there's engineering and then there's social engineering

Twitter is on the face of it such a simple application that it can be built in 40 minutes in Grails.

For a consummate software engineer with state of the art tools, building a twitter in clone 40 minutes that can scale... might even be easy today given a proper set of cloud enabled tools. But, even if it is an exact working copy of twitter and can scale to ten times the size of the current twitter... it's NOT twitter and will never be twitter.

Twitter is a brand now. It is more than merely a functional set of software performing a simple function. It is a user experience driven not by technology but by human interaction. That experience in itself constitues a wholly separate kind of real engineering.

In fact, if Twitter were to completely rewrite their application in a whole new technology stack, the net effect (providing only nominal interruption of services) would probably be zero on their brand. That's because aside from being a brand and an application Twitter is about doing something very simple (and rather boring to systems level folks) with your computer and with existing internet technologies.

So why aren't there a bajillion Twitter-like applications? Lord knows at one point people tried. Well there are, just none of them are mentioned on CNN and the Colbert Report. There was a time when Twitter was novel and now it's not. But, that doesn't matter anymore because we all know about Twitter.

It's just like Windows. Or Google. Or Kleenex. And all the interesting socio-economic issues that go with the success of a brand like Kleenex and the problems Kleenex has keeping people off its damn lawnSee, you can't call your tissue paper Kleenex because only we can call it that even if what you make basically is in fact the same thing.

You may not care if a tissue paper is of equal quality to Kleenex. You may choose to still buy Kleenex because you remember warm and fuzzy things about that Kleenex box. You know what to expect from a Kleenex box. You like Kleenex. So you buy it.

Whenever you consume something with an intent beyond the mere act of consumption then anything that distracts you from your end goal is a waste of attention. In this day and age we can't afford to pay much attention so we had better conserve it. Your customer service representative is there to try and keep you happy and consuming.

The same is true for technologists just as it is for any other demographic. When a technologist becomes comfortable with his favorite tool X no other tool can be as good as X even if it is better. That's because technologists get brand loyalty viruses too.

So I'm going to ask you... are you sure you like to use the tools in your toolbox because they are the best for the job or are you just buying Kleenex because that's what you buy? Is it worth thinking about?


Beyond Finite State Automatons

Has someone moved computing beyond the Finite State Automaton in recent years? I'm unaware of anyone providing a system of computation that is in wide spread use that is not a Finite State Automaton. If someone has please let me know. I've heard of some researchers in Tel Aviv working on a neural net.

Considering that all we have to work with, even in the clouds is FSA it seems that we will always be working with conceptual derivatives of the Turing processing tape. So as much as I would like to see something other than a suped up text editor for creating code I have to say while some feel that an IDE is not enough ... I'm afraid it will basically have to do when it comes to what we call "programming" until we escape the confines of the FSA.

Just as a FSA is the core definition of behavior for a computer, DNA is the core definition of a cell's behavior. To be sure it's not all that's going on. There's a whole mess of inputs and environmental factors too. Where do we see similarities between FSA, DNA, and epigenetics? The cloud.

When working with emergent systems, however, the external forces may produce unforeseen effects. These, however, remain in the space of discrete systems. If they did breach into the world of contiguous systems this would pose a problem on the order of the incompleteness theorems. We would have found the bridge to the mystic. Our limited discrete systems would be able to cross the cosmic gulf into to the divine space of contiguous systems.

As of yet, we can't even prove that physical reality can represent irrational numbers. We know they exist. We know they are real... we just can't represent them with atoms, particles, or waves. We slice finer and finer and we hit a generalizable uncertainty principle. So... what does that mean for my programming language?

Basically, it means that all representations of information contained within our universe (as best as we know it) is lossy and discrete. We can't ever create representations of information that is precise as a datum. Instead we can create FSA or algorithms that can compute to arbitrary precision what a particular unit of data is.

Now it is true that we have no sufficient model of computation to properly represent concurrent computing in a fully realized cloud environment. In systems programming discussions today we have to consider the effects of millions of independent FSA acting on a network. The cloud provides us an illusion of locality for things that are not actually local. The fabric of the network and the true concurrency of the cloud exacerbates issues of consistency, atomicity, and durability of systems in the cloud.

In a nutshell that's why we have big moves in NOSQL and in non-relational data stores. These solutions seek to eliminate centralized state. They compartmentalize the state issue inherent in a big ACID compliant data store.

If you don't believe me... have you ever tried to debug a neural net? How about a lisp program? How about a fully distributed system? These are non-trivial problems to debug. In this case I have to agree...  an IDE is not enough.

In all of this, I continue to wrestle with one of the original problems my first research projects touched on... the emergent system. Somehow we only have discrete matter and yet it breaches into the world of the divine. The SA breaks local minima an maxima. The EA gives rise to the mystical. And, these are accomplished by interacting FSA which are discrete systems described by strings of symbols yet not fully understood by just these.

Yet this is all we have... and all evidence we have at this is that all the universe itself has are these small planck lengths filled with properties each potentially a cosmic symbol in a universal Finite State Machine.

So I ask... has anyone found something other than this kind of a toy to do computation on? Will anyone ever find such a thing? When will we know all the digits in Pi?