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Worse is worse

34 replies on 3 pages. Most recent reply: Jan 17, 2009 9:40 AM by Colas Nahaboo

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Alex Garrett

Posts: 2
Nickname: ljagged
Registered: Dec, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 17, 2003 10:14 AM
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> These are standard arguments for Lisp to try to convince
> people to use the language. But my point is that C and
> C-like languages need no such arguments. The trends of the
> marketplace make all other arguments irrelevant.

> Really, it's as irrelevant as someone saying, "Don't buy a
> DVD player -- laserdiscs are better." Add as many
> arguments of technical superiority here as you want ...
> what format is on the shelves when you go to the store?

I think that maybe I wasn't clear. I was pointing out some of the merits of Lisp especially in comparison with languages like C. I wasn't saying that people in general or you in particular should program in Lisp. Lisp certainly isn't for everyone. (http://www.paulgraham.com/vanlfsp.html)

> My thinking is that rather and support Lisp itself (which
> I deem a lost cause), a better approach is to find a
> language that most closely resembles Lisp and that is
> thriving. For me, that language is Python.

Python is a good lispy language and when you get to the point where you need things like macros (syntactic, not lexical like C) and a good meta-object protocol (python's metaclasses are a good start, but necessarily limited) Lisp will still be there for you.

Merriodoc Brandybuck

Posts: 225
Nickname: brandybuck
Registered: Mar, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 17, 2003 11:32 AM
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> Hehe... I had not heard the "Worse is Better" argument
> before. It's like saying that "Evil will always triumph,
> because good is dumb.". It makes absolutely no sense.

I think that a corollary to Godwin's Law http://info.astrian.net/jargon/terms/g/Godwin_s_Law.html should be that if you can quote Spaceballs, you've killed the thread.

Never give up. Never surrender!

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 17, 2003 5:35 PM
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The point I'm making is not related to the dull and tendentious arguments about the relative merits of Linux and Windows. I'm simply pointing out that Linux has not supplanted Windows and therefore is not an example of how an open standard supplants a propietary one.

Matt Gerrans

Posts: 1152
Nickname: matt
Registered: Feb, 2002

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 17, 2003 9:15 PM
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I think that maybe I wasn't clear. I was pointing out some of the merits of Lisp especially in comparison with languages like C. I wasn't saying that people in general or you in particular should program in Lisp. Lisp certainly isn't for everyone. (http://www.paulgraham.com/vanlfsp.html)

Hmm... Seems just a little snobby. Does this mean if you start programming in Lisp you will automatically be smarter? Or will you just lower its LFSP factor? It seems like only the proponents of a particular language (naturally) will declare it an LFSP, but don't they have a vested interst in that perception. This kind of sounds like the OS platform arguments.

Isn't it possible that there are languages that fit different styles of programmer and purpose?

Frank Mitchell

Posts: 37
Nickname: fmitchell
Registered: Jan, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 18, 2003 1:07 AM
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> The point I'm making is not related to the dull and
> tendentious arguments about the relative merits of Linux
> and Windows. I'm simply pointing out that Linux has not
> supplanted Windows and therefore is not an example of
> how an open standard supplants a propietary one.

Maybe not supplant, unless you count Linux's emergence in the server market as an alternative to expensive proprietary Unix and cheaper Windows. However, the relative merits of Linux/Unix and Windows do "prove" the "Worse Is Better" rule.

Perhaps it's better to say that the whole Unix family -- Linux, BSD, and other -- is a poster-child for the virtues of modular open systems over monolithic proprietary systems. Linux and other Unixes have been ported to a wide range of hardware. QNX is a Unix-like OS written from scratch for embedded systems. As far as conventional desktops go, MacOS X is an intesting experiment: combining the solid foundations of Unix with a consistent GUI and interelated suite of services and apps. Even if MacOS X remains a niche/boutique OS, its mere existence demonstrates the benefits to small and mid-size companies of adopting and building atop an appropriate Unix.

Contrast to Windows, which Microsoft *has* moved, in some form, to PDAs and a few embedded system (cars?), with varying degrees of success. Usually Microsoft has to rewrite huge chunks from scratch, maintain a huge code base, and apply patch after patch. Only Microsoft can sustain that effort, and if the traditional desktop gives way to a variety of networked devices the effort to "port" and maintain all those Windows variants might do the company in.

Also see the "Inside Out, or Outside In?" discussion.

