Reflecting upon my previous post, I am wondering why LISP triumphalists like Paul Graham annoy me so much? Perhaps it is because I used to be one myself, in spirit if not in syntax. And also because I now see them as a major symptom of what ails programming.
It is an easy trap to fall into. Programming requires a certain kind of analytical intelligence. Being more intelligent in that way increases your programming ability exponentially. It is emotionally satisfying to think of yourself as a different species from the average programmer. Programming becomes a demonstration of your superior intellect. Surely such powers shouldn’t be wasted on mundane chores, but instead applied to timeless works of brilliant inspiration, to be admired by the common programmer only through protective eyewear. What a load of self-indulgent adolescent crap. In programming as in the rest of life, attitude trumps intelligence. I had to learn that the hard way.
My road to perdition was the seemingly noble cause of doing computer science research in the real world. It is in the crucible of practical problems that great new ideas can form. Unfortunately the result was a strange brew of triumph and disaster. I built some systems that were uniquely powerful and far ahead of their time. Yet they were also wildly idiosyncratic, and deeply flawed in some practical aspects. I inflicted a legacy of pain upon the programmers who had to work with my misbegotten creations for decades afterwards. I too was afflicted. I spent those decades debugging the Frankenstein. In the OS crash debugger. In hex. Because wasn’t it oh so clever and efficient to build a radically new kind of database with extreme reliability requirements as a highly multithreaded kernel extension to the OS?
What may have saved my soul is that I did not sell the company and walk away from my mess. I stuck with it for 20 years, and eventually cleaned up the mess as best I could with a massive migration to a new framework. That experience taught me a lot about what really matters in programming. It is not about solving puzzles and being the brightest kid in the class. It is about realizing that the complexity of software dwarfs even the most brilliant human; that cleverness cannot win. The only weapons we have are simplicity and convention. Tattoo that on your forehead in reverse so that you always see it reflected in the screen. What is truly decisive on the battlefield are attitudes: hard work, responsibility, and paying attention to reality instead of the voiceover in your head.
Programming is an embarrassment compared to other fields of engineering and design. Our mainstream culture is one of adolescent self-indulgence. It is like something from Gulliver’s Travels, with the curly-bracketeers vs. the indentationites vs. the parenthesesophiles. The only thing that everyone seems to agree upon is how stupid all the other programmers are. Try googling “stupid programmers”. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Programming will not grow up until our culture grows up. We can only patiently and persistently do our part to elevate the level of discourse, and share what wisdom we have gained.
P.S. I deleted a bunch of the cursing, but I think I’ll let the rest stay as a testament to my point.