Autoblography Part 16: Art and the Computer

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Sep 21, 2011

Filed under: Personal 90 comments

Dad is engaged. He’s met a woman about his own age, and they’re living together in a nice place downtown. This seems like a good turn for him. His girlfriend seems nice, and this apartment is a step up from the rat-holes he usually lives in.

It’s at this point that I really envy fiction writers, because they can name their characters at will. If I were making this up, I could name this woman something memorable, and perhaps even something tied to her personality. But this is real life, and fate has named her Pat. So my brother is Patrick, my Dad’s girlfriend is Patricia, and almost everyone else is named Dave. (In about ten years my Dad will rent an apartment from another guy, who is also named James Young. They will live next to each other, and will never get the mail delivery to work right.)

Patricia has a daughter. She lives with grandparents, but the prospect of this marriage brings with it the prospect of a step-sister. She’s about the same age as Patrick and I, and she’s unusually smart and well-grounded. I like her right away.

For Christmas, Dad and Patricia give me books. Dad gives me Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which launches my interest in all things Douglas Adams. Patricia gives me this:


Art and the Computer, by Melvin L. Prueitt, with introduction by Carl Sagan. Patricia got it for me because it was about art – which she likes and understands – and also about computers, which everyone knows is an obsession of mine.

It was a fascinating book in 1984 because of the look it offered into the future of computer graphics, and it’s fascinating now for historical purposes. In either time period, it’s an enjoyable read because some of the images are quite striking. The book is 246 pages of huge glossy pictures of landscapes, wireframe objects, abstract patterns, and photorealistic images. (“Photorealistic” by the standards of the day, at least.) The book is out of print, although you can still find it.

The images in this book were made almost a full decade before the first versions of Open GL were available. These images were mostly made on incredibly expensive high-end workstations, and even on those mighty machines each image might have taken minutes or hours to draw. Today you can find example programs for Direct X or Open GL that can create these same images on common household computers, at the rate of a hundred frames per second.


This book does not begin my fascination with computer graphics, but it certainly intensifies it. I am captivated by the topographies depicted on these pages. I spend a lot of time in the chapter on errors, examining the pictures and trying to imagine what sorts of things the programmer / artist would need to do in order to produce them.


My computer at home was the MC-10, which ran at 0.89 megahertz – less than a single megahertz. As of this writing, the device you’re using to read this is probably 4,000 times faster than that one. If you’re running a desktop computer with a graphics card, then all bets are off – it will be many times more powerful than that. My computer had 4k of memory, which is just barely enough to store the raw text of this chapter so far. The upshot of this is that it would have taken my MC-10 days or weeks to render one of these images, and it wouldn’t be able to display more than a postage-stamp corner of one of them.

The technology hinted at in this book feels very far away and exotic. Even so, I draw a great deal of inspiration from the book, dreaming of the day when I get my hands on a computer capable of such magics. It seems kind of far-fetched, but maybe I’ll be able to land a job where I can use those kinds of computers.


One day Patricia tells Dad, “Jim, I think I’m queer.”

This is the only explanation offered to me for why the relationship ended. Apparently she left after this revelation, moved to Pittsburgh, and (one assumes) joined the lesbian community. I will never hear from her again, but I’ll think of her every time I see Prueitt’s book sitting on my shelf.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that this second family didn’t pan out. The marriage of Mom and Dave – and the arrival of Ruth – was such a massive boon that I couldn’t help but hope for it to happen again.

Dad gives up the nice apartment and finds another bachelor hovel, according to his custom. The stepsister-that-almost-was writes to Patrick and I a few years later. We’re delighted to hear from her, but too irresponsible to reply. Idiots.


From The Archives:

90 thoughts on “Autoblography Part 16: Art and the Computer

  1. coolgingerkid says:

    Damn. That ending was really depressing.

    1. SolkaTruesilver says:

      “There can be no happy ending…

      …because nothing ever ends”

      The story continues. :-)

      1. MichaelG says:

        It continues until you die, which isn’t generally a happy ending.

        1. Eroen says:

          Unless everybody somehow agrees you deserved it. Yes, that sounds like a great idea, think how much better it would be with celebrations in the streets when you die!

          1. MichaelG says:

            Or an asteroid could hit the Earth and we’d all go out together. No one to cry over you!

            1. Varil says:

              I think you’re a little rough on this “happy ending” thing.

              1. SolkaTruesilver says:

                The rocks will be happy

                1. Zeta Kai says:

                  The rocks will be smashed with titanic forces that will break them up into their component atoms, which will fly apart from each other to join the wave of death & destruction that will encircle the planet. Those rocks didn’t care about you before, & they won’t be around to care about to after. Not that they would care if they were around. Because they are ROCKS.

                  1. Maldeus says:

                    But it’s a happy ending for everyone who really hates rocks! Sure, they were dead, but they went out taking their most hated enemy with them. The same applies to rocks who really hate humans.

                    1. SolkaTruesilver says:

                      There won’t be a happy ending, because NOTHING EVER ENDS!!

                      Do I have to go back to the 1st reply? Tss.. Come on people, stay on topic! :-P

                    2. Dys says:

                      Rocks fall.
                      Everyone dies.

                    3. Bryan says:

                      Heat death of the universe?

        2. Ravens Cry says:

          Is it the end of the play when an actor leaves the stage?
          The Play must go on.

  2. blue_painted says:

    I hope that “The stepsister-that-almost-was” reappears in this autobiography … maybe at the point that teenage is left behind and rejoining the human race happens.

    (Not a personal gybe; just an observation on nerdy teenage boys — I was one too!)

    1. Shamus says:

      Sadly, no.

      Also, her name is common enough that I can’t find her online. (I’ve found a lot of women with the same name, but none of them are definitively her.)

      1. ccesarano says:

        I guess the alternative would be to try and find the almost step-mother. You at least have a hint in case you run into many folks with the same name (you’d be looking for the lesbian one).

        1. Shamus says:

          I tried. Nothing.

          She’d be almost 70 by now. She was a smoker, so the odds are against her still being alive. Moreover, she was AN ARTIST, and not the sort of person who wanted anything to do with computers.

          And I just realized now that her last name was her married name. She might have switched back to her maiden name when she entered her new lifestyle.

          So, probably passed on. If not, she’s probably not interested in the interwebz. Even if she is, she might have a different name. In any case, she’s danged hard to find – I’ve come across only one other person with the right name, and that woman is younger than I am.

          If I knew her better I’d crowdsource this, but I don’t dare do that for someone I haven’t seen in a quarter century.

          1. ccesarano says:

            True point. Who knows, though? Maybe almost-step-sister will stumble upon you somehow in a random Google search.

          2. Tuck says:

            There’s still hope!

            One of my best friends back in Tasmania became re-acquainted with his high school girlfriend over the internet, and they got married a few months later. He was 63!

          3. I am Pat, almost step-mother-definitely not gay-definitely not dead yet. Hi, Shamus. Love You, Pat

            1. Shamus says:

              You make me happy. So glad you’re doing well. Wonderful to hear from you.

              1. RCN says:

                How come no-one noticed this happy ending?

  3. Dwip says:

    Re: ending, :(

    What is it with the whole not replying to people business? I’ve done that a few times too, and never fail to mentally kick myself several years later when I think about it.

    That thing with the mountain is pretty impressive now, never mind in 1984. In about ten years, we’ll all be actually living the desert with tank pic when Mechwarrior 2 comes out.

    1. MadTinkerer says:

      “What is it with the whole not replying to people business?”

      For me it’s a symptom of depression. The worse I’m generally feeling, the worse I am at replying.

      1. SolkaTruesilver says:

        Look at the bright side. You just replied to Dwip’s post.

    2. krellen says:

      I never know what to say. I completely suck at small talk.

      1. X2-Eliah says:

        You could talk about mice. Or peanuts. Or the rubber eraser heads of pencils. Contact lenses, maybe. M&Ms. Nuts and bolts. Those are small enough for small talk, right?

        But, er, yeah… Small talk’s a skill that’s completely evaded me. Worst part is that when I do engage in small talk, I find myself kind of loathing the process – as in, “this is utterly and completely meaningless! Why do people even enjoy or consider this rubbish necessary… I mean.. there’s no POINT to this!”…

        1. Maldeus says:

          Find a list on the internet of every D&D creature of Small size. Talk about them. Problem solved.

        2. Destrustor says:

          Small talk is, by nature, mostly unimportant.
          I, by nature, tend to shut my yap if I don’t have something important to say.
          You can probably imagine how bad I am at small talk.

    3. Jarenth says:

      I’ve mentally uttered the phrase ‘I’ll write up a good reply tomorrow’ in endless succession more times than I care to remember. It’s not intentional, not in the slightest, it’s just a thing I do. Or don’t, as the example goes.

  4. Rayen says:

    you should try to look up that nearly stepsister. I mean it’s the 21st century. Supposedly these magical machine that are 4000 times faster than those of the 1980s can be used to find anyone. I know cause distant (and do mean distant) parts of my family keep finding me and want to friends me on facebook.

    (i apologize if i sound snarky that wasn’t the intention.)

    1. lazlo says:

      How unusual a name do you have? I’m always amused by impassioned articles about how google and facebook are killing privacy, usually written by reasonably well-known authors with names like Otto Von Lazerpants. When I do a google search for my name, there are 30 million results. Honestly, I’m not that popular. I’m actually shocked that there is something on the first page tangentially related to me, that being a link to LinkedIn and the 168 members it has with my name (though that could be influenced by google skewing my search results).

      One of the best forms of privacy is excessive chaff, and having a common name can provide that in abundance. Even my old friends with fairly uncommon names, the hundreds of millions of people on the internet make “uncommon name” mean “only a few hundred people with that name”, so when I look for them I’m swimming through a sea of everyone else.

      1. Tizzy says:

        I can’t help thinking that by having a common name, you’re paying your increased privacy by frequent cases of mistaken identity and becoming a nice target for id theft.

        1. MichaelG says:

          If you want some horror stories, do a background check on your name. I did that, and even with an unusual name (Goodfellow), it was scary. Registered sex offenders AND real estate agents with the same name!

          1. Tizzy says:

            Yuck! Hard to figure out which one is worst!

            1. Falcon says:

              At least there were no politicians or lawyers. We’d then have to do an old yeller on you, it’s the only humane solution.

      2. toasty says:

        To be fair, I just typed my name in and its all over. My twitter account (which I NEVER USE) is like the 3rd hit. There are several other comments i have on the walls of League of Legends Clans talking about some of the stuff they’ve posted.

      3. Dys says:

        Where can I find a book by Otto von Laserpants?!

        In fact, sod it, I’m writing a book and changing my name.

      4. TheRocketeer says:

        You know Otto, too? I love that guy! And his work is killer.

        He was right about the privacy thing, though; things got so bad he had to change his name back to ‘von Leczrepientsk.’

      5. Naota says:

        Something tells me I don’t have this particular layer of obfuscation. Of course, I do get the benefit of being able to filter out telemarketing phone calls with ease when the person on the other end reads down the list to “Mr. Zevenhuizen“, audibly winces, and inevitably flubs the pronunciation in ways previously thought impossible.

        Chances are unless you’re looking for a town in Rotterdam, you’re probably googling residents of the house of sevens.

      6. TSED says:

        I am the only person on google with my name. Middle name omitted; no results whatsoever with my middle name inside the quotation marks.

        This probably makes it sound like it’s incredibly easy to get ahold of me, but it isn’t. I don’t have a facebook, a twitter, a google plus… Basically, google proves I am still alive and well (and almost all of my hits are awesome – proof I have a black belt in a particular martial art, and my name being attached to an academic conference both presenting and organizing) but provides no way to contact me.

        If you REALLY wanted to get ahold of me, you’d be able to figure out an e-mail from the stuff involving an institute of higher learning, but you’d have to really try (and be tech-savvy enough to look into the e-mail-handing-out process *and* brave enough to try).

