A good friend of mine who’s worked on some pretty pivotal hardware/software integrations for our time told me: “it feels like a miracle when I see the code I wrote drive physical bits. I almost can’t believe it. No seriously… how does this even work?”.

If this sentiment resonates with you to some level, you will love reading this article:

The coming software apocalypse

This entire article is fascinating. It took a lot of restraint not to just pull-quote every paragraph from this article.

The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination.

This is the trouble with making things out of code, as opposed to something physical. “The complexity,” as Leveson puts it, “is invisible to the eye.” …“Computing is fundamentally invisible,” Gerard Berry said in his talk. “When your tires are flat, you look at your tires, they are flat. When your software is broken, you look at your software, you see nothing.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration enlisted software experts from NASA to perform an intensive review of Toyota’s code. After nearly 10 months, the NASA team hadn’t found evidence that software was the cause—but said they couldn’t prove it wasn’t. … They showed that as little as a single bit flip—a one in the computer’s memory becoming a zero or vice versa—could make a car run out of control.”

“Visual Studio is one of the single largest pieces of software in the world,” he said. “It’s over 55 million lines of code. And one of the things that I found out in this study is more than 98 percent of it is completely irrelevant. All this work had been put into this thing, but it missed the fundamental problems that people faced. And the biggest one that I took away from it was that basically people are playing computer inside their head. … So the students who did well—in fact the only ones who survived at all—were those who could step through that text one instruction at a time in their head, thinking the way a computer would, trying to keep track of every intermediate calculation”

The programmer, staring at a page of text, was abstracted from whatever it was they were actually making. … “Our current conception of what a computer program is,” he said, is “derived straight from Fortran and ALGOL in the late ’50s. Those languages were designed for punch cards. That code now takes the form of letters on a screen in a language like C or Java (derivatives of Fortran and ALGOL), instead of a stack of cards with holes in it, doesn’t make it any less dead, any less indirect. … the idea that people were doing important work, like designing adaptive cruise-control systems or trying to understand cancer, by staring at a text editor, was appalling

An alternative way of writing code:

This article has forced me to revisit my disdain for WYSIWYG like editors1

One programmer who saw the talk wrote later: “Suddenly all of my tools feel obsolete.”

When John Resig saw the “Inventing on Principle” talk, he scrapped his plans for the Khan Academy programming curriculum. He wanted the site’s programming exercises to work just like Victor’s demos.

“I’m not sure that programming has to exist at all,” he told me. “Or at least software developers.” In his mind, a software developer’s proper role was to create tools that removed the need for software developers.

Programmers, as a species, are relentlessly pragmatic. Tools like TLA+ reek of the ivory tower. When programmers encounter “formal methods” (so called because they involve mathematical, “formally” precise descriptions of programs), their deep-seated instinct is to recoil.

  1. hello layout inspector ↩︎