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Pratchett’s gadgets that helped mould the Discworld

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During Terry Pratchett’s first visit to South African in 1999, the planet’s leading fantasy writer reluctantly revealed to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK the secret to the gadgets that helped mould the technology of his Discworld. Pratchett passed away on 12 March 2015. This is the text of the original article in Gadget.

“If I didn’t use computers, would you ask me about my pens?” is Terry Pratchett’s testy response to the obvious gadget question about his writing tools.

And the answer, frankly Terry, is Yes.

Eventually, Pratchett succumbs. Perhaps it’s the Italian food we’re eating. Perhaps it’s the chemicals in the Johannesburg air. It’s certainly not the fact that this interviewer has been introduced to him as “a fan”.

He dreads being asked questions by fans who remember obscure punch lines long after he has retired them from his best-selling Discworld series of satirical fantasy novels. Or questions about his computers.

But persevere, and he begins to wax lyrical.

“If I still used a typewriter, it would be an old Imperial 58. That’s the one I had most fun with. After that I got an electric typewriter, but typing a page was so final. You felt you had control of the Imperial 58; it was purely manual.”

“When computers became available I began using a computer immediately. My first computer was a ZX-81, but I did word processing on it only for fun. The first computer I used for writing was an Amstrad 464. It was really a games machine with a tape drive built in, so my first word processor was on a cassette.”

Pratchett then “graduated” to the personal computer:

“In the last 10 years I got through six PCs, six portables and a couple of handhelds. Which is less odd than it sounds, since the real life of early machines was very short – from the XT to the AT and then pretty soon the 386, which let one use Windows with one window open. No one would expect an author of my input to use a PC bought 10 years ago.”

“I always had a policy of having two machines to work on and at the moment it is a low end and a high end Pentium. If one blows up, I want a maximum of 10 minutes before I am working on the other machine.”

Pratchett likes his computing as portable as possible, but is not wildly impressed with Windows CE. “It looks nice,” he says, “but it just doesn’t have the capacity.”

Instead, he uses a Toshiba Libretto when travelling.

“The nice thing about the Libretto is that I am writing a novel on it, I have all my other novels on it and my letters are on it, so if I need to check on something, I’ve got it there. With CE you can’t have that. And the Libretto is not much heavier than a high-end CE. I’ve also got a Palm Pilot with me. It’s fun and quite useful.”

A little more useful, indeed, than Hex, the hilarious, elaborate computer housed at the Unseen University in the Discworld series. Although Pratchett might disagree…

Pratchett’s gadget put a Hex on his work

Hex is a computer like no other the world has ever seen. Or rather, that the Discworld has ever seen. For it is the one and only computer on the bizarre world created by Terry Pratchett, Britain’s best-selling author and the world’s favourite fantasy writer.

In the Discworld series, Hex evolves under the watchful eyes of apprentice wizard Ponder Stibbons, who by default becomes what we might think of as the IT manager at the Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

As Pratchett puts it in his Christmas send-up, Hogfather, “Hex worried Ponder Stibbons. He didn’t know how it worked, but everyone else assumed that he did.”

Sounds like most IT managers we know, doesn’t it? But this is different: Hex is activated by “initialising the GBL”, which Stibbons reluctantly admits stands for “pulling the Great Big Lever”. This releases millions of ants into a network of glass tubing, hence the sticker on Hex that reads “Anthill inside”. And it is all powered by a waterwheel covered with sheep skulls. That is, male sheep. In other words, RAM.

“Hex is a lot brighter than most computers,” says Pratchett, discussing the properties of this very insane machine in the very sane light of a Johannesburg afternoon.

In The Last Continent (his new book, set in Australia), Stibbons says that after he has been working with HEX for a long time, it is easier to talk to senior wizards, because he has to break every idea into small bits and mustn’t leave any room for ambiguity.

“It always amazes me that people who spend a great deal of time programming computers don’t spend time programming their fellow human beings.”

The inspiration for Hex, which evolves through seemingly unexplainable upgrades like extra cheese, a CWL (clothes wringer from the laundry) and “small religious pictures” (that is. “icons”), came from Pratchett’s own early experiments with unfathomable upgrades.

