Using computers

Stormcrow's picture
Stormcrow
January 5, 2014 - 8:24am
I'm a little unclear on who can use computers. The computer skill includes the Manipulating Programs subskill, which is used to run, change, or delete a program. What exactly is involved in running a program? The example on page 46 has a business owner, Slingshot Simmons, buying a computer to keep track of his finances, using Analysis 2, Commerce 2, and Information Storage 1. Does Simmons need a computer specialist to run these programs with Manipulating Programs as an initial setup, or can he just buy the computer and use it? Most programs seem to be programs that always run continuously; does "running" a program mean starting it?

While we're on the subject of computers, what does it take, if it's at all possible, to get a computer to respond in natural language? Not sentience, just language. For instance, would a high-level Communication program enable the computer to verbally tell someone, "You have an incoming holophone call"? What would it take to get the computer to hold a conversation regarding its functions? ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal." "I'm sorry Dave; I'm afraid I can't do that.")
Comments:

TerlObar's picture
TerlObar
January 5, 2014 - 9:11am
Well, first, you have to remember that the game was written in the late 70's and computers were still mainly giant boxes at the time.  The first personal micro computers were just coming out (think commodore Pets, Apple I, etc.  I had had Sinclair ZX81 with 1 kilobyte of RAM in 1978).  I think you have to get a bit into that midset when thinking about Star Frontiers computers.

The way I see it, any Joe can buy a computer and have it set up to run by and computer specialist.  Then Joe can use it himself to do exactly what it was set up specifically to do.  If he tries to go outside those parameters, it won't work.  And I see those parameters being fairly narrow.  After, in SF, part of a computer program is hardware, hardwired to do certain things.  If you want to do something even slightly different with the system then how it was set up, you need the computer skill.

As for the computer conversing in natural language, if you wanted to require something special, using the standard programs I'd rule that all you would need is a level 1 language program and a speaker/microphone.  That should be sufficent in the SF universe.  Maybe also require a level 1 communication program as well.  However, robots can do it at level 3 as a matter of course,  and I'd be tempted to allow the computers to do it as well at level 2 and beyond without anything extra.

Of course, while our computers today are lightyears ahead of what is described in the SF game, this kind of speech interaction is still fairly limited in the real world, despite people working on it for decades.  It's actually a hard problem.  Then throw in the various languages of the various races and it gets even harder.  In some ways, thats part of the "fiction" of the science fiction of Star Frontiers.Smile
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Malcadon's picture
Malcadon
January 5, 2014 - 10:25am
TerlObar wrote:
I had had Sinclair ZX81 with 1 kilobyte of RAM in 1978...

Wow! I was getting born that year!

Yeah, TrelObar is right, computers in SF were made with a whole other mindset about how they look and ran then the younger generation so accustomed to it all being smaller, high-graphics, user-friendly systems and with a "There is an app for that" mentality. Computers back then were big systems with modular construction, operating systems with a bit of a learning curve, with most of the users knowing the hardware and software from the inside out. Hell, the first home computers were DIY kits!

But with that mindset in mind, behold the future of computing:





It the right hands, the Prime Computer alone could save the entire galaxy! Tongue out

jedion357's picture
jedion357
January 5, 2014 - 10:26am
Anecdotal story, Dad had become a computer programer 46 years ago and go a job working in a big mill up in Maine doing key punch with key punch cards on one of those big main frames all week 40will something hours just so the payroll checks for the mill could be printed at the end of the week. Sometimes the computer went done and he had to spend the week in Hartford CN and go into a bank when it was closed and do the process on their computer at night. (My grandparents lived in Hartford so this didnt break his heart to be able to eat Grandma's cooking). I found it amazing that his whole job was entering data just so the checks could print. This went on till the company sacked on of his co-workers who was something like 6 months from retirement to give the president's son a job. When that happened he quit and vollunteered with the air force (during Vietnaum).
I might not be a dralasite, vrusk or yazirian but I do play one in Star Frontiers!

Stormcrow's picture
Stormcrow
January 5, 2014 - 12:35pm
I understand the background for which the rules were written. Much of the source material also has talking computers, though in much computers are dumb crates. I'm not entirely sure which is meant to be the case in Star Frontiers.

This is compounded by the fact that robots are not exactly computers, though they have their own programs, and they can apparently achieve sentient-like behavior if sufficniently advanced.

Tchklinxa's picture
Tchklinxa
January 5, 2014 - 1:01pm
Maybe the game makers were thinking Old School Star Trek TV here.

Character says: "Computer: blah blah blah?"
Computer responds: "Working" (lots of blinky lights and beeps latter) it kicks out an answer... or says something as an answer after a while.

And they also had to do a fair amount of sliding disks into them, enetering data by hand too it seems to me. 

So sometimes the Computer chatted with them and sometimes it did not, they just got read outs. Also there seemed to be computers for specific jobs in the show.

Also the coloured wood prop disks seemed to be data files/recorded info or away to record and programs (apps).

Just a thought.
 "Never fire a laser at a mirror."

bossmoss's picture
bossmoss
January 8, 2014 - 3:10pm
Exactly, Tchklinxa.  That is how I have always played it, and Trek is the example I usually give players who don't understand it.  I get a lot of younger players (under 30) who think we have always had texting, tablet computers, apps, etc. and are used to programming everything a certain way.  They expect the Frontier to work the same way.  I always have to explain that it is more like in old movies and TV shows of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, where you have to speak to the computer verbally or communicate through some sort of link or cable connection.  Programs involve inserting cartridges.  No mouse, no qwerty keyboards, no desktop, and often no monitor.  The average citizen has about zero chance of programming a computer.  Only serious computer science professionals could do that.  Most computer functions seem limited to making decisions for people, or calculations your chances.

