<antirez>

antirez 70 days ago. 119147 views.
The last few days have been quite intense. One of the arguments, about the dispute related to replacing or not the words used in Redis replication with different ones, was the following: is it worthwhile to do work that does not produce any technological result?

As I was changing the Redis source code to get rid of a specific word where possible, I started to think that whatever my idea was about the work I was doing, I’m the kind of person that enjoys writing code that has no measurable technological effects. Replacing words is just annoying, even if, even there, there were a few worthwhile technological challenges. But there is some other kind of code that I believe has a quality called “hack value”. It may not solve any technological problem, yet it’s worth to write. Sometimes because the process of writing the code is, itself, rewarding. Other times because very technically advanced ideas are used to solve a not useful problem. Sometimes code is just written for artistic reasons.

In some way the Twitter discussion of the last days, mostly uninformed, chaotic, heated, made me think that, at this point, we are very far from the first hackers in the 60s. As I get older I find that it is harder and harder to talk about technology with an hacking perspective, where there are no walls or pre-cooked ideas, and the limit is the exploration. For everything you say there is a best practice. For every idea there is a taboo. To this new setup I say LOLWUT, since I don’t feel represented by it, nor it represents hacking, at least in my vision. So the idea was to spend some technologically useless time in order to explore something of the 60s.

My attention went immediately to one of the computer art pieces I love the most: Schotter, by Georg Nees (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Nees). With the help of a plotter and ALGOL programs, Nees explored writing programs to generate art using caos (randomness) and repeating patterns. Schotter is remarkable because of the simplicity of the piece and the deep meaning that the observer can find looking at it. Under a surface of total calm and order, deep inside the disorder hides. Or, if you put it upside down it becomes like the sea during a tempest. However the surface may look impetuous, the deep sea remains calm.

Is it possible to turn a piece of art into a database command? This was challenging because Redis is mostly used by a command line interface. Nowadays terminals are for sure fancier than the ones of the past, but yet to display decent graphics is hard. On the other side there is the huge advantage of the real time computation: a piece of art can be dynamic, changing every time it is generated.

Before continuing, I want to show you the final result:



While very low resolution the idea of the original piece is still there. To make this possible I used a trick that recently was used by multiple programs trying to display interesting things in a text console. It involves using the Braille unicode charset in order to create a pixel matrix which is more dense than the individual characters of the console. Specifically, for each character, it is possible to fit a 2x8 grid of pixels.

The second part of the experiment was to make the art piece parametric:



It is possible to generate different versions of the original piece, changing the number of squares and the output resolution. Finally the source code wanted to be an example of literate programming, being written in a form that resembles more a tutorial describing what everything does and why, instead of some opaque generator. You can find the code here:

https://github.com/antirez/redis/blob/unstable/src/lolwut.c

LOLWUT is also going to be a tradition starting from Redis 5. At each new major version of Redis what the command does will change completely, only a set of rules will be fixed:

1. It can’t do anything technologically useful.
2. It should be fast at doing what it does, so that it is safe to call LOLWUT on production instances.
3. The output should be entertaining in some way.

I wrote the first one for Redis 5, for the next versions, if I find interest, I’ll ask somebody else that contributed to Redis to write the other LOLWUT versions, otherwise I’ll write it again myself (but I hope that’s not the case). LOLWUT should remember ourselves that the work we do, programming, did not start just in order to produce something useful. Initially it was mainly a matter of exploring possibilities. I hope that LOLWUT also will remind the Redis community that computers are about humans, and that it is not possible to reason in an aseptic way just thinking at the technological implications. There are people using systems, people building systems, and so forth.
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