Wing Commander and retro gaming

Wing Commander came out in 1990 and, along with Doom, was one of the first great PC action games. The game required a 12 MHz CPU, 640 KB RAM and supported 256 color VGA graphics at 640×480. I played it on a 386 25 Mhz. It’s been a long time and I’m no longer sure about this, but I believe that I bought a sound card and joystick mostly for this game and Wing Commander II.

During the latest GOG sale, I re-purchased the whole series of games for $14. The game will still play on a modern computer mostly thanks to DOSBox which is software that emulates an old PC running DOS. Playing games in DOS was not quite as simple as gaming today and I remember struggling with the MS-DOS extended memory manager (EMM386.SYS) so that the game could use all of my 2 MB of memory. DOSBox and GOG hides all of that and the game runs with minimal effort.

Playing Wing Commander on my modern computer (i5-8600K, 16GB, Windows 10, 4K display) is a reminder of how much computers have improved in the last 27 years. Here is the game running in a 640×480 window on my desktop:

It is a little hard to see, but the game, running in a emulator, is taking 0.9% of my CPU and 0.4% of my memory. 640×480 is 4% of my 4K screen. In most ways, computers today are 100-1000x better than computers in 1990, so this shouldn’t really be a surprise.

One thing that I’ve really enjoyed about playing Wing Commander again is using the Roland MT-32 sound. The earliest PCs just had a PC speaker which could play a single (square wave) tone at a time. My first computer was a Tandy, and one of its big advantages was that it had a three tone speaker. A few years later, you could buy dedicated sound cards from Adlib or Soundblaster. These had multiple channels and could play 8 bit (square wave is on/off, 8 bit allowed 256 levels) sound. The Roland MT-32 was the holy grail of sound quality at the time (and at $550 it was much to expensive for me to justify). It is a MIDI playback device and had built in high quality samples of instruments that the software could play. So for the game, it was kind of like providing sheet music to the Roland.

Today there is an emulator for the Roland MT-32 called Munt which  supports DOSBox. Here is a video comparing the sound quality of Wing Commander II with the Roland and a high end Sound Blaster card.

4K Touch Table project

We built a new touch table last year. We had three main goals with this project:

  1. A larger table to give players a bit more room – especially for our 7+ player games.
  2. A 4K screen to make our game’s graphics look better.
  3. A table that is easy to disassemble and transport.

This project was quite a bit harder and took much longer than we had anticipated, but it is finally done!

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Year in Review – 2017

2017 didn’t feel as busy as the last couple years have been. We didn’t have any trips that required a lot of planning like in 2015, and I created fewer touch table games than in 2016.


We spent March in San Carlos. We spent a lot of time reading, went to the beach regularly and ate a lot of good food. It was a very relaxing trip. We also got a gym membership and went most days. We took a lot of walks and a couple hikes, one in Nacapule canyon and another to the top of Tetekawi peak. The Tetekawi hike was challenging; we got a very early start, but it was still a hot, difficult climb.

I enjoyed this trip more than I expected to. I was worried that I would run out of things to do and be bored. But it was nice for the month. Life just had a slower pace- like actually being retired. If we were going to spend longer there, I’d bring a computer to use for programming. On the way back from Mexico, we went to the White Sands Monument.

In August we spent a week in Montreal with my brother’s family and my parents. I enjoyed the city and spending time with my family. We went to Notre Dame, the Archeology Museum, the Biodome and Botanical Gardens. We ate out at “Au Pied de Cochon” (Foot of the Pig) where we had some of the richest, fattiest food I’ve ever eaten.

We got back from Montreal just in time for the solar eclipse. We drove a few hours north with a group of friends to get into the total eclipse path. The eclipse was spectacular and well worth the awful drive home. I’m definitely planning to see the next one that crosses America in 2024. The atmosphere at the park was interesting. People were a bit more nerdy and friendly than usual. When totality happened people cheered, shouted and let out exclamations of surprise. I was shocked by how much the temperature dropped and how crazy bright even a tiny sliver of the sun is.


I made three games for the touch table this year. Village and Broom Service were standard board game conversion projects. I enjoyed both and am getting more comfortable adding slightly nicer graphics, sound and animations to my games.

I also created a tutorial about how I convert board games for the touch table. I made a series of blog entries and accompanying YouTube videos describing the process. For the tutorial, I converted a very simple board game called No Thanks. The tutorial took a lot of time and I probably spent more time creating it than people will spend reading and watching it.