Good examples I've used:

Old Trek
  - the computer has a female voice
  - analyzes data, and tells you the result
    (or gives you a small hardcopy)
  - there are also examples of alien societies run by computers
    (which Kirk always talks into committing suicide)
  - other computers are prone to saying things like,
    "does not compute", and giving off a lot of smoke

Star Wars
  - Han Solo's navigational computer
  - a wall of blinking lights
  - they have to link in and try to talk to it

Space: 1999
  - the big computer screen on the wall of the command center
  - it speaks in a female monotone, obviously not self-aware
  - makes calculations we would take for granted today
  - it takes an entire wall of buttons & lights in the command center,
    PLUS a separate large computer room

Doctor Who (Classic Series)
  - top experts always had computers with spinning reels of magnetic tape
  - readouts were often printed out on a thin piece of paper
    (like a grocery receipt)
  - K-9 was supposed to be a futuristic mobile computer,
    and combines features of both robot and computer

Logan's Run
  - the "computer brain" is housed in its own facility
  - it runs their society with cold, ruthless logic
  - speaks in a human-like voice

Alien (the first movie)
  - "Mother" has a special white room full of blinking lights
  - seems primitive & slow, but somehow knows a lot

Return of the Fly
  - in this old movie sequel, they use a huge computer
  - a wall of blinking lights and spinning wheels
  - it controls the transporter system

bossmoss's picture
bossmoss
January 8, 2014 - 3:25pm
Stormcrow, to answer your questions, yes I believe any SF computer should automatically be able to talk.  I don't think you would even need a special program for that.

Based on the mentality of the time, Slingshot Simmons would not be able to run his own computer, and would have to hire someone just to run a simple program.  I know it seems ridiculous today, but back then the game makers would take it for granted that players would know that, because "normal" people had zero chance of using any computer.

rattraveller's picture
rattraveller
January 8, 2014 - 5:44pm
Giving a computer the ability to talk and not just spit out answers on cards would make the computer an NPC. This is not a bad thing. The GM should have a character sheet with the computer's abilities and limitations on it. SF makes this fairly easy but if the computer is going to be a regular feature then a good NPC sheet and a little history of past interactions for continuity should be kept.
Sounds like a great job but where did you say we had to go?

Tchklinxa's picture
Tchklinxa
January 8, 2014 - 9:08pm
Good examples... also books like the Krishna series also written in the 70's have it that no Earth Citizen owns a computer, just governments or big companies, because they are so big and expensive, what is available to the public are Public Access Computers, it is like going to the library, you have your card and have to wait to use them, and you have to go to the Public Computer Building. 

Alternate Reality time. :)

I like the idea of giving a computer a NPC sheet... it should include catch terms and phrases that computer always uses... like Working, Calculating, By your command, tweeky tweeky, My programing does not accommodate those parameters, etc... that way you remember the obnoxious things it says just right.

I programmed a computer that had a bad motherboard (that I had to use) and would randomly crash on me to start up and say "What compels people to walk through the gates of hell, when they are clearly marked?" I also changed all the beeps to insults. 




 "Never fire a laser at a mirror."

Malcadon's picture
Malcadon
January 8, 2014 - 9:10pm
Bossmoss, your examples reminds me of William Shatner from Airplane II: The Sequel.

Murdock: What did you found?
Technician: All I found was that these lights keep moving back and forth. Aside from that, this thing has no other function whatsoever.
Murdock: That's impossible, it has to have some sort of function. Why would they put all that money into a thing with red lights that keep going back and forth? That doesn't make any sense! Keep working on it.
Soldier: Sir, those lights are blinking out of sequence.
Murdock: I see...
Soldier: What should we do about them, sir?
Murdock: Get them to blink *in* sequence.

(latter)

Murdock: Oh, cut the bleeding heart crap, will ya? We've all got our switches, lights, and knobs to deal with, Striker. I mean, down here there are literally hundreds and thousands of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights, blinking and beeping and flashing - they're *flashing* and they're *beeping*. I can't stand it anymore! They're *blinking* and *beeping* and *flashing*! Why doesn't somebody pull the plug!?

jedion357's picture
jedion357
January 8, 2014 - 10:09pm
Malcadon wrote:
Bossmoss, your examples reminds me of William Shatner from Airplane II: The Sequel.

Murdock: What did you found?
Technician: All I found was that these lights keep moving back and forth. Aside from that, this thing has no other function whatsoever.
Murdock: That's impossible, it has to have some sort of function. Why would they put all that money into a thing with red lights that keep going back and forth? That doesn't make any sense! Keep working on it.
Soldier: Sir, those lights are blinking out of sequence.
Murdock: I see...
Soldier: What should we do about them, sir?
Murdock: Get them to blink *in* sequence.

(latter)

Murdock: Oh, cut the bleeding heart crap, will ya? We've all got our switches, lights, and knobs to deal with, Striker. I mean, down here there are literally hundreds and thousands of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights, blinking and beeping and flashing - they're *flashing* and they're *beeping*. I can't stand it anymore! They're *blinking* and *beeping* and *flashing*! Why doesn't somebody pull the plug!?


Sounds like somebody picked the wrong day to give up methanphedamines. Wink
I might not be a dralasite, vrusk or yazirian but I do play one in Star Frontiers!

Malcadon's picture
Malcadon
January 9, 2014 - 5:47am
jedion357 wrote:
Sounds like somebody picked the wrong day to give up methanphedamines. Wink

Murdock: Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes. Tongue out