COMPUTERS IN THE MORROW PROJECT
By Paul Worzel
HTML'ized by David Little
This is a complete reproduction of the article as it appeared in SPACEGAMER / FANTASY GAMER, July/August 1988, Number 82, Pages 22-24.
COMPUTERS IN THE MORROW PROJECT (We at TimeLine are often criticized for our slowness of production. Partially this slowness is due to our extensive playtesting - we don't playtest a module just once. Partially it is due to the size of our modules - they are longer and contain more information than most other modules on the market today. But mostly it is due to the extensive research we do whenever we write something. In the case of our latest module, Prime Base, there was extensive research into equipment, design, climate, ecology, geology, group planning and dynamics, psychology, closed environment systems, etc, etc. And we always make sure that the stuff we publish makes sense. We create a history, a detailed description of how things came about, how they work or were supposed to work and what actually happened. In this way we have managed to create a world for The Morrow Project which is consistent and believable. Likewise our time travel role-playing game, Time & Time Again, exists in a world which could grow out of our own. While it is not necessary to do all of this work, we believe that it produces a higher quality product, one which we are proud to sign our names to and put our logo on. The following is a description of the Morrow Project Vehicular computer and the remote computer network MORONET along with rules for role-playing computer programming. This is material which was created early on in the writing of Prime Base but because it is of general interest, we decided to publish it here for gamemasters and teams who are not yet ready to take on the challenge of Prime Base.)
The Standard Morrow Project Vehicular Computer
Most Morrow project vehicles have an onboard vehicular computer. The main function of this computer is to provide a sort of portable reference library.
The computer itself is not based on ultrahigh technology as equipment which is at the leading edge of technology generally will not survive in the field. As a result the Morrow Project planners used "old-fashioned" but well tested computer equipment. MP vehicles use technology which was current in the early-1980s (that being the date of the last, countrywide Morrow Project equipment update). The main microprocessor chip in all Morrow Project vehicular computers was the Zilog Z-8000.
These chips were used in the cruise missile program so they had been carefully tested in the most difficult of situations. The Morrow planners knew they would not give out in most situations. (A direct hit on the computer is not a reasonable situation. The normal wear and tear of being in a vehicle is reasonable and was planned for.)
The computer was given what was a large amount of memory for the time, 256 kilobytes. Theoretically all of this space was available for the Team to use. However, to make use of it the Team will have to do one of two things: they will need to write their own programs or they will have to use available "canned" prograrms. In both cases some portion of the available memory will be used to run the program.
The computer had neither floppy disks nor Winchester disks as both were too sensitive to motion and dirt. Instead, Morrow Industries developed a special high speed, high density tape system which was better than anything available on the commercial market While it was expensive to do this, it provided a durable auxiliary storage system for the MPIV computer. Each tape is 5 inches wide, 4 inches tall and 1/2 an inch deep. They looked a lot like oversized, heavy-duty cassette tapes.
Each computer is supplied with a "library" of canned programs and information that the Team may find useful as well as a number of blank tapes which the Team can use to write programs and store information. However, the tape system is somewhat slow, and storage is limited to 256 kilobytes per tape.
In general, each vehicle has ten tapes for the computer. Every vehicle which had a computer had two tapes of canned programs available for use with the onboard computer and four tapes with data used by the canned programs. In addition, there were two tapes of utilities used for programming the computer. This left two blank tapes for the Team's use.
The following is a list of programs available for a standard MPV:
The following information is available for standard MPV (unless otherwise noted, the information is accessed by using the canned Word Processor program):
Each of these information files has a complete Table of Contents and Index file associated with them. By accessing them through the Word Processor, the Team can update the information. By use of the Database Conversion Program the Team can convert these files to a form that the Database program can use in order to allow electronic information search and retrieval. However, if this is done the database cannot be edited using the Word Processor. The first time the database is set up, the Team must “program” it either by using their programming skill to design their own database structure, or by a standard conversion which essentially uses the Table of Contents and the Index as the basis for an electronic lookup system.
The information in these files is dated 1980 or earlier. The almanac is roughly the equivalent of what you might find in an ordinary printed almanac (in other words, raw statistics and facts with no "speculative" information, typical would be population, town and city information, climate data, etc.).
The Morrow Project Equipment Reference Manuals are what they say: reference manuals for MP equipment available to the Team. These are not how-to-use/do-it manuals. They assume you know the basics of the equipment. instead, they have details which would only be useful to an experienced operator performing maintenance and repair on the equipment.
Operating The Vehicular Computer
To use the MPV computer, you must turn the computer on and insert an MPID into a slot below the computer screen. The system will check to see whether the correct program tape is inserted. If it is not, the message: INSERT OPERATING SYSTEM MASTER TAPE will appear on the computer screen. Inserting a tape is very much like putting a tape into a cassette player: you simply push the "Eject" button to open the tape drive, insert the cassette and manually close the drive.
Once the tape is inserted, or if it was in place before the computer was turned on, the system will bring up a list of canned programs with a number to the left of each entry. The user can choose from this list by entering the appropriate number on the keyboard. The computer will then load this program into memory and start it up. Once the program in question is loaded, you can put in one of the information tapes in place of the program tape. Again, a list of files which are usable by the program will appear on the screen with a number beside each one. Punching the appropriate number will open this file for use by the program and the appropriate information will appear on the screen.
When you are finished with the computer, you simply type QUIT, eject the tape and shut the system off. if you have made any changes to the information, after you type QUIT the system will ask if you want to save the information. Typing SAVE will save all changes, typing CLEAR will close the file without saving the information. Typically saving the information will take several minutes, no matter how small the changes were.
Programming Morrow Project Computers
While all MP personnel are trained to use the canned programs and files, no one who has not had some experience programming the MPV computers can expect to program them successfully. All MP personnel who have Computer Science as a degree skill (see The Morrow Project Role Playing Expansion available in the 3rd Edition MPGB and the supplement GA-2 Personal and Vehicular Basic loads) will have been given training in programming the MPV computer.
This does not mean they can automatically create working programs, even with a successful skill roll. As anyone who has tried to write a program knows, creating a working program is a long, difficult process.
Roughly speaking, most programs have the following stages of creation:
To create a successful program, a character should roll for each of these steps. They cannot go on to the next until they have successfully completed the step they are working on.
In addition, debugging a program has two distinct phases: getting the program to compile (i.e., making sure the computer has been given a set of acceptable instructions) and making sure that what you have told the computer to do is what you really want it to do! Both of these must be rolled for separately. If the attempted roll for making sure it does what you want it to do fails and is over 95% (i.e., the roll was badly blown), then the approach taken is completely wrong and the programmer must go back to the design stage and try again.
P.D. NOTE: The amount of time which must be spent on each step depends on the difficufty of the program being attempted. The P.D. must attempt to estimate the difficulty and assign a time factor for each step. In general, it is more accurate for it to take more time than less. A simple program wil take at least a day per step. A moderate one, a week per step. An exceedingly difficult one can easily take six months per step. As a good rule of thumb, the more it takes for the player to explain the program so that everyone understands what it will do, the longer it will take to create.
The steps listed above are not all strictly necessary. In particular, the specification, design and documentation steps can be omitted. However, if this is done, the following restrictions apply:
1. Programmers who omit the specification or design stages must make an additional roll in each subsequent stage for each of the steps omitted. If they fail, then they have either failed to produce what was desired or they have worked with a faulty design and must either go back to the appropriate step and try again, or may try again with the same restriction.
