Litany Against Software Dogma

The code is not me and I’m not the code.
I will look past the code in order to see the real problem.
And only when I’ve seen it shall I write code to solve it.
I’m not the code and the code is not me.
I will leave only the problem and solution for my successor.

Of Semantic Code Vectors, Migrations, and Continuity

I’m knee deep in some legacy build scripts and realized a few things while I was trying to make sense of the code. This is an outline of some of the those realizations.

When we’re writing code we are performing two distinct types of activities. One is about making assumptions and encoding the assumptions into the structure of the code. The other is about building something on top of the assumed structure. Most bugs are a result of interleaving and confusing the two activities. If we make assumptions that are not reflected in the structure and build on those assumptions then we are writing buggy code. If we build on top of assumptions that are confusing and overlap in different ways then the code by necessity will be confusing.

One way to write better code then is to make assumptions that are as orthogonal as possible and make their structure as obvious in the code as possible. This way when someone else comes along they can see the semantic vectors and structure their code around those vectors. If their changes are incompatible with the existing vectors then making that as obvious as possible will only help them.

So one way to make code better is to “orthogonalize” the semantic vectors by finding the principal vectors/ideas/assumptions. There is no automatic way to do this so you have to use your judgement and figure out what migrations are necessary to make that happen. When I refactor code with the intent of orthogonalizing the semantic vectors I usually end up with more clearly structured code so anecdotal evidence suggests this is a good heuristic.

This analogy with linear algebra though only goes so far and sometimes we also need to bring in a bit of topology into the mix and try to understand when we’re trying to make “discontinuous” changes. Discontinuous changes change the space and fundamental assumptions we were making to structure the code. I’m not aware of any good heuristics for this. Usually people do big bang rewrites but that’s probably because we don’t have a good theory of discontinous changes for code. We don’t have a good topological theory of code so it’s hard to know when changes are continuous vs when they’re not. The closest analogy I know is about database migrations. Migrations can be considered discontinuous changes and they’re about transforming the surrounding code to fit the assumptions of the new migrated schema.

It is unfortunate that most of our tools do not expose the semantic vectors and let us operate with them as first class citizens. As long as it is easier to build with faulty assumptions that’s what programmers will continue to do and we will continue to have legacy code.

Bad Sides of Nerd Culture

Some nerds pride themselves on deep thinking but I think this is the equivalent of being a fashionista in nerd culture. It’s just as much about territorial signaling as anything else. So in that sense nerd culture is just as perverse as the fashion industry in terms of what it values. This is especially prevalent among programmers where “deep thinking” is used as cover for psychological bullying and status jockeying. Security professionals and free software advocates are notorious for using these kinds of tactics.

Berating pragmatic approaches to security and closed source software without trying to empathize with someone who makes those choices is a nice way to surround oneself with a toxic clout of superiority.

The thing to notice here is that these tactics are negatively self-reinforcing. Any sane person eventually stops listening once the veneer of superiority starts to chip away. This leaves the group in an even more toxic state and virtually guarantees the group will eventually become a cult and die out from sequestration. So the group accomplishes none of what it wanted to and in many ways makes it harder for those that follow to associate themselves with the better ideals of what the non-toxic group stood for, i.e. educating people on better security and software licensing practices.

Dynamics, Aliasing, and Projection in Theory Space

constructing theories from “projections”

The comments on that twitter thread don’t do a good enough job of explaining what is going on in that picture and why it’s more meaningful than appears at first sight and thought.

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