roomful of obsolete consumer electronics as a gauge to measure my beingness. It was the grand ouvre of my entire adult life. For several days after dumping off the articles, I felt less than a whole person. Then I got over it, when I realized that I had freed up a whole room -- to begin a new round of accumulation! Talk about being born again…

From the first day after bringing that creamy, wondrous, disk-rattling Apple home, I begin learning how to write programs (in BASIC) to amuse myself and my spouse, Christine. Eventually, as a semi-serious lark, we began to publish and sell some of these efforts from “out of our kitchen” – we called our little company Magnetic Harvest, with the motto “food for thought…” Our major products included an ecological simulation set in a Sci-Fi environment, called PlanetMastertm, and a very intricate text-based logic puzzle called Gnosis VIItm. We did pretty good sales in the midwest, probably because of the company name. Something subliminal, I guess. We even had some actual FANS, two little sisters in San Mateo that used to write us regularly. Below are images of the original software booklet covers. You can definitely tell my brain was warped from reading underground comix when I created that weird cover artwork for GnosisVII:


Those were heady days: doing logo and cover artwork, arranging for printed documentation, writing up promotional literature, getting reviews in the PC magazines -- which were then sprouting like dandelions -- soliciting little software shops (and bigger software distributors, as they developed), taking out very expensive advertisements in the national PC magazines, and generally trying to convince everyone that we were a “real” company with a factory full of “real” people. We managed to get some pretty darn good magazine reviews – some that we “paid for” by buying ad space, but some truly unbiased. I cannot begin to convey the pleasure and pride we took in occasionally seeing our name in print, cashing those little checks that came in every month, and carrying our little boxed packages to UPS once or twice a week. Every one was a symbol of COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY -- we were our own bosses doing our own thing -- and we were just one step away from hitting it BIG. If only we could figure out how to get the darned products onto actual store shelves

Well, to be totally frank, there were not really a lot of sales, and we didn’t hit many shelves at all. We sold only about 700 or so total articles over the year+ we were in business. We began to have serious doubts as to whether we were, in fact, destined to become the next Electronic Arts or Epyx. But there were enough calls and orders to keep us believing in that tenuous American Dream. Needless to say, I didn’t quit my day job…

As a sidebar -- speaking of Electronic Arts -- I do remember back to a call we received from a representative of that company, asking if we wanted to sell the rights to PlanetMaster. I told them “no way” -- since our thing was about producing and publishing the stuff ourselves, under our complete control. What absolute, unmitigated idiots we were!

Ultimately, we ran into some legal hassles with a hitherto-unknown software house – probably another kitchen-table enterprise, except they had a table big enough to invite a lawyer to dinner. It was about a trademark infringement on one of our software titles. That company was called “Gnosis Software”, or something like that. Who could know? (Ironically, “gnosis” means “knowledge” in Greek). We stalled, stalled, stalled and for awhile just basically kept sending strong letters back and forth. Then we got scared, lost the wind in our sails, wilted, and in the end just closed up shop. Over that couple of years, I reckon we brought in maybe $15,000 – but it cost us over $30,000 to do it! I later equated it to a Mercedes Benz (in 1984 dollars) that we drove off a cliff.  Bottom line: You don’t want to put either of us in your Comptroller’s office. Or to write a business plan for you.

In a way it was a relief to get that business crap out of my system, so I could go back to appreciating the sheer pleasure of personal recreational computing. For those of you who have done it, you know that time truly stands still when you immerse yourself into software code, trying to get what’s in your imagination onto the PC screen. Up at the top of this page are linked examples of some of the software explorations that I've made during that seemingly timeless period between 1980 and 2004…



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