OOP as an organic approach to computing

I’m reading How Not to Network a Nation, which talks a lot about cybernetics. Not merely cybernetics as the theory of control in complex systems (cybernetics shares a root with “governor”, fans of the etymological fallacy!) but cybernetics as the intersectional discipline matching organisational and management theory with computer science, anthropology, and biology. The study of systems in animals, people and machinery and their (self- or externally-directed) control.

We still use a lot of the ideas from even early cybernetics thought now, such as Claude Shannon’s theories on entropy and information, J.C.R. Licklider’s ARPAnet, von Neumann’s computer architecture, artificial neural networks. But even though the proponents aren’t often associated with the field, I think it’s reasonable to argue that object-oriented programming is a cybernetically-derived systems approach.

A lot of cybernetics theory is about the components of a system and the messages they pass between each other to achieve control and feedback, and in OOP Alan Kay was seeking to model a software system as a network of messages flowing between independent computer program components. He made the analogy with living organisms clear:

> I thought of objects being like biological cells and/or individual computers on a network, only able to communicate with messages (so messaging came at the very beginning — it took a while to see how to do messaging in a programming language efficiently enough to be useful).

More advanced object oriented systems such as Erlang even display autopoesis, automatically spawning new “cells” when old ones are damaged.

There plenty that the intersectional nature of cybernetics still has to inform me about my work. Information theory helps me to understand the utility of a machine learning algorithm. Game theory and biological cooperation and cheating models help describe how a crypto currency is resilient against Byzantine generals.

And now I understand that the biological systems analogy should help me with software analysis and design too.

My platform is no platform

I currently use three of the desktop computing platforms (Windows, macOS and GNU/Linux) and one of the mobile computing platforms (Samsung-flavoured Android); I currently get paid to develop software for “the web”, an amorphous non-platform that acts in many ways like a vendor platform orthogonal to those just mentioned. This is not because I want to ally myself to any or all of those platforms but because I want to be practically independent of all of them. This is where I try to understand why.

A code of ethics

As a member of the ACM I have committed to act in accordance with the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, or to revoke my membership. I believe that a lot of my unwillingness to buy into these platforms (and by extension, as a software professional, my unwillingness to push them on others by building upon them) can be expressed in terms of these codes.

Of course, this is expression within my interpretation of the terms. I don’t believe that Google’s data harvesting activities are consistent with the ACM Code of Ethics, but a previous ACM president was Vint Cerf, a Google employee. Clearly we disagree on our application of the Code to Google’s activity. Neither of us is, without further analysis, [in]correct; ethical decisions will be situated in a cultural and experiential context.

This, in general, is why American technology companies find it hard to expand their operations to Europe; the framework in which their actions will be viewed and judged is different.

App stores and the introduction of dependence

The iOS platform is locked down to most people, in three ways: technologically (a cryptographic system prevents all but specific native software and arbitrary JavaScript from being run); market control (only Apple can add software to the approved list; only paid members of their developer program can propose software for approval) and socially (the norms among developers, both native and web software, follow the “don’t make me think” principle in which applications are simplistic and unextensible, as discoverability and ease of use are valued over flexibility or composition).

The same argument applies to Google’s Chrome OS and Microsoft’s Windows 10 S.

This situation promotes an “Apple knows best” effect in which use of a computer is a passive consumption activity where the only applications available are those deemed fit to publish by the central actor, much like broadcast television.

In a professional community that previously gave us Mindstorms and Smalltalk in the Classroom, it is hard to accept that such a prescriptive model of computing is considered tolerable. Indeed, it seems at odds with an ethical imperative to improve public understanding of computing (section 2.7 in the ACM Code). It also seems to produce a three-tier system, in which those who have (the platform operators) are at the top, those who have means (ISVs who can buy into the approval system) are a rung down – albeit in a feudalistic vassal state that seems akin to coal miners buying their picks from the mine owners – and everyone else is below them. This would not seem consistent with an imperative to be fair (section 1.4 in the Code). Indeed I would go as far as to say that putting most of the people interacting with a software system into subject positions does not contribute to society or human well-being (section 1.1).

