SpaceMonger Redux, Part 2: The Project

I’ve wanted for a long time to describe in detail how SpaceMonger works. It’s been more than twenty years since I wrote SM 1.0, and there were a lot of innovations in SM 2.1 that I still really haven’t seen appear in any discussions elsewhere: I worked really hard to make SM fast and as smooth, even on the ridiculously limited computer hardware of the early 2000s.

Part of the work in making SM 2.1 was finding and using unusual algorithms that aren’t given much attention outside computer science literature — and part of that work was discovering and inventing new algorithms that, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t been published anywhere since. In this series of articles, I aim to fix that fact: It’s bothered me a lot that I’ve been hoarding some knowledge over the years, and it’s well past time that I share it.

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The House

The construction foreman stood and stared at the plans. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“Of course it is!” said Mary. “Why, what’s wrong with it?”

“Well — I’m not sure we can build this exactly as described,” he said.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, describe it again.”

Mary cleared her throat. “Look, so these are the plans for the house. They’re simple and as plain as day. Two floors, three or four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and maybe a third, and a living room, and a kitchen. The kitchen definitely needs all stainless-steel appliances, and it should be painted blue.”

The construction foreman wrinkled his brow. “What about the roof?”

“What do you mean?”

“You want a roof, right? There’s no roof in any of the plans.”

“Well, of course we want a roof,” said Mary. “I don’t want it to rain in the living room.”

“But the living room is only one storey tall.”

“What?” said Mary irritably.

“Nevermind. What kind of style and slope do you want the roof to have?”

“We don’t need to bother with those details now,” said Mary. “Just get to building. We need the house built soon.”

The construction foreman grimaced again and looked over at the architect, who had been quiet up until now. “Have you got a slope for the roof?”

“Well, they’d like it to have dormers,” he said sheepishly.

“Oh, yes, dormers!” said Mary brightly. “I forgot about those. Definitely dormers. And a chimney. The roof should have a nice line when viewed from a distance.”

“All right,” said the foreman. “I suppose we’re getting somewhere. There seem to be some erased lines here at, oh, about — I’d call that thirty degrees. Is thirty degrees what you want?”

“What does that mean?” said Mary.

“The angle of the roof.”

“I don’t care, you’re the construction expert. Don’t bother me with little details. Just build whatever you need to build, but make sure the kitchen is gray.”

“Gray? I thought you said blue.”

“Oh, well, we focus-grouped it among the family, and I forgot that gray was more popular. I rather liked the blue myself. But definitely gray. Also we need space for three refrigerators.”

The foreman blinked and looked up from the plans. “You need three refrigerators?”

“I sometimes throw parties,” said Mary, “and I need enough room to store a tray of vegetables and ranch dip.”

The foreman swallowed hard and turned back to the plans, letting the subject drop.

“What’s this?” he said, pointing at a box in the middle of the paper.

“Oh, that’s the guest house,” said Mary.

“A guest house? Inside your regular house?”

“Well, you don’t want the guests to have to go outside to visit us, now, do you?”

The foreman shook his head.

He took a deep breath. “So you want this house, as drawn, with a thirty-degree roof, three bedrooms — “

” — or four,” chimed in Mary.

” — or four,” repeated the foreman, “three bathrooms — “

” — unless they’re expensive, and then we only want two,” said Mary.

” — and a gray kitchen with three stainless steel refrigerators in it,” he finished.

“Exactly,” said Mary. “How long do you think it will take?”

“Well, it usually takes my team three to six months to build a house, depending on size and configuration and how long it takes to get the permits — “

“Oh, that won’t do!” said Mary. “We need it in six weeks for the start of spring! We’ve already invited everyone over!”

“Uh, I suppose I could hire more people, but — “

“And I need you to do it for half the cost you quoted,” said Mary. “We just had our budget cut yesterday. Something about Bill partying in the Maldives. Seems he bought a few too many drinks for some of his clients, and we’re now a few hundred thousand dollars short. But if this project goes well and comes in on time, we’ll buy all your workers pizza.”

The foreman looked down at his phone. “Sure. Six weeks for half the money, probably a roof, some rooms of uncertain number but not too many or two few, and definitely three stainless steel refrigerators.”

“Exactly!” said Mary brightly. “And if you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail. I can’t always answer, but I promise I’ll at least think about reading your messages. When do you think you can start work?”

The foreman skimmed through his calendar. “It looks like I have an opening — yes. How does the thirty-second of Octember sound?”

Come on, Syfy!

How is Sharknado vs. Polar Bear Vortex not yet a thing? It’s a 1000% awful idea! You know darned well we would all tune in with huge bowls of popcorn to watch the insanity of Bruce Campbell using a bazooka that shoots tornados of hyperevolved laser sharks to attack a swirling vortex of flying mutant polar bears. Come on, Syfy, the script writes itself!

No.

The first person to create some kind of lint tool for Smile will be shot.

I understand the “desire” to have code be “uniform,” but linting tools, automatic-formatting tools, and other such ilk are an excellent example of not understanding the problem.

There is no “one correct formatting” for source code — in any language! — and style guides just make the problem worse by making you think there is such a thing. The goal of well-written source code is to communicate to other human beingsnot the computer — the intent of the program. But intent is art, not science, and like all arts, it’s subjective. And la forme suit le fond, as the French say.

