Good Code is like Good Literature

The basis of many innovations is software. “Software is eating the world”, said Marc Andreessen already in August 2011. Software is also the basis of all machine learning. And what does software consist of? It is code. Now, I think it’s important to understand what good code is.

A great colleague recommended the book “A Philosophy of Software Design” by John Ousterhout. The author’s name looked familiar to me. But I didn’t immediately know why. Only in a later chapter, in which John wrote about the Tcl scripting language, did it become clear to me. I had used the same author’s book “Tcl and the Tk Toolkit” a lot in the 1990s. I then developed Linux device drivers (loadable modules for the Slackware Linux 0.99 kernel) for a measurement system in my physics studies, and I used Tcl/Tk for the application interface.

“A Philosophy of Software Design” is cool. It reminded me very much of another book I had read this summer: “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser from the early 1970s. The book explains how to write texts of all kinds. Be clear and use short sentences. Write for yourself, as you would like to read it. Good code is like good literature – it’s timeless. The software design tips are like tips for writing any kind of literature – keep it simple and avoid complexity. Define good interfaces with the right level of abstraction. Think of other developers who will work with the code after you.

These rules haven’t changed for decades. And even the seemingly agile and fast innovations end up abiding by these rules because they are based on code. And ideally on good code.

1984, Alfred Nobel, And Artificial Intelligence

I had written that I want to make a positive contribution to this world and that I would take care of the spread of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Does that even fit together? What is the positive contribution of artificial intelligence today?

Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple Siri, self-propelled cars, intelligent websites are the harbingers of a wave of artificial intelligence that is just beginning. These harbingers are often criticized in the media. Is the permissive handling of our data justifiable? Without our data, without a lot of data, machine learning and artificial intelligence will not work. Are we prepared to pay this price?

If you want to deal with artificial intelligence, then I strongly recommend that you read George Orwell’s novel “1984”. Orwell wrote it in 1947/1948, it was published in 1949, and it is more topical than ever. “Big Brother is watching you!” In this novel we accompany Winston, who works at the Ministry of Truth and paraphrases newspaper articles, so that predicting the government is true in the archives, even if they do not arrive. And Winston, like all citizens, is watched day and night on telescreens in their homes and at work. The telescreens are reminiscent of devices like Amazon Alexa, which also listen in – and soon also observe, like the telescreens in the novel “1984”. What seemed like crazy science fiction for many years is now everyday life. Read the novel and get your own picture of the world we could create with artificial intelligence.

New technologies are neutral at first. Like a kitchen knife. It can be used for cooking, or it can hurt people. Good and evil are both possible. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite to do something good. He wanted to simplify mining. He did that, too. But then dynamite was also used to wage war. That made Nobel so difficult that he used his fortune to make the Nobel Prizes possible.

Every new technology is in this dichotomy. Since the Stone Age. The spear provided food when an animal was killed with it. And it was also used for fights between humans. The same sides exist with the steam engine, electricity, engines, airplanes, nuclear fission, whatever.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are also able to make people’s lives much easier, autonomous vehicles will make roads safer and we will no longer waste time in traffic jams, but use them. The downside could be comprehensive monitoring and transparency of my data. Who knows.

I look forward to working with new technologies. I believe that in the end it will make the world a better place. “Technology as a force for good,”

said Pat Gelsinger, VMware CEO. That’s true. But we also have to reflect and consider ethical aspects. The ethics of new technologies is a field of its own, an important field. We have to be careful not to neglect this despite all the progress we have made.

That’s a core topic for my work at VMware.

Holiday Reading

Are guide books really superfluous? The very good books, after all, only present common sense. What should I learn? Nevertheless, they are in vogue, even with my colleagues in the Silcon Valley.

On my last visit to Palo Alto, CA, I was in the Stanford University Book Store to buy some books. This bookstore was huge, with a cafe and many young people. I felt like I was in a library. In times of eReads, it seemed like a museum where old traditions become visible. I liked this place.

holiday reading
holiday reading
Now I'm on vacation in the Black Forest and have read two of the books: On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Start With Why by Simon Sinek. The third book How To Fix The Future by Andrew Keen follows. My wife asks what these books are about. I tell her that in the book On Writing Well I learn how to write better lyrics. Use active verbs, short sentences - and especially important is the idea that I write for myself and not for others. (I need to adjust the introduction to my blog.) My wife answers that this is all self-evident, it's common sense. Why am I wasting my time with it? I should much rather read something, whereby I can let my soul dangle. A good novel or a travelogue.

My first reaction is contradiction. Then I think about whether my wife has found a good point. When I read Start With Why, I wonder how trivial the message is. If you want to move other people, then logical arguments help little. Instead, be very clear WHY you do something. Logical. Actually, that's just common sense. But why do so many companies act quite differently? Why is it often tried to win with technical arguments? Because common sense is not common, it is not common. And that's exactly why these books of adviser are popular.

Also, I may from time to be reminded of my common sense. Even if it seems to contradict general action. I will write more about it another time. Until then, I wish you much enjoyment of your reading, whatever it may be.