The web and “cloud” as protection rackets

If I use a web-based software application, it will probably offer to store all data on its developer’s servers (or more accurately on virtual machines run on the developer’s behalf by some service provider). It may not, indeed probably won’t, offer an alternative. My ongoing use of the application is predicated on my ongoing acceptance of the developer’s terms and pricing structure. The collection of individuals and organisations with whom my data is shared are also subject to change at any time, and I either demur or stop using the service.

But because their “service” also includes exclusively providing access, even to me, of what I created using their application, even accessing the things I already created is subject to their licence and my acceptance of their future changes, which can’t be known (and will probably be hidden up front, even where they are already being planned). This does not seem honest nor trustworthy (section 1.3 of the Code), nor to provide comprehensive and thorough evaluations of the impacts of the system (section 2.5), nor to credit my intellectual property in creating the things that are ransomed by their service (1.6).

In which new developer tools are dull

Over on lobste.rs I said that I don’t hold out much hope for another “blue plane” style event in developer tools. In one of Alan Kay’s presentations, he referred to the ordinary way of things as the pink plane, and incremental advances in the state of affairs being movements in that plane. Like the square in Edwin Abbot’s Flatland that encounters a sphere, a development could take us out of the pink plane into the (orthogonal) blue plane. These blue plane ideas are rare because like the square, it’s hard to even conceive of life outside the pink plane.

In what may just be a surprising coincidence, Apple engineers used Blue and Pink to refer to features in evolutionary and revolutionary developments of their operating system.

Software engineering tooling is, for the majority of developers, in a phase of conservative retreat

Build UIs on the web and you probably won’t use a graphical builder, you’ll type HTML and JavaScript (and maybe JSX) into a text editor.

Build native apps and even where there is a GUI builder, you’ll find people recommending against its use and wanting to do things “programmatically” (by which they mean “through typing”, even though the GUI builder tools are another way to construct a program).

In the last couple of decades, interest in CASE tooling has shrunk to conservative interest in text editors with some syntax highlighting, like vim or Atom. Gone even is the “build and run” button from IDEs, to be replaced with command-line invocations of grunt tasks (a fancy phrase meaning shell scripts), npm scripts (a fancy phrase meaning shell scripts) or rake tasks (you get the idea).

Where previously there were live development environments embedded in the deployment environment (and the Javascript VM is almost perfectly designed for that task), there is now console.log and unit tests. The height of advanced interaction with your programming tools are the REPL (an interactive shell) and the Playground/InstaREPL (an interactive shell that echoes stdin and stdout in different places).

For the most part, and I say that to avoid the inevitable commenter who thinks that a counterexample like LabView or Mathematica or that one person they met who uses Expression Blend renders the whole argument broken, developers have doubled down on the ceremony of programming: the typing of arcane text into an 80×24 character display. Now to be fair, text is an efficient and compact graphical representation of a linear sequence of connected concepts. But it is not the only one, nor the most efficient nor most compact, and neither are many software systems linear.

The rewards in making software to make software are scarce.

You can do like IntelliJ do, and make a better version of the 80×24 text entry thing. You can work for a platform vendor, and make their version of the 80×24 thing. You can go and get an engineering grade 6 or above job in Silicon Valley and tell your manager that whatever it is their business does, you’re going to focus on the 80×24 thing (“at scale”) instead.

What you don’t seem to be able to do is to disrupt the 80×24 thing. It’s free (at least as in beer), it’s ubiquitous, and whether or not it’s as good as it could be it certainly seems to be good enough for the people who not only get paid to make bad software, but get paid again to fix it.

Bottom-up teaching

We’re told that the core idea in computer programming is problem-solving. That one of the benefits of learning about computer programming (one that is not universally accepted) is gaining the skill of problem decomposition.

