On meaning

Jan 26, 2023

What is the point? Why bother? Who cares?

If you're a deeply cynical and increasingly misanthropic introvert like me, or if you are paying attention to "the world" at all, those questions are ringing in your ears all the time these days. It doesn't matter what your politics or spiritual beliefs are, things are a mess right now and nobody seems happy. It's all coming apart, as we seem to be preparing to Great Filter ourselves into oblivion, which is laughable and tragic and painfully stupid all at the same time. Everything sucks forever, amen.

Despite it all -- and "it" is way, way too much to bother to rehash here -- working on the PERQ project makes me irrationally happy. Seeing the little icon bounce when I launch PERQemu, watching the memory test pattern flash across the screen, running the silly demo programs or digging into some ridiculously arcane little edge case of some impossibly obscure little detail of how a pile of TTL chips from 43 years ago worked is blissfully consuming. And why shouldn't it be? Who's to say this is any more or less valid a pursuit than any other? There are 8 billion humans around, many of whom seem to be increasingly desperate and miserable most of the time, and while I have innumerable BS theories about all of that, here, right now, I have this lovely little escape into joy. It doesn't have to make sense.

Yes, I know it's an escape. We'll set aside politics, "privilege," psychology and philosophy for now.

The world of the PERQ is small, self-contained, and static: that's the appeal. It is rich and complex enough to provide lots of opportunities to explore and learn but at a human scale -- it's possible to wrap your head around the whole thing. That seems to be something the world in general lacks these days, as every aspect of our lives has grown so bewilderingly complex. In computing, contemporary CPUs with 38 gazillion transistors running OSes comprising 10's of millions of lines of code in thousands of interconnected packages are so far beyond the ability to truly apprehend that it's a wonder that any of it works at all. Like everything driven by money, ego, status, "cool" -- it's all so exhausting. I just can't pretend to care about that stuff anymore. For the PERQ, those aspects evaporated over time; like so many other developments during the heyday of the 1980s and '90s it got ate up, spat out, and left to mulch the ground for the thin crop we reap today... a monoculture of mediocrity? Meh? Yes, computers are orders of magnitude more powerful and capable than in decades past, but they're soulless. Shiny and smooth. Boring. And that's when they're not being simply infuriating...

The universe of the PERQ remains at a scale that is comprehensible. You can follow the schematics -- less than a thousand chips across a couple of hundred pages -- and figure out the hardware. You can read the microcode: it's far, far more legible, in fact, than any assembly language you've seen or used. You can grasp the full scope and function of the OS and libraries that comprise it, and having done a complete source audit (around 180,000 lines total, to re-learn how to build a new release from scratch), it is immensely satisfying to be able to say "Oh, I get it!" This is a world where for me programming is actually fun again, having had the joy of discovery almost fully driven out of me by a long career as a programmer and sysadmin.

So while I struggle to find meaning or relevance in a world that I don't find much connection to anymore, this is one area where I can take solace. I can help preserve a thing that almost nobody remembers or cares about, for a future I doubt will come and that I want little part of, because maybe one young person might stumble across this and think "ooh, that's interesting" and find some spark of interest. And while my own life tumbles awkwardly and inevitably into chaos and I must daily affirm some reason to bother with this naked insanity at all, a goofy old computer from the last century implores me to unravel its mysteries and savor its frustrations and little triumphs and, most of all, smile at the glorious absurdity of it all.

Enjoy this post?

Buy S. Boondoggle a coffee

More from S. Boondoggle