The Shape of PSIBER Space: PostScript Interactive Bug Eradication Routines — October 1989

Left shows objects on the process’s stack displayed in windows with their tabs pinned on the spike.
Right shows a Pseudo Scientific Visualization of the NeWS rootmenu instance dictionary.


The PSIBER Space Deck is an interactive visual user interface to a graphical programming environment, the NeWS window system. It lets you display, manipulate, and navigate the data structures, programs, and processes living in the virtual memory space of NeWS. It is useful as a debugging tool, and as a hands on way to learn about programming in PostScript and NeWS.

PostScript Source Code Available Here


PSIBER Space Deck Demo
Figure 1 shows objects on the process’s stack displayed in windows with their tabs pinned on the spike.

Interacting With Data

A PostScript object is a reference to any piece of data, that you can push onto the stack. (The word “object” is used here in a more general sense than in “object oriented programming.” The words “class” and “instance” are used for those concepts.) Each object has a type, some attributes, and a value. PostScript objects are dynamically typed, like Lisp objects, not statically typed, like C variables. Each object is either literal or executable. This attribute effects whether the interpreter treats it as data or instructions. Compound objects, such as arrays and dictionaries, can contain references to other objects of any type. [Adobe, Red, Green, and Blue books] [Sun, NeWS 1.1 Manual] [Gosling, The NeWS Book]

Viewing Data

Objects on the PSIBER Space Deck appear in overlapping windows, with labeled tabs sticking out of them. Each object has a label, denoting its type and value, i.e. “integer 42". Each window tab shows the type of the object directly contained in the window. Objects nested within other objects have their type displayed to the left of their value. The labels of executable objects are displayed in italics.

Simple Objects

Figure 1 shows some simple objects: an integer, a boolean, a literal string, an executable string, a literal name, and an executable name — the results of executing the string “42 false (flamingo) (45 cos 60 mul) cvx /foobar /executive cvx".

Compound Objects

Compound objects, which contain other objects, can be displayed closed or opened. The two basic kinds of compound objects are arrays and dictionaries. Arrays are indexed by integers, and dictionaries are indexed by keys.

Figure 2 shows a literal array, an executable array, and a dictionary.

Classes, Instances, and Magic Dictionaries

NeWS uses an object oriented PostScript programming package, which represents classes and instances with dictionaries. [Densmore, Object Oriented Programming in NeWS] [Gosling, The NeWS Book]

Figure 3 shows the class dictionary of Object, and the instance dictionary of the NeWS root menu.
Figure 4 shows a canvas magic dictionary (the framebuffer).
Figure 5 shows a process magic dictionary, with some interesting keys opened.

View Characteristics

The views of the objects can be adjusted in various ways. The point size can be changed, and well as the shrink factor by which the point size is multiplied as the structure gets deeper. The point size is not allowed to shrink smaller than 1, so that labels will never have zero area, and it will always be possible to select them with the mouse. If the shrink factor is greater than 1.0, the point size increases with depth.

Figure 6 shows some nested structures with various point sizes and shrink factors, with elements opened to the right and below.

Editing Data

There are many ways to edit the objects displayed on the screen. There are functions on menus for converting from type to type, and for changing the object’s attributes and value. You can replace an element of a compound object by selecting another object, and pasting it into the element’s slot. There are also a bunch of array manipulation functions, for appending together arrays, breaking them apart, rearranging them, and using them as stacks. You must be careful which objects you edit, because if you accidentally scramble a crucial system function, the whole window system could crash.

Peripheral Controls

Peripheral controls are associated views that you can attach to an object, which are not directly contained within that object. They are visually distinct from the elements of a compound object, and can be used to attach editor buttons, computed views, and related objects. Several useful peripheral views have been implemented for manipulating various data types.

Figure 7 shows some digit editors, step editors, shift editors, a boolean editor, and a canvas editor.
Figure 8 shows a class editor, some scroller editors, name editors, and digit editors.

