The last few days have been busy with a RuneQuest Game, beta testing King of Dragon Pass, and visiting the Carleton University School of Computer Science 20th anniversary event.
I noticed in the comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.strategic news group that a new version of King of Dragon Pass (version 1.5) was available for beta testing. In case you don't know, it's a kind of role playing simulation game; imagine a SimCity style game set in a Scottish flavoured mediaeval world with magic, assorted gods (each has a specialty) and their cults. The game itself isn't real time; you can take as long as you want to make your moves and look at the dozens of watercolour paintings, and it does take a bit of time just to read the background myths and other material. Political decisions and negotiation are quite a big part, as are farming, warfare, divine magic, and trading. The idea is to form a tribe out of several clans, then join tribes to become king of the region. You can battle it out, but success is a lot easier if you make friends with the other clans and tribes (by helping them when they are in trouble, giving gifts, trading with them and even by marriage). The sense of achievement through cooperative politics is quite a pleasant change from most other games.
I did find a few really minor bugs. Nothing major (like in certain other games), the worst being advise from one of the clan leaders to spend zero magic on new children after removing the healer cultist from the clan's leaders (thus removing the ability to spend magic on children). I was pleasantly surprised with the reply to my bug report in only a few hours; an advantage from dealing with a small independent game company.
We had a strange RuneQuest non-game on Friday night. A Lunar moon boat (a long crescent shaped hull hung under a giant red orb) arrived in town, scaring the locals. It disgorged some high ranking Lunar imperial inspectors wearing impressive costumes. We suspect that they are here to check into the missing Lunar payroll (see our previous adventure) and to look at the general situation in their newly occupied province.
The moon boat would be stranded over night, as there were no moon beams from the waning moon to power it. This provided an opportunity for sabotage. First, we would have to get past the city guard who were guarding the landing site (the top of the pyramid shaped Pavis temple). Then there are whatever magical defenses the boat has (perhaps bats flying around it, or some warding system). Finally, the boat's crew of 50 well dressed marines also presented an obstacle. Various ideas were bandied about, from catapulting burning pitch to flying overhead and dropping a banner over the red sphere. We couldn't figure out anything practical, and ended up just drinking. Puck and the Humakti fighter took it a bit further and went out to drunkenly shout insults from the ground, and paint slogans on the city walls. Puck got beaten up by the guard, and the slogans were erased by the city guard early in the morning.
I had received a mailed notice a month or two ago about the 20th anniversary celebration. I decided to skip the Friday evening social event (it was RuneQuest night) and confirmed with Maureen Sherman (the administrator) that I would be at the first annual Director's Lecture to hear the president of Rebel.com speak, early on Saturday morning.
With a strong sense of deja-vu, I took the bus to Carleton U. I arrived early at the Bell Theatre and had over half an hour to kill. I spotted Mr. Mansfield talking to his supporting workers, a bunch of student types wearing black Rebel.com T-shirts. He seemed to be rehearsing his speech, or arguing about Linux. I went into the theatre, past the Rebels, and found a few people at the podium discussing something while the A/V technician tested the video projector. I recognized my old computational geometry professor, Dr. Jörg-Rüdiger Sack, and went over to say hello. He even recognized me after 10 years!
I wandered out and browsed the breakfast buffet tables, picking out a non-sticky bun from the excellent selection. While munching on the bun, I also encountered a part-time PhD student working on an interesting project. He explained a bit about his system to generate a 3D model of an environment by just playing back video and figuring out the moving camera position as the video plays. Focal length determination seemed to be an important factor, as well as having varied textures or sharp edges on the objects in the world. Besides the obvious application for making virtual worlds for computer games and other uses, I'm sure he could find a lot of interested Americans wanting to analyse the shooting of John F. Kennedy. The rest of his time is spent in a start-up company making software to detect pornography by image and text analysis, useful for corporate networks / parents to keep an eye on their employees / children.