When we first retired, I wrote software to simulate our finances and predict if we had enough money saved. This fall I spent time updating that software to be more robust and user friendly with the plan to release it. I finished it right at the end of the year and released it as SimRetirement.

Bill made several games for the touch table this year:

  • Murderdrome – A real time robot programming game
  • Nexus – A conversion of a competitive strategy card game
  • Starship Factory 2 – A conversion and re-theming of “The Builders”
  • Fighter’s Empire – A cooperative space combat action game.
  • Dungeon Raiders 3 The Escape – A conversion of the real time board game Escape: The Curse of the Temple


I played a few computer games this year: Doom, Cities Skylines, South Park, The Witcher 3,, Stellaris, Infinifactory, Stardew Valley, and Ashes of the Singularity. I’ve had a harder time getting into computer games lately and haven’t spent as much time playing them as I used to.

2017 was also an inventory year. Every four years we take a full inventory of all the stuff we own. It takes a while to update the inventory because we take pictures of everything new. It is kind of fun to see what has changed and the photos are surprisingly interesting to look at after several years.

I sold my Insight, so we are down to one car. So far it hasn’t been too inconvenient.

We built a new 55″ 4K touch table. Building the table took a lot longer than we expected it to. Every part of the process had issues. The bezel on the TV didn’t look very big, but it was big enough to make it hard to quickly tap multiple times. Fortunately Bill was able to take the TV apart and remove it. We also struggled to get reds to display properly which turned out to be a flaw in the old video card I was trying to use. We bought the touch frame from the same company that we used for our first table; but we had lots of problems getting the touch working well. We spent many hours working with the company’s tech support to get the frame to not have any dead spots and also not detect extra touches. For the enclosure, we wanted a flat pack table like the ones Mesa Mundi demoed at PAX. After contacting at least five different CnC design companies in town, Bill finally found someone through Craigslist who was able to do the design and cutting. We’d intended to have the new table built shortly after returning from Mexico in April and we finally got everything working early December.

Bill created an in-home puzzle room for me and our friends, The puzzle room was a huge amount of work that provided a very exciting hour of problem and puzzle solving. It was a great success: the puzzles were a good difficulty, we were never stuck for long and there were enough different things to keep everyone occupied.

When we got back from San Carlos I got a gym membership and have been exercising most days. I’ve had more energy, had an easier time sleeping and possibly been a little happier.

I’m still playing violin. I spent most of 2017 working on pieces in Suzuki book 7 trying to play them at full speed. In 2018 I hope to make it through Suzuki book 9.

SimRetirement update and release

When I quit my job in 2011 I wrote a program to simulate retirement and give me a feel for the odds that we would be able to survive on the money we’d saved. The program used a Monte Carlo approach to simulate thousands of possible market scenarios and had logic for how we would spend money, collect social security, pay taxes, etc. At the time the program said that we had an 85% chance of outliving our money. That was good enough to quit; knowing that we could go back to work if we had to.

Since writing that program I’ve come back to it every few years to put in more recent data and make improvements. Once my spouse and I got married, I took out a bunch of code that split expenses and taxes between the two of us.

A few months ago I decided to give the program a full makeover and add features to make it useful to more people. The original program was very specific to our situation and didn’t handle account types, expenses, and investments that we didn’t have. Along with adding new features, I needed to make the program much more user friendly and error tolerant.

I’ve completed this project, and the program (and source) are available for download. It still doesn’t handle nearly as many situations as I’d like, and it has very little support for people who are still working, but it is good enough to release.

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Ending my beef ban

Some time ago (maybe 2004-2006), I decided to stop eating beef and pork. There were several reasons; the treatment of animals, the effect of red meat on my health, and the effect of meat production on the environment. For beef, I was also concerned about mad cow disease. And for pork, I was concerned about intelligent pigs.

I’ve made some exceptions over the years (mostly at nice restaurants), but for the most part I have stuck with my ban. In fact, I’ve ended up being a little more strict than I’d originally intended – mostly because it is easier to have a hard-and-fast rule than to always have to make a decision.

I’m still not going to eat pork, but, in my opinion, the health effects of eating beef have become less clear. Mad cow disease hasn’t been a problem in the US, and the negative effects of saturated fat may have been overstated.

