tl;dr: TRRTL.COM is my reimplementation of a Logo on-screen turtle as a CoffeeScript-backed web application
For many children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, their first exposure to computer programming may have come in the form of Logo, a general-purpose educational programming language best-known for its “turtle graphics” capabilities. By issuing commands to an on-screen – or, if they were really lucky, robotic – cursor known as a turtle, the student could draw lines and curves all over the screen (or in the case of robotic turtles: a large sheet of paper on the floor).
While our eldest and I were experimenting with programming (because, well…) a small robotic toy of hers, inspired by a book, it occurred to me that this was an experience that she might miss out on. That’s fine, of course: she doesn’t have to find the same joy in playing with Logo on an Amstrad CPC or a BBC Micro that I did… but I’d like her to be able to have the option. In fact, I figured, there’s probably a whole generation of folks who played with Logo in their childhood but haven’t really had the opportunity to use something as an adult that gives the same kind of satisfaction. And that’s the kind of thing I can fix.
If you’ve not used Logo before, give it a go. Try typing simple commands like forward 100 (steps), right 90 (degrees), and so on and you’ll find it’s a bit like an etch-a-sketch. Click the “help” icon in the corner for more commands (and shorter forms of them) as well as instructions on writing longer programs and sharing your work with the world.
And of course the whole thing is open source in the most permissive way imaginable, so if you’re of an inclination to do your own experiments with <canvas>, Progressive Web Apps, and the like, you’re welcome to borrow from me. Or if anybody wants to tag-team on making a version that uses the Web Bluetooth API to talk to a robotic turtle or to use WebRTC to make LAN “multiplayer” turtle art, I’m totally game for that.
My volunteering and academic workload for the rest of this year is likely to reduce the amount of random/weird stuff I put online, so it might get boring here for a while. Hope this tides you over in the meantime.
Every morning, Lena Forsen wakes up beneath a brass-trimmed wooden mantel clock dedicated to “The First Lady of the Internet.”
It was presented to her more than two decades ago by the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, in recognition of the pivotal—and altogether unexpected—role she played in shaping the digital world as we know it.
Among some computer engineers, Lena is a mythic figure, a mononym on par with Woz or Zuck. Whether or not you know her face, you’ve used the technology it helped create; practically every photo you’ve ever taken, every website you’ve ever visited, every meme you’ve ever shared owes some small debt to Lena. Yet today, as a 67-year-old retiree living in her native Sweden, she remains a little mystified by her own fame. “I’m just surprised that it never ends,” she told me recently.
While I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Lena “remained a mystery” until now – the article itself identifies several events she’s attended in her capacity of “first lady of the Internet” – but this is still a great article about a picture that you might have seen but never understood the significance of nor the person in front of the lens. Oh, and it’s pronounced “lee-na”; did you know?
MySpace inspired a generation of teenagers to learn how to code. We have Dark Mode now, but where did all the glitter go?
During the internet of 2006, consumer products let anyone edit CSS. It was a beautiful mess. As the internet grew up, consumer products stopped trusting their users, and the internet lost its soul.
I agree entirely with Jarred: in discouraging people from having their own web presences and in locking-down our shared social spaces online, we’re making the Web feel increasingly flat, soulless, and – dare I say is – joyless. MDX seems really cool, but I’m not yet convinced that it alone solves the underlying problem of content creators feeling that they should (or must) use dry, boring silos for the things they produce rather than their own space (in which they’d be able to express their personalities and the personality of the things they were sharing). It may well lower the barrier to producing interactive personal sites a little (as well as having other applications, I’m sure!), but we’re going to need more than that to drag people away from Facebook, Medium, Twitter and the like.
If you’re reading this post via my blog and using a desktop computer, try opening your browser’s debug console (don’t worry; I’ll wait). If you don’t know how, here’s instructions for Firefox and instructions for Chrome. Other browsers may vary. You ought to see something like this in your debugger:
What sorcery is this?
