extending Scuttlebutt with Annah

This post has it all. Flotillas of sailboats, peer-to-peer wikis, games, and de-frogging. But, I need to start by talking about some tech you may not have heard of yet...

  • Scuttlebutt is way for friends to share feeds of content-addressed messages, peer-to-peer. Most Scuttlebutt clients currently look something like facebook, but there are also github clones, chess games, etc. Many private encrypted conversations going on. All entirely decentralized.
    (My scuttlebutt feed can be viewed here)

  • Annah is a purely functional, strongly typed language. Its design allows individual atoms of the language to be put in content-addressed storage, right down to data types. So the value True and a hash of the definition of what True is can both be treated the same by Annah's compiler.
    (Not to be confused with my sister, Anna, or part of the Debian Installer with the same name that I wrote long ago.)

So, how could these be combined together, and what might the result look like?

Well, I could start by posting a Scuttlebutt message that defines what True is. And another Scuttlebutt message defining False. And then, another Scuttlebutt message to define the AND function, which would link to my messages for True and False. Continue this until I've built up enough Annah code to write some almost useful programs.

Annah can't do any IO on its own (though it can model IO similarly to how Haskell does), so for programs to be actually useful, there needs to be Scuttlebutt client support. The way typing works in Annah, a program's type can be expressed as a Scuttlebutt link. So a Scuttlebutt client that wants to run Annah programs of a particular type can pick out programs that link to that type, and will know what type of data the program consumes and produces.

Here are a few ideas of what could be built, with fairly simple client-side support for different types of Annah programs...

  • Shared dashboards. Boats in a flotilla are communicating via Scuttlebutt, and want to share a map of their planned courses. Coders collaborating via Scuttlebutt want to see an overview of the state of their project.

    For this, the Scuttlebutt client needs a way to run a selected Annah program of type Dashboard, and display its output like a Scuttlebutt message, in a dashboard window. The dashboard message gets updated whenever other Scuttlebutt messages come in. The Annah program picks out the messages it's interested in, and generates the dashboard message.

    So, send a message updating your boat's position, and everyone sees it update on the map. Send a message with updated weather forecasts as they're received, and everyone can see the storm developing. Send another message updating a waypoint to avoid the storm, and steady as you go...

    The coders, meanwhile, probably tweak their dashboard's code every day. As they add git-ssb repos, they make the dashboard display an overview of their bugs. They get CI systems hooked in and feeding messages to Scuttlebutt, and make the dashboard go green or red. They make the dashboard A-B test itself to pick the right shade of red. And so on...

    The dashboard program is stored in Scuttlebutt so everyone is on the same page, and the most recent version of it posted by a team member gets used. (Just have the old version of the program notice when there's a newer version, and run that one..)

    (Also could be used in disaster response scenarios, where the data and visualization tools get built up on the fly in response to local needs, and are shared peer-to-peer in areas without internet.)

  • Smart hyperlinks. When a hyperlink in a Scuttlebutt message points to a Annah program, optionally with some Annah data, clicking on it can run the program and display the messages that the program generates.

    This is the most basic way a Scuttlebutt client could support Annah programs, and it could be used for tons of stuff. A few examples:

    • Hiding spoilers. Click on the link and it'll display a spoiler about a book/movie.
    • A link to whatever I was talking about one year ago today. That opens different messages as time goes by. Put it in your Scuttlebutt profile or something. (Requires a way for Annah to get the current date, which it normally has no way of accessing.)
    • Choose your own adventure or twine style games. Click on the link and the program starts the game, displaying links to choose between, and so on.
    • Links to custom views. For example, a link could lead to a combination of messages from several different, related channels. Or could filter messages in some way.
  • Collaborative filtering. Suppose I don't want to see frog-related memes in my Scuttlebutt client. I can write a Annah program that calculates a message's frogginess, and outputs a Filtered Message. It can leave a message unchanged, or filter it out, or perhaps minimize its display. I publish the Annah program on my feed, and tell my Scuttlebutt client to filter all messages through it before displaying them to me.

    I published the program in my Scuttlebutt feed, and so my friends can use it too. They can build other filtering functions for other stuff (such an an excess of orange in photos), and integrate my frog filter into their filter program by simply composing the two.