“I started off with a ZX-81 which I put together myself. It was very easy to add things to it. By the time I was finished with it, it had a speech card, a sound card, and eight or nine sensors: a barometer, solar sensor, temperature sensor and various light sensors.

“I invented Paged RAM; effectively, I gave ZX-81 lots and lots of memory, but it could only access a certain amount of it at one time. It was important that information was at specific memory locations and stayed there. I had lots and lots of 2kb memory chips. One program would dump all kinds of sub-routines on all these RAM chips, and the next routine would run the whole damn show.

“I no longer knew why that sub-routine was there or what it was doing there but it was vitally important that it was there. I couldn’t figure out why, except that it stopped working if I took it out.”

This Hex prototype still exists today, and would probably be a fine exhibit in a literary museum, if they could prize it from Pratchett’s grasp. But he does not share the same respect for it.

“It’s still lying in a shed. It’s a real rat’s nest, and I no longer know how I got it to work.”

Pratchett got the ZX-81 do do things that the computer industry is still trying to get right in the consumer versions of multimedia PCs and artificial intelligence. In those early days, the world “multimedia” did not even exist.

“I would get up and it would sense me when I went into the office and say good morning, tell me what the weather conditions were, and whatever the forecast for the day was. It had a wind sensor too. If you know the wind direction and what the barometer is doing today, and you have a lookup table, it’s not difficult to forecast the weather.”

“It had a lovely sound card with the sound of waves breaking. It had to do things all the time. Eventually there was too much to do, and BASIC (the computer language that founded Bill Gates’ empire) couldn’t keep up.”

He pauses, and with a practised sense of timing that would have done a stand-up comedian proud, adds: “The voice recognition system was probably a mistake.”

But it did provide inspiration for the Discworld.

“Hex is pretty much the same thing. The wizards are not quite sure why it works and not sure that everything it’s got is what they added. For instance, someone gave me a box of relays, so relays became part of the system. I’m not sure why. It was all done with a soldering iron and a box of spares and a bit of BASIC. Once I stopped using it for a while, I completely forgot how it worked.”

One can never be sure if Pratchett is being serious, but there is no denying that he has a unique view – if rather a strange one in a way that would interest the medical fraternity – of the world and the things in it.

While it is almost comforting to know that our reality helped shape his lunatic ideas, perhaps we also need to look at it from the opposite perspective: if the Discworld is inspired by the real world, we have to question the sanity of our own existence.

As the Unseen University’s Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, would probably say, “Sanity? Now there’s an interesting concept. Totally impractical, of course…”

* Follow Arthur Goldstuck on YouTube at http://bit.ly/GGadgets and Twitter on @art2gee. See Terry Pratchett’s touching Twitter farewell on @terryandrob.

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The Outer Worlds creates a twist on lone hero RPGs

With The Outer Worlds being released just under a month ago, BRYAN TURNER played it extensively to shell out exactly what makes it so special.

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The Outer Worlds makes it difficult to turn the console off. It took a while to pinpoint exactly what makes it so more-ish. Eventually, it became clear that it’s not one aspect, but rather several facets that make this game great. We’ve separated this game into its parts.

It comes as no surprise that Obsidian Entertainment, the makers of Fallout New Vegas and Star Wars: Knights of the Fallen Empire, was behind The Outer Worlds. It blends two distinct flavours of gaming – the chaos of Fallout with the intergalactic travel from Star Wars. This makes The Outer Worlds feel familiar but fresh at the same time.

At first, the game felt similar to the Fallout RPG series, particularly Fallout New Vegas, where the player is conveniently more powerful than the other players that exist in the world into which they venture. In Fallout, worlds are generally lawless, and players must navigate their character towards the alignment or “good or bad status” they want the player to be. The plot has scenarios that only a certain type of alignment can be, whether the character is the Restorer of Faith or the Architect of Doom.

