Code is Just
January 12, 2022 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Code is Just is the twitter memoir of Shahid Kamal Ahmad, a largely self-taught programmer and diabetic Pakistani teenager in 80s London. He talks about his home life, his early experiences with game making and publishing, how he was asked to port Jet Set Willy to the Commodore 64 in under a month(!) and how he attempted to single-handedly reverse engineer Knight Lore's isometric 3d. Threadreader version. Footnotes twitter thread.
Content Warning: Racism, Health issues
posted by Sparx (17 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is the coolest thing I've seen today. Thank you.
posted by elkevelvet at 2:20 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Whew.
posted by clew at 2:28 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


She asked a few questions. Eventually, I blurted out, and until her recent stroke, she would remind me of this, “Look, it does fine scrolling! I could make you a map of London that you could scroll around, you’d never get lost again!”


awww man
posted by lalochezia at 3:31 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Yeah. Three poles:

Death or glory! Maybe both!

The fascinating craft of early games programming

No-one was in his corner except his Mom, who was always in his corner.
posted by clew at 3:44 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Absolutely riveting. Thank you so much. He's a bit older than me, but as a fellow English brown kid playing computer games on the Speccy in the 1980s, this resonated.
posted by bookbook at 3:54 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


i didnt' think i'd be welling up with tears reading a pakistani-british teen-programmer's 80s reminiscences but here we are.
posted by lalochezia at 4:15 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


Yeah, so much mirrors my own experience, and I was a white kid with a hell of a lot of advantages, but also the runt who got bullied, and when I got to this summary:
You see, code never cheats. Code never lies.

You get out exactly what you put in. Exactly.

There is no injustice in 6502.

Code is just.
the tears started flowing, because, yes, that's how I learned to program too. "There is no injustice in 6502" is somehow the most powerful sentence I've read in quite a while. And so much of the abusive startup culture of the '90s (through to now, though now I've got enough self-respect and standing to say "fuck no, it's 5 o'clock, I'm going home") stemmed from all of us who didn't want to go socialize, lest we get the shit kicked out of us, and found that safe space in which "You get out exactly what you put in."

And were willing to dive into that night and day, because in that space there was hope, and in that space there was safety.
posted by straw at 4:47 PM on January 12 [13 favorites]


The 6502 seems like a dream now.
Maybe it's all we needed, but we're so beyond that now.
I loved that time.
posted by MtDewd at 6:05 PM on January 12


I understood maybe 1% of the programming bits, but, my God, what a gripping story.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:22 PM on January 12


While his story is powerful, after such stories like Amazon's ML HR fiasco, how digital cameras could not render dark skin properly because of assumptions made in image processing algorithms, and how algorithms designed to identify at risk individuals overtarget minorities, among others - I have to vehemently disagree with the thesis that code is just. Code can be just, but for it to be, it must be made just. And in his statement, he gives the reason for this succinctly - "You get out exactly what you put in. Exactly." If you put biased assumptions into your code, your code will output those biases. 6502 might not have injustice in it, but it will happily reinforce injustice given it.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:45 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


6502 might not have injustice in it, but it will happily reinforce injustice given it.

Yes, certainly. But I think the point is that the 6502 does not, as you say, have injustice in it. For this kid and lot of kids like him (and you could count me among them, though I wasn't smart or motivated enough to learn assembly), this seems to have been a revelation. Sure, you could take up painting as a hobby if you wanted to make stuff -- but what would you paint and who would you learn from? You'd most likely be in a class with a teacher that didn't respect you, students who bullied you, and you'd be made to paint bucolic scenes that uphold the very architecture of oppression that's hurting you, and there's certainly no way it would be a potential path out of poverty. That's not to say there weren't biased and oppressive people in tech at that time (and we've certainly learned that there was -- and is -- no shortage of them) but the point IMO is that someone like him could get a hold of some books and figure out how to make a real thing that not only impressed people but gave him a path toward making a living and getting out of the hell he describes, when nearly the entire world seemed to determined to keep him there.

As straw pointed out, there is potential dark side to this revelation: And so much of the abusive startup culture of the '90s [...] stemmed from all of us who didn't want to go socialize, lest we get the shit kicked out of us, and found that safe space in which "You get out exactly what you put in."

