Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Quest for the Absolute

This is the Database Programmer blog, for anybody who wants practical advice on database use.

There are links to other essays at the bottom of this post.

This blog has two tables of contents, the Topical Table of Contents and the list of Database Skills.

Today I am taking a huge detour from technical matters to lay out the philosophical groundwork behind this blog. The ideas presented today lie beneath every essay on this site. It is easy to observe that people seem driven to formulate absolute truths to guide their pursuits. Programming is no different, programmers are driven to find the absolutes that will universally guide their efforts. Those absolutes are not that hard to find, if you know the method for seeking them out. Fortunately, we have hundreds and thousands of years of human efforts, both successes and failures, to draw upon when embarking upon the task.

Absolutes in the Post-Modern Age

Academics refer to our current stage of history as the "Post-Modern" age. Thinking in the post-modern age is dominated by a deep mistrust of the very concept of absolute truth. Many thinkers have noted that in the post-modern age the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Now, anybody who has not bothered to read much past what they are handed likely believes much of this without even thinking about it, they may not know that in the history of the human race such thinking is less than 60 years old.

But that "no absolutes" stuff is all nonsense at best and downright cowardice at worst. If you want an example of an absolute truth, try stepping off the edge of a cliff: even if you do not believe in gravity, gravity believes in you. It is an absolute truth for me that if I do not take care of my customers my life becomes unpleasant. It is a further absolute truth for me that I constantly obvserve programmers proclaiming absolutes (always use relational, always use OO, etc). When I stop observing it, then I suppose it won't be an absolute anymore (and I suppose then it never was?)

So let us now cheerfully ignore the wailing of those who cry that there are no absolutes, and ask if we might discover some elements of software development strategy that hold true always (ok, maybe mostly always) for the context of database application development.

Aristotle and Virtue

Nowadays nobody has to read philosophy much anymore, at least not where I live (in the United States), so most programmers have never heard of a man named Aristotle, who lived about 2500 years ago. This is a shame, because Aristotle had a logical way of thinking about things that would warm the heart of any programmer.

One of Aristotle's major contributions to civilization was his formulation of what philosophers call "virtue". Philosophers use the term in a technical sense, and they do not use "virtuous" to mean "nice" or "pleasant" or "good-natured." To a philosopher (or at least those that taught me) something is virtuous in Aristotelean terms if if performs its function well. The standard classroom example is that a virtuous table serves the function of a table, and a virtuous table maker is somebody who makes good tables.

This is a very useful concept for programmers. If we want to speak of a "virtuous" program, we mean simply one that meets its goals. This takes the whole high-minded theory and philosophy stuff back to real down-to-earth terms. (This is why I always preferred Aristotle to Plato).

In the quest for the absolute, if we let the ancient philosophers guide us, we discover the surprisingly basic idea that our programs should perform their functions well if they are to be called virtuous. This is easy to swallow, easy to understand, and easy to flesh out.

What is a Virtuous Computer Program?

A virtuous computer program is one that serves its purpose well, and so we need to flesh out the three purposes that are common to most programs:

  • To meet some institutional or strategic goal of those who sign the checks (or accept the work as charity in some case).
  • To meet the goals of end-users, which almost always comes down to performance and ease-of-use.
  • To provide income for the developers (or meet their own goal of providing charity work for non-profits).

Notice what is not on the list, things like ensure all data resides in a relational database, or implement all code in strictly object-oriented languages. We are not nearly ready to consider such specific strategies as those, they are completely out of place here in a discussion of the unifying goals of all projects.

So let's review. So far we know that the absolutes of programming are the pursuit of virtue, which turns out to be a fancy way of saying that the program should perform its functions well, which turns out to mean simply that it should do what the check-signer asked for, in a way that is workable for the end-users, and at a price that keeps the programmer fed.

This leads us towards strategies for reaching those goals.

The Virtuous Programming Strategy

Continuing with the idea that a virtuous program meets is basic goals, we can say that a virtuous strategy smooths the way for a programmer to meet the basic goals. An unvirtuous (or just plain bad) strategy litters the path with obstructions or ends up not meeting the goals of the check-signer, end-users, programmer, or all of the above.

Before we can begin to formulate a strategy, we must look next at the reality of the programming world. Some of the fundamental realities include (but are not limited to):

  • The end-user or check-signer may not fully understand or be able to articulate their requirements.
  • The programmer may not correctly understand requirements, even when correctly articulated.
  • In a healthy prosperous situation there will be new requirements that interact with established requirements in ways that range from no interaction at all to fiendish incompatibilities.
  • The world will change around you, creating demands that did not exist when the system was created (some of us can still remember when there was no internet).
  • Staff will come and go.
  • ...and so on.

So even before we begin formulating particular strategies for particular situations, we recognize that our strategy had underlying goals it must facilitate, such as:

  • Being easy to change, both for correcting mistakes and adding features.
  • Being able to maintain and sort out possibly contradictory requirements that arise as the years go by.
  • Requiring little or no "deep magic" that depends on arcance knowledge of employees who may depart.
  • Being able to expect the unexpected (like the explosion of the web etc.)

Only after we have worked through to this point can we begin to evaluate specific strategies and technologies. We can now begin to ask about the proper context of the database server, where to use object orientation, and if javascript is a good programming language. Anything that responds to our core goals and realities can be considered for use, anything which does not play into the core goals is useless at best and obstructive at worst.

Future essays (and some past essays) in this series will refer back to these ideas. For example, many developers have observed over the years that if you Minimize Code and Maximize Data then you gain many advantages in terms of development time, robustness, and feature count. Other ideas similar to this will come out over and over in future essays in this series.


The strategies and techniques that you will see on this blog are all aimed at one way or another towards the goals expressed in this essay. At the very beginning comes the goals of the check-signer, the end-users, and the programmer. From there we seek strategies that will satisfy our need to grow, change, correct, and adapt. Only then can we ask about the technologies such as databases and object-oriented languages and see how well they let us meet all of these goals.

Related Essays

This blog has two tables of contents, the Topical Table of Contents and the list of Database Skills.

Other philosophy essays are:


John Zabroski said...

Nice, but Aristotle's most brilliant observation was:

What we can do with things increases infinitely when we focus our thinking on their potential.

Or, to paraphrase Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital: Capital might as well be dead capital if it has no potential to generate more capital. Formal property gives us the means to grow capital. Formally define your business's business processes as properties.

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