Go Karma Schizophrenia

Today, I tried to busy myself with doing some programming exercise in go. Not the board game, the language. Here are some idle thoughts on programming languages.

I had forgotten how good I can be at procrastination. I drank about a dozen cups of tea (soar throat), checked Twitter and mail... it was terrible.

If you studied programming languages, there are many things that seem off about golang. I could even understand if the lack of generics had been justifed as: "we value type inference and structural subtyping higher than having generics." but no, they are on the record as "we never needed them". ok... Opinions on programming language design are a dime a dozen.

I do not aspire to exercise my golang skills because it is a "great programming language", or the appeal to simplicity. Following a change of role at work, I simply expect to be dealing with a lot of go code in my job. That, and "modern C++". It's as simple as that. And sure enough, you can get used to anything.

When I was a grad student working on a certain programming language, I remember how convinced we were that we'd be changing the world. And indeed we have, but then a whole bunch of others have, too. Golang did not exist back then, and neither did "modern C++". I did have some experience in C++ programming, from peeking at programming courses for math students during uni (absolutely nothing related to actual C++ in my informatics curriculum, though there was a lecture on object-oriented programming) and my two internships. And also learned some C from a friend, one seminar and then many hours of toying around. This changed with my job of course, but the point is I perceived this dichotomy betwen programming as taught and research in academia and programming as done in industry or applied research contexts "with an industrial flavor". As grad students working on a language, we were convinced we have the best language, and determined to make it bestest, but I had seen "the other side".

I continued to dabble in C++ in those times, because I was sure I'd need it someday, it's the reality that cannot be ignored when studying programming languages. I described this as "professional schizophrenia": you split yourself into the part of you that accepts the "industry" programming languages, and the part that supports progress based on research which mostly gets ignored. I was then quite surprised when C# 2.0 got generics and Java 1.5 quickly followed suit. It looks like pattern matching makes it into the mainstream, too.

Another way to view this discrepancy is pragmatism: you use what's there, things are the way they are due to path dependence, economic pressure or some other reason that was of concern to somebody. Languages are tools, no need for judgment, just move towards the objective. This is my modus operandi, but it feels good to know that a domain-specific language that is using elements of an advanced type system is sometimes the thing that moves you towards that objective. Still, I am surprised how much one can be stuck in "my programming language is my identity", at myself in hindsight but also all the fan discussion.

Today, after procrastination, I think there might also be some karma. While I had not been too vocal, I'm sure in a weak moment, I must have said something like "golang is not a good language" aloud. I remember looking at source code that I considered to be looking like line noise (the inline & turned me off), surely I must have expressed my disaffection a few times. After a whole day of pain-avoidance behavior – the other name for procrastination – I realize now that maybe this is what has been hunting me. I have been paying for my remarks, dearly. Wake up, Burak, it's time to do your exercise and show how much of a pragmatic you really are.

On the bright side, after all this suffering, I am hoping to be born again as a happy gopher tomorrow.


Nothing is real

We are the children of concrete and steel
This is the place where the truth is concealed
This is the time when the lie is revealed
Everything is possible, but nothing is real

Living Colour - Type

Ryuichi had to get out. The kids were running around the house and screaming, their juvenile energy levels blending with the boredom of a cloudy Sunday morning to form an explosive mixture. He checked the viral pollution levels and left unceremoniously. It wasn't ok to leave Lingzhao alone with the kids, but still he had to get out or the noise and shouting would get to him and erase all possibility of having thought. He needed space to think, and silence.

The streets had not yet filled with people, only a few families strolled, then shining beautiful Black faces gleaming in the African sunlight. The Chromatic Cure had worked its wonders, he thought. After the first "baby pandemic" of 2020 and the 2nd civil war for racial justice came the Dinosaur diseases, caused multiple strains of airborne virus out of the remnants of Siberian permafrost. It affected people with light skin color disproportionately, which had eventually led to a treatment. The skin's pigments were modified to transform UV light into virus-defeating proteins, but it needed Black pigments to work, a lot of them. Ryuichi vaguely remembered from his medical biochemistry class in kindergarten. "And that is why everybody is Black now", the teacher had said. The Unified Society logo on her uniform caught his eye, it was one of his earliest memories.

Weekend or not, those remaining pesky white supremacists were still trouble, Ryuichi thought. Their enclaves were on life support from the Unified Society. Large compounds, former prison complexes that had been sealed airtight and determined to hold out, fueled by conspiracy theories and delusion. Endless debates had ensued whether the move to reactivate the old underground supply channels to keep them alive was a justified use of scarce resources. Compassion won out and the prison enclaves became the only refuge for white people who preferred living with other fellow white male supremacists.

Ryuichi worked on the team that intercepted electomagnetic signals and gathered intelligence. Two individuals, bugmold and GDJ, had emerged as leaders, one based on ideology and the other seemingly controled the software that kept the modified prison complex working. Very little was known about the fate of women in the prison complexes; there had been many who chose to give up freedom to retain their skin color. But violent fights had erased all but a few, who willingly accepted bugmold's tales of superior intelligence and the day of revenge, and GDJ's programming school of thought in order to keep the automated manufacturing going and launch InfoSec and fake news attacks on the Unified Society. The brutal fights in the White Supremacy enclaves had become a pattern that repeated itself once a decade. They even had a name for this: Natural Selection.

Ryuichi found a bench and took a break from his walk. It would soon be time.

Compassion also was the argument that led to the Plan being accepted. The intelligence gathered from Ryuichi's group revealed more and more signs that the crooked ideology and its implementation through software protocols led to prisons being a place of crimes against humanity and intolerable suffering, and human rights group revolted. The cure had been perfected and encapsulated; no complicated week-long procedure was necessary anymore, the biochemists of the Unified Society had created a new airborne virus that would set off the process of transforming the skin color. Everybody has a right to keep their skin color, the chairman of the assembly said, as long as it is Black. Even the most ardent supporters of "tolerance" could not bear the tales of natural selection.

Ryuichi checked his watch: it was noon. The sealed gray metal boxes with today's supplies to the prisons, delivered synchronously on a global automated schedule, just opened with a click. He smiled and thought, now that White is history, the team will be asking for a new project tomorrow. But it was the weekend, after all. Time to get back and see what the kids are up to.


Gotta not-do what you gotta not-do

Today's writing is about wu wei - "effortless action".

Wu wei comes from Taoism. I don't know very much about Taoism. I do not have a plan to become a thought leader on Taoism. My only personal connection to Chinese philosophical tradition is that I learned Tae Kwon Do as a teenager and I got curious about the "way" teachers description that the roots of these are not "martial arts" but a "philosophy (or way) of movement".

I was intrigued by this idea that "attaining perfection (of movement) through practice" was not for becoming be perfect fighter, but to attain wisdom. I went on to read Tao Te Ching, I Ching, and while I did not understand much, I became sensitive to these topics. [A friend at work, big fan of martial-arts, laughed at me for taking this philosophy stuff seriously - but then, "If the Tao would not be laughed at this way, it would not be the Tao!"]

The point is, you don't have to be an philosopher to appreciate that the idea of effortless action is one that is found in many forms and cultures. It's a pattern easy to observe, if you have the eye for it.

Take "flow or "being in the zone". There are three conditions for flow to occur:

  • Goals are clear
  • Feedback is immediate
  • A balance exists between opportunity and capacity

This resonates with the programmer working on a software artifact, with the amateur musician playing a piece on the piano, when doing sports (I am going to stop here). It also resonates indirectly, think of a manager who wants to create a productive environment for their team.

The analytical, self-conscious and doubtful mind takes a back seat and you "become one" with the thing you are doing. There is a view of taoism where this is not only at the individual level, but also at the level of society; this is what is described in the Tao Te Ching and I Ching (and discussed in the wikipedia article on wu wei).

It should be intuitive (if somewhat illogical in the realm of words) that "effortless action" requires to put in some effort. The programmer had to learn many things in order to get flow state, hacking away at this code. The musician had to practice countless hours in order to be able to play the piece. That effort is not felt in the moment of flow. You are building up capacity.

Building up capacity, if done right, is subject to compounding effects. You don't want to only learn, but also watch your rate of learning. Is there a better method? Am I still working towards the same goal?

Now, when we think of "goals" we are slightly at odds with "effortless action" and the Taoist ideal, since setting a goal can already be "forced." "Effortless action" is not forced, and also not goal-oriented.

Effortless action and taoism in general are not concerned with values or morality. Taoism features the theme of man's inability to force changes upon society. This is a bit revolting at first sight, since today's society is full of injustice. Black lives matter!

Things start making a bit more sense when one thinks of the attempts to shape a society or the world by ideology, this is bound to fail or become unsustainable (let's count capitalism as the ideology of $$$ here). You can have the best law, it is not by itself going to guarantee justice. Or, when you think of some software to help with some process, it is helpful to look at those things that do not need to be specified - because it is hopeless to specify them and you need to rely on "common sense" or some norm or culture. Also related is: "There is no way to peace, peace is the way"

The effort on the society level could be framed as "building the capacity and opportunity for justice". So an abstract, non-descript goal, direction, objective like "justice" or "I want to be good at X" is ok and not a goal in the sense of forcing some direction; we call it a goal since we live in times where we have an extraordinary freedom in choosing what we want to do with our lives. Choices do not preclude wu wei. I'm inclined to think that wu wei is related authenticity and focus; not getting distracted in futile matters, not doing something because you feel you have to, not doing something for purely "political" (tactical) reasons, but focus on the essence. Another quote that comes to mind here, "Never mistake activity for progress."

There is a lot more to find out about this. I am not an expert on Taoism and I still do not intend to become one; but maybe there's a reminder here for looking at one's own patterns of doing and not doing.


Life has a limit but knowledge has none

“Your life has a limit, but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger.” Zhuangzi

If DRMacIver in Subsetting life can draw an analogy between the limited nature of consciousness / the human condition and how C++ programmers effectively know and use only a fraction of the C++ standard — a little subset of the possibilities — then I can do the same with Zhuangzi's warning and ... something. Thank you, David.

I have written on intuitionist mathematics and logic before, so today it's not going to be about effective computations being terminating ones, potential infinity vs actual infinity. No, let's talk about models.

I found this quote in a little notebook of mine, an entry dated 20 years ago. I had an actual habit of writing notes, long-winded streams of consciousness, full of philosophy and reflection; a note on the fleeting nature consciousness next to a bitter account of unrequited love; a seemingly never-ending search. I threw away most of those notebooks, but for some reason I kept this one and found it the other day while clearing out the basement.

A model is always a simplified image of something. That something is not necessarily "reality"; sometimes the thing that is simplified is just another model, or construction. When you make a model of anything, you leave out some parts (attributes) and retain others (Herbert Stachowiak calls this Verkürzungsmerkmal, or attribute of abstraction). Constructing models is key activity for the informatician, and I am glad that undergrads get exposed to Stachowiak's model theory (slides in German).

Any programmer engages in the business in creating models. Every data structure is part of a model, and data structures serve different purposes. What is right in one context is not appropriate in another. Premature optimization is the adapation of code (and frequently also data) for the purpose of optimizing the performance of some operation, often losing flexibility in the process, and making other operations slow or more expensive. Premature means it's not good and the implicit recommendation is that it is good to keep things general until you know what operations you need.

Let's not forget about consciousness and life. As a human, you need to make models, too. You need to understand and interact with your fellow humans, understand the consequences of your actions. This is not easy. For goodness sake, you need to understand yourself. What was it that made me throw those notebooks away?

There is this theory that there is only one consciousness. Carl Gustav Jung writes about this in Typologie, as a key pitfall that makes some introverts insufferable (I felt seen) since they tend to confuse their self and that universal consciousness. "One love" stands for universal love and respect for all beings, no distinctions. Religion literally means connecting your self with the One. The vedic religion talks about consciousness. You don't need to reach for religion for accepting a universality of the basic conditions and limitations in which consciousness and thinking occurs, though.

But not only life is limited, what each individual knows and is able to do with the knowledge they have, is limited, too. Every human is absolutely unique, not only in the various social or economic conditions they are born in, but also in their continued perspective. I like this opening phrase from Jean Piaget's genetic epistemology

GENETIC EPISTEMOLOGY attempts to explain knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, on the basis of its history, its sociogenesis, and especially the psychological origins of the notions and operations upon which it is based.

Piaget set out to study the development of children, and ended up with a theory of knowledge. Is it constructed models all the way down? Piaget classifies knowledge into three kinds, phyical, social and "relationships" which he calls logico-mathematical models. Why does he calls the latter thing "logico-mathematical"? I think because mathematics and to some extent logical descriptions of mathematics are used here as synonyms for a kind of knowledge where we are completely free to choose what we are modeling and why; at the same time the models are supposed to be consistent. We want to be sure that "they work", that they are good for something.

Now, the human condition isn't only about the subject. Different people have different models, so it is not unusual that programmers end up spending 50% or more of their time resolving their disagreements about models. True progress is when people learn something from each other, bridge differences, teach each other and enable others to overcome their limitations.

I don't know how I end up on taoism, but these are the "ten thousand things". Consciousness is not limited, but each individual slice of it is. And there are challenges and limits to collaboration, many of them stemming from social, economical limitations or preconceptions. Every individual does feel the need to belong; this is where rationality itself reaches its limits.

I am just going to end here. A lot of disagreements would be easily bridged if we made more of an effort to understand each other: what models, what limitations, what perspectives makes the people say what they say, do what they do. It is not consciousness that is limited; it is its manifestation in the individual — and sometimes just the willingness to take the perspective of the other.