41. World Building And Alternate Reality Common Lisp

Time for another Interlude, wherein I take a break from my career journey and reflect on what we're doing. I say we, not because I have been taken by delusions of royalty, but because there is more than just me involved now, as you will find out below, in the second half of this post.

It occurred to me the other day that I am developing alternate reality software. And what, I hear you cry, do I mean by that?

I have been a science fiction fan ever since I can remember. I was a nerdy kid who watched “Star Trek (TOS)”, “Lost in Space”, and “Land of the Giants” on TV. I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on. Later in life I even wrote stories for SF movies, and created an SF TV show which was never picked up. If I were an optimist, I would say “has not yet been picked up.”

One of the subgenres of science fiction is alternate reality (aka alternate history), where history took a different turn from our world. The most famous example is probably Philip K Dick's novel “The Man in the High Castle”, where the Axis powers are victorious in World War II and partition the USA.

From a purely practical point of view, the software we are developing does not make much sense. Common Lisp is a niche language, with very weak support for graphics and graphical user interfaces, and mediocre tooling at best.

No one has really tried doing serious computer graphics and animation with Common Lisp in the past 30 years. It may be seen by some as a quixotic quest at best. But in an alternate reality, one in which Common Lisp retained its popularity and remained a mainstream language, this development effort would make perfect sense.

For me, the most fun part of writing science fiction is the world building. Pure imagination running free. So let's engage in a few scenarios in which Common Lisp could be a mainstream language today.

Scenario one: the US does not get involved in the Vietnam war, there is no budget deficit, and ARPA funding for computer science academic research is not cut. Well-funded Lisp-based projects continue and prosper.

Scenario two: AT&T does not sign a decree with the US government which forces Bell Labs to give away the UNIX source code for free. Instead AT&T tries to sell UNIX as a commercial operating system, becoming just one of many such vendors. Unix’s popularity (and therefore that of C/C++) is curtailed and it does not take over the world. Lisp Machines and a variety of other operating systems survive in this ecosystem.

Scenario three: the government decides that instead of inventing a new language known as ADA, it will require Common Lisp as the standard language for government and military work. Common Lisp becomes a mainstay of government contract work and ensures a steady supply of funding and Lisp development opportunities. (Yeah, I know, this one is kind of out there.)

In these scenarios (and if you buy me a coffee I can come up with a half a dozen other ones), Lisp trudges along nicely, perhaps along with Fortran, Cobol, and C/C++.

That is the software we are writing. The one that comes out of these timelines. One where people naturally expect their software to be extensible and customizable and programmable, and not regularly crash due to things like buffer overflows.

I can dream. It's one of the perks of being a science-fiction fan.

Code & Design

When I start a project, I make a "to do" list. This list always grows much faster than I can actually get the enumerated items on it accomplished. I use it to keep track of features, ideas, or even just vague notions of what I might want to do or work on. When I am done implementing one of these items, it will go on the "done" section. The listing above is that section for my graphics project, and represents several months worth of work.

The to do list remains well-populated and represents a lot of work for us. Yes, us. I have gone ahead and publicly announced this system as an open source project. As a result, a small team is gathering around and we are planning the future development of the system.

It was always my hope that this project would grow beyond a personal endeavor of mine into something that could have some real world impact. Not sure what that impact might be yet, but the first step is to get into the hands of people, both artists and developers, who can use it. So our first task is to port the system beyond the Macintosh, to Linux and Windows platforms. Currently work in progress.

If I were to be honest, and that is something I try to do in this blog (otherwise what is the point), I would have to admit that I am equal parts nervous and excited. I had kept putting off making the open-source announcement, but then I remembered a quote I read somewhere to the effect that the biggest mistake we can make is to wait until we think we are ready. So I wondered what I was waiting for. I am not getting any younger. Just get the ball rolling and see what happens.

For those who are geeky enough to want to see the project on Github, here is a link.

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Kaveh Kardan

MIT mathematics degree • wrote animation software used in “Jurassic Park” • software R&D lead on “Final Fantasy” movie • software dev on “The Hobbit” films