Bridging the Ancient and the Modern

23/03/2018

I tried out some new social networks lately. Mastodon I quite like (it’s like what I’ve wanted Twitter to be), Discord, not so sure. So, if you’ve wondered about my reduced presence on IRC, that’s why.

Writing an IRC bot is one of the classic programming exercises that can be done in pretty much every programming language offering you some way to open TCP sockets and manipulate strings. I started doing one in Emacs Lisp long time ago, although not from scratch (rather by leveraging an existing IRC client) and wondered whether there is anything to learn from doing the equivalent with a “modern” IM platform like Discord. Could it be still be done from scratch? What else is different about it?

First I had to find a meaningful thing for the bot to do. I chose Eliza, the classic demonstration of a chatter bot that managed fooling people into having prolonged conversations with them. The version I’m familiar with is M-x doctor which is part of Emacs. So, first of all, I wrote some code to interface with that command in a REPL-style fashion. A companion shell script boots up Emacs in batch mode for interfacing with the doctor from the shell. Much like the original mode, you terminate your input by pressing RET twice. This is an intentional design decision to allow for multi-line input as seen on Discord (but absent from IRC, where you could get away with making it single-line input).

I briefly entertained the thought of writing the rest of the bot from scratch in Emacs Lisp, but abandoned it after learning that I’d need to use websockets with zlib compression to subscribe and respond to incoming messages. While there is an existing library for websocket support, I’d rather not figure out its nitty-gritty details, let alone with the lack of zlib compression. It doesn’t help that Discord’s official API docs are inconclusive and fail answering questions such as how you can set your current status (and more importantly, why it fails getting updated). So, an officially recommended Discord library it is.

The choice on which one it’s going to be depended on whether the programming language it’s implemented with allowed me to communicate with my shell script. I tried out discord.js first, battled a fair bit with Node.js, but gave up eventually. There doesn’t seem to be a way to spawn a child process and read from / write to its stdout / stdin pipes as you see fit. Instead you can only add a callback for the process output and good luck if you want to figure out what piece of output corresponds to the input you wrote earlier. This is why I went for discordrb instead, wrote some glue code for subprocess communication and started figuring out their API to react to incoming messages.

There are a few lessons to be learned from their API:

Now, to test the bot I needed to unleash it on a server. It turns out that unlike on IRC bot accounts are handled specially. You must:

This meant that I had to create my own test server to check whether my code worked at all. For this reason I haven’t been able to get it running on the server I was invited on. If you want to, you can try it on your own server, the sources are on GitHub as always.