Low-effort Retrocomputing

So the other day, I wondered if anyone had put up pre-installed disk images for any of the really old Linux distros. I found installation media at archive.org and this blog post. with (excellent) instructions on how to do it, but nobody had done the work (so I wouldn't have to) and put it up for download.

So I took a run at it and installed Slackware 3.0 (from 1995) on a QEMU disk image:

Screenshot of the Slackware 3.0 disk configurator

You can download it here. The archive's sha256 hash is


(Please be considerate of my bandwidth.)

The image has two accounts: root and a user account named bob; both have the password slack. It boots into X11 but you can get to a text console by pressing Ctrl+Alt+1 if you need to. Note that the console's termcap seems to be a bit messed up.

Networking works, but there's no web browser or ssh client. There's a C compiler though (I installed everything) so you should be able to build period-appropriate ssh from sources if you need to. There are also Linux builds of Netscape 3 on the 'net, although I have no idea if they'll run on Slackware.

Configuring X took some hand-fiddling. You can see my work in /etc/XF86Config and compare it to the original generated config file /etc/XF86Config.orig if you want.

Anyway, feel free to download and play with it if you're curious or nostalgic or want to do pre-1995-tech dev jam.

#   Posted 2023-01-19 16:43:08 UTC; last changed 2023-01-19 16:46:42 UTC

Your Sucks Programming Language Favourite

Much to my chagrin, I've found myself lately becoming a defender of C++. People who a) know me and b) appreciate irony should feel free to smirk right about now.

To be fair, modern C++ has improved significantly, reaching rarified hights of not-badness only dreamed of fifteen years ago. But that's kind of beside the point. When you choose a programming language for a project, the quality of the language itself is often less important than external stuff; the quality of available implementations, tools, research, etc.

If I'm going to bet my (hypothetical) business on investing a zillion dollars to write a program that I can then sell, I want to know that:

  1. The development tools aren't going to rot or disappear because the vendor lost interest (e.g. Visual Basic).
  2. I'll be able to hire skilled developers whenever I need to.
  3. Good quality tools, books, training, etc. will all be available when I need them.

(And as a developer, I want to bet my non-hypothetical livelihood on developing the skills that are most likely to keep me employed. Being a really badass Haskell programmer doesn't really do much for my job search1.)

So let's concede that Rust (for example) is a better language than C++. C++ will still be a better choice for most commercial ventures in that space because it has:

  1. Multiple high-quality implementations, two of which are FOSS2
  2. A huge selection of high-quality third-party tools
  3. An enormous community of developers with whom you can exchange knowledge
  4. A literal half-century of concerted research on how to use it effectively

C++ sucks in a variety of ways but we know exactly how it sucks and how to work around it. Rust's suckage is still unknown, and I want the thing that keeps me from being homeless3 to have a really good track record.

And this principle applies to Scala-vs-Java, Zig-vs-C, Haskell-vs-anything, anything-please-anything-vs-PHP or any other language debate. $FAVORITE_LANGUAGE may be a better language than $CHOSEN_LANGUAGE but that doesn't mean it's going to get the job done better, faster, cheaper or more reliably. All of that depends on the entirety of the language's ecosystem.

Note that I'm not saying don't use $FAVORITE_LANGUAGE. Just be aware of what's riding on that decision. For a hobby project or an in-house tool that took a month to write, it's going to be fine. But for the hundred person-year project the business depends on? I mean, I'd really like $FAVORITE_LANGUAGE to be viable in ten years but I'm not going to bet the mortgage on it.

Also, you should go out and learn all kinds of programming languages--especially wierd ones that will never fly in Industry--because it will make you a better programmer. I got a lot of benefit as a C programmer from asking myself, How would I do this in Smalltalk?

I'm a programming language nerd. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how languages work and how they make people think about programming. I learn new languages for fun and I've designed and implemented several. So I absolutely get the desire to use better languages and the frustration of having to deal with the broken status quo. In a perfect world, we'd all be using Smalltalk.

