• The cover of the 'Perl Hacks' book
  • The cover of the 'Beginning Perl' book
  • An
            image of Curtis Poe, holding some electronic equipment in front of
            his face.

Programming in 1987 Versus Today



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“Hit the skeleton with the sword, take his ring, and then walk north and touch the altar.”

The year is 2022 and 35 years later, I still remember that damned sentence. The year was 1987 and I was writing a text adventure in BASIC for the COCO 2 .

The TRS-80 Color Computer 2
The TRS-80 Color Computer 2 Source

Because it included BASIC for free, and because that was the only programming language I knew at the time, that’s what I was coding it in. If you’ve never seen BASIC, here’s a hi-lo game programmed in it :

10 PRINT TAB(34);"HI LO"
20 PRINT TAB(15);"CREATIVE COMPUTING  MORRISTOWN, NEW JERSEY"
30 PRINT:PRINT:PRINT
100 PRINT "THIS IS THE GAME OF HI LO.":PRINT
110 PRINT "YOU WILL HAVE 6 TRIES TO GUESS THE AMOUNT OF MONEY IN THE"
120 PRINT "HI LO JACKPOT, WHICH IS BETWEEN 1 AND 100 DOLLARS.  IF YOU"
130 PRINT "GUESS THE AMOUNT, YOU WIN ALL THE MONEY IN THE JACKPOT!"
140 PRINT "THEN YOU GET ANOTHER CHANCE TO WIN MORE MONEY.  HOWEVER,"
150 PRINT "IF YOU DO NOT GUESS THE AMOUNT, THE GAME ENDS.":PRINT
160 R=0
170 B=0:PRINT
180 Y=INT(100*RND(1))
200 PRINT "YOUR GUESS";
210 INPUT A
220 B=B+1
230 IF A=Y THEN 300
240 IF A>Y THEN 270
250 PRINT "YOUR GUESS IS TOO LOW.":GOTO 280
270 PRINT "YOUR GUESS IS TOO HIGH."
280 PRINT:IF B<6 THEN 200
290 PRINT "YOU BLEW IT...TOO BAD...THE NUMBER WAS";Y
295 R=0:GOTO 350
300 PRINT "GOT IT!!!!!!!!!!   YOU WIN";Y;"DOLLARS."
310 R=R+Y
320 PRINT "YOUR TOTAL WINNINGS ARE NOW";R;"DOLLARS."
350 PRINT:PRINT "PLAY AGAIN (YES OR NO)";
360 INPUT A$:IF A$="YES" THEN 170
380 PRINT:PRINT "SO LONG.  HOPE YOU ENJOYED YOURSELF!!!"
390 END

Not too complex, but you’ll notice a couple of easy-to-miss GOTO statement which make flow control a touch odd. Still, that’s what we had to work with.

What’s worse is that BASIC was an interpreted language. Today, many languages are compiled directly to machine code, such as C. Some languages, like Perl, are compiled to byte code before they’re executed. BASIC was interpreted and executed line by line. If you had a 1,000 line BASIC program and a syntax error on line 793, you often wouldn’t find out unless that line executed. It made development hard, but it did mean that we were constantly manually doing QA on our programs, something that is often skipped in today’s TDD world.

And if that’s not bad enough, trying to optimize BASIC programs often meant shortening variable names so that they would take up less memory!

Ignoring my whining about how hard life was back then, for my text adventure, I wanted a sentence parser that was better than Zork, Adventure, and other games, but before I could parse the sentence, I had to lex it (break it into tokens). In the world of BASIC, this was no easy task.

When writing a parser, you first lex the data into discrete tokens (words, in our case) and parsers take those words, apply a grammar, and figure out what the sentence is (or if it is grammatically incorrect).

Naturally, the 1987 me had no idea what that meant. I just knew that I needed to convert those words into numbers that I could use with an ON X GOSUB command to dispatch to the correct subroutine. The subroutine would read subsequent words off of the stack to figure out what to do. I’d figure out the hard stuff later.

But the hard stuff was lexing the string into tokens.

“Hit the skeleton with the sword, take his ring, and then walk north and touch the altar.”

When I wrote my lexer, it worked flawlessly. But it took eight seconds to lex that string into the proper numbers.

Eight seconds. I remember that very distinctly because it was at that moment that I knew my dreams of writing a grand text adventure were dead if I couldn’t get that working. All of my work mapping out the hotel you woke up in and the puzzles you would have to solve were for nothing if I couldn’t fix this.

So I fixed it.

I knew that machine code would run much faster than BASIC, though I didn’t know how much faster it might be. I was just assuming it would improve the performance.

My roommate had an assembler program for the computer, along with a manual. I pored over them and because BASIC has such a paucity of features, it was not too difficult to convert the lexer to assembler, though it took me a few days.

