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Letter to Maya

Published at 14:39:40-0800
Tags: correspondence, lisp, computing


Thank you for sharing Mike Hoye's "Citation Needed" (which documents the strange-but-true origin of the programming-language convention of array indices starting at zero, instead of one.)

A piece of writing born of someone's realization that nobody else has investigated this,as with "Citation Needed." Part of that magicalness comes from the novelty of the discovery, which, in the hands of a good writer, will be unfolded for the reader so that it feels like they could have discovered it, too. Another part of the magicalness is the same feeling one gets when one reads about an archaelogical or historical find from the unlikeliest of places: you mean we didn't know?! As you said in your reply, so much of computing history is being lost to time every day.

You know what else we've forgotten? Muthafuckin' Lisp Machines. Name me a computer system today that will let you go from "I'm using X" to "I'm inspecting how X operates" to "I'm extending X as it runs, in real time" to "X works, newly enhanced," where X is anything from low-level code to an app or its GUI, all in one language, with the computer patiently Listening as you explore.

Even Emacs only goes so far, and it's not an entire operating system (memes aside.) Perhaps hacking on the code which runs Jupyter notebook from inside a Jupyter notebook would feel similar, at least in terms of visibility, but Jupyter is even further from being an OS than Emacs is.

I was reminded of Lisp Machines by reading Stanislav, to whom Mike linked in "Citation Needed." Stanislav is building both custom computer architecture and an operating system, Loper OS, in accordance with his manifesto, Seven Laws of Sane Personal Computing.

The foundations of the computing systems we use are built of ossified crud, and this is a genuine crime against the human mind. How much effort (of highly ingenious people, at that) is wasted, simply because one cannot press a Halt switch and display/modify the source code of everything currently running (or otherwise present) on a machine? [...] We have allowed what could have once become the most unbridled creative endeavor known to man short of pure mathematics to become a largely janitorial trade; what could have been the greatest amplification of human intellect in all of history - comparable only to the advent of written language - is now confined to imitating and trivially improving on the major technological breakthroughs of the 19th century - the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and typewriter.

Stanislav, Shards of Lost Technology, and the Need for High-Level Architectures

A final note for you, and any other Indieweb visitors: I see Stanislav has a fragmention-like script on his page. When I selected the text for the above quotation, his site added a URL anchor which takes you right back to that location, with the text selected. One of many things that ought to come standard across all computer interfaces.