Alexander Jerusalem

Posts: 36
Nickname: ajeru
Registered: Mar, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 18, 2003 5:42 AM
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One thing I would add to the "different goodness metrics" argument is that there is also the very powerful "meta goodness" concept of potential future goodness. Call it evolvability, scalability, extensibility, whatever. Quite often when we say the worse technology has survived, we don't necessarily mean that it was worse at the time it was chosen over some other "better" technology, but rather that it was short sighted to choose it because the "better" technolgy had greater potential to fit future requirements.

There are really two different dimensions in this debate about future goodness. One is simply an argument about what the future will look like. Two designs might differ in what kinds of future changes they make easy or hard. But the other dimension, which I think is at the center of the "worse is better" debate, is the question of how long term we should be thinking anyway. And at this point it becomes a rather more subtle question what it means to short change our users. It's not simply about different sets of goodness metrics anymore because you cannot easily measure compliance with future requirements. The only metric that's left, it seems, is in how far we honestly _try_ to do what we think is in the users best interest. And by this metric, both the MIT and the New Jersey camp, can probably justify their respective claims for "goodness"

Dan Creswell

Posts: 49
Nickname: dancres
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 18, 2003 9:41 AM
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>Is it? Doesn't Linux have have a desktop share of under 1% compared with Microsoft's over 95%. For all its morphing, it has yet to morph into an operation system of choice for the general public and remains a niche product for political and technical specialists.

Well, hey, if you measure Linux's success by it's share of the desktop I guess it's a failure. However:

(1) Linux has a significant share in other areas such as servers (the Apache/Linux combination is particularly potent).

(2) I think Jim's referral to Linux as a poster-child was in regard of it's *goodness* in terms of stability etc. rather than it's share of a particular only partially representative market segment.

Isaac Gouy

Posts: 527
Nickname: igouy
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 18, 2003 11:19 AM
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The classic essay on "worse is better" is either misunderstood or wrong

Misunderstood even in this weblog ;-)

"The fact that C produced faster code, was easier to master, was easier to use in groups, and ran well on less expensive hardware were not considerations that Gabriel found important."

Reading "Gabriel's original writing" we find:

"Both early Unix and C compilers had simple structures, are easy to port, require few machine resources to run, and provide about 50%--80% of what you want from an operating system and programming language. Half the computers that exist at any point are worse than median (smaller or slower). Unix and C work fine on them."

Isaac Gouy

Posts: 527
Nickname: igouy
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 18, 2003 11:46 AM
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Of course, this received wisdom is just so much crap...
As a catch phrase, it is often used to justify...


Seems like your "problem with the slogan" has nothing to do with the quality of the "received wisdom" and everything to do with how people have use it to argue for particular design decisions.

The slogan seems to be a variation on Voltaire: "The best is the enemy of the good."

Which appears in most fields of design (and studies of human behaviour) as 'satisficing': it is often preferable to settle for a satisfactory solution, rather than pursue an optimal solution.

Mark Johnson

Posts: 15
Nickname: mj
Registered: Mar, 2003

C vs Java vs lisp: a polemic Posted: Dec 18, 2003 3:28 PM
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On the topic of relative runtime performance, see below for an actual study, with real observations, summarized using graphs with error bars. Computer science, to coin a phrase.

http://www.flownet.com/gat/papers/lisp-java.pdf

By and large, C wins on the runtime performance metric, but not by as much as you'd think. Other metrics exist, despite what you may hear from vain C programmers (obsessively tweaking their pushbutton callbacks for 'optimal performance').

I love C--where it's appropriate. Meaning, for writing primitive operations and structural code. But I think it sucks for anything dynamic. C++ (no better for dynamic behavior than C) is for those can't squeeze enough accidental complexity out of their preprocessors, and prefer it in the language, instead.

As for "C is better because C won", it is a temporary argument, at best. A favorite rhetorical device of politicians and religious fanatics. C is better and faster down next to the metal. But I think it's so popular mostly because most people still think in BASIC. C is closer to BASIC than lisp is, so it's "better"; i.e., compatible with the installed wetware base.

If you want a clean, high-level, object-oriented scripting language, Python is very cool. But Ruby's da bomb.

Eric Armstrong

Posts: 207
Nickname: cooltools
Registered: Apr, 2003

Nicely said! Posted: Dec 18, 2003 7:11 PM
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A superb sentiment, and an extremely good
explanation. Great stuff.

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 19, 2003 4:56 AM
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> Maybe not supplant, unless you count Linux's emergence in
> the server market as an alternative.

No. "Emergence as an alternative" does not count as supplanting.

Curiously, my dictionary (Concise Oxford English) includes the following in the definition of supplant:
"Dispossess and take the place of (a person), esp. by treacherous or underhand means".

