Arc Forumnew | comments | leaders | submitlogin
2 points by shader 390 days ago | link | parent

I do like your main concepts, as captured in your title that "bicycles for the mind should be transparent."

This main point is something I've been arriving at in my own design work, particularly in two different areas:

1. The "end-to-end" principle.

Originally observed in and applied to networking, but I'm finding it incredibly useful as a general design pattern. Basically, decisions should be made where the best information is. Since an application must implement its own model of error correction anyway, the network shouldn't waste time on redundant and possibly unnecessary generic error prevention.

I think applying the end-to-end principle to general application development is similar to your concept of transparency. Instead of hiding details and trying to resolve them in was that may eventually leak anyway, difficulties should be exposed to the user so they can make the most appropriate decision. A user can still limit the complexity they have to deal with manually by using a standard library, but they should always have the option of a custom solution.

2. Leaky "abstractions" and lies

In the thread about your paper on HN, someone mentioned Joe's article on the Law of Leaky Abstractions [0], which I probably had read before but helps illustrate this point. Most of what we call "abstractions" in software aren't. They're merely encapsulations. Need a new word, like obscuration or something...

True abstractions are used very effectively in mathematics, and are really the reason for the success of mathematics as a discipline. Real abstractions are true generalizations and identities. They are simpler notations or terms that can be substituted by their more complex definitions. E.g., derivatives instead of the epsilon-delta formulas. Normal d/dx notation doesn't "hide" the complexity of the epsilon-delta, but is equiavlent to it. Two mathematical objects that are proven equivalent can be used interchangeably, with fascinating implications. This relies on strict observance of the assumptions used by the relevant theorems. Using the consequent of a theorem when its antecedents and assumptions do not apply is dangerous, and I think very analogous to what we do with abstractions in programming all the time.

"Encapsulations" merely hide complexities and try to present an illusion to the user. E.g., Joe's example of TCP providing "reliable" communication. It can't really be reliable, but it pretends. The problem with these encapsulations is that eventually the truth comes out, and disillusionment is painful.

I think a much better approach would be to adopt a maxim like "Don't lie." If we are honest about how a system actually works, and only use true abstractions, then we will never be surprised by its behavior. We may have to take a very different approach to solving certain problems, but the solution will be much more correct for the effort.

---------

[0] https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2002/11/11/the-law-of-leaky-a...



2 points by akkartik 389 days ago | link

I've had long debates over drinks with a friend about this. In the end we'll see over time whether coming up with the right abstractions is a sufficient approach.

I think it's not at all inevitable that the right abstractions will win out. We have to very carefully set the initial conditions to ensure the paths to them aren't prematurely discarded.

The analogy with math is misleading here, because math doesn't have syscalls. It's all entirely in the platonic realm, and applying it becomes something outside of math. An externality. Computers have syscalls, and the syscalls let us do fairly arbitrary things. Given this much power, "don't lie" is about as enforceable as it is with legislators.

(Here's the comment you're referring to which cited leaky abstractions: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22599953#22604086. In a sibling comment to it I mentioned my analogy with legislators as a superior alternative to computers as cars or planes.)

-----

3 points by shader 387 days ago | link

> ...we'll see over time whether coming up with the right abstractions is a sufficient approach

What other approaches are you considering? And sufficient for what purpose?

> it's not at all inevitable that the right abstractions will win out

I addressed this more thoroughly in my other wall of text, but I don't see why "winning" is a necessary objective. If you have an abstraction that works, it won't suddenly disappear on you. Or maybe I don't understand. "Win out" over what? And by what standard of success?

> We have to very carefully set the initial conditions to ensure the paths to them aren't prematurely discarded.

That's a slightly different consideration, trying to pick initial conditions that result in better abstractions. Honestly, it sounds like premature optimization and harder than the halting problem. In some ways though I think the general principles I mentioned are precisely intended to address this challenge. Basically, whenever you come to a design decision where you don't know what the right answer is, or if there might be more than one, don't hide the complexity but pass it on as flexibility to the user. The system stays correct and transparent without lying about how it works, and the user doesn't lose any options. This approach seems to satisfy your desire to not prematurely discard paths.

> The analogy with math is misleading here, because math doesn't have syscalls

My reference to math was not an analogy, but a description of an approach to abstractions. In Mathematics, abstractions are held to rigorous standards: they must actually be proven to behave as claimed, any exceptions must be included in the definition, and any application outside of the assumptions is invalid or at least highly suspect and must be justified.

> syscalls let us do fairly arbitrary things. Given this much power, "don't lie" is about as enforceable as it is with legislators.

