Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Mon, 29 Sep 2014

Progress by distillation

A theme of Joe Armstrong's Strange Loop keynote was that creating stuff doesn't necessarily make progress overall. Proliferation reduces value. Entropy is our enemy. He mentioned the bewildering array of build systems, packaging systems, unidentifiable system software (I never did catch what “grunt” is) and, more generally, copies of the same or similar code and data. Building a “compressor” was his likeably vague solution.

My talk arguably continued this theme. I was talking about proliferation of dynamic languages—in contrast to the original Smalltalk vision, which didn't envisage the host of broadly similar dynamic languages which now coexist alongside it.

An underrated way to make progress is by distillation. It's to recognise repetition, to integrate and unify existing systems where possible. We don't have to do so perfectly or completely. It doesn't have to be a Grand Unifying Design. We can work opportunistically. But we need both the right mindset and the right infrastructure. Tools for creating are not enough. Tools for integrating and distilling are necessary.

I seem to have written about this before. It's nice to see the same ideas cropping up in a keynote!

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