Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Hacks: Articles about programming in Python, Perl, Swift, BASIC, and whatever else I happen to feel like hacking at.

All roads lead up

Jerry Stratton, March 9, 2010

When I was in college, I had a lot of fun studying programming and psychology. Neither topic helped me pass my Physics courses. When I realized that Physics was not my future, I chose not to switch to Computer Science because I thought the future of programming was going to be that of mechanics running through the same rote procedures for every car that came in. That it would be reduced from a creative endeavor to gluing things together, though I wouldn’t have worded it that way then.

I was wrong. I was wrong because I didn’t foresee the Internet and web sites. And I ended up working in computer programming anyway, due to a combination of skill and just being in the right place at the right time. A lot of what Mike Taylor is talking about in Whatever happened to programming? is him being in the wrong place. If he were to take a pay cut and work for a small organization, he’d be able to, and probably be required to, do his own programming again, using Python, PHP, or Ruby possibly in combination with HTML and CSS.

One of my first tweets was “The main benefit of JavaScript toolkits is they condense to fifty or so kilobytes what would otherwise take several hundred bytes to do.” It’s true, as Mike writes, that much of what passes for programming today is trying to find the right parameters for some black box toolkit. But it’s also true that what some people seem to want to do using, say, JQuery, are things that don’t need more than a few lines of code if you know how to program. They don’t need to include a 50k file on every page view just to flip between a series of divs.

But I also stand by what I said in Learning to program without BASIC: our expectations were lower then. Programming isn’t fun unless we’re programming something useful, even if it’s only useful for a moment. This means that some things we had fun programming then aren’t going to be fun now, because computers—and frameworks—already do that for us. But, so far at least, there’s always something else to program. There’s always something else to optimize and make more beautiful.

To paraphrase Stanislaw Lem, we’ve climbed to reach the summit, and we’ve discovered that some roads still lead up.

“Omnipotence is most omnipotent when one does nothing!” answered the machine. “You climb to reach the summit, but once there, discover that all roads lead down!” — Stanislaw Lem (The Cyberiad)

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