It's not enforceable with mathematicians either; the best we can do is read eachother's work to check for such lies and avoid using flawed work. Such care is more important in mathematics where any flaws can ruin a proof, whereas in software a bug might only be reached in rare edge cases and even then we can turn it off and on again. That explains why the cost of failure is lower, and programmers don't apply the same effort to write flawless code. But what I'm proposing is not "don't let anyone lie" which sounds impossible, but "don't lie", which is a call for personal integrity. It's a design decision, in which integrity and transparency are chosen over comfort and simplicity. That decision is probably just as costly in software as it is in life, but hopefully proves just as rewarding.

> ...applying it becomes something outside of math. An externality.

That just sounds wrong to me, and needs a stronger argument. It may be a pain to write out all the preconditions and postconditions describing the whole state of the computer and environment (I certainly wouldn't recommend it), but that doesn't mean it is conceptually impossible and thus "outside math". However, thinking that way is mostly irrelevant anyway. Instead, I propose the simpler objective of not misrepresenting what could happen. "Not lying" is not the same thing as "telling the whole truth". Math uses pretty broad lower and upper bounds all the time; precise answers aren't always available, but we can still avoid claiming things we can't prove.

-----

2 points by akkartik 387 days ago | link

I think we're saying the same thing but misunderstanding the words used by each other. Don't get hung up on my careless use of the word "win". Like I said elsewhere, I'm not trying to genocide competing ideas :)

The rest of this thread is just a reminder to me to avoid analogies like the (ahem) plague.

-----

3 points by akkartik 387 days ago | link

> My reference to math was not an analogy, but a description of an approach to abstractions. In Mathematics, abstractions are held to rigorous standards: they must actually be proven to behave as claimed, any exceptions must be included in the definition, and any application outside of the assumptions is invalid or at least highly suspect and must be justified.

Such abstractions are great -- if you can find them. Once in a lifetime things. Pretty much nothing we use in software comes close to this. Not even Lisp.

Not lying is not easy. You have to take responsibility for basically every misunderstanding someone may make with your ideas.

-----

3 points by shader 387 days ago | link

> Such abstractions are great -- if you can find them. Once in a lifetime things.

Maybe we're discussing different when it comes to abstractions.

They don't have to be paradigms and approaches, like your reference Lisp as a whole. I'm not even sure how "Lisp" fits into the "don't lie" model; it's on a completely different scale. I'm just concerned with how things are represented. UDP doesn't lie; it says up front that its datagrams are unreliable. TCP on the other hand pretends to be a reliable ordered stream; that pretense comes at a cost, and sometimes fails anyway.

Another one that came up recently was Golang vs Rust and how they handle file paths (or pretty much anything really). Golang takes the path of least short-term resistance, and tries to make things easy by pretending paths are strings. Turns out that isn't always true. Rust in contrast works hard to ensure correctness; for file paths they use a custom OsStr type that covers the possible cases. There are lots of examples where Rust uses result types to present a more complex but accurate set of outcomes.

> Not lying is not easy. You have to take responsibility for basically every misunderstanding someone may make with your ideas.

That sounds like a good point, but after thinking for a second I don't think I agree. If I was really trying to guarantee that no one misunderstood my work, that would be a problem. However, that's not the objective of the principle, which is a guide for choosing representations. Apply the same logic to human honesty. Is it really that impossible to avoid lying in conversation? Am I suddenly lying if someone misinterprets what I said?

I think avoiding lying in abstraction design should be similar to personal honesty in conversation with other people. Don't intentionally misrepresent something. If someone misreads the specification and makes a mistake, that's their fault.

I will go a step further though and say that simply having a disclaimer doesn't match the spirit of the principle. Surely the TCP documentation (or a little critical thinking) will reveal that it can't truly make streams reliable. The problem though is that it tries, and wants you to believe it does except for "rare circumstances." I would prefer a system built using UDP with full expectation of the potential failures, than one on TCP that thought it had covered all the edge cases that mattered only to run into a new one.

I guess the Erlang "let it crash" philosophy is almost a corollary. If you don't have illusions that your code won't crash, and prepare for that worst possible case, then any unhandled errors can just be generalized to a crash.

The purpose of the principle is to make better designs by giving more accurate and flexible options to the user. If a design choice is between exposing the internals as they are, or trying to cover up the complexity to coddle the user, choose the former. Give the user the flexibility and power of handling the details themselves (possibly via library). Don't lie.

-----

3 points by rocketnia 366 days ago | link

I like this whole discussion, akkartik and shader. You've both made a lot of excellent points, and I found myself nodding along to one comment only to nod along to the next as well.

Right now I have a lot to say about the math analogy in particular. (The rest of the discussion has been great too.)

Mathematics has a lot in common with even the messy parts of programming.