For comparison, the A.P. style guide, or the Chicago Manual of Style, tell you how you should write prose. They also disagree on really basic things. Should you use an Oxford comma, or not? Should you or shouldn’t you use contractions? Are sentence fragments ever acceptable? How long a sentence or paragraph is too long? Or too short?

e e cummings wrote his famous poetry — and his name — in all lowercase. Jesus wept is both the shortest and one of the most meaningful sentences in the Bible. Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet’s first four lines are loaded with what modern authors would consider spelling errors and a sentence fragment — “Shall I compare thee to a Summers day? / Thou art more louely and more temperate: / Rough windes to fhake the darling buds of Maie, / And Sommers leafe hath all to fhort a date…

The point is that language changes, and language is mutable. You can freely alter it to serve your purposes. Writers always have, and always will.

The same is true in programming languages, especially in a language like Smile that is itself designed to be mutated. There’s no one correct way to write anything — in any programming language. There are only ways that are easier to read than other ways — and what’s easy and pleasant to read depends heavily on your experience and background. To many inexperienced programmers, the formatting below is confusing and heresy; to more experienced programmers, this code reads like art:

switch (field.Kind) {
    case FieldKind_Primary:    flags |= INITIALIZED | BOLD;    break;
    case FieldKind_Secondary:  flags |= INITIALIZED;           break;
    case FieldKind_Disabled:   flags |= INITIALIZED | GRAYED;  break;
    case FieldKind_Password:   flags |= HIDDEN_TEXT;           break;
    case FieldKind_Hidden:                                     break;
    default:                   throw new InvalidFieldError(field.Name);
}

I could show you what that looks like after it has been through a code-formatter that would put those switch cases on three lines each, with fixed indentation, but I’m not a big fan of ruining beautiful things. Which is exactly what a linter or code-formatter would do to it.

In literature, as in any of the arts, there are always exceptions to every rule. There are reasons not just to break every rule but to beat it to a brutal, bloody death with heavy bats and spiked shoes. Of course, to break the rules properly, you must first know them, and know when to apply them, and when not to. But Picasso didn’t become famous by painting still-lifes of fruit. Monet didn’t become famous through photographic precision of people’s faces. O’Keefe didn’t become famous by painting romantic landscapes. The best artists know the rules, and then break them, establishing new rules that are then broken by the next generation.

Well-designed source code in the 1960s left extra un-punched holes on the punch card between words and numbers to make it easier to fix errors. Well-designed source code in the 1970s put broken while statements inside switch cases because of how much more efficiently it ran. Well-designed source code in the 1980s made sure to write char *x, not char* x, because of how dangerous the “more obvious” form could be. Fashions change, as requirements change, and as preferences change. Today’s “perfect formatting” is tomorrow’s “ugly punch cards.”

So stop with the linters. Stop with the code formatters. Stop making prescriptive software that exists just to enforce your opinion. Because the best code is art, and the best art could care less about your rules.

Back in JS-land…

Since there’s no longer Twitter in my life, you get to hear my tiny rants here instead.

The most useful script you’ll ever have when working with NodeJS:

rm -rf node_modules
npm cache clear --force
rm -f package-lock.json
echo crossing fingers...
npm install

Save this as npm-is-effed-again.sh. Run as often as needed. (And it’s often needed.)

I Quit Twitter

Here’s my thread explaining why I left, and why I just might not bother ever going back:

The Smile Position Paper

A Thought from a Tweet

This morning, I bumped into Paul Ford’s quote, and it was so brilliant that I just had to expand on it.  In the design of Smile I’ve thought about this for years — what matters in computation, and have I made the language focus on that? — but I think it’s worth talking about it as a position paper.  Ford hits the nail on the head:  Smile has an opinion, and it’s a strong opinion, just one that’s very different from most languages in use today.

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Syntax matters

Something that I haven’t really explained well is why I believe Smile code is shorter, better, and simpler than nearly everything else out there.  I’ve talked about it at a high level, and I’ve shown “Hello, World” and simple test programs, which are nice, but none of that really gives you the feel of coding in Smile.

So here’s an example of some unit tests written using a simple unit-test suite that I’ll be including out-of-the-box with the Smile distro.  Writing unit tests is a little closer to the day-to-day activities of Real Programmers, and it helps you to see a little better what code in a language feels like:

#include "testing"

tests for the arithmetic unit {

    it should add small numbers {
        x = 5 + 7
        assert x == 12
    }

    check the boundary conditions {
        x = 5 + 7
        assert x != 0 (adding positive numbers should never produce zero)
    }
}

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I’m still doing things

It’s been a while.

The credulity of my tagline — where I’m still writing but you’re not reading — seems to be a bit stretched lately, as it’s been months since I last posted anything about anything.  That’s not for a lack of interesting things to write about, but mostly for a lack of time in which to do it:  I most often think of things to say while driving to or from work, or while lying in bed at night having spent my evening feeding and cleaning up after small children, and neither scenario is especially conducive to posting on one’s blog.  Even when I do get a little private time, I tend to spend it working on Smile, rather than posting here about Smile, which doesn’t especially help with anybody else knowing what’s going on with it.

So let’s talk about Smile.

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