I would argue that this is not an attribute of Linux. Perhaps I'm wrong, maybe you're right to argue that Linux has supplanted Windows?

Vince.

Frank Mitchell

Posts: 37
Nickname: fmitchell
Registered: Jan, 2003

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 19, 2003 5:05 PM
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> Perhaps I'm wrong, maybe you're right to argue that
> Linux has supplanted Windows?

I'm not arguing that.

The Linux booster who started this subthread didn't define success, quality, or "goodness" as raking in piles of money and becoming a household name; he didn't define it at all.

If you're talking about desktop machines, Windows (so far) is very good for Microsoft. Bill Gates is sitting on a pile of money, and Wintel boxes are just another commodity at WalMart. And yes, Linux isn't.

However, Linux (and Unix) are also good for those who want cheap but stable and maintainable operating systems for their own applications: web servers, some application servers, embedded systems, etc. KDE and GNOME even make decent (if not massively lucrative and Gates-bankrupting) desktops, as does MacOS X on top of BSD.

Unix has survived, mutated, extended its capabilities, and expanded into new environments. If Linux were an organism, biologists would call it a success.

As Jim Waldo says, it's a matter of metrics.

Joel Neely

Posts: 10
Nickname: joelneely
Registered: Mar, 2003

Multiple-personality intrepretation ;-) Posted: Dec 19, 2003 5:54 PM
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I've always understood RPG's phrase with scary-quotes and implicit nouns to go with the adjectives:

"Worse" (quality) is "better" (popularity).

The curmudgeon in me takes it as complaint ("Western
civilization is dead!") because more people listen to Britney
Spears (sp? but who cares?) than Bach, and more people watch
Fear Factor than Shakespeare.

The practicing software developer in me takes it as a
reason to consider extreme programming and evolutionary
development, because my user would often rather have 80%
functionality with a clunky UI in a month than 100%
functionality (relative to today's needs) with a perfect UI
in a year.

The media skeptic in me takes it as a dangerous statement,
because in our 15-second-sound-bite world too many people
will parrot the statement without considering meaning
or irony, and assume that it justifies the production
of junk.

The been-programming-since-the-60's old-timer in me places
RPG in the same group as Edsger W. Dijkstra (with respect
e.g. to EWD's "Go To Considered Harmful" letter to the CACM
editor). I respect both of them as professionals who care
deeply about their chosen profession, and as thinkers who
think deeply about how to understand and address problems
therein. Both of them have unfairly become notorious on the
basis of a single phrase, often plucked out of context and
made into a political/marketing/holy-war slogan of scant
relationship to the context in which it appeared.

Doing shoddy work is never justifiable for a professional.

Compromising on functionality in the interest of rapid
release cycling may be pragmatic, but should always be done
eyes-wide-open and with full disclosure. Programming, as
with politics, is often about "the art of the possible".

However, building up a backlog of functionality (or worse,
quality) compromises without committment (and scheduling) to
address them is equivalent to crooked politics and rampant
national debt.

Frank Sommers

Posts: 2642
Nickname: fsommers
Registered: Jan, 2002

Re: Worse is worse Posted: Dec 20, 2003 12:43 PM
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The essay just shows that "good" or "bad," and, by the same token "better" or "worse," are contextual. In other words, there is no such thing as "good" in absolute terms, but only "good" in relation to a specific objetive. Thus, these adjectives are telelogical in nature. The best poison may not be the best food.

The problem with Dick's article's title is that it takes these adjectives out of context. While it makes the title catchier, and thus "better" for the purpose of making someone want to read it, that title is not good for the purpose of clearly stating the writer's position. While a reader's purpose is almost always to gain some enlightenment, a writer's primary purpose is often to entice his readers to read what he has to say. It's easy to forget that, even in an age when all sorts of media clamor for our precarious attention spans. The lesson: One must read the article, and not be deceived by its title alone.

I'm truly amazed how, on many online technical discussions forums, folks apparently do not read in entirety the subject of what one posts about. While that makes for lively discussion, the discussion often diverges so far from its original subject matter as to fade into irrelevance. Jim Waldo's essay clearly points this out, at least to me, more than the relative merits of programming languages: That the title of Dick's article took on a life of its own, a head detached from its body, and with similarly bizarre results.

I cannot believe that a person would claim that "worse is better" in any circumstance, without reference to a specific context in which some "worse" can, indeed, be better. That would amount to stating that white is dark, or that bitter is sweet. To discuss why some better may not be all that good in some situation, or why some worse may turn out more advantageous in another, requires that we examine the details, that we consider these statements in their full context.

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