Software and Evolution

Thursday, April 8, 2010 :: Tagged under: pablolife engineering plt. ⏰ 4 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

I think the software is growing, and will continue to grow, the way lifeforms have grown and evolved on Earth. By tthis I mean we started with a single ancestor, likely of a few proteins or perhaps a single cell, only to become a planet housing humans, echidnas, sponges, fungi, insects, trees, and more.

This mostly comes to mind when I look at essays like this series, by Mike Taylor, on how so much of coding these days is just playing plumber between various libraries, fixing leaks and disasters that occur when the piping isn't perfect. The argument is stated well by jdietrich commenting on the story on Hacker News:

My biggest gripe with modern programming is the sheer volume of arbitrary stuff I need to know. My current project has so far required me to know about Python, Django, Google App Engine and it’s datastore, XHTML, CSS, JQuery, Javascript, JSON, and a clutch of XML schema, APIs and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for all of it, but it just doesn’t seem like what I was promised when I followed SICP for the first time. It just feels like I spend most of my time scouring through documentation and trying to remember umpteen different sets of syntax and class names rather than actually thinking in code.

Back in ye olden days, most programming tasks I performed felt quite natural and painless, just a quiet little chat between me and the compiler. Sometimes longwinded, sometimes repetitive, but I just sat and though and typed and software happened. The work I do these days feels more like being a dogsbody at the tower of babel. I just don’t seem to feel fluent in anything much any more.

We talk about ‘flow’ quite a lot in software and I just have to wonder what’s happening to us all in that respect. Just like a conversation becomes stilted if the speakers keep having to refer to their phrasebooks and dictionaries, I wonder how much longer it will be possible to retain any sort of flowful state when writing software. Might the idea of mastery disappear forever under a constant torrent of new tools and technologies?

I happen to agree with most of the posts, but their symptomatic of something that's been on my mind: our code is really inefficient. But more importantly: that's okay, and further, we will have to live with it in order to reach software at the level that humans are at biologically.

Allow me to clear up the mapping. When we started with computers, we wrote in raw, unadulterated binary. Every machine instruction was treasured, coddled, and several amazingly clever hacks were developed so operations could use minimal resources.

This was a necessity! We had to! But then we moved up to assembly, then the Capital Languages (FORTRAN, COBOL), and so on, until computers got powerful enough that we could afford ourselves some abstractions. What level of abstractions? Imagine how Mel the Real Programmer and other hackers of the binary era must feel when we're using languages with immutable strings, and someone writes code like:

String container = "";
for (String suffix : suffixes)
    container += suffix;
return container;

In which every iteration of the loop allocates a new string! And the code doesn't render the program unusable!

How does Mel feel? Probably how a bacteria (or other single-celled organism) would feel when I scratch an itch, and kill or damage hundreds of skin cells ostensibly for nothing.

Single cell organisms are still with us, and will almost certainly outlast us. We still have them in programming as well. To this day, if you want to really bust out the performance, you still gain lots by living close to the metal: I know a student in the introductory graphics class who implemented his linear algebra package by including x86 in his C. And almost all projects for my combinatorial optimization class are done in C only because, true or not, we believe "it's the fastest." (it is really fast).

The truth is, while people are still busting out assembly and squeezing whatever hardware gains they can, most of us can now get away with being pretty wasteful. And its the only way we can build the truly large, monolithic systems people pay big money for.

What am I trying to communicate with this metaphor?

First, stop arguing that speed be the limiting factor of a language or technology's eventual success. Every abstraction we use today (structured programming, object-orientation) was painfully slow during its introduction, but it will be one of these abstractions that will be the key to the next step in software evolution.

I recognize there are many good arguments against the use of functional programming, logic programming, and other alternate paradigms. Having speed comparable to other non-C languages today and calling it slow is not one of them.

Second, the diversity of software will propagate. Bacteria, fungi, plants, and eagles all live in radically different ways. Learn this and love it. Saying 'my form of programming is the real way' is like saying fungi are a real life form, but plant life isn't. Embedded systems have different needs than white-collar users of 'enterprise' software, different than logicians.

Finally, as it relates to Mike Taylor's article, what we are seeing now with library hell is the bad mutations of software evolution, the ones that will die out until we figure out how to do it right. If software at this point is at a jellyfish level, us sorting out library or framework programming are all the failed experiments to grow bones, gills, feet, and wings. One of them will work eventually, but lots and lots of our software will die until it does.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to join my mailing list, drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