Unfortunately, our world is fallen and so C++ is a necessary evil.

  1. Okay, that's an exaggeration. A good hiring process will recognize that Haskell skills are often transferable to whatever the company is using. Unfortunately, a lot of otherwise-fine employers have terrible hiring processes and will reject any résumé not listing the exact version of their preferred web framework. As those companies have money they will exchange for relatively pleasant work, I would like to retain the option of working there. 

  2. But if $FAVORITE_LANGUAGE is FOSS, that means it will be available forever! No, not really. If nobody else is working on it, you'll find yourself having to maintain the toolchain by yourself. At that point, it's almost always easier to just rewrite your program in something else. 

  3. Yeah, yeah, I know; the real problem is Capitalism. 

#   Posted 2021-07-04 17:16:50 UTC; last changed 2021-07-04 18:09:16 UTC

Getting the Singleton Class of a BasicObject in Ruby

Ruby objects provide the method singleton_class which returns the object's singleton class. Unfortunately, BasicObject doesn't have this because it's Object's superclass. So to get it, we need to be somewhat clever.

And having spent way too much time figuring out how to do this, I'm writing it here so a) that I don't lose it again and b) so that others will have less trouble than me. (I'm not on Medium so, um, hello from the fourth page of your Google search results.)

TL; DR, How do I do it?

In an instance, you'd do something like this:

obj = BasicObject.new
obj.instance_exec(obj) {
  class << self
    lself = self
    self.define_method(:my_singleton_class) { lself }

Notice how I copy self to lself on line 4. That's because self will have changed when the method is called but the block that forms the body of my_singleton_class captures the local variable.

Also: this won't work on Ruby versions from sometime before 2.7 because define_method is private before then; see your version's Module documentation for define_method for a hacky workaround if it's too old.

Doing this with a BasicObject subclass is even simpler:

class Thingy < BasicObject
  def my_singleton_class
    class << self
      return self

What's it good for?

Any case where you want an object to handle a method call by doing something other than call a method. For example, a DSL or a proxy object that forwards the call to something else.

Typically, you'd create a class with no methods, then implement method_missing to catch the failing method lookups and do the right thing with them.

class Proxy
  def initialize(target) @target = target;   end
  def method_missing(name, args)
    log "Called #{name} with #{args}"
    return @target.send(name, args)

BasicObject is the ideal base class for this because it has very few methods but if that's not enough–if you need to get rid of those few as well–you can always override (most of) them with a method that calls method_missing directly. This is straightforward when creating a subclass but there are times when it's necessary or easier to add methods to the object instead, and for that you need to get the singleton class.

In my case, I'm writing a DSL where every method whose name starts with a letter is valid; this means they all need to turn into calls to method_missing.

(Handling the case where the user uses method_missing as a name in the DSL is left as an exercise to the reader.)

What's a singleton class anyway?

So normally in OOP, an object is an instance of a class and this is the case with Ruby as well:

[]                          # => []
[].class                    # => Array
[].class.class              # => Class

But, when Ruby creates an object from a class, it also first creates another anonymous class called the singleton class. This gets inserted in the new object's inheritance heirarchy: that is, the singleton class becomes a subclass of the new object's class and the object becomes an instance of the singleton instead of the original class.

x = []                          # => []
x.class                         # => Array
x.singleton_class               # => #<Class:#<Array:0x00007fbc862d41b0>>
x.singleton_class.superclass    # => Array

This is how you can add methods to individual Ruby objects: you're actually defining them in the object's singleton class.

Fun fact: singleton classes are also objects and thus have their own singleton classes:

    # => #<Class:#<Array:0x00007fbc869b0060>>
    # => #<Class:#<Class:#<Array:0x00007fbc869b0060>>>
    # => #<Class:#<Class:#<Class:#<Array:0x00007fbc869b0060>>>>

This can go as deeply as you want it to.

