The best things and stuff of 2020

by fogus

Great things and people that I discovered, learned, read, met, etc. in 2020. No particular ordering is implied. Not everything is new.

also: see the lists from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010

Great blog-posts / articles read

  • The Octopus: An Alien Among Usfor biology-curious goofs1 such as myself, the octopus is a fascinating example of aliens among us. no chimera was half as interesting.
  • A Conversation with Arthur Whitneycomputing luminary and designer of the A+, k, and q languages as well as an early contributor to J speaks about his life and contributions to computing and also that he never writes buggy code.
  • The True Glamour of Clarice Lispectora portrait of a brilliant author who’s characters lived and experienced life as the author experienced it. her body of work is a record of her life.
  • Mark I FORTH Computera home-brewed forth computer using discrete components.
  • Art Bell and the Eerie Joy of Late Night Radioas a college student i would often spend my nights slinging code, working proofs, and writing essays long into the night. my background sounds of choice were the dulcet tones of Art Bell, the original host of Coast to Coast AM and lover of all things weird. while most of the content of his shows were far-fetched at best, i couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities of a world that was much more interesting than the one in which i lived.
  • How is the Linux Kernel Tested?from linus’ gut to static analysis to automated testing to continuous integration to people running commands.
  • The Rise and Fall of Commercial SmalltalkAllen Wirfs-Brock responds to Gilad Bracha’s perspective on the subject, providing his own perspective in the process. interestingly what Smalltalk brought to computing was probably more important than Smalltalk itself.
  • A Constructive Look at TempleOSTempleOS is a legend in the weird world of hobby osdev and its developer Terry Davis (RIP) was as prolific as he was controversial (i.e. massively). the operating system is an altar (in more ways than one) to eccentricity and was developed with a singular focus on speed and direct hardware access. 2
  • Cemetery of Soviet Computersa retrocomputing bonanza of defunct Soviet computer systems found in a dilapidated building somewhere in Russia.
  • How SHRDLU Got Its NameTerry Winograd explains how his blocks world program SHRDLU got its name. 3
  • AI Ruined Chess, Now It’s Making the Game Beautiful Againhow AlphaZero is used to explore odd variants of Chess, finding new patterns and in some cases reducing draws dramatically.
  • Rewriting the Technical Interviewa work of beautiful madness.
  • thought leaders and chicken sexers by Zach Tellman – an essay that takes on the topic of Paul Graham head on, especially in regard to his programming language experiment Arc. computerists of a certain vintage have a complex relationship with pg in that many of his early, mostly pseudo-technical writings were inspirational. however, over time his focus has changed to that of concerns of finance and thought-leadership thus leaving many who admired his technicalish essays alienated. Zach captures the spirit of that group well in both the content of the article and its subtext.
  • I Could Do That in a Weekendif you’ve spent any time at all on the internet then you’ve likely heard the phrase “i could do that in a weekend” — the battle cry of the dickweed. Dan Luu talks about the difference between happy-paths and real work required to make modern software systems.

Most viewed blog posts by me

I’ve been trying something new over the past couple of years. That is, I’ve been posting threads and such on my Twitter with a small handful of posts here That said, there were a few high-traffic posts on my blog.

  • ToriLisp – an ersatz LISP for little birdsmy final post of 2020 turned out to be my most popular. this one described a little programming language that I created over the course of the year and the motivations behind it.
  • Six Works of Computer Science Fictionan older post that discusses computer science books describing systems that couldn’t possibly be real — except that they are!
  • Walking the Clojure Source History (a talk not given)some images of notebook pages with notes about the commit history of Clojure during its early days. the notes were in service to a conference talk that i never gave.
  • 8-bit Spiritualsa short discussion about old 8-bit programs and the gestalt of the small, yet feature-rich, in programming and some modern examples that fit this mold.4

Favorite technical books discovered (and read)

I’ve intentionally reduced the number of technical books that I consume, but there are a few that I “found” in 2020 that stood out.

  • UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernigan – this was much better than i thought it would be. regardless of how you view UNIX the anecdotes and stories are worth reading.
  • Introduction to Very Large Scale Integration Systems by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway – this book might have motivated the spread of Alan Kay’s famous quote in across the general computer landscape — ‘People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware’ — but it didn’t. certainly Conway and Mead’s seminal work is deeply influential but even still most industry folks don’t understand VLSI except superficially, myself included.
  • Lucid, the Dataflow Programming Language by William Wadge – if enjoy twisting the langdev center of your brain into a pretzel then Lucid might be your thing. the book builds to the main language from subset languages, each teaching core principles. this is a new addition to my personal CS book pantheon.
  • Footsteps In An Empty Valley issue 3 by Chen-Hanson Ting – a book that tries to make a parallel between Zen and Forth. i can’t say if the two did meet but it was an entertaining journey nonetheless.
  • Beneath Apple DOS by Don Worth – while trying to squeeze out as much performance from his Apple ][ to run his game Beneath Apple Manor, Don Worth explore the darkest recesses of his computer to find every speed hack that he could use. his findings were published in this book.

Favorite non-technical books read

  • Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan – this book has been… a challenge… to read so far, but so far I’ve found the effort worthwhile. McLuhan died in 1980, but seems to have been talking about us.
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – i had this book all wrong. you see, before 2020 i viewed it from a position of pure ignorance, tainted by prejudices. you see, in the past some of the worst people that i have known loved this book so naturally i made an association with it. couple these biases with the fact that a gloss of the story — three intermingled storylines populated by utterly broken people with the most broken of all taking center stage — seemed not worth my time. all of this said, i eventually broke down and decided to try the first chapter. well, the first motivated the second and it in turn motivated the third and so on until finally i was done. and wow was it a great book. it’s the kind of book that absolutely deserves its accolades and despite finding its place on the pedestals of the the Ignatius Reillys of the world, is a must read by lovers of literature.
  • Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich – i’ve read my share of books on the subject but what i found especially compelling about this take was its focus on most of the points along the ascent where the powers of the time could have tamped out the eventual greatest evil but refused.
  • A Classical Education: The Stuff You Wish You’d Been Taught at School by Caroline Taggart – i was [this] close to attending St. Johns College where a classical education is compulsory but since i didn’t i’ve often wondered what i missed out on. while this book is no substitution for a classical education, it does provide a nice outline for diving deeper should one be compelled to do so.
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor – like ACoDunces mentioned above, my prejudices prevented me from reading Wise Blood for far longer than I should have. however, in the case of the O’Connor classic it was the negative view by people whom i admire that kept me away. again an opportunity to buck my prejudices presented itself and as a result a pantheonic book5 was found. the book masquerades as a morality tale but lurking beneath is a nihilistic romp that’s kept me thinking for weeks after reading it. it’s stuck with me and i can’t foresee it leaving my mind any time soon.

Number of books published

0

Number of books written

0

Number of books read

lots

Favorite musicians discovered

  • Vlora nice layering of haunting guitar and persistent drones. it’s always nice to discover new “headspace music.”
  • Shakulattea blend of traditional Japanese skakuhachi music with some blues and jazz for good measure. full disclosure: Adam is a very good friend of mine but i’ve always loved his music and would listen even if i didn’t know him.
  • Dirty Knobsspecifically the “Field Recordings From The Edge Of Hell” album which is atmospheric and brooding.

Favorite show about an old dude riding trains and talking and looking at stuff

British Railway Journeys with Robert Symes

Favorite films/shows discovered

  • The Lighthousea fantastic freaking film. it’s horror in that it’s somewhat tangential to a Lovecraftian experience all the while skirting the line between myth and time. on the surface the film tells a tale of loneliness, frustration, alcoholism, and the slow slide into madness but there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.
  • Fortitudequite grim in terms of exposing the dark side of the human condition but I was in the mood for that. you have to be. It has some truly memorable characters.