Mathematics involves a lot of computation, and not necessarily of the digital computer kind or the arithmetic kind. If a human reader has to look up a definition of a word they don't know, then they're practically having to perform a manual lambda calculus substitution step. A lot of popular concepts in math are subject to transitive closure, which gives them indirect consequences hidden away on non-obvious reasoning paths. A lot of topics in math have to do with metareasoning and higher-order reasoning. Altogether, the kind of effort it takes for a human reader to understand a mathematical claim can involve a lot of the same things that on a computer we'd consider program execution.

As much as people might not like to admit it, mathematical theorems don't always take the form of the precise "don't lie" abstractions shader is describing. When a proof has a flaw in it, people still make use of the theorem, either by conjecturing that it's true anyway for some as-yet-undiscovered reason, or by explaining why the flaws in the proof don't matter in this context. In domains where it makes sense to change the mathematical foundations (e.g. deciding to use a different logic or a different set theory), a lot of the bread-and-butter theorems and concepts of mathematics can end up having flaws in them, but instead of coining new names for all those theorems and concepts, it's easier to use the same names and merely describe all the little patches that are necessary for them to work. So I think mathematics makes use of its share of abstraction-breaking techniques, techniques a software engineer might simulate with some combination of dynamic scope, side effects, preprocessing passes, code-walking, aspect-oriented weaving, dependency injection, or something like that. (This is mostly visible to people who are trying to make the math precise enough that a computer can verify or assist with it.)

Of course, math is not quite the same as software engineering. Unlike software, math is written primarily for humans to understand, and it only incidentally has computational aspects. This influences the kind of BS that's possible with math, both for better and for worse.

- For the worse: Once a mathematical argument goes on for a bit too long, humans rarely have the diligence to require that every single part of that reasoning makes sense; they're content to give leeway to some parts that they already feel they understand clearly. Some popular points of leeway end up serving as the foundations for a lot of mathematics, and we might call those the "syscalls" of math. Of course, every paradox of barbers and liars and time travel and infinity and whatnot reveals that humans are stubbornly hospitable to inconsistent ideas, and software engineering shows that humans' leeway leaves room for bugs on an extremely frequent basis.

- For the better: Since humans are in the loop when it comes to reading and sharing mathematical results, the kind of BS that confuses and dismays people has some trouble thriving. If the effort it takes to apply a mathematical concept is too full of hacks and spaghetti, people probably won't find it to be their favorite concept and won't share it with each other. (Of course, there seem to be some concepts which make a lot of sense once people get to know them, but still seem to require a rather circuitous route to learn about. In this way, people can end up being enthusiastic about parts of math that look, from the outside, to be full of nope.)

Considering all that mess, math nevertheless has a reputation for leakless abstractions, and that reputation is well deserved. "The study and development of leakless abstractions" would be a fitting definition of mathematics. The mess comes from the fact that humans are the ones discussing, developing, identifying examples of, and using the abstractions.

Likewise, even if software engineering deals with a big mess of leaky abstractions a lot of the time, the leakless ones are an important part of the design space. Unlike hardware, software code is a mathematically precise chunk of data, and the ways we transform it and compile it are easily a mathematical topic with lots of room for leakless abstractions. The reason (and perhaps the only essential reason) for the mess is that humans are the ones discussing, developing, making hardware for, and using the software.

While it's clear that math and software are two worlds with notable differences -- distinguished at least by the presence of computer hardware that gives a user meaningful value out of using software they don't know how to maintain -- I believe software could very well develop a popular perception as a world of Platonic forms, the same kind of perception math has. It's not that farfetched for people today to say, "obviously, as soon as you put an algorithm on a device and execute it, it's not the same algorithm." What if someday people say nothing we build or do can be a "true" algorithm because an algorithm is a Platonic concept that our world can only approximate?

Is that the right perception for software? Well... is it the right perception for mathematics? I think the perception doesn't matter that much one way or the other. Everyday software can have leakless abstractions of the same kind everyday mathematics is known for, and many of math's abstractions are actually riddled with holes in ways software engineers might find familiar.

-----

2 points by shader 387 days ago | link

I have a metaphor I like to use sometimes to describe the perils of over-extending metaphors. That's not exactly the same, but maybe it's relevant enough to share.

  A metaphor is like an old rusty wheelbarrow; if you put too
  much into it and push it too far, it will break down, you'll
  trip over it, cut yourself, get infected with tetanus, and
  end up in the hospital filled with regret.
I'm still not satisfied with the ending and tweak it slightly each time. It fits the pandemic humor rather well though.

-----

2 points by shader 387 days ago | link

> my analogy with legislators a superior alternative to computers as cars or planes.

I think what you're trying to say is that modifying software is more like amending a law than tinkering with a personal car. Legislators are to laws what programmers are to software, and we have gotten bad results from leaving law to experts, so we shouldn't leave software to experts either.

You haven't clearly explained how software is like laws, or made clear arguments for why leaving laws to experts is the source of the problem, why software would suffer the same fate, and what should be done differently.

