I have almost never had to work on my birthday. Since it falls between Christmas and New Year's Day, I've never had to teach on my birthday, and a lot of the the companies I've worked at also decided that the last week of the year was time off.
But one year during my stay at Atari, I remember that I worked on my birthday. I did it voluntarily because I had a bug in my code.
I did not do this work because I was incredibly diligent. I did it because my brain wouldn't let me do otherwise. When I had a bug in my code, I would have these recurring dreams that looked something like the screens of numbers and symbols racing by made famous in The Matrix, but long before that film was ever made. This was my subconscious trying to be helpful.
Yo! Subconscious! STFU! This isn't helping.
When I worked at Atari, I wrote in assembly language, specifically 6502, the name of a chip designed by guys who quit Motorola en masse and made a fast little chip they sold dirt cheap to compete against their old employers and Intel. They sold theirs for $25 each when the bigger companies were selling similar products for $179. This combination of fast and cheap made the 6502 possibly the most important piece of computer technology of the late 1970's. It was the guts inside the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Atari 2600 and Atari's home computers, the 800 and 400.
Besides these real applications, it is also the brains inside the fictional robots in The Terminator and Bender in Futurama. A fine programmable tool, but clearly it makes robots anti-social. Future robot designers take note.
Well, I solved my bug as a birthday present to myself, and among the skeleton crew at Atari that day was Rick Mauer, who actually was there because he was so conscientious. Among other games, Rick designed the Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders. The original coin-op version is by the Japanese company Namco. What Rick was famous/notorious for among other programmers was making games with numerous variations. You want to play Space Invaders without shields? That's an available option. Are the early levels too slow? Rick's version would let you skip ahead to tougher levels. This meant that Rick reserved a byte in RAM for variations, and each bit in that byte was a switch that told his program how the game would be played. Nowadays, it's no skin off a programmer's nose to set up variations, but back then, we had a total of 128 bytes of RAM, and some programmers thought using a precious byte the way Rick did was wasteful. (I do not number myself among these people.) The computer you are sitting in front of has millions of bytes of RAM. Things were very different back in the day.
Conscientious or not, when the late afternoon rolled up and I asked Rick if he wanted to play backgammon, he welcomed the break. While he was not a participant in the original Scumbag-athon, Rick was certainly an Original Scumbag. Though he had a more glorious career than I did in the videogame field, I can say with no false bravado that I was a better backgammon player than Rick. We played a dollar a point, and winning a game is worth one point unless the doubling cube is involved or the game ends up as a gammon (double win) or backgammon (triple win). That day, I was whipping on Rick pretty hard. After a couple of hours, I was up $29, and Rick, not happy but resigned to the situation, decided to call it a session and pay what he owed.
"Jeez, but you're lucky!" Rick half snarled and half sighed.
"Well, it is my birthday." I said.
Rick fished a ten and a twenty out of his wallet and threw them at me. "Please! Keep the change! Happy fucking birthday!"
After I stopped laughing, I invited Rick out for a meal, my treat. But he said no. He really was conscientious, and he still had work to do.
Yay, Flags of Many Lands™! Serbia is the last large European country to visit the blog. Now the only countries I don't have are Albania and some postage stamps the size of Andorra or smaller.
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