The reason Ruby doesn't immediately fill up all available RAM with singleton classes and then die is because they are not created until the first time a program uses them. As a result, most objects don't have singleton classes at all.

Isn't this whole singleton class thing kind of overkill?

Not really.

See, Ruby is a language where everything is an object (in the OOP sense of the term), and so this means that classes are also objects. But since all objects have classes, that means each class is also an instance of a class. And so is that class. And this is if we ignore the singleton classes, which we are for the moment.

So how does this end? Well, it's pretty boring actually. Each class is an instance of the class named Class, including Class itself. Class is an instance of itself and that's all we really need.

[]                          # => []
[].class                    # => Array
[].class.class              # => Class
[].class.class.class        # => Class
[].class.class.class.class  # => Class

But wait! How do we do class methods or class instance variables:

class Thing
  def self.instance
    @instance = Thing.new unless @instance
    return @instance
  # ...etc...

In Smalltalk, this gets done by giving each class object its own distinct class (the metaclass) to hold the methods and variable declarations. They are unnamed but you can get it with the class method just like Ruby. The metaclass's inheritance tree mirrors the class's tree (i.e. if Item is derived from Thing, then Thing.class is derived from Item.class) with class Class as the abstract base class of the heirarchy.

t class.                                => Thing
t class superclass.                     => Object
t class superclass superclass.          => nil

t class class.                          => Unnamed class ('Thing class')
t class class superclass.               => Unnamed class ('Object class')
t class class superclass superclass.    => Class

All metaclasses are instances of the class Metaclass:

t class.                                => Thing
t class class.                          => Unnamed class ('Thing class')
t class class class.                    => Metaclass

This includes Metaclass itself, which is how the loop closes:

Metaclass class                         => 'Metaclass class'
Metaclass class class                   => Metaclass

(Disclaimer: I've somewhat simplified the above. I also haven't run it.)

In Ruby, each Class instance (i.e. class) has a singleton class that holds the class methods and variables. That is, singleton classes serve as metaclasses. The nice thing about this is that it's a generalization of what Smalltalk does for classes, and it gives you instance methods for free.

This is not to say that it's necessarily a better way than Smalltalk's. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach but I'm far too lazy to write about them here.

#   Posted 2021-05-07 01:55:31 UTC; last changed 2021-05-07 01:57:49 UTC

Star Trek Phone Chargers

In this Fediverse thread about how the most implausible part of Star Trek is that all of the devices just kind of interoperate when we can't even get phone chargers to work right, I got inspired:

Don't use the Klingon one. It'll blast your device with random voltages and then call it weak if it explodes.


The Borg one works with anything but after the first charge, your device will no longer be compatible with any other charger.


The Ferengi one is crap, plus it bills you per minute of charging.


The Romulan one is widely believed to install spyware but nobody has managed to prove it.


The Vulcan one is a featureless gray sphere with a slight flat spot so it doesn't roll. Nobody has any idea how to use it. When asked, Vulcans will respond either implicitly or explicitly that it's obvious and your question makes no sense.


Cardassian chargers have astoundingly terrible ergonomics. It's possible to get one to work with most phones but it's usually not worth the effort.


The Bajoran chargers are just Cardassian chargers with pieces hacked off and the gaps filled with epoxy and duct tape.

They're still easier to use than the Cardassian chargers, though.

#   Posted 2019-10-10 01:28:01 UTC; last changed 2019-10-10 01:30:21 UTC

Sic: Yet Another Mediocre Small Lisp Dialect

Like many bad ideas, this one came from seeking attention on social media. I had envisioned tooting something like this on Mastodon:

Me? Oh, I was just writing Lisp code in C++. As one does.


This was the result of a series of realizations I had while learning more about modern C++. Specifically:

1. $ is a valid 'word' character in C++ these days.

That means you can use it in names. So this is valid C++:

const int $20_same_as_in_town = 20;

But since this not widely known, I can use it for all kinds of shenanigans.

