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Around the Valley

'We're using C language, which is pretty cryptic.'

September 10, 1986|DOUG SMITH

The Valley can be a schizophrenic place, as evidenced by the corner in Canoga Park where Eton Avenue meets Vanowen Street across from Jacobi Building Materials.

Every day immigrant men mill about there waiting for day labor with the landscapers and builders whose trucks emerge from Jacobi's dirt lot laden with boulders and cinder blocks.

This scene impressed me with its timeless earthiness as I turned the corner on my way to the Warner Business Park half a block up Eton Avenue.

The crisp new park forms a kind of city in itself, an enclave of factories where, one can only suppose, high technology goods are turned out in rooms without any windows to the rhythm of computer keyboards.

My destination there was Blue Chip Software. I hoped to learn how computer software is made, a challenging task. Like most people, even though I use computers, I hardly understand what computer software is.

To make things easy, I looked up a company that produces something easy to grasp, in this case the floppy disks that slide into an Apple or an IBM to create a world of fantasy and imagination on the screen.

Not long ago, according to computer lore, such games were created by reclusive, brainy people who labored alone at suburban kitchen tables or in cabins in the country.

Recently the industry has grown sophisticated and is increasingly the realm of people like Robert Slapin, president and one-third owner of Blue Chip.

Slapin gave up the legal profession four years ago and, with a computer programmer named Jim Zuber and a third investor, went into business to make computer games.

Their idea, as old as Monopoly, was to turn the business of making money into fun. The computer could make the game very much like real life.

Their first product, called "Millionaire," contains the actual performance of a number of companies on the New York Stock Exchange over a several-month period. The player starts with a stake and tries to make a million. The game tells him how he actually would have done.

"It's fun without frivolity," Slapin said.

Slapin, at 42, is a no-frills person himself.

With longish black hair and an open-necked dress shirt, his appearance suggests a sly nonconformity. He works in a utilitarian office whose only distinguishing feature is a display of dozens of magazine covers framed in plastic and hung on the walls. Each one represents a mention of his products in the popular media.

That is the environment, it turns out, in which much of the work on a computer program is done.

The task begins with a gathering of the company's sales, marketing, public relations and research and development heads who constitute most of Blue Chip's six employees, Slapin said.

They decide on the concept and write an outline. Then, using another software company's program, they put that outline into screen displays that give a sense of playing the game even though there is no game yet.

"There is absolutely no code written," Slapin said. "It's a slide show. What you do by pressing keys is select which slides to show. It looks exactly like it's real."

The company sends the shadow game out to past customers for comment and follows any suggestions they think will improve the game's marketability.

Finally, several months into the process, two programmers in a windowless back room receive the program design and specifications for the code and go to work, one small piece at a time.

"You have to break it down into manageable chunks," said one of the programmers, Sandra Lakin, a 33-year-old graduate of MIT in aerospace engineering.

Each box in the design, representing one of those manageable chunks, may consist of about 4,000 numbers and letters of computer language and take Lakin three or four days to complete.

At its best, Lakin's writing is not rich in literal meaning.

"We're using C language, which is pretty cryptic, really," she said.

One of her toughest assignments for a new stock exchange game was to create what stock analysts call trend lines on a graph of a company's stock price performance.

"One of the things stock brokers like to do, which I don't know why, is to make little lines like these, to show trends," she said, pressing keys to move several lines around a graph on her screen. "These little sets of lines were very hard."

To show what she meant, Lakin printed the program that made them move.

A part of it went like this:

hlocate (60, 66);

if (grafstuf.graf(which).what == -3)

hprintf (ffmts(1), (long)value);

else

hprintf (ffmts(2), value / 16.0);

Before she came to Blue Chip, Lakin spent five years at Rocketdyne and seldom had the opportunity to write like that, she said.

Mostly she was working in stodgy FORTRAN, laboring to keep giant old programs alive, she said. Now she's much happier in C.

Lakin had work to do, so I left her and the language of C. And, half a block away, I rejoined a world I know better, where the language of si is still spoken.

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