Friday, August 14, 2015

Creeping Chromosomes

  I promise that tomorrow's blog will not have as many words as tonight's does. I have a lot to say tonight.

  I've used this blog to chronicle all of my musical creations, starting with the earliest Knees Calhoon songs. But there's another period of my life when I was working at LOADSTAR, writing text and programs for a "magazine on disk", 1987 - 1999.

  I started as managing editor in September 1987 with issue #43 and after settling in, I was writing a new program for just about every monthly issue. As you could imagine, these were not complex games. They were mainly puzzles, or odd little tools -- whatever interested me during the month that I thought could be translated into a Commodore program.

  My plan is to introduce the programs I wrote back then, in chronological order, hopefully one a night, and give you a link to the LOADSTAR .d81 file that will allow you to run the program in a Commodore emulator. The original text that accompanied the program (we called it the Read It) will be here in the blog, along with any current comments I care to make.

  Before I became managing editor of LOADSTAR I had a program published by them called Creeping Chromosomes. Here is a Commodore screen shot of the game in action:

Click on the link to download the .d81 file which your emulator can run.

Directly below is the "Read It" for Creeping Chromosomes, as published in LOADSTAR #31. I did not write it. I didn't start working until #43, a year later. This will give you an idea of what LOADSTAR was like in 1986 -- erudite, informative, helpful. Starting tomorrow, with MURDER IN THE MUSEUM, you'll be reading my Read Its, which probably sound a bit more like the short history of how I found myself the managing editor of LOADSTAR, which follows the Read It. 


   There have been several computer programs that simulate the growth of organisms in particular environments. Known as "life" games, these programs most often use an algorithm based on the reproduction of cells in a bacteria colony.
   You can think of CREEPING CHROMOSOMES as a light-hearted version of the game of "life."  But while you might recognize the chromosomes and amino acids from what you've learned in biology class, we don't pretend that CREEPING CHROMOSOMES is a realistic simulation of how chromosomes behave in real life.
  But hopefully, you will find a (scientific) method to our madness. CREEPING CHROMOSOMES gives you a chance to perform experiments in controlled evolution.  Your goal: develop chromosomes with the best chances of survival in a predetermined environment. The chromosomes you deal with in CREEPING CHROMOSOMES compete with one another for survival. Two traits determine the success of a chromosome: curiosity and strength. "Curiosity" is important because it determines the mobility of the chromosomes.  Mobile chromosomes are more likely to bump into the amino acids that the chromosomes need to replicate and grow. Strength is important because if a strong chromosome touches a weaker one with its "head," the weaker one is killed. As you may have guessed, the traits of curiosity and strength are inversely related. In other words, as curiosity increases, strength decreases, and vice versa.  It's your job to find the combination of traits that is best for survival.
   In your experiment, you endow a number of chromosomes (1-15) with varying degrees of curiosity and strength. The program then places the chromosomes, which are color coded, in a "tank" containing eight amino acids. A score board at the bottom of the screen keeps up with how well each chromosome does.  When all but one chromosome has died, the screen's border color will be the same color as the victorious chromosome's. A double "waffle" will appear where the last chromosome died. Then, after you press a key, you can choose whether or not you want to save the scores for the next experiment. If you do, the next experiment will continue adding to the original scores.

   A Few Definitions...
  Within every cell nucleus of your body, threadlike CHROMOSOMES contain heredity information in the form of GENES.  Genes, which appear as light and dark bandings on the chromosome, are in fact segments of DNA molecules. The double helix of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule carries the coding that determines whether an organism is a human being, a lobster, or an egg plant.  DNA controls chemical reactions within cells, and thus controls the growth and function of the entire organism. If all life is based on DNA, why is there such incredible diversity? Think of a DNA molecule as a ladder that is twisted after every four rungs. (Each "rung" of a DNA molecule is made of one of four chemical subunits.) The order of these subunits is different for each living thing.  In the 46 human chromosomes, there are approximately four billion rungs. Here's another way to think about it: the number of sequences possible has been calculated to be greater than the number of sub-atomic particles in the universe.

Text by Val Golding, Jim Weiler, Mike Maynard, Donna Woody?


  I first heard about LOADSTAR soon after I bought a Commodore 64 back in 1984. I had hated computers in general back then because I had to take some computer classes back in the late 70s when I fitfully attended New Mexico State University, majoring in Electronic Technology. A “computer” was a building where I had to take IBM punchcards and wait with a bunch of nerds for the IBM 360 to process them. What a waste of time! I had one of the best jobs of my life at the time, playing guitar in the house band at the Las Cruces Inn, and since computers had nothing to do with my interests, (sex, dope and books), I was happy to have nothing to do with them.

  Then, around 1981, my little brother John bought an Apple and convinced me that they were the greatest little puzzle machine ever invented. With a computer you could invent your own puzzles, program it to present the puzzle without revealing the answer, and then keep score for you afterwards. It was like having a friend with the same interests as you, but without a pesky ego to get in the way.

  I bought the first computer under $100, a Timex Sinclair 1000. I must have been really desperate for an egoless friend because I actually liked it. Then I got a Commodore VIC-20 for about $200 and eventually a Commodore 64 for about $300. I never thought of them as a tool to communicate with or make life more organized—as we think of computers now—but only as something to be programmed. And I never thought that there was any way other than BASIC to program them.

  I was getting burned out on music in the early 80s. My back was killing me from holding the guitar for five hours a night and the rewards of guitar-picking were dwindling. The babes preferred the young guys with the cocaine more than they did the old, bald guy with the pained look on his face, sitting on the bandstand in between songs.

