April 20, 2014

Complexity Is Irreversible

Once again, programming language flame wars are erupting over the internet. This latest one gives us a helpful list of "harmful things" and "less harmful things". Unfortunately, I felt that it was a little inaccurate, so I decided to improve it:

Harmful thingsLess Harmful Things
Things That ExistThings That Don't Exist

Just to clear up any confusion, here is a helpful diagram:

This alt intentionally left blank

As many very smart people have pointed out over the years, the ultimate enemy of software development is complexity. Unfortunately, you can't get rid of complexity if the thing you are making is inherently dependent on something complicated. I think most people will agree that real life is a pretty complicated place, and the human brain is an awfully complex irrational thing that is trying to interact with real life.

This can't end well, and it doesn't. When we try to do anything, we wind up with something complicated. This isn't because all problems are complicated. The issue here is that in order to push a button on your calculator application, you have to go through a UI thread to the software through 10 different functions each calling into the operating system which is on top of the kernel which is on top of the microkernel which is on top of the BIOS which is on top of the motherboard which is controlling the CPU which is built using microcode which is executed using a bunch of extremely tiny logic gates on a chip.

Now, we could build a computer whose entire purpose is to let us push a button on our calculator application, and it would be much simpler! All we would need is a button command built into the motherboard to a RISC CPU that operates a few logic gates on a chip. This mysterious object is called a calculator. You know, the real, physical calculators that nobody uses anymore.

The reason we don't use them anymore is that we need our computer to do a lot more than simply be a calculator. This is why everything is so complex - if you want something that does several different simple tasks, you will end up with something complicated, even if the tasks are themselves simple. We can, of course, still pretend that everything is simple, just as the OS abstracts away all the low-level nonsense required to make your computer work properly, like setting that goddamn A20 gate on the CPU every time it boots. However, simply pretending something doesn't exist does not make it go away, which is why that stupid A20 gate still causes mysterious boot errors. Hence, any simple program written in any language imaginable is still subject to mysterious bugs and memory leaks that don't make any sense because they are caused by the inherent complexity of the system they are built on top of. You can't un-complicate something. Complexity is irreversible.

Nothing you do will fix this. If you use C to try and keep everything simple, you'll destroy the entire internet's secure infrastructure because of a completely retarded mistake involving an asinine and ultimately useless memory allocator. But if you use a managed language, before long you're writing a UI in XAML and suddenly you're looking at a call stack the size of Mount Everest.
What the fuck
Despite this, there is no end to the deluge of misdirected attempts at "solving" or "reducing" complexity, despite the impossibility of the task. What happens is that a programmer makes a bunch of mistakes, and notices a pattern. Because they're a programmer, they immediately invent a language that prevents them from making those mistakes, and then claim it's the solution to all the world's problems, while conveniently forgetting that the rest of the world has completely different problems.

But, I digress. My point is that the only way to write a piece of software that doesn't break is to hire someone who's so incredibly smart they can deal with all this complexity.

The problem is, no one is that smart.

April 6, 2014


I was reading a story on the plane today. It was the tale of a terrible war, a battle between two civilizations bent on the destruction of the other. It spoke of barbaric acts, of unspeakable horrors, of cruelty and pain on such a magnitude it could only exist in a place devoid of morality.

None of it is real. No one is really dying, no one is having their heart broken, no one's lives are really being destroyed. And yet, it bothers me. It bothers me because I know such tales of war were not composed in a vacuum. The power that story holds over me does not come from the imaginary characters it paints, but of the real people it is based off of. The lives that really were lost, the tragedies that tore us apart, the chapters of human history most of us would prefer to forget.

I sometimes find it difficult to keep reading, to discover the horrors I know are lying in wait for our beloved protagonist. With each tragedy that befalls them, I find myself feeling sorry for the character in the story, even though they aren't real. Yet, I'm also feeling sorry for the millions of people I have never met who suffered the same fate. It's difficult to continue because every chapter reminds me of the perils of human existence. I'm not sure there is a happy ending to this tale, or if there is, what the tremendous costs might be.

Perhaps we seek happy endings in our stories because we care about these imaginary characters that have been invented for our benefit. Or perhaps it is because we desperately want to believe that our lives also have a happy ending. We project our troubles and battles into what we read, wanting to believe that we can be the protagonist in our own tales.

This story speaks of tremendous struggles, of soldiers who lost everything and fought to save their nation from being lost to the sands of time. It is brutally effective in reminding us of what we truly hold dear, of what really matters in the end. It puts you in the armor of a new recruit who is suddenly left wondering if he should have spent more time enjoying life now that his could very well be extinguished in a moment. You watch a soldier die by the hand of his own commander simply because he refused to obey a command he knew was wrong.

You don't need a sword to tear the life out of your closest friend. A drunk driver could do the same. A rare disease. Cancer. We may frame heartbreak in many different ways, but the emotion stays the same. The pain of loss is something that transcends mere words, and we can feel it's power even when we're reading about people who never existed.

Sometimes, stories are hard to read because they remind us too much of the world we were trying to escape in the first place. They remind us of everything—and everyone—we could lose.

And those... those are the most precious stories of all.