    If I like their filter, I can switch my client to using it. Or not. Filtering is thus subjective, like Scuttlebutt, and the subjectivity is expressed by picking the filter you want to use, or developing a better one.

  • Wiki pages. Scuttlebutt is built on immutable append-only logs; it doesn't have editable wiki pages. But they can be built on top using Annah.

    A smart link to a wiki page is a reference to the Annah program that renders it. Of course being a wiki, there will be more smart links on the wiki page going to other wiki pages, and so on.

    The wiki page includes a smart link to edit it. The editor needs basic form support in the Scuttlebutt client; when the edited wiki page is posted, the Annah program diffs it against the previous version and generates an Edit which gets posted to the user's feed. Rendering the page is just a matter of finding the Edit messages for it from people who are allowed to edit it, and combining them.

    Anyone can fork a wiki page by posting an Edit to their feed. And can then post a smart link to their fork of the page.

    And anyone can merge other forks into their wiki page (this posts a control message that makes the Annah program implementing the wiki accept those forks' Edit messages). Or grant other users permission to edit the wiki page (another control message). Or grant other users permissions to grant other users permissions.

    There are lots of different ways you might want your wiki to work. No one wiki implementation, but lots of Annah programs. Others can interact with your wiki using the program you picked, or fork it and even switch the program used. Subjectivity again.

  • User-defined board games. The Scuttlebutt client finds Scuttlebutt messages containing Annah programs of type Game, and generates a tab with a list of available games.

    The players of a particular game all experience the same game interface, because the code for it is part of their shared Scuttlebutt message pool, and the code to use gets agreed on at the start of a game.

    To play a game, the Scuttlebutt client runs the Annah program, which generates a description of the current contents of the game board.

    So, for chess, use Annah to define a ChessMove data type, and the Annah program takes the feeds of the two players, looks for messages containing a ChessMove, and builds up a description of the chess board.

    As well as the pieces on the game board, the game board description includes Annah functions that get called when the user moves a game piece. That generates a new ChessMove which gets recorded in the user's Scuttlebutt feed.

    This could support a wide variety of board games. If you don't mind the possibility that your opponent might cheat by peeking at the random seed, even games involving things like random card shuffles and dice rolls could be built. Also there can be games like Core Wars where the gamers themselves write Annah programs to run inside the game.

    Variants of games can be developed by modifying and reusing game programs. For example, timed chess is just the chess program with an added check on move time, and time clock display.

  • Decentralized chat bots. Chat bots are all the rage (or were a few months ago, tech fads move fast), but in a decentralized system like Scuttlebutt, a bot running on a server somewhere would be a ugly point of centralization. Instead, write a Annah program for the bot.

    To launch the bot, publish a message in your own personal Scuttlebutt feed that contains the bot's program, and a nonce.

    The user's Scuttlebutt client takes care of the rest. It looks for messages with bot programs, and runs the bot's program. This generates or updates a Scuttlebutt message feed for the bot.

    The bot's program signs the messages in its feed using a private key that's generated by combining the user's public key, and the bot's nonce. So, the bot has one feed per user it talks to, with deterministic content, which avoids a problem with forking a Scuttlebutt feed.

    The bot-generated messages can be stored in the Scuttlebutt database like any other messages and replicated around. The bot appears as if it were a Scuttlebutt user. But you can have conversations with it while you're offline.

    (The careful reader may have noticed that deeply private messages sent to the bot can be decrypted by anyone! This bot thing is probably a bad idea really, but maybe the bot fad is over anyway. We can only hope. It's important that there be at least one bad idea in this list..)

This kind of extensibility in a peer-to-peer system is exciting! With these new systems, we can consider lessons from the world wide web and replicate some of the good parts, while avoiding the bad. Javascript has been both good and bad for the web. The extensibility is great, and yet it's a neverending security and privacy nightmare, and it ties web pages ever more tightly to programs hidden away on servers. I believe that Annah combined with Scuttlebutt will comprehensively avoid those problems. Shall we build it?

This exploration was sponsored by Jake Vosloo on Patreon.