It’s not often (never) that I feel moved to review a computer game. It’s not so much that I don’t play them, because I do – quite a bit sometimes, but because they are generally “good” and an awful lot of people already review games.

Enter TIS-100; it’s a modest little thing, and it’s interface is both nostalgia-inducing retro and modern convenience. It looks like you should be using an ancient IBM model M keyboard, but actually allows mouse clicks and control-c/v commands just like modern software would. With very little fanfare you’re dropped into a broken operating system, where the corrupted segments of the kernel have to be fixed up by you.

Welcome to TIS100
Here’s the welcome screen – feel that 1970’s vibe.

The first part of the charm here is that there is no hand-holding. None. You’re provided with a short manual detailing the valid processor op-codes, a little brief on how the node based architecture works – and then you’re out in the wild. Each node has a short code limit of around 15 lines, and each node also allows access to two registers. And that’s it. You’re set a task, and provided with some tests to run with the expected output detailed on the left hand side of the display. This is coding stripped down to it’s barest nuts and bolts.

Part of the novelty is that the TIS stands for Tesselated-Intelligence-System – processing is divided out into separate nodes, each with their own codebase. Calls to access the values of other nodes block the callee, making simple swaps a more considered operation and deadlocks ever present. Once you’ve got the swing though, you quickly find that you can use nodes for parallel processing, or as quick scratch-RAM for a main processing node. Each task that you are set to repair a segment is also non-trivial, in that it’s a real operation you could expect to find in an embedded environment (signal peak detection, pattern matching – even an interrupt handler), and that there’s a genuine sense of accomplishment when the output column of the test matches the required values – and it’s extremely instructional.

Tis Running
A mid-level problem solved in drunken enthusiasm

I spend most of my working life dealing with a fourth generation language, and I’m abstracted away from the hardware by a considerable degree – but I’ve often yearned to get some assembly coding done (even maybe start a hobby operating system), and all of my attempts to “get in” to assembly have been thwarted. Either I wasn’t experienced enough, the documentation was patchy, or the build environment wasn’t sane; I’ve had several cracks at learning – but nothing in my twenty-plus years of developing has been as useful or informative as a (slightly drunken) hour with this little beast.

One of the joys is that coming from some much (.NET, SQL server) down to this level forces you to do far more with far less. I tend to float up objects and variables with wild abandon, expensive database queries and non-optimal execution trees don’t consume a lot of my thinking time because modern machines are so fast and have so much RAM.  I do sometimes go back over old code to correct my more egregious assumptions or requests (when they pile up into seconds), but here we’re given two registers two work with – and one of the register operations is destructive. Suddenly we’re up into The Art of Computer Programming territory, using a notional system to achieve realistic results – and with such little room to manoeuvre that optimisation is almost impossible to avoid.

This really has helped me enormously in terms of my feeling of “completeness” as a developer, and has refueled my desire to work through the Art of Computer Programming and GEB (Godel, Escher Bach – an eternal golden braid to the unfamiliar) – it’s the same feeling you get when a beautiful algorithm unfolds in your head, and when it gets down to it, it’s one of the reasons I’m in this business. I love to code, and I love good code – but we don’t often get paid to write good code; just stuff that works. If you feel the same then get this game, because it will put you back in touch with that feeling.

If you’ve never coded before, you may need a little more time bootstrapping yourself – but I reckon that you’d be far better off spending a day puzzling over this than almost any “fundamentals” programming course. This will get you in at the sharp end, and the techniques you learn will give you a better understanding of what various library functions do, their overhead – and insight into how much has gone into providing all that padding for you to keep you safe from the sharp edges of the hardware.

Please – go buy. It’s only a fiver, and I want to encourage the developer to keep adding more segments and more challenges; they’ve managed to re-awaken my hidden low-level developer, and I want more!

Coding Chickens

In a short break from our usual programme (while I finish writing up the details of my fast), I feel the need to explore some of the horrors developers face; if only to make myself feel a bit better.

Sometimes being a developer is rewarding, sometimes you get the strong feeling that you should be able to do more to help. Sometimes you get the feeling that you just can’t get people to understand that you are trying to help. You’re not giving long time estimates out of a desire to be difficult, you’re not trying to make something “sound more difficult than it really is”. You’re just trying to help.

Nowhere do I bump into this more than when managers congregate to work on ‘systems’.

A system is a nebulous thing, or at least it is before someone like me gets involved – I’m a systems developer, so I think in terms  outcomes and inputs, and minimisation of interaction. My job (which I am ok at, or so I’d prefer to think) is to take the fluff of a user requirement and turn it into a practical improvement. This unfortunately means that I bump into a lot of people who also believe that they can create systems.

I have the opportunity to watch this process of creation from a short range, and in one of the businesses I’ve dealt with for a very long time the effect is similar to watching a small clutch of argumentative chickens trying to work out a mirror. This mental image is far more amusing in the mind than it is in the flesh – as someone who really wants to improve an overall work environment, phrases like “Oh, I think we should have another form filled in and scanned before we let users do that” make my blood boil. At the end, there’s a lot of noise, some feathers in the air and nothing remotely looking like a system in place.

There are people in these meetings who squawk because all the other chickens are making noise, there are people who add redundant checks and measures and steps because they realise their own make-work may be reduced, and there are people who really shouldn’t be allowed to add their tortuous mental loops into the process.

You know you’re in the presence of the latter when the subject of outcomes comes up on the agenda. These people want to track and report on everything it seems. Mistaking visibility for control, they want to see “every stationary order under £15 for the year 2001” (a genuine phrase heard in a chicken-fest). What then unfolds is a system where a huge amount of ROD – my own coining for wRite Only Data – is captured. Every user, at every point in the process is suddenly burdened with entering data they may barely understand (or indeed know) into the system – resulting in a massively bloated interface that nobody wants to use. Quite simply, the clichéd ROD for your back.

Don’t get me wrong, I have some good clients relationships; many lasting over years where such happenings don’t take place, where the chickens are carefully cooped before a requirement meeting even takes place. One has even got themselves to the point where they are able to judge how long it’s going to take me to deliver their requirement – and how I love them and cherish them as a client, and how much more willing to stretch things we are when things go to the edge of the specification.

A waterfall is an elegant system for getting water downhill.

These people capture only the data they need, only generate the documents they need and only capture the data they need – and they can take advice about how best to organise these into an overall business solution. People who are of genuine value to their business are never worried about “systems” taking over their part in the organisation, they instead relish the chance to get away from the make-work and get on with their job – making the business better, and not carefully crossing off items on a printed report with a biro and a rule. This latter of course would be a firing offence in my own business!

The Reuban Sandwich (Recipe)

This following article was put together over the holidays of 2014 and published to facebook – I’ve added it here to help provide a more complete picture of both myself, and the food I enjoy.

Kaylee’s been a bit ill the last few days, so I’ve been eating these almost constantly in order to add dietary excitement to house bound days – and in the spirit of Christmas (and to sabotage all your upcoming diets), I’d like to share with you all this sandwich.
Against my grain, I have to admit this is actually a moderately healthy sammich. We begin with a panini. And a plate. A work surface is useful.

A plate and a Pannini
You have no idea how tasty this is going to be.

Oh, and a bowl. Add some mustard to the bowl – half a teaspoon will do.

Condiments are amazing things. 

Mix with an equal amount of water – and a spoon (pictured for clarity). Mustard takes about ten minutes to develop its full flavour, so don’t rush. Even cookies need love. Or something.

Mixing the Magic
Easy does it..

Split the slightly warmed panini. Ah, I didn’t tell you to warm it; warm it while your mustard rehydrates, then if you’re a bloke apply butter in that slightly cack-handed way we do. If you’re female, apply butter smoothly and evenly with a small degree of smugness.

I Had Help
Because I can’t spread butter.

Cut up some tomatoes and apply them to your bread, and wash some lettuce leaves. (I think you’re supposed to use apollo,  I’m using what I could find in the shop).

Feel that sunshine vine-ripe artisan tomato goodness.

Right, here’s where I confuse some of my friends – these things are gherkins, the same things you’ve been seeing me fish out of my burgers for as long as you’ve known me.

Take it on trust, in this sandwich they are not the green sticks of hate; rather our tasty flavour friends. Add them to the growing master-work.

Gerkhins Are Good
They are not the enemy on this occasion.

Now take your washed lettuce and add.

Lettuce; not quite food of the Gods, unless you're Apollo.

Apply mixed mustard mayo splurtyness to the lettuce layer – it is the mortar that holds our next layer in place.
(I’m using Hellmans real mayo here – because I’m not a T.V. chef and snobbishly telling you to make your own)

Mustard meets Mayo
Mustard meets Mayo
A lovely dollop
Some people would think this is ready to eat now. They are wrong.

Further worried friends will have been concerned that I appeared to be making a sandwich without meat. Relax, here is a tasty layer of pastrami.

If you’re vegetarian, then you may not want to use pastrami – I don’t know what the vegetarian equivalent is, and I wouldn’t presume to suggest anything. I’ll have to leave that as an exercise for the reader


Farm produced pastrami from Locks garage(!)

Cut two thin slivers of Monterey Jack (this is traditional, but only possible because our local shop keeps an eclectic stock, use whatever cheese you want) and pop then on the growing tower.

If anyone approaches your sandwich at this point, remember there is a knife on the work-surface – you can defend your food if required.

Thanks Jack!
Thanks Jack!

Get some sauerkraut and dish it on – that 1 kilo tub in the background cost 1 pound, and has a three year shelf life (low in calories too if that’s your thing).

And now it's a super-food - who knew?
And now it’s a super-food – who knew?

Attempt to close the panini. Remember to keep an eye on anyone nearby.

And now – the marketing shot – cut the sandwich into hand size gobbling portions and begin stuffing your deserving face.

Here I have two slices, the knife is reserved for slice 2 defence. IMAG1358

So there it is – a amazing sandwich that you – yes, you – can make in your own home using utensils and ingredients that may only need buying!