systems are too complicated, dammit!

April 14th, 2010

I'm reading Peter Seibel's book "Coders at work". It's a collection of interviews with famous programmers. This is the kind of book I really like, it's not a technical book, but it's a meta sort of book where these people tell you what they think about various relevant issues in the industry. And not just issues that concern them directly, but general trends too. It's a very easy read, perfect for the plane or the airport.

There are 15 interviews and almost all these people started playing with computers sort of roughly before there were computers. So if there is a theme running through the book, it is this:

  1. Kids today don't understand how the metal works.
  2. I don't like all these layers of software.

I think it's an understandable point of view coming from people who've written operating systems and compilers and coded assembly and machine code because there was nothing else available. But I don't find it a very helpful perspective.

The basic complaint is this:

  1. Things used to be simple.
  2. Instead of remaining simple, they got complex, but not in a good way (ie. bad technical decisions).

I think this is an "argument from nostalgia", essentially. Back in the days, systems were simpler. Today they are very complicated. And so we wish things were simpler. But this is because some people were present more or less at the "birth" of computer science. The field went from zero and just keeps expanding. That's normal, though.

If a physicist said "I hate how when you discover a layer of particles, there's always something smaller than that!" would people nod in agreement? I remember learning about atomic orbitals and not understanding them and I kept thinking "what was wrong with the Bohr model, that one was so much simpler and nicer?"

The difference between physics and computer science is that in physics there's noone to blame for what is there. There is this sense of "nature is the goddess who bestows gifts upon us and we have the privilege to explore them". In computer science we're not trying to explain or discover anything, we make all this stuff up!

In physics there's no way you can remove the complexity and be left with a simple system, the complexity is there at all levels. But in computers you can delete everything save for the kernel and you indeed have a simple system. (Better yet, delete the kernel too and install a simpler one that you wrote yourself.)

The fundamental difference, to me, is that there is someone to blame. There is noone to blame for atomic orbitals and "why do they have to be so complicated??", but there is someone to blame for every programming language and every system. I don't think for a minute that we wouldn't do the same in physics if we had the chance, though.

What's Plan B?

Of course, the difference between the physical sciences and computer science raises the old "is it a science?" question, but at any rate it is becoming more like physics in the sense of a top to bottom system that is difficult to understand at all levels.

In physics you don't say things like "I would like to throw all this out and start over, make it simple". This is something you can totally do in computers, but chances are you're not gonna have much impact. Sometimes people bemoan how there hasn't been any innovation in operating systems in 30 years. So go write your own, see how many people you can convince to use it.

In a way, the answer is right there. The fact that there aren't any new operating systems taking over from the old ones, _means_ that the old ones have succeeded. They've successfully laid that layer of bricks that has proven to be a strong enough abstraction to move away from that layer in the system and focus our attention on something higher up. They're not works of art in terms of simplicity and purity, but neither are layers of abstraction in physics. *ducks*

Complexity is often presented as a mistake, but the fact that we have all this complexity is not really an accident, it has to be there to do the kinds of things that we want to do.

:: random entries in this category ::

1 Responses to "systems are too complicated, dammit!"

  1. Alpheus says:

    There hasn't been an advance in operating systems for 30 years! And it's so difficult to find time to write an operating system!

    Oh, yeah: I'm also cursed with a desire to build the machine that my operating system would run on, from the silicon up! In ternary rather than binary.

    Oh, woe is me! (I actually want to do all this stuff, and it sometimes annoys me that I need to put basic needs--shelter, food, transportation, family, my own well-being--first...)