If you look at real teaching of computing, it seems to have more to do with solution composition than problem decomposition. The latter seems to be background noise: here are the things you can build solutions with, presumably at some point you’ll come across a solution that’s the same size and shape as one of your problem components though how is left up to you.

I have many books on programming languages. Each lists the features of the language, and gives minimally complex examples of the use of those features. In that sense, Kernighan and Ritchie’s “The C Programming Language” (section 1.3, the for statement) is as little an instructional in solving problems using a computer as Eric Nikitin’s “Into the Realm of Oberon” (section 7.1, the FOR loop) or Dave Thomas’s “Programming Elixir” (section 7.2, Using Head and Tail to Process a List).

A course textbook on bitcoin and blockchain (Narayanan, Bonneau, Felten, Miller and Goldfeder, “Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies”) starts with Section 1.1, “Cryptographic hash functions”, and builds a cryptocurrency out of them, leaving motivational questions about politics and regulation to Chapter 7.

This strategy is by no means universal: Liskov and Guttag’s “Program Development in Java” starts out by describing abstraction, then looks at techniques for designing abstractions in Java. Adele Goldberg and Alan Kay described teaching Smalltalk by proposing exploratory projects, designing the objects that model the problem under consideration and the way in which they will communicate, then incrementally filling in by designing classes and methods that have the desired properties. C.J. Date’s “An Introduction to Database Systems” answers the question “why databases?” before introducing the relational model, and doesn’t introduce SQL until it can be situated in the context of the relational model.

Both of these approaches, and their associated techniques (the bottom-up approach and solution construction; the top-down approach and problem decomposition) are useful; the former leads to progress and the latter leads to understanding. But both must be taken in concert, because understanding without progress leads to the frustration of an unsolved problem and progress without understanding is merely the illusion of progress.

My guess is that more programmers – indeed whole movements, when we consider the collective state of things like OOP, functional programming, BDD, or agile practices – are in the “bottom-up only” group than in the “top-down only” or “a bit of both” groups. That plenty more copies of Introduction to Programming in [This Week’s Hot Language] have been sold than Techniques for Making Your Problem Amenable to Computation. That the majority of software really does comprise of solutions looking for problems.

Why I don’t have a favourite programming language

This is my take on Ilya Sher’s similar post, though from a different context. He is mainly interested in systems programming, I have mostly written user apps and backend services, and also some developer tools.

I originally thought that I would write a list of the languages and difficulties I have with them, but I realised that there’s an underlying theme that can be extracted. Programming languages I have used either have too much vendor dependence (I love writing ObjC, but can’t rely on GNUstep when I’m not on Apple), too little interaction with the rest of the software world (I love writing Pharo, but don’t love going through its FFI to use anything else) or, and this is the biggest kicker, I don’t like the development environments.

When I work on JavaScript, my environment is a text editor (something like VSCode or emacs) that has syntax highlighting, maybe has auto-completion…and that’s about it. When I work in something like Java, ObjC or C++, I have a build button, an integrated debugger, and the ability to run tests. And, if I’m lucky, a form designer. When I work in something like Swift or Clojure, I have insta-repls. When I work in Pharo, I have all the live browsers and things you hear about from smug people, but I still have to type code for things you might expect to be ‘live’ in such an environment. I get confused by the version control tools, but that might be because I’m not familiar with image-based development.

It feels like, details of the languages aside, there’s a synthesis of programming language with environment, where the programming language is a tool integrated into the environment just like the compiler and debugger, and the tools are integrated into the programming language, like the Lisp macro system. It feels like environments like Oberon, Lisp machines and Smalltalks all have some of this integration, and that popular programming environments for other languages all have less of it.

I’m not entirely sure what the ideal state is, and whether that’s an ideal just for me or would benefit others. I wrote my MSc thesis on an exploration of this problem, and still have more research to do.

Free Software should welcome contributions by Apple, Google

It started with a toot from the FSF:

Freedom means not #madebygoogle or #madebyapple, it means #madebythousandsoffreesoftwarehackers #GNU

This post is an expansion on my reply:

@fsf as an FSF Associate I’m happy to use software made by Google or made by Apple as long as it respects the four freedoms.

