The preservation of collaboration

For the last two days, I’ve been working with someone on a program.

This came about because they run a rather famous puzzle website, full of puzzles of tons of different types that they generate via computer.  That site has a puzzle type that is close, but not quite, like one of my favorite Nikoli types, Ripple Effect.  And their site has a bit that says “Don’t see your favorite puzzle type?  Let me know!”

So I did.  I even sent them photos from a puzzle book I just got this past Saturday, that I’m in the middle of solving, which happens to have some Ripple Effects in it.  They said that they’d take a look at it, and honestly I thought that that would be the end of the whole deal.

Then they contacted me, asking: are you willing to transcribe some puzzles, so that they can be used as test cases for the solver?

Here’s a (puzzle) thing: I like to transcribe puzzles.  I’ve done so for the tiniest fraction of the number that I’ve solved over the years, although if I had infinite time and energy I would put every single puzzle I’ve ever solved in a computer-readable format.  That probably sounds really stupid, but I feel that puzzles are a fascinating form of entertainment, and one we treat entirely too ephemerally, tossing the magazines once we’re done with them.  I fully realize that I have a biased view here, but is it so crazy to think that in 100 years someone wouldn’t want to try and solve a full issue of, say, Nanpure Fan in the same way that I sometimes enjoy leafing through old advertisements?  It’s not like the type of puzzles I do (i.e. non-crossword-y ones) have an expiration date.  That sudoku will solve just as well in 2118 as it does here in 2018.

Anyhow, of course I said yes, and set about immediately to transcription.  Well, no.  It turned out that the format that was being suggested was actually a bit of a pain to write by hand, and I thought of a way to make it easier, so the website’s author sent me the code he was using and I ended up banging on it to suit my will.

As of today we’re sharing our work in a Github repository; I’ve mostly done transcription (of course) and some code cleanup, and he’s been working on the actual solver and friends, since this is all based on code he’s been the master of for years.

If the generated Ripple Effect puzzles actually get published, I’ll link them here, but even if not it’s been nice to work on some code for the first time since I retired.  And it’s been nice to collaborate, to bounce ideas back and forth on how to do a thing.  That’s definitely something I miss from the job.

And, if nothing else, it got me to preserve at least a few more puzzles from a couple of books I have.  Probably no one else cares, but perhaps one day they can be used to reconstruct a puzzle book, to be solved by our ancestors who may have never touched a physical magazine at all, to be experienced all over again.

Plink-plink-plonk down the Memory Hole

A friend of mine was DJing on Twitch last night, a set mostly composed of chiptunes and music from the demoscene.  I asked if he had played satell.s3m yet, one of my favorite tracker tunes dating from when I first heard it back in the early ’90s.  (Well, actually, I asked him to play “satell.m3u”, because I got my mid-’90s formats with a ‘3’ in the middle confused.  Mea culpa.)  He had to download it–he was using someone else’s computer–but download he did, and a few tracks later: bam.

That got me to thinking of other excellent music I knew, which triggered a memory: at some point I had snarfed all of the MP3s off of some Japanese chiptune musician’s website; his specialty was taking music made for one chipset (say, the MSX) and transporting it to some other platform (say, the NES with the additional VRC6 chip).  Sometimes, like that example, that meant the new track had a bunch of additional instrumentation, but sometimes the conversions went the other way, a “demake” of sorts where a track had to be distilled to its bare essence.  Given that this was Inverse Phase DJing, he of Pretty Eight Machine Internet fame, I figured such demakes would appeal to him.

So I set about exploring the labyrinthine corners of my hard drive via find, at the same time trying to poke around on the ‘net to find this musician’s website.  I had success with the former well before the latter.

In fact, said website doesn’t exist at all any more.

This made me pretty despondent.  I immediately set about uploading the MP3s to Google Drive to give to Brendan, at the same time poking around furiously online in an attempt to find just where the hell these tracks had disappeared to.  I mean, there were literally hundreds of them; surely they hadn’t just evaporated into the ether?  (Spoiler: yes, and no.)

My late night searches proved fruitless, but at least my local copies finished uploading, and so I shared the link with Inverse Phase and a few friends on IRC, saying that I wanted the files spread around to keep them from falling into the Memory Hole.

A relevant digression: I used to have an account on the premier private music tracker on the Internet.  It was encyclopedic, overwhelming, enthralling; rumor had it that all the big-name electronic musicians had accounts on the site, scouring it for rarities.  Some artists uploaded their own music there to beat the promo-copy rippers to the punch.  And it had a wealth of rare CDs, up to and including albums that had never been officially released, uploaded by friends or family or the artist, just to help them get out there.  The site is no more, data trashed before the French authorities could get hold of the servers.

This isn’t a story about piracy, although I freely admit that said site definitely facilitated that.  It’s about the persistence of memory.  We will never know the contents of the Library of Alexandria.  We have lost forever untold masterpieces, art and music and writing, because they perished in flame or flood or mold in the back corner of a forgotten closet.

And yet, if we are not careful, in this age where we have enough storage to hold it all, we will still lose things due to a lack of diligence, or a company’s overzealous reach, or simply because no one knew there was something that needed saving.  Some day I’ll write about what we’ve already lost in terms of online-only games, but that’s another article.  But: we have already lost so much.  So much.

I woke up before 6am this morning due to a frankly hilarious dream–I won’t bore you with the details, because the details of other people’s dreams are the worst, except to say that apparently my subconscious knows the vocal harmony bits of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash even though I had to spend a half-hour searching frantically for the song, finally humming the “doot doo doo doo doo” bit into Midomi and having it actually succeed, my prior hard drive search an utter failure because for some reason I was convinced the dream-song was by Simon and Garfunkel–to find that a friend had downloaded the tracks from the Drive folder… but there were problems with several of them.  I looked, and sure enough: what were supposed to be MP3s were actually HTML files telling me that, sorry, that file wasn’t found.

Augh.  I hadn’t even rescued this from the Memory Hole.

So I set out with a bit more ferocity than the night before to track these down.  I realized that what looked like garbage in the ID3 tags in my terminal was probably Shift JIS encoded, and sure enough, that got me to an artist: 白亜R.  Oh ho!  Some Googling found me the old URL for the website, which no longer existed, but isn’t that what the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is for?

And, lo and behold, not only did I find the site in the Machine, but if I clicked the links for the missing files, the real MP3s played!  Turns out they had been crawled and stored in 2005 or thereabouts, before I managed to save the files myself.  Extracting them from the Wayback Machine required some mild shenanigans, but they were shenanigans I pulled off with ease.  I informed my friends that, hey, I had found the missing tracks to go along with the rest, and that they should download those too.

And so, even if just for a few people, I managed to keep at least one more thing from slipping down into the Memory Hole forever.

Speaking of which: here you go.  Enjoy–they really are excellent tunes–and share them around.  It’s just a tiny bit of media rescued from oblivion, but sometimes that’s all we can hope for.