Principally, though, the console is designed for textual content and nothing else. That said, both Firefox and Chrome’s consoles permit the use of CSS to style blocks of debug output by using the %c escape sequence. For example, I could style some of a message with italic text:
>> console.log('I have some %citalic %ctext', 'font-style: italic;', ''); I have some italic text
Using CSS directives like background, then, it’s easy to see how one could embed an image into the console, and that’s been done before. Instead, though, I wanted to use the lessons I’d learned developing PicInHTML 8¾ years ago to use text and CSS (only) to render a colour picture to the console. First, I created my template image – a hackergotchi of me and an accompanying speech bubble, shrunk to a tiny size and posterised to reduce the number of colours used and saved as a PNG.
The team responsible for digital archiving had plans to spend World Digital Preservation Day running a stand in Blackwell Hall for some time before I got involved. They’d asked my department about using the Heritage Window – the Bodleian’s 15-screen video wall – to show a carousel of slides with relevant content over the course of the day. Or, they added, half-jokingly, “perhaps we could have Pong up there as it’ll be its 46th birthday?”
But I didn’t take it as a joke. I took it as a challenge.
Emulating Pong is pretty easy. Emulating Pong perfectly is pretty hard. Indeed, a lot of the challenge in the preservation of (especially digital) archives in general is in finding the best possible compromise in situations where perfect preservation is not possible. If these 8″ disks are degrading, is is acceptable to copy them onto a different medium? If this video file is unreadable in modern devices, is it acceptable to re-encode it in a contemporary format? These are the kinds of questions that digital preservation specialists have to ask themselves all the damn time.
Emulating Pong in a way that would work on the Heritage Window but be true to the original raised all kinds of complications. (Original) Pong’s aspect ratio doesn’t fit nicely on a 16:9 widescreen, much less on a 27:80 ultrawide. Like most games of its era, the speed is tied to the clock rate of the processor. And of course, it should be controlled using a “dial”.
By the time I realised that there was no way that I could thoroughly replicate the experience of the original game, I decided to take a different track. Instead, I opted to reimplement Pong. A reimplementation could stay true to the idea of Pong but serve as a jumping-off point for discussion about how the experience of playing the game may be superficially “like Pong” but that this still wasn’t an example of digital preservation.
Here’s the skinny:
A web page, displayed full-screen, contains both a <canvas> (for the game, sized appropriately for a 3 × 3 section of the video wall) and a <div> full of “slides” of static content to carousel alongside (filling a 2 × 3 section).
A pair of SNES controllers adapted for use as USB controllers which I happened to own already.
I felt that the day, event, and game were a success. A few dozen people played Pong and explored the other technology on display. Some got nostalgic about punch tape, huge floppy disks, and even mechanical calculators. Many more talked to the digital archives folks and I about the challenges and importance of digital archiving. And a good time was had by all.
I’ve open-sourced the entire thing with a super-permissive license so you can deploy it yourself (you know, on your ultrawide video wall) or adapt it as you see fit. Or if you’d just like to see it for yourself on your own computer, you can (but unless you’re using a 4K monitor you’ll probably need to use your browser’s mobile/responsive design simulator set to 3200 × 1080 to make it fit your screen). If you don’t have controllers attached, use W/S to control player 1 and the cursor keys for player 2 in a 2-player game.
By 2005, Ruby had become more popular, but it was still not a mainstream programming language. That changed with the release of Ruby on Rails. Ruby on Rails was the “killer app” for Ruby, and it did more than any other project to popularize Ruby. After the release of Ruby on Rails, interest in Ruby shot up across the board, as measured by the TIOBE language index:
It’s sometimes joked that the only programs anybody writes in Ruby are Ruby-on-Rails web applications. That makes it sound as if Ruby on Rails completely took over the Ruby community, which is only partly true. While Ruby has certainly come to be known as that language people write Rails apps in, Rails owes as much to Ruby as Ruby owes to Rails.
