Best Entropy-reducer

James A. Woods
Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science
MS 230-5
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, CA 94131

Karl F. Fox
Morning Star Technologies, Inc.
1760 Zollinger Road
Columbus, OH 43221

Paul Eggert
Twin Sun Inc.
360 N. Sepulveda Blvd. #2055
El Segundo, CA 90245

Judges' comments:

The program, in its base form, implements two useful utilities:

atob - ascii to binary conversion
zcat - decompression filter

To test the official C entry, one might try:

echo "Quartz glyph jocks vend, fix, BMW." | compress | btoa | jaw

which should apply the identity transformation to a minimal holoalphabetic sentence.

Included with this entry is a shell script (with comments edited down to reduce it to 1530 bytes) which implements the complete shark utility. The script,, contains a ‘jaw.c’ embedded within it!

The sender must have ‘compress’ and ‘btoa’. To send, try:

sh jaw.* > receive

The resulting file, ‘receive’, unpacks the input files even if the receiver lacks ‘uncompress’ and ‘atob’:

mkdir test
cd test
sh ../receive
cmp ../jaw.c jaw.c
cmp ../jaw.hint jaw.hint

Selected notes from the authors:


       Minimal, Universal File Bundling
 (or, Functional Obfuscation in a Self-Decoding Unix Shell Archive)

           James A. Woods
       Universities Space Research Association
          NASA Ames Research Center

       "Use an algorithm, go to jail."
    [anon., circa 1988, pre-Morris worm era]

Myriad formats have been proposed for network-mailable data. A major difficulty undermining the popularity of most file/message bundlers is that the sender assumes prior installation of the computational dual of such bundling software by the receiver. Command shell archives alleviate this problem somewhat, but still require standardization for the function of data compression and mail-transparency encoding. On Unix, these coding format quandaries are overcome by planting a novel Trojan Horse in the archive header to perform negotiationless decoding.

Specifically, we outline the development of an extraordinarily compact portable (un)bundler to (dis)assemble data-compressed, binary-to-ASCII-converted, length-split, and checksummed directory structures using standard Unix tools. Miniature versions of counterparts to a Lempel-Ziv coder (‘compress’ or ‘squeeze’) and an efficient bit packetizer (‘btoa’) are compiled on-the-fly at mail destination sites where they may not already exist. These are written in purposefully obfuscated-C to accompany similarly-shrunk shell command glue. This resulting shell archiver is dubbed ‘shark’.

‘Shark’ procedure overhead consumes as few as three dozen shell lines (or ~1100 bytes), commensurate with the size of many Internet mail headers; it amortizes favorably with message size. ‘Shark’ is portable across Unix variants, while the underlying technique is inherently generalizable to other encoding schemes.

In the function-theoretic sense of minimal Chaitin/Kolmogorov complexity, and within a modified Shannon model of communication, the ‘shark’ effort aims to construct a “shortest program” for source decoding in the Turing-universal Unix environment.


   Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear--
   And he shows them pearly white
   Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear--
   And he keeps it out of sight.

        [Bertolt Brecht, Threepenny Opera]


We have ported this program to a wide variety of systems. Among these are:

SunOS 4.1 / Sun Sparcstation 1 (using both 'cc' and 'gcc 1.37.1')
SunOS 4.0.3 / Sun 3
BSD 4.3 / VAX 8650
SEIUX / Sumitomo Electric Ustation/S
Sony NEWS-OS 3.3 / Sony NEWS (fairly vanilla 4.3BSD)
System V.? / Hitachi 2050
System V.? / NEC EWS 4800
UNIOS-B / Omron Luna
Dynix / Sequent Balance ('cc' for Natl. Semi. base + 'gcc 1.36')
Unicos / Cray 2

We (the authors) feel this program is obfuscated for the following reasons:

 (0) This is one of the few programs you'll see WHOSE VERY UTILITY

 (1) The contest entry may be used to send its wonderful self to
 anyone in the Unix world!  Virus writers need not apply...

 (2) The basic idea is twisted enough to be patentable, but is,
 out of the kindness of our hearts (as well as to maintain
 eligibility for the large IOCCC prize fund), dedicated to
 the public domain.  Claude Shannon, meet Alan Turing.

 (3) Meta-obfuscation is via obfuscated description (see ABSTRACT).

 (4) "Literary" allusion.  Production code contains a reference to
 self-reference, preserved at amazing cost for sheer perversity.

 (5) Many, many micro obfuscations below, honed over three years
 time, in shell as well as C.  Ask about the 'tar' pit escape,
 the argv[0] flip, Paul's &4294967295 portability hack, the
 "void where prohibited by flaw" fix, the scanf() spacesaver,
 shift shenanigans, signal madness, exit()ing stage left, and
 source-to-source transformations galore.

For extra credit:

Construct ‘sharkmail’, to auto-split sharkives into mailable segments and mail them. Here’s a simple one, which could be extended to enable auto-reassembly with one shell cmd at the far end.

 ------------------------ cut here for sharkmail -----------------------
 m=$1; shift
 shark $* | split -800 - /tmp/shark$$
 n=`ls /tmp/shark$$* | wc -l | sed 's/  *//'`
 for f in `ls /tmp/shark$$*`
 p=`expr $p + 1`
 mail -s "bundle ($p of $n) from '`whoami`'" $m < $f
 rm /tmp/shark$$*
 ------------------------ end of sharkmail -----------------------------

Shark history:

May 1987: Karl Fox introduces 1023-byte zcat.c to USENET. It’s too late for the 4th IOCCC.

May 21, 1987: James A. Woods extends idea to construct self decompressing shar Trojan horse, utilizing ‘cc’, ‘shar’, ‘zcat’, & ‘atob’; size: 2303 bytes.

May 23, 1987: ‘jaw’ trims 250 bytes without much thought.

June 2, 1987: 52 lines of shell, 1991 bytes, now made with ‘tar’, short-circuit C-compile at far end, dual-use main.c, portability mods. (jaw)

Mar-May 1988: abortive run at 5th IOCCC. jaw.c - 1529 bytes. compile line: 152 bytes. generated funny code with execvp() to invoke shell.

Aug 29, 1988: production version, now at 1830 bytes.

Jan 1990: Paul Eggert does tour-de-force shark re-engineering.

May 24, 1990: collaboration yields 999-byte jaw.c core (see above) and 1530-byte production shell code (w/comments). Eggert comes through with lion’s share of improvements. 7th IOCCC code now faster than the atob/zcat it replaces.

May 1990: ‘jaw’ develops experimental replacement using Dan Bernstein’s high-compression ‘squeeze’.

To which we add:

June 1990: ‘shark’ wins the IOCCC, finally! :-)

Copyright © 1990, Landon Curt Noll & Larry Bassel. All Rights Reserved. Permission for personal, educational or non-profit use is granted provided this this copyright and notice are included in its entirety and remains unaltered. All other uses must receive prior permission in writing from both Landon Curt Noll and Larry Bassel.