Blog about the future of the Internet

I have decided I have several things related to Wikileaks, the future of the Internet and other related things that I want to write about. However, that content seems like it will be a bit far from what I usually write about in this blog (however seldom that actually is). So I’ve decided to create a new, parallel blog for these postings. I will not make any notice of new blog posts on that blog here and the posts to that blog will not be syndicated through the ThoughtWorks blog syndication. If you are interested in what I have to say on these issues, the new blog is can be found here. That’s all.

WordPress posting malfunctioning on Orange

Interesting. While on vacation in Paris I have discovered that Orange seems to mess with some of the POST requests going to my WordPress. That includes posting new posts through the user interface, posting comments, and also posting using MarsEdit. Very strange. If you have Orange and get timeouts for some posts for your WordPress, now you know you’re not alone.

Meta-level thinking

I have been trying to figure out what characterizes some of the best programmers I know, or know about. It’s a frustrating endeavor of course, since most of these people are very different from each other, and have different experiences and ways to think and learn about stuff. Not to mention the fact that programmers tend to be highly individualistic.

But I think that I’m finally zeroing in on something that is general enough but also specific enough to categorize most of these people, and the general mind needed to be a really good programmer. In this blog post I’ll call that “meta-level thinking”, and I’ll explain more about what I mean as we go along.

When people try to become better programmers there are generally a few different kinds of advices you can get. The ones that seem prevalent right now is (among others):

  • Learn – and understand – Lisp
  • More generally, learn a new language that is sufficiently different from your current knowledge
  • Work with domain specific languages
  • Understand metaprogramming
  • Read up on the available data structures (Knuth anyone)?
  • Implement a compiler and runtime system for a language

Of course, these are only a few examples, and the categories are a bit fuzzy. These items are based on most of my experiences so they tend to be a bit language heavy. But I believe that what you practice by choosing any of these routes is an ability to abstract your thinking. In short, I believe that being able to abstract and understand what goes on in a programming language is one way to become more proficient in that language, but not only that – by changing your thinking to see this part of your environment you generally end up programming differently in all languages.

This is why Lisp has a tendency to change the way people write Java code. Lisp teaches you metaprogramming and DSL’s but they don’t really do it in a way that need words. DSLs and metaprogramming are just part of Lisp. It’s so much a part of the structure that you don’t see it. But when you turn to Java you’ll need to start working with these abstractions on a different level. Ruby programmers embrace metaprogramming and this changes the way these Ruby programmers think about things.

I’m really happy to see metaprogramming and DSLs getting more and more focus, because I really believe that understanding them is a really good way to make programmers better. Of course, you can get the same effect by writing a copmiler and runtime system – as Steve Yegge proposes. But I disagree that you really need that experience. There are other ways you can get the same way of looking at the world.

I call this meta-level thinking. I think it’s mostly a learned ability, but also that there is an aptitude component. Some of the best programmers I’ve met just have a mind that fits very well. It’s interesting to note that this kind of meta-level thinking is not an ability that is only applicable to programming. In fact, that’s probably just a matter of genetic luck that the same ability works very well for programming as for many other things. I think that there is a connection between certain abilities and a capacity for meta-level thinking too. Like music – it’s interesting to see how many programmers that have artistic leanings, and specifically towards music. It would be interesting to see some statistics about this.

In conclusion, this is my somewhat fuzzy view about what is one of the most important abilities that contributes to create brilliant programmers. If you have any interesting ideas about other ways you can reliably practice this ability, please improve on my list.