Why no-code is uninteresting

in one tweet. Distilled a lot of thought into this one, so lifting it up here.

Research goal

I was recently asked to state my research goal, and this is what I came up with. Suggestions for clarification welcome.

Make simple things easy for amateur programmers.

Where simple things = small scale ad hoc internet applications:
< 100 users
< 100Mb data
< 1000 LOC (or equivalent)

Where easy = total documentation of the entire stack < 1000 pages, written to the comprehension level of a non-STEM undergraduate. But while still providing general purpose programming within some domain, like spreadsheets but unlike many no-code systems.

Where amateur = someone who wants to invest the minimum effort in learning technical details to make something work. It is not a goal to appeal to professional programmers nor train them. But perhaps the extreme simplification required for amateur programming will suggest ways to simplify industrial-scale programming too. For example SQL started as an end user tool.

I believe these goals can not be acheived by remixing our standard bag of tricks. If that were possible it would already have been done. We need fundamentally new ideas, or perhaps discarded old ones.

Version Control for Structure Editing

That’s the headline for my latest project (with Tomas Petricek), presented at HATRA. [paper] [recorded talk]

With this work I am finally confronting the demon cursing my work: version control. If we are to liberate programming from text we need to make structure editing work, including version control. After all, there will be limited benefit from structure editing if collaboration forces us to return to text editing. It feels like this chronic problem has been dragging me down forever. I’ve spent endless effort trying to handle differencing and merging with embedded unique IDs, but I never got it fully worked out, and it remained as technical “dark matter” clogging all my projects. I finally had to accept that the whole approach wasn’t working, and start over.

I’ve turned to the idea of Operational Transformation (OT), which is how Google Docs works. But OT does synchronization, not version control, so I’ve repurposed and generalized it to support long-lived variants with difference inspection and manual merging. Surprisingly, it seems no one has done this before, and I had to invent a new theory.

The result is “high-level” version control. By observing the history of edits we can do much more intelligent version control. For example a rename refactoring is a single atomic operation that does not conflict with any other, whereas in textual VC it conflicts with every change on the same line as an instance of the name. There is also a big opportunity to simplify the conceptual model of version control, which is frankly an utter disaster in git. Perhaps version control is actually the weak point of the textual edifice, where we might be able to win a battle.

The paper situates our work as reviving the “image-based” programming model of Smalltalk and LISP machines and other beloved systems like HyperCard. Images combined all code and data into harmonious and habitable programming worlds. But the difficulty of collaboration and distribution were major blockers for image-based systems. Because images combine code and data, we must also deal with schema change, which we talk about in the paper. We see schema change as another overlooked benefit to structure editing to help incentivize the move from text.

We have a long way to go towards that vision, but at least this paper is a concrete step. I haven’t published a paper in ages. Thanks to Tomas for helping me reboot.

I wrote a paper

My paper with Tomas Petricek was accepted at HATRA. I hope this collaboration with Tomas marks the end of my epic researcher’s block!

HATRA is a workshop encouraging early stage work and hence not even publishing proceedings. Yet the reviews were some of the most attentive and helpful I’ve ever gotten. There was plenty of criticism, but they all earnestly engaged with the ideas in the paper. My compliments to the organizers and the Program Committee.

Continue reading “I wrote a paper”

Open source is stifling progress

My previous post lamented the Great Software Stagnation. We could blame technology lock-in effects (the QWERTY syndrome). We could also blame civilization-wide decadence: the Great Stagnation that was alluded to. But a big part of the blame is something completely unique to software: the open source movement.

Open source is the ideology that all software should be free. This belief is unprecedented in the history of technology. It seems to be related to the fact that software is a form of abstract information. A lot of people seem to think music and movies should also be free, but not too many musicians or movie-makers agree. It is bizarre that open source has been promoted largely by software creators themselves.

Not much user-facing software is open source. But it has almost taken over software development tools. Building things for ourselves and other programmers tickles our nerd sensibilities. Nerd cred is a form of social status we have a shot at. Open source has certainly enabled a lot of software startups to get rich quickly building (closed source) software. But it also killed the market for development of better software tools. There used to be a cottage industry of small software tool vendors offering compilers, libraries, editors, even UI widgets. You can’t compete with free. You can’t even eat ramen on free. You get what you incent, and open source de-incentivizes progress in software tools.

Open source strongly favors maintenance and incremental improvement on a stable base. It also encourages cloning and porting. So we get an endless supply of slightly-different programming languages encouraging people to port everything over. It’s a hobby programming club that reproduces the same old crap with a slightly different style. Inventing really new ideas and building really new things is *hard*, with many trials and errors, and requires a small dedicated cohesive team. Invention can’t be crowdsourced, and it can’t be done on nights and weekends. So the only progress we get is the table scraps of the MegaTechCorps.

Open source and Unix and the internet boom are all wrapped up together. They took over around the same time, 1996, and I blame them for the lack of much progress since.

There are signs that open source is changing. Nadia Eghbal has shown a spotlight on the dark side of open source. There are attempts to convert it to a more sustainable charity model. However I believe the more fundamental change is the imposition of Codes of Conduct, which are trying to change the social norms of open source. Will it still function if it is no longer a private club for autism spectrum guys? Open source as we know it is over, for better or worse.

[See https://faircode.io/]