> So the fallacy in the argument is that implementation details are relevant to everyone. They aren't. They're relevant to system builders and people who like tinkering because that is a separate domain to the user domain.

Quoting the guy you responded to, his main point seems to be that implementation details aren't relevant to everyone. He uses cars as an example; some people tinker, others just drive. Empirically his point is borne out: most people just use Instagram on their iPhone without any concern for implementation details.

> Given the outsized effect that software infrastructure has on our lives, I think computers are more like laws

I think I disagree regarding the "outsized effect". I don't have many personal interactions with the law so I don't think it effects me much, but I use software every day so I feel its effects. Also, the effect that laws have is community-wide and enforced, but nobody is compelling me to use any particular piece of software.

> laws are too important to be left to legislators

Too important in what sense? What other alternatives? The problem is, laws are fundamentally a community rather than individual concern. Laws are hard to modify because they can only be enforced by a community as a whole. You could pick a different process, but however you propose changes to a law they have to survive the politics of the community to be enforced, and to the degree that a community does not unanimously agree on general interests those laws will be created for special ones. In contrast, software use is voluntary and personal.

> it would be great to separate the user experience from the developer experience if we knew how

The points you take up in this argument are 1) implementation details are relevant to everyone, and 2) the developer and user experience can't be separated. With these points, I disagree. There are many users who are not developers, and don't care about internals. Just like both cars and laws, most people don't care about the details until they have to. At that point, some will look for professional help (mechanic, lawyer), and others will do it themselves. Yes, the details are important, but that's why we hire mechanics and lawyers who know them well, and not an argument for learning them yourself.

However, your main point was that mind-bikes should be see-through. The argument that not everyone cares about internals is actually irrelevant to that point, and I don't think you need to quixotically defend against every attack. Details should be accessible simply because that makes tools ergonomic and maintenance easy, regardless of who's doing it. I really like the fact that the oil filter on my car is right on top of the engine; makes changing it really easy. Even if I didn't change the oil myself, it would still make the task easier for the mechanic. That's not just altruism either; if it's easier for him, I probably get better service at lower prices.

I don't always care about the details, but when I do, I like them to be accessible and easy to understand.

-----

2 points by akkartik 387 days ago | link

> You haven't clearly explained how software is like laws, or made clear arguments for why leaving laws to experts is the source of the problem, why software would suffer the same fate, and what should be done differently.

Both are systems of rules that have unanticipated long-term effects on the lives of people. As a result they're impossible to safely delegate. You can't pay programmers to write code for you, because they'll drown you in technical debt that only washes over you long after they're paid and gone. You can't expect legislators to make good laws because they'll constantly take the easy way out and leave a mess for future generations to deal with. (Now maybe you can't expect people to make good laws in general. But if there's a way out, that's the direction to look for it.)

-----

3 points by shader 384 days ago | link

I feel like much of the disagreement in this conversation comes down to a question of degrees, as you mentioned in your other comment.

Many of your comments seem to imply an absolutism that you may not actually mean; I know I sometimes overstate my arguments when I'm trying to keep a point concise anyway. Or possibly I'm being pedantic by requesting that you qualify all of your claims.

I agree that laws and software last a long time. Most other systems would wear out and need replacing eventually. The need to explicitly repeal laws gives them incredible inertia, and is a good argument for sunset clauses. At first glance software seems like it could last as long, since it's only information, but in practice I think the underlying systems and surrounding environment change enough that the software must also adapt or die.

Perhaps it's a change in perspective. If you look at the software application itself, it doesn't have to change and can last forever. But systems change, and eventually leave the application behind. That's a (possible) victory for those of us on the side of active replacement.

> As a result they're impossible to safely delegate.

That doesn't follow. Long-lasting results could just as easily be an argument for hiring an expert to do the best possible job. E.g. an architect for a stone cathedral vs. a diy shed.

> You can't pay programmers to write code for you.

I would think that the existence of the software _industry_ rather than a network of niche artisans flatly disproves this statement. People do hire others, and it proves to be a more effective and profitable way to develop usable products than trying to do everything by oneself.

> because they'll drown you in technical debt

If that's the only argument against hiring someone else, it's not a very good one. For one thing, companies can choose to set style and documentation requirements, so that little information is lost when they leave. On the other hand, I am quite capable of drowning myself technical debt on my own; I might even be more likely to take shortcuts if I have to do everything myself. To paraphrase my father, software written by someone else is hard to understand and maintain, and software you wrote more than 6 months ago was written by someone else.