2. You can use variadic templates to fake Lisp-style expressions.

As you know Bob, variadic templates are function templates that take arbitrarily many arguments. And since they're templates, their type is also up for grabs.

And as you also know Bob, Lisp-style lists are just linked lists of pairs of pointers where the first pointer holds the value and the second the next pair in the sequence. And Lisp expressions are just lists of expressions where the first value is the function to call while the rest are its arguments.

So if we create a bunch of C++ classes to represent basic Lispish types:

class string : public obj { ... };
class symbol : public obj { ... };
class number : public obj { ... };

plus a common base class:

class obj { ... };

plus a simple C++ class to hold a pair:

class pair : public obj {
    obj * const first;      // Not named 'car'; cope.
    obj * const rest;       // Ditto for 'cdr'.
    pair(obj *a, obj *d) : car(a), cdr(d) {}

and a set of overloaded helper functions to convert basic C++ types to Lispish types:

static inline obj* _w(std::string s)  { return new string(s); }
static inline obj* _w(int i)          { return new number((long)i); }
static inline obj* _w(long l)         { return new number(l); }
static inline obj* _w(double d)       { return new number(d); }
static inline obj* _w(obj *o)         { return o; }

we can create a variadic function template that constructs a Lispish list:

template<typename T> obj* $(T o) { return new pair(_w(o), nil); }

template<typename T, typename... Objects>
obj* $(T first, Objects... rest) { 
    return new pair(_w(first), $(rest...)); 

(The first definition of $ works on any call with one argument; the second expands to a function that takes the first argument and recurses on the rest.)

Calling it looks like this:

$("foo", 42, $("add", 2, 2))

which looks Lispish if you squint hard enough. But the resulting list is an actual Lisp-style list.

3. Evaluating functions is pretty straightforward.

A function is just one of the Lispish C++ types. It implements a method named call, which takes an argument list and returns a result:

class callable : public obj {
    virtual obj* call(obj* actualArgs) const = 0;

Yeah, yeah, this is an abstract base class. We actually need two types of callables:

class function : public callable { ... }
class builtin : public callable { ... }

function is a function written in Sic. It holds a Lispish list of expressions (also Lispish lists) and evaluates them by calling eval on each of them. builtin holds a built-in function--a C++ lambda (or other function pointer, in theory)--that it calls instead.

eval is the function that evaluates a Sic expression. You give it the expression and if it's a list, it recursively calls itself on each item and collects the results. Then, it calls the first item's call method with the rest of the list as an argument and returns the result. If the argument isn't a list, it just returns it.

So like any good Lisp function, it either does nothing significant or recurses.

4. Also, I can do macros because I hate myself.

As you know Bob--hey, why are you walking away? I NEED YOU FOR THIS RHETORICAL DEVICE, BOB!

Anyway, as Bob over there already knows, a macro is a powerful and elegent way to let programmers mutate their Lisp into a completely different language while introducing subtle and impossible-to-find bugs.

More precisely, It's a function that gets called on the raw, unevaluated argument list, does something with that and returns something else that does get evaluated as a normal Lispish expression. On compiled Lisps (i.e. not this one), it gets called by the compiler.

The thing is, we need macros for system-ish and control-flow-ish stuff. You can't do an if statement if eval is always going to evaluate the THEN and ELSE expressions regardless.

So we do macros by adding the isMacro flag to callable:

class callable : public obj {
    const bool isMacro;
    virtual obj* call(obj* actualArgs) const = 0;

(isMacro gets set by the constructor.)

Then we make eval check if it's true. If it is, it calls the function on the arguments first, before they're evaluated, captures the result and recursively evaluates that.

And there you go. Self-modifying code made easy.

(The Scheme community has new and interesting ways to make macros safer and easier to use. I strongly disagree with this. If macros are easy to use, people might start using them, and that's only going to lead to trouble.)

5. Errors are just C++ exceptions

The easy way to handle errors here is to just throw a C++ exception where necessary. We give them a common base class to distinguish them from other types of exceptions, but that's pretty much it.

