May 2006

A couple of shiny new bits of software have come out in the last few weeks. Both of them are at version 7, for some reason.

Inform 7

Inform 7 is the latest version of Inform, the language for creating interactive fiction. The interesting thing about it is that Inform 7 programs are written in a subset of English:

The wood-slatted crate is in the Gazebo. The crate is a container. Instead of taking the crate, say “It’s far too heavy to lift.”

Inform is not capable of understanding arbitrary written English, but has a set of sentence forms it understands, and some inference rules built in (for example, if you tell it that “Mr Brown wears a hat”, it will infer that Mr Brown is a person).

scribb1e pointed out that this makes the work of writing the story similar to playing it. That could turn out to be a bad thing: most programming languages are so stylised and full of random punctuation symbols that programmers realise they’re not writing English and don’t try writing arbitrary English text in the hope of being understood by the computer. Even for people who understand Inform isn’t actually intelligent and that they have to write in Inform’s dialect to be understood, writing in something close to English will make it harder to remember to restrict their vocabulary. At worst, it could become a game of guess the verb, which would be painful (as opposed to a game of Guess The Verb, which I thought was fun, especially the Old Man River bit in the help).

However, unlike playing a game, looking at the excellent and witty online help doesn’t risk spoiling your fun. Since it’s all English, it’s easy to crib paragraphs of text from the examples and adapt them to your own works. Hopefully, writing the games in English will enable more people to create them without feeling that they have to be expert programmers. They’ll still have to think like a programmer, but won’t face the intimidating prospect of curly brackets.

Inform 7 itself isn’t just the compiler, it’s is a complete suite of tools for writing, testing and releasing interactive fiction, the IF equivalent of an Integrated Development Environment. It’s rather nice (although not yet available for anything other than Windows and Mac OS, because of the difficulty of getting the graphical stuff going on a variety of platforms).

Vim 7

I use the Vim editor, which is the old Unix vi with all the features you want from a modern programmer’s editor bolted on. New in Vim 7 there’s a spelling checker, “IntellisenseTM” style context-sensitive completion of names in code, and tabbed windows (no software is complete without tabbed windows these days).

The completion stuff is particularly useful, as it now pops up a menu of possible completions which you can select from with the cursor keys, and appears to be trying harder to find completions from nearby files in the background as you’re typing (I’ve not quite worked out what it’s doing yet, it’s reaching the stage where it’s just magic). Completion isn’t just for programmers, of course: when I’m typing an email, if I find myself using the same, long, word more than once, typing the initial letters and then letting Vim complete it is a boon.

Ruth Gledhill writes for The Times about Making Sense of Generation Y, a report issued by the Church of England, based on a survey of 120 people aged between 15 and 25. (If you’re a little older, like me, you’re on the Gen X-Gen Y cusp, in the MTV Generation, despite which I don’t think I’ve ever watched more than a minute or so of MTV).

The report does away with the popular conception among Christians that the youf have spiritual urges which are currently misdirected towards Harry Potter or throwing shapes in the church of dance, but which the Christianity can tap into and divert for its own purposes. Gledhill quotes the report as saying that “the data indicated that they found meaning and significance in the reality of everyday life, which the popular arts helped them to understand and imbibe.” She says that the Gen Y creed could be stated as “There is no need to posit ultimate significance elsewhere beyond the immediate experience of everyday life” and that “the goal in life of young people was happiness achieved primarily through the family”. The report also reported a lack of feelings of the fear of death or guilt about sex, those pillars upon which Christianity, or at least the sort of Christianity which is best at making copies of itself, must rest.

Amusingly, the report tells the Church not to panic (Gledhill does not record whether it does so in large friendly letters), and by way of consolation, points out that mental health problems in the youth are on the rise (it’s not clear why this is a good thing for Christianity, or rather, I can only think of one, slightly, uncharitable reason why it might be). ETA: OK, so I’m trolling here, as gjm11 points out.

I think this newfound sensibleness in the youth is to be encouraged, and that the church has heard the sound of inevitability. Whether it will yet vault off the railway tracks remains to be seen, but I am, of course, cheering for the oncoming subway train.