I think my main point in all of this is to try to convince you not to be so pessimistic, because a lot of the things you're focusing on either aren't actually that big of a problem, or aren't necessary to solve. Part of it is also about strategy. I generally agree your design decisions and objectives, but based on the HN discussion it's going to be a hard sell if you present your ideas in direct opposition to everything else. Someone pushed back on the idea that everyone needs to understand implementation details. Truth is, they're right, but instead of explaining how the availability of details can still be valuable even if they aren't needed by everyone on a daily basis, you tried to counter. I'm not holding that against you; I have a tendency to do the same thing (it's easy to just respond point-by-point to all the flaws in a post, and forget that I should be working towards an objective). But I think you can do better.

Still, kudos to you for getting this far in the first place. I have too much fun talking about ideas to actually build them.

-----

3 points by akkartik 384 days ago | link

I went back and reread my grandparent comment here, and I actually wouldn't change much if I was phrasing it more carefully. I'm much more certain about the problem than about Mu as a solution to it.

The one thing I would change is to add a "given current technology". I don't intend to suggest that the problem of delegating rule-making is destined to be forever impossible. But it does seem about as difficult as the fictional science of psychohistory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory_(fictional)). It's not a hard science, but requires far better understanding of human nature than we currently have.

> > As a result they're impossible to safely delegate.

> That doesn't follow. Long-lasting results could just as easily be an argument for hiring an expert to do the best possible job. E.g. an architect for a stone cathedral vs. a DIY shed.

Let me requote myself to add the sentence it follows from: "Both are systems of rules that have unanticipated long-term effects on the lives of people. As a result they're impossible to safely delegate." The crux here is the 'unanticipated'. A badly built stone cathedral can cave in, that's about the worst case. If you were rich enough that may seem like a reasonable worst-case risk. You can protect against it with some diversification. But installing the wrong program on your computer can cause the whole to become compromised. And it's not just a theoretical possibility either. In rules and software, action at a distance is the norm rather than the exception.

> I would think that the existence of the software _industry_ rather than a network of niche artisans flatly disproves this statement. People do hire others, and it proves to be a more effective and profitable way to develop usable products than trying to do everything by oneself.

You're right, when I say "impossible" I mean what should be rather than what is. I would not hire a programmer (even though I am one and I get paid by others; this is a painful self-criticism to admit to) and I would not recommend any of my loved ones do so. We all rely on hired programmers. I have grown painfully aware of this exposure. At least we should try not to increase this reliance.

The current software industry is not "effective", for any meaning of the term that is related to the end user over any reasonably long term. It certainly is profitable. I'd much rather the world had been a lot more measured in its incorporation of software into every aspect of modern life.

-----

2 points by shader 384 days ago | link

> I don't intend to suggest that the problem of delegating rule-making is destined to be forever impossible. But it does seem about as difficult as the fictional science of psychohistory

I wasn't thinking along those terms, but the clarification is still helpful. Also, I like the reference to psychohistory. A cool idea, but completely unrealistic given chaos theory. If we can't even manage the dynamics of the logistic map [0], successfully predicting the behavior of more complex nonlinear systems is even more unlikely.

I'm still not sure it's fair to characterize all of software as unpredictable or having unpredictable effects though. The limit of the iterated logistic map is unpredictable for certain parameter ranges, but that doesn't mean that all math functions have unpredictable limits. I think for the purposes of this discussion it would be very helpful to identify which systems do and why, so that we can better understand what should or even could be done about it.

To some extent I accept the unpredictability premise, because software is written and used in a social context (which your statements about psychohistory imply is your primary concern) which has very complicated dynamics. But at the same time, the software artifact itself is basically static information that doesn't have any dynamics at all.

This emphasizes the question of which effects you are concerned about?

> In rules and software, action at a distance is the norm rather than the exception.

In contrast to your statement of needing better understanding of human nature, this statement makes it sounds like the dynamics and unpredictability you're considering is the behavior of software components in composition with other components. Which is it? Even so, I think in principle I could agree with that as well; in general unless you know what's in the components, and what all of the components of the system are, you can't predict what the behavior of a system will be. Specific cases are another matter, however.

That said, there's lots of work on atomicity and confinement that can help with identifying boundaries. Imperative code is exposed to possible side effects when invoking functions, but functional languages are not. I think proper security models can also help with this; in an object-capability system, nothing can perform operations but that you provide them with that capability. Loose coupling (services, protocols, dataflow) limits the possible externalities as well. I grant that the 'action at a distance' problem exists, but there are other possible solutions besides "avoid delegation entirely".

> I would not hire a programmer [...] and I would not recommend any of my loved ones do so

Are you really suggesting that the only software anyone uses should be software they wrote themselves? That hardly seems scalable or effective. Like subsistence farming. One might think that subsistence farmers have more control over their diet, since they get to control most of the inputs. They can hypothetically choose which varieties of vegetable to plant, and what fertilizers and techniques to use in growing them. In practice though, a true subsistence farmer is very constrained to use only what they can produce, and vastly more exposed to the environment since they have no alternative sources. Buying food at a modern supermarket does give one less direct control over how the food is grown, but there are many, many more options to choose from around the world. Perhaps you won't find exactly what you want, but you're much more likely to be able to find it year round.

