"Publication - is the Auction Of the Mind of Man" Emily Dickinson
Thursday, 16 December 2004
Adam Bosworth has given a talk (discussed in his blog entry) that has received a lot of attention and comment. He argues that software programs and their tools are way too complex and should be simple.

The problem I have with his argument (and arguments similar to that) is that it posits a false binary choice: either be complex or simple. Complexity is a continuum. Bosworth argues against sophisticated abstractions. But it is sophisticated abstractions that make simplicity possible.

After all, the computer is just atomic particles. Does any programmer worry about that? Or the gotos/branches that are all over the microcode? What about the instruction pipeline? That is all abstracted away in the "hardware". How many programmers worry about exactly how the operating system scheduler works? The whole idea behind class libraries that come with Java and .NET is to allow the programmer to concentrate on the business logic and not worry about the "plumbing code".

Occasionally we have to break through that abstraction and worry about exactly how things work. I discovered that when I wrote my first test code to test the performance of the first MIPS machines back in the 1980s. I found that if I did not return a value from my test routine, the loops would be optimized out. Most of the time we can remain blissfully ignorant of the abstractions. Performance, scalability, and most important of all security, are problems that are classic examples of where we often have to worry about complexity and look at the abstractions. The solutions to those problems are sometimes simple, but more often than not messy.

You cannot divorce simplicity from abstraction. People dealing with complicated things need complicated abstractions. Engineers often make products and technologies that are too geeky, but sometimes things are too simple. After all, the Swiss Army knife comes in several sizes. You can match the level of simplicity that you need.

The Swiss Army knife analogy strikes at the heart of the issue for me. You need to keep it simple enough. Saint-Exupery's famous saying applies here. Perfection is achieved in design when there is nothing more to take away, not when you have nothing more to add. In other words you have to keep it simple, but it still has to accomplish the task. The issue is to make it simple enough for your user, whether they be a writer of a blog, or a user of a class library. But even the simple user to be effective has to understand the limits of the tool, or to be more sophisticated, the abstractions and assumptions used. This applies to all sophisticated problems whether they be the accuracy of a medical test, the stability of Social Security, or the usefulness of Atom or RSS.

Bosworth speaks about the virtue of "keeping it simple and sloppy and its effect on computing on the internet." Well if you have to be HIPPA compliant you cannot be sloppy and forgiving of human foibles and weaknesses. Human weaknesses and foibles are precisely the problem, and they cannot be abstracted or assumed away to achieve simplicity. If you do so, you will have a system so rigid, so bureaucratic, it would be unusable.

Bosworth concludes by talking about achieving simplicity in the information search space to avoid information overload. He talks about data mining, and machine learning as the potential solutions. But they all rely on abstractions about what is important, and what is not. Users better understand how they work. I cannot wait for the day when the social scientists start deconstructing data mining and machine learning for their social assumptions. At that point both humans and machines will prove once again what Hobbes argued so many years ago. Knowledge and the assumptions that go with it are the product of human actions. Knowledge is partly determined by our social relationships and what we assume. Simplicity results from assumptions and abstractions. But we cannot hide from the mess in the name of simplicity.
Thursday, 16 December 2004 10:52:47 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00) | Comments [0] | All | Software Development#
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