As an early adopter of Ruby (and Rails, when it later came along) I’ve always found that it brings me a level of joy I’ve experienced in very few other languages (and never as much). Every time I write Ruby, it takes me back to being six years old and hacking BASIC on my family’s microcomputer. Ruby, more than any other language I’ve come across, achieves the combination of instant satisfaction, minimal surprises, and solid-but-flexible object orientation. There’s so much to love about Ruby from a technical perspective, but for me: my love of it is emotional.
Now, it’s Saturday morning and you’re eager to try out what you’ve learned. One of the first things the manual teaches you how to do is change the colors on the display. You follow the instructions, pressing CTRL-9 to enter reverse type mode and then holding down the space bar to create long lines. You swap between colors using CTRL-1 through CTRL-8, reveling in your sudden new power over the TV screen.
As cool as this is, you realize it doesn’t count as programming. In order to program the computer, you learned last night, you have to speak to it in a language called BASIC. To you, BASIC seems like something out of Star Wars, but BASIC is, by 1983, almost two decades old. It was invented by two Dartmouth professors, John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz, who wanted to make computing accessible to undergraduates in the social sciences and humanities. It was widely available on minicomputers and popular in college math classes. It then became standard on microcomputers after Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote the MicroSoft BASIC interpreter for the Altair. But the manual doesn’t explain any of this and you won’t learn it for many years.
One of the first BASIC commands the manual suggests you try is the PRINT command. You type in PRINT "COMMODORE 64", slowly, since it takes you a while to find the quotation mark symbol above the 2 key. You hit RETURN and this time, instead of complaining, the computer does exactly what you told it to do and displays “COMMODORE 64” on the next line.
Now you try using the PRINT command on all sorts of different things: two numbers added together, two numbers multiplied together, even several decimal numbers. You stop typing out PRINT and instead use ?, since the manual has advised you that ? is an abbreviation for PRINT often used by expert programmers. You feel like an expert already, but then you remember that you haven’t even made it to chapter three, “Beginning BASIC Programming.”
I had an Amstrad CPC, myself, but I had friends with C64s and ZX Spectrums and – being slightly older than the author – I got the opportunity to experiment with BASIC programming on all of them (and went on to write all manner of tools on the CPC 464, 664, and 6128 models). I’m fortunate to have been able to get started in programming in an era when your first experience of writing code didn’t have to start with an examination of the different language choices nor downloading and installing some kind of interpreter or compiler: microcomputers used to just drop you at a prompt which was your interpreter! I think it’s a really valuable experience for a child to have.
From now on, when I try to engage junior programmers with the notion that they should make use of their general-purpose computers to answer questions for them… no matter how silly the question?… I’ll show them this video. It’s a moderately-concise explanation of the thought processes and programming practice involved in solving a simple, theoretical problem, and it does a great job at it.
I got into a general life slump recently, and so to try and cheer myself up more, I’ve taken up building fun projects. I joined this industry because I wanted to build things, but I found that I got so carried away with organising coding events for others, I’d not made time for myself. I started ‘Geese Games’ last year, but I only really got as far as designing a colour scheme and general layout. I got a bit intimidated by the quiz functionality, so sheepishly put it to one side. This meant that the design was already in place though, and that I couldn’t get caught up in fussing over design too much. So I figured this would be a good starting point!.
Why geese? I really like geese, and I wanted something super silly, so that I’d not end up taking it too seriously. So I intentionally made a slightly ridiculous design and picked out some pretty odd types of geese, and got stuck in. It got a bit intense; at one point I got such tech tunnel vision that I accidentally put one goose type in as ‘Great White Frontend Goose’, went around telling people that there really was such a thing as a ‘great white frontend goose and then later realised I’d actually just made a typo. Little bit awkward… But it has been good intense, and I’ve had so much fun with this project! Building it has made me pretty happy.
My friend Beverley highlights an important fact about learning to develop your skills as a software engineer: that it’s only fun if you make it fun. Side-projects, whether useful or silly, are an opportunity to expand your horizons from the comfort of your own home.
