I recently interviewed ais523 as part of a series of interviews that explore esolangs (esoteric programming languages). I’ve conducted these interviews in preparation for a paper I’m writing that address esolangs from an art perspective. Although some esolang developers (such as ais523) don’t see themselves as artists, their concerns are familiar to artists. What is valued in esolangs is a unity of aesthetics and concept, a point ais523 makes a number of times in the interview:
…to me languages are a lot more valuable if they require thought, rather than being just another synonym for simple imperative structures that programmers know so well already. Languages can be an interesting diversion if they just provide a weird set of primitives that can be mapped onto more “standard” ways of doing things with some thought; but it’s much more interesting if the point of view of the language is one that you can think in independently.
In other words, a language that offers a new system of thought that’s unique is far more interesting than one where the pure aesthetics (for esolangs, this means the source code) is the only thing that’s fresh about it. The example he gives of a less uninteresting but popular language is LOLcode, which has amusing commands taken from the LOLCAT meme (“O HAI,” “K THX BYE,” etc). He calls these “theme languages.”
Then there are languages like Fractran, which have a point of view that is a challenge to the programmer. Fractran uses properties of prime numbers to carry out processes, not as a mapping, but building on qualities of numbers themselves. This is a language created by a mathematician, and it takes a while to understand — but those without a programming or math background can certainly understand it (a number of esolang developers are hobbyists with no background in programming). Fractran is slow to learn, even for those who are programmers, but that slowness is essential — the language exposes an elegance of mathematics that takes time to come to terms with.
The full interview can be read here.