I then went into the theatre for the lecture, stopping to say "Hi" to professor Fiala while waiting for the lecture to start. Michael Mansfield, president of Rebel.com, stepped up to the podium and started off with a 10 minute music video composite of various pop culture rebels. His main point was that the small business man wasn't being served by big companies. If they tried to set up an office network using NT, they'd need to hire a MSCE guy to maintain it, which would be way to expensive. Instead something similar to the small office PBX phone exchange, where you install it in a closet and forget it, would be more appropriate. Thus the niche for his Netwinder network access interface box - running a modified Linux it servers as a NAT, Web server, E-mail server, VPN and so on, all possible by adding a graphical user interface to existing GNU/Linux code, something you can't do with Microsoft operating systems. Oddly enough, Microsoft now owns about 6% of Rebel.com, due to Corel's share. He left us with a few hints about the next generation Netwinder as he dashed off to his next event.
I walked back to Hertzberg via the tunnels, again instilling a strong sense of deja-vu. While waiting for lunch in the old SCS conference room, I talked with a couple of clusters of current students, mostly from 2nd year. They were interested in my stories of my job in the computer gaming industry, and we even had a technical discussion of how 3D math works - from matrices to screen coordinates (the trick is to divide by the distance so that further things become smaller). I also talked with a couple of older students, two of the first grads from the school in 1982. One of them works for EDS in town, running big iron (mainframe computers), which can run quite a few different languages and operating systems, even Linux in a virtual machine.
Instead of lunch, we got a tour of the Paradigm parallel processing group. Their main thrust seems to be making frameworks for writing parallel programs, with automatic load balancing, and variations appropriate for CPU intensive or data communication intensive programs, and a specialization in raster image / cell grid processing. We had a live demo of some applications written with their frameworks: simulating forest fires and doing path finding (shortest path over a 3D mesh of triangles - with result shown as a flyby in 3D with 3D glasses too). I got the opportunity to ask a few technical questions on the shortest path algorithms they used - as that is a topic of interest in computer gaming. There was also a video showing the other applications, such as finding travel time from fire stations to all points in a city, and too many more (the video went on a bit long).
Lunch finally was ready, consisting of sandwich platters and drinks in the old SCS conference room. I nibbled a bit and talked some more with the people there. I chatted anonymously with someone with a familiar face about the increasing house prices in the Glebe, relating a story about my ex-employers who made their fortune by renovating rundown Glebe houses decades ago in their student days. Later on I found out that it was Lou Nel.
The next demo was of a new area of investigation: radio packet systems. They are investigating service discovery on radio networks, emphasizing the Service Location Protocol (better than Java/Jini for communications requirements according to their report). They have several radio systems, including a radio-LAN with a Palm Pilot and a PC, a satellite system with a steerable antenna on the roof to connect with low flying HAM radio satellites, and a campus wide radio network so they can wander around with a laptop and stay connected. We got a short presentation by a grad student on SLP, which they are hoping will contribute to an upcoming RFC document.
The final demo was of the new model train room for real time system experiments. They're still building the train set, so it's not yet finished or hooked up to the computer, but you can already drive a train or two around two concentric loops of track. They also had a manual control GUI half implemented.
This reminds me of the real time operating systems course I took at Waterloo, where we made an operating system from the ground up (task switching, serial port drivers, etc. on a 512KB i80186 processor board) with the final goal of controlling the electric train set. One of the interesting problems is the handling of malfunctions - the Waterloo train track sensors were occasionally unreliable, and sometimes the engines wouldn't respond to commands to change speed. I and my partner used an AI planning system much like the M.I.T. blocks micro-world (look for "SHRDLU") to solve all problems simultaneously. It would periodically read the state of the train system, run the planner with that state and the goal of getting the trains to their destinations, and perform the action the planner recommended. Unfortunately we ran out of time and didn't finish it.
After the last demo, I chatted with a few of the people, then said goodbye to the director Frank Dehne and the 2 oldest grads. I walked back in the surprisingly warm weather, over Hartwell's locks and through experimental farm, which took 65 minutes just like it used to.
Copyright © 2000 by Alexander G. M. Smith.