What I’d prefer would be to be able to write my logs here, on my own blog, and for my content to by syndicated via some process into the logging systems of the various silo sites I prefer. This approach is called POSSE – Publish on Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. In addition to the widely-described benefits of this syndication strategy, such a system would also make it possible for me to:
write single posts that represent the same location published on multiple silos (e.g. a visit to a geocache published on two different listing sites [e.g. 1, 2])
Applying such an tool would require some work as different silos have different acceptable content rules (geocaching.com, for example, effectively forbids mention of the existence of other geocache listing sites), but that’d theoretically be workable.
Unfortunately, content rules aren’t the only factor making PESOS – writing content into each silo and then copying it to my blog – preferable to POSSE. There’s also:
Not all of the silos offer suitable (published) APIs, and where they do, the APIs are all distinctly different.
Geocaching.com specifically forbids the use of unapproved automated robots to access the site (and almost certainly wouldn’t approve the kind of tool that would be ideal).
The siloed services are well-supported by official and third-party apps with medium-specific logic which make them the best existing way to produce logs.
Needless to say: as much as I’d have loved to POSSE my geo* logs, PESOS will do.
The second part of the plugin takes this data and creates a new draft post. My plugin is pretty opinionated on this part because it’s geared strongly towards my use-case, so if you want to use it yourself you’ll probably want to tweak the code a little (e.g. it applies specific tags and names metadata fields a particular way).
It’s not fully-automated and it’s not POSSE,but it’s “good enough” and it’s enabled me to synchronise all of my cache logs to my blog. I’ve plans to extend it to support other GPS game services to streamline my de-siloisation even further.
For those that don’t know, the skinny version is this: in May 2008 an XKCD comic was published proposing (or at least joking about) a new game with a name reminiscient of geocaching. To play the game, participants use a mathematical hashing function on the current date and the most recent Dow Jones Industrial Average opening value to generate sets of random coordinates around the globe and then try to find their way to them, hopefully experiencing adventures along the way. The nature of stock markets and hashing functions means that the coordinates for any given day are effectively random and impossible to predict (far) in advance, so it’s sometimes described as a spontaneous adventure generator.
Recently, I found myself wondering about how much of a disadvantage players are at if they live in very “wet” graticules. Residents of the Channel Islands graticule (49 -2), for example, are confined to two land masses surrounded entirely by water. And while it’s true that water hashpoints can be visited if you’re determined enough, it’s still got to be considered to be playing at a disadvantage compared to those of us lucky ones in landlocked graticules like mine (51 -1).
And because I’m me and so can’t comfortably leave a question unanswered, I wrote a program to try to answer it! It’s among the hackiest, dirtiest software solutions I’ve ever written, so if it works for you then it’s a flipping miracle. What it does is:
Extracts information about the colour of each pixel in each tile.
Counts the proportion of “water blue” pixels to other pixels (this isn’t perfect, because it trips over things like ferry lines on the map as being “not water”, especially at low zoom-levels).
I mentioned it was hacky, right?
You can try it for yourself, if you’d like. You’ll need NodeJS, wget, wc, and ImageMagick – all pretty standard or easy-to-get things on a typical Linux box. Run with node geohash-pcwater.js 51 -1, where 51 -1 is the identifier for the graticule you’re interested in. And in case you’re interested – the Swindon graticule (where I live) is about 0.68% water, but the Channel Islands graticule is closer to 93.13% water. That’s no small disadvantage: sorry, Channel Islands geohashers!
Update 2018-08-22: discovered some prior art that takes a somewhat-similar approach.
Coder wants to grow the speech-to-text coding community, uses his fun game to advocate.
Dig Dog is a pretty fun little video game. Call it “Spelunky for kids”—and don’t think of that as a backhanded compliment, either. Dig Dog, which launched Thursday on iOS, Xbox, Windows, and Mac, shaves away some of the genre’s complications, controls smoothly, and has depth. It’s as if the modern wave of randomly generated, dig-for-surprises adventures had existed in early ’80s arcades. (And all for only $3!)
