ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Tourist, The Researcher, The Maniac —

This year was primarily about software, specifically collecting and emulating it.

That went well.

Asked what my goals or projects are for work for the next year (2015), I have resolved that it will be cleaning up and making it easier to go through the mountain of material in the Internet Archive’s stacks.

Naturally, I’ll be continuing to help with Archive Team, improving JSMESS, and acquiring tons of crap to throw into the hard drives as well, but I really want to take advantage of the tools and time to really dig deep into the Internet Archive’s wonder as a collection. It is a huge, huge set of materials and I’m positive people would have minds blown if they really came into contact with the true size and breadth of the material.

So that’s how it’s going to go in 2015.

But, as usual, I can’t wait and I’m starting now.

archive-1200

First, understanding the mass of material already in the Internet Archive that has come flooding in in the past few years is a task in itself. We don’t have a few monks chanting – we have 4,700 chants by a group of monks in France. Or maybe you want your sermons in english. Well, that’s fine, here’s a set of 21,000 of them. Or religion bums you out – that’s OK, take your mind outside and look at 8,000 books from the library of the New York Botanical Garden. Or go back in time to see a hundred episodes of Starcade, the game show for video gaming.

I can do this all day. There are thousands of groupings of thousands of items down there. It goes in many directions, and it goes deep as your tolerance can go. Books? The Internet Archive’s contributors added 1,000 books yesterday, and 1,000 the day before that as well. (It’s been a good couple of months.) Audio, don’t get me started. Newspapers, tens of thousands of issues of newspapers!

Stuff. We have it.

IMG_5922

Before I talk further, let me also say I’m not the only one thinking about this, especially within the organization. There is a very intense effort underway to completely redo the Internet Archive’s interface. If you visit http://archive.org/v2 you will go into the Beta Interface, which you can see is coming along swimmingly. (There’s a button in the upper right to turn it off and return to the current interface.) A team of people spent a year dealing with both the backend and the frontend aspects of this new design. It has a way to go, but it actually brings this whole issue to the forefront, since it’s going to become a lot easier to browse the collection.

But for my little bit, I want to find ways to get a better hold on the millions of items, move aside spam and broken items, and group up really cool and similar things without me spending every waking hour doing it.

But before I even do that, it’s time to talk about who I think the audience for the Internet Archive’s media riches are in the first place.

Hence, the Tourist, the Researcher, the Maniac.

10658828_10152506233184527_5746589902833348620_o

The Tourist washes up on land, pushed in by the general tools of contemporary discovery – popular links and search result. The Tourist can be very compelling, because whatever dragged a Tourist to your site probably dragged a lot of other Tourists. They can almost seem like a coherent movement, or a congregation. But they’re not, any more than one or two methods out of a building results in an actual orderly line. They’re a mob, a gawking fog of incoherent attendance, a group who has come in because there was a blinking sign somewhere, and having found something similar to what they want, have smiled and gone away, or they’ve stuck around just enough to pass judgement on somewhere they’ve never been and will likely never return again.

You can tell a Tourist because they go back to comment at the place they heard about the link, and the commentary they make tends to be along the lines of “I have a lot to say about the way about how nothing impresses me.”

Tourists can definitely become recurring users, of course. But their introduction to the place will almost always be “here was a thing you might like”, and they run in and out, because these are busy people, and there’s a lot of things to like.

All is fine and good with Tourists, unless your site or the site attracting Tourists thinks Tourists are the best people to acquire, what with their bloating numbers and all. They’re not – they’re basically sugar. Quick high, bad aftereffects, no long-term benefit.

Img_1223

The Researcher has come into your life and your site because they’re Looking For Something. Hopefully you have it.

Their requests are usually somewhat strange, but they’re also really flexible about what they find. They browse, they look up similar items, and they try to do some of your sorting job for you. In a good day, they send some of the results of their work over – “I have a list of items that need to go into a different collection” is a common one Internet Archive gets in the inbox.

Researchers often want something that is not quite what search engines can provide. A query can be something like “I want all the magazines that reviewed the Apple III”, or “I want to look at movies that feature skateboards or skateboard parks.” You can feel like everything is an incomplete patchwork of metadata and fairy dust after a Researcher walks around. But they’re not trying to be mean or disruptive – they just really appreciate the place and want to get the most out of it.

Researchers hunt in solitary or in small packs.

IMG_3916

The Maniac sounds like who you’re doing this all for.

You are not.

The Maniac comes in, and never leaves.

The Maniac has a dream inside their head of how the world should be and you are failing at it, right now, even while you’re not doing anything.

The Maniac has lots of ideas for the site, how things should be done, but they’re really a bundle of unfunded mandates and issues that affect a very, very small number of people. As a bonus, they become anti-ambassadors, posting frequently and viciously in other realms about how your place wouldn’t suck if you only decided to use the sdfjkhsfsdjfh standard or you would just allow unicode in usernames. I’d say The Maniac hasn’t done anything, but they probably have done something and by Ramthar’s Crowbar you will hear about it, a lot, as explanation of why they get to come in and take a dump in the potbelly stove.

