Late Night Laundry, Mr. Wolfram, and My Experience of Mobile Automata

Last night I was up late doing some laundry — a lot of my own, plus some of Lime’s, which needed to get done last night so that she could bring it back to the hospital early today. The place where she’s working doesn’t even provide a single washing machine for those members of staff working 80-120 hour weeks, if you can imagine that… their one night off is when they get to go somewhere else to do their laundry.

Anyway, she was dead asleep but I was waiting for the dryer cycle to finish drying the load, so I once again dug into some light reading: Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. Honestly, I have no real opinion of the guy yet, though it strikes me as a vaguely grandiose title for a book. But it’s absurdly light reading, so far, and I’m about a hundred and twety pages in now, after last night.

So far, the main thing Wolfram’s done is discuss cellular automata and the different kinds of complexity that we can find in some of even the simplest cellular automata rules. His thesis so far is that adding more elements doesn’t necessarily add remarkably much in the way of complexity, though if you ask me, it seems that adding significantly more elements might. (He mostly added one color, or mobility to an automaton, or a set of Turing-tape states to the mobile automaton.) And another criticism I feel valid is that in some of what he describes as looking “random”, I see bilateral symmetries, or repeating patterns on changing scales. But I’ll leave those aside since maybe he is taking that into account and just meaning that they look comparably random, when contrasted with the more results of regular cellular automata rules.

In any case, this brought back a flood of memory for me. It was the seventh grade, and our teacher, Mr. Tomyn, was teaching us “computer science”. Our course consisted of typing in programs from a textbook, programs in the Basic programming language, into old black-and-white TRS-80 computers from Radio Shack, and I completed these programs very quickly. As Mr Tomyn noted, I was basically a natural at this sort of very low-level programming. (I would be told the same thing in University by my one and only Comp Sci professor — that I was a natural and ought to major in the field. But the Calculus requirements kept me out.)

Anyway, after I finished typing the programs in from Mr. Tomyn’s book, I started to realize that I could create my own programs. I started with making a “creature” that I could move around the screen. The creature was a single dot onscreen, the size of a single character, since the TRS-80 seemed to think of the screen in terms of a number of character spots. I would have the character appear on a random spot, and them move around by being controlled by the arrows on the keyboard.

This got boring, of course. Arrowing a little dot around a screen can only be fun for a few minutes. So, filing that in the back of my mind — it’d be useful if I ever designed a video game, I decided — I went and added a random “direction” for it to go each cycle of the program. After experimenting, I also added a wait sequence of half a second or so before each move so that its movements wouldn’t be dizzyingly fast, and a “trail” function where, anywhere the critter had gone was left switched “on”, so that it left a glowing trail in its random wake. In my class, we made bets about how long it’d take for the thing to fill up the screen. Oh, what I’d give for the notebook I had when I first came up with that program — I’m sure the 5 or 6 lines of BASIC code are scrawled with such precision and care.

Well, after that, I got more ambitious, and built a program where dots appeared randomly on the screen — one here, then one there, then another. I started wishing I had colours available to me, so that the pixels could be of randomized colour. They would switch on, and never switch off, so again, the bet was about how long it would take before they would fill up the screen. After that, I started working on a video game, something about a creature moving around, and dodging randomly moving monsters, but I never got very far with it. It was too complex for me to code, and in frustration, I gave up at the end of the school year. Turned out there was no more computer science after that, not for me, not until University.

What’s interesting to me is two things: that I was, in a sense, playing with a kind of precusor to cellular automata that I’d come up with myself, and that I am a member of that first generation of kids who do so while growing up. Nobody who was born when I was–in 1974–has a parent who can look back fondly on the days when he or she, as a child, created his or her own cellular automata on an old, cheap computer.

When I think about it, there are probably a few more first-generation experiences in my childhood. I suspect I’m a member of the first generation to actually fear the extinction of all life on earth as a child. It was in the 1970s that this his popular consciousness, right? I don’t mean the death of all humans — I’m sure many people have worried about that before, especially when “all humans” only included their own proximal family and friends — but rather the permanent extinction of life on our planet. I’m quite possibly a member of the first generation who learned to actively worry about recycling, to the point where I feel guilt whenever I dispose of something in an unrecyclable way.

And the thing that shocks me is that people younger than me are growing up this way too — more and more of their most interesting experiences and worries are beyond the scope of my own memories of childhood. Interesting, I imagine it’s like parenting children growing up in a wholly different culture. Anyway, just a thought that came to me.

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