Posts Tagged spiel

Free your mind from boxes

DISCLAIMER: I’d like to point out, that the issue I am addressing here transcends the field of software developement, but this would drastically go beyond the scope of what I intend this blog to cover.

Human thinking tends to revolve a lot around boxes. Why? Boxes are useful. During everyday life, we constantly bump into objects of our perception and we tend to put these into boxes. There are two reasons:

  • The most important “feature” of boxes is, that we can (mentally) carry around multiple objects in just one box. We can say “I like classical music”, instead of iterating all classical pieces and saying we like them.
  • Up to a certain point, boxes are even a boost to everyday perception. If there is an item a, and a box A with many items that share common features with a and one-another, we can put a into A. We tend to infer from that, that a is likely to also share features of other items from A, without actually inspecting it. The nice word for this is “induction”, the common word is “prejudice”. Itย  is a way of concluding, that is very efficient, because it doesn’t require a thorough study of the subject, but not without risk, because it quite often yields poorย  conclusions.

None the less, the main point is, boxes are useful, because we can put objects into them, which helps us dealing with the enourmous complexity of the world we live in. I suppose, we all agree, at the bottom line, the purpose of boxes is to put objects into them. I also suppose, we’d agree this doesn’t imply the purpose of objects is to be put into boxes. Yet we often behave like that. We like boxes. We can label them and then put objects into them, saving us the work of labeling all items individually.

It is my belief however, that for any kind of task, that requires problem solving, having boxes is not the biggest quality. Having boxes is good. Nowadays it is a popular oppinion that thinking outside the box is the new “shizzle” and will solve all your problems. I don’t think it will. It will perform just as poorly as thinking inside the box, because either way, the box is the limit.

The point is, to think past the box. The box is a support, a tool, and as such should not be in your way. The actual “shizzle” is the ability to build boxes and to choose clever labels. It is a more less mechanical task toย  sort a set of items into a given set of boxes. The stroke of genius is choosing a certain way to box things. Thus the important quality is the art of “meta-boxing”, the tool that transcends boxes, the understanding of why certain boxes are chosen the way they are and being able to replace or add boxes as the problem, one is solving, evolves.

The actual art of problem solving consists of looking at the problem in search of the right perspective, until this sweet moment comes, where all parts fall into their places and the solution becomes obvious. You’re less likely to find a good solution if you try to use the same approach you used on an old problem you consider similar. Probably it even isn’t, but your perspective is so poorly chosen, it looks similar. You’re also quite unlikely to succeed, if you try hard not to draw knowledge from problems you’ve already solved. The word is “why” and the task is to understand why you succeeded in solving other problems. Why your solution worked. To understand how you found the right perspective. And apply that understanding.

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The miracle of computer applications

There is a process, that I’d call man-made evolution, for the lack of a better term. By intellectual effort, mankind can achieve new abilities.

Basically, there were two major breakthroughs until recently:

  1. Tools. A tool would transform our force in a way, so that it can be used in a way previously impossible. Man has no claws, but could shape stones to be used the same way, an animal with claws would use claws.
  2. Machines. As the next step from tools, man created machines. Machines are a step forward in two ways. For one, they allowed to perform desired motions in a very effective way (such as using a loom, which requires only a repetitive and simple movement, to perform a task, that would otherwise be very time consuming), but secondly also allowed harnessing other sources of energy than manpower.

And then, not so long ago, computer applications emerged (you may want to imagine some dramatic music here, a choir of angels and that kind of stuff ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Of course, computer applications require computers to run, but personally, I don’t think, the biggest gain mankind gets from computers is, that we can compute things insanely fast, but rather that we can run applications on them.

I believe applications, to be the third significant breakthrough.

What a machine does, is determined by the laws of physics and the constellation of its components. A computer constitutes a world, where the laws of physics are replaced by the possibilities of the hardware.ย  What an application does is determined by those possibilities, while the physical composition of components is replaced by mere software, providing flexibility, that was probably undreamed of 100 years ago. Without material or mechanical modification, a computer can be altered in order to perform new or other tasks, or can be improved at the tasks it is carrying out. Any application installed on a computer, can be thought of as an individual machine.

Computers are a leap forward in that a single computer can be used for a multitude of extremely unrelated tasks, while an application can run on an unlimited number of computers. When computers actually emerged, this was more a theoretical possibility, but now, we live in a world, where computers are cheap, small, fast, amazingly reliable and writing portable software is feasible in a reasonable amount of time.

Truth is, computer applications are great in many ways, but they still are machines. As any machine, they need an operator. For him to operate the machine, control elements are needed. Or an interface, as programmers would say. Computers (at least PCs) typically all have the same physical interface (screen, possibly some sort of audio output, mouse and keyboard), while applications have a more abstract interface built on top of computer interfaces. The great thing about application interfaces is, that they are also just software. Again, without any material or mechanical modification, an interface can be adapted to its user. Suppose, you wanted your alarm to start filling your tub, when it rings, or you want to switch your tap from separate taps to a mixing tap. In the world of software, an equivalent task usually requires less effort, and once you succeeded, you can do it for any tub in the world, without much effort. This would really be of great service to the inhabitants of the UK. ๐Ÿ˜›

With the advent of the internet, the potential of software development spiked. One application can run in multiple physical locations (something basically no traditional machines can accomplish reasonably). The application can be updated automatically and easily. I think, we rarely appreciate or even understand, what an enormous potential this is. But it is. One man can create an application, that saves 10% of the broadband-internet users (should be about 50 millions) 1 minute of work per day. That’s half a billion minutes saved per day, assuming a workpensum 40 hours a week (ergo about 125000 minutes per year), this is equivalent to 400 man years saved. Per day. Now these are numbers serve more the purpose to impress you and everyone else, than to really measure anything, but I think, they do make my point. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Thoughts on Programming

It has been recently (i.e. a few months ago) pointed out to me, that my blog is kind of empty. I was pleasently surprised to hear, someone cared. ๐Ÿ˜€

Well, I have been reflecting a lot on programming lately, looking at various other languages, after I had given up efforts to create my own, as well as frameworks, not having given up those efforts yet. I have looked at different paradigms, best practices, common practices, philosophies and concepts. What I found out, is that there’s a general lack of clear definitions on the web and there are many approaches that are mistakes. As a consequence, I have decided to fill the void, which I am hopefully not the only one to perceive. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I am proud to announce, that from this day on, I intend to pester the world with my dilettantish thoughts on programming. This will include concrete principles and concepts, as well as some “deep” spiel (much like this post), intended to explain, why I deem this and that approach of high importance. I think, it is important to see a purpose in what you do, and should you be looking for one, maybe I can help you at least a little.

In the scope of this announced series of posts, programming and software development shall be used interchageably. That’s because I

  • will only focus on programming for the purpose of software development
  • intend to postulate principles, which transcend all layers of software development, right from design down to implementation,
  • think programming cannot be thought of as just coding (i.e. writing code). Any time it is, the results are usually useless crap.

Apart from stealing your time with this announcement, I’ll try to maintain some sort of table of contents in this very post, to provide some sort of structured overview to an otherwise chaotic stream of vaguely related posts.

I hope you enjoy reading, what I have to say, and pick up a few helpful things.

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