Simple Made Easy
- Speaker: Rich Hickey
- Conference: Strange Loop 2011 - Sept 2011
- Video: http://www.infoq.com/presentations/Simple-Made-Easy
Hi. So who is ready for some more category theory?
You're all in the wrong room.
This talk I hope seems deceptively obvious. One of the things that's great about this conference is this is a pretty cutting edge crowd. A lot of you are adopting new technologies. A lot of you are doing functional programming. And you may be nodding, saying yeah, yeah, yeah through parts of this. And if some of it is familiar, that's great. On the other hand, I think that I would hope that you would come away from this talk with some tools you could use to help conduct a similar kind of discussion to this talk with other people that you're trying to convince to do the right thing.
So, I'll start with an appeal to authority. Simplicity is a prerequisite for reliability. I certainly agree with this. I don't agree with everything Dijkstra said, and I think he might have been very wrong about proof in particular. But I think he's right about this. We need to build simple systems if we want to build good systems. I don't think we focus enough on that.
I love word origins. They're tremendous fun. One of the reasons why they're fun is because words eventually come to mean whatever we all accept them to mean. You know, whatever is commonly understood to be the meaning is what it means. And it's often interesting to say, well, I wish I could; I wish we could go back to what it really means and use that. And I think there's a couple of words that I'm going to use in this talk that I would love for you to come away knowing the origins of and try to use more precisely, especially when talking about software.
So the first word is simple. And the roots of this word are sim and plex, and that means one fold or one braid or twist. And that characteristic about being about one literally fold or twist, of course one twist, what's one twist look like? No twists, right, actually.
And the opposite of this word is complex, which means braided together or folded together. Being able to think about our software in terms of whether or not it's folded together is sort of the central point of this talk.
The other word we frequently use interchangeably with simple is the word easy. And the derivation there is to a French word, and the last step of this derivation is actually speculative, but I bought it because it serves this talk really well, and that is from the Latin word that is the root of adjacent, which means to lie near and to be nearby. And the opposite is hard. Of course, the root of hard has nothing to do with lying near. It doesn't mean lie far away. It actually means like strong or tortuously so.
So if we want to try to apply simple to the kinds of work that we do, we're going to start with this concept of having one braid. And look at it in a few different dimensions. I thought it was interesting in Eric's talk to talk about dimensions because it's definitely a big part of doing design work. And so if we want to look for simple things, we want to look for things that have sort of one of something. They do, they have one role. They fulfill one task or job. They're about accomplishing sort of one objective. They might be about one concept like security.
And sort of overlapping with that is they may be about a particular dimension of the problem that you're trying to solve. The critical thing there, though, is that when you're looking for something that's simple, you want to see it have focus in these areas. You don't want to see it combining things.
On the other hand, we can't get too fixated about one. In particular, simple doesn't mean that there's only one of them. Right? It also doesn't mean an interface that only has one operation. So it's important to distinguish cardinality, right, counting things from actual interleaving. What matters for simplicity is that there is no interleaving, not that there's only one thing, and that's very important.
Okay, the other critical thing about simple, as we've just described it, right, is if something is interleaved or not, that's sort of an objective thing. You can probably go and look and see. I don't see any connections. I don't see anywhere where this twist was something else, so simple is actually an objective notion. That's also very important in deciding the difference between simple and easy.
So let's look at easy. I think this notion of nearness is really, really cool. In particular, obviously there's many ways in which something can be near. Right? There's sort of the physical notion of being near. Right? Is something, you know, right there. And I think that's where the root of the word came from. You know, this is easy to obtain because it's nearby. It's not in the next town. I don't have to take a horse or whatever to go get to it. We don't have the same notion of physicality necessarily in our software, but we do sort of have, you know, our own hard drive or our own toolset, or it's sort of the ability to make things physically near by getting them through things like installers and stuff like that.
The second notion of nearness is something being near to our understanding, right, or in our current skill set. And I don't mean in this case near to our understanding meaning a capability. I mean literally near something that we already know. So the word in this case is about being familiar.
I think that, collectively, we are infatuated with these two notions of easy. We are just so self-involved in these two aspects; it's hurting us tremendously. Right? All we care about is, you know, can I get this instantly and start running it in five seconds? It could be this giant hairball that you got, but all you care is, you know, can you get it.
In addition, we're fixated on, oh, I can't; I can't read that. Now I can't read German. Does that mean German is unreadable? No. I don't know German. So, you know, this sort of approach is definitely not helpful. In particular, if you want everything to be familiar, you will never learn anything new because it can't be significantly different from what you already know and not drift away from the familiarity.
There's a third aspect of being easy that I don't think we think enough about that's going to become critical to this discussion, which now is being near to our capabilities. And we don't like to talk about this because it makes us uncomfortable because what kind of capabilities are we talking about? If we're talking about easy in the case of violin playing or piano playing or mountain climbing or something like that, well, you know, I don't personally feel bad if I don't play the violin well because I don't play the violin at all.
But the work that we're in is conceptual work, so when we start talking about something being outside of our capability, well, you know, it really starts trampling on our egos in a big way. And so, you know, due to a combination of hubris and insecurity, we never really talk about whether or not something is outside of our capabilities. It ends up that it's not so embarrassing after all because we don't have tremendously divergent abilities in that area.
The last thing I want to say about easy and the critical thing to distinguish it from simple is that easy is relative. Right? Playing the violin and reading German are really hard for me. They're easy for other people, certain other people. So unlike simple where we can go and look for interleavings, look for braiding, easy is always going to be, you know, easy for whom, or hard for whom? It's a relative term.
The fact that we throw these things around sort of casually saying, oh, I like to use that technology because it's simple, and when I'm saying simple, I mean easy. And when I am saying easy, I mean because I already know something that looks very much alike that. It's how this whole thing degrades and we can never have an objective discussion about the qualities that matter to us in our software.