Yes to made by Google or made by Apple

The Free Software Foundation financially supports the Replicant project, a freedom-respecting operating system based on the Android Open Source Project. The same Android Open Source Project that’s made by Google. Google and Apple are both behind plenty of Free Software contributions, both through their own projects such as Android and Swift or contributions to existing projects like the Linux kernel and CUPS. Both companies are averse to copyleft licences like the GPL, but then both companies have large software patent portfolios and histories of involvement in software patent litigation so it may be that each company is actually averse to compromising the defensibility of their patent hoards through licences like GPL3. On the other hand, the Objective-C support NeXT created for GCC was the subject of an early GPL applicability test so in Apple’s case they could well be averse to “testing” the GPL any further.

Whatever their motivations for the stances they’ve taken, Apple and Google do contribute to Free Software and that should be both encouraged and welcomed. If they want to contribute to more projects, create new ones, or extend those freedoms to their existing proprietary code then we advocates of software freedom should encourage them and welcome them. Freedom does not mean “not #madebygoogle or #madebyapple”.

No to controlled by Google or controlled by Apple

While we in software development have never had it so good in terms of software freedom, with all of our tools and libraries being published as free software (usually under the banner of open source), the community at large has never had it so bad, and Google and Apple are at the vanguard of that movement too. The iOS kernel, Darwin UNIX system and Swift programming language may all be open for us to study, share and improve, but they exist in a tightly-controlled walled garden that’s eroding the very concept of ownership and centralising all decisions within the spheres of the two platform providers. This means that even Freedom Zero, the freedom to use the software for any purpose, is denied to anyone who isn’t a programmer (and in fact to the rest of us too: you can study the iOS kernel but cannot replace the kernel on your phone if you make an improvement; you can study Swift but cannot sell an iOS app using any version other than the one blessed by Apple at time of submission).

People often complain at this point that software freedom is only relevant to programmers because you need to be a programmer to study or improve a program given its source code, but that’s not the point. Open Source is only relevant to programmers. Having the freedom to use your computer for any purpose, and to share your software, gives two things:

  1. to some people, “I wish that my software could do this, it doesn’t, but I understand that it is possible to change it and that I could use the changed version” can be the incentive to learn and to enable their own programming skills.
  2. to others, having the freedom to share means having the freedom to share the software with someone who already knows how to program who can then make improvements and share them back with the first person.

Ignoring those possibilities perpetuates the current two-tier system in which programmers have a lot of freedom and everybody else has none. I have argued against the walled garden before, as a barrier to freedom. That is different from arguing against things that are made by the companies that perpetuate the walled gardens, if we can encourage them to change.

Welcome, Apple. Seriously.

The FSF has a long history of identifying itself “against” some IT incumbent, usually Microsoft. It has identified a change in the IT landscape by positioning itself as an underdog “against” Apple and Google. But it should not be against them, it should be with them, encouraging them to consider and support the freedom of their customers.

Recommend me some books or articles

I’ve been looking for something to read on these topics, can you help?

  • a history of the Unix wars (the ‘workstation’ period involving Sun, HP, Apollo, DEC, IBM, NeXT and SGI primarily, but really everything starting from AT&T up to Linux and OS X would be interesting)
  • a business case study on Apple’s turnaround 1997-2001. I’ve read plenty of 1990s case studies explaining why they’ll fail, and 2010s interpretations of why they’re dominant, and Gil Amelio’s “On the Firing Line” which explains his view of how he stemmed the bleeding, but would like to fill in the gaps: particularly the changes from Dec 1997 to the iPod.
  • a technical book on Mach (it doesn’t need to still be in print, I’ll try to track it down): I’ve read the source code for xnu, GNU Mach and mkLinux, Tevanien’s papers, and the Mac OS X Internals book, but could still do with more

On books

I’d say that if there’s one easy way to summarise how I work, it’s as an information focus. I’m not great at following a solution all the way to the bitter end so you should never let me be a programmer (ahem): when all that’s left is the second 90% of the effort in fixing the bugs, tidying up edge cases and iterating on the interaction, I’m already bored and looking for the next thing. Where I’m good is where there’s a big problem to solve, and I can draw analogies with things I’ve seen before and come up with the “maybe we should try this” suggestions.

