Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Spiders Versus Rats

Still working on same problem as last post. I know a little (very little) more, and I’m better at workarounds—but no workaround works two days in a row. I’m still in the dark as to a solution or any explanation as to why this strange and persistent problem suddenly popped up.

Despite that, I’m not writing to rant, but rather to make useful observations. Now you might wonder where in this particular mountain of horse manure I might find a pony. Well, I have. Rather than extending last week’s post, I’m raising its argument to a new level, a more general generalization.

Investigating this overwhelming complexity, looking for a clue, an image popped into my head. All these puzzle pieces—the OS, the router, the modem, and the various software connecting to the Internet—all this stuff made me think of a rat’s nest. In the desert, we see plenty due to a plethora of pack rats.

That’s one image. But no sooner did I see this heap of computer impedimenta as a rat’s nest, than I envisioned its opposite: the spider’s web. I’m sure you can picture one, but have you ever really seen a live one? Ever come across one in the woods in early morning, pristine, glistening with dew?

A spider’s web is the opposite of a rat’s nest in so many ways, but it is one thing above all others: elegant. I use the word advisedly. Elegant solutions are still appreciated in math and science. They used to be in programming. Everyday, I see more and more software degenerating into kludge. If you’re not familiar with the term, my dictionary describes it as ”poorly matched elements.” Another word dictionaries use is “inelegant.”

However, this is not about the esthetic value of elegance, but rather its great practical value. Its concepts and organization are easier to understand, and therefore easier to use and fix. Elegant solutions often do more than the obvious, not infrequently providing serendipitous benefits.

Much of nature is also a kludge. It functions, survives, but it is no argument for intelligent design. Some minds may be beautiful, but I would suggest Gary Marcus’ Kludge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind for a more accurate description of how the bump on our neck works.

Some might say the products of these minds tend to kludge: if it works, it’s good enough. Maybe, but the mind can also produce better. Has. In art, we call it beauty; in programming, we call it elegance.


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