☞ Unspooling Computational Worlds

Computer programs on Twitter

During this turbulent and tough time, here is something entirely virus-unrelated and hopefully thought-provoking:

We often think of software as large and complex structures, made up of thousands or even millions of lines of computer code. And they often can be. But there are also many instances where tiny bite-size bits of code can yield complex and delightful programs. In the November issue from last year, I wrote about thinking about coding as magic, the idea that words can have power and act like little computational spells. Related to this is the idea that one can unfurl from small snippets of text entire pieces of software.

And what better place to do this—write tiny delightful programs—than on Twitter? I am far from the only one who has thought of this. For example, there is a wonderful Twitter account that will run any BASIC program that you tweet at it. From a discussion of this account, here is a fun example:

Random triangle generation, colors, and fills. Really such simple code that still sucks you into the screen!

It's projects like this that really show how powerful visual code can be!

The creators of Mathematica developed a similar project, called Tweet-a-Program: “Compose a tweet-length Wolfram Language program, and tweet it to @WolframTaP. Our Twitter bot will run your program in the Wolfram Cloud and tweet back the result.”

People have also tried this with Processing, and I’m sure many other programming languages as well). And you can even go a bit further than this: here’s an entire website that exists entirely in the text of its URL. Wild.

Programming languages are each distinct, and these kinds of projects highlight the differences in compactness between them. But no matter what language we are thinking about, they also demonstrate the basic idea that there is a generative power to computing: small snippets of text can unspool entire computational worlds.


Here are a couple quotes I’ve recently come across. The first is from Geoff Manaugh and is about exploring an abandoned mine:

there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and incredibly anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

I stumbled across another intriguing quote in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club:

The politics of the dispute were strictly academic—that is, the issues were myriad, they were interrelated in arcane ways, and they were fantastically petty.


A few links worth checking out:

  • The Graphical Birth of Plate Tectonics: About the maps and figures involved in the development of the idea of plate tectonics. It is also fascinating how truly new the scientific concept of plate tectonics are: as per this article, “Plate tectonics, the modern theory that describes how the continents on the surface of the Earth do indeed float around, was finally laid out in 1967.” And yet when I learned them in school they were taught in a way that made it feel so old and settled. (from Paul Kedrosky)

  • An app can be a home-cooked meal: By Robin Sloan on coding and home-made software. This piece pairs well with my article on HyperCard and end-user programming. From my article: “As we go about our daily use of technology, each of us might recognise the need for not-yet-created small tools and applications. But because these are not the kind of things that would be showered with venture funding or become the next Facebook, no one will create them for us.”

  • A rotary cell phone: Very thoughtfully done.

  • Where Be Dragons? Why was Dungeons & Dragons (or similar games in that style) only invented in the 1970's? Fascinating piece on innovation and timing.  (also from Paul Kedrosky)

Until next month.

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