DPI matters a lot to the Maniac, as does impeccable presentation and completeness. These, in themselves, are excellent things to have, if you can get them. But Maniacs are very, very quick to flip out if any of an internal checklist isn’t met. Maniacs flip out a lot. It’s what they do.

Maniacs are almost always solitary, although they can give the impression they travel in packs – but to be honest, every Maniac thinks all the rest of the Maniacs are tourists.

IMG_3398-Scaled

So, there’s a fourth group, called The Future – but going too insanely over the top to appease people that don’t exist with goals and ideals you can’t possibly anticipate is not today’s exercise. So you keep out there in the hazy realms of Tomorrow, you crazy Futures.

I think the sweet spot are the Researchers. You want to push Tourists to consider becoming Researchers if the mood takes them, and you want Maniacs to either tamp down into becoming Researchers, or go spill their hot oil of hate out from another castle.

Make the site make sense, start culling out items that are spam into places that won’t discourage browsing, and help build collections that sing. That’s 2015 for me – researchers welcome, Tourists a delight but sorry about the sdfjkhsfsdjfh being sub-par – I’m sure we’ll get to it soon.

Now, let’s get some sorting done.

 

 


Pain —

10660609_10152695388558834_1918406404_n

Somewhere around the age of 26, I woke up and couldn’t really get out of bed.

The reason, in the immediate, was that any attempt to put weight on my legs sent shooting pains through them. Real, intense, shooting pain like there were rods lodged inside the legs and they sent out shocks when they detected any movement or effort. I have forgotten what I thought at the time, but I do remember how much it hurt.

The mattress was on the floor, so I was able to roll and crawl to a phone and call for help. After getting clothes on (somehow) and getting down three flights of stairs (somehow), I waited outside and was taken to the hospital. During this hour or two before I was picked up, I learned which positions hurt the most, which the least, and tricks for getting around, somewhat. I also stopped being shocked at how much it hurt and just winced or yelled an awful lot as I discovered a new angle, a new approach that would make it all hurt anew.

At the hospital, after some battery of tests, I was given a bunch of over the counter pain relief, some crutches, and no real idea of what was wrong. I do remember one young doctor saying “You know, this really acts like gout. But you wouldn’t have gout – you’re 26.”

I hobbled on crutches for a couple days, the pain went away, I lived on.

A couple years later I was arguing with my girlfriend while she was driving her car. I remember this because in the middle of yelling, I felt something very unpleasant and I told her to stop arguing because something felt very unpleasant.

The thing about pain is that you both remember and don’t remember it. I can, these many years later, describe it as a tightness, a strain deep inside my gut, like shoelaces of nerves had been pulled very intensely, and were now knotted in a bow, and my movement in most any direction was pulling at them. That’s what I remember made me go from thinking I’d had a bruise or a swallowed knick-knack in there – its that there was no logical sense to my ratio of pain to the motion. Moving and trying to get into a good painless angle did nothing, and then it would stop, and then it’d come back harder, and I was rapidly losing brain function. I asked and then really begged my girlfriend to take us back to her house.

On her couch, it just got worse, we didn’t know if I had a burst appendix, a knife I’d somehow fallen on, or if something inside me was just going necrotic and taking out my organs. But boy, did it hurt. It hurt until I ran out of ways to think it was hurt. I wanted desperately to take something to knock myself out but then I simply assumed that I’d die in my sleep and that seemed needlessly unpleasant and surreal. So I lay there, looking up at rafters, overcome with pain, waiting for either healing or death. Some measure of healing happened, and ultimately I fell asleep, as if I’d run a marathon.

Let’s move ahead to the diagnosis, that came in my mid-30s. Kidney stones.

There’s two kinds of kidney stones – the calcium ones and the acid ones. I have the acid ones, which are notably rarer and as a bonus, the treatments, which I had many, many, many meddling Dr. Google-Readers give me over the years, are entirely opposite. Drinking cranberry juice doesn’t work, for example – a lot of people told me to drink cranberry juice. No.

Due to a set of circumstances where I didn’t seek out the best doctor but just fell into doctors, I didn’t really have a doctor look at me, properly, with competence and awareness, until somewhat recently. This doctor has done wonders. So there’s your happy ending.

Now, let’s go back.

By my early 30s, I was passing 100 kidney stones a year. That is not an exotic allegorical statement –  I was passing some sort of stone every few days. For months, and then years. On the whole, over time, I didn’t even notice them. In fact, I almost got worried when one didn’t show up in a given week. It was just another fact of life, like waking up feeling tired or occasionally having a joint feel sore. Stuff happened, and some of it involved the fact that I ceaselessly created stones and passed them frequently, with small pinpricks of pain involved in the process.

By the time this was all happening, pain was rapidly not becoming a problem for me. The kind of pain one might have from hitting your foot or shin against something, or from grabbing something sharp, I could notice, but it was more like hearing a distant yell, like someone cupping hands and shouting that you should turn back, the woods are not safe. It wasn’t immediate, and it certainly wan’t concerning. By this time, most pain was being given a level of interest far beyond what it probably should have been.

The reason for this is because of the times when it got my attention.