Part of the input for that is the experience of working in lots of different contexts, and studying for a few different subjects. A lot of it comes from reading: my goodreads account lists 870 books and audiobooks that I’ve read and I know it to be an incomplete record. Here are a few that I think have been particularly helpful (professionally speaking, anyway).

  • Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Adams is someone who reminds us not to take the trappings of society too seriously, and to question whether what we’re doing is really necessary. Are digital watches really a neat idea? Also an honourable mention to the Dirk Gently novels for introducing the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.
  • Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I can think of at least three software projects that I’ve been able to implement and describe as analogies to the choose your own adventure style of book.
  • David Allen, Getting Things Done, because quite often it feels like there’s too much to do.
  • Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a book about looking for the patterns and connections in things.
  • Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World, for reminding us of the people who are going to have to put up with the consequences of the things we create.
  • Donald Broadbent, Perception and Communication, for being the first person to systematically explore that topic.
  • Steven Hawking, A Brief History of Time, showing us how to make complex topics accessible.
  • Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality, showing us how to make complex topics comprehensively presentable.
  • Douglas Coupland, Microserfs, for poking fun at things I took seriously.
  • Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender, because computering is more accessible to me than to others for no good reason.
  • Joshua Bloch, Effective Java, Second Edition, for showing that part of the inaccessibility is a house of cards of unsuitable models with complex workarounds, and that programmers are people who delight in knowing, not addressing, the workarounds.
  • Michael Feathers, Working Effectively with Legacy Code, the one book every programmer should read.
  • Steve Krug, Don’t make me think!, a book about the necessity of removing exploration and uncertainty from computer interaction.
  • Seymour Papert, Mindstorms, a book about the necessity of introducing exploration and uncertainty into computer interaction.
  • Richard Stallman, Free as in Freedom 2.0, for suggesting that we should let other people choose between ther previous two options.
  • Brad Cox, Object-Oriented Programming: An Evolutionary Approach, for succinctly and effortlessly explaining objects a whole decade before everybody else got confused by whether a dog is an animal or a square is a rectangle.
  • Gregor Kiczales, Jim des Rivieres, and Daniel G. Bobrow, The Art of the Metaobject Protocol showed me that OOP is just one way to do OOP, and that functional programming is the same thing.
  • Simson Garfinkel and Michael Mahoney, NEXTSTEP Programming: Step One was where I learnt to create software more worthwhile than a page of BASIC instructions.
  • Gil Amelio, On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple shows that the successful business wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t managed the unsuccessful business first.

There were probably others.

Security consultancy from the other side

I used to run an application security consultancy business, back before the kinds of businesses who knew they needed to consider application security had got past assessing creating mobile apps. Whoops!

Something that occasionally, nay, often happened was that clients would get frustrated if I didn’t give them a direct answer to a question they asked, or if the answer to an apparently simple question was a one-day workshop. It certainly seems sketchy that someone who charges a day rate would rather engage in another day’s work than write a quick email, doesn’t it?

Today I was on the receiving end of this interaction. I’m defining the data encryption standards for our applications, so talked to our tame infosecnician about the problem. Of course, rather than specific recommendations about protocols, modes of operation, key lengths, rotation frequencies etc he would only answer my questions with other questions.

And this is totally normal and OK. The reason that I want to encrypt (some of) this data is that its confidentiality and integrity are valuable to me (my employer) and it’s worth investing some of my (our) time in protecting those attributes. How much is it worth? How much risk am I willing to leave on the table? How long should the data be protected for? Who do I trust with the data, and how much do I trust them?

Only I can answer those questions, so it’s not up to someone else to answer them for me, but they can remind me that I need to ask them.