by Jeff Fox
Computers are amazing machines. They have an incredible potential. At their best they provide an extension to our minds and our traditional media assisting us in storing and retrieving data, making calculations and decisions, visualizing information, and communicating information between humans. At their worse they introduce nightmarish complexity and problems into our lives. They account for an entire industry that is vast and pervasive and which works in cooperation with strong media and socio-economic forces to sell and promote computer use in our culture.
The technological fads and media hyped product feeding frenzies that we know of as the modern computer industry also have a dark side. The phenomenon known as the digital divide is the way that technology is creating a strong social economic division in our culture that could influence generations. Those with access to modern computers will have access to nearly unlimited information and a world of training, experience and opportunity that the have-nots will never know. The strong and disturbing evidence is that home computers, SAT test practice programs, and access to the internet have become prerequisites to enrollment in a good college and getting a good job in the future. Those without a way to get a foot up into the system will be forever kept out. One aspect of the digital divide is that computers themselves must be made to appear inconceivably complex and incomphrehensible to the uninitiated.
The reality of the world we live in is that if 100 people represented the population of the world two of them would own personal computers. Owning a personal computer is much like owning an automobile and gives you bragging rights about the model and style that represents you. To the vast majority of the people in the world just owning one puts you in an elite group of rich and affluent people whether it is a clunker or the top of the line luxury model. Marketing of computer hardware and software is pervasive throughout the culture. Everyone would like the most beautiful, expensive, fastest and highest quality model in an ideal world.
Part of modern culture seems to be that people like to pretend, perhaps even to themselves, that they are so rich and important that money is of no object to them. If they can say that [then] quality for value is not important to them because they only want the top quality most expensive option [for] higher social status. Many people are therefore very arrogant about how wasteful they are with their computer. They are very proud of it and will tell you how they got the latest upgrades that they really didn’t need but since it is all really cheap these days anyway etc. They will say that they tried the latest most wasteful new software and had to go out and buy a faster computer but didn’t care because they are cheap. 98% of the people in the world think computers are too expensive to buy and most of the people who buy them don’t really believe they are so cheap that no one cares about that. If you are talking about most of the limited resources in our culture it is not fashionable to brag about conspicuous consumption, but computers seem to thought of as an unlimited resource because of marketing.
I was first exposed to the difference between programming and computer marketing almost thirty five years ago. If you have been a programmer perhaps you have been there too. Your manager tells you, “This program you have written is too efficient. You don’t understand the big picture. The client is spending $100,000 a year now to do this manually. Based on the runtime of the program in this form this program would accumulate only $5,000 in fees for an entire year. The client is now spending $100,000 and will be happy to have it done for $50,000. Go back and rewrite this program so that it uses ten times as much computer time so that we can charge this client ten times as much. This is a business and the bottom line is making money not writing efficient programs.”
The nature of business management in the US is such that managers work their way up through the corporate structure by showing that they can manage larger and larger budgets. If you show an aspiring manager a way to reduce their budget they will know that they will be expected to live with that reduced budget again next year by a maybe not so understanding level of management above them. They also know that the one of their peers with the largest budget will most likely be the one promoted up to the next level where the budgets to be managed are even bigger. These pressures lead middle managers to pad their budgets and this is one of the driving factors in the computer industry.
IBM exploited this vacuum for years with managers being promoted for pouring money into mainframe accounts with constant upgrades of machines and operating systems to address a constant list of bugs. When I worked for Bank of America in San Francisco one of my managers maintained more mainframe accounts for employees who had quit than he had for employees who were still working for him. This allowed him to inflate his budget by about 20 phantom employees times $1000 a month to IBM for their mainframe computer accounts. I had three accounts and they were all still active three years after I had left the bank. My manager had given IBM $108,000 for my computer use after I was no longer an employee of the bank. Multiply that times twenty employees each for four thousand managers and you get the picture at the bank at the time.
As time moved on it became easier to get promotions in large companies for wasting money on Personal Computers. When I was a consultant to Pacific Bell I saw countless examples of managers spending hundreds of thousands of customers dollars on inflated budgets for computing systems to work their way up the corporate budget ladder. Managers were looking for packages that came in the largest boxes, with the most diskettes and with the largest pricetags then they would buy hundreds or thousands of copies that were not needed for any conceivable reason. One example were the 3270 terminals. They had many employees who used IBM 3270 terminals to talk to their mainframes. They replaced them with PC running 3270 emulation programs. This allowed them to continue to spend thousands of dollars per machine every year for needless hardware and software upgrades even though all of these users only ever ran one piece of software, 3270 emulation.
Whether you are talking about corporate America being marketed products that are intentionally puffed up for marketing purposes or individuals being marketed new computer hardware and software products based on style, status, and hype it is hard to deny that what sells are big boxes and big programs with lists of features that far exceed anything related to productive work. There is considerable concern both in the industry and by consumers about the diminishing returns for our continued investment as users in this kind of software.
The marketers tell us that if cars were like computers the cars we would be buying today would be absurdly cheap and absurdly fast, but it just isn’t so. I got my first personal computer for about $1000 in 1975. That is still what they cost. The graphics are better. The computer is bigger and faster, and doing more complex things, but that is what you would expect after 25 years of progress. My first machine ran at about one hundred thousand instructions per second and my current machine runs at one hundred million, 1000x faster. My first machine was so slow that it would take several seconds to boot up and would sometimes just go away while executing system code on badly written programs and I could not type for up to twenty seconds. My current PC is 1000 times faster, but the programs seem to be 1000 times bigger and slower because it now takes about a minute to boot up and it still goes away for about twenty seconds sometimes while the OS and GUI do who knows what sometimes and appears dead and will not accept a keystroke for that period of time.