Imagine, if you can, a very large meatball inside a bowl that is only a little larger than said meatball. Imagine that meatball is kind of sloshing back and forth, kind of randomly, in the bowl. That’s how it felt, and how it started.

I’d feel some overarching dullness inside myself, and I started to get really good at recognizing it. The feeling, you see, was a largish stone, and one that had gotten in some way stuck. I got really, really good at noticing this, because I knew what was coming next.

If I was lucky, I could run in some direction and get my hands on water. Lots and lots of water, like quarts of it. I’m really fast at drinking water, and I’d stop mid-conversation and drink everyone’s water at the table, or run towards a store and buy a gallon of water and start drinking it at the cash register. Anything, you see, to get as much water flushing through my system as absolutely possible.

If I was lucky, and a few times I was lucky, the meatball would evaporate. It’d kind of roll into a cloud version of itself, and waves of discomfort would subside, like a pool minutes after someone jumps in it.

I wasn’t often that lucky.

I am a weaver of metaphors. I am a person who tries to find the middle ground between the listener and the moon, and concoct a pointing finger that will lead you to the moon. But where do you even begin with describing pain like a pain of a stone that’s lodged in your system?

First, it’s often in your gut, deep inside, so it doesn’t feel like the sharp sting of a skin burn or a radiating line of a strained muscle. It feels like something deep inside you is twisting apart, and has no recourse to stop, and probably will never stop. After a few minutes, you forget when the pain started and you definitely stop assuming it will ever end. Oh, you definitely hope it will end, but it never seems to.

Sometimes I was just two eyes staring at something in the room and pain. One time I was a flattened person on the floor of an airport, screaming, everyone looking at me, while a stranger held my hand. Another moment, I was in the softest bed ever, in a visit to my father’s home, with my siblings watching me appear to be dying for no good reason. They scrambled through medicine cabinets looking for something, anything, but ultimately all they could do was sit elsewhere in the house until the screaming stopped and I fell asleep.

This happened a lot. I’m not telling anyone who has lived with or spent a lot of time with me something new – they probably have at least one memory of me either having to leave very quickly to go be possessed elsewhere, or they’ve sat nearby, wondering what you do with a body when that happens, when your friend is gone. They know. Things people shouldn’t have to consider with guests, my occasional attacks gave them time to consider.

I only got operated on once, by a doctor I’ve called Doctor Coldfront since the time he operated on me. He had the bedside manner of a mailman to a mailbox. I’m sure he was competent, but ironically, he made me hurt the most, although with that pain came some interesting revelation.

He inserted a stent into my left Ureter, which is the tube from a kidney to the bladder, while I was under. I didn’t mind that – I was asleep.

Some time later, and I’ll spare you too many details, he removed the stent under local anaesthesia, as an outpatient procedure in his office. I had requested a full knockout but he wasn’t interested in doing that – I assume out of 10% concern about putting someone under and 90% of the inconvenience for what he perceived as a minor operation.

I had nightmares about that day for a decade.

But as I said, some revelation came from that – which was that there are doctors and professionals all throughout the world, some even here, who use some level of medical procedure to torture out information. Some of them are paid by governments, some by private organizations, to do so. Back in the hazy glance of youth’s cobbled knowledge and self-assuredness, I thought that a reasonably strong-willed person could resist giving whatever information was being extracted, under torture.

Considering how I was treated by a doctor who was merely inattentive to my wishes, I gained the knowledge and the understanding that no – information is probably not worth keeping from someone who is intentionally, unendingly, aggressively intent on you staying alert and bathed in pain for as long as is necessary for you to give up whatever pearl of knowledge they wish to extract.

That’s an interesting lesson to have gotten.

I never spoke to that doctor again. I hope someone broke his heart.

So, why go into all this? Well, two reasons.

First, my weblog has been suffering a little from a case of the Nerd, and has way too much technical information without much self-revelation and consideration. So there’s a little self-revelation.

Second, I wanted to make clear to a certain subset of fans and followers as to what my secret is, since I’ve had people literally say that they are trying to “Jason Scott” something, i.e. throw a lot of energy at it, or never stop.

My secret is that I am all too cognizant of how quickly life changes, and how one can go from a moment of relaxing in the sun to feeling pain so great, so intense and miserable, that you will cry tears of anger at your previous self for wasting precious minutes and hours in the paradise of existence you had been granted. It is why I don’t like lying down for too long unless I am very tired, and why I often (but not always) get up with a burst of intensity, worried about what I missed and what needs to be done.

It’s also why I tend not to wear coats, and underdress for the weather. It’s why I can hold my hand over a candle for a stupid amount of time. And it’s why I hand people things and am confused at the look on their faces, only to realize it’s because I handed them something blistering hot or bitterly cold.

It’s because pain’s kind of an abstraction now. When I go to the hospital these days, I have to exaggerate what pain I’m feeling, because I realized after a few times that they were asking if it hurt, and my definition of hurt and pain is not theirs anymore. I can see clearly, and I can think about things, and I call that not being hurt, even with a hole in my arm or a knife cut that needs stitches.

