A 15-minute manifesto (video and transcript) on lessons learned trying to build situated software for a year.
Over the course of 2022, I've found myself gradually programming in a certain way that has been working really well. Here, let me show you a few examples, see if you can spot the pattern:
- A plain-text editor where you can
also draw line drawings.
Minimal dependencies, easy to build, runs anywhere you can install apps without asking permission, thoroughly tested, designed above all to reward curiosity about its internals.
- A different
way to draw polygons. Old way:
I spent the pandemic year reading a lot of Peter Hamilton. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it; they all blur together after a while, and I start to wonder if they aren't perhaps all the same story…
Regardless, the first Peter Hamilton I read, Pandora's Star, still sticks with me for a motif that didn't come together until right at the end: the Silfen Paths. In this universe humanity has portals that can span light years, often conveying train service between star systems, but there are occasional legends of an older interstellar network by an ancient alien civilization. Needless to say, our intrepid protagonist manages to get on this network. And suffers years of privation and amazing adventures (while everyone else in the novel is moving the story forward) before coming out the other end. Unlike the portals created by humans, the Silfen paths don't contain abrupt transitions between two points in space. Things blend together more gradually. Also unlike portals, the Silfen Paths aren't in the traveller's control. Instead, to go forth on the paths is to open oneself to the new, the unexpected. Extreme heat and cold. Danger. The occasional prancing Silfen who'll happen upon you and help you out, but who doesn't quite seem to get the idea of “home,” or that you're trying to get there, before outpacing you again, inevitably leaving you behind to find your own path through the maze.
My goal for Mu is software that is accountable to the people it affects. But it's been difficult to talk to people about Mu's goals because of the sheer number of projects that use similar words but lead to very different priorities and actions. Some of these I like to be associated with, some not so much.
if you care about making software accountable
— C. A. R. Hoare
It seems to me that modern computers trap people in a vicious cycle. Compatibility guarantees breed complexity over time as the world changes. Complexity is managed by introducing layers of abstraction. Abstractions introduce new compatibility guarantees. Over the decades this vicious cycle leads to even professional programmers understanding only a tiny fraction of the software infrastructure that runs their computers. As a result, our world is increasingly captured by software that is unaccountable to people.
For several years now I've had a vision for a computer that allows anyone to audit its inner workings, where any operation can be decomposed strictly into a parsimonious combination of simpler operations, terminating without cyclic dependencies or circular reasoning at some ground level. Ideally it would do this in a way that rewards curiosity, leading to a virtuous cycle where an order of magnitude more people grow to understand how their computer works as they use it.
Nowhere in this picture are compatibility guarantees, version numbers or forced upgrades. At any point your computer should be internally consistent and free of known historical accidents. Even if this means upgrades are more work and so more infrequent, and that our computers must be slower. Or do less. That seems like a worthwhile trade for a more sustainable world.
At the start of 2020 the state of the Mu computer looked like this:
Over the last few months I've written up in one place the entire argument for—and comprehensive description of—what I've been working on since 2014. It will be published in the proceedings of the Convivial Computing Salon. From the call for submissions:
In Tools for Conviviality , Ivan Illich said, “I choose the term ‘conviviality’ to designate the opposite of industrial productivity… Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user… People need new tools to work with rather than tools that work ‘for’ them.”
We were promised bicycles for the mind, but we got aircraft carriers instead. We believe Illich’s critique of the damage to society from technology escalation offers a fresh perspective from which to discuss the pathologies of modern software development, and to seek better alternatives.
An inspiring theme. My response: “Bicycles for the mind have to be see-through.” Get it? When I look over at my bicycle I can see right through its frame. I can take in at a glance how the mechanism works, how the pedals connect up with the wheels, and how the wheels connect up with the brakes. And yet, when we try to build bicycles for the mind, we resort to “hiding” and “abstraction”. I think this analogy has a lot more power than we credit, a lot more wisdom to impart if we only let it in. I think conviviality requires tools with exposed mechanisms that reward curiosity.
I've been trying to falsify this hypothesis for 6 years. There are still large gaps to investigate, but so far it's holding up. Read on → [pdf; 25 pages]
In the previous post, I described what my new hobbyist computing stack looks like today, and how the design decisions seemed to accumulate inevitably from a small set of axiomatic goals. In this post I describe some (far more speculative) future plans for Mu and try to articulate how the design process continues to seem pre-ordained.
(Many of the sections below outline constraints before describing a design that mostly fits them. This flow is inspired by Christopher Alexander's “Notes on the synthesis of form”.)
— Richard Gabriel's best summary (pg 219) of his essay, “Worse is Better”
Over the past year I've been working on a minimal-dependency hobbyist computing stack (everything above the processor) called Mu. The goal is to:
- build up infrastructure people can enjoy programming on,
- using as little code as possible, so that people can also hack on the underpinnings, modifying them to suit diverse desires.
— Ian Malcolm, “Jurassic Park”
— Christopher Alexander, “A Timeless Way of Building”
Lately I tend to program in a certain unconventional manner. A series of design choices, each seemingly reasonable in isolation, take me pretty far from conventional wisdom.
A guest post by Stephen Malina, my partner in crime on Mu.
Most programmers agree that we don't read enough code. The interviews in Peter Seibel's book, “Coders at work” highlight a comical contradiction: almost all the programmers interviewed by Seibel recommend that others read code for fun, but none of them routinely do so themselves. Seibel even asked Hal Abelson (of SICP fame) directly about this phenomenon: