What “Worse is Better vs The Right Thing” is really about

What prompted me to publish it now – at least the first, relatively finished part – is Steve Yegge’s post, an analogy between the “liberals vs conservatives” debate in politics and some dichotomies in the professional worldviews of software developers. The core of his analogy is risk aversion: conservatives are more risk averse than liberals, both in politics and in software.

I want to draw a similar type of analogy, but from a somewhat different angle. My angle is, in politics, one thing that people view rather differently is the role of markets and competition. Some view them as mostly good and others as mostly evil. This is loosely aligned with the “right” and the “left” (with the caveat that the political right and left are very overloaded terms).

.. I’ll claim that the view of economic evolution is what underlies the Worse Is Better vs The Right Thing opposition – and not the trade-off between design simplicity and other considerations as the essay states.

.. So the essay says one thing, and I’ll show you it really says something else. Seriously, I will.

And then I’ll tell you why it’s important to me, and why – in Yegge’s words – “this conceptual framework became one of the most important tools in my toolkit” (though of course each of us is talking about his own analogy).

Specifically, I came to think that you can be for evolution or against it, and I’m naturally inclined to be against it, and once I got that, I’ve been trying hard to not overdo it.

.. Linus Torvalds thus views competition as a source of progress more important than anyone’s ability to come up with bright ideas. Alan Kay, on the contrary, perceives market constraints as a stumbling blockinsurmountable for the brightest idea.

What was it like to be at Xerox PARC when Steve Jobs visited?

I can supply a few comments to highlight just how little attention is paid in the media, histories, and by most people to find out what actually happened. For example, I was present at the visit and demo, and it was the work of my group and myself that Steve saw, yet the Quora question is the first time that anyone has asked me what happened. (Worth pondering that interesting fact!)

.. First, it’s worth understanding that many people (perhaps even a thousand or more) had seen live demos of the Alto and Smalltalk before Steve. This is because Steve showed up in 1979, and the Alto and Smalltalk had been running for 6 years (starting in the first half of 1973), and we were a relatively open lab for visiting colleagues and other interested people (like Herbie Hancock and Al Gore).

Many more people had read articles that I’d written (e.g. in Scientific American, Sept 1977), and one with Adele Goldberg (in IEEE Computer March 1977).

.. Steve, after praising the GUI to the skies, realizes what he’s saying and immediately says “but it was flawed and incomplete”, etc. This was his way of trying to be “top gun” when in a room where he wasn’t the smartest person.

..  One of Steve’s ways to feel in control was to object to things that were actually OK, and he did this a few times — but in each case Dan and Larry were able to make the changes to meet the objections on the fly because Smalltalk was not only the most advanced programming language of its time, it was also live at every level, and no change required more than 1/4 second to take effect.

.. One objection was that the text scrolling was line by line and Steve said “Can’t this be smooth?”. In a few seconds Dan made the change.

.. Another more interesting objection was to the complementation of the text that was used (as today) to indicate a selection. Steve said “Can’t that be an outline?”. Standing in the back of the room, I held my breath a bit (this seemed hard to fix on the fly). But again, Dan Ingalls instantly saw a very clever way to do this (by selecting the text as usual, then doing this again with the selection displaced by a few pixels — this left a dark outline around the selection and made the interior clear). Again this was done in a few seconds, and voila!


What made Xerox PARC special? Who else today is like them?

Parc was the last of these “ARPA Projects” to be created, and because of funding changes from the Vietnam war, got its funding from a corporation rather than from ARPA-IPTO. But pretty much all of the computer people at Parc had grown up in ARPA projects in the 60s, and Bob Taylor, who set up the computing research at Parc, had been the 3rd director of ARPA-IPTO.

.. There was no real management structure, so things were organized to allow researchers to “suggest” and “commit” and “decommit” in a more or less orderly fashion.

.. Quite a lot of the inventions Parc is most known for were done in the first 5 years by a rather small pool of researchers (Butler Lampson estimates about 25 people, and that seems about right).