The software available for sale may not be what you want, but you have lots of choices and you don't have to buy any of it. I can agree that being able to understand the internals could help make better choices, but I can't understand an absolute injunction against delegation.

> The current software industry is not "effective", for any meaning of the term that is related to the end user over any reasonably long term

I think this is probably the key point. How would you define "effective"? Given that people do pay for software, they must consider it effective for their objectives.

I suppose another line of reasoning might be to consider not a specific configuration of software, but rather the changes in its objectives over time (which may have been what you were alluding to with the reference to psychohistory). In that case, the specific objectives don't matter but rather some level of adaptability. That fits with what you've said earlier about being able to jump into a system and make changes with only a few hours of effort to understand the surrounding behavior. I can definitely see how that would be an argument for easily understandable and accessible internals, similar to the car maintenance analogy. However, I still don't see an argument against delegation.

Indeed, another key question is: what are you proposing is different about writing software oneself than letting someone else do it?

A third party could easily be better at building maintainable and understandable systems than myself (I could have hired you to build Mu...), and I can be cautious to hire only people I trust and take security precautions. If it has something to do with consequent understanding of the system that was built, I would argue that after a fairly short amount of time all of those differences are erased by forgetfulness. As I said before, any software you wrote 6 months ago was written by somebody else.

Again, I am not at all questioning the value of accessible and comprehensible internals, just the seemingly unrelated arguments against delegation etc.

----------

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistic_map

-----

2 points by akkartik 384 days ago | link

> A cool idea, but completely unrealistic given chaos theory.

Agreed.

> In contrast to your statement of needing better understanding of human nature, this statement makes it sounds like the dynamics and unpredictability you're considering is the behavior of software components in composition with other components. Which is it?

When the mechanisms are simple and easy to reason about, it's easier to delegate because worst-case analysis of human nature is possible. When the mechanisms are powerful, we need greater understanding of human nature to navigate the complexity of incentives and unforeseen consequences.

> Are you really suggesting that the only software anyone uses should be software they wrote themselves?

Yeah, this bears clarifying. I'm not hung up on some sort of notion of purity that I came up with. I wouldn't make this recommendation in the '80s. Then things didn't seem so far gone. My recommendation takes into account the amount of software and complexity and tragedy-of-the-commons effects we've already introduced into the world. We have enough bespoke software. We don't need more that is driven by extrinsic motivations like pay. We need more software driven by intrinsic motivation, that is more likely to try to grapple with long-term consequences. Someone inexperienced may still pollute the well, but they may learn from their past decisions. Software professionals like me are largely unlikely to think hard about these things, because our salaries depend on us not understanding.

When the first truffula tree was cut down I wouldn't get too hung up on it. (Assuming I had the same worldview I have now.) But at some point enough trees get chopped down that it gradually gets more and more urgent to not dig ourselves deeper.

Hopefully this clarifies things even if I didn't answer every last question of yours. Do let me know if you'd still like me to answer some other bit.

-----

3 points by shader 383 days ago | link

> When the mechanisms are simple and easy to reason about, it's easier to delegate because worst-case analysis of human nature is possible. When the mechanisms are powerful, we need greater understanding of human nature to navigate the complexity of incentives and unforeseen consequences.

That helps tie the two together, thanks.

I'm still not convinced though on what you think the downsides would be, or why; specifically, why they couldn't be bounded and partitioned in some way, or why you have to get them all correct up front instead of adapting later with better information.

If we look at the truly long term, the butterfly effect might indeed paralyze us as to what the potential consequences of any single action might be. But a butterfly-flap does not directly cause a hurricane; they are connected by a myriad of intervening causes, many of which could have stopped the storm. Planning ahead is good, but how far? Specifically, how far given how little we actually control.

> We need more software driven by intrinsic motivation, that is more likely to try to grapple with long-term consequences.

This helps a lot for explaining your vision, and sounds much more agreeable.

I read After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre [0] recently, and this sounds like an appreciation for the virtues necessary for the successful practice of software development. It would be interesting to explore that further.

> the ... tragedy-of-the-commons effects we've already introduced into the world, But at some point enough trees get chopped down that it gradually gets more and more urgent to not dig ourselves deeper.

Mentioning a tragedy-of-the-commons and an analogy of tree-chopping makes it sound as though industrial software was producing destructive and indelible environmental effects. The idea of "digging ourselves deeper" also implies that it's cumulative and aggregate. That is, something like there being a "bad-software gas" effect, and every emission of bad software contributes to it and won't easily dissipate.

I think this is a contrast I keep trying to come back to; maybe eventually I'll figure out how to state it clearly.