Favorite games discovered

  • 18Chesapeakefor fans of 18XX games this is train-game comfort food. however, the reason that it makes the list is that if you’ve ever been (or become) curious about the 18XX genre of games then this is a very good entry point into the sub-genre.
  • Fox in the Forest Dueta chill game where you and a friend or loved one cooperate to traverse a forest path using trick-taking as a way to proceed.
  • Marvel Champions: The Card Gamenormally i wouldn’t be drawn to license games but 2020 was a weird year for gaming and so here i am. Marvel Champions is an interesting way to spend some alone time building decks, solving scenarios, and starting over and trying again. there are many expansions to the game so the possibilities moving forward will expand. i will probably keep playing even after quarantine-times end.
  • Nokosu Dicethe best trick-taking game that i’ve found in years. combines card play and dice drafting to make for a truly unique experience.
  • Top 10 Games You Can Play in Your Head, by Yourself by Theophrastus J. Bartholomew- more a set of thought exercises rather than a game per se but i found myself occupied by the ideas in the book from time to time during those essential unguarded moments.

Favorite programming languages (or related) I hacked on/with

  • Modern C++i wrote c++ for a time around 9/11 but have been out of that loop for many years. in the meantime the language has evolved to include interesting features. however, the real strength in modern c++ comes from the unbelievable boost library and exploring that angle proved to be an interesting journey. am i ready, willing, and able to jump back into c++ again — the answer to all three of these questions is a definitive NO but i enjoyed the refresher.
  • Forthi’ve always been fascinated by Forth but the fact is that there are so many variants that diving in felt daunting. however, thanks to Chen-Hanson Ting’s books i latched onto figForth as it’s designed for portability and simple enough to understand its implementation.

Programming languages used for work-related projects

  • Clojure2021 marks the 11th year6 as a full-time Clojure programmer.
  • ClojureScript
  • DatalogThe Datomic flavor of Datalog is the flavor of choice for database access, be it in-process, in the cloud, or even in the browser.

Programming languages (and related) that I hope to explore more deeply

  • Forthi’d love to dig deeper into SectorForth but figForth and/or eForth is a big draw for me.
  • Prologi may pull the post-functional programming thread to see where it leads me.
  • Common Lispthere’s so much to explore in Common Lisp that I could spend the rest of my days studying it deeply. i’ll start with one-year.

Favorite papers discovered (and read)

Here are a few that I enjoyed in 2020.

  • Systems Guide to figForth by Chen-Hanson Ting – the kernel of the figForth language is tight and a joy to read about. Ting’s paper is a nice place to start learning more.
  • Lucid – A Nonprocedural Language with Iteration by Ashcroft & Wadge – Lucid is one of those many interesting languages that emerged during the wild-west 1980s. the books explores the language and its interesting patterns of usage and these lessons are mind-bending for those of us raised on chaff.
  • JOSS – Introduction to the System Implementation by Bryan – JOSS was a pre-BASIC language that went on to influence many of the languages along its somewhat withered branch on the language tree.

Still haven’t read…

Snow Crash, A Fire upon the Deep, Don Quixote, The Contortionists Handbook and a boat-load of sci-fi

Favorite/Only technical conference attended

None

Favorite code read

  • Ludii AIthe Ludii general game system is a program that designs tabletop abstract strategy games. there’s an interesting mini-language around game descriptions and its weights and scales for measuring fitness are a lot of fun to dig into.
  • Caliperi just have a thing for units of measure conversion programs.
  • SectorForthtouches both of my osdev and langdev proclivities — a near-perfect project.
  • Ring Lispan interesting take on Lisp in that it uses a ring buffer for cons allocation instead of a garbage collector. this encourages tail-call style. the implementation is nice and clean.
  • Awficethis is the kind of project that i love exploring. the author took an idea — build a minimal office suite that works in the browser — and ran with it. every implementation works as a data url.

