Programming Mindset

So, a friend of mine wants to learn Perl. I figure I can teach her that - Perl is simple. It couldn’t take more than a half-hour to get her up to speed on the basics.

Remember that Picture Hanging essay, about how you aren’t aware of how much you take for granted once you’ve learned something? Yeah. I had no idea how much stuff you have to learn before you can even start programming. You have to understand the environment - what’s going on in a computer - at a much deeper level than most users need. (As the tourist/business traveler/expatriate metaphor rears its head again.)

First, there’s the whole command-line thing. Fortunately, she had that down, ‘cuz I have no idea where I’d even start. Your whole frame of reference has to shift to deal with that. You have to explain about opening and reading from files - that a file is really a sequence of characters (don’t get started on bytes vs. characters). And by the way, the end of a line is actually marked by a character, but you can’t see it. Oh, and pipes: They’re like files, but they don’t really live anywhere. Ummm… yeah.

Then there’s the whole utility program thing: The idea that programs can be little tiny things, that they don’t have to have graphic interfaces - they “talk” to each other.

To most people, an application is something you see and interact with. Even when you do deal with things like the filesystem, it’s mediated by a graphic interface - a metaphor. It’s a good enough metaphor that people aren’t really aware that it is a metaphor, let alone what it’s a metaphor for. To someone whose idea of programs is Word and Excel, the idea of ‘piping’ the output from one program into another just doesn’t make any sense.

OK, so that’s all the environment. Those are the building blocks you have to work with, the walls you live within. Like I said, I got off fairly easy on most of that; I had someone who knew her way around the command line, and had even used grep a few times. The next step was explaining what a program is.

A program is a sequence of instructions, kinda like a recipe. But that doesn’t really capture the issue, because recipes are written for humans. Humans are smart. Computers are very, very stupid. Fast, but stupid.

A computer is like some sort of high-speed, idiot-savant imp. It works very quickly, and it can remember a huge amount of stuff, but it’s fundamentally dumb as a bucket of mud. It can’t think for itself at all. If you want it to do something, you have to explain in minute detail precisely how to do it. You also have to think of all the things that could go wrong and how to deal with them.

Let’s imagine you’ve got this sort of imp, and you want it to go get your groceries. It has to go to the store, find all the stuff on the list, pay for it, and come home. Simple, right? You’re underestimating how stupid your computer imp is. If it knows how to walk, open doors, follow directions, and cross streets without getting run over, it’s only because someone else programmed that much for you.

Let’s assume you’ve got an imp programming language that gives you that much. So you say, “Go to the grocery store, get everything on the list, pay for it, and come home.” First, it goes off and never comes back. You go to the grocery store to see what’s up, and your imp is standing in the freezer section. You told it to get pistachio ice cream. They’re out. The imp is waiting for them to restock.

So now you have to instruct it to try another store. You have to give the imp a list of stores, in addition to the list of groceries. If it gets to the last store without finding everything, it should just come home.

This seems too work, but it always takes your imp a really long time to get groceries. You spend a while following him around (debugging) and discover that he’s going to every store every time, even if he already has everything. Ooops, another fix to make.

You write a bunch more imp code, and send it off. It still never comes home. This time, it’s stuck at the cash register. Spaghetti sauce went up 5 cents from last time, and now your imp doesn’t have enough money, and is stuck in the act of paying. You can just give the imp some extra money, but you’ll always have to deal with the possibility that he won’t have enough. Even though it seems less than ideal, you tell him to just come home if he doesn’t have enough money for everything.

Everything works fine for a while, but eventually, you realize that you haven’t had vanilla ice cream for ages. It’s on the list. You check the stores, and sure enough, they’ve got tons of it. You double-check the list, and it’s on there as “Vannilla”. Okay, maybe you could come up with a system for correcting your typos - one that won’t result in your imp buying a gun when the store is out of gum - but that’s a lot of work. It’s easier for you to just type things right. But if you ever sell (or even give) your imp code to other people, you know there will be an unending stream of complaints about how your stupid imp won’t buy vanilla ice cream.

Programming is all about developing this mindset - learning to think through all of this stuff in advance, figuring out all the ways your imp could screw up anything you tell it to do.