        In short: I rock. I have managed to maintain my privacy in the internet age while standing out in it.

        1. Alexander The 1st says:

          I have some notoriety with my pseudonym on the internet, but it brings up one person with my first and last name who ISN’T me* after a few of my posts, and one pseudonym from someone who isn’t me (I never had MySpace, and this isn’t me being in denial, I just never had one. By the time I was old enough to legally get one and care about it, Facebook caught on. Also, I never used the pseudonym at that point.), but if you search for my full (First, middle, and last) name on google with quotes around it, you get one entry. Not even a website, a .pdf from a university. That my parents went to. Proclaiming that I was born. From 1989.

          I like it that way, though I suspect it won’t stay that way forever.

          *(This is really odd – how often do two people with the same first and last name choose the SAME pseudonym? Given how many like me there are, that’s about as likely as Rutskarn using one sniper bullet in Hitmas to kill both targets [So, this is one single bullet] and collect the required evidence, without checking the radar, without getting spotted, without a “No Witnesses!” scenario, without a single movement of 47 on the map raising suspicion. I refuse to believe said other person isn’t like my alternate dimension clone who dimension travels solely to create paradoxes. Either that, or a time-traveling version of me.) And of course, neither of us are notable in history – the one who is, well…he’s a Russian Czar.

    2. Syal says:

      That’s undoubtedly helped by them knowing other members of your family, who know other members and so on down the line. When you’re looking for someone with a common name and no mutual friends it becomes a heck of a lot harder to reconnect.

  5. Nick Pitino says:

    “We're delighted to hear from her, but too irresponsible to reply.”

    …I’ve been there before…

  6. Scott Richmond says:

    Its never too late to touch base again, specially now that one could probably find the other on the internet with little effort. Do it.

  7. Epsilon Naught says:

    Just think, less than thirty years ago people were amazed by the most simplistic 3D images. Now we have fully realised nigh-photorealistic 3D worlds to murder our way through and people just complain about them being either too pretty or not pretty enough. Computers are amazing things.

    1. burningdragoon says:

      Heh, reminds me of a Louis C.K. bit that I would look up if I wasn’t at work. It was called something like ‘Everything is amazing, no one is happy’

        1. burningdragoon says:

          haha, yep that’s the one. Louis CK, you’re so funny.

    2. Fnord says:

      Graphics are no substitute for artistry. A charcoal by Degas can be more beautiful than an amateur painting or photograph, and someone with skill and vision can make something with 1980’s computer technology that looks better than a modern 3d photorealistic hack-job.

  8. Dave says:

    I love “Desert with Tank”. It reminds me of World of Tanks. I also find amusement in the pictures all being labeled like art. I know it’s a book of art, but I still find it amusing. I guess I never really think of pictures as art.

    1. X2-Eliah says:

      Myeah, but then again you can think of everything as art. Especially if you put some junk on a podium, then that’s definitely art.

      I guess you could tell that I don’t sit well with what passes for art most of the time……

    2. Dazdya says:

      A friend of mine in college told me: “If it’s useless, it’s probably art.” I’ll always remember that quote. :P

      1. Regiment says:

        Oscar Wilde, in the preface to Dorian Gray, said “All art is quite useless”. I always liked that.

  9. DoctorSatan says:

    You have quite an eventful life. Mine’s so goddamn boring. All i do is sentence people to die. That’s it. All day loong…

  10. Mom says:

    When I first heard ideas such as “computer generated art” and “computer generated music” I completely rejected such notions. Wasn’t interested in thinking about such a thing. They were too unsettling to my worldview. Even sort of related concepts like synthesizers for music were unpleasant for me to think about. My grandmother took her first airplane flight during the ’70s when she was well into her ’80s. Some of us just need time.

    1. Alexander The 1st says:

      See, now I can’t resolve your internet voice; used to be somewhat dotting with a bit of P.H.D-ness, then it picked up a hipster accent (Blame Shamus for the hipster-pagan comment <_<), and now with crotchery "Get off my lawn you whipersnappers!"-ness.