Printing Distilled PostScript

The data structure displays (including those of the Pseudo Scientific Visualizer, described below) can be printed on a PostScript printer by capturing the drawing commands in a file.

Interacting with the Interpreter

In PostScript, as in Lisp, instructions and data are made out of the same stuff. One of the many interesting implications is that tools for manipulating data structures can be used on programs as well.

Using the Keyboard

You can type PostScript expressions into a scrolling text window, and interact with the traditional PostScript “executive", as you can with "psh" to NeWS or "tip" to a laser printer. Certain function keys and control characters do things immediately when you type them, such as input editing, selecting the input, pushing or executing the selection, and completing names over the dictionary stack (like "tcsh" file name completion).

Using the Mouse

The mouse can be used to select data, push it on the stack, execute it, and manipulate it in many ways.

Using Dictionaries as Command Pallets

A PostScript dictionary can be used as a pallet of commands, by defining a bunch of useful functions in a dictionary, opening it up, and executing the functions with the mouse. You can open up the functions to see their instructions, and even edit them!

Using a Text Editor

It is very helpful to be running a text editor on the source code of a PostScript program, while you are debugging it. You can select chunks of source from the text editor, and execute them in the PSIBER Space Deck (in the appropriate context). This is especially useful for redefining functions of a running program in memory, as bugs are discovered and fixed in the source code. It saves you from having to kill and restart your application every time you find a trivial bug.

Debugging Programs

The NeWS debugger lets you take on and examine the state of a broken process. [Sun, NeWS 1.1 Manual] [Gosling, The NeWS Book] The debugger is a PostScript program originally written for use with “psh" from a terminal emulator. It is notorious for being difficult to use, but quite powerful. However, the debugger is much nicer in conjunction with the graphical stack, the object display, and a pallet of handy debugging commands, that you can invoke with the mouse.

The User Interface

Pie Menus

The mouse button functions and menu layouts were designed to facilitate gestural interaction, to simulate the feel of tweaking and poking at real live data structures.

Tab Windows

The objects on the deck are displayed in windows with labeled tabs sticking out of them, showing the data type of the object. You can move an object around by grabbing its tab with the mouse and dragging it. You can perform direct stack manipulation, pushing it onto stack by dragging its tab onto the spike, and changing its place on the stack by dragging it up and down the spike. It implements a mutant form of “Snap-dragging”, that constrains non-vertical movement when an object is snapped onto the stack, but allows you to pop it off by pulling it far enough away or lifting it off the top. [Bier, Snap-dragging] The menu that pops up over the tab lets you do things to the whole window, like changing view characteristics, moving the tab around, repainting or recomputing the layout, and printing the view.

The Metacircular Postscript Interpreter

A program that interprets the language it is written in is said to be “metacircular”. [Abelson, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs] Since PostScript, like Scheme, is a simple yet powerful language, with procedures as first class data structures, implementing “", a metacircular PostScript interpreter, turned out to be straightforward (or drawrofthgiarts, with respect to the syntax). A metacircular PostScript interpreter should be compatible with the "exec" operator (modulo bugs and limitations). Some of the key ideas came from Crispin Goswell's PostScript implementation. [Goswell, An Implementation of PostScript]

The Pseudo Scientific Visualizer

Pseudo Scientific Visualizer Demo
Figure 9 shows a Pseudo Scientific Visualization of the NeWS rootmenu instance dictionary, also shown in figure 3 and figure 8.
Figure 10 shows two views of a map of Adventure.
Figure 11 shows two views of a map of the ARPAnet.


Abelson, Harold; Sussman, Gerald: Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs; 1985; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. and McGraw Hill, New York


This work could not have been done without the greatly appreciated support of the University of Maryland Human-Computer Interaction Lab, Grasshopper Group, Sun Microsystems, and NCR Corporation.



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Don Hopkins

Don Hopkins


User interface flower child. Pie menus, PizzaTool, SimCity, The Sims, Visual Programming, VR, AR, Unity3D / JavaScript bridge.