Backburner Month 09: Endsay

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A modern, debuggable, interactive PostScript implementation.

The first part is boring, and in fact doesn't really fit my criteria for these posts, because “just implement PostScript well” is not a super interesting project idea. But it's really worth calling out that many of the existing implementations—not surprisingly—really aren't designed for human beings. For example, if I accidentally pop too many elements in GhostScript, I get an informative but not terribly well-designed error like so:

GS>pop
Error: /stackunderflow in --pop--
Operand stack:

Execution stack:
   %interp_exit   .runexec2   --nostringval--   % removed for space
Dictionary stack:
   --dict:729/1123(ro)(G)--   --dict:0/20(G)--   --dict:75/200(L)--
Current allocation mode is local

It's not hard to improve on the ergonomics here, since something like GhostScript isn't really designed for human ergonomics anyway!

But there's more to Endsay that I wanted to get around to, which is also designing an interactive debugger for PostScript: to begin with, I want step-by-step execution and breakpoints in code, so I can walk through the process of watching my document being drawn on the screen. But I think we can even do better: for one, supporting some amount of rewinding, so we can rewind the state of the world, undraw things that we have drawn. Even further, I suspect we can set breakpoints based on graphical content, as well: for example, selecting an area of the page to be rendered and then requesting that we break whenever that area gets drawn, or choosing a color and requesting that we break when that color is used. Something that interests me about this project is figuring out the right way to build and expose those primitives!

Why write it? The PostScript language is a weird beast, and in some ways it's the complete opposite of the languages I've pitched in these backburner posts: rather than using a non-Turing-complete language for a task conventionally understood as the purview of executable logic like in Parley it's a Turing-complete language for a format conventionally understood to be declarative. PostScript is a dynamically-typed stack-based language, roughly like Forth, that was originally created for printers: rather than rendering expensive raster versions of your document on your computer, you could produce a simple, terse program which would produce your document, send that program to the printer, and let it handle the rendering.

There was a very very narrow slice of history where this actually made sense—where printers were good enough to need bigger raster files than computers could comfortably generate and send, for example—and at no point was PostScript really intended for human writing. PostScript lives on in more restricted forms: for example, the EPS format is PostScript under the hood, while the PDF format was effectively designed as pre-executed PostScript.

That said, you absolutely can, as a human being, write PostScript by hand. I happen to like writing PostScript a lot. I wouldn't be interested in writing a PostScript implementation for practical rendering of images—those exist already, and are fine—but I'd love to write an implementation that's more user-friendly, even if the user is just me!

Plus, building debugging tools for creating 2D graphics sounds like a fascinating design question. I'd love to see what turns out to be useful and how best to expose these features!

Why the name? English is one of many languages to have had strong “linguistic purist” movements: that is to say, efforts to remove foreign influences by removing borrowed words and replacing them with native words or compounds. Thankfully, these efforts have mostly disappeared, despite the best efforts of tedious linguistic reactionaries like George Orwell.

While I by and large think that linguistic purism is an abysmally stupid endeavour, I nonetheless do appreicate the creative and artistic applications of linguistic purism. Consequently, I do enjoy reading about some of the alternative words once proposed as “pure” equivalents of foreign borrowings, just because they sound so whimsical and entertaining: for example, using starlore instead of “astronomy”, bendsome instead of “flexible”, and, of course, endsay instead of “postscript”.

#backburner