And the much more terrifying dark side that's wreaked havoc on our now-fragile democracy in the US, which I think is what you were getting at. But I thought this was a moving account of what coding meant to a kid at a vulnerable time, and I found it really moving -- not just because I identified with parts of his journey, but also because of the sense of betrayal and dismay I've felt at what I naively thought to be a universal good in my youth, something that was a lifeline for me, turned out to be the means by which evil propagates on a massive, massive scale
posted by treepour at 7:21 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]


Yeah, it was naivete to think that moving pixels that maybe you could tell yourself a story that looked like a spaceship, or a person, was socially neutral. But for a brief period there in the '80s it was possible for a teenager to do so.

There are reasons that despite, in the late '90s, ending up at Pixar to work on video games and picking up a couple of film credits along the way, I'm now as far from movies and games as I can get.

And somewhere around the era of MMX compiler support I realized that I could no longer beat the compiler by more than about 10% and what I was doing to optimize for one generation of chips was pessimal for the next, and I haven't really worked in assembly language since.

But for a brief period in the '80s personal computing was an escape from all of the social problems, and a set of skills that had social value, and even into the '90s we dreamed that if we could bring that culture, the one that didn't bully us, that accepted our sexual and social divergences, to the world, we'd really make a difference.

Some of us were naive about the privilege we brought to those spaces, and most of us didn't realize that the key to community and safe spaces was exclusion and filtering, not openness and tolerance, so now we look back on the things we believed then, and what we brought to the world, mostly with horror.

But the 6502 perfectly encapsulates a technology that you can understand, that it's conceivable that you can even sit down and design and build yourself out of discrete components if you're so motivated, and an era where the usefulness of computers wasn't yet obvious to the world, and you could have a quirky weird hobby that also filtered for a willingness to accept people outside of the mainstream.

And that it could turn into the skills to support a career was a bonus.
posted by straw at 7:53 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


the 6502 does not, as you say, have injustice in it

I dunno:
  • MOS's fab in Audubon, PA was an EPA Hazardous Waste site, and Synertek (an early second-source for the 65xx) had a chip fab in Santa Clara that's a Superfund site.
  • JMP (<address>) across a page boundary doesn't work as documented, or as expected.
posted by scruss at 8:10 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]



While his story is powerful, after such stories like Amazon's ML HR fiasco, how digital cameras could not render dark skin properly because of assumptions made in image processing algorithms, and how algorithms designed to identify at risk individuals overtarget minorities, among others -

...
MOS's fab in Audubon, PA was an EPA Hazardous Waste site, and Synertek (an early second-source for the 65xx) had a chip fab in Santa Clara that's a Superfund site.



All true. but Shahid saw none of that as a teenager tho'. He saw something that responded to his intellectual efforts that in a pretty solid sense represented logic that he could learn from scratch, rather than trying to jump through the hoops that society had prebuilt to make cruel and unwinnable for bullied pakistani diabetic kid.
posted by lalochezia at 8:28 PM on January 12 [6 favorites]


What a great story :-)
posted by dg at 8:32 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I clearly remember his name from a passionate letter he wrote to Crash, the Spectrum magazine I grew up on.

Crash was a huge influential on my emerging understanding that you didn't have to just consume the games/books/comics/literature that so many lonely, geeky kids were attracted to, including those like me who were fascinated by programming but had little aptitude for it, or maybe not enough patience and humility. You could at least have ideas about these things.. and such passionate debate seemed to indicate that those ideas mattered, and could grow, broaden and (maybe) deepen as you and others grew and shared what you thought and knew. This was a space of sorts - a precarious one, decidedly unsafe in lots of ways, and deeply hierarchical and problematic, but there it was.

I didn't know anything else about him between reading this letter and that incredible Twitter thread. The letter made a strong impression at the time: the thread really fills it out.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 4:35 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]


I was only a third of the way through - and darn it - I had tears welling-up as well - now by the end, they are free-flowing.

This is amazing - I can relate partially (bad childhood, no escape, bullying) - what drive he had! Thank-you for posting, thank-you Shahid for telling your story.
posted by rozcakj at 7:56 AM on January 13


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