  Instead I was spending all my time writing programs and trying to find new techniques. One of my first programs, after learning how to use a custom font on the C-64, was called BATTLE OF THE CHROMOSOMES. It was colorful, catchy-looking, and unpredictable. You set up a screen full of “germs” and let them eat each other until one eventually won. My friend Kathy Delaney would come over and watch TV while I programmed and she was quite familiar with the colorful little squigglies on the screen even though she wasn’t really interested in computers at all.

  Around this time I heard there was a magazine on disk called LOADSTAR which would buy programs from guys like me and publish them. So I sent them BATTLE OF THE CHROMOSOMES—and never heard anything back. No big deal. I was used to playing LODE RUNNER and the text adventure games of Scott Adams and knew my modest little program wasn’t in their league.

  But one day I got a package in the mail while Kathy was there and when I opened it up, it was a plastic “blister-pack” with a LOADSTAR cover and disk inside. And on the cover was a microscope showing my little squigglies! Even Kathy was impressed. It said “CREEPING CHROMOSOMES — Mean genes in a life-like game of genetics”. And my name was on the back cover!

   I wrote LOADSTAR and told them how flattered I was that they used my game, and asked if there might be some payment for the game. There was an embarrassed reply and a check for $100 or so. I honestly can’t remember. I didn’t care about the money. I was a published programmer.

  So I sent them some more of my games. MURDER IN THE MUSEUM and MURDER IN THE MONASTERY, two text adventure games, as well as a few simple puzzles. I got back a long, long letter from a “Jim Weiler” critiquing everything I sent in detail. He said my games weren’t very good, but that they had something that was sorely lacking in 90% of the stuff submitted to LOADSTAR: imagination. That was good enough for me. I wanted to be a programmer.

  I also got a letter from someone else at Softdisk, the parent company of LOADSTAR, asking me if I could write some “Alfredo” games for the Commodore, which were quite popular on the Apple IIe computer. A disk was enclosed with some Apple files. I took them to a friend who had an Apple and looked at them. Graphic cartoons—and I knew diddly about graphics. All I knew was the font-manipulating trick I used in CHROMOSOMES.

  Then I received a form letter from Softdisk saying they were looking for an Apple editor. I called the company and talked to a man named Al Vekovius, one of the co-owners. I admitted I knew nothing about the Apple, or graphics, but I appreciated his offer. He said they were also looking for a Commodore 64 editor and I started to mumble that I’m afraid I don’t know enough to be an editor, but instead asked, “Hmmm. How much does the job pay?” I had always made about $9K a year playing in the band and lived from week to week as any musician did.

  Al said, “Oh, $20 thousand a year.”

  Yeeooow! I told him I’d get back to him and, after scrunching up my courage, called Softdisk back saying I’d love to come to work for them as a Commodore editor. I assured them I could do the job. Just as I had assured the US Army that I could type and drive a car when I was drafted back in 1967—and couldn’t.

  They sent me a check to fly out to Shreveport LA for an interview. I was met at the airport by co-owner Jim Mangham and he showed me a little of the town, including a big old house on Gladstone Boulevard in the Highland district that he and his wife, Judi, had just moved into and were fixing up. Al and Jim and Judi, as well as Jim Weiler, took me out to dinner and apparently I answered their questions satisfactorily. Later on I found that they were actually kind of desperate to get someone to take over the Commodore magazine because all of their interests were in the new IBM magazine, BIG BLUE DISK.

  I said all my goodbyes in Las Cruces and packed my station wagon full of computers and clothes and drove from one of my favorite cities, home of the best Mexican food in the world, across the godawfully large state of Texas to Shreveport, where Taco Bell reigned. I was very nervous about Shreveport because in the 50s my mother and three brothers used to drive through it every summer on our way to visit with my grandparents in Thibodaux LA, deep in Cajun country. Before I-40 was built, US Highway 80 wended its way through the worst parts of Shreveport and we always considered it to be the ugliest city we’d ever seen.

  But I soon found that it had changed quite a bit from the 50s and was really quite beautiful. Especially the Highland district, where two years later, after Jim and Judi had split up and she and I had married, I joined her in the big old house on Gladstone Boulevard. The house that was to become Ramble House.

  Enough! No more history for now! If you want to see the game in action, you have to use an emulator -- at this time. I've heard that browsers are powerful enough to run emulators these days so if I can figure out a way to present the programs so that you just click and play, I will. I just booted VICE (a free download), attached the 031.d81 file, selected "creeping" from the disk directory and the game was on! Other emulators must be just as easy.
   Unfortunately the interface (the keys you must press to do things) is ridiculous. Of course there was no mouse. This was 1986. Use the - and = keys on your PC to be the minus and plus keys. F1 is F1. We used function keys a LOT on the Commodore. If the program seems to crash, try typing

run: [ENTER]

   Who knows? It might work. With a computer that reboots in 2 seconds, Commodore users are pretty blase about crashes.  

   Coming up tomorrow: Murder in the Museum, the first Inspector La Mort mys-adventure.



  1. Absolutely fascinating, Fender! Thanks for taking the time to tell the story. I am proud to say that I actually set foot in Ramble House. :-)

  2. I read it all, Fender! There were quite a few details I wasn't aware of in your ascension to the Tower. Looking forward to more.

  3. As always, enthralled by your uniquely addicting way with words!

  4. As always, enthralled by your uniquely addicting way with words!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Hey Fender! This is Ricky Derocher! I did a lot of stuff for Loadstar in the early 2000's. I don't know if you remember this, but I made up two original Alfredo animations of my own for Loadstar. The first, the Return of Alfredo, was published on issue #197, and the second, Alfredo's Perilous Pitfall was published on issue #199, which was your last issue as editor of Loadstar. Anyways, Loadstar was a big part of my childhood / teenage years, (I even named one of my cats "Tucker" after you... Hahaha) and I still like to do some C64 / Amiga coding even today via emulators.