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Exploring Solutions Space

Perhaps the most humbling aspect of software development is the inflexibility of the machines that we control. They do exactly what we tell them to do, and when that results in disaster, there’s no shifting of the blame. On the other hand, computers do not become conditioned to your failure – they’re like indestructible puppies, always happy to try again.

That computers don’t care what we tell them to do is symptomatic of the fact that the measure of the success of our programs is in the non-digital world. Even when the engineer works end-to-end in the digital realm, such as in digital networking, the rewards come from subscriptions paid by customers that consume the content delivered by the network. In the current tech market, that is sometimes ignored. I keep on reminding engineers earning six-figure salaries that if they don’t concern themselves with the survival of the middle class, at some point there won’t be any subscribers to their internet solutions.

So we come back again to an understanding of programming that involves the complex interaction of many system elements – computers, machines, people and all the other forms of life that have melded into a strained global ecosystem where the competition for energy has been channeled forcefully into the generation of ideas.

These ideas are expressed in many ways – not just through natural and computer languages, but also in the shape of a coffee cup and the power plant that burns coal to produce electricity. The question facing us as programmers is how best to represent the interaction of those components. Obviously, we cannot adopt only a single perspective. All languages encode information most efficiently for processors that have been prepared to interpret them. In the case of a computer ship, that preparation is in the design of the compilers and digital circuitry. For people, the preparation is a childhood and education in a culture that conditions others to respond to our utterances.

This context must give us cause to wonder how we can negotiate the solution to problems. This is the core motivation for our search for knowledge – to inform our capacity to imagine a reality that does not yet exist, a reality that manifests our projection of personality. We all use different languages to express our desires, everything from the discreetly worn perfume to the bombastic demands of the megalomaniac. We use different means of expressing our expectations, from the tender caress to the legal writ. None of these forms of expression has greater or lesser legitimacy.

In my previous post in this series, I introduced the idea of a program as an operational hypothesis that is refined through cause-and-effect analysis. Cause-and-effect denotes a relationship. This can be a relationship between objects whose behavior can be characterized by the brute laws of physics (such as baseballs and computer chips) or organic systems (such as people and companies) that will ignore their instructions when confronted with destruction. What is universally true about these relationships is that they involve identifiably distinct entities that exchange matter and energy. The purpose of that exchange, in systems that generate value, is to provide resources that can be transformed by the receiver to solve yet another problem. In the network of cause-and-effect, there is no beginning nor end, only a system that is either sustainable or unsustainable.

The single shared characteristic of all written languages is that they are very poor representations of networks of exchange. Languages are processed sequentially, while networks manifest simultaneity. To apprehend the connectedness of events requires a graphical notation that expresses the pattern of cause-and-effect. Given the diversity of languages used to describe the behavior of system elements, we are left with a lowest-common-denominator semantics for the elements of the notation: events occur in which processors receive resources, transform them according to some method, and emit products. The reliable delivery of resources and products requires some sort of connection mechanism, which may be as simple as the dinner table, or as complex as the telecommunications system.

This is the core realization manifested in Karl Balke’s Diagrammatic Programming notation. Generalizing “resources” and “products” with “values”, the notation specifies cause-and-effect as a network of events. In each event, a processor performs a service to transform values, which are preserved and/or transferred to be available for execution of other services by the same or another processor. The services are represented as boxes that accept a specification for the action performed by the processor in terms suitable for prediction of its interaction with the values. This may be chemical reaction formulae, spoken dialog in a play, or statements in a computer programming language. The exchange of values is characterized by connections that must accommodate all possible values associated with an event. The connections are described by the values they must accommodate, and represented in the cause-and-effect network by labelled lines that link the services.

While Diagrammatic Programming notation does not require sequential execution, specification of a pattern of cause-and-effect leads inevitably to event sequencing. This does require the elimination of certain constructs from the action description. For example, DP notation contains elements that specify actions such as “wait here for a value to appear” and “analyze a value to determine what service to perform next.” When the program is converted to an executable form, processor-specific instructions are generated from the network layout.

In a properly disciplined design process, the end result is a specification of an operational hypothesis that allows the stakeholders in the implementation to negotiate their expectations. They may not be able to understand what is happening on the other side of a connection, but they can define their expectations regarding the values received by their processors. It is in through that negotiation that the space of solutions is narrowed to a form that can be subjected to engineering design.

As has become obvious in this discussion, in the context of DP analysis simple human concerns become abstracted. The technology of Diagrammatic Programming must be concerned not only with the variant perspectives of participants in the design process, but also with the perceptual capabilities of different processors, where the value “Click Here” is encoded as Unicode bytes in computer memory but appears to the user as letters on a computer display. This richness manifests in terminology and notation that requires careful study and disciplined application to ensure that a program can be elaborated into executable form.

Full implementation of the Diagrammatic Programming method was my father’s life-work, a life-work conducted by those concerned that systems serve the people that depend upon them, rather than being used for the propagation of exploitative egos. This introduction is offered in the hope that of those committed to the production of value, some may be motivated to understand and carry that work on to its completion. It is simply far too much for me to accomplish alone.

In the most detailed comparison study of its use, the following benefits were revealed: rather than spending half of my development schedule in debugging, I spent one tenth. When faced with refactoring of a module to accommodate changed requirements, the effort was simply to select the services and connections to be encapsulated, and cut-and-paste them to a new drawing. While the representation of cause-and-effect may seem a burdensome abstraction, in fact it supports methods of design and analysis that are extremely difficult to emulate on instructions specified as text.

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