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Make software simple again

There's a commentary section that follows the list, read it for purpose/background on this article. If you have suggestions, please contact me or send a github PR for this page.

The List

Consolidating implementation effort

The following sections highlight ideas that make it simpler to create and inspect software systems.

Fielding et al, Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures

Roy Fielding's disseration on the design of networked applications and RESTful architecture. Gives context to the design of modern hypermedia systems, HTTP, the web and applications we build on top of it.

htmx

Library that implements a modern hypermedia client in any web browser, rather than writing a different one every time you make a webapp.

Rich Hickey on REPLs

REPLs aren't just about evaluating code interactively, they're a well-defined entrypoint for the programmer to modify and inspect a system. The ceremony is well-organized and specifically tailored to this purpose, you send data to the program, the program evaluates it, and you get data back. Also see the linked talk by Nada Amin, which evaluates this concept from the perspective of implementing languages.

Cosmopolitan LibC

Cosmo is a gargantuan effort to create a C library that can target multiple platforms at once in a single binary. It has one abstraction over the system layer that largely emulates the amd64 ABI for Linux, meaning that most applications made for Linux can run natively on any major operating system. It also bundles necessary functions for common tasks like HTTP servers or multimedia manipulation. Redbean is a small application server linked against cosmo that provides the equivalent of a full LAMP stack in one program, one executable file that is your entire application, with its code and database state.

Forth metacompilation

Forth is a very small programming language, phrased more as an abstract stack machine. The machine executes words, which are procedures that manipulate data on a shared stack. Typically the machine is defined in terms of primitive words, implemented in native machine code. Forth metacompilers allow for this abstract machine to be defined in Forth itself, creating a very tight loop for designing other Forth systems.

Bootstrapping the Forth language from a 3-instruction interpreter

From Frank Sergeant. Essentially describes a generic protocol for a machine code monitor over a serial port. Using only peek, poke, and essentially a CALL instruction, a full Forth machine can be implemented on the target from any programming language.

Prior art

Well-executed attempts at creating a cohesive software development system

The Self Programming Language (Java and Javascript's Dad)

Self was the breeding ground for what eventually became the JVM platform and Javascript's prototypal object system. It was a pioneer in language VM implementation, aiming to create an entire development environment and runtime in the same programming language.

Genera and S-Graphics

A complete 3D and compositing solution all running on a Symbolics Lisp Machine. Later became the software basis for SGI and its many licensed development kits.

Steel Bank Common Lisp

Common Lisp implementation written in itself, build process can almost skip a C compiler.

Oberon

A complete operating system implemented in a Pascal-like language. All interactions with the system are done thru rich text documents that can embed programs and various objects. Running code is as simple as clicking a hyperlink.

BTRON

A core component of Japan's TRON computer platform, was meant to be a programming environment working on the scale of the web. All resources were presented as inspectable objects, much like Smalltalk. These could represent simple data, hypermedia documents, remote machines, or collections of other objects.

PygmyForth

A complete Forth system for DOS that can recompile itself. Includes facilities for interactive development and debugging.

SmithForth

A Forth 2012 compliant system implemented in legible amd64 machine code. The interpreter bootstraps from a byte-delimited read-protocol, which defines the primitive Forth words directly in machine code. After startup, a full Forth system can be used to compile and run code interactively.

JonesForth

Forth implemented in x86 assembler, complete with inline documentation and diagrams explaining how it works.

Cool stuff happening today

Unix haters

And they're right

Stop Writing Dead Programs

Replacing the UNIX tradition

My bad, ill-advised opinions

This article is an annotated reading list that tracks tools for better understanding how software is made and run on machines. It will be loaded with a lot of my own wacky opinions of how bad software and computers are, since it is my main motivation for constantly looking for more of these materials.

More specifically, I want to understand why the engineering distance between a machine and the practical applications it performs is so inordinately large. We have excellent, high-level programming languages with appropriate primitives to build world-scale systems, but God forbid you want to talk to a graphics device and have it do a cool trick you just thought up, or create your own programming language, or any number of applications that involve negotiating with some platform.

Smalltalk, all the way back in the 1980s, did solve all the problems related to bootstrapping a complete programming system from bare metal, and you could inspect any layer of that solution with the same exact tools you use to write applications. Why can't we do that today? Why can't we create a closed abstraction of a machine that any platform or language can use?

I lay the blame with our development tools being inadequate for understanding a complete system as a whole, from hardware & platforms to the software that runs on them. Any programmer should be able to spend an afternoon in any programming language and be able to have a small kernel program that can file your taxes and send HTTP requests on nearly anything that can run code. However, we often get stuck in what is the right language not for the application we are making, but rather how this language can eventually target some CPU, operating system, VM hypervisor, container framework, web browser, game console, and so on. Even when you do have merely adequate tools for development, they often grow legs and run far away from your language of choice, ask you to suffer hours of tutorials or documentation that doesn't generalize, or bring all their 50+ year old friends to give you some light reading.

Considering our platform is a fine problem to have, but in the end it shouldn't be something that restricts our ability to use the right tool for the problem we're trying to solve. Platforms offer us primitives to run code, languages arrange those primitives into useful tools for solving problems. Programming languages should offer us the ability to solve both our application and platform-related problems in a generic way. Despite this, we settle for worse is better and have bespoke, cryptic and non-portable solutions for abstracting over platforms. See the demand for win32 emulation, Valve basically adopting the WINE project, the C programming language being unable to die, and the success of Docker for evidence of platforms being more than platforms.

Even the conceptual machines we build on top of the real ones don't make our programs easier to comprehend. Often they ignore years of research work, or they haphazardly cherry pick features for some particular reason (often not good reasons) to the detriment of the overall system being transparent to the person who works with it.

I enjoy masochistically pretending I can do something about all of this, so I spend a lot of time messing with compilers and other such tools to see how we can simplify the process of making great applications. This list documents some of the resources I've collected to gain some insight on this issue and prior attempts at making better tools for software development.

Date: 2023-09-01 Fri 00:00

Created: 2024-01-18 Thu 21:58

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