Chopping a tree is destructive and permanent; it doesn't respawn, though eventually new trees might grow. This makes tree-chopping cumulative unless managed properly. It is also really does reduce the aggregate number of trees and thus whatever benefits trees provide the environment. That is, lost trees could hypothetically affect everyone. Eventually, tree-chopping could add up to something significant. Furthermore, each tree chopped is a larger percentage of the remaining trees, so later chops may be more serious than earlier ones.

I don't think any of these attributes apply to software though. Writing software is constructive. Each project is independent, and does not cause any effects unless directly invoked or linked. This means new projects create more options, but not more liability; there is no aggregate externality. There are hundreds of thousands of projects on Github, and thousands of more companies with private source, and I am aware of and affected by very few of them. If one of those projects causes harm when I link it into mine, that's as much my fault as the original author's because I chose to link it.

The existence of vague, aggregate negative externalities for software needs further justification. Specifically identifying the issue may also help identify better how to fight it.

I think a common error in macro analysis (such as in Keynesian economics) is to treat members of a type as an aggregate quantity. The capital in an economy isn't a homogeneous quantity C that can be easily shifted to different industries, but actual machines and experts coordinated in a structure of relationships that can't be so easily changed. Software doesn't exist as some abstract quantity S that increases or decreases and correlates to a quantity of harm H. Each project is unique, and used by other projects in unique ways - or may not have any effect on them, if they are not so connected.

> Hopefully this clarifies things even if I didn't answer every last question of yours. Do let me know if you'd still like me to answer some other bit.

That's fine; it's enough if my questions help you understand my perspective and confusion, so you can better address them. I'm trying to work out more precisely my thoughts on these things as well. The better I understand the problem and the value of these particular software virtues, the better I can incorporate them into my own work.

---------

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Virtue

-----

2 points by akkartik 383 days ago | link

You said above that chopping a tree is permanent, even though new trees may grow. We're of one mind there. It's worth dwelling on this distinction, because it is the essence of what I'm trying to get across.

It's not about the single tree. Trees grow and die, and every step of the process seems natural in isolation. The problem with externalities lies in the scale, in the disruption of the natural balance between competing forces.

Yes, individual rules are not directly connected to each other, and their effects are often isolated. The trouble lies in their implementation and how the interactions of implementations of different disparate rules often reduces the degrees of freedom in future rule making/management.

Say you have 100 people creating new rules or software. Each of them only cares about a few projects of rule-making, and the different projects are largely independent. If 90% of the rule-makers are making badly designed rules, the whole will gradually grow unmanageable. This story doesn't depend on what the rules are about in the real world. All we are concerned about are the implementation details. Are they implemented parsimoniously, or is the overall effect a result of two clauses combining from hundreds of pages apart? Are they easy to understand, or are they deliberately phrased in a convoluted manner to make it difficult for newcomers to join in the business of rule making? Do they follow some meta-rules consistently, or do they normalize deviance (http://lmcontheline.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-normalization-o...)? There are many such tests, and we think of them as 'design'. The design of a system is a meta-commons even if each of us has a different use case within it.

Even if you think you don't care about the rules most people follow, the rules care about you. For example, it's harder for me to find other C++ programmers to collaborate with because the pool of people who care about the same domain as me is further diluted by people who care about the same subset of C++ as me. The parts of C++ I don't use still affect my life.

-----

3 points by shader 378 days ago | link

Our point of difference here regards externalities. You seem to think they are pervasive, largely irreversible, and negative. I'm still not sure that externalities exist or what they would be, let alone why they would be irreversible or negative. What about positive externalities, as good practices are recognized and recommended by people to their peers?

> The trouble lies in their implementation and how the interactions of implementations of different disparate rules often reduces the degrees of freedom in future rule making/management.

Within a legal jurisdiction all laws are effectively "executing in the same scope." Thus it's obvious and natural that they could interact with each other. Less obvious that such interactions are negative, or why that would make it harder for new people to write rules. Clearly our legislators have no difficulty pumping out more and more laws every year...

In software, the implementations don't run in the same scope, unless deliberately made to do so. And again, software projects aren't compulsory or indelible. They can be deleted, ignored, replaced, etc. very easily.

I might understand if you focused on the social implications of the software, such as one person using a code base, thinking its patterns were normal, and replicating them elsewhere. But you specifically mention the implementations and that somehow interactions between implementations reduces degrees of freedom. How? Where? Within a project, or across projects?

> Say you have 100 people creating new rules or software.

This whole section mixes your analogy and your subject. Many of the statements are obvious or at least reasonable for a legal system, but not obvious for software; at least, not software as a whole. Perhaps an individual project can fit the analogy fairly well. A program may, per your analogy, have complex behavior caused by spaghetti interactions across hundreds of pages, which would make things difficult for a newcomer to change. Such things repeated as patterns across a project do constitute the "design" or architecture of it. Do such patterns exist across all of software though, when anyone can start a new project in an empty file?