The Outer Worlds follows a similar kind of style, but replaces the wasteland with a picture of the far future. Players start off as a passenger who gets unfrozen on a ship that holds a few of Earth’s brightest minds. The main campaign goal is to help unfreeze the other passengers. Instead, players are found in a hyper-capitalist world where workers are extremely disposable. Enormous companies go by names like “Auntie Cleos” but set extremely oppressive policies to keep their workers in line. From this, one can tell that dark humour is rife throughout this game.

These kinds of immersive RPGs, naturally, pack so many side quests into their world that it’s easy to forget the player’s main objective. These side quests are very reminiscent of the Fallout series, because they feature many ways of getting the job done, whether it be fighting, convincing or sneaking. One can even have companions, which present players with even more quest lines.

Not everything is a remix of other games. Companions have a direct effect on a character’s skill set, because the main characters are not always skilled in what players need. For example, we brought along Parvati in a quest where we needed more support with engineering skills, which is a skill we neglected to level up in the main character.

There’s also the ability to have a special combat skill, which becomes very handy in situations where there are many enemies around. Of course, it not only buys players time, but delivers more damage to opponents. Some special combat skills even stun non-targeted opponents, which really helps.

Gear and perks have also been designed from scratch, and it shows. It’s far more intuitive than we’ve seen in other RPGs so far and it makes for a much better experience that saves time on upgrading gear and perks so players can actually play the game.

I’m a huge fan of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS, as Fallout players know it. The system allows players to target various limbs or parts of the opponent with precision aim, ensuring a better shot. While The Outer Worlds doesn’t use this, it features a slow-motion aiming system which can be considered an equivalent.

The travel system allows for travel from planet to planet, and they’re all distinctly mapped. While many are filled with enemies and marauders in empty wastelands, there are also major cities. The art style and careful attention to detail with the colour make this contrast distinguishable.

One of our biggest compliments is the completeness of this game. Many games have recently shipped glorified beta versions of their games because they’re pressed for time. The Outer Worlds, however, didn’t present a single bug within 20 hours of gameplay.

Overall, it’s a very enjoyable game, and fans of the Fallout, Star Wars RPGs, and Mass Effect series’ should definitely take a look at what The Outer Worlds has to offer.

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FNB takes shot at Bank Zero

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With expectation building for the launch of Bank Zero by legendary banker Michael Jordaan, his previous employer seems to have taken a strategic shot with the launch of its latest service. 

FNB has launched Easy Zero, a fully-fledged digital bank account with a card to allow customers to transact easily without paying a monthly fee. The mobile account was formerly known as eWallet eXtra.

The revamped digital account will now have a branded FNB bank card, providing customers with free card swipes, cost-effective transactional and ATM cash withdrawal fees. The card now gives customers more options to access their money. In addition, customers will also get free prepaid purchases and free cash deposits of up to R1,500 per month.

FNB Easy CEO Philani Potwana said: “We are aware of the day-to-day financial pressure that our consumers face, and Easy Zero is a direct response to their needs. The account is in line with our strategy to broaden financial inclusion to the unbanked and underbanked. We believe that the ability to operate the account digitally will allow customers to operate it at virtually no cost or minimal cost depending on transactional behaviour.

“We see Easy Zero being a digital bank account of choice for customers who do not have regular income or have limited banking needs. This is partly the reason debit orders are not allowed on the digital account as customers in this segment have limited debit orders. However, for those customers that have a need for debit orders they can still use our competitively priced Easy PAYU and Easy Smart Bundle accounts.”

Through Easy Zero, customers will be able to send money to anyone with a valid SA cellphone number, and skip the queues to pay people and accounts. Easy Zero account holders can also view their bank account balance and transaction history on their mobile phone at any time, from anywhere.

“The success of our digital account, with over 140,000 active customers, shows that anyone who owns a mobile phone can be banked in minutes using a mobile device,” says Potwana. “This showcases our ability to adapt to the ever-changing consumer landscape to cater for the needs of customers through platform innovation. ”

FNB is also offering Easy Zero digital account holders a toll-free number (0800 079 599) where easy customers can call for help on any of their banking needs. To open an Easy Zero account, dial *120*277# on a mobile phone and follow the prompts.

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