October 20, 2005

Bastards! Bastards! You're All Bastards!

My final official duty of this yearís OOPSLA was to serve on Onward!ís Yoshimi vs. the Pink Robots panel. I was asked by panel moderator James Noble to assume the guise of a grizzled, curmudgeonly veteran hacker. Something of a stretch, to be sure :-), but I figured Iíd be up to it.

The panel takes its name from a song by The Flaming Lips. James opened the panel by showing the video for this number. Itís actually pretty catchy. You can find it by clicking the album cover to the right. It was likely the intention of the panelís framers that the beleaguered Yoshimi was to be cast a surrogate for the users, and that the Pink Robots were to be associated with us inscrutable hackers. Iíd rather hoped that this question be left open, and that the audience be allowed to see things the other way. In hindsight, itís not clear it was even raised, let along settled.

Iíd found as many soda pop cans as I could to decorate my spot at the dais. I donned my trusty old engineerís cap, primarily to get the bright lights out of my eyes, though the thought that it fit the character didnít hurt.

I donít remember much about my opening position statement, except whatís below. What I do know is that Iíd been told that the ACM was going to finally start recording talk and panel videos this year with an eye towards putting them into the Digital Library. What, I thought, about those occasions where one has made a complete jackass of oneís self on a panel, and had wanted to crawl off into a corner to die? What then?

Then I thought about the performance OOPSLA 2004 Conference Chair John Vlissides gave as the (literally) propeller-headed ďJimmy the FreshmanĒ in OOPSLA 2004ís sporadically amusing but occasionally execrable ďDating Design PatternsĒ skit.

John had asked me to help him cast this skit a few weeks before. Iíd cast it without reading it, out of fear for the worst. Iíd read it shortly before rehearsals began, and my fears were not fully allayed. This skit, I had warned him, had the potential to substantially undermine the very dignity not merely of everyone involved, but indeed, of the entire conference. John replied: ďWhat dignity?Ē

It was in this spirit that I resolved to put such concerns as I might have had on my part to rest once and for all / for good.

In the spirit of OOPSLA 2005ís focus on creativity and the humanities, as established by the stirring keynote address of former poet-laureate Robert Haas earlier in the week, I elected to recite an original piece that Don Roberts and I had put together, based on the work of one of our country's most celebrated contemporary lyricists.

The original idea had come to me, as so many ideas do, earlier that morning, in the shower. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and Hygiene has served me over the years as generous, albeit fickle, muse. This, however, was one of the most horrific shower visions I'd ever had the displeasure of contemplating. An acid hallucination gone terribly awry. Like something out of Hitchcock, it was a flashback of Jamesís over the top introduction of Mary Beth Rossonís talk, only hellishly different. Indeed, it was the end of a fateful downward spiral that had begun, as Eugene Wallingford has noted, the day before.

Panel moderator James Noble's outsized neo-pompous HMS Pinafore histrionics and desiccated antipodean wit are utterly inimitable. But I took a stab at channeling 'im anyway. My re-enactment of my surreal low-culture vision from hell went like this:

I've been around forever
And I wrote the very first code
I put behavior and data together
I am hacker (sic)
And I write the code

I write the code that makes the shareholders smile
I write the code that the users defile
I write the code that makes the testers cry
I write the code
I write the code

The Fountainhead is on my short list of all-time favorite movies, although, I must confess, part of the pleasure I take in it is a partially (but only partially) ironic appreciation of its unrelentingly self-absorbed dialog. Itís great. Objectivism indeed. That said, Randís characterization of Roarkís total passion for his work, and his utter disregard for what society thinks of it, one way or the other, fits many in our vanishing indigenous programming culture to an uncanny degree.

I don't build in order to have clients.
I have clients in order to build.
--Architect Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

An enduring source of frustration among programmers is the degree to which users have no conception of the the glory, the majesty, the grandeur, of living in the code. Of living among, and crafting these magnificent artifacts. The medieval artisans who crafted the great cathedrals of Europe, is has been said, would often take care to craft even that which could never bee seen from the ground with the same care as that which could, because they knew God could see it. This alas, is often inevitably the lot of much of the craftsmanship that goes into the code. But we put it there anyway. And the users have no idea.

This being OOPSLA XX, I was in something of a reflective frame of mind. I started my professional programming career on 20 January 1977, the Day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, or James VI by my American Regents reckoning. I worked in fairly large research group (about thirty folks in all), with a dozen person technical staff. We worked for a guy who was the spitting image of the pointy haired boss in Dilbert, only with a 170 IQ.

I have a confession to make. In those days, when programmers got together and spoke among themselves, which was fairly frequently, because no one else would talk to us, when weíd talk about users at all, it would be to talk about what #$%^&%$ morons users were. Whatís more, we were not alone. Furthermore, I have it on some good authority, that in some circles, this perception continues to exist, among some programmers, even to this day.

Users, we were sure, didnít know what they wanted. Who did? Why we did!

Who were these users desecrating our cathedrals? Who were these money changers? Chase them from our temples!

The Agile insurgency is increasing viewed as an orthodox movement. A lot of the process guys have traded their keyboards for cufflinks. Waterfall has been effectively vanquished, though it lingers like a winter cough. If I had a beef, it would be with anyone, it would be with the managerial caste, not my users.

At one point, I shamelessly recycled one of my vintage tale about raw materials for software, caffeine and sugar, being cheap and abundant, whereas labor was anything but. I then observed that were the sugar and coffee exporting countries ever to get into cahoots, they could do to the American software industry what OPEC did to the overall economy during the seventies, which is to say, cripple it with an embargo on its vital raw materials.

People come to panels for red meat, for conflict, for entertainment. The scholarly may opt for high-fiber technical material tracks with names like "Type Theory IX", or spicy, exotic mind candy alternatives as are otherwise found in Onward!, but by and large, people come to panels hoping to see the upper-middle brow equivalent of a Claymation celebrity death match.

And so, I fear in hindsight that many found our panel to be a tepid, desultory love-fest. And people just donít seem to get too excited watching a love-fest, at least so long as the participants remain fully clothed. Who, outside of a few members of the diplomatic corps perhaps, enjoys watching people agree?

For me, the point where I broke character was when legendary waterfall apologist Larry Constantine asked us to be serious for a moment, and I fell for it. Rather than maintaining my shop-steward for the hackers, Commando vs. Infantry persona, I tried instead to be reasonable. Yawn.

Mr. Inimitable ended the panel with a (fortunately nearly unintelligible) video of a salty exchange from someone elseís nightmare, fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson, if I am not mistaken. James then closed this one with one his trademark tumescent tweedy tirades, a heartfelt tribute to someone special.

And it will be coming soon to a Digital Library near you. May God have mercy on our souls.

John Vlissides Photo ©2004 by Munawar Hafiz
Posted by foote at October 20, 2005 02:03 PM