Life-changing technology “discovered”

  • Air fryer — I just can’t go back to frying stuff in puddles of grease.7

State of plans from 2020

  • Explore the depths of the train game genreCOVID put a kibosh on any group gaming plans in 2020.
  • Rethink and reorganize my website. — This is slow going but it is making progress.
  • At least one installment of Read-Eval-Print-λove in 2020 — Despite a lot of quarantine time I just couldn’t motivate myself to do this.
  • Resuscitate my old Clojure projects. — My pods project has been the main focus with examples and documentation filling a fair amount of time.
  • Write a paperAgain, writing has not been a primary motivation for me in 2020 so this didn’t get much further than some outline tweaks.
  • Explore more deeply the fields of Augmented Intelligence and Cybernetics – The reading lists for these fields are inexhaustible but I did manage to make a scratch on them in 2020. Much more exploration needed here.
  • Explore vintage computing systems. – I managed to get my TRS-80 Model 100 talking to a Pi that runs Clojurescript, so I’d call that a success.

Plans for 2021

  • Spend more time working on Clojure and ClojureScriptit’s been a while since i last contributed directly to Clojure and ClojureScript but 2021 offers a unique opportunity for me to jump feet first back into the guts of the language(s) and their supporting libraries.
  • Dive deeper into microcontroller programming, especially with the Teensymy son is a member of a rocketry club and is tasked with the microcontroller side of a project. he and i have had a blast learning about the target system and exploring the guts.
  • Add another entry to my personal programming languages zoo2020 saw the addition of ToriLisp so who knows what 2021 may bring.
  • Read more philosophy and mathematicsi started my academic life double majoring in math and philosophy but eventually transitioned into CS as I viewed it as a way to mix the two. unfortunately abandoning both means that what little knowledge i have had a sell-by date somewhere around WWII.
  • Get more involved with the local Old School MtG scenei played Magic: the Gathering waaaaaay back when it started and still have my cards from back in the day. it seems that old school is the only way to resurrect them.
  • Return to civilization.if the universe allows.

2021 Tech Radar

  • try: Dart
  • adopt: “Problem statements”
  • assess: Babashka
  • hold: “Modern” C++
  • stop: Rails

People who inspired me in 2020 (in no particular order)

Yuki, Keita, Shota, Craig Andera, Carin Meier, Justin Gehtland, Rich Hickey, Jenn Schiffer, Nick Bentley, Paula Gearon, Zeeshan Lakhani, Brian Goetz, David Nolen, Jeb Beich, Paul Greenhill, Kristin Looney, Andy Looney, Kurt Christensen, Chas Emerick, Stacey Abrams, Paul deGrandis, Nada Amin, Alvaro Videla, Slava Pestov, Yoko Harada, Mike Fikes, Dan De Aguiar, Christian Romney, Russ Olsen, Alex Miller, Alan Kay, Alan Watts, Elizabeth Warren, Warren Ellis, Naoko Higashide, Zach Tellman, Nate Prawdzik, Tim Good, Tim Ewald, Stu Halloway, and Michael Berstein.

Onward to 2021!

:F


  1. “biology-curious” meant to convey that I’m far below even an amateur in the field. 

  2. I came across Terry Davis many years ago when TempleOS was known as Losethos. He was an interesting person to correspond with as at the time he would often respond with incredibly long paragraphs of Markovian nonsense generated by a program he called “Word of God.” 

  3. Blocks World was a project that i did as one of my undergraduate independent studies. over the years i’ve gone back to this code writing and rewriting its guts. it’s a challenging task but not world-shattering and i find working on it better than jigsaw puzzles. 

  4. i’d like to continue pulling on this thread but it seems that the love of this ideal is not as widespread as i had hoped. 

  5. a number of things have entered my personal pantheon this year which I suppose is a shining positive in this otherwise retched year: Lucid, A Confederacy of Dunces, Wise Blood, The Lighthouse, Ludii AI, and figForth

  6. This is strictly my work-life time. My total use of Clojure has been longer. 

  7. that’s not entirely true as good tempura is one of my favorite foodstuffs in the universe.