Since coming back from the MFASoftware program, I’ve been trying to
stay focused on my remote assignments. I’ve been doing a
particularily bad job of actually finishing anything, but I have
been learning a lot.
One of my assignments was to read and annotate Guy Steele’s Lambda
The Ultimate Imperative (library.readscheme.org/page1.html).
I’ve read the paper twice and opened up an editor to write about it
five or six times. As I read the paper, I knew it was teaching me something
that was going to have a lasting effect, but somehow when I sat to write
about it, the only memories I could summon were the mechanics of Scheme
(which the paper is written in/using).
I’ve been learning Scheme in parallel to reading this paper, and
I’ve definitely felt a lot of "schemisms" snap into place
as I read. But I know that simply learning the language isn’t what
this paper is about. It’s just so hard to separate learning the
language from discovering the purity and simplicity of what Steele is
demonstrating. The beauty of Scheme is that there’s hardly anything
to it. To see Steele effortlessly implement programming constructs on top
of this near-nothingness drives home the power of minimalism.
So, now I realise that, above all else, it’s a fascination with
minimalism that I’ve brought home from Illinois. Apparently,
I’m not the only one.
If minimalism is good, then what’s the opposite of minimalism?
When I studied music composition with Kamran_Ince, there was one thing I
always knew he was going to say when I walked into his office with a new
composition. He was going to tell me something like, "You’ve got
such a great idea here. Why do you have to run away from it so quickly? You
didn’t develop it. We didn’t even know it happened!" I
would literally walk in to the beginning of a lesson knowing this
was going to happen, and yet it would happen every time. It felt a little
like not being able to spell "FBI" or like being given the
answers to a test and then failing it anyway.
Though he wasn’t necessarily trying to encourage me to write music in
the style of a minimalist, the lesson was in fact about minimalism as a
craft element. And, if minimalism is good, then what I was bringing to
Kamran each week was its opposite. Lots of good ideas, jammed into a very
tiny temporal space. The end result was a jumble of intelligent thoughts,
stepping all over each other so that none were ultimately recognizable.
Have you tried to use JDNI? It was
probably the musical equivalent. In the software world, this has the effect
of both muddying up what is already there, and creating an environment that
is unfriendly to extension and change.
I don’t know much about the thing called "minimalism" in
art-forms other than music. But, in music, one of minimalism’s key
features is that of emergence. When players are making repetitive and
rhythmic sounds, a la Terry Reilly, it’s almost never the
written notes and rhythms that are interesting. It’s what
happens when they’re all played together by imperfect humans.
It’s the slow and subtle phase shifting, and then the
musicians’ subtle reactions to the phase shifting.
Scheme obviously creates an environment that encourages emergent behaviors.
In fact, the whole point of Lambda the Ultimate Imperative (LtUI) is to
show that Scheme can be an imperative language, without changing Scheme and
without "shoe-horning" Scheme to awkwardly meet the imperative
critera. LtUI happens to be written by one of Scheme’s designers, but
there’s no reason you or I couldn’t have written that paper
(other than my age at its time of publication).
So, back to Kamran Ince. He was trying to teach me not just to keep my
music simple so I could develop ideas. He was also trying to teach me to
create powerful ideas. You can’t write music the "Kamran
Way" while making timid gestures. If you’re going to let it all
hang out with an idea, it better be strong.
And, with music, I think it’s a lot more apparent (than in
programming) that you can’t start with an idea that doesn’t
provide a platform on which to build a piece. For a patently contrived
example, listen to this. It would be
possible to build a piece of music on something that sounds so final, but
it would sound strange and intentional. While the temporal element is
missing, an extremely rigid language or an API that is too large and
complex can produce the same effect of stunted idea growth in software. For
(potentially inflamatory) example, if a method of an object can only accept
parameters of a certain class, my freedoms are extremely and intentionally
limited when using that object.
So, "good minimalism" doesn’t require simply that we
"be minimal". It requires that we correctly balance substance and
space in a way that encourages evolutionary growth. It is possible to be
minimal and rigid, which will lead to small ideas that can’t be
developed any further. This is rarely what we want. Minimalism is one of
these words (like "simple") that sound easy to do but actually
require a lot of practice to get them right.
I see now that Lisp and Scheme aren’t different because of their
minimal syntax or their dynamism. It’s the fact that they "get
out of the way", providing the right balance of mechanism and policy
to allow their users to continue to evolve in the direction that nature
selects, while not being so austere that wheels are necessariliy being
reinvented every day. This is what has drawn me to Ruby (and Smalltalk and
Scheme) and away from the likes of Java and C#. Not dynamic vs. static
typing or compiled vs. interpreted environments.
Many of the arguments for and against these minimal environments seem to
boil down to the Mechanism vs. Policy tradeoff.
But, I’ll leave that for a later post.