Need a stack trace? Put a std::vector in the base class and wrap eval or call in a try block that adds the details to it. Easy!

6. Local namespaces are a linked-list of std::map-holding objects

Now that we're actually interpreting code, we need variables. This is pretty simple, right? C++ has std::map which does pretty much everything we need. Just wrap it with a class:

class context {
    std::map<std::string, obj*> items;
    void set(const std::string& name, obj* value) { ... }
    obj* get(const std::string& name) const { ... }

And that's all we need--no, wait, there's also a global scope so it needs to fall through to that. So we add a pointer to an outer scope:

    context * const parent;

and make set and get fall through to the parent if it's not local. Easy!

No, wait. set falling through means I have to make defining a variable in a local scope so stuff like this will work:

(let ( (outer nil) )
    (let ( (x 1) )
        (setq outer 42)))

We don't want setq to define a new variable outer in its scope; it should be writing to the existing outer. So we need to make defining variables and assigning to them separate things. We do this by making set throw an exception if it can't find the variable, then adding a define method:

    void define(const std::string& name, obj* value) { ... }

And that... works?

Looks around nervously.

Next, we need to add the context as an argument to Callable::call:

    virtual obj* call(obj* actualArgs, context* outer) const = 0;

and propagate it to eval and whatever else needs it.

Because built-in functions now get a pointer to the caller's context, they can modify the caller's variables. Which is generally a Bad Thing unless we need to write set, which we do. So it's actually a good thing, I guess.

(We also have to write the macro setq--which expands to set--because typing that extra quote is so burdensome. No, seriously, it's a huge pain--the number of times I forgot it is basically the number of times I wrote buggy Sic code.)

We also need this when defining lambdas because (as Bob over there knows), they can access the scope in which they are defined. That is, this:

(defun return-x-f (x) (lambda () x))
(setq fn (return-x-f 42))
(print (fn))

will print 42, because the lambda holds on to the outer function's context.

So lambda (well, its back-end--it's a macro, after all) gets a pointer to the caller's context and stashes it in the function object:

    context *outer;

When the lambda gets called, it creates its context (the equivalent of a stack frame in C++) and sets outer as the parent.

Conveniently, non-lambda functions (ironically-named fun) are just like lambdas except that their outer pointer just points to the global context (i.e. the outermost parent).

Finally, we need to actually look up variables. That ends up being a one-liner in eval:

if (expr->isSymbol()) { return context->get(expr->text); }

And that's all.

7. Oh yeah, I forgot to talk about Symbols

As Bob--hey, where'd he go? Anyway, as Bob knows, Lispish languages have this concept of a symbol, which is different from a string. A symbol is a chunk of text but it represents an internal variable name.

If you hand eval a string, it just gives you the string back but if you hand it a symbol, it'll look it up in the current context and give you the value back instead. Which you already know, because you read the last section. Right?

So in Sic, a symbol class is just an obj subclass that holds a std::string. Except the field has a different name from the Sic string (text vs contents) so that I can't accidentally use one instead of the other.

class symbol : public obj {
    const std::string text;
    explicit symbol(std::string& v) : text(v) {}

There's nothing really magical about it except that eval can tell the difference between the two and handles them differently.

Oh, and also, I did a clever thing in the symbol class where I guarantee that there's only ever one symbol for a particular series of characters. This ensures the Lispish requirement that symbols be unique and also lets you test equality in C++ by comparing the pointers with ==.

So it really looks (more) like this:

class symbol : public obj {
    inline static std::map<std::string, symbol*> symbols;
    explicit symbol(std::string& v) : text(v) {}

    static symbol* intern(std::string s) {
        if (symbols.count(s) == 0) { symbols[s] = new symbol(s); }
        return symbols[s];

(Basically, I make the constructor private and provide a public static method called intern that calls it, but only if there's not already an instance in symbols. In that case, it first stashes the symbol there before returning it. Otherwise, it returns a pointer to the stashed symbol already.