Even with that new information, my other reasons for excluding beef are still enough for me to avoid eating beef at home (a hamburger creates the same amount of greenhouse gas as a chicken sandwich plus burning a quarter gallon of gas).

Beef production releases 27 lb CO2 equivalent per lb of meat (includes CO2 from fertilizer and transport of grain to feed the cow plus the methane the cow produces). Chicken produces 7 lb CO2 equivalent per lb of meat. So a quarter-pounder generates 5 lb more CO2 than a 4 oz chicken sandwich. Burning a gallon of gas produces 20 lb of CO2.
Along with the greenhouse gas difference, a pound of beef requires an extra 1500 gallons of water and 28 times as much land as chicken.
Switching to a vegi-burger probably doesn’t save much. Beans and grains are only 2-3 lb of CO2 per pound of food, but the extra effort to make and package the vegi-burger reduces that savings.

But while I wont be eating much beef, I no longer feel like it is worth avoiding altogether. I will order beef at restaurants where there aren’t other good options. And I will eat beef at friend’s houses. I never wanted my beef/pork ban to be an inconvenience for friends, and hopefully this change will make it a bit easier.

Summer trips

We made two trips this summer. One to Montreal with my family and one to Wyoming to see the eclipse. Photo galleries: Montreal Eclipse

We went to Montreal in mid-August and stayed near Mont Royal in an apartment through airBnB. Montreal is a nice city, but the main point of the trip was to spend time with my family and see my niece and nephew. The apartment worked well for having time with the kids and for take-out meals and breakfasts. One morning my sister-in-law brought back pasteries (Kouing Aman I think?) that were incredible. My favorite site was the cathedral. It was built in the 1820s in the Gothic style. It has a blue color scheme and some nice wooden sculptures.

A few days after getting back from Montreal, we went to Wyoming to see the total eclipse. We didn’t plan far enough ahead to have a hotel room so we left at 3am from Denver and arrived at Glendo state park (without too much traffic) at 7am. The park was nice and we spent quite a bit of time walking around. The eclipse itself was spectacular and something that I still think about two months later. I’m definitely planning to see the next one in America in 2024. Unfortunately, the drive back from the eclipse was awful. Traffic in the park didn’t move at all for a couple hours. We actually waited till 6pm to leave and the 3 hour drive took 6 hours. Next time I am going to plan much further ahead and get a hotel.

Violin progress

I started learning violin in May 2009 and took lessons from September 2009 through July 2015. My violin instructor had me work on the material in the Suzuki books (while not really using the full Suzuki method). In June 2012 I had my first recital. At this point I was in Suzuki book 7 and had practiced for 1900 hours. I made a blog post about the recital and my progress and you can watch a video:

After stopping lessons two years ago, I’ve been going back through the Suzuki books trying to play the pieces with more polish and at the correct speed. I’ve gotten back to the piece I played at my first recital. I’ve practiced violin for 4400 hours now and I’ve worked on this piece for three months and have not yet been able to play it at full speed. I’m planning to keep working on it and might update this post if I do get it up to full speed.

Here is a video of a practice run. This doesn’t have the piano accompaniment, is out of focus and has a few errors, but it shows the difference between now and five years ago.

It is a bit strange listening to the difference. From my perspective while playing, it doesn’t feel like I am playing any faster than I was five years ago. That sounds crazy, and of course there are some things that do feel very different, but the feeling of doing something just as fast as I can without losing control is the same now playing at 100 bpm as it was five years ago playing at 65 bpm.

For reference, here is a professional recording of the piece:

This is about 10% faster than I can play it, and I also need to clean up a few of the fast runs before I am satisfied.

Year in Review – 2016

Overall 2016 was a good year for us. We remain healthy and are enjoying making touch table games. We did less traveling than we did in 2015, but we made more games. We went to New York to visit my brother and his two kids. We also took a trip to San Carlos with our friend Doug. Between the two of us, we made 13 games for the touch table bringing our total to 62. I am still playing violin and got a new five string electric violin this year.

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50’s Era Hit Parader Magazine

I was going through some of my Grandmother’s old magazines and thought I’d scan a couple of issues of “Hit Parader” so that I could share them.

Hit Parader was a popular music magazine that was published from 1942 – 2008. In the 80’s they switched their focus to metal music.

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