      So now I'm picturing you going "Get off my lawn, you whipersnappers, back in my day, my lawn was cool when it was cut by hand to raise my family on!"

      It's an amusing image, at least, if inaccurate, I'm guessing.

  11. ccesarano says:

    This graphic suggests that computers will be doing a considerable amount of realistic animation for future movies.

    I wouldn’t call Revenge of the Sith realistic, but…well, maybe George Lucas got hold of this book and just went a little too far with it…

    1. SolkaTruesilver says:

      Try Avatar. But cut the sound. the imagery is more realistic than the storyline.

      1. ccesarano says:

        You actually had me confused. I thought you were talking about The Last Airbender for a moment.

        I’m not sure which film annoys me more, now.

        1. SolkaTruesilver says:

          The Last Airbender.

          I am sorry, but the Last Airbender. At least, Avatar had a lot of good things going for it. It tried to give a sense of real epic to an otherwise overcliched and pretty stupid storyline.

          The Last Airbender had nothing to go its way except the Extremely Cool Fire Warships.

          1. ccesarano says:

            To be fair, Shyamalan is actually an incredible director. There were a number of moments in that film where I was just kind of slack-jawed because the cinematography and direction was so beautiful. When Ang and Kitara are out doing their sort-of-yoga practice moves in the Northern Water kingdom, and suddenly you see ash falling from the sky, that was just a beautifully shot scene.

            Too bad the writing was AWFUL, and most of the acting wasn’t far behind.

            I think M. Night needs to take a break from writing for a while and just direct.

            1. SolkaTruesilver says:

              Point. There was some good “feeling” moments, in term of effects. But yhea, the writing was lousy.

    2. Kayle says:

      Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, and its spinoff, Pixar, were at the forefront of computer animation, especially in its application to video and film animation. They were responsible for the Genesis effect sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

  12. Tizzy says:

    I am about Shamus’s age, and a couple of years after he got that book on computer graphics, I remember my mom dragging me around to computer graphics exhibits, where they would show short films that looked somewhat like these pictures.

    I regret to say that I didn’t get it back then: it never occurred to me that these images and films were proofs of concepts for bigger and better things, and that 10 years later I would start paying to see images like this in Hollywood blockbusters.

    Also: I never suspected back then how much math could be involved in getting these images.

    1. Meredith says:

      It kind of boggles my mind that people are doing art with math at all. It’s really impressive how much work goes into computer graphics (both to make and display them). All so we can have shinier pixels to shoot at. :p

  13. asterismW says:

    “This graphic suggest that computers will be doing a considerable amount of realistic animation for future movies.”

    This made me laugh. Ah, Past, you have such quaint ideas about the future.

    1. MadTinkerer says:

      Well to be fair they had no idea that the Uncanny Valley existed yet. A few seconds of movie quality computer animation could take many months, and there was no physics simulation, et cetera.

      A really good book on this is Droid Maker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. The short version: the entire computer graphics industry got a massive jumpstart thanks to George Lucas, even before Pixar was spun off into the company we know today. (There’s also a few chapters on the games division for those of us who pine for the days of Maniac Mansion and Secret of Monkey Island. Oh, and quite a lot on the making of the original Star Wars trilogy of course.)

    2. HeadHunter says:

      It actually wasn’t too far off. The Last Starfighter used a considerable (for its time) amount of CGI – it looks hokey and dated now, perhaps, but in 1984 it was amazing!

      1. Hitch says:

        The Last Starfighter wasn’t so visually impressive even back then. It still looked like the models on strings (or posts) that everything else was using for spacecraft. The impressive part was the technical innovation. The images were steadier, without the tell-tale swing or wobble, there were no give-away flaws where they had to try to hide the wires or supports holding them up, and most importantly they were done in a fraction of the time and budget of practical model effects. The great unfulfilled promise of that movie was that now they could concentrate on telling a decent story because the special effects were simple. *sigh*

        1. MichaelG says:

          Look at classic SF like “Forbidden Planet.” Even the graphics in Shamus’s book looked better than that. And those were popular films.

