July 28, 2017

Metaphors We Compute By

A well-known unattributed quote (often misattributed to Charles Baker) is, "To program is to write to another programmer about our solution to a problem."2 A program is an explanation of how a problem might be solved; it's a metaphor that stands in place of a person's understanding. For metaphors to be effective, however, they need to convey meaning using concepts already known to us. The explanatory power of a particular program can be used as a measure of its own elegance.

Consider the following example. Say you could program a computer to command other computers to perform tasks, respecting their arrival order. This description is already hard to understand. On the other hand, you could describe the solution by describing a queue server that assigns jobs to workers based on a first come first served queue discipline.

A queue is a familiar concept from daily life, seen at the supermarket, the bank, airports, and train stations. People know how they work, so for someone reading your code, it might be easier to talk about queues, workers, and jobs than trying to explain this setting without using the queue metaphor.

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