This all works because Sic types are immutable (barring C++ type abuse, that is).)

The other thing I need to mention is that code like

$("setq", "foo", 42)

that I used above doesn't actually work the way you'd naively expect. The arguments are strings which eval won't look up. We need to make them into symbols.

Unfortunately, C++ doesn't have a symbol type and we already transparently turn C++ strings into Sic strings, so there's not an obvious conversion.

So we make it explicit with a helper function. Which I name $$, 'cuz why not:

static inline obj* $$(const std::string& s)  { return symbol::intern(s); }

So now, we can do explicit symbols like this:

$( $$("setq"), $$("foo"), 42)

Which is only slightly uglier.

(To make this slightly easier, sic.hpp also defines a bunch of global consts that hold pointers to the corresponding functions. This lets you replace the above with:

$(set, $$("foo"), 42)

which is a bit nicer.)

8. read is complex and ugly but uninteresting

So you'll note that at this point (assuming I've also written a bunch of useful built-in functions), we pretty much have a working(ish) programming language. I can do stuff like this:


  $(print, "starting!\n"),

  $(defun, $$("fib"), $( $$("n") ),
    $(if_op, $(le, $$("n"), 1),
      $(list, 1),
      $(if_op, $(eq_p, $$("n"), 2),
        $(list, 1, 1),
        $(let, $( $( $$("prev"), $( $$("fib"), $(sub, $$("n"), 1) ) ) ),
            $(add, $(first, $$("prev")), 
                   $(second, $$("prev"))), $$("prev") )

    $( $$("fib"), $(str_to_num, $(third, $$("argv")) ) ),

and it works.

Lispish source code is basically just text serialization of its data types--primordial JSON, as it were, so all I really need to do to write and evaluate scripts is a function to parse lists, names and literal types.

In most Lisps, this is called read so I called it that too.

read is written in pure C++ and does pretty much what you'd expect with std::stream and std::string. Boring, in other words. But it works.

I did make one attempt to be innovative and modern and made the comment character # instead of ; because that's more Unixy and you can do the #! thing to launch scripts. Of course, editors still expect ; so I ended up putting back ; as an alternate comment character.

So now you have two comment characters for the price of one. Lucky you.

8. Garbage Collection would be nice but it's too much work.

Unlike most Lispish languages, Sic implements garbage collection by having me suggest that you exit your program sometime before your computer runs out of RAM. After that, object memory is reclaimed very efficiently.

(It would be (sigh) relatively straightforward to create an abstract base class for obj and context that stores all of the instances in a global registry and provides marking for mark-and-sweep, but that's a lot more work than I want to do right now. It's probably easier to just grab the Boehm GC and use that.)

9. It's no longer fun but I can't stop. Help!

So now that I have read, I can split Sic up into a library and a script runner.

The library gets a function called root_context() that creates a global context (i.e. one with no parent) and loads it up with all of the built-in functions. A neat side effect of this is that you can now have multiple Sic instances in your program; just create a new root context for each.

The runner links to the library, calls root_context() and either loads in the script you give it or lets you type in commands. (If you want readline support, rlwrap is available.)

Oh, but it'd be nice to have a unit test framework. So I'll add extra testing builtins but only if the script name ends with .sictest. Which turns out to be much trickier than it looks.

So once that's working, I should probably test most of these functions. But I don't really have proper equality testing so I should add that. And tests. Also, I should write examples. But this example would be much easier if I had cond (plus tests). And cond makes or really easy, so I should add that (plus tests). But or implies and, so I should add that as well (plus tests).

And I really should--

On second thought, it's done now.

10. Screw it. It's on Github now.

If you want to play with the code, it's here. I'm releasing it under the terms of the wxWidgets license, which is basically the GNU LGPL but with less restrictions on using it in your own programs.

Have fun. Or not.

#   Posted 2019-06-22 23:49:10 UTC; last changed 2021-05-07 02:00:43 UTC