I appreciate the mention of "normalizing deviance", it's potentially a useful concept for this discussion. I think you're referring to the abstract pattern of normalizing deviance from what could otherwise have been consistent meta-rules, as opposed to a specific deviance? I'm not sure where that leaves me though.

I can almost imagine the "meta-commons" you mention, but I have no confidence that it is anything other than "common sense". Yes, people have habits of thought and behavior informed by their past experiences; there's no reason they can't learn and do better on their next project though.

> Even if you think you don't care about the rules most people follow, the rules care about you. For example, it's harder for me to find other C++ programmers to collaborate with because the pool of people who care about the same domain as me is further diluted by people who care about the same subset of C++ as me. The parts of C++ I don't use still affect my life.

It sounds like you're describing a situation where "bad" approaches steal mind share, reducing the number of people available for doing "good" work. Or, in your example, the existence of other domains (rules?) creates negative externalities for you by diluting your supply of collaborators. This sounds like a zero-sum fallacy. You're assuming that those people would still be C++ programmers and that they would be compelled to share your interests for lack of options, or that the other domains poached collaborators that were rightfully yours. Generally it works the other way though; the overall size of the market is increased by the existence of competitors, who share marketing costs in a larger economy of scale. Thus, because of those other domains, people with different interests are drawn into C++ programming would otherwise wouldn't be, and maybe some of them might eventually discover yours and collaborate with you. Sadly we can't run multiple experiments to find out which universe you have more collaborators in though.

-----

3 points by akkartik 377 days ago | link

This is a helpful summary of our differences. The keystone is whether zero-sum is a good framing or not.

I think we should by default assume we're in a zero-sum regime anytime people's attention is involved. For example, think back to the SOPA/PIPA boycotts a few years ago when every website turned off for a day. That's a trick you can only pull a finite number of times before people grow jaded.

Similarly, someone is only going to try to learn programming a small number of times. And every time they think they failed increases the energy barrier for the next time. Burnout is the primary concern here, to my mind.

The same principles apply also to experienced programmers learning about new software. Burnout is the prime enemy, but the concern of minimizing burnout is on no author's mind. Nobody owns the design goal of comprehensibility of internals. Lack of ownership is the essence of an externality.

When it takes too much effort to comprehend a piece of software, people can no longer keep up with it on their time. They have to be paid to do so. That biases the playing field between insiders and users. A small number of people working on a popular piece of software can have disproportionate influence on the lives of people.

To me the argument of the previous paragraphs is ironclad. Which part do you disagree with? Is software already easy to comprehend? Is comprehension to outsiders not the #1 problem in software? Is the difficulty in comprehension not because of tragedy-of-the-commons effects?

---

I'm going to stop debating the non-software side of things, since I'm not an expert there and I don't really have any solutions to offer. I strongly feel the problems of limited attention carry over there. But it's probably easier for me to convince you of that in the realm of software. Oh wait, one final note:

> Clearly our legislators have no difficulty pumping out more and more laws every year...

Have you not met programmers talented at churning out crap? The difficulty is not in writing new laws, but in having the whole make sense. At least in software the computer enforces some basic checking. If the program crashes, that's visible to all. Contradictions in laws can fester for long periods until someone works up the resources to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court. (Why in the world don't US courts deal with counterfactuals? The whole principle of "case or controversy" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advisory_opinion#United_States) is bound up in pre-software thinking. In my ideal world courts would be able to give feedback on bills even before they are turned into Law, and actually influence how legislators voted on them. "Have you considered this corner case?")

-----

2 points by akkartik 387 days ago | link

It's the difference between a game of chess and a game of Nomic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomic). Being able to change the rules makes every move much more powerful, and the game much more chaotic. If you have inequality between people who can make moves and people who can't, I think that dooms the system in the long run. (It may well be doomed in the long run anyway, but again, I think there's only one direction to go here.)

-----

2 points by shader 384 days ago | link

Yes, if it was a game that would be true, because (within the rules) you can't just walk away from the game, and there is only one winner.

However, software like most things in real life isn't a game. There aren't any rules. You can just fork it, or ignore it, or employ any number of other subversive strategies.

You keep thinking in zero-sum terms, and in ultimate terms like "doom" that I don't think actually apply to the domain.

How do you define "doom" anyway? Sounds like there's an objective you want the meta-system to be moving toward, but you expect it to fail. I'm not convinced there is such a perfect destination, or that there's anything like predictable determinism in the system.

-----

1 point by akkartik 387 days ago | link

Here's an example of the ways that laws affect your life in umpteen ways: http://akkartik.name/post/2010-12-19-18-19-59-soc

-----