2. Programmers who omit the documentation stage but successfully finish the debugging step have a complete program which only they can use. They can personally train others in its use, but to do this they must successfully roll their Computer Science skill on a D100. However, if the program created is not documented, then the programmer will be in danger of forgetting how it works. In this case the programmer must make a roll equal to his Computer Science skill less 5% for each month since he last used it. Likewise, if the program is not documented, then the programmer will be less likely to be able to remember how it works and if he wants to change it, he must roll his Computer Science skill less 10% for each month since he last worked on it to see if he remembers how it was designed.
Example: Peter Programmer decides he wants to write a program which will search through the MP Equipment Files and create a cross-reference list (i.e.,. what equipment is referenced in each section). Peter further decides that since he has a 70% skill level, he can skip the design and documentation stages.
The Project Director decides the task is medium difficult and thus determines that Peter needs a week per step. Making separate rolls of 27 and 65 for the conception and specification steps, Peter has taken two weeks to get to the programming stage. He writes his program successfully with a roll of 43 and compiles it with a roll of 56. At this point he has spent four weeks on the project. However, at the end of the sth week, while in the second debugging phase, he rolls an 85 and realizes that his way just won't work.
He now has the option of trying to redesign on the spot, or returning to the design stage and going from there. Peter decides not to try any more shortcuts, returns to the design stage and through diligent work, has a working program in 5 more weeks. Being by this time very tired of this program, he does not document it and three months later, he must roll a 55 or less to remember how it works so that he can explain its use to Joe Recon.
To change the program he will need to roll a 40 or less before he remembers what he was trying to do and then he must go through the same six steps to revise the program.
P.D. Note: The above rules apply to programming all of the standard computers at Prime Base. However, there is an initial leaming period of about a month before a character with a computer science science degree skill would be familiar enough with a specific system to begin to program it. In the case of some of the unusual systems within the Base, no one would be able use them unless they had a lot of time to work on the problem (about a year) and they had the documentation available.
The Morrow Online Network (MORONET)
Communications between Morrow teams was considered vital by the Morrow Project planners. The MORONET system was designed to be a flexible remote network of variable bandwidth. This would allow a variable number of Morrow vehicles to communicate differing amounts of information both with Prime Base and with other Morrow teams via the MPV onboard computer.
The key to this computer network is the communications links between Prime Base and the rest of the country (and the rest of the world). Prime Base has the computer capacity to receive and handle up to 10,000 real-time requests simultaneously. The limiting factors in the network are the number of communications links, the amount of information which can be transferred over these links and, most importantly, the technical know-how to build and maintain the communications equipment.
The initial communication with Morrow Project teams would be by radio. No computer linkups were anticipated at this stage of the Project.
The communication satellite described in PF-06 Operation Lonestar would be the first high volume datalink to the Morrow team in the field. Once this was established, either from the Johnson Space Center or from one of the backup sites, the Project teams would be able to access the databases and computers of Prime Base but without the ability for high volume, high speed transfers typical of fullblown computer networks.
As pre-War equipment was salvaged and repaired, microwave relay stations were expected to be put back in working order by the Teams. These would provide the first high volume information links to Prime Base as they extended back to the Prime Base area and this would allow MORONET to begin operation in its true capacity. The areas serviced by MORONET would be strictly limited to those areas where microwave links were complete through to Prime Base. In addition, because of the high precision needed for such transmissions, only vehicles tied into a resupply base could make full use of the information available at Prime Base and only after the communications link was established.
The final level of communication envisioned by MORONET was planned after coast-to-coast phone communications were reestablished. It was estimated by the Morrow planners that this stage would be reached approximately 15-20 years after the War. However, because of the destruction of Prime Base, neither the communications lines nor (more importantly) the expertise to get them up and running still exist. As a result, it is not likely that this level of communications will be reached in less than 50 years after the reconstruction of Prime Base.
Once reached, this final level allows complete computer networking along with videotext and television transmission for those stations able to make use of them. The computer link provides direct access to Morrow datafiles, including pictures, audio recordings and an interactive communication network with other network members which allows the direct exchange of large volumes of information.
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