Alan J. Perlis on Programming and Avoiding the Constipation of Philosophy

Educators, generals, dieticians, psychologists, and parents program. Armies, students, and some societies are programmed.

An assault on large problems employs a succession of programs, most of which spring into existence en route. These programs are rife with issues that appear to be particular to the problem at hand. To appreciate programming as an intellectual activity in its own right you must turn to computer programming; you must read and write computer programs—many of them. It doesn’t matter much what the programs are about or what applications they serve. What does matter is how well they perform and how smoothly they fit with other programs in the creation of still greater programs. The programmer must seek both perfection of part and adequacy of collection.

Our traffic with the subject matter of this book involves us with three foci of phenomena: the human mind, collections of computer programs, and the computer. Every computer program is a model, hatched in the mind, of a real or mental process.

These processes, arising from human experience and thought, are huge in number, intricate in detail, and at any time only partially understood. They are modeled to our permanent satisfaction rarely by our computer programs. Thus even though our programs are carefully handcrafted discrete collections of symbols, mosaics of interlocking functions, they continually evolve: we change them as our perception of the model deepens, enlarges, generalizes until the model ultimately attains a metastable place within still another model with which we struggle. [See also: The Onion, Matryoshkas of Change etc]

The source of the exhilaration associated with computer programming is the continual unfolding within the mind and on the computer of mechanisms expressed as programs and the explosion of perception they generate. If art interprets our dreams, the computer executes them in the guise of programs!

It is not merely a matter of tactical convenience to separately identify the three foci. Even though, as they say, it’s all in the head, this logical separation induces an acceleration of symbolic traffic between these foci whose richness, vitality, and potential is exceeded in human experience only by the evolution of life itself. At best, relationships between the foci are metastable. Thee computers are never large enough or fast enough. Each breakthrough in hardware technology leads to more massive programming enterprises, new organizational principles, and an enrichment of abstract models. Every reader should ask himself periodically “Toward what end, toward what end?” — but do not ask it too often lest you pass up the fun of programming for the constipation of bittersweet philosophy.

Alan J. Perlis – Introduction to Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs by Harold Ableson, Gerald Jay Sussman and Julie Sussman

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...