I’d call it a superpower, if I didn’t make an effort to remember how I got it, and how truly useless it is, and how dangerous. But I have it.

In the meantime, here I am, working very hard, doing a lot of things, and counting the missed opportunities and the upcoming chances to do even more things. Because of the pills I got from the right doctor, three years ago, I have not had a single kidney stone, or a single day in true screaming pain that defined my life for so long.

And if that’s what I have now, a day without that pain, then that is a day it would be a crime to waste, to not pull the most out of, to not work on things until I barely can stand up and then fall asleep until the next round of things to do.

I do not recommend the journey to this situation to anyone.

Have a great day.

 


It’s Time To Keep Solving the File Format Problem —

Here’s how a planned large-scale set of roving ideas and goals ends up being a case of just doing one thing right.

Theproblem

The original plan when I cooked up Just Solve The Problem Month was that there was a set of problems out there that just needed a few hundred people to contribute time and effort, and some otherwise seemingly insurmountable problems could be solved or really, really beaten down into a usable form.

Aaaaand what instead happened was:

  • We announced and set up a Just Solve The Problem Wiki for the first problem.
  • A lot of people worked on the Wiki.
  • I got very busy.
  • People kept working on the Wiki.
  • It’s been two years.

So, basically, we have one single output from this idea.

And that idea is the File Formats Wiki.

The File Formats Wiki has been progressively, constantly updated to for two years and has now entered its third year of existence. If you check the statistics page, you can see there’s been thousands of pages added.

I had previously said that November could be Just Solve the Problem Month. Well, the machine that this Wiki is on had to get some maintenance, so I moved it to December. And now, it’s just File Formats Month, I think…. that’s a good enough project itself.

That is, now.

So let’s go over it again, shall we?


 

The world has a problem. Well, the world has many problems, but this one is a big one.

File Formats.

Oh, we have been so good at file formats. We’ve happily come up with file formats whenever and however we want to, whenever information has been captured up into a bundle. We’re so good at it, we often don’t even look at what formats are out there – we just make a new one. And then we later change the file format we created to accommodate some problem we didn’t account for, and so the file format becomes “file format v2.0″ or “file format NG” or even worse “entirely new name for file format”.

And then we forget about them.

Really new file formats, that is, ones created in the last five to ten years, are pretty lucky, relatively – there are webpages and standards posted into all sorts of locations, and utilities available besides, to deal with them. And really, as time has gone on, one person or another will document a file format to the best of their ability, stick it on a webpage, and there it will set for some time before being deleted or forgotten.

All of this is a problem. This is a problem that can be solved.

We’ve set up a Wiki, called the File Formats Wiki.

Everything on it is Creative Commons 0 (Public Domain-ish) because it turns out you can’t just say something is “Public Domain” and have it stick worldwide. But the contract is basically that – everything on the FF Wiki can be used anywhere else – the knowledge can be spread to other similar projects (and there are some) and every boat can be lifted.

Every file format or container for information is eligible. We even have Piano Rolls, Tree Rings, DNA, and Spoken Languages. Obviously, our big focus is on computer file formats, though.

We’re looking for descriptions, links, clarifications, and tracking down of documents. We want to make this stuff get assembled in one place as best as one can.

We want it that when you find something is in ‘a format’, that this Wiki could be your first stop on the research, and possibly your last one as well.

You register, you can edit it, and you can get started basically immediately.

I’ll be working on it all month. I hope you will too.

Let’s solve this problem!


Gamepads! —

A week into the explosion of the Internet Arcade, with what has now been millions of visitors to the Archive as a result, and we’re getting pretty far down the “what still confounds people” realm. As someone who worked in tech support as his first “real” job at Psygnosis, (shout out to Chris Caprio and Jim Drewry for the hire), I know both the frustration of not having things work right when you expect them to, and the propensity on the technical support side to go ‘oh come on, why don’t you have this already”, like the mass of humans out there is just one person calling you back over and over.

In the last week, the JSMESS team made the software load in Internet Explorer and Safari, fixed aspect ratios on full-screening of the video, made keys work in fullscreen mode on all browsers, and shored up a bunch of little details not worth going into here.

This leaves the #1 thing we’re still getting mail about: Gamepads.

SO YOU HOOKED UP YOUR GAMEPAD AND IT WAS A LITTLE WONKY OR DOESN’T WORK RIGHT

  • Please bear in mind that JSMESS has basically nothing to do with Gamepad Support. We used Emscripten to compile it in. Whatever Emscripten does and whatever the generic Gamepad API loader does, we do – we do no development on it. So, first….
  • In all circumstances, definitely visit the Gamepad API Tester. This is a nice little page that will show what the current version of the Gamepad API thinks your controller is. If you can’t see it, or it acts weird, it’s the API.
  • Some gamepads actually press keys instead of doing “gamepad signals”. For example, we used the X-Gaming Tankstick during testing and it worked out of the box, since it’s basically another USB keyboard, and it was mapped to MAME controls. (Disclaimer – after X-Gaming found out I was using their stick at the Archive/Arcade, they sent a couple more a day or two ago.
  • There are software packages out there for various platforms that will convert joypad/gamepad movements to keyboards. For example, there’s Glovepie (Windows), Xpadder (Windows), Joystickmapper (OSX), and many, many more. This is a known thing of interest and people have made a lot of programs that do the same thing.

Ultimately, the message that we have at the bottom that says you should hook up your gamepad and then will go “Gamepad detected, you may need to refresh…” – well, this is because the way the API works, it’s not exactly guaranteed the signals from the gamepad will “Catch”. I tried to put in a message to go “keep messing with it if you don’t get it”.

Some people also got confused that this meant you could ONLY play these games with a gamepad. That’s not true – it’s just better in a lot of cases, once you have it working. The keyboard controls of MAME were always a weird compromise, and you can really feel it with some of the classics.

Remember, there’s a TAB command in all JSMAME emulations, letting you see the key mappings, and testing them with your joypad. It’s not perfect, but it at least informs.

The Joypad API specification is very new. It was barely up and running when we got it going in September of 2013. A year later, it’s there, and it works, except when it really doesn’t. That’s the nature of all of this – cobbled together pretty-good things presenting you a programming miracle. Like the fullscreen and the browser compatibility, I expect it to get incrementally, notably better.

Good luck.


Before It All Arrives —

The numbers are a little hard to calculate, because the Internet Archive, heroes to the core, do not keep logs for pretty much any time at all. But using a few methods, comparing some general graphs, and doing math, the admins handed me an estimate of how many people have played video games at the Internet Archive in the last 3 days.

Two million.

Two million.

While I’ve had bursts of somewhat public facing events and wonders over time, none of them have ever have crashed into the lives of millions in just a couple days. And certainly not in the continually ongoing way I am finding people are returning, over and over, to look at the games. Additionally, it hasn’t taken people long to find other software collections, and other places where the emulator has been utilized for consoles and general computers. In other words, they are cascading through all of the services that the archive provides, and poking at them all with brand-new eyes. Many thousands will have never heard of the Internet archive before Sunday.

I am hesitant to use a term like “turning point” in regards to the archive in general, since you could go on any subway platform and somebody who was waiting for the train would probably know that there was something called the Wayback machine. It’s been around for 15 years, and even if people don’t know all the details, they get with the Archive is about.

Not so with emulation, or the state of software preservation. The last three days have been, unquestionably, a turning point in emulation.

Emulation made the local TV news. The ability to play old software in your modern browser and on your current machine was a decently packaged story that found its way into magazines, newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and an unknown amount of water cooler conversations.

People who know me let me know about overhearing conversations about the Internet arcade, and therefore Emulation, in classrooms, workplaces, and in the street.

For the contingency of people who were hoping that one day society would understand what Emulation was, and would be able to articulate, even in the lightest fashion, its underlying theories, well, that day has arrived. That day is here.

Certainly, there were and always will be factions within the regard of historical software. Some people believe that actions like this are a dreadful mistake, and could only lead to horror and sadness. Others are flying high today, getting exactly what they had always hoped for.

A rough travel schedule last week has left me rather sick, and I am still recovering. Regardless, I can’t let these moments slip away. My work in historical circles only highlights for me how fleeting moments of happiness can be. We were watching as many as 1000 people a minute running into the Internet archive, overrunning resources within, having an incredible time. The sky is the limit for them. For this time, a bounty lay before them, utilizing the strength of their own computers to provide them a nostalgia roller coaster, a recovered treasure trove of memories, a new insight into a world nearly 30 years dead.

It can’t last. Nothing lasts.

What’s coming forward are questions, and ideas, and arguments, and discussions. They’re on the way, I can feel them formulating now. Letters and think pieces and essays, and debates.

I’m sure I’ll play a part in them at that future time, but I just want to go a little bit into the past.

A year and a half ago, I participated in what was probably the most white-hot conflagration of software preservation experts in the country. It was called preserving.exe. Here was the agenda and information on it:

PRESERVING.EXE (May 2013)

I gave a talk there. It was called “I did it 35 minutes ago” and in it I laid out the importance of software preservation, and the efforts of the Internet archive to move forward in that space. I am more than happy to admit that the speech was equal parts passion and plans.

I predicted the inevitability of what’s happening now, this week. I asked peers and contemporaries what they were going to do about it, what moves needed to be done, and if we are going to sit by and let software be buried, forgotten, or if we would work to give it the due it deserves and the access it needs to have.

I asked, fundamentally, what software is, in a historical context. Is it an eternal product, service, and item that is always to be sold, treated as such, perpetually unreachable, and distributable until the very media it is on rots beneath it? Will software have to be something described, as a lore, instead of presented for people to experience themselves and understand?

In other words, would software’s very specific nature of easy duplication and transfer ironically doom it to disappearance? Would the software preservation experts refuse to make their hard work available, out of fear, concern, lack of guideposts? Would the newness of the medium paradoxically lead it to be lagging decades behind in advances made with almost every other medium? Is that the world we want to leave behind?

I pounded my little podium, and I sat down. And when I went home. I went back to work.

