A View from Christopher Mims
Stunning Results of 1K Programming Contest Recall PC Demos of Yore
On the Web, where speed still counts, contests to determine who can write the tightest possible code are reviving a dying art.
1024 bytes, not characters, is all programmers in the JS1k contest have to work with when creating demos of their HTML5 programming prowess. (For those of you used to measuring memory in gigabytes, that’s only enough bytes to describe about 0.3% of the pixels in an average laptop screen.) The results of the third annual JS1k contest are nothing short of fantastical. This year’s theme was the classic Apple II game Oregon Trail.
The winner, a physics simulator that puts you in control of the world’s longest, flexiest tapeworm, stretches the bounds of what seems possible in 1k of code – but that’s precisely the point. This challenge “tends to bring out the best in programmers,” says Martijn Laarman, lead developer at Dutch web development studio Poort80 and the creator of a piano rendered entirely with HTML5’s Canvas element. Laarman points out that JS1k is one of the many descendants of the “demo scene” that reached its apotheosis among certain geeks in the early 90’s.
If you were a nerdling with access to a BBS and a sufficiently powerful machine – a tricked-out 386 or, if you were lucky, a 486, Future Crew’s Second Reality demo was the ultimate demonstration of the power that could be squeezed from a PC when programming for it in low-level assembler.
Taking tenth in this year’s contest was an almost painfully clever take-off on the Geek comic of choice - XKCD. I won’t ruin it by trying to reproduce it here - go figure it out for yourself.