I liked Dig Dog enough when I stumbled upon it at last year’s Fantastic Arcade event in Austin, Texas. But my interest in the game spiked when its creator reached out ahead of this week’s launch to confirm something I’m not sure any other video game creator has done: coding an entire game by himself… without using his hands.
Just want to play my game without reading this whole post? Play the game here – press a key, mouse button, or touch the screen to fire the thrusters, and try to land at less than 4 m/s with as much fuel left over as possible.
In 1969, when all the nerds were still excited by sending humans to the moon instead of flinging cars around the sun, the hottest video game was Rocket (or Lunar) for the PDP-8. Originally implemented in FOCAL by high school student Jim Storer and soon afterwards ported to BASIC (the other dominant language to come as standard with microcomputers), Rocket became the precursor to an entire genre of video games called “Lunar Lander games“.
The aim of these games was to land a spacecraft on the moon or similar body by controlling the thrust (and in some advanced versions, the rotation) of the engine. The spacecraft begins in freefall towards the surface and will accelerate under gravity: this can be counteracted with thrust, but engaging the engine burns through the player’s limited supply of fuel. Furthermore, using fuel lowers the total mass of the vessel (a large proportion of the mass of the Apollo landers was fuel for use in the descent stage) which reduces its inertia, giving the engine more “kick” which must be compensated for during the critical final stages. It sounds dry and maths-y, but I promise that graphical versions can usually be played entirely “by eye”.
Let’s fast-forward a little. In 1997 I enrolled to do my A-levels at what was then called Preston College, where my Computing tutor was a chap called Kevin Geldard: you can see him at 49 seconds into this hilariously low-fi video which I guess must have been originally shot on VHS despite being uploaded to YouTube in 2009. He’s an interesting chap in his own right whose contributions to my career in computing deserve their own blog post, but for the time being all you need to know is that he was the kind of geek who, like me, writes software “for fun” more often than not. Kevin owned a Psion 3 palmtop – part of a series of devices with which I also have a long history and interest – and he taught himself to program OPL by reimplementing a favourite game of his younger years on it: his take on the classic mid-70s-style graphical Lunar Lander.
My A-level computing class consisted of a competitive group of geeky lads, and we made sort-of a personal extracurricular challenge to ourselves of re-implementing Kevin’s take on Lunar Lander using Turbo Pascal, the primary language in which our class was taught. Many hours out-of-class were spent in the computer lab, tweaking and comparing our various implementations (with only ocassional breaks to play Spacy, CivNet, or my adaptation of LORD2): later, some of us would extend our competition by going on to re-re-implement in Delphi, Visual Basic, or Java, or by adding additional levels relating to orbital rendezvous or landing on other planetary bodies. I was quite proud of mine at the time: it was highly-playable, fun, and – at least on your first few goes – moderately challenging.
Always game to try old new things, and ocassionally finding time between the many things that I do to code, I decided to expand upon my recently-discovered interest in canvas coding to bring back my extracurricular Lunar Lander game of two decades ago in a modern format. My goals were:
A one-button version of a classic “straight descent only” lunar lander game (unlike my 1997 version, which had 10 engine power levels, this remake has just “on” and “off”)
An implementation based initially on real physics (although not necessarily graphically to scale)… and then adapted as necessary to give a fun/playability balance that feels good
Adapts gracefully to any device, screen resolution, and orientation with graceful degredation/progressive enhancement
You can have a go at my game right here in your web browser! The aim is to reach the ground travelling at a velocity of no more than 4 m/s with the maximum amount of fuel left over: this, if anything, is your “score”. My record is 52% of fuel remaining, but honestly anything in the 40%+ range is very good. Touch the screen (if it’s a touchscreen) or press a mouse button or any key to engage your thrusters and slow your descent.
And of course it’s all open-source, so you’re more than welcome to take it, rip it apart, learn from it, or make something better out of it.