In this world of quickly expanding computer hardware and quickly expanding computer software there seem to be very few people concerned with making computers efficient or getting the most value out of the computers we have, or the most productivity out of the programmers. It is more fashionable to claim that everyone (who is important) is rich and doesn’t care about things like efficiency. If a program is inefficient they can always just go out and buy a more expensive computer to make up for any amount of waste.
In this world there are few people working on making computers simple to understand, simple to build, and simple to program. There are few people making programs that are easy to understand, easy to maintain, efficient and beautiful. One of those people is Charles Moore the inventor of the computer language Forth. Chuck Moore describes himself as a professional who gets personal satisfaction out of seeing a job done well. He enjoys designing computers and writing very efficient software. He has been working for nearly thirty years to come up with better software and nearly twenty years to come up with better computer hardware. His latest work involves unusually small computers both in hardware and software.
His ideas are very synergistic as both his hardware and software are as much as 1000 times smaller than conventional hardware and software designs. However many of his ideas about software design and programming style are not limited to his tiny machines. While it is difficult to map bloated software techniques to tiny machines it is easy to map his tight tiny software techniques to huge machines. There will always be problems bigger than our machines and there will always be people who want to get the most out of their hardware, their software, and their own productivity.
Chuck’s approach to VLSI CAD is a good example of the application of his style of programming to a conventional computer. The approach and the design of the code used the tiny approach to get the most productivity from the programmer and the highest performance from the software on a conventional Intel based PC. Instead of purchasing packages of tens of megabytes of other people’s code for hundreds of thousands of dollars Chuck wrote his own code in a matter of months to make it faster, more powerful and more bug free. He does the job more quickly with thousands of times less code. The size and performance of the program are quite remarkable and the methodology behind its design and construction involve more than a specification of the features of his language. It involves understanding how that language was intended by used by its inventor.
Chuck has moved most of this Forth language into the hardware on his computers leaving so little for his software to do that it is very difficult for people to see how his software could possibly be so small. He has refined his approach to his language until is is difficult for people who have been extending it for twenty years to see all he has done with so little code.
There are aspects of his early experiments with CAD that have led to great confusion about his software style. It has focused many people’s attention on the number of keys on his keyboard or the size or number of characters in his fonts or the hue of the colors that he selects in CAD, the names he used for opcode and a long list of other distractions.
Having spent the last ten years working with Chuck Moore on his custom VLSI Forth chip development I have greatly changed my ideas about Forth. I have moved on from the concepts that I first learned about Forth twenty some years ago and studied what Chuck has done with Forth in the last fifteen years. I looked over his shoulder a lot and asked him a lot of questions.
When the Forth community first began work on the ANS Forth standard, the effort involved defining a Forth specification that provided common ground for different Forth users. The ANS Forth standard as I think Chuck would say was designed to cover almost all the variations on what Chuck had invented that everyone else was doing twenty years ago. There was never anything like it before, a sort of meta-Forth definition. But Chuck said he worried that this formalizing of a definition of Forth would result in a sort of crystallization of Forth. My concern was a different consequence of ANS which was that a new style of Forth programming seems to have evolved. Traditional Forth was on a real machine where there was a hierarchy from primitive hardware through abstracted code. There was always a sense of that which were the simple fast primitive words were the best to get the most efficient code where that was needed. In ANS there is no such sense that the 10,000th word in the system is necessarily any more high level or complex than the first since that is implementation dependent. Even though such a hierarchy of complexity will normally exist in Forth common practice, in ANS Forth it is to ignore this reality.
Chuck’s advice regarding programming is often highly contextual. He will say people should not use most standard OS services rather you should write the code yourself. He says this because if you build your code on inefficient code you will have an inefficient application and you will have to do more work to get it to work. At the same time the primitive words in Forth are also a set of standard services. On a real system you know the real tradeoffs regarding each of these services and can make informed decisions regarding which words to use. On an abstracted model of Forth (ANS) you cannot make these kinds of informed decisions. As a result ANS Forth programmers do with Forth what Chuck would advise them to do with OS services, they try to rewrite them themselves. Instead of using perfectly beautiful Forth words the way Chuck had intended them to be used 30 some years ago they rewrite their own version. In this case Chuck would not advise them to rewrite it themselves. I would often ask ANS programmers, “Why did you rewrite this word with all these pages of high level code when almost exactly the same thing is available in highly optimized CODE and is 1000x faster?” “Because that is the definition in the library in the system I normally use.” was the answer.
Chuck and I were both convinced that this sort of abstracted approach to Forth might result in a new style of using Forth that would in turn lead to the ultimate demise of the language. We focused our efforts on building the fastest, simplest and cheapest hardware and fastest, simplest and cleanest software as an alternate future for Forth. Chuck’s ideas about Forth have evolved through four stages in this time and I have generally been a stage behind.
After Chuck left Forth Inc. and began working on Forth in silicon he had the chance to start his approach to Forth again with a clean slate. He was happy with many improvements but did not stop experimenting after he did his cmForth. He moved on through the OK phase, the Machine Forth phase, to his current ColorForth experiment.
This document is not intended to be a programming tutorial. It is not going to present a step by step explanation of how one programs in the style that Chuck Moore is using but will present an overview of what he is doing and why.
There is an older document describing Forth and UltraTechnology Thoughtful Programming and Forth by Jeff Fox