But I had to call this routine from BASIC. That’s an odd combination of CLEAR (reserve memory), DATA (define your program), POKE (put your program in memory), DEFUSR... (define the user routine used to call your program) and USR... (call the user routine) commands. Here’s a small program to print out the ASCII value of whatever character the user typed (from the user manual ) (warning: pdf):

5 CLEAR 25. 12000 'RESERVE MEMORY
10 DEFUSR1=1200015 CLS
20 FOR I = 1 TO 28 "STORE EACH BYTE OF OBJECT CODE
30 READ B: POKE 12000 + I. B
40 NEXT I
45 'HERE IS THE OBJECT CODE
50 DATA 173,159,160.0
60 DATA 39.250.128.10.38.12
70 DATA 173.159,160.0.39.250
75 DATA 129. 65, 45. 2
80 DATA 128. 64, 31.137,78
90 DATA 126.180. 21111
99 'TELL BASIC WHERE THE ROUTINE IS
100 POKE 275. 15: POKE 276. 211
110 A = USR1(0) 'CALL THE SUBROUTINE AND GIVE RESULT TO A
115 IF A =13 THEN END 120 PRINT "CODE ="; A 130 GOTO 110

Doing this for my assembly code was daunting, but I got it working. And it ran blindingly fast! I went from eight seconds to only the slightest of pauses. It was incredible! It was a miracle! It was wrong! It was giving me the wrong numbers.

I printed out the assembler on the dot matrix printer and laid out probably eight to ten meters of paper (my memory is probably faulty), got on my hands and knees with a pen and started laboriously tracing through that code, line by line. This was called a desk check and was one of our primary debugging techniques in the 80s.

Hours later, with sore knees (and with my roommate claiming I was showing off), I found my bug. I fixed the program, reran it, and it was a success. I had a lexer for simple English sentences and could move on to my parser.


I never finished that game. It was my roommate’s computer and he moved away. By this time I was learning C at Lower Columbia College , Except that there was a big problem. This was the first C class offered at LCC and we didn’t have a C compiler. We had a Prime Minicomputer we could use, but Garth Conboy , who was writing the compiler, hadn’t finished it yet. So our first few C programs for class were written out in long-hand and submitted to our professor who would manually check them for correctness (desk checks again!).

I still remember the day that Professor Little brought in his computer setup and demonstrated one of the programs his company produced. It seemed awesome. Someone asked him about the sales of the program and Professor Little started to explain that it was very popular. It was so popular, in fact, that pirates were copying his program and redistributing it for free.

And then our professor broke down crying in front of all of us. He was teaching at LCC because so many people were using free copies of his software instead of paying for it that his company was going broke. It was a humbling experience for all of us to watch our professor cry.

Later, when we got the C compiler, the first version was buggy. Some expected commands didn’t work and, one day, while debugging a problem, I added a printf statement and the program worked! I eventually just printed an empty string and that was enough to get my program to run. I had to show it to my professor and explain the problem to ensure he wouldn’t mark me off on it.


Fast forward to 2022, 35 years later, and I still think about that BASIC program. Eight seconds to lex that string. I had gotten to the point where I could walk about a map, pick up and drop items, but that was all. But damn, eight seconds! And between me being inexperienced (I had only started programming in ‘82), and having to use an assembler, it took me two weeks (as I recall) to get the lexer working at an acceptable speed.

What would it take today? The following is a rough hack, but it shows (sort of) what I was doing back in 1987.

#!/usr/bin/env perl

# Less::Boilerplate is a personal module I use for quick
# hacks, but it makes my Perl more "modern". You can read that as
# "use less boilerplate" or "useless boilerplate". Both are correct.
use Less::Boilerplate;
use Benchmark 'countit';

my $words = get_words('/usr/share/dict/words');

my $sentence =
'Hit the skeleton with the sword, take his ring and then walk north and touch the altar.';

say countit( 8, sub { parse_sentence( $sentence, $words ) } )->iters;

sub parse_sentence ( $sentence, $lookup ) {

    # this is not perfect, but it replicates when I did back in the 80s.
    my @words = split /\s+/,
                lc $sentence =~ s/[[:punct:]]//gr;
    my %numbers;
    foreach my $word (@words) {
        if ( my $number = $lookup->{$word} ) {
            $numbers{$word} = $number;
        }
        else {
            warn "$word not found";
        }
    }
    return \%numbers;
}

sub get_words ($file) {
    open my $fh, '<', $file;
    my %words = map { state $i = 1; lc($_) => $i++ }
                split /\n/,
                do { local $/; <$fh> };
    return \%words;
}

That consistently prints out a number around 1.9 million. In other words, this quick ‘n dirty hack that I wrote in a couple of minutes replaced two weeks worth of work in 1987 and ran almost two million times faster.

That’s right. This trivial example was not only easier to write, but it was two million times faster than the BASIC code I wrote 35 years ago.

You kids have no idea how easy you have it.

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Copyright © 2018-2022 by Curtis “Ovid” Poe.