      2. Kayle says:

        The Last Starfighter is probably the only commercial movie whose animation was rendered on a Cray X-MP. I wonder how much they were charged for the CPU time…

  14. swenson says:

    I love reading old computing books or even just old news articles regarding computing, graphics, and videogames. (and I don’t mean the silly, uninformed hoopla the mainstream media put out, although that can be entertaining too, I mean stuff written by people who actually knew what they were talking about) A lot of it is just so… hopeful, for lack of a better word. You got your naysayers and your “640k is enough for anyone”, but there were still those people who recognized the potential computers offered. I just don’t think anyone expected the advancements to come this quickly!

    Even Ada Lovelace, years before any functioning computer was built, imagined a day when Babbage’s analytical engine could be used to create graphics or compose music. Was she ever right!

  15. Viktor says:

    “I think I’m queer.”
    One thing: I’m not sure if it was her misusing it or you misremembering, but “Queer” usually describes someone who doesn’t fit into the normal Straight/Gay/Bi boxes. It specifically doesn’t involve attraction to only one gender, which is what you seem to imply.

    1. Shamus says:

      In 1984, it meant “gay”. Those Straight/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Transexual distinctions didn’t exist yet. At least, not for people outside of that community. “Queer” was a more derogatory way of simply saying “gay”.

      1. Irridium says:

        And besides, back then didn’t “gay” mean “happy”?

        1. X2-Eliah says:

          Hey, it can still mean happy *squintingeyes*

        2. Zeta Kai says:

          It was ’84, not ’54. The word “gay” has had a long time to get its affairs in order & face the fact that just about nobody in the last 50 years has used it to simply mean happy. In 1984, “gay” meant what it means today, only there was far less acceptance of it.

  16. Jeremy says:

    I used to pore over similar books, which would always measure rendering times in terms of Vax 11/780 hours/days, which I’d attempt to convert to Sinclair Spectrum aeons.

  17. Maybe this will cheer up those who found the ending sad

  18. DGM says:

    >> “Patricia has a daughter.”

    …Named Dave, I presume.

    1. swenson says:

      Or Patricia Jr.

  19. Matt says:

    Now I really want to see Picture 234, which is “such fine work … that [it could be mistaken] for a photograph.”

  20. Amstrad says:

    Oh hey look, it’s one of millions of ‘sphere above checkerboard’ renderings we’ll get to be subjected to over the next twenty years of graphics. How quaint.

  21. Alex says:

    The whole “tracking down old friends/family online” stuff is a concept that makes me feel uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, everyone’s entitled to Google their name or their friends’ names to see how many of them are also black jazz musicians from the 1940’s or something. Boredom and curiosity are nothing to be ashamed of.

    But actually trying to determine the personal information of some dork you last talked to 10+ years ago? At what point does it stop being “getting back in touch” and start being plain old stalking? As much as I would like seeing some familiar faces again, that route would make me feel pretty dirty.

    …Also, I want to play Desert With Tank.

  22. Captain Kail says:

    After some of the terrible Daves I’ve met I’m glad you know a few good ones Shamus.

  23. Darkness says:

    My personal CGI disconnect came from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t watch it when it first came out but I heard at least 50 people go on about the ballroom scene. Finally, I went to the discount show and the ballroom scene is a standard computer graphics marble column scene. That I had seen (ouch) rendered at least a hundred different time.

    State of the Art, sure when you don’t know the state of the science, technology or the art.

  24. Neil Roy says:

    I have recently run into people I haven’t seen since the early 90s, so there is always hope. It seems like everyone that made a positive difference in my own life (and they were few and far between), that made my existence tolerable have all but vanished and I cannot track them down. I would like to see them at least once and just say thanks if nothing else. You never know the impact you may have on someone’s life by simply being kind to them.

    Here’s hoping you run into her someday.

  25. Leah says:

    I think it is fun to make pictures on the computer.

  26. Charlette says:

    I like giving people things for Christmas. I got my Mom a Christmas gift last Christmas. It’s a flower picture that I painted, with blue in the background, red flowers, and dots for the honey.

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *