What did Ngnghm think of Urbit? Some elements in Ngnghm’s descriptions of Houyhnhnm computing were remindful of the famous Martian system software stack Urbit: both computing worlds were alien to Human Computing; both had Orthogonal Persistence; and both relied heavily on pure deterministic computations to minimize the amount of data to log in the persistence journal (as contrasted for instance with the amount of data to manipulate to compute and display answers to end-users). What else did Houyhnhnm computing have in common with Martian software? How did it crucially differ? How did they equally or differently resemble Human systems or differ from them? Ngnghm took a long look at Urbit; while he concluded that indeed the three approaches were quite distinct, he also helped me identify the principles underlying their mutual differences and commonalities.
In my various professional endeavors, I had to deal a lot with build systems: programs like Unix Make, Common Lisp’s ASDF, or Google’s Bazel, but also package managers like rpm, dpkg or Nix, with which developers describe how to build executable software from source files. As the builds grew larger and more complex and had to fit a wider diversity of configurations, I particularly had to deal with configuration scripts to configure the builds, configuration script generation systems, build extensions to abstract over build complexity, and build extension languages to write these build extensions. Since the experience had left me confused, frustrated, and yearning for a better solution, I asked Ngnghm how Houyhnhnms dealt with these issues. Could they somehow keep their builds always simple, or did they have some elegant solution to deal with large complex builds?
Once again, Ngnghm wasn’t sure what I meant, and I had to explain him at length the kind of situations I had to deal with and the kind of actions I took, before Ngnghm could map them to processes and interactions that happened in Houyhnhnm computing systems. And his conclusion was that while Houyhnhnms computing systems certainly could express large builds, they didn’t possess a “build system” separate and distinguished from their normal development system; rather their “build system” was simply to use their regular development system at the meta-level, while respecting certain common constraints usually enforced on meta-programs.
In our discussion about the difference between Human applications and their Houyhnhnm counterparts, I was intrigued by claims Ngnghm made that communication was much easier between activities of a Houyhnhnm computing system than between applications of a Human computer system. I asked Ngnghm to elaborate on this topic.
It was easy to agree that Human computer systems made communication something much lower level than it could be. But Ngnghm also argued that Humans had very poor algebras and interfaces for users to combine processes. Just what kinds of communication could there even exist besides the ones that already existed on Human computer systems?
My previous discussion with Ngnghm left me baffled: I could somehow understand that Houyhnhnms don’t have the concept of an Operating System Kernel; and I could vaguely guess how each of the many aspects of a Human kernel could correspond to a family of software patterns in a Houyhnhnm computing system, at various levels of abstractions. But while I could visualize these patterns individually, it was less clear to me what the big picture was when these smaller compile-time, link-time and runtime abstractions were put together. So I decided to approach their software architecture from the other end: what do end-user applications look like in Houyhnhnm computing systems?
I was baffled again, but not surprised anymore, to find that Houyhnhnms don’t have a notion of application. Granted, there are simple cases where Human applications have direct counterparts in Houyhnhnm computing systems. But in the general case, Houyhnhnms don’t think in terms of standalone applications; they think in terms of platforms that they extend with new functionality.
I admitted to Ngnghm that I was perplexed by Houyhnhnm computing systems; to better understand them, I wanted to know what their kernels, libraries and applications looked like. There again, he surprised me by having no notion of what I called kernel or application: the way Houyhnhnm systems are architected leads to widely different concepts; and for the most part there isn’t a direct one-to-one correspondance between our notions and theirs. And so I endeavored to discover what in Houyhnhnm computing systems replaces what in Human computer systems is embodied by the operating system kernel.
Ngnghm decided that while stranded among us Humans, he would conduct an ethnographical study of Human computer systems, and took to heart to examining my programming habits. In return, I was more and more curious of how Houyhnhnm systems worked, or failed to work. That’s when, trying to imagine what the Houyhnhnm computing systems might keel over, with their making everything persistent, I had this a-ha moment: surely, they must have extreme trouble with live upgrade of their data schema, and their programmers must spend their time in hell trying to reconcile modifications in what amounts to an unrestricted distributed database, that anyone can modify at any time. Ngnghm wasn’t sure what I was talking about that could be a major issue, and so interrogated me as to the Human practices with respect to handling change in persistent data. And he found that many of the issues stemmed from limitations with how Humans approached them; these issues were not intrinsic with the problem of ensuring persistence of data, and all but disappeared if you considered code change transactions as first-class objects.
Ngnghm examined how manual persistence was managed underneath Human computer systems, and contrasted with how Houyhnhnms automated its implementation. This led him to more general remarks about the compared architectures of Human computer systems and Houyhnhnm computing systems: Houyhnhnm computing systems can and do go meta, which to them is notionally down (not up, as some Humans would have it). Going meta allows Houyhnhm computing systems to enjoy qualities not found in Human computer systems, that can’t go meta.
Following our discussion on persistence, Ngnghm had plenty of questions about how Human computer systems held together when they can’t seem to get basic persistence right. But in return, I had even more questions about what Houyhnhnm computing systems could even be like, when all data persisted by default: What did the user interface look like? Was there no more save button? What happened when you copied or deleted files? Were there files at all? How did people deal with all the garbage? Were your mistakes forever? If you somehow hosed your machine, would it remain forever hosed? How did you test potentially dangerous changes?
Ngnghm was fascinated by our keyboards: because of physiological differences between our races, similar devices had never been imagined by Houyhnhnm computing engineers. Now, as he was watching me closely, Ngnghm noticed that I was punctuating most of my typing with recurring combinations of key chords. I told him I had no idea what he meant; and so he had me record and review how, after every sentence or so, or before changing activities, I was composing the sequence Ctrl-X Ctrl-S, or Command-S, or some other mantra that varied slightly with the application I was using. Interestingly, I wasn’t even aware that I was doing that before he told me! What was this mantra doing, he inquired? How could I possibly repeat it without even noticing — and why would I? I told him that depending on the application, each of these mantra saved the current file, and that typing it had become ingrained in me as a subconscious habit, because I used it so often, out of necessity. What does "saved" mean wondered Ngnghm, and what made it a necessity?
Dear fellow programmer,
I used to think humans wrote software the way they did because they knew what they were doing. Then I realized that they didn’t really know, but adopted ways that seemed to work better than others. Or maybe rather humans were adopted by the ways that best knew how to survive, whether they actually “worked” or not. In any case, I trusted “evolution”, that is, ultimately, other people, to have figured out the best way that software could and should be written. But everything I knew about computing changed when one day I met a Houyhnhnm, who told me how things were done in his faraway land. He made me think in terms of computing systems rather than computer systems; and from my newly found understanding, I could see clearly how computing systems could and should be, that today’s (mainstream) Human computer systems aren’t. But mostly, he taught me how to think, by myself, about computing. And so let me take you through my story of computing enlightenment.