Like blasting a firehose into a kitchen, the pure sheer numbers of people now running through the Internet archive are a fascinating spectrum of regard. Some people are disappointed when they run into rough patches, others are delighted that the whole thing comes together at all. Shouts of disbelief clash against demands for decade-old playing tips. The project has been praised and cursed, lauded, and questioned.

Through it all, one thing is obvious: software is more than code. Programs are more than executables. This medium we have formed forms us, and returning to it brings back joy and the agony, no different than a book, a poem, or a face.

Soon, a stunned populace, an alerted establishment, is going to come forward and have a lot of questions and want to debate.

But before they arrive, before the buzzing in the distance becomes a roar in the valley and a scream in our yard, I have one last question, to colleagues and bystanders:

Where will you be?

It is going to be most interesting for me to find out.


The Internet Arcade: And Where Are You? —

Yes, that’s right, three Internet Arcade posts in a row.

I usually like to mix things up, but the world is very quickly going nuts over the introduction of the Arcade. Hundreds of thousands of people have played the games in it, it’s been featured in dozens of sites, and it’s even hit TV news in a few markets.

B1hYwH-CQAAb5_f

It also (temporarily) crushed the Internet Archive servers, mostly to my putting up a relatively inefficient page and causing a few components within the system to work too hard. After an excellent and inspiring set of actions with the administration team at the Internet Archive, the hits haven’t stopped by a long shot.

render

So, this is great – hundreds of thousands of people are playing the games, the word is out that Emulation is Just Another Thing, and joy has come throughout the land.

However.

Putting up 900 arcade games, 2,300 console games, and 25,000 software titles means I didn’t get a chance to, individually, check every single one. And while I and the many people helping with JSMESS did our best to make stuff work right and fail gracefully, there’s a lot of browsers out there, and a lot of system configurations, and a lot can go wrong when you’re running, say, an entire arcade game inside a window of a browser.

This whole thing’s a proof of concept – a very public, very popular one now.

I am now making a call for you – yes, you – to help with the next round of improvements.

I need:

  • People willing to enter descriptions of games. Just the describing of games turns out to be a long-term thing – with the hundreds of Arcade machines, there’s entries that can be grabbed from (and should be cited), but I am actually kind of shocked that there are plenty of games that are not in any way online and described – there are games that MAME (and therefore JSMESS) emulate for which there appears to be really no canonical paragraphs about. We need those badly.
  • People willing to help smooth out the code. I mean, sure, I’d love if people helped reprogramming MAME/MESS itself so the improved emulation would be transferred over to JSMESS – but in this case, I just mean things like loader code (javascript) which could be more resilient, as well as better error messages for when things go wrong. Do you think you could help with that?
  • People willing to help describe idiosyncratic aspects of these games. Some of these games do not go gently into that good browser – games like Defender and Street Fighter have crazy amounts of keys and could really stand someone to at least document them where possible.

I’m sure we need even more people, but will you be one of the people who comes forward to help with this, to make it better? We’re doing fine on the people playing the games department – that thing’s sewed up. But now we’re building the largest virtual and playable collection of software. Can I get your support?

If you’re interested, either come to #JSMESS on EFNet (IRC), write me at arcade@textfiles.com, or hit me up on twitter, or … well, just scream out a window.


So, You Found the Internet Arcade —

Woo hoo.

Soon after my initial announcement on this weblog, a few tweets of the posting, followed by some press attention, means tens of thousands of people have now visited the Internet Arcade. Many are happy. A goodly amount are stunned. A few are annoyed and wondering why it “doesn’t work”.

This quick post from a plane is for the last group, who are having issues. Hopefully this can help clear things up for you.

Browser Choice

First, the Internet Arcade works best in Firefox, and a very recent flavor of Firefox at that. If you needed an excuse to upgrade, this is it. Chrome also works well, although due to disagreements between Mozilla and Google that bore me, Chrome runs about 20% slower on average. This can mean the difference between good and clunky emulation. Safari, mostly recent Safari, works good but sound does not currently work on it. Same for Internet Explorer. Believe it or not, I’ve had great response from a 64-bit Windows version of Firefox called Waterfox. As they say, your mileage may vary. We continue to improve this experience and we’re constantly doing fixups to the code to work with other browsers.

People occasionally complain about the irony of how you need the latest and greatest to run such old stuff. Well, you’re really running an emulation system that itself is running an old system, and that emulation system is in a browser. Let’s call it even on the “why is it so intense” issue. Work continues to make it run as best as it can.

Controllers/Gamepads

This is entirely un-intuitive. I’m sorry about that – we’re going to make it clearer soon. Basically, you need to start a game, i.e. after the MAME logo goes, and you see the game booting, and then you hit keys on your joypad until it says “joypad detected”, and then you need to refresh the browser. The Gamepad API we use is somewhat janky, and it takes a while for the browser to “get it”. Also, only Chrome and Firefox currently support the Gamepad API meaningfully. So again… start game, wait for booting, twirl buttons until it notices, then it will generally work for all the games you click on after that.

Another issue, if you live with the keyboard controller, is that MAME wants to use CTRL, ALT/OPTION, and a few other wacky keys. This comes into conflict with MacOS especially, as hot keys and accessibility come from combinations. There are two solutions, both are annoying. One is to Press TAB after the game starts, and you can go into a menu and change the keys… problem is, you lose these settings currently after you refresh the browser. Another solution is to go into your OS, make a guest account, and make that account not have hotkeys – that worked fine in OSX and in Windows for us. As this expands out into other setups, I’m sure other solutions will present themselves.

Sound

Sound, like Gamepads, is a little strange. It starts out muted by default. This is because the way the Webaudio API works is really poor, and you can thank Mozilla AND Google for that one. They claim they’re going to make it better. But here, you have to start the game, wait for the booting of the game, and then hit the UNMUTE button. Then you (you guessed it) refresh the browser to make sound work.

The good news is, once you set this cookie, it’ll have sound for everything. The other slightly annoying news is that that Webaudio API thing means that sound can be really fuzzy and crackly on a browser, and doing anything with a lower-powered machine (including, with some of them, even moving the mouse or swapping tabs) will get that fuzziness. I get it too, especially when you’re running a post-1983 machine in this emulator. As I’ve said to people testing it the past few months, when it works, it works great. When it doesn’t, hoo boy.

Credit Where Credit is Due

As this thing busted wise, it gets way too easy for people to report that “Jason Scott” did all this. Jason Scott by no means did even a notable percentage of this. JSMESS is a port of the MAME/MESS emulator. JSMESS, (github repo is here) was the work of a huge amount of people, listed there and on the JSMESS main page. And MAME/MESS has its own massive, massive collection of people who are working on the actual emulation, coding, driver refinement, and related coordination to making the most comprehensive emulator system on the planet. Every single time that this project has broken wide, some places don’t do a good job of reporting on the amazing nearly-20-years project of MAME/MESS. So that we’re clear.

I’m sure there’s other questions, or considerations. That’s some of the stuff that comes up.

Oh, and if you get a blank screen in the window…. did you turn off Javascript? Javascript MESS likes Javascript for some reason.

 


The Internet Arcade —

When work began on JSMESS a couple years ago, I knew that it was probably somewhat easy to do all this conversion work for MAME (the arcade side) as it was for MESS (the computer and console side). I specifically chose not to, because I was not interested in a pile of work just to make another game platform. This was about software history, and it’s not that hard to get MAME up and running for the game or games you want to play.

Over the next few years, we got JSMESS working, and working pretty darn well – in a lot of cases, you can boot into a wide range of computers in your browser and it’s working great. There’s hiccups here and there, and we have work left to clean it up, but on the whole.. the proof exists. You can browse the historical software collection and the software library and wow, thousands of programs instantly there!

So, earlier this year, I decided to futz around with our build environment (which, it must be absolutely stressed, the other JSMESS team members built, not me), just to ask the question, “And how hard would it be to build arcade games, anyway?“.

It turned out to be easy. Very, very easy.

Months of testing, refinement, improvements and efforts, and this week I have announced the result: The Internet Arcade.

desktop-arcade-1014-de

 

Of the roughly 900 arcade games (yes, nine hundred arcade games) up there, some are in pretty weird shape – vector games are an issue, scaling is broken for some, and some have control mechanisms that are just not going to translate to a keyboard or even a joypad.

But damn if so many are good enough. More than good enough. In the right browser, on a speedy machine, it almost feels perfect. The usual debates about the “realness” of emulation come into play, but it works.

This is the week it’s been dropped. Not a huge announcement (unless you count this weblog entry), no parties or fanfare beyond, yes. There it is:

http://archive.org/details/internetarcade

So then begins the question that I ask myself more and more in this endeavor: Now What?

Obviously, a lot of people are going to migrate to games they recognize and ones that they may not have played in years. They’ll do a few rounds, probably get their asses kicked, smile, and go back to their news sites.

A few more, I hope, will go towards games they’ve never heard of, with rules they have to suss out, and maybe more people will play some of these arcades in the coming months than the games ever saw in their “real” lifetimes.

And my hope is that a handful, a probably tiny percentage, will begin plotting out ways to use this stuff in research, in writing, and remixing these old games into understanding their contexts. Time will tell.

Until then, game is on.


The Software Library —

It’s been time to make vintage software accessible. That’s about to take a great leap forward.

635090727940420469

Last year, it was the Console Living Room, where running versions of 21 different game consoles were put up. That’s been up for basically a year (although it started at around 11 consoles, which were added to over time). In that year, hundreds of thousands of people have played the games at least a million times. (The Internet Archive absolutely does not keep user logs, so you have to run estimates and do some arithmetic.) I find people stumble on it, or get linked to it, and they flip out. I’m all for that. The point was to turn the vast majority of console history into a clickable, instant experience, and this does that.

As I’ve said before and will say again, the nice piece with JSMESS is that general or specific improvements to its porting of MESS/MAME, as well as improvements to MESS/MAME, are cascaded down into all the programs and platforms that JSMESS deals with. In other words, get ye to github and browse the repositories for JSMESS and MAME/MESS.

Anyway, preamble aside, it’s time for the next round, the next level. And as always, I need your help.

I’ve been working for most of this year on something called, simply, The Software Library.

Not the current Software Library Curator

Not the current Software Library Curator

It’s meant to be for home computers of the 1970s and 1980s what the Console Living Room is for game consoles. This is a huge, huge leap forward in software preservation, and the experience of accessing this software.

I was originally going to do a large amount of home computers, but I quickly realized this was spreading things too thin. So I instead went for three that JSMESS does pretty well: The Apple II, the Atari 800, the ZX Spectrum.

Between these three platforms, the Software Library has 24,000 items in it. So it’s already coming out into the pre-test gate with 10 times the items as the console living room has gotten in a year.

This is obviously too much for one person to curate. That’s why I co-created the Screen Shotgun – how else could you slam through all this stuff and even begin to get an idea of what you’re looking at?

And at this moment, there are keys that are hard to hit, especially on the Atari 800 and ZX Spectrum. I’m blasting through a prototype virtual keyboard that will pop up on the screen and allow you to hit crazy keys directly.

Anyway, these are the first few halting steps towards the full intended goal, which is to put up all microcomputer software. All of it.

All of it.

It’s ambitious and potentially insane, but that’s worked out for me so far.

So, what can you do?

Well, imagine a major museum going online all at once. Imagine an empty warehouse booting into National Museum in a week. (Imagine the sound that would make. Probably something like this.)

There’s just no way for me to track down the historical relevance of all these items. I can’t concoct the paragraphs of description, the clarification of what the software is, the context, the tags… I can do a little, but one person isn’t enough. It just needs an army.

I’ll be frank. Attempts to crowdsource metadata entry, even with a personality at the helm burning with the force of a thousand suns, is pretty variant. It usually comes down to a very small handful of folks who just kind of like it. It’s a very specific personality type – I don’t think there’s many people like that.

I believed strongly, and continue to, that archive.org is now the largest downloadable library of software in the world. What we’re now becoming, with the addition of this new material, is the largest instantly-runnable vintage software in the world. And that’s quite a feat, and something to be proud of.

But as emulation fades out of Miracletown and wanders into What-you-got-next-ville, it’s going to be metadata, curation and context that turns it into something other than the world’s largest floppy case. So I’m asking you to write me or contact me about helping as this library grows and refines itself. As we try experiments with crowd-assisted classification, try to be there. And if you see something playable on this library, write about it, cite it, link to it. That’s when it comes alive.

So let’s see what happens.


Making Historic Software Eternal —

Update: Ultimately, the grant was not accepted, although it was a really important process to describe the importance of JSMESS and the rest of the related projects, and more grants will be applied for. Thanks for everyone for their encouragement.

At the urging of the grant-writer for the Internet Archive, I have submitted an application to the Knight Foundation for a grant for further development of JSMESS.

Making Historic Software Eternal

jsmesslogo

 

This is just the first step of a multi-step process (although this one needs you the most of all). Over the next couple of months, I have to discuss the project and plans for it with their judges and readers, and promote the core ideas of what this whole thing has been for. If it all comes together, a grant will be issued to the Internet Archive for the project.

logo

JSMESS has come an enormous way – it basically works. You can choose a piece of software in the Internet Archive, say a copy of Mystery House for the Apple II and click on it and there you are. It works with all the major browsers, although they have to be pretty contemporary (the last year or two) to work well. Firefox is significantly faster than Chrome. But sound works (if your machine is fast enough), and it’s compatible with USB joypads, which is more surreal every time I do it.

It’s a major, unquestionable success.

At its core, however, JSMESS is essentially an involved port of MAME and MESS, two projects that have had hundreds of contributors and many thousands of hours dedicated to them by volunteers. The functionality and approach to these programs have been to bring into software form the hardware aspects of thousands of machines. This is a miracle and it’s a wonder to behold what MESS and MAME are, when you really go over what it all does and how it does it.

The Internet Archive has gotten behind this in a very big way, dedicating resources (hardware, software, networking, and me) to bringing JSMESS to where it is now. It has, in my opinion, been very beneficial to both parties – MESS/MAME get another end compiling point and platform (the web), and Internet Archive can begin to make hundreds of thousands of software packages available instantly.

fd5432f8-eeab-bd54-a720-78ab5ef1f77a-banner

What this proposal does is ask for a grant to increase the amount of people working on this project. That includes making JSMESS run faster (by finding optimizations that could be conducted), on more platforms (making it more aware of mobile, or other browsers), and to go and audit/augment MESS/MAME (by having a person or persons work on the more “boring parts” and continue to improve it). It can also allow archive.org to work with acquiring equipment or software that should be ingested, and so on.

Internet Archive is a non-profit library, and this grant is for libraries and to improve the world’s libraries along access and technology – I can think of no finer fit between goal and project than JSMESS, which will allow libraries the world over to turn computer history into a clickable link.

There’s just a few days to show approval, ask questions, and respond to the whole thing – then it goes in for study, voting, and the rest of